Two minutes before the ball was bounced in the middle of the MCG a lift containing much of Essendon’s modern history opened outside the Yarra Park room.
Matthew Lloyd spilled out deep in conversation with premiership skipper Terry Daniher as the Watsons (Tim and Jobe), the Fletchers (Ken and Dustin), Michael Long, Gavin Wanganeen and James Hird followed.
They were not there to play, although several looked as though they still could.
They were there to support the Bombers as they reminisced, caught up, assessed, laughed, crowded into lifts together and, most important, had a few beers with mates they once spilled blood alongside.
Those legends formed part of an understated but spectacular .
Senator Briggs spoke as Essendon fans enjoyed memories of their heroes, the magic culminating when the spotlight shone on Kevin Sheedy waving a scarf above his head as the current team (low on confidence with just two wins for the season) ran through the banner. The theme song filled the ground as 16 premiership cups stood silently in the centre square, the youngest nearly 22 years old.
Sheedy first waved his jacket in 1993 as he emerged from the old coaches box after the Bombers beat West Coast in a thriller at the MCG on their way to a surprise flag but no one had forgotten the moment as the stands came alive with Essendon scarves swinging above every supporter’s head.
The year 1993 was, as Wanganeen recalled, a reasonable year for the Bombers as he and Michael Long, both Indigenous men, built an impenetrable bond as teammates for six seasons.
That connection I have with Michael Long built obviously throughout ’93. He won the North Smith, I won the Brownlow and the Bombers won the premiership so yeah, it’s such an iconic year for us and the club, Wanganeen said.
Wanganeen stood with one arm around Nic Martin and another around Jayden Laverde as the past and present players formed a circle in the goal square at the Leon Baker blind turn and goal end of the ground. They heard skipper Dyson Heppell talk about the jumper being the foundation of all that Essendon has built.
But the night wasn’t all about the biggest names or modern-day heroes.
The greeting ‘The Flying Dutchman’ Paul Vander Haar received when he reached the pre-match function was symbolic of the atmosphere the night had generated.
Jack Mihocek, the father of Collingwood’s Brody, gave ‘Vander’ a huge hug as he said ‘great to see you’.
Mihocek played 13 AFL games for Essendon between 1976-1978, nine alongside Vander Haar, but his love for the high-flying maverick who played in two flags in 1984-85 was clear.
Funny stories were being told by all, like the day Terry Daniher ducked into a pub while teammates waited outside as they had travelled together to attend champion centreman Merv Neagle’s funeral.
Time passed before a teammate was sent in to recover Daniher and did not return either. Someone had bought ‘TD’ a beer, and he had to buy them one back, of course. His teammate joined for one then another and soon enough the trip back home was delayed.
For many Bombers, this night was a trip back home.
People such as the beautiful, humble Russell Blew who played on the wing in two premierships under the late great John Coleman, his mouth pausing as soon as Coleman was mentioned.
He used to say the game isn’t too complicated, Blew said of the AFL legend.
Blew wore 14 and has regard for all those who come after him in that number including Jordan Ridley who he admires both as a player and a person.
Darryl Gerlach was nearby, a premiership teammate of Blew, who showed what clubs are about when he was asked who he was most looking forward to seeing on the night. A couple of trainers I haven’t seen for a while, he said.
The Bombers began the match with intent and kept trying, but they could not pull off an upset over the Blues. The past players cared but none complained.
The night was about a club that became part of the fabric of ex-players and supporters’ lives.
Midway through the third quarter with the Bombers trailing, the Yarra Park room was again crowded.
The red and black, much to be proud of, much to enjoy. Over a few beers at the MCG.