Of Grand Final Narratives

On ABC Melbourne the day before the 2012 AFL Grand Final, Adam Spencer – he who “bleeds red and white with a slight Opera House motif” – said that he felt that the Swans would beat the Hawks 4 or 5 times if the two teams played 10 matches. Having sat (wearing my Hawks scarf) in the MCG next to Mrs EPO (wearing her Swans scarf) at the game last weekend, I suspect that Spencer’s assessment was fairly accurate: such a series would finish pretty much dead even.

I raise this not to ease my mind after watching my club lose a Grand Final for the first time in 25 years, but instead to reflect on the incredible impact that one afternoon can have on the construction of sporting narratives.

Like so many Grand Finals before it, Saturday’s match could easily have bounced the other way. A 10 point final margin? Had the first quarter finished a matter of seconds later, the Hawks had another goal on the board. Add one of Gunston or Sewell’s shots in the final few minutes going through rather than being a behind and the Hawks win the Flag.

On The Drum this week, Gerard Whateley argued that Sydney’s victory was “a win for culture and leadership, dedication and commitment,” as if the Hawthorn side had less of all four of those qualities than their opposition. He said that “the case for Hawthorn was overstated throughout the season,” and perhaps he’s right. But had the Hawks scraped home by a single point on Saturday, which could so easily have been the case, then just how different the narrative of the season would be. Suddenly, no case for the Hawks could have been overstated. The praise would be for the “leadership, dedication and commitment” of the other club, even if “brilliance” might be more appropriate than “culture”.

Sitting in the stands on Saturday, walking along the Yarra post-game, and listening to endless callers to SEN and the ABC over the ensuing few days, one couldn’t help but reflect on how every individual AFL fan interprets the narrative of a game – and when that game’s the Grand Final, the season – differently.

For some, Sydney showed they are the epitome of teamwork, playing the game the way it should be played. For others, Buddy Franklin’s wayward kicking is all that lies between the Hawks and complete domination. For some, the fact that the Swans played brilliantly and the Hawks were often ordinary was due to Sydney’s incessant and Premiership-worthy tackling and pressure. For others, it was a sign that the Hawks are easily the better team as they came so close in a game where most of their men played below their best while most Swans played out-of-their-skins.

And yet all four of those narratives would not be the subject of conversations had just a couple of things happened differently on Saturday.

Grand Finals are gorgeous in a way that Premier League-style competitions are not. Two teams on equal footing at the opening bounce, all of their results against the Giants and Suns finally irrelevant. They must prepare for each other, match-up as best they can, and handle the pressure that comes with the inevitable history they are attempting to conquer. It’s the moment in each year when timeless sporting narratives, myths and legends are built.

Of course, it’s not just the narratives constructed by journalists and fans that such moments can influence. Had Lenny Hayes’ kick bounced through for a goal rather than a point in 2010, Ross Lyon would have been a Premiership coach, Brendon Goddard a Premiership player, and both might still be with the Saints. Had the Eagles not managed to scrape home over the Swans in 2006, Chris Judd might be the clubhouse leader in the Best Player Never To Win A Premiership stakes and his departure from Perth might have been far less amicable.

But that’s part of the beauty and pain of Grand Finals. On Offsiders on Sunday morning, Caroline Wilson suggested that there would be the proverbial “soul-searching” throughout the off-season for almost everyone associated with Hawthorn.

She’s right.

I mean, there’s enough within this fan for him to have written this column. Just for the chance to have a few more minutes pondering “what if”?

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