Anyone who believes in numerology at Sale Football-Netball Club may feel some trepidation as its senior football side heads toward the Gippsland League finals. With the Magpies well-positioned to go deep in September, those slightly superstitious will be hoping history doesn’t repeat itself if Sale plays in this season’s preliminary final.
The reason being? This year’s preliminary final will be played on September 14, the same date as the fateful 2014 final of the same name. On that extraordinary day five years ago a scarcely believable 30 minutes of football saw Wonthaggi storm home from a 45-point deficit at three-quarter-time to win through to the grand final by two points.
While there is little to no chance of something similar ever happening again, Gippsland Times journalist Liam Durkin, who was a 20-year-old spectator at Moe that day, interviewed some key figures involved to reflect upon what many consider to be the greatest game of football ever played in Gippsland.
To understand the significance of Wonthaggi’s 2014 preliminary final win, one has to firstly appreciate how dominant Sale had been across the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The Magpies stormed through the competition in 2012, losing just one match enroute to the premiership and looked set to repeat the effort the following year. At the end of the 2013 home-and-away season, Sale finished three games clear on top of the ladder and defeated second-placed Morwell by 122 points in the final home-and-away round.
Understandably, most people tipped Sale as unbackable favourite for the premiership and thought the trophy engraver could have put the Magpies name on the cup weeks in advance.
In the grand final however, Morwell stunned onlookers with a seven-goal second quarter, which eventuated in an 81-point winning margin and netted the Tigers an eighth senior premiership.
Having been sensationally dethroned, Sale entered the 2014 campaign with redemption front of mind.
Conversely, Wonthaggi, under second year coach Rob Railton, had been quietly going about its business. Having returned to coach his home club after stints at Casey, Sandringham and Frankston in the VFL, Railton led the Power to the semi-finals in 2013 and followed up by securing the team with a top three finish in 2014.
In the qualifying final of 2014 Sale easily accounted for Wonthaggi, winning 12.16 (88) to 6.9 (45). The Magpies then went down to Morwell by 20 points in the second chance semi, while the Power eliminated Maffra to set-up a rematch for a place in the big dance.
Heading into the preliminary final, Sale had won 54 of its previous 60 games and had beaten Wonthaggi three times during the season (although twice by less than a goal).
The Power had never beaten Sale in a final in three attempts and failed to kick more than six goals in any of their three meetings with the Magpies in 2014.
Wonthaggi had never made a Gippsland League grand final either.
With Morwell awaiting the victor, then Tigers coach Harmit Singh was busily preparing his troops for the grand final.
“We trained and had a meeting on the Sunday morning of the preliminary final with a lot of the boys then heading to Moe to see what we could take away to help us the following week,” Singh said.
“Personally I had no preference in terms of who we faced in the grand final and I think a lot of the group felt the same way.
“We were playing some really good footy at the pointy end of the season and had a healthy list to choose from.
“My external opinion of Wonthaggi was that they were very well drilled under Rob Railton, they had a group of players that whilst not necessarily the most talented, were hard to score against and played a system that worked really well for them.”
Wonthaggi ruckman Earl Shaw, who played a pivotal role in the preliminary final, said despite the odds, the side had no fear leading into the game.
“Heading into the match we had a good win against Mafra the week before so our confidence was up, although we hadn’t beaten Sale for a long time,” he said.
As the match got underway there was the usual combination of finals nerves and congestion around the ball before Sale began to find a number of avenues to score. At quarter-time the Magpies led by three goals before extending the margin to a commanding 35 points at the main break.
After half-time, the Magpies continued to control play and at three-quarter-time the Power was 45 points adrift and starring down the barrel of the end of its season.
While the three-quarter-time score line of 13.10 (88) to 6.7 (43) would have typically indicated a domination from one side, Shaw said Wonthaggi was not prepared to go down without a fight.
“I never felt as though we were out of it, even at three-quarter-time the score didn’t reflect our effort,” he said.
Even if Shaw and his teammates thought the game wasn’t over most spectators would have thought they were incredibly deluded.
The simple mathematics of the situation meant that if Wonthaggi were to be any chance of stealing victory it would need to kick more goals in one quarter than it had managed in the previous three. Not only that, the Power would also more than likely need to keep Sale scoreless for half an hour of play.
The odds pointed to an impossible Wonthaggi victory.
In the Sale huddle, players and coaches took an understandably conservative approach, with the message to get through the final quarter with one eye turned to the following week.
Meanwhile, others thought they had seen enough, with some spectators leaving to pencil in a Morwell-Sale grand final rematch in their diaries.
It was at this moment Shaw said Wonthaggi found the inspiration it needed to provide one more effort.
“At three-quarter-time we could see the Morwell players leaving which we used as motivation for them not showing us any respect,” he said.
“Our coach Rob Railton spurred us on and said to roll the dice.”
Wonthaggi kicked the opening goal of the final term and added another when Nathan Jones kicked truly. All of a sudden the margin was under five goals with plenty of time to play.
A bizarre occurrence happened shortly after when defender Shannon Bray left his regular posting at full back and kicked his first goal for the season, bringing the Power to within 22 points.
The Magpies went into the game with question marks over the fitness of several players, and while their run dried up, it appeared the team was hitting more of a mental wall than a physical one.
Sale continued to crack in and force stoppages, but was unable to get the ball beyond the Power’s high press.
The Power players were beginning to believe, while the public were being sent into meltdown.
“We were a close confident group and once we had some momentum we knew our set ups would prevail,” Shaw said.
“[Sale] started getting lippy with the umpires and each other and it was at that moment I knew we had them.”
At the 22-minute mark of the final term, Aloyisio Ferriera-Neto found an inch of space in a crowded forward 50 to make it four goals in a row for the Power, and when a Chris Wylie free kick was followed by another neat finish from Jones, it was within four points.
With barely a minute remaining, the rampaging Power won a clearance and worked it to Michael Kelly on the edge of 50. The small forward seemed to mark the ball, but was called to play on, and while he was set upon by Sale defenders, got his kick away and the ball sailed through to put the Power ahead for the first time of the afternoon.
As the ball tumbled toward goal from Kelly’s left foot, almost in slow motion, those in attendance erupted in a collective roar of shock as jaws dropped and hands went on top of heads in utter disbelief.
In a last ditch effort, the Magpies piled forward, but the siren rang a short time later, giving Wonthaggi the unlikeliest of victories, 13.12 (90) to 13.10 (88). The Power had kept Sale score-less and kicked 7.5 (47) in the final quarter to make the grand final.
Emotional scenes followed as Wonthaggi supporters rushed onto the ground to celebrate victory. Power flags were waving in a sea of teal, black and white as players, coaches and supporters embraced in a euphoric scene usually reserved for post grand final celebrations.
“When the final siren sounded I remember hugging random strangers that had found their way onto the ground, it was such a good feeling,” Shaw said.
“Everyone, and I mean everyone was singing the club song.”
Back in the jam-packed rooms, long serving players, committee members and supporters wiped away tears as all present tried to comprehend what had happened.
Winning coach Rob Railton said he couldn’t take any credit for the performance of the players in the fourth quarter.
“You need a lot to go your way and you just try to sell a positive message, there was no magic changes at three quarter time or anything like that, it was all the players,” he said.
“As a coach in that situation there’s not a lot you can do, it was really just the players and great testament to their character to come back the way they did.”
Railton said he felt his side could press home to win just before time on during the frenetic final term.
“It was probably at the 18 minute mark that I started to believe we were a chance, once momentum swings in footy it’s hard to get back and it just evaporated for Sale.”
“The one part I remember vividly is when Jarrod Membrey came off his man to intercept a ball that would have resulted in a Sale score. The ball then went down the other end and we got a goal out of it.
“At that stage I thought ‘that’s what we need, take the game on, don’t just kick over the mark and down the line’.
“After the game I had to keep my coaching hat on, I said well done boys on the win but we still have a grand final to play.”
The result created a new record for a Gippsland League final, with league statistician Paul Carter saying the match returned some interesting numbers.
“It was definitely the best final quarter comeback in a final that I have seen,” he said.
“Sale was intent on defending their lead and consistently kicked across the ground, they had more marks for the term than Wonthaggi but most of them were uncontested.
“Sale’s two inside 50’s for the term barely went more than 10 metres into their 50.”
With such an epic preliminary final staged, the actual grand final became an almost secondary event in the eyes of many.
Shaw said Wonthaggi may well have already played its grand final a week early.
“I think emotionally we were gassed from the preliminary final. The grand final definitely didn’t have the same intensity,” he said.
Morwell won a somewhat non-atmospheric premiership decider by three goals in a dour 8.7 (55) to 5.7 (37) victory.
In the Sale camp, the mood following the outcome was one of absolute devastation.
Sale Football-Netball Club Historian Tassie Deacon said the anguish was a tough pill to swallow, but paid credit to Wonthaggi for playing inspired football on the day.
“2014 does not bring back fond memories that is for sure,” he said.
“Sale had been favourites for the flag and practically wasted a year having finished equal top on the ladder.
“The three-quarter-time lead should have been defendable, but Wonthaggi turned it around from there.”
Shaw was in no doubt as to where the preliminary final win ranked in his career.
“It was definitely the best win I have been apart of,” he said.
“All the boys that played that day are lucky enough to be apart of something special.”
Despite falling short at the last hurdle Raitlon said the Wonthaggi team of 2014 was one he held close to his heart.
“Even though we lost the grand final I’ve got the team photo from the day up on the wall because for me, that team epitomised effort,” he said.
With finals on the horizon, many teams across Gippsland will be mulling over how their campaigns may end up.
The teams that have gone through undefeated will know the weight of expectation will be on their shoulders, whilst those who have crawled into finals will know that anything is possible if a team can get on some sort of roll.
Railton was happy to offer some advice for those entering the play-off stages.
“The scoreboard never dictates effort. When you are 12 goals down at half-time in the mud you stop worrying about it and focus on each contest you have control of,” he said.
“The same applies when you are up by 12 or scores are level.
“It sounds simple but that is what the best teams do.
“Finals are a whole new season, keep the game plan and instructions to a minimum, reinforce how you want to play and what you have been training nine months for.
“It’s not about the x’s and o’s, it’s about how much the team cares for each other.”