Liam Pickering still seethes, 20 years later.
Matthew Robran laughs, a little sheepishly, and talks about luck.
Gary Ayres sits back, shakes his head and wonders “what if?”.
Their fortunes all turned on one of the most controversial sliding doors moments in AFL history.
It is the third quarter of the 1997 semi-final, Adelaide v Geelong, AAMI Stadium.
Oddly, given their frequent top-eight finishes, it has been the only September clash between tonight’s preliminary final opponents.
The Cats lead by eight points and Glenn Kilpatrick takes possession just behind centre.
He kicks long to a pack, about 35 metres from Geelong’s goal.
Leigh Colbert, a player renowned for his courage, runs with the flight of the ball and smashes into a first-year Crows player, Simon Goodwin.
Colbert has taken one of the marks of the decade, let alone the season.
But umpire Grant Vernon is blindsided.
I can’t ever remember being more disappointed after a game
He frantically looks to his colleagues for help – they also don’t have a clear view – and he does not pay the mark.
Umpires coach David Levens later tells the media what everyone knows. It was a mark.
Geelong go on to lose by eight points, their season over.
The losing grand finalists of 1989, ’92, ’94 and ’95 will not make the top eight again until 2000.
It is another decade before they break a 44-year premiership drought.
While Geelong’s quest seems endless, a fortnight after that tumultuous match Adelaide win their first flag.
Pickering took out Geelong’s best and fairest award in 1997.
He was long retired when the Cats had their great era of three premierships from 2007-11.
Pickering was at the base of the pack when Colbert took his “non-screamer”.
“I just couldn’t believe it… it would have put us 14 points up coming into three-quarter time, so it was pretty important,” he said.
“It was such a courageous mark too so that one hurts.
“I can’t ever remember being more disappointed after a game than that one.”
Of all Geelong’s lost chances in that era, Pickering said the ’97 semi was the worst.
“It really cost us. In the time that I played at Geelong I think that was our best team,” he said.
“I felt like that was one that got away for us even though we’d lost the ’94 and ’95 grand finals. I felt like that year was our chance to really win one.”
Robran was playing for the Crows at centre half-forward, up the other end of the ground, and had a clear view.
“It was a sensational mark, but unfortunately for him and Geelong it was called touched,” he said.
“I’m not sure how it was touched. We were quite lucky it didn’t go their way.”
Robran was asked if he and his 1997 premiership teammates have spoken about the Colbert moment.
“Down the track, there have been discussions… perhaps the common thought is he was unlucky,” he said.
Crows defender Peter Caven, who was playing in front of Colbert when the Cat started running towards Geelong’s 50m arc, also relived the moment on the club’s website this week.
“He had turned towards goal to almost like the Pagan’s Paddock. I thought, I’d better get on my bike here!” Caven told afc.com.au.
“He landed on the ground with the ball, but it didn’t get paid for whatever reason… we were pretty fortunate that the umpire got blindsided or something. I think he thought that it was touched somehow [but] it wasn’t by me… I didn’t even get off the ground!”
The Crows went on to outscore Geelong four goals-to-one in the last quarter, booking a place for an even more memorable finals fight – their thrilling comeback win against the Western Bulldogs.
“There was still plenty of the game left at that stage [so] who knows what would’ve happened if the mark had been paid? He was 40 – 45 metres out from goal,” Caven said.
“It’s moments in close games that sometimes make you or break you, and you always go back to…
“Whether it was the turning point will always be debatable.”
Then-Cats coach Ayres – who ironically went on to coach Adelaide for four-and-a-half seasons – noted ruefully that if that moment happened now, it is called a mark every time.
“When you get a quiet moment you reflect back on those sort of things,” he said.
“You say to yourself ‘what if?’ because it clearly was a mark.”
And like Pickering, Ayres knew it was a devastating case of an opportunity lost.
Indeed, their premiership window slammed shut that night.
“Going into the match, it was the belief that if we were able to beat Adelaide we were a reasonable show to win the granny,” he said.
Two decades later, Ayres is about to coach Port Melbourne in another VFL grand final and Robran is in the events department for the Crows.
Pickering, a teammate of Gary Ablett Snr in the ’90s, now manages Gary Ablett Jnr, who is expected to soon request a trade from Gold Coast back to the Cats.
“Adelaide are in the box seat,” Ayres said of tonight’s long-awaited re-match.
“It’ll be a big game. (Cats coach) Chris Scott is a fierce competitor. He certainly doesn’t like it when Geelong get beaten.”
Robran now has his own ‘sliding door’ moment.
If Adelaide win, he and the other members of the club events department will manage a frenzy of grand final week functions.
If Adelaide lose… their week is much quieter.
“Me? I’m probably a little bit as tense, as when I was playing,” he said.
“There’s so much that rides on the result.”
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