I love Grand Final Day.
Whether as a player or a fan, there’s a special magic about the Big Dance. You’ve battled through to be one of the last two standing and this is your big chance – to carve your name on the face of destiny with a Stanley blade…
Sorry, been reading too much Irvine Welsh recently.
But there’s an intensity to Grand Final week, and also a sense of being truly alive and lifted beyond all the ordinary meanness of the workaday world. The very air seems to sparkle about you like pink champagne and you stride along the footpath as though gravity no longer applied. Anything is possible.
Not even the prospect of defeat can daunt you, but there is one thing that saddens the occasion. You can’t help but go into Grand Final Day knowing that, with the fulltime whistle, the season will be over, and that’s too depressing to even think about.
Still, Grand Final Day comes first – the best day of the year whether it’s the A-League, the FA Cup, the Over 45s or the Under 7s.
The first Grand Final I played in as an adult – I was 19 – playing in the Gladesville Hornsby AA4s. Our team (the Dartford Town Sewer Pigs, aka Thornleigh) had conquered all comers that year and were overwhelming favourites.
The night before we decided to have a team meeting to discuss strategy and the rule was: no more than three beers per person. Some people abided by the restriction but others turned up with many times the limit, and so three became four…then six…
There was also a bottle shop across the road so six became ten, and then turned into bourbon. No matter, we were playing Normo who hadn’t beaten us all year! The last thing I remember, at about three in the morning, was one of the blokes running about the living room with a football, smashing thirty yarders amid a carnage of broken glass and cackling like a maniac. It was his apartment, I suppose.
The next morning was a blur of pain – my perception fractured by toxic tears. My guts churning and my head pounding – my mouth tasting like a cat’s litter tray.
I wasn’t the only one.
When the team assembled at about midday, there was much moaning and despair. What on earth had come over us? How could we have been so stupid?
Still, we were only 19 so coffee and orange juice worked its gradual magic and we were only playing Normo after all. Did I mention they hadn’t beaten us all year?
By kick off, most of us were feeling vaguely human and an amusing rumour was getting about. By incredible coincidence, the Normo boys had also had a team meeting the night before, in the same building as our meeting. They had stuck chastely to their no-beer-at-all policy, and had listened to our wild party at first in disbelief, then with mounting confidence, but finally in grave uncertainty. The way they perceived it, the Thornleigh boys had to be supremely confident if they were prepared to celebrate victory the night before!
The game began, Normo determined to be conservative and tight at the back, the Sewer Pigs just happy to keep their breakfast down. But slowly we sweated the alcohol out and started to take control. Just before halftime we won a penalty and the captain (Raftl…stupid name isn’t it) stuck it away to put us ahead.
There was a no beer policy at half time, to which some objected (I’m looking at you Gavin), but it was probably a good thing.
The lack of sleep and epic hangovers started to have an impact as the game ticked towards its conclusion and a well deserved (if already celebrated) victory loomed. There were only minutes to go and Normo were having their best period of the game, taking advantage of our flagging legs with their damned fitness and sobriety. We were just holding on, until one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen occurred. Gavin, our left back, jumped up and caught the ball in our box.
It was as though he suddenly thought he was playing basketball. He stood there bewildered for a few moments, as we stared at him in horror, and then he walked over and placed the ball on the spot.
Why he did that will forever remain a mystery but, Normo scored from the penalty. The full time whistle blew, and we had extra time to negotiate.
To cut a long story short, Normo scored hallway through the second stanza and the Pigs found their last reserves. We flung ourselves forward in desperation, pounding their goal with shots and tightening the noose as the seconds ticked away.
A corner. The last throw of the dice. One of blokes swung it over – there was a bit of a scramble in the goal mouth – and then the ball rolled out to me, lurking on the edge of the box.
I had half a second to decide: do I blast it, or do I place it into the top corner?
I placed it. Struck it perfectly. Saw it silhouetted against the inside frame of the goal.
The whistle blew and I leapt into the air in ecstasy.
The keeper was holding the ball. The Normo boys were celebrating. What on earth had happened?
It seemed that in the fading afternoon light, with the sweat in my eyes, and the absolute driving will to see the ball hit the back of the net, I somehow did see the ball hit the net.
It didn’t (and that haunted me for years - I could've sworn it hit the net).
The previously all-conquering Sewer Pigs had finally lost, in the one game that truly mattered. But that’s Grand Finals. Nothing that’s gone before counts. It all comes down to the luck of the bounce and the best on the day.
Just like the mighty Dartford Town Sewer Pigs, all those years ago, Sydney FC have been (all but) all-conquering this year and go into Sunday’s Grand Final as very short priced favourites.
I truly hope for their sake that Arnie stays firm on the three beer maximum on Saturday night.
Adrian’s latest book Political Football: Lawrie McKinna’s Dangerous Truth is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.