MOST premierships are foregone conclusions by the time living minutes become dying seconds in the twilight of grand final day. Many are anti-climactic and usually the short-priced favourite gets up. Not yesterday. Not when the Swans won their fifth premiership in what history will recall as the football heist of 2012, a classic grand final and one of the most dramatic afternoons ever staged on the MCG.
With less than one minute remaining the ground that had hosted a wildly fluctuating game, it truly resembled a battlefield — a struggle witnessed by 99,683. The forehead of Hawthorn’s spent captain Luke Hodge was bleeding — again — and Adam Goodes and Lewis Jetta were limping and seemingly out of miracles. Shane Mumford had succumbed to the fragile hamstring he had brought into the game.
Sydney led by four points but Hawthorn looked every measure the likely winner. Runners from both teams stood on the ground wildly gesticulating to their warriors. The final quarter had seen young Alex Johnson almost break his hand in a smother on Brad Sewell, the twice rejected Mitch Morton take on two Hawthorn defenders and beat them and Martin Mattner taking on the dangerous Grant Birchall.
Then, fittingly for the Swans, from a stoppage in front of goal the brilliant Daniel Hannebery somehow released a handball to Nick Malceski who in turn kicked across his body for the goal that won the premiership. Sydney led by 10 points, there were 34 seconds left and every statistic barring the scoreboard pointed to a Hawk victory.
The reaction from both teams after final siren sounded seemed more heightened than usual. The vanquished Hawks lay splattered and motionless across the oval with the team’s heroic forward Lance Franklin seemingly frozen in shock. Franklin is the game’s true rock star and he seemed headed for a Norm Smith medal when he kicked for a goal earlier in the final quarter that would have put Hawthorn 17 points up. Franklin finished with three goals from eight scoring shots.
The medal went not to one of Sydney’s talented quartet of Old Xaverians — although Hannebery came close — but the veteran Ryan O’Keefe from the neighbouring St Kevin’s College. O’Keefe turns 32 in January and was one of four Swans from yesterday’s team who played in the equally heart-stopping but notably dour victorious contest of 2005. O’Keefe was pivotal yesterday, particularly in the second quarter when the Swans came from 19 points down to kick six straight to Hawthorn’s nil.
O’Keefe plays each week with a black armband in memory of the younger brother he lost early in his AFL career to a car accident. From the premiership dais he instructed: ‘‘To my boys, all my brothers: run amok!’’ Swans captain Jarrad McVeigh found his brother Mark in the crowd to embrace him before poignantly greeting his wife, Clementine, and their baby daughter in the race.
‘‘This is going to be the best month of our lives,’’ said McVeigh, before holding aloft the premiership cup. Kieren Jack, who boasts a rugby league pedigree but who fell in love with Australian rules, danced around the boundary line in designer sunglasses and threatened: ‘‘Sydney won’t know what has hit it.’’ Only briefly did Hawthorn’s legendary father figure John Kennedy leave his devastated Hawk camp to cross the white line to congratulate his grandson Josh. Between them three generations of Kennedys now boast eight coaching or playing flags.
Seven years ago, Paul Roos dedicated the flag to the South Melbourne supporters who had been waiting for 72 years. Yesterday, the former coach stood grinning behind the players as his apprentice John Longmire acknowledged the losers, as well as both the South Melbourne and Sydney variety of Swans. And to his mother, who lost her battle with cancer midway through the season, Longmire said: ‘‘Mum, I hope you enjoyed the game.’’
Alastair Clarkson likened the battle to ‘‘Nadal versus Federer — heavyweights having a crack at one another’’, but attempted to make some sense of the havoc wreaked upon his team described by most experts as the best of 2012. ‘‘At the end of the day it still is the theatre of sport and you have to deal with those emotions. It is not anywhere near the loss of something like what happened to Jill Meagher last week or a brother-in-law that I lost this year through cancer ... or what happened to Jarrad McVeigh’s daughter last year. You have to keep these things in perspective.’’
The shattered but eloquent Hodge described life as a footballer as a rollercoaster existence — an existence symbolised in the drama of yesterday’s clash. ‘‘I know the group we’ve got and we’ll be back next year,’’ he promised his equally stunned supporters. ‘‘We’ll be back bigger than ever.’’ Just as Collingwood one year earlier had qualified for a grand final in heart-stopping circumstances and then lost, Hawthorn did the same. The result was eerily reminiscent, too, of the Hawks’ 2008 win over Geelong, a win which seemed wrong on every statistical level.
But inside 50s and centre clearances could not match what Longmire summed up as his side’s ‘‘never-say-die’’ attitude. ‘‘It’s a great attitude to have boys, and you did it today. Well done.’’ In an historic context, perhaps this clash deserves a place beside the 1970 grand final — a classic also decided by 10 points.’’
In a wider context it is worth noting that the octogenarian Rupert Murdoch yesterday witnessed his first VFL or AFL grand final, the country’s first woman Prime Minster (on her birthday) congratulated the game’s first woman grand final umpire. In his pre-match address the game’s chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick — aside from taking a pot shot at his CEO Andrew Demetriou for his lengthy absence this year — acknowledged the ABC chief Mark Scott and the pain his organisation had suffered in recent days.
The vanquished Clarkson also attempted to place yesterday’s upset in the context of true tragedy. But in the context of sport his club will believe it blew an opportunity to become perhaps the greatest of the modern era.
Deep down, too, the Hawks will rue those six missed shots at goal from 40 metres or less. And even deeper they might just resent the AFL a little for a botched set of stadium agreements that forced the competition’s top home-and-away team to enter a grand final at a one-day disadvantage.
Not that the Hawks would say that publicly because few could deny the magnificent story of the ugly ducklings of South Melbourne who limped away from their lakeside home in 1982 and somehow became one of the competition’s most admired and successful teams.