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Touch Of The Fumbles: The worst moment

Touch of the Fumbles

There are moments that have always stuck in my mind from the Crows’ 2006 preliminary final loss to West Coast, which still ranks as the worst defeat I’ve endured as an Adelaide supporter.

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I remember that as we stood beneath the Spring sunshine before the game, the Footy Park PA was blaring out Barnesy’s No Second Prize, which ordinarily I’d consider a bit naff but on this day it gave me goosebumps instead.

That’s my overriding memory – Jimmy Bloody Barnes, whose lyrics seemed to suddenly crystallise just what this game meant.

At half-time – with the Crows up by 22 and having held the Eagles to two goals – I got a text message from my then-boss, who was kicking back in a corporate box somewhere: “Do we dare to dream?”

I didn’t write back for fear of jinxing it. Perhaps he’d jinxed it already. Because you probably don’t need me to tell you that the Eagles, predictably, came storming back, with only poor kicking keeping us vaguely in the contest before we fell three goals down late in the last.

The other moment that’s burned on my brain came at the death.

If you watched the match on TV you’d have missed this bit, but when Bock kicked his second time-on goal in succession to put us within four points with seconds left (exactly how many isn’t clear, since this was back in the days of the ‘five minute warning’) and Goodwin broke away with the ball from the resultant centre bounce, I could swear Brett Burton was standing free on the fifty-metre line.

Just one kick, just one mark, and Burton would have been lining up for his third goal of the game, which would have put Adelaide into a grand final after the siren.

But instead the ball was called back, with the umpire handing a free to – of all people! – former Crow Tyson Stenglein for an infringement at the centre bounce.

And so, instead, it was the Eagles lining up after the siren for a redundant goal, whose only contribution was to make our loss look somehow less gallant.

For 11 years, those have been my abiding memories of that horrific bastard of a game: Jimmy Barnes, my boss’s wide-eyed, hopeless optimism and the Birdman standing in a mile of space, helplessly flailing his arms like a drowning man. Which, in a way, I suppose he was.

Afterwards, a mate and I went to a now-defunct city bar and pounded the pain in our bellies with copious Jägerbombs; the next day I stayed in bed past noon, nursing a thumping head and bruised heart until my then-girlfriend (now-wife, who tends to tolerate my all-encompassing football fandom with a weary mix of bemusement and disdain) came home from work after several calls went unanswered and unnoticed, to make sure I hadn’t swallowed my tongue while I slept.

It was three months since Australia’s similarly nasty exit from the World Cup against Italy, and the lyrics from an old English football anthem kept shuffling through my aching head: “Stay in bed, drift away… it could have been all songs in the street, it was nearly complete, it was nearly so sweet…”

And, as it turned out, Barnesy’s eerily prophetic lyrics that only a day earlier had told of hope and steel and grit, now grimly summed me up: “A person who had a broken heart, with nothing to drive him on, no hope, no spark, no flame…”

It’s as bad as I’ve felt after an Adelaide loss.

Sure, some might argue 1993 was more gut-wrenching, given our 42-point half-time lead should have been insurmountable. But in only our third season, there was something of fate telling us we weren’t there yet.

Post-premierships, there have been plenty of other finals losses that have knocked me flat: I was despondent after Buddy’s final, season-wrecking goal in ’07, but at least we went down to a player like Buddy, and not a nobody like Jack Anthony. Which we did two years later, in one of our three hideous finals losses to Collingwood this millennium. I was at the MCG in ’02 when Tyson Edwards and Andrew McLeod were successively carried from the field, and with them our hopes of a third Grand Final.

I was also at Football Park when the Pies killed off our 2008 season, after we were knocked out of the top four on percentage in the final match of the minor round before being knocked out of the competition altogether in the first week of the major round.

Then there was 2012, when we somehow hit the front against the Hawks before obligingly handing back the lead, as was our style at the time. But we at least finished the season optimistic of big things to come (which was quite prescient, albeit not in a good way).

For me though, when I contemplate two decades of failure and heartbreak, it all comes back to ‘06.

That’s the one that hurt the most, and the one that still haunts me when I contemplate this coming Friday night – our first home preliminary final since that car-crash of an afternoon.

The tagline on the movie poster for one of the Exorcist sequels was “Do you dare walk these steps again?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself in recent days as I’ve pondered whether it’s finally time to perform my own exorcism, of sorts.

Because until the weekend just gone, I have never sat down to re-watch that preliminary final. Indeed, I’d never even seen the broadcast; I was at the game, and while I probably taped it (or whatever you did 11 years ago) it has long been, both physically and psychologically, filed away in some dusty bottom drawer, never again to be validated by human gaze.

But in the end, I didn’t have to go scouring through some cardboard box of unmarked VHS tapes. There’s a scene in High Fidelity where the protagonist realises with amazement that the university-era sweetheart who broke his heart – the one he “never got over” – was listed in his local phone directory.

“She’s an extra-terrestrial, ghost, a myth – not a person in a phone book,” he muses agape.

That was kinda how I felt when I realised that the two hours of football fandom that left me scarred for life – the match the embodies two decades of relative anguish and futility – was readily and freely available on YouTube. Well, of course it is.

But unless you’re a West Coast supporter, a Port Adelaide fan or an incurable masochist, I wouldn’t advise watching it. Which is why, in a gallant gesture of self-sacrifice, the Fumbles bravely sat through the entire duration – so you don’t have to.

It’s an odd feeling, watching the first-half unfold with the dour knowledge of the second-half to come.

Key moments seemed eerily familiar, like recapturing the essence of a half-forgotten dream (the kind that jolts you awake in fright, presumably). Matty Bode’s two second-quarter goals, for instance, the second coming after he leapt onto the ball like a diminutive platoon-leader trying to save his squadron from an exploding grenade, before bouncing up like a jack-in-the-box to pirouette and snap the ball through the big sticks.

Burton was lively and damaging, but missed crucial chances to extend what could have been a decisive lead.

Given he retired ten years ago, it’s easy to forget now what a pall Ricciuto’s Parvo-dogged absence cast over proceedings.

But there were other things too. Things I’d either wilfully forgotten or perhaps never even noticed in my grimly partisan fog. Like the fact that we weren’t really outplaying West Coast in that first half at all, merely outscoring them. It’s possible, too, that we’ve always overplayed the fact that Biglands copped a knee injury, leaving Clarke to ruck against the ominous Cox/Seaby tandem (Doc held his own for hit-outs, but Cox threw in 27 influential touches – as many as anyone on the field, save for Judd.) But the fact that Biglands left the field halfway through the second term with only a solitary handball to his name suggests his absence may not have been as decisive as legend would have it.

And the fact is, West Coast won by 10 – with 10 more scoring shots.

So we were probably lucky to end up as close as we did.

Indeed, these days I hardly carry a grudge against the Eagles at all and, given their helpful role in hastening Port Adelaide’s post-season turmoil, I almost felt sorry for them when they fronted up for their obligatory thrashing by GWS.

Stevie J kicked six against West Coast. Photo: David Moir / AAP

Still, it was little wonder the Eagles were so readily overwhelmed in the proverbial football cauldron that is Spotless Stadium, forced to play in front of 14,865 baying Giants supporters. Terrifying.

For the Giants, the likes of Coniglio, Kelly and Ward led from the front, while it was a massive week for the J family, with Stevie kicking a bag and Matty finally finding love.

The Eagles did not receive a rose. Photo: David Moir / AAP

If anything, the Eagles’ insipid capitulation highlights just how much has changed in the 11 years since our last finals meeting with them, undoubtedly our last and best chance since ’98 to snare that elusive bastard that is our mythical third flag. For, despite an injury plague and patchy late-season form, we had done what we had never managed before or since: not only secured a top-two finish but won our first final to secure a home-ground Grand Final qualifier.

All the elements were there: the parochial crowd, an imposing first-half lead… and it had been almost 10 years since our premiership double – just long enough to slowly comprehend that winning AFL flags (let alone two in succession) is actually a bit tricky.

And now, after 19 years, it feels nigh-on impossible.

And yet, here we are again.

With a home preliminary final, 10 years and 364 days since the last one. And facing another bogey side, with the very real prospect that another former Crow will deliver the knockout blow.

Yes, this one. Photo: Julian Smith / AAP

Until last Friday night it had been a good couple of years since I’d cheered a Paddy Dangerfield goal, but his early brace helped dispel the uneasy prospect of us taking on the rampant Swans for a spot in the Grand Final…

…at least until it became clear that the Swans had suddenly gone from rampant to rancid, at which point relief about Sydney’s finals exit quickly gave way to worry about Geelong’s imposing form.

The Swans appeared to have run out of puff. Photo: Julian Smith / AAP

It was, we were told, the Swans’ lowest score since ‘97 – a good omen for the nostalgic among us, perhaps. But it also seems hard to believe, given their dour, defensive early-2000s era, so perhaps it’s just Fake Football News, like when Brian Taylor confidently asserts that this will be Geelong’s first final ever outside Victoria.

Lance impressed his teammates by cunningly sneaking a hip-flask past security. Photo: Julian Smith / AAP

And already, our finals injury curse is returning with familiar capriciousness, this time striking down Mitch McGovern with hamstring soreness. There are options, of course; if he doesn’t play, Andy Otten could return for his first game since he was squeezed out for the Round 20 Showdown. But nevertheless, as the socialists used to say, an injury to one is an injury to all.

The good news is, the last time Otten came back into the side for a preliminary final, he made a solid fist of it. The bad news is, we lost the game by five points.

And there’s the rub.

In quiet moments (well, most moments really) I’ve pondered the possibilities of Friday’s game, and I think I’ve cracked the two most likely outcomes: we either win, or we lose.

But it’s more than that. We can win by a lot, or a little, and we can lose by a little, or a lot.

I see the latter as highly unlikely, so obviously the one that bothers me most is c) we lose by not much.

That’s the option I could really, truly do without. Especially where Paddy D is concerned.

Hopefully on Friday night there is more of this… Photo: Michael Errey / InDaily

…and not so much of this! Photo: Julian Smith / AAP

Because, just quietly, I’m about done with close finals losses.

Do we dare walk these steps again? Well, what else can we do?

Other than fervently hope that eventually they’ll lead somewhere different. One day.

Touch of the Fumbles is InDaily’s weekly Monday AFL column. Yes, it’s shamelessly biased. Even up the score in the comments section below.

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