The build up to the 1996 Grand Final was unlike any other, and it’s safe to say no-one will witness anything like it again.
After limping off the MCG during North’s preliminary final victory, Corey McKernan’s fitness was already one of the major talking points heading into Grand Final week.
Then the ruckman became the centre of attention after a controversial Brownlow Medal count. For the first time in the AFL’s history, a player was denied the award through suspension.
McKernan’s 21 votes would have been enough to tie with James Hird and Michael Voss, but a one-week suspension for kneeing Geelong’s John Barnes ruled him out of contention.
RELATED: #96Roos: The suspension
It wasn’t the first time the Roo had missed out on an award in this fashion. He was ruled ineligible for the 1994 Rising Star after being suspended for ‘tripping by hand’.
While accepting his Brownlow, Hird was sympathetic.
“I feel sorry for Corey, but I would rather be in his situation. I would rather have a chance of a premiership. It’s a team game.”
McKernan too was keeping his eye on the main prize.
“Maybe next week I’ll have a medal that they won’t have.”
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In Sydney, the Swans had distractions of their own. As Monday rolled into Tuesday, and then into Wednesday, defender Andrew Dunkley still had no idea whether he’d be available to take his place in Saturday’s match with a potential Tribunal charge looming.
The AFL was forensically searching for video footage of Dunkley’s off-the-ball scuffle with James Hird during Sydney’s preliminary final win over Essendon. In the incident, the Bombers’ skipper left the field bleeding and required several stitches under his left eye.
With the AFL delaying due to a lack of vision, the Sydney coach was fuming.
“Rodney Eade has slammed the AFL over the Andrew Dunkley investigation, which today (Wednesday) will drag into its third day.
“Eade said the distraction could cost the Swans their competitive edge in Saturday’s Grand Final.
“The showcase of your whole year is the Grand Final, and you’d hate all these distractions to force a really lopsided Grand Final and someone lose by 80 points and the AFL kick up a stink.’ – The Age
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On Thursday, the case finally reached a crescendo – in the Supreme Court, no less.
Sydney chairman Richard Colless accused the AFL of being ‘caught up in a star chamber, kangaroo court environment’, which resulted in Swans winning an injunction to prevent the AFL from hearing the case until the Tuesday after the Grand Final.
While the AFL was disappointed, the Dunkley was relieved.
“It is disappointing that an injunction has been upheld to allow a player who has been charged with an offence to participate in a match without the charge being considered by the AFL Tribunal.” – Ian Collins, AFL GM of Footy Operations to the Herald Sun
“It’s a huge bonus. The whole team’s been pretty concerned about it all week, and for myself and my family and the club it’s been a big week. But she’s all over now and I can look forward to the Grand Final.” – Andrew Dunkley
Back at Arden St, North had some team selection issues. Despite not training all week, McKernan took centre stage on the Thursday night to prove his fitness.
“McKernan joined on-field training for the first time this week. He emerged from the room with his right knee heavily bandaged, but pulled the strapping off before drills commenced. He looked a little proppy initially, but ended the session by booting a long goal.” – The Age
“We always knew he was right. He certainly trained pretty tough tonight and, as you could see, he was jumping out of his skin.” – Denis Pagan
However, there was one change to the outfit which defeated Brisbane the week before.
After straining his hamstring in the qualifying final, Stuart Anderson had recovered enough to be available for selection.
It meant one unlucky player had to make way, and it was veteran Matt Armstrong who had crossed from Fitzroy at the end of 1994. The preliminary final against Brisbane proved to be his last AFL game; a heartbreaking way to end his career.
“Those decisions have to be made at this time of year and unfortunately, someone always has to be hurt.” – Denis Pagan
With the teams now locked in, the Grand Final parade was held and the predictions flooded in.
A North win seemed to be the consensus, despite Sydney defeating the Roos comfortably earlier in the season.
“Sydney has won its past two encounters with North comfortably, at cramped Carlton this year and at the MCG last season.
“It won’t this time, however, unless it can derail McKernan. The big man was possibly more important to North in last week’s first quarter than even Carey.” – The Age
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On game day it was McKernan who had a quiet first quarter as Sydney shot out to a commanding lead.
The last three goals of the first quarter earned it an 18-point lead, and it blew out to 24 when Jason Mooney goaled from 50 to start the second quarter. Sydney appeared on the verge of breaking the game wide open, and the next few minutes were critical.
From the ensuing centre bounce, Swans captain Paul Kelly burst from the square, and unloaded a shot on goal that travelled inches wide. Minutes later Daryn Cresswell’s snap fell just short of the line.
Then came the turning point. 50 metres out on the boundary, Kelly opted for a short pass to a rampaging Lockett. The kick fell short and Mick Martyn gained possession.
North rebounded to the opposite end before Glenn Freeborn kicked the first of what would turn out to be three crucial goals before halftime.
“Rock was there, Blakey was there…Freeborn is there! Around his body goes Freeborn, and here comes North Melbourne!” – Sandy Roberts TV commentary
After a tense start to the second half, North started to pepper the goals. While the reward didn’t come immediately, eventually it found consecutive goals through Craig Sholl, Peter Bell and Darren Crocker, to stretch its lead to 27 points.
North was never seriously challenged after that, and the exclamation point came late in the last quarter from Ian Fairley.
In his last game, the veteran drifted into the forward pocket in the final minute. His last involvement on an AFL field would turn out to be kicking North’s 19th and final goal in the 1996 Grand Final.
A 43-point victory gave North its third premiership and the gold centenary cup. Pointed post-match words from the Kangaroos coach summed up just how much it meant to the club.
“A lot of people would like to maybe not see North Melbourne be successful. There’s no way known they’re going to hold us down. We’re too determined. We want to be successful. We are going to be successful.
“Everything we’ve achieved happened because of a reason, and when you look back four years ago, the way our guys prepared themselves and have grown and matured as men and footballers, and sometimes as a result of a heartache … comes today at the MCG, to win the way we did, we certainly did North Melbourne proud.” – Denis Pagan
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Grand Final v Sydney
North team changes
In: Stuart Anderson
Out: Matt Armstrong (omitted)
North Melbourne: 3.2.20, 8.7.55, 12.14.86, 19.17.131
Sydney: 6.2.38, 8.5.53, 9.7.61, 13.10.88
North Melbourne: Crocker 3, Freeborn 3, Allison 2, Roberts 2, Sholl 2, Stevens 2, Bell 1, Carey 1, Fairley 1, Rock 1, Simpson 1
Sydney: Lockett 6, Luff 2, O’Loughlin 2, Cresswell 1, Kickett 1, Mooney 1
Norm Smith Medal: Glenn Archer (NM)