Evolution of the code

Article by Jake Niall – realfooty.com.au

WITH minutes remaining in the 1989 grand final, battered Hawthorn was running out of legs and players; surging Geelong was running out of time. Yet the Hawks never resorted to what would now be considered percentage football. Would the match be so famous if they had?

Hawthorn was exhausted and nursing many injuries — including Dermott Brereton’s internal bleeding and Robert DiPierdomenico’s punctured lung — but at no stage late in the final quarter did the ailing Hawks attempt to “ice the clock” by chipping the ball sideways and backwards.

George Stone, Hawthorn’s runner that afternoon, recalled this week that he did not carry a message telling the players how much time was left, let alone relay an instruction to chip the ball. Back then, there was no way of accurately knowing the time remaining, since clubs did not have a live television feed into the coach’s box.

Geelong continued to attack and pump the ball forward to Gary Ablett, who in another loaves and fishes afternoon, booted 9.1. Malcolm Blight’s Cats were like sharks — they could survive only through constant forward motion. As Stone noted, had those circumstances been replicated in the present, the Hawks would have played those riveting final minutes quite differently. “In the modern game, someone would have got hold of the ball and they (the Hawks) would have kicked it sideways and backwards,” he said.

Those kill-joy tactics didn’t exist then; they were not even a glint in Kevin Sheedy’s eye. Consider Hawthorn wingman Darrin Pritchard, in possession near the centre, with 90 seconds remaining. He is not hurried by the umpire and could kick in any direction.

Rather than chip sideways, Pritchard thumps the ball long to a contest at centre half-forward, allowing the Cats to regain the ball, score their 21st goal and draw to within six points in the final minute.

It’s what those clubs didn’t do that highlights how the game has changed.

The Hawks didn’t ice the clock, or “drop numbers behind the ball” — the euphemism for flooding. They didn’t attempt to curtail a rampant Ablett by having extra players stand in front of him, as every club would today.

“They would drop an extra man behind the ball and front of Ablett,” said Stone, now Sydney’s full-time opposition coach, projecting how modern tactics would have been used. “I reckon that happened in 2006 (grand final) — (David) Wirrpanda dropped back in front of (Barry) Hall.”

Gary Ayres, five-time premiership Hawk and now Essendon assistant coach, concurred with Stone: “There’s no doubt there would be numbers behind the ball, trying to clog his (Ablett’s) space.”

Blight, asked this week how he would coach Geelong in that thrilling grand final if he could travel back in time, suggested that he would not flood or use the present armoury of defensive tactics. Those strategies require 2007 skills and fitness, and it’s by no means certain that Blight’s Cats, or Allan Jeans’ Hawks, could have executed them with only two interchange players and several injuries each.

“You only go with what you’ve got,” said Blight.

It is possible, however, to analyse that gladiatorial contest using statistics. In employing Pro-Stats to treat the 1989 grand final like a present-day game — breaking it down into contested and uncontested possessions, short and long kicks, turnovers et al — The Age this week sought to measure the difference between football then and now.

To get the most accurate and revealing insights into the game’s transformation, a statistical comparison was drawn between 1989 and the 2006 West Coast-Sydney grand final, matches that were decided by a kick.

The data demonstrates that the relationship between game styles is almost unrecognisable. If 1989 football is the parent, its 2006 offspring seems a distant relation.

Was late ’80s football really as we imagine it, with longer kicking, more contests, superior high marking and more forceful contact — but less skill? Did it truly showcase what former player-coach and now media commentator Tony Shaw has referred to as “the four cornerstones” of Australian football that must be protected — high marking, long kicking, physical contact and free scoring?

Yes, it did. What emerges from the data is a contrast between chaos (1989) and control (2006). Whereas 1989 was an anarchic game, notable for its violence, heavy scoring and unpredictable, broken patterns of play — in which the ball was up for grabs and mistakes frequent — 2006 is highly controlled.

The 2006 grand finalists have set patterns of play. They are loath to kick to a contest.

Control the ball, control aggression, control the tempo. Even the hairstyles — nary a mullet among the 44 players — are more restrained.

The game has become less spontaneous but more tactical, with far better skills, particularly kicking.

Coaches exert more influence over the contest, as do the fully professional players themselves.

The 2006 grand final had 35 per cent fewer one-on-one contests than its ’89 ancestor. The percentage of long to short kicks had declined by 19 per cent; long kicking, indeed, dropped by 47 per cent once handball was taken into account. West Coast had an unusually high handball tally last year, an apparent response to the Swans’ grungy style.

Contested marking — arguably the game’s most thrilling and endangered “cornerstone” — declined by 37 per cent from 1989 to 2006. There was no flooding in ’89, and there was still some semblance of traditional positions. Teams had neither the kicking skills, nor the endurance, to play the modern possession game. All of Brereton’s four marks in ’89 were contested.

Here’s another striking difference. In 2006, six holding-the-ball frees were paid. In ’89, the tally was zero, despite a higher number of effective tackles. Diving on the ball was then permitted. Cabs were seldom hailed.

“They actually gave a bloke a chance to get rid of the footy,” recalled Blight. “That annoys me now, that rule … It does reward the tackler too much.”

Perhaps the most startling differential, however, was use of the interchange bench. West Coast had 61 interchanges, Sydney 57, their midfields a blur of rotations. There are no records of the 1989 interchanges, when each team had two fewer on the bench, but Blight estimated Geelong had no more than four or five for the duration of the game; Stone guessed that Hawthorn could not have exceeded six.

The bench was almost akin to handball, pre-1970. It was used sparingly, and for emergencies.

There were emergencies aplenty in 1989. Hawthorn’s John Platten was concussed early and did not return to the field after quarter-time. Geelong’s Damian Bourke (knee) was a similar story.

Ayres, who sat out the entire final quarter with a torn quad, recalled how Platten was so out of it he didn’t know the scores. “Are we still in front?” he kept asking.

Dipper, thus, was compelled to stay on with his deflating lung, Dermie with the internal injuries (courtesy Mark Yeates under instructions from Blight). Geelong’s Steve Hocking played much of the match with a split testicle. Hocking’s brother, Garry, was himself knocked out by Dipper as a square-up for Platten. Michael Tuck split the webbing in a hand early in the final quarter. Others from both sides were limping.

“We had six who would have struggled to play if it had been a draw,” said Blight.

If interchange provides the greatest disparity between then and now, Blight regarded the 2006 kick-in rule as revolutionary. It’s extraordinary to consider that more than 76 per cent of kick-ins in the 1989 grand final were long kicks, compared with 24 per cent last year. The numbers serve to confirm what we suspect about modern footy, and are grist to the mill of those who despise the possession game.

The glaring upside is improved skill. Thrilling it might have been, but the 1989 grand final contained 37 per cent more turnovers than the 2006 game. Richmond, circa 2007, would own better skills than Hawthorn’s 1988-89 super-team. Really.

Blight believes the possession obsession might have reached its end point, and that there has been a “marginal” trend back towards longer kicking to contests this year.

Not that he minds the modern game.

“Geez, what about when the ball doesn’t touch the ground and goes from one end to the other with swift precision? That’s pretty exciting, I reckon. We just need to get a few more marks back into the game.”

The numbers tell a story, and at their heart is a question for the AFL — is the game better now than in 1989?



8.4 12.9 18.13 21.18 (144)


2.0 7.2 13.7 21.12 (138)



4.2 8.7 10.10 12.13 (85)


1.4 4.6 8.11 12.12 (84)

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