It’s 2019, but today’s encounter took Christopher Vogt back to a match that may have been the last hurrah for these two proud clubs…
“They’ll call ‘em the Melbourne Hawks”.
Far from being the consensus, that was at least the feeling among supporters of two struggling clubs deep into 1996.
For Melbourne and Hawthorn, the writing was on the wall. One in trouble on the field, the other off it, both with interest groups keen on merging the once powerful clubs.
On paper it made sense.
Indeed, many at Melbourne saw a brown and golden chance to shore up their ailing list, with little change to the club’s identity. But neither board had reckoned on the fervour of their members.
Or Don Scott.
As the season rolled on, Hawthorn’s former premiership captain gathered a core group around him and galvanised both passionate and latent Hawks supporters. The mother of all membership drives would ensue. But it wasn’t over. Those in favour of merging still voiced their opinion at every turn.
By now, most grassroots Melbourne supporters were against the merger too. There would be memorable club meetings at season’s end; Hawthorn’s at Camberwell Town Hall two weeks after the finals was feverish. A defiant Scott ripping a velcro Hawk from a Melbourne jumper remains an enduring image in the club’s history.
And so they came to Round 22, just a couple of clubs with no on-field rivalry to speak of, and a gulf between them on the ladder. But suddenly this match meant everything.
Wedged between my parents in the upper reaches of the Southern Stand, I watched a game that heaved with more emotion than even a Grand Final; players uncertain of their futures and supporters - 60,000 of them - watching their beloved club colours perhaps for the last time, ‘No Merger’ signs aloft.
Could the stakes have been higher? Of course the outcome of the match meant nothing to the cause. Yet a sense of foreboding hung over it and you felt that to lose was to lose everything.
The football itself sparkled.
I don’t recall the ebb and flow of the match. My memory is of moments.
There were many that night: Jason Dunstall and David Neitz piling on goals at both ends; a young Shane Crawford in everything, still years from his Brownlow best; Al Clarkson niggling away against his future club; Neitz again, flying Roach-like in front of the Members; Dunstall’s game-halting 100th goal as the epic last quarter played out.
And Nick Holland’s mark, the last of the game as Hawthorn protected its one-point lead.
Someone had managed to put a countdown clock on the scoreboard screen, presumably from the TV feed. It only added to an impossibly dramatic final minute.
Hawthorn headed to finals, Melbourne’s season was done; neither certain of the future. The crowd not knowing either. Then the ‘No Merger’ signs again, and Chris Langford stripping to hold up his guernsey in defiance.
I left the game hoarse, breathless, and desolate. Who to follow next year, if anyone?
Chris Vogt has been coming to the MCG for decades, to take in the cricket, sing along with the Rolling Stones, and yell at his beloved Hawks. He joined the MCC in 2016.
Round 22, 1996
MELBOURNE 5.4 7.5 12.8 15.11 (101)
HAWTHORN 3.5 10.6 12.10 15.12 (102)
Melbourne: Neitz 6, Farmer 4, Clarkson, Febey, Irving, Kowal, Yze
Hawthorn: Dunstall 10, Crawford, Holland 2,Condon