Finals Tragics

Lisa Albergo's picture

by Lisa Albergo reporting for AFANA from Chicago

To paraphrase the introduction to old TV show The Naked City, there are many stories in finals history, these are a few. Every player and team strive for the ultimate prize of a premiership. Over the years, there have been many players whose teams get to the Finals or a Grand Final, but they are absent either through injury, poor form, suspension or simply being excluded from selection. These are some of those stories. [Ed. note: A "tragic" is someone for whom luck does not fall on their side and in this case, a perhaps once in a career opportunity is missed.]

It is 1935 and South Melbourne (now Sydney Swans) star forward Bob Pratt is wreaking havoc on opposition sides with his prowess in front of goal. He was a member of South's 1933 premiership side as well as playing in the 1934 and 1936 Grand Finals (which South lost). in 1935, he led the league with over 100 goals for the season and was set for the 1935 Grand Final. However, on the eve of the Grand Final, he was injured when hit by truck shortly after getting off a train. While not severely injured, it was enough to keep him out of the Grand Final side. South lost to Collingwood. Many thought at first it had been deliberate by a Collingwood supporter, but the distraught truck driver was actually a South Melbourne supporter. He went to Pratt's house one evening afterward and, as an apology, gave Pratt a pack of cigarettes.

The following year, it was Collingwood forward Gordon Coventry. In early August, the Magpies were in match against Richmond. At the time, Coventry was suffering from an outbreak of boils on the back of his neck. He and his opponent Joe Murdoch, were reported for, as the umpire recorded "deliberately fighting". Coventry claimed that he only retaliated due to Murdoch repeatedly hitting him on the back of his neck. Also, in the third term, Coventry was badly concussed from a blow to his head. Coventry was suspended eight weeks and missed Collingwood's Grand Final win over South Melbourne. For the record, Murdoch was suspended for four weeks.

In 1951, Essendon was aiming for their third consecutive flag. In the final game of the season, both Coleman and Carlton defender Harry Caspar were reported for striking each other. Caspar claimed he was provoked. A boundary umpire stated at the hearing that Coleman did not hit Caspar until the latter had struck him a second time with a team doctor also reporting that Coleman had a severe cut above one eye. The Tribunal still found both players guilty and suspended them for four weeks. Although Essendon dispatched Footscray (now Western Bulldogs) and Collingwood to get to the Grand Final, they lost by 11 points to Geelong. Essendon supporters believed Coleman's absence was the difference.

Peter Motley joined the Blues from South Australia in 1986 as a brilliant midfielder. His career was cut short when his car was hit by a drunk driver in 1987 and he suffered life-threatening injuries (to this day, his right arm and right leg have permanent disabilities). He had to learn to walk and talk all over again through extensive rehabilitation. He was in the rooms after Carlton's Grand Final triumph and his teammates put their premiership medallions around his neck and gave him the premiership cup to include him in their celebrations.

Perhaps the most tragic of all is the Hawthorn rover and captain in 1974. The club announced late in 1974 that Crimmins would be absent due to a serious illness. In 1975, it was revealed he was battling cancer. He came back for a few games in 1975 but again had to take a hiatus for treatment. He returned to the reserves late in the year but coach John Kennedy had to make the tough call to omit Crimmins from the Grand Final side which lost to North Melbourne. One year later, Crimmins was on his death bed and the Hawks were into another Grand Final. He urged the players to "... do it for the little fella..." and the Hawks did just that with a win over North Melbourne. Later that evening, a number of Hawks turned up at Crimmins' home with the premiership cup. A few days later, Crimmins passed away. The club retired his number five jersey for some years and named their annual best and fairest award in his honor. 

It is 1993 and the exceptionally talented midfielder Derek Kickett is starring for Essendon. He played every game that season and bagged seven goals in Round 20 against Footscray. However, for some reason, he was dropped for the Grand Final team and Essendon won against Carlton. Kickett was so heartbroken and dismayed, he quit the club and went to the Sydney Swans where he finished his career. He had one more shot at Grand Final glory with the Swans finishing first in the regular season for the first time in their history in 1996. A nail biting, heart-stopping Preliminary Final win over Essendon followed. Scores were tied late in the game but the Swans had the ball. Famously, Tony Lockett kicked a point after the siren to give the Swans a chance at their first premiership since 1933. Kickett was in the side that played in the Grand Final the following week but the Swans lost to North Melbourne and Kickett retired after the game.

The Adelaide Crows first tasted September action in 1993, but could not get past eventual premier Essendon in the Preliminary Final. The next three years were not good for the Crows, but then Malcolm Blight replaced Robert Shaw as coach and took the Crows to first place. However, they lost Mark Ricciuto late in the year to a season ending knee injury. They overcame that loss to easily account for West Coast and Geelong to advance to the Preliminary Final against Footscray. The Bulldogs were starved for success, with only one premiership to their name (1954) and a Grand Final loss to Hawthorn in 1961 and only one other Preliminary Final appearance prior to 1997. It looked as if they would have their chance when star forward and 1997 Coleman Medalist Tony Modra was forced off early in the game with a knee injury. Adelaide's inaccuracy in front of goal allowed the Bulldogs to race to a 22 point lead at three-quarter time. A desperate Adelaide came out in the final quarter to stop the Dogs in their tracks, restricting them to just six behinds while piling on 4.6 (30 points) themselves to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by a mere two points. They went on to win their first Grand Final. At the end of that game, Ricciuto and Modra hobbled onto the ground on crutches to join their teammates. The Crows repeated the feat the following year with Ricciuto in the side. Modra, who was in the twilight of his career, had fallen out of favor and was dropped from the team for the Grand Final in 1998. He was traded to Fremantle after the season where his finished out his career.

Matthew Primus began his career with Fitzroy in 1996. When, at the end of that year, it was announced that the Fitzroy Lions and Brisbane Bears would merge to become the Brisbane Lions, the merged entity was allowed to take six players from the Fitzroy team. Primus did not want to be one of those players and crossed to Port Adelaide where he played out his career. Had he gone to Brisbane, he may well have been a premiership player as Brisbane won three consecutive titles in the early 2000's. He injured his knee early in 2004 and was ruled out for the rest of the season, thus missing out on Port's only AFL premiership to date. He retired at the end of 2005.

Collingwood's Leon Davis had almost no impact in the 2010 tied Grand Final with just seven possessions and one goal. He was subsequently dropped for the replay the following week. Collingwood went on to win that replay against St Kilda.

Young speedster Billy Hartung played 20 games for the Hawks in 2015, just his second season at Hawthorn. As impressive as he was most of the year, he missed out on the club's third consecutive premiership. Small forward Jack Gunston injured an ankle in the first week but recovered in time to be recalled for the Grand Final, consigning Hartung as an emergency, meaning his only hope was if a teammate had to be a late scratching ahead of the game. It was not to be.

Bulldog Robert Murphy is one of the most popular players in the AFL. There has never been anyone who could say a bad word about him. He is loved by Bulldog supporters and admired by opposition players and supporters. Round 3, 2016, Western Bulldogs vs Hawthorn. It is less than two minutes into the final quarter when Robert Murphy injures his knee. The collective heart of the entire football community went out to him when the worst fears were confirmed several days later - he would require a knee reconstruction and miss the season. Now his Bulldogs are into a Grand Final this year and Robert Murphy will be looking on from the stands.

After three premierships and a Norm Smith Medal (best on ground in a Grand Final), Geelong told champion player Steve Johnson his services would no longer be required at the end of 2015. He packed his bags and headed for the Greater Western Sydney Giants. There he has had a huge impact on the young playing group and has helped propel them into their first finals campaign. Few rated the Giants a serious contender at the start of 2016, but an early season demolition of reigning champions Hawthorn made everyone sit up and take notice. The new kids on the block who, in previous seasons, had endured numerous one-sided losses were suddenly looking the goods. They stormed into the top four with seven wins from their last 10 games for the year. They faced cross-town rival Sydney in the Qualifying Final. The game was up for grabs in the first half with GWS holding a narrow lead at half-time. But a nine goal to two second half saw off an uncharacteristic Sydney Swans. However, Steve Johnson was suspended for high hit on Sydney midfielder Josh Kennedy. With GWS having the following week off, he would serve his suspension during the Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs. The game will go down in the AFL annals as one of the all time great Preliminary Finals with another nail biting finish. The Dogs prevailed by a solitary goal and everyone believes that had Johnson been in the side, it could have been GWS into their first Grand Final in just their fifth year in the competition.

Sydney's tall running defender Alir Alir was born in a Kenyan refugee camp as his family escaped war-torn Sudan. They made their way to Australia when he was seven years old. He took up the game of Australian Football when he was 14 years old and was drafted by the Swans in 2013 and debuted this year. He played 13 games including the Qualifying Final and Semi-Final. However, he injured his knee in the Preliminary Final win over Geelong. He failed to recover in time for the Grand Final against the Bulldogs.

Two final tragics. Two coaches who suffered heartbreak on the big days. The first is Bob Rose who was Collingwood coach in the now famous 1970 Grand Final between Carlton and Collingwood. The Blues trailed by 44 points at half time and the game looked to be in Collingwood's keeping, but Carlton coach Ron Barassi urged his players to "... handball, handball, handball ... " and replaced a player with Ted Hopkins. He kicked four goals in the second half as the Blues steamrolled a shell-shocked Magpie outfit to win by 10 points. The other is Malcolm Blight who coached Geelong prior to taking a break with media work before heading to Adelaide. He coached Geelong to the 1989, 1992 and 1994 Grand Finals - all losses to Hawthorn in 1989 and West Coast in 1992 and 1994. Three Grand Final losses in six seasons was enough and he walked away.

Source: afl.com.au, AFL Record Season Guide, 100 Years of Australian Football, Encyclopedia of League Footballers, Every Game Ever Played 1897-1997, author notes

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