I’m 34 and still friends with the same bunch of blokes I was friends with at high school. There have been a couple of additions along the way, but all in all it’s the same bunch of blokes. We’re mostly married with the added joy of children, our jobs are more demanding, and our social lives are busier. We don’t see each other all that often.
We do make the effort here or there. There is the odd golf game, of which, due to frustration at a lack of ability, I don’t partake, and there is, occasionally, a Wednesday night pub meal. That’s the best night for it, as no-one has anything organised on Wednesday night. I think the thing I miss the most is the games of footy we used to watch together. When we were young and dumb, spending most of every weekend in each other’s company, we’d watch and talk a lot of footy.
Either way, there are nine people participating, and only four of them follow a team in the Finals. More tellingly, only one of us actually supports a team playing in the game we’ll be watching. 23 Rounds of footy is a big build up; by the time Finals is actually upon us, the weather is improving, all the many tales of the season have created a narrative we are all familiar with, and the idea of a thrilling conclusion has us eager to behold it play out. The excitement is palpable.
Everyone is bloody pumped about Finals, and this year there seems to be extra reason to be: so many teams seem to be in the hunt. The happy folk of WA must be fit to bursting out of their skin this week, with their two teams both scheduled to play home games, and, should they both be victorious, would repeat the arrangement in a fortnight’s time. Even so, the situation isn’t as clear cut as you would think.
Freo finished clear on top of the ladder, but appear to have been completely discounted as genuine premiership contenders. They are odds on to beat the undermanned Sydney at Subiaco this weekend, and would then have a home Preliminary Final to send them into the big dance. Everything seems perfectly set up for them, but something about the way they play, and the makeup of their team, as well as the age of their key players, has people not really talking about them. It’s a funny situation.
West Coast finished in second place, but has arguably been the best performed team of the year. Not from a win/loss perspective, as the ladder doesn’t lie, but more in regards to how they’ve played, and who they’ve beaten. It is interesting that they’ve seemingly come from no-where, and yet have every piece of the football team puzzle in place. Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing, and it is always funny to look back and reconsider just why we didn’t think a team would be any good. So many of their good players occupy crucial positions. Obviously they are coached very well, and should be well positioned to attack the finals with a view to winning the whole thing.
That said, they just lost to Adelaide, and their first opponents are the Hawks. Hawthorn finished third, are the most fancied of the teams still in the race, are the winners of the previous two Premierships, and beat the Eagles at Subiaco just over a month ago. Their best footy has been as good or better than any team’s, but then they have dished up some ordinary fare as well. They have lost to Essendon, Port Adelaide twice, Richmond, Sydney and GWS. Some of their footy has been pretty poor, and not all of their players have had the continuity of performance that they would have liked.
Sydney has finished fourth, but has some of its best players not available due to injury. Kieren Jack, Parker and Franklin will all not be playing against Freo in the first week of finals, and would surely need to be fit and playing for them to get anywhere of note. That said, they are flying under the radar, and that is just the way they like it. They would consider themselves a much better chance of having a meaningful impact than anyone else would right now.
The Bulldogs have played some of the most exciting footy of the season to finish in 6th. They have come from dead set no-where. At the end of last season, they were a club in turmoil with players coming and going, and a new coach at the helm. Nobody would have expected them to end up playing finals, and certainly no-one could have imagined that your average punter would not only think their best good enough, but be barracking for them as well. Some of their young stars have the ability to take your breath away, or make you laugh. They are my favourite team in it, and if my mob doesn’t take it out, I hope they do.
Who the hell knows with North? They’re the enemy this week, and I’m trying not to think about them. On paper they’re not that good, but they always seem to give us one hell of a hard time. To be honest, I’m a nervous wreck about the game this Sunday. The great thing about Finals footy is that, as much as a lot of the excitement beforehand is generated by your head, it’s your nerves beforehand and the thumping heart during that makes it so great.
I wrote on Twitter this week that, as a Tigers supporter, my favourite Grand Final is the 1995 Second Semi Final against Essendon. If only that particular Grand Final had come with a flag and a cup. Anything after that day until 2001 is best not considered, unless it is a Richo highlight. Still, what a day that was. I still get that feeling up the spine when I think about my 14 year old self up the top of the Olympic Stand with my brothers, singing the club song about 10 times in a row. My love of Matthew Knights and Scott Turner will be eternal.
It is, without doubt, my favourite football memory. I try not to think about the Elimination Finals of the past two years, when my club has been embarrassed on each occasion. In 2013 we played exciting footy, finished in fifth and had Carlton, only in the finals because of the disallowed Essendon, absolutely on toast right before half time. Enter Chris Judd and an absolute nobody named Nick Duigan, and exit Tigers with humiliated tails between their legs. 2014 was a weird year, with an horrendous start by the Tiges, that ended up with nine consecutive wins to get the side into the Finals. Ten minutes into the Elimination Final against Port Adelaide and the result was sealed. Ten goals down at quarter time; the huge effort just to make the Finals had taken its toll.
This year, we have played a more consistent, strong, dependable style of footy that surely suggests we are more ready for Finals than in previous years. But this, in its own weird way, almost puts more pressure on the Tigers. What would the ramifications be for a team to lose three consecutive Elimination Finals, especially when their home and away form suggests improvement? What damage could be done to the Tigers if they don’t take a meaningful step forward? Could the pressure of the importance of the result end up creating another loss that builds up even more pressure next year? Could my nerves ever survive Grand Final week if my team was in it?
A lot of us grew up hearing the song, “One Day In September” by Mike Brady, a song which maybe slightly missed the point. Yes, that one day in September (well, October this year) is super special and exciting, but the entirety of September is special. Chooka, A Nich, Irish, Emu, Boy, Steam, Stimrod, Dhillo and myself have certainly gotten up and about for it. The man cave is going to experience some zest and banter, and footy will be watched and talked.
Finals Footy is the end of winter, an exciting conclusion to a long trek through the wintry rounds of footy. The sun comes out, the possibilities appear before us. What will happen? How will it happen? How will we feel? Who will cheer, and who will cry? Who will be a hero and why? I’m pumped.