FROM THE FIRST bounce until the Cup is finally held aloft, GREG HOBBS loves every moment of a Grand Final at the G:
WHEN IT COMES to the big stage, the MCG is Australia’s most famous sports arena and the AFL premiership cup is the most sought-after silverware in the wide and wonderful world of sport. In my book, it’s daylight the rest on both counts, and they mate up once every year, on grand final day.
The coaches, captains, and players of the 18 clubs had only one target when they set sail in 2017. That was to stand out in the middle of the MCG late in the afternoon of September 30 and, drowned out by the deafening sound of their supporters, hoist the premiership cup aloft.
That cup, in football terms, is gold. And so are the brand-new premiership medallions for the winning players.
It seems the MCG has been here since Captain Cook paid a visit, but not so with the premiership cup. A cup of this magnitude wasn’t presented until 1959, the year Melbourne, coached by the late Norm Smith and captained by John Beckwith, beat Essendon, skippered by the late Jack Clarke and coached by the late Dick Reynolds.
Sir Kenneth Luke, boss of the prominent Melbourne silverware business K.G. Luke, hatched the idea. Sir Kenneth, who had previously been president of Carlton and was in his term as president of the VFL (1956-71) thought the premiership should be honoured with a worthwhile premiership cup.
Things began to move after he attended an FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium in the 1950s. The story goes that Sir Kenneth had one of his draughtsmen take a facsimile of the cup made from cardboard and, holding it above his head, run a lap of a local park.
Sir Kenneth apparently watched this operation from his office window on the other side of the street and noted how clearly he could see the raised cut-out. He was satisfied the cup would be seen from the back row of the stands at the MCG. Work began immediately on making the real thing.
Years later John Beckwith recalled the day he got to hold up the first cup at the G. “If we won I had to be at a gate near the members’ stand,” he explained. “I had to go straight there without jumping around too much (with my teammates). Then I had to walk up about 20 rows and Sir Dallas Brooks, the Victorian Governor, was to present me with the cup. He shook my hand, gave it to me and I just turned around and came down to celebrate with the boys. Then the team carried Ron Barassi and I off the ground.”
Next Saturday the famous premiership cup will be up for grabs for the 59th time.
But the grand final and the cup would not be the same without everyone’s favourite arena, the MCG; the hub of football on the edge of the city they call The People’s Ground. Remember back to 1991 when the MCG was unavailable for the finals because the Great Southern Stand was being built? That year, six of the seven finals were played at Waverley Park and while Waverley put on its Saturday best, it wasn’t the same.
Hawthorn beat the West Coast in the big one, but without the G there was a smaller crowd and less atmosphere, probably not helped by one of the clubs being non-Victorian.
A crowd of 75,230 saw the game; the following year the West Coast was back, so was the MCG and the Eagles won the GF against Geelong in front of 95,007 spectators.
Things were back to normal. They say unless you have stood under the clocks at Flinders St Station, looked at a Myer Christmas window, had a drink in Young and Jackson’s pub and taken in a game at the MCG you haven’t been to Melbourne.
Let’s take a look at the MCG and some of its history:
The first grand final was played at the great ground in 1902 when the Victorian Football League was in its sixth season. A crowd of 35,202 saw Collingwood beat Essendon.
Years earlier, in March 1877, the first cricket Test between Australia and England was played at the ground. A crowd of about 3,000 were there for the first day’s play between teams led by Dave Gregory (Australia) and James Lillywhite (England).
The MCG was built on land once known as Police Paddock and has taken on many different looks over the years as grandstands continued to come and go. Way back in the 1870s the main grandstand had reversible seating – spectators could watch the football outside the ground and cricket on the MCG. The stand burned down in 1882.
League football grand finals were played on the G every year from 1902 to 1923 and from 1925 to 1941. In 1924 a robin-round finals system was adopted and there wasn’t a grand final as such and in 1942 the grand final was moved to Carlton’s Princes Park. The MCG had been taken over by the US War authorities.
A plaque at the ground reads: “This plaque records the fact that the First Regiment of the First Marine Division United States Marine Corps was based at this sportsground in 1943 and looked on it as their home. It also acknowledges with grateful thanks the magnificent hospitality they received from the people of Melbourne. – Colonel Mitchell Paige.”
The grand final remained at Princes Park in 1943 and in 1944 moved to the Junction Oval, then St Kilda’s home ground. It was back to Princes Park in 1945 for the “Bloodbath” grand final between Carlton and South Melbourne before returning to the MCG in 1946. It has remained that way except for the 1991 season when Waverley Park was the venue.
The G is the ground for massive crowds. The record has stood at 121,696 since 1970. That was some grand final; many believe the best ever.
Carlton took on Collingwood and at half-time the Magpies looked to have the match in their keeping with a 44-point lead. Then came one of football’s most memorable comebacks and the Blues got home by 10 points. We remember the game for “Jezza’s” mark and 20th man Ted Hopkins’ four goals. Little Ted played the game of his life and it can be said one game has given him life-long fame.
That 1970 season also saw the first Sunday match at the MCG – a game between Richmond and Fitzroy and attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
American religious leader Billy Graham drew the biggest crowd at the ground – an estimated 130,000 attended one of his crusades in March 1959.
The biggest crowd for a home and away game has stood since 1958 when Melbourne and Collingwood drew 99,256. In those days both clubs were winning premierships, particularly Melbourne in the Norm Smith-Ron Barassi era.
The first 100,000 grand final came in the 1956 Olympic Games year when 115,902 saw Melbourne, captained by Noel McMahen, beat Collingwood. Another century plus in 1957, just under in 1958, 103,506 in 1959 and again slightly under in 1960. Then, in 1961, came Hawthorn’s first grand final and crowds flocked in – could the one-time chopping-block club Hawthorn finally breakthrough for a flag.
Yes, yes, yes –with a resounding victory over Ted Whitten’s Footscray.
In more recent times more comfort and seating have been added to the MCG, resulting in less standing room, but the grand final crowds have been steady in the 90,000s. Last year the figure went close to the century again with a roll-up of 99,981, the majority of them sweating on a long overdue Footscray win. The last 100,000 plus crowd was 2013 when 100,007 saw Hawthorn beat Fremantle.
This is a ground that has seen just about everything. Even a failed take-off by an aeroplane. In 1910, a publicity stunt caused great excitement when a fellow named G. Cudget attempted to fly his Bleriot plane out of the ground. When the propeller was swung into action and the plane started racing across the grass it must have been some sight.
The Paddock That Grew, a book on the MCG’s history, stated it was like a drunk being propelled from a pub by the seat of his pants. Apparently, the plane rose into the air, ducked, tried to side-step the scoreboard and then dived into a nearby tennis court. Mr Cudget was unhurt, but his plane was wrecked.
Of course, the 1956 Olympics remains one of the favourites for many of the long-standing members of the sporting fraternity. As me for, I love the roar at the first bounce of the last game of the season… that’s what I like about football.
Sitting in Bay 13 or toffing it up in the Long Room in the Members’, the MCG is like a second home.
GREG HOBBS started writing football from the MCG in the late 1950s when he “ghosted” the articles of the champion Essendon full-forward John Coleman. In those days Coleman wrote for The Herald, Melbourne’s evening newspaper. Hobbs has seen most of the grand finals since and is a member of the MCG’s Media Hall of Fame. His very first encounter with the MCG came in the early 1950s when he sold dixies (ice-cream in little tubs) in the thick of the crowd … old-timers will remember the “ice-a-dixie” call from the kids selling the dixies up and down the aisles.
GREG HOBBS spent more than 50 years covering all the major sports for Melbourne newspapers. As well as being a formidable newsbreaker, he was a talented writer and held a number of executive positions. He edited The Sporting Globe and was chief football writer for The Herald. Later he was Editor of the AFL Football Record. Greg was also one of the co-founders of the AFL Media Association.