By Greg Baum
“We’re back. Carlton’s back,” said president Luke Sayers, managing to make himself heard above the din. Sweat soaked through his shirt: such was the closeness in the clubrooms. Such was the closeness of the match.
Elsewhere in those rooms, former Blues champion Greg Williams was scratching his head. “A few of the blokes have said it’s just as big as the ’99 (preliminary final) win against Essendon,” he said, his voice still hoarse. “That’s pretty big.”
The Blues celebrate as a team.Credit: Eddie Jim
That, incidentally, was an election night, when Jeff Kennett was unexpectedly ousted as premier. This felt like one. Somewhere else in the room again, former state Labor government minister Martin Pakula was rejoicing. “From where we were half-way through the season, to be in a prelim, it’s almost beyond belief,” he said, “There’s no reason we can’t go all the way.”
Above them, 96,000 people, the preponderance of them Carlton fans, were happily decamping. In the rooms, no-one was. Such was the crush that to get to their team meeting, the triumphant players had to thread their way through a sea of humanity. No problem; they’d been doing that all night. On a table, a pile of healthy food, the first step on the road to recovery, lay largely uneaten. Like procedural matters, it could wait.
You couldn’t find a lid big enough to put on Carlton right now, and it would be pointless and even counterproductive to try. If you can’t celebrate wins like this, footy would be pointless. If you can’t celebrate seasons like this as they unfold, ditto. The po-faced schtick would not have worked now anyway; no-one could have pulled it off. “You’ve got to try to keep a lid on it,” said Williams, then after a pause: “But nah, it’s off.”
Blake Acres celebrates the winning goal.Credit: Getty
If this is not too much of a backhanded compliment for Carlton, they’re the Collingwood of 2023. A win from nowhere and against all the indications on the night, an opposition who found a way to lose – kicking five behinds in a row to finish the match, would you believe? – and an improbable hero, Blake Acres, doubling up from last week; here was lightning striking twice in the same forward pocket. The Blues needed a bit of space; they had Acres.
The problem with Carlton as the new Collingwood is that the old Collingwood are still up to their neck in these finals, and a grand final between the pair is still possible. For the AFL, it’s a dream. They’re having their cake and eating it, too. Three 90,000-plus crowds in nine days at the ‘G; only Carlton and Collingwood can generate masses and momentum on this scale. A new generation is bearing witness. It’s impossible to quantify the influence a crowd has on a team and match, but the Collingwood players swear by it, and so too do Carlton now.
There is something unique about the atmosphere in the Carlton rooms when they’re up and about. It might simply be that colour, single, unambiguous and forbidding. They’re not just the Blues, they’re the “famous old dark Blues” and at times like this it’s its own statement. John Nicholls and Stephen Kernahan and Chris Judd weren’t in the room and yet somehow they were.
A well-meaning official tried to shepherd the crowd towards the door, in vain. His heart wasn’t really in it anyway. In the milling multitude, Terry de Koning stood out by standing out. At 196cm, he’s still as tall as sons Sam, the Geelong premiership defender, and Tom, an impact player for the Blues this night.
He turned over his scarf to make sure he had the right badge facing outward. “Tom saw his brother win the flag (last year). He was very emotional when Sam won,” de Koning said. “I think it’s because he knows how hard it is.”
Tom de Koning beats Max Gawn to this one.Credit: Getty Images
Tom de Koning characterises Carlton 2023. In mid-season, he looked gone as suitors circled. But he stayed. So it goes, too, for the team; they were gone, but they’re still here. “He loves Carlton,” said his dad. “He loves all the boys.”
This was two improbable yarns folded into one: Carlton’s season and Carlton’s night. Bottom four in June, top four now; it’s the stuff of movies. No-one can say convincingly what changed, except that they doubled down in their efforts, kept their nerve and their faith in coach Michael Voss in a way that the Blues would not always have, and inside the club kept their cool.
The fans kept their … membership tickets, but only just? “I’d never given up, but I didn’t see this coming,” said Pakula. “I really didn’t see this coming.” Rejoined de Koning senior: “They never lost their confidence. You’ve got to admire that. They believed in Vossy, and in each other. They’ve got the ability, but a lot of footy is between the ears, isn’t it?”
Or in an even more remote place. Looking back to mid-season, chief executive Brian Cook said: “It’s like flicking a switch. I’ve got no idea how we did it. I can tell you what happened before it, and I can tell you what happened after it, but I can’t tell you what was the switch, who flicked it. I just couldn’t tell you.”
Carlton’s Sam Walsh on the rampage.Credit: Eddie Jim
Here is the mystical element about footy, about sport, that professionalism thankfully has not altogether suppressed. Sometimes, things happen this week because they happened last week. They happen because they do. It’s wondrous, and it makes nights like Friday even more wonderful.
Every club, every coach, says they’re working hard, but only for Carlton is it working out like this. Cook would demur at this, but he might be at least part of the key to the mystery. He was at West Coast for their first two premierships, steered Geelong to a trio 10 years ago and now … and now?
De Koning thought back a week to when Tanya Weitering, mother of Jake, asked: “Why not us?” “Luke Beveridge said that in 2016,” said de Koning, once a Bulldogs player. “That was their theme …” It’s been a long time between drinks for Carlton, but for de Koning senior, it might be back-to-back.
The crowd in the Carlton rooms did not budge for hours. It was as if they were afraid to go out into the world again and find it was all fantasy, a trick of the LED lighting. Eventually, they spilled out onto a concourse, where staff were trying to load a truck with match-day apparatus. The job was done, but there was still a job to be done.
“We’re just riding an amazing wave at the moment,” said Sayers. “The boys are finding belief and confidence and it’s just awesome to watch.” Williams was still shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe we won, really,” he said. “It was one of the great wins. It’s going to be harder again next week. We’ll just enjoy this one for now.”
After next week, there’s only one more. “I’m not going there,” said Cook, “not yet anyway.” They are going to Brisbane, to a preliminary final. They’ll be prepared in one way. However clammy Brisbane is next Saturday, it won’t be stickier than the overflowing Carlton rooms on Friday night.
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