The match was perfectly set up.
St Kilda led Geelong by four points, only a minute remained on the clock and, most importantly, a preliminary final spot was up for grabs.
Someone had the opportunity to carve his name into the memories of football fans forever.
Enter one of Geelong’s favourite sons: Cameron Ling.
The Cats’ skipper – who had restricted star utility Brendon Goddard to just six possessions in the second half – pounced on a loose ball 30 metres out from his own goal after teammate Cameron Mooney tackled St Kilda’s James Gwilt to force a loose ball.
Ling broke away from a desperate Saints defence and chipped a beautifully executed kick towards an open goal square.
More than 63,000 people held their breath and watched in slow motion as the number 45’s left-foot kick dribbled through for the matchwinning goal.
The crowd’s roar was deafening as Ling flung his arms high into the air in pure elation and teammates Steve Johnson and Shannon Byrnes passionately embraced him.
Goddard and Zac Dawson cursed, realising a massive dent had just been hammered into their team’s premiership aspirations.
You couldn’t have asked for a better script to end such a topsy-turvy match. Harold Pinter would’ve been proud.
But from pure euphoria came the ultimate devastation for the Cats.
Umpire Matt Stevic courageously stepped onto stage and paid a free kick that broke the hearts of the Geelong players and supporters.
He deemed that Mooney’s earlier tackle on Gwilt was illegal – a push in the back to be technical.
Ling’s goal was therefore disallowed, the Saints received possession of the ball and forced numerous stoppages for the next sixty seconds.
Game over. St Kilda wins 83-79.
Was it a free kick? Replays suggest it was there.
While the decision was ‘soft’ in many people’s eyes, Mooney clearly pushes Gwilt in the back during the tackle and umpires have been paying those all year.
But in the context of the game? Possibly not.
All three field umpires adapted superbly to the torrential conditions in the last quarter, paying a total of only nine free kicks and allowing plenty of leeway for players to make mistakes. However on this occasion, little flexibility was shown.
Full credit to Stevic though, because no matter what you thought of his interpretation, he had the guts to make such a mammoth decision when the game was still anyone’s for the taking.
Very few umpires would’ve done what he did.
Cats players, coaches and supporters will forever remember Stevic’s decision as the one that – in the word’s of Mooney in the heat of battle – ‘cost us the game’. But the match-defining call wasn’t the reason the team lost that game.
Geelong allowed the Saints to get out to a 33-point lead at the start of the third quarter – an especially difficult lead to chase down when you factor in the conditions. St Kilda’s three most damaging forwards – Stephen Milne, Justin Koschitzke and captain Nick Riewoldt – were irrepressible early, forcing the normally calm and composed Geelong backline to panic.
The Cats’ most reliable kick, Josh Hunt, made crucial disposal errors and his 100kg frame was frequently out bodied by Milne, a man who weighs in at 85kg. It’s fair to say it wasn’t Hunt’s best night.
But like the champions that they are, the Cats fought hard and found a way to get back into the contest.
Jimmy Bartel was at his best in the wet weather, finishing with 32 possessions, eight marks and eight clearances. Joel Selwood also lifted his workrate after half time and defenders Darren Milburn and Matthew Scarlett found freedom off the half-back line doing as they pleased.
As the game progressed, St Kilda tired and almost surrendered to their opposition. Their scoring dried up and the only way they were going to win the match was by defending. And defend they did.
Geelong had 17 of the first 18 inside 50s for the final term and was clearly in control of the game. But in an eerily similar display to their second quarter against Hawthorn in the 2008 Grand Final, the Cats failed to convert those entries into goals.
It was as if those 08 ghosts had returned as Mooney, Ling, Andrew Mackie, Mathew Stokes, Travis Varcoe and Selwood all missed vital shots at goal.
It took a miraculous kick from Paul Chapman – who played the match hampered by a shoulder injury – to steady the Geelong ship and reduce the margin to within a kick.
Ling looked to have broken the goal drought, but it wasn’t to be.
Yes, Stevic’s decision broke the Geelong faithfuls’ heart. But the Cats have no one else to blame but themselves and now face an uphill battle if they want to win a third flag in four years.
Ben Waterworth is a regular contributor to upstart and a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can read more of his work at his blog, A Short Sport Thought. For Ben’s AFL Finals Week predictions click here.