Brown and golden memories
Written by: Greg Baum
The Age
It was the Eagles' lair, but it was where Hawks dared to dream. Tonight's visitors to Subiaco can take inspiration from events nearly 12 years ago. Greg Baum reports.

In a season in which the non-Victorian clubs have proved more invulnerable than ever in their own strongholds, victory for Hawthorn against West Coast in Perth tonight looks impossible.

But it was the Hawks who first demonstrated that the impossible can be done immediately; it is miracles that take a little longer.

In 1991, West Coast dominated the competition, winning 12 games in a row and 19 of 22 in the home-and-away season. It beat Hawthorn twice - by 82 points at Princes Park and by four goals at Subiaco Oval, two weeks before the finals.

It finished on top, three games clear of the Hawks. Despite a storm of protest from Victorian clubs, the Eagles won the right to play the qualifying final at Subiaco, the first final to be staged outside Melbourne.

Perth was foaming with excitement. The booking agency's switchboard jammed for 15 minutes after tickets went on sale as 100,000 rang at once. In the event, the crowd was 44,142, still the biggest in Subiaco's history.

Lord Mayor Reg Withers rechristened Perth "Eagles City", an Eagles song was recorded, Eagles number plates released, Eagles street names gazetted and the club shop in the centre of the city was taking $3000 a day. Not in any sense could the Eagles lose.

Hawthorn flew into this cauldron on the Saturday morning. Then coach Alan Joyce recalled this week that the Hawks had flown first-class, stayed in single rooms and welcomed wives or girlfriends, all unusual then, all meant to foster a sense both of home and unconditional support.

The great Hawthorn team of the '80s had aged and begun to break up and was augmented by youngsters such as Lawrence, Morrissey, Allan, Jarman, Gowers and Paul Dear. But it still had its core of champions - Langford, Mew, Ayres, Tuck, Dunstall, Platten and Brereton - and with them an unshakeable belief. "We didn't think they were good enough to beat us twice in a month," remembered Dermott Brereton.

Brereton had made some typically provocative remarks about the rusticism of Subiaco Oval and the Eagles' lack of champions, calculated to draw the fire to himself. "We used to view West Australian journalists as opposition," he said. "I remember picking up the paper one day and reading a caption about Tim Watson, saying: 'A bloke who started with no ability and lost it.' How one-eyed can you be?

"I got into the state of their grounds and facilities. They all focused on me, but it didn't faze me. I was happy to take that heat."

Joyce said Hawthorn's defeat by West Coast a fortnight previously had proved a blessing in disguise. "My recollection is that we gained a huge amount from that game," he said. "We spent a lot of time analysing our position and the opposition. We planned pretty heavily on that day."

Tuck, the veteran captain, hinted even at a snowjob, saying the Hawks had "meddled with positions" in the earlier match.

Brereton still remembers Joyce's pre-match address. "I thought it was one of Alan Joyce's best coaching moments. He went in so positive. Prior to the game, he quickly went through our whole team, in front of the rest of the team, and went through a positive about each player," he said. "He did it earnestly and succinctly.

"Each player felt really good about himself. We ran out as psyched as any team ever. There was no mention of how hard it was going to be to win a game interstate. It was all about your own strength. It put the guys in a great frame of mind."

In a cracking first quarter, there were seven changes of lead. In the second quarter, a squally shower of unseasonal rain fell, creating puddles on the outfield and a dampening effect on the crowd.

"The conditions were a bit slower and that made it a bit easier for us," recalled Tuck, then 38 and in his last season. "I was playing on Karl Langdon. The conditions suited me more than him."

Tuck said Langdon was his "job", which was to say each Hawk concentrated on his own.

Brereton's knee jack-knifed beneath him when sliding to reach the ball in the second quarter, stretching a ligament that is still slack today. He was carried off and sat out the game on bench. The crowd cheered, then fell into a hush as it realised that if the Hawks could not replace him as a target, nor could they.

Young ruckman Steve Lawrence, playing just his second final, stepped up, with 30 possessions, 14 marks and 26 hitouts. Jason Dunstall, unseen in the first three quarters, kicked four goals in the last. Hawthorn's lead grew and the crowd's din diminished exponentially. The 23-point margin at the final siren was the biggest of the day and the crowd was utterly silent.

"We had a bit of finals experience," said Langford. "We knew that if we put them under the pump, it would be something different for them. They probably got a bit over-hyped and over-excited about the whole thing. They made a few injudicious decisions, and we won by a couple of goals. It was really just about finals pressure."

Langford was playing on Peter Sumich, who kicked 111 goals that season, but whose mercurial kicking had led him to consult a professor of physiology that week. He kicked 2.5. Langford remembered that the crowd was very noisy, but not intimidating. "They were very quiet when we won," he said.

Brereton also said that the crowd had no impact. "Sometimes we made a lot of the atmosphere, but on that day, atmosphere didn't count for anything," he said. "It was all about us within, what we were doing ourselves. I can't remember the atmosphere."

Sitting up in the coach's box, Joyce also was oblivious to the crowd. "I don't recall much about that," he said.

But all remembered the immense sense of satisfaction afterwards. "When you're out there on the ground and the finish is close, there is no time to gloat over the result," Langford said.

"But sitting in the rooms afterwards, it was: 'Hell, that was pretty monumental. That was a bloody good win.' There was the realisation that we would remember it."

Brereton understood the import. "We knew that in a loose way of speaking, that was the biggest win of the finals," he said. "We set out to play a grand final on that day."

Suddenly, West Coast needed to win three games in a row at VFL Park. It managed two, but was soundly beaten again by Hawthorn in the grand final there. Then Eagles coach Mick Malthouse regrets it still; for all his success since, it is the one he can never win.

But the tide was turning. West Coast beat Hawthorn at Subiaco in the first week of the finals the next year, went on to win the flag and another two years later. The Hawks did not win another final for eight years, and no Victorian club won another final outside Melbourne for 10 years. The Hawks not only had had an impossible win, but set an impossible standard.

The years have passed. The Age this week found Langford, now an AFL commissioner, in his city office, Tuck up his carpenter's ladder, Brereton at Mulwala shooting a documentary for Channel Nine on the water flow in the Murray-Darling basin and Joyce in his grocery and takeaway food shop at Cable Beach, near Broome.

"I look at it two ways," said Tuck. "I missed out on a bit of money, but I had a hell of a lot of enjoyment. I only played at one club. I didn't have to do a lot of negotiating. It didn't matter." Only Brereton is still vitally involved with the club.

Brereton said Hawthorn tonight had to remember Subiaco was just a football ground, like any other, and West Coast just a football team, like any other. Advised Tuck: "Just have a good team and have a go." Then, after a pause, wryly: "It sounds a lot easier than it is."