Today, we’re rewinding 21 years to a time when Essendon’s stance a top of the footy world came tumbling down in a truly heart wrenching fashion. Before the race to the big dance had been run and won, the Bombers’ faithful had already been queuing for Grand Final tickets. An air of cockiness and anticipation for next week lingered around those wearing red and black, even before the first bounce. Even with a few big outs such as James Hird, there was no way in their eyes, that the 12-10 sixth placed Blues who copped two home and away season beatings at the hands of the Bombers, could provide any match for the fierce and imposing 18-4 minor premiers.
The Blues however, were hungry. Sick of being belittled and bullied by their bitter arch nemesis. They had a serious point to prove. Carlton went into half time with a four goal lead and were looking the better side as the was unimaginable quickly becoming very imaginable.
After the break, the Essendon everyone had become accustomed to were back in business and should’ve driven Carlton well and truly out of the contest. Their quivers in front of goal however, handed Carlton a lifeline, and with it came the smallest glimmer of hope. The Blues latched onto that glimmer as if their lives depended on it and clawed their way back in a remarkable performance and show of character, ultimately holding on in a 1 point epic that goes down as one of the greatest games in AFL history.
Glenn Manton, having been delisted by Essendon in 1994, was out for revenge. In a post game speech which happened to be televised after the semi final win against West Coast, he was heard saying “I hope we stick it up the Bombers next week!” In the opening stages of the game, stick it up the Bombers he did. Kicking the first goal in the opening minutes, playing forward in a surprise tactic considering he had only kicked one goal all year.
Centre half forward Lance Whitnall was also influential early, assisting the first, fourth and fifth goals and kicking the second as the Blues got off to the best possible start. Carlton’s midfield was dominating and they certainly had plenty more of the footy although Essendon was doing well to keep them at bay. Essendon’s Blake Caracella sprayed two relatively simple chances and Carlton rushed a behind giving Essendon three more points heading into the first break. The quarter time scoreline was Carlton 6.3.39 leading Essendon’s 3.5.23. Their midfield was all over Essendon’s with Scott Camporeale being a big standout. Lance Whitnall, Aaron Hamill and Glenn Manton were performing in the forward line, a steep contrast to Essendon who were suffering from a lack of key targets bar Matthew Lloyd.
Anthony Koutoufides in a marking contest
The opening five minutes of the second quarter saw some real tough footy take place. Essendon were starting to show signs of frustration, epitomised by Dean Wallis who absolutely cleaned up Carlton’s Michael Sexton. He was placed on report but not before attempting to hide his number from the umpires and throwing a loose elbow into the subsequent pack that had formed. A panicked handball from Mark Johnson found the hands of Aaron Hamill who ran in and slotted the goal. The Bombers were really wasting valuable opportunities to cut into Carlton’s lead and the string of misses was only growing as the pressure kept mounting on the next kicker for goal. They kicked four straight behinds including an extraordinary shank from Matthew Lloyd, missing a free kick from the top of the goal square. Lance Whitnall presented well and converted from 45 metres out for the second and final goal of the scrapping quarter. Dean Rioli sprayed his shot for goal on the siren, leaving Essendon with 0.5 for the quarter and eight straight behinds! Even though the contest was becoming more evenly matched Essendon weren’t looking like hitting the scoreboard. Their forward 50 entries were rushed, lacking composure, and they were continuously haunted by each other’s goal kicking woes. The outfit was also showing more and more signs of frustration and agitation. The scoreline at half time read Carlton 8.4.52 leading Essendon 3.10.28. The Blues faithful were wholeheartedly up and about.
The second half was looking just like the first early on with the Blues applying more pressure to Essendon’s defence, which had been holding up well. Essendon’s goal scoring drought was soon broken when Michael Long read Carlton’s kick in as if it was an open book, taking a great intercept mark and converting the set shot 30 metres out. A goal was just what the doctor ordered for Essendon, sparking a fierce comeback. Stephen Silvagni left his direct opponent Matthew Lloyd, leaving him out the back to take advantage and goal. The Bombers started to look really good, racking up more forward 50 entries culminating in a Dean Rioli goal that sliced the margin to four. Gary Moorcroft was paid a 50 metre penalty making his shot a certainty and Essendon hit the lead for the first time. Dean Rioli had another goal and all of a sudden the Dons looked like steamrolling Carlton, they’d kicked five unanswered goals and led the half 5.2.32 to 0.0.0. Essendon’s midfield had gotten on top and tempers started flaring. The Blues, in particular Fraser Brown, were starting fights. Desperately doing anything they could to slow the game and hold up Essendon, who had 11 inside 50’s to Carlton’s one. It was now Carlton who were looking frustrated and agitated, Aaron Hamill dropped a knee into the face of Wallis when he ‘slipped’ getting up from a scuffle. Essendon’s goal kicking demons were slowly seeping their way back into reality. The Dons kicked three straight behinds and missed real opportunities to put the game away, consequently drying up their own momentum. The third quarter looked like a completely different game to what was displayed in the first half, Essendon showed why they were the minor premiers and turned the game around completely. Kevin Sheedy also threw Dustin Fletcher forward in a typical masterstroke which solved their lack of key targets. Although Essendon had turned their fortunes around, they had seven behinds to go with their seven goals for the quarter and were keeping Carlton alive as they trailed 10.6.66 to 10.17.77.
The first goal of the final term came from Essendon’s Steve Alessio with his first kick of the game, pushing the Bombers out to a 17 point lead. Carlton were looking hungry and Fraser Brown cut the margin to 11 with a tight left foot snap. Anthony Koutoufides was thrown into the next centre bounce and this signified the start of possibly the greatest individual quarter footy has ever seen. It’s worth noting he went on to tally 133 Supercoach points in the final quarter. This is an impressive score across a whole match let alone a single quarter. A feat completely unheard of in the realms of Supercoach. Moments after featuring in the centre bounce Koutoufides was in the goal square taking a huge mark, he kicked the goal and there was just five points in it. Carlton had repeat forward 50 entries and the pressure was mounting. Damien Hardwick went for a big mark leaving Matthew Lappin open to dribble it through and give Carlton the lead against all odds, 13.7.85 vs 11.18.84. Brett Ratten sent the ball deep in Carlton’s 50 and there Koutoufides was again, coming from absolutely nowhere to take a monumental grab and stretch the lead to seven. Matthew Lloyd hit back with a phenomenal goal whilst falling over that barely squeezed through, bringing the margin back to one. Justin Blumfield took the ball out of the centre and loaded it to the top of the goal square, whilst being held Lloyd used his free hand to take the ball to ground before swooping on it and snapping in through. Lloyd had two goals in a minute, five for the match and now the Bombers were back in front. The atmosphere was electric! Essendon were coming again but there was Koutoufides with another intercept mark in the backline. He was everywhere. Essendon deployed a switch and had space on the wing but a terrible kick into the 50 found the hands of the sole Blue Koutoufides in a three on one contest for another intercept. Carlton were trailing by four with ten minutes on the clock and the contest was as tight and evenly matched as ever. Koutoufides was now playing back on Lloyd and occasionally floating up as the loose man. Matthew Hogg found Aaron Hamill who marked and put it through to swing the ever changing pendulum back in Carlton’s favour. Hogg was in the play again this time finding Lance Whitnall who marked just outside the 50. He was well out of his range but in a character defining, ice in his veins type moment, he kicked a ginormous goal both in length and significance, stretching the lead to eight with a few minutes left. Play restarted, and guess who, Anthony Koutoufides, was in the guts winning a centre clearance. The Bombers entered their 50 but target Mark Johnson tripped and the Blues defence took care of it. Their relief would be short lived however as the ball quickly found its way back in and Mark Johnson held his footing, marking, converting, and chopping the margin to two with two minutes left.
It was the stuff of wild imagination, two of the game’s powerhouses, cutthroat rivals, just two points separating them with a grand final berth on the line. Essendon were looking urgent and starting to rush things, the realisation that their premiership was about to be ripped away, dawning on them. In turn, they sacrificed the precious elixir of composure. A fatal mistake. A mistake that would cost them football’s epitome, an epitome they had spent the best part of a year working towards.
Essendon entered their 50 again, but there he was, the man once swaggering Bombers fans were quickly learning to hate, Anthony Koutoufides. He was herculean, Essendon’s kryptonite, plucking anything that came his way. Essendon forced repeat forward 50 entries, they were minor premiers for a reason and weren’t going to freely fold at the hands of Carlton. They had possession within striking range but there were bodies aplenty, Mark Mercuri spun into a small opening and managed to get away a sharp chance, his name inches away from stardom as the ball skipped through for a behind. One point the difference. Soon enough the ball was back in Essendon’s forward fifty, they were making Carlton fight and scrap until the final siren. Dean Rice got the clearance away but it found the hands of Essendon’s Dean Wallis who charged back towards the forward 50. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of passionate fans hanging on his next move.
BANG! Wallis took on Fraser Brown and the gutsy Blue prevailed, pulling out arguably the greatest tackle football has ever seen. A preliminary final winning tackle no doubt. The man who came into the match injured and sat out the end of the second quarter battling injury, was called upon as the last line of defence, the weight of the club on his shoulders, and delivered in the most emphatic of fashions. Driving Wallis into the ground and sending the ball loose. Justin Murphy accounted for the footy and blazed up the middle. He kicked to Ratten on the wing and with no options in front Murphy put in a gut busting follow up run, receiving the footy on the 50 and winding the clock down.
The sound of the final siren was as sweet a symphony as any to those in navy blue, fans from far and wide collectively rejoicing the downing of their long time foe.
Fraser Brown celebrating Carlton's win
As far as individual performances go, nothing compares with the brilliance of Anthony Koutoufides, almost single handedly saving the Carlton from the jaws of defeat. He was at the centre bounce winning clearances, he drifted forward and kicked two crucial goals in a matter of minutes before floating back where he intercepted anything and everything that came his way and shut down the ascendant Matthew Lloyd. ‘Kouta’ racked up 10 disposals, three contested marks and two goals in the final quarter alone, finishing the match with 29 disposals, seven contested marks and two goals. Fraser Brown (20 disposals, two goals) was courageous and heroic, embodying what Carlton was all about and he will always be remembered for ‘that’ tackle. Scott Camporeale (26 disposals, six clearances) and Brett Ratten (24 disposals, nine clearances) played a big part in the midfield battle. Centre half forward pairing Aaron Hamill and Lance Whitnall were also influential slotting three goals apiece, Whitnall playing a role in countless goals.
For the Dons, Matthew Lloyd was the pivotal cog that kept their forward line operational. He kicked 5.3, Dustin Fletcher also provided good assistance when he was thrown forward. In the middle, Joe Misti had 28 disposals. Mark Mercuri (nine clearances) and Michael Long (eight clearances, 25 disposals) were crucial in the midfield battle. Although they lost by one point, Essendon had 33 scoring shots to Carlton’s 24 and were left to rue their inaccuracies in front of goal as a key area where the game was lost. It was the goalkicking of Blake Caracella and Mark Mercuri that really hurt, kicking 0.7 between them.
Essendon made the fateful mistake of coming into the Prelim with one eye on next week’s Grand Final. Although that oversight let Carlton fly to an early lead and put them on the back foot, they had chance after chance after chance to run away with an unassailable lead, ultimately wasting just one too many as they would fall agonizingly close. On the contrary, Carlton played out of their skin and made Essendon pay the ultimate price for their goal kicking miseries. Anthony Koutoufides will always be remembered for his last quarter, one of the best individual quarters an AFL final has seen. Fraser Brown for his gargantuan tackle that stopped the stampeding Wallis. Even though the Blues wouldn’t go all the way and lift the premiership trophy, they will forever be known as the team that stopped the high flying Bombers of 99’. The win was also massive for Carlton on a historical note as it stripped Essendon of an opportunity to equal their 16 premiership AFL/VFL record, that would have to wait until 2000.