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Weekend finals whip up a football Woodstock

This time last year I remember wondering to myself whether the AFL finals could drag us out of the mud. The Essendon saga continues to cast a dark shadow over the game today, but 12 months ago it was bucketing down.

While there were some great games at the pointy end of 2013 and the eventual premier was a worthy one, for me it never quite got there. Well, in the space of 24 hours last weekend the game lifted me into the air and I floated away like a helium balloon at a school fete.

It all started on Friday night at the MCG. Actually, it started in a city bar with two pints and three mates, then the glorious walk to the ‘G’. A most beautiful Melbourne experience.

Along with many football followers, I felt the Kangaroos might get over the wily Cats. Ten minutes in it looked like it would only be ‘how far’?

‘Some of the body hits were felt all around the ground, like that vibrating shudder up your forearms when you hit the toe of the bat with a cricket ball.’

The Kangaroos looked slick with the ball and ran so fast across the emerald turf. But as is their way, the Cats flew home and fell just short. It was a thrilling finish. I was happy for the Kangas, they deserved to win.

Wedged in between the two AFL elimination finals was a VFL preliminary final that had significance of a more personal kind.

I engaged in at least two conversations last week that were bemoaning the hand dealt to our VFL heroes the Footscray Bulldogs. How could a team that finished above its opponent (Port Melbourne) play a preliminary final on the other mob’s home ground. By 5pm Saturday, all that had been forgotten as the Dogs ran over the top of the Borough and were on their way to what could be a historic premiership on Sunday.

The preliminary final on Saturday was one of the most enjoyable days at the footy I’ve ever had.

Bright spring sunshine sparkled, the suburban colosseum filled and threatened to spill over like a good pint of Guinness, and the football was punishing and breathtakingly quick. Some of the body hits were felt all around the ground, like that vibrating shudder up your forearms when you hit the toe of the bat with a cricket ball.

I took my two older kids to the game on the weekend and while they sat with me in short bursts to watch the footy, they spent most of the afternoon over the hill behind the goals on what they called “adventures”. You don’t get that at an AFL game. Or a VFL grand final, as it turns out.

I took my seat half way up the hill at the city end and was surrounded by a small army of Bulldogs players, coaches, staff, friends and supporters. In fading afternoon light as our boys stormed home, and with the moreish smell of Borough burgers occasionally drifting by, it was a football Woodstock kind of vibe. Perfection.

Our VFL side has done great things for our club this year. It would be something special if they could win the flag at their first attempt.

All tuckered out from their VFL adventures, I put the kids to bed and wandered down to the local pub with a few current and ex-Bulldog teammates to watch the Fremantle-Port Adelaide final. Twelve months ago, I watched Fremantle rip Sydney apart and change the game forever with a pressure not seen before. I wondered if the Port players were wondering about that game, too.

The Power looked a little overwhelmed early, but as they turned the tide and took the game away from Freo, the front bar of the Commercial Club Hotel was heaving. It’s as good a game of footy as you’d ever want to see.

Port Adelaide are already an inspiring football club. If they can keep it going they will become legends.

In little more than 24 hours I saw three games that made me forget about everything else in the world. Footy can do that. There’s two weeks to go and I’m still floating high above the school fete. How good is footy.

This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.