Two minutes and two seconds remained. Essendon tried to despatch bodies back, but heavy legs got only halfway. The ball spilled to the back of a pack in the Collingwood goal square and Jarryd Blair slid in to toe-poke it across the line. It was such a near thing the umpires called for a video review, escalating the unbearable tension.
One minute 20 remained, a mini eternity. Incident and accident filled it, until at last the ball fell into the hands of Dane Swan, who paused as long as he dared before taking the last kick of the match. It was his 42nd disposal. Unanimously, he was awarded the Anzac Medal.
‘‘We tag Swan, and [Scott] Pendlebury wins the medal. We tag Pendlebury, and Swan wins,’’ said Essendon coach James Hird, himself a three-time winner. It was ungrudging tribute.
Afterwards, neither recollection nor composure came easily. Footy-speak was forgotten.
‘‘Awesome game,’’ said Swan. ‘‘Cracking game of footy,’’ said Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley, whose exploits as a player also are part of the legend of this fixture. ‘‘Very proud,’’ said Hird, ‘‘and very disappointed.’’
To Collingwood, straitened by injury, it felt like an epic win. For Essendon, also decimated, and further reduced by another soft-tissue injury, victory would have been no less heroic. That was the scale of it.
Both sides were playing on four-day breaks, easily overlooked in a contest as rugged and willing as any this season. Never was there time, room or the least inclination for a short step. Between them, they laid 176 tackles. This was just round five, a preliminary to the preliminaries.
The low and glowering cloud, the abiding commemoration of the Anzacs and the edge-of-the-seat engagement of a crowd of almost 87,000 amplified the gravitas. At the start, the minute’s silence was so complete that the flapping of the flags at half-mast atop the scoreboard could be heard. At end, nothing could.
‘‘I thought I heard the siren three times,’’ said Collingwood captain Nick Maxwell.
Three players personified the day. One was Swan, latterly down on form, but yesterday back to his trampling best. ‘‘Hopefully, this is just an ordinary game and I can get better,’’ he said with a smirk.
His personality is like his football, its force disguised by a laconic front. As a personality, his gig is to mock the cult of personality.
Marty Clarke, five games back from two years in Ireland, restricted Stanton to two touches before half-time, and 11 after it. Nathan Brown reappeared after 18 months and two knee injuries to limit Stewart Crameri to two lonely kicks.
For the Magpies, this was back to the future, personnel-wise. So was their football; for the first time this season, it had the Malthouse stamp again. The truth about premiership teams is they must evolve or die. For Collingwood and its new coach, this verity has been made sharper by injury.
Already, this season had become a matter of adapting to new circumstances. It was what made victory yesterday so gratifying.
If this seems rather to undersell Essendon, it is because for long stretches of the day – and statistics notwithstanding – the Bombers looked overmatched. Hird admitted as much. That they kept a foothold in the game, and came within a couple of minutes of winning it, was a credit to the footballing smarts of Alwyn Davey, David Zaharakis and especially Dyson Heppell, but also to a new, steelier resolve in defence.
It meant that in the first half at least, the match was played as a series of lockdowns; whichever side got the ball forward kept it there, but did not necessarily score.
Pressure and damp conditions multiplied until it seemed that the ball was alive with voltage. Only at the boundary line did it die. A slight loosening in the second half worked to Essendon’s advantage, and especially Davey’s. In such a heart-stopping finish, luck played as much a role as any other factor.
At the final siren, both sides looked eight quarters spent. So did the crowd. Keeffe, though, bounded from one knot of players to another, relieved, overjoyed – and seemingly ready to do it all over again.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.