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The Last Saturday In September: Past AFL Players Reflect

“What are you doing for the Granny?”

That’s arguably the second to third most asked question in Australia in any given year. Only behind “What are you doing for New Years?” or “What are you doing for the long weekend?”

Love it or loathe it and as cliched as it may sound, the AFL Grand Final is more than just a game. It’s a time when many Australians (and others from around the globe) come together to witness two hours of drama and some hit and miss pre-match entertainment. Whether it be watching live at the MCG or from the comfort of your mate’s place with the new plasma TV, there is an emotional investment on some level. For those watching, you have a team that you want to win, regardless of whether it’s your team or not. First goal kicker? Yep, someone’s got a cheeky 10 bucks on it. For me, (an unapologetic footy fan) it’s the official goodbye to winter and a nod to warmer weather that spring delivers.

Having never played anywhere near the highest level of footy (and being a relative newbie to Melbourne at that), I’ve no idea what it’s like to be closely involved in the build-up to the Grand Final as a player or even as a fan living in Australia’s sporting capital. It was at that point that I thought it would be poignant to seek out those with a unique perspective on Grand Final week. Through our partners at the AFL Players’ Association, I spoke with past players Brad Fisher, Ben Griffiths, James Polkinghorne, Adam Pattison and Sam Gilbert. They shared with me what their take is on the Grand Final.

Brad Fisher (99 AFL games, Carlton Football Club)

Brad Fisher believes the fact that the grand final is held at the MCG every year makes it special. “AFL football just means so much to Melbournians” he says. “121 years of history in the world’s sport loving capital is a rare thing and the legacy a two-hour performance can leave is unmistakeable.”

Fisher occasionally reminisces on his own career during the week and what it’s like for the players involved. “There is a small amount of envy that I never even came close and I can’t imagine the closure that a premiership must give a player,” he says. Fisher acknowledges these days he doesn’t dwell on it too much and loves to just take in the atmosphere of the week. “I always watch the replay in the next 24 hours to ensure that I take it all in.”

Ben Griffiths (63 AFL games, Richmond Football Club)

Ben Griffiths spent nine years at Richmond before retiring at the start of 2018. When asked about what it was like to be a part of the club that won the premiership in 2017, he described it as being very bittersweet. “You definitely have mixed emotions about not being out there playing, but it’s also the pinnacle of enjoyment being a part of a winning culture.”

The 2018 grand final will be one of the last that Griffiths will enjoy in Melbourne for at least a few years as he embarks on a college football career in California. At some college football matches it’s not uncommon to get up to 100,000 fans attending during the regular season. When asked if he thinks that atmosphere will rival the grand final, Griffiths has his doubts. “I’m not sure how it’s going to compare to be honest” he says, “It will definitely be a whole different experience with some very one-sided support.

James Polkinghorne (101 AFL games, Brisbane Football Club, Essendon Football Club)

Melbourne born and bred, James Polkinghorne is a grand final purist. He sees the ‘granny’ as a week-long festival more than a one-day event. “It’s a pretty special build up in Melbourne. The weather is about to turn, and you really notice the days are getting longer,” he says. Polkinghorne’s Uncle, David, played in two winning premierships with Hawthorn in the late 70’s and what stands out to James in that regard is the friendships that are forged between premiership teammates. “It’s the friendships that still remain long after a specific two-hour game which has their names etched into history” he says, “I’m very much in awe and jealous that he got to experience two Grand Final wins. It’s an incredible achievement.

James’ grand final day experience now, compared to when he was a boy still has some similarities. “As a young pup, we’d be outside, running around everywhere with the cousins” he recalls, “Now I enjoy a solid run in the morning to balance out the beers and food.”

Adam Pattison (66 AFL games, Richmond Football Club, St Kilda Football Club, Hawthorn Football Club)

Somewhat of a football journeyman, Adam Pattison has experienced the highs and lows that football can bring. From being a Richmond player when the team had finished at the bottom of the ladder in 2007 to being a member of the St Kilda squad that played in the 2010 grand final. He enjoyed seeing former Richmond teammates win the grand final last year. “It makes me happy to see them enjoying themselves and experiencing the ultimate success last year” he says. “The euphoria of the Tigers breaking their premiership drought last year was made all the more special due to the years of disappointment.”

Nowadays, Pattison still thoroughly enjoys grand final week. “I’ve really enjoyed taking my young children to the grand final parade as well as to the football precinct in Yarra Park. There’s a sense of occasion and you can feel the anticipation amongst the fans” Pattison says. Now in a commercial role at the AFLPA, Pattison says grand final week has taken on a different look. “I’ve been lucky enough to attend the Brownlow Medal presentation as well as supporting our grand final brunch on the day,” Pattison says. He’s also in no doubt about what the grand final means to people either. “For most people, it’s their favourite day of the year.”

Sam Gilbert (208 AFL games, St Kilda Football Club)

Growing up in in Queensland in the early nineties, Sam Gilbert recalls AFL grand finals not being a big deal. “The AFL definitely didn’t have the presence that it has today,” Gilbert says. Sam Gilbert’s time as a St Kilda player had plenty of ups and downs, however he says nothing compares to his experience of playing in grand finals in 2009 and 2010. “The experience of running out on a grand final stage is unlike any other and if I’m honest, I doubt I will ever have an experience like it again.”

Playing in grand finals is an achievement in itself, however winning them is something else. Gilbert played in the infamous 2010 drawn grand final and says the grand final memories, good and bad, will stay with him forever. “I’m really lucky that that I got to represent my team on the main stage and we still all catch up once a year to celebrate that experience,” Gilbert says. “However, making the grand final isn’t the same as winning the grand final and I will always have that piece of the puzzle missing from my career.”

Gilbert says watching the grand final this year will be a different experience. “Not having to watch and think ahead to next season will be a new experience for me. I’m planning on having a few quiet beers and watching the game with mates.”

So, whatever your ritual may be, enjoy it.

That last Saturday in September.

lululemon are the official yoga and mindfulness partner of the AFL Players’ Association.