Connolly: My 50th AFL Grand Final has me feeling quite nostalgic

GRAND FINAL DAY will be a big enough occasion for the players of Geelong and Sydney, and perhaps even a little more special for the Cats' Zach Tuohy, playing his 250th game.

But if you'll excuse the self-indulgence, I'm a little bit miffed nobody is making a banner for me to run through as well, to be honest. Why? Because this is also an important milestone for yours truly.

Saturday's premiership decider will be the 50th VFL/AFL Grand Final I have attended, and after having been stranded helplessly on 49 for the past two COVID-afflicted seasons when the big game was played in Brisbane, then Perth, I'm champing at the bit.

I attended my first Grand Final in 1973, aged eight. And up until 2020, I'd been to every one since (including two replays in 1977 and 2010). The first 13 were purely as a fanatical footy fan, the last 36 as both a professional observer and, yes, still a fanatical footy fan.

Yes, I've been incredibly fortunate, Grand Final tickets these days like the proverbial golden ticket in Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".

Such is the mad scramble for tickets now, people often refuse to believe how I used to acquire them as a child. Back then, daily newspapers would publish a coupon advertising finals series tickets (including the Grand Final), to be filled in and entered into a public ballot. Every year, we'd fill it in, send it off in the post, and bingo, we'd get our tickets!

In 10 years of entering the lucky draw, not once did we miss out, our worst result on a few occasions merely having to settle for standing room instead of seats. That meant having to arrive at the MCG at around 9am on Grand Final morning to get any decent sort of view. But it was more than worth it. The under 19s decider used to kick off around the, followed by the reserves, with the main event at 2:30 p.m.

It also meant that in 1982, the standing room spot occupied by me and my equally immature 17-year-old mates had us directly facing the naked frame of Helen D'Amico as she streaked across the MCG turf towards Grand Final immortality. Thank you VFL!

That wasn't my only fortuitous placement on Grand Final day, however. Nearly 50 years later, I can still clearly picture two vivid images from my first one in 1973.

I don't need a replay to recall exactly the sight, and sound, of Richmond's Lawrie Fowler collecting Carlton captain-coach John Nicholls with a huge shirtfront very early in the game, nor the moment in the second term when Neil Balme flattened Geoff Southby not 30 metres away from us.

In 1979, my then brother-in-law and I had seats at the front of the top deck of the Ponsford Stand, directly above the famous and still-controversial Wayne Harmes boundary-line knock to the goalsquare for what proved to be Carlton's match-winning goal against arch-rival Collingwood.

Was the ball in or out? For what it's worth, having had that view, I've always thought the ball was in.

But that afternoon had already contained its share of drama. With seats reserved and plenty of rain around, my brother-in-law and I had sauntered around Brunton Avenue to our seats only half-an-hour before game time.

As we walked that space between the ground and the Jolimont railyards, we stopped, stunned, when a parachutist who'd miscalculated his drop into the centre square during the pre-game entertainment came literally flying over the top of us and into those railyards, his chute very fortunately acting as a kind of brake, tangled up in the lines as he dangled helplessly beneath.

Incredibly, the parachutist wasn't seriously injured, a fact I confirmed a couple of years ago after digging up a small newspaper report on the incident.

My sign-off from the days of watching the Grand Final from the outer came, appropriately, in 1984, the day my team Essendon finally broke a 19-year premiership drought with a then-record 9.6 (60) final term, a quarter of football I have watched so often I can literally (perhaps sadly) actually recite every single passage of play.

I have some unlikely mementos of September 29, 1984. Such as the "Footy Record" in which, like every week (and still now), I had meticulously and neatly scored the game, marking each individual goal and point.

I prided myself on my neatness of stroke. But there's one major exception. It's the one I recorded when Merv Neagle kicked the final and clearly decisive goal of that game to give Essendon a 24-point lead. That one is a barely decipherable scrawl.

I also discovered a piece of red crepe paper lodged within those middle pages. And yes, it's still there. Why not? It's a historical artefact.

Every Grand Final since that memorable day (except 2017, when I "rode" the boundary for radio station 1116 SEN) has been spent in the press box. The original version at the MCG. A couple of temporary numbers in 2004-05 as the new stands were being built. And the new, comparatively lush media centre of today.

So, a little more decorum has been in order, right? Well, (he sheepishly conceded) not always.

In 1997, as St Kilda's hopes of a second premiership were about to be thwarted by a rampaging Darren Jarman and, after Adelaide was awarded a dubious free kick, I dropped the "magic" word with a force which managed to escape out the open press box window and at least a dozen rows beyond, causing my near ejection.

I dropped it too loudly again in 2006, when, voting for a second time on the Norm Smith Medal, West Coast leading Sydney by just one point, and deep in time-on, I was hassled for my voting slip. I won that battle, refusing to hand it over until the siren had rung. Andrew Embley, you owe me.

I dropped it several times over in those frantic final few moments of the 2010 draw between Collingwood and St Kilda, arguably the only person in the whole media contingent actively barracking for the draw, just so we could come back and do it again.

And I dropped it yet again, more in wonder than anger, in that match-winning moment of still the best Grand Final I have witnessed in the flesh, 2012, when Sydney's Nick Malceski's speculative snap sailed up and up and barely over the goal line to give the Swans an unassailable 10-point lead against Hawthorn.

I've since vowed to keep things on a bit more of an even keel. But it's not easy. Just being at a Grand Final is such a special experience. And once again, after that unscheduled hiatus, I'll get to enjoy the walk from Richmond Station through Yarra Park, with thousands of others, buzzing with anticipation, soaking up the atmosphere, the colour, the obvious tension on the faces of competing club supporters, all the vibes that go with a day that identifies my home town Melbourne more than any other.

OK, so a banner might be a bit of a stretch. But maybe look out for the guy who, on passing through the turnstiles, turns and raises his pass to a mystified crowd of onlookers. That'll probably be me.