Players who pulled out their most inspirational performances when it really mattered – in the finals

Shane Ellen's forward press

In the lead-up to the 1997 AFL grand final, success-starved St Kilda shaped as both sentimental and bookmakers' favourites to finally add to the lone premiership success they had tasted in 1966. The Saints had finished the season as minor premiers, though their record of 15 wins and seven defeats was only marginally better than that of the Crows, who finished fourth on 13-9 in their first home-and-away season under Malcolm Blight.

The Crows went into the game without injured All-Australian on-baller Mark Ricciuto and their hopes seemed further dashed when they lost high-flying full-forward Tony Modra to a torn ACL in their heart-stopping preliminary final win against the Bulldogs. In response Blight made a coaching move that seemed almost perverse, starting the unassuming journeyman defender Shane Ellen at full-forward. Raised in Melton on Melbourne's outskirts, Ellen had never lined up at full-forward in any form of football in his life, least of all in front of a packed house at the MCG.

Ellen told Inside Football that on the Monday of grand final week he got the word from Blight that he'd be starting in the goal square on football's biggest day. "As soon as Malcolm told me on the Monday night, I went out on the ground and started working on my goal kicking. I went up to Tony Modra and asked him about playing at full-forward. He was in his wheelchair and I said, 'Got any tips for me?' and he said, 'Not really, just go for it'."

The Saints could barely have anticipated this recast forward line and it showed in the early stages as Ellen, who had managed only three goals in an almost anonymous 37 games with Footscray and the Crows, kicked two in the first half as Adelaide stuck with the more fancied Saints. Sent back to the more familiar environs of the Crows' defence in the second half, Ellen would dash down-field to boot another three majors and finish with one of the more remarkable and unlikely five-goal hauls in grand final history. Inspired by these and six more from the mercurial Darren Jarmen, the Crows ran over the Saints in the second half to take their first premiership and solidify Blight's reputation as a coaching guru.

Ellen was as surprised as anyone, telling reporters, "Going into the game I thought that if I kicked three or four goals, it would be a pretty good effort from me. When I took that mark and had my first shot for goal I was pretty confident. I knew all eyes were on me and I knew I better not stuff up."
Ellen played a solid defensive role in Adelaide's back-to-back premiership the next year, but kicked only eight more goals in his 65-game career. Adelaide fans will never forget him.

The Jak attack

Having drawn the attention of Melbourne's recruiters with a 100-goal season for Woodville in the SANFL, the burly, mulleted Allen Jakovich burst onto the AFL scene late in 1991. Having twice been dropped early in the year, Jakovich dominated the reserves competition before returning to the seniors and embarking on a remarkable spree, kicking 49 majors in just seven games.

Jakovich's emergence prompted Herald Sun football scribe John McDonald to note: "Players like Allen Jakovich come along only rarely. But when they do, the football world sits up and takes notice." This was unquestionably the case by half-time of the Demons' round 20 clash with North Melbourne, when the brash spearhead had kicked all six of Melbourne's goals on his way to the remarkable personal tally of 11 goals and eight behinds, including his famous "scissor kick". Not entirely satisfied with his showing, Jakovich was fined $750 for a verbal stoush with umpire Peter Cameron before adding, "It's always better when you win, but I should have kicked a few more."

In the first elimination final against Essendon that year Jakovich, playing his 13th league game in the No 13 guernsey, would defy all numerical superstition to kick eight more majors and lead his team to a 38-point win at Waverley Park. It was an effort all the more remarkable for the fact that he was blanketed for much of the first half by Dons defender Shane Heard and barely fired a shot, managing only a single goal as the Bombers led by 20 points at the main break.

In the second half Jakovich was unstoppable. Football writer Greg Hobbs thought he'd, "[taken on] the cheeky authority of a player who had been in the AFL for years – not a newcomer taking part in only his 13th game". He'd kick seven second-half goals as Melbourne romped home and set up a semi-final clash with West Coast the following week. Jakovich's games tally of 14 that season was the highest of any year of his six-season career. Having reached his 100th career goal at the same rate as John Coleman, he was gone from the game altogether not long after his 200th, leaving behind a highlights reel that still leaves eyes agog.

Stewart Dew's weighty performance

A star of Port Adelaide's 2004 premiership campaign, Stuart Dew was enjoying the benefits of retirement to the full extent when Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson came knocking on his door in the lead-up to the 2008 season. Having sat out the entire 2007 season, Dew needed to shed 20kg to get into playing shape, having been speculatively taken by the Hawks with pick No 45 of the national draft. It would prove a masterstroke for their Premiership aspirations.

Throughout the 2008 home-and-away season Dew struggled to put games together as persistent hamstring injuries kept him out of 10 games. Knowing his history of high calibre September performances, Clarkson seemed happy to take a long-term view that the gamble on the stocky utility would finally pay off at finals time. Willing himself into relative form and fitness in time for that year's grand final against a buoyant Geelong, Dew shaped as a pinch-hitting x-factor off the bench for the Hawks.

As ever in the heat of a grand final, that plan went out the window by the time Hawks key defender Trent Croad hobbled from the ground with a broken foot in the second quarter. Sore and sorry himself, but with his team short-staffed, Dew would need to take his break up forward rather than on the pine. On this occasion a crisis was the catalyst for an unlikely, scene-stealing six-minute patch in which Dew threw himself into the action and almost single-handedly changed the tone of the game.

Kicking two goals of his own, creating another for Hawk sharp-shooter Mark Williams, Dew's burst of energy and drive were instrumental in establishing a five-goal lead that was enough for Hawthorn to hang on for their 10th Premiership.

Ted Hopkins waltzes in and out of football history

Though also a poet, radio presenter, businessman and AFL statistics pioneer, Edward "Ted" Hopkins is still best known as the Moe-bred footballer who played a central role in the most dramatic and memorable grand final of all, Carlton's 1970 triumph over arch-rivals Collingwood.

Starting on the bench in front of 121,696 rabid supporters, Hopkins saw his Blues slide to a 44 point half-time deficit before coach Ron Barassi called his name to replace the struggling Bert Thornley during the main break. Barassi's move was against the wishes of Carlton selector Jack Wrout, but he would later explain to football writer Martin Flanagan that Thornley had experienced "a horror day".

Within the first few minutes of play in the third term Hopkins had two goals to his name and Carlton felt some sense of hope, though they were still 17 points in arrears as the final quarter began. Barassi had implored his players to play on and handball at every opportunity and Hopkins found himself in the thick of the action early in the final quarter, though his snap at goal hit the post. With Len Thompson stretching the Pies' lead to 21 points soon after, it was hard to tell whether Carlton's resistance had been killed off.

With two goals to Blues big man John Nicholls, the lead was soon cut to eight points. Hopkins slotted his fourth soon after, having received a handball from Syd Jackson. With the Pies now leading by only a point, goals to Brent Crosswell and Alex Jesaulenko secured a miracle 10-point win for the Blues, who were jubilant at the remarkable heist Barassi had orchestrated.
Hopkins has always downplayed his role in the famous win, claiming in his recent book, The Stats Revolution, "I did kick four goals in that second half but that was just part of it … On that day, I tasted something quite profound."

A statistical analysis by Howard Kotton found that of Hopkins's 20 appearances for the Blues that season, he had started on the bench on 12 occasions, while six of his 10 goals for the year came in finals appearances.

Amazingly, Hopkins would play only one more league game, again coming off the bench in Carlton's opening game of the 1971 season. Deciding that football was getting in the way of his stronger ambitions to become a publisher and writer, Hopkins walked away after 29 games and one of the most remarkable grand final cameos in football history.

Garry Lyon's perfect 10

Though he's now a ubiquitous sight in the football media and a sometime powerbroker at his beloved Dees, you could probably make the argument that even given his decorations, Garry Lyon's playing career remains somewhat underrated outside Demonland. So often cruelled by injuries during his 226-game career, the versatile Lyon was indisputably at his best during Melbourne's 1994 semi-final trouncing of Footscray in 1994.

During the 1994 season Lyon had found himself spending more time closer to goal in a multi-pronged forward line that featured centre-half-forward David Schwarz and the mercurial Sean Charles. The Dees skipper netted a career-best 79 goals for the season. It was a campaign that fell in the middle of Lyon's playing purple-patch, a three-year stretch in which he won All-Australian honours each year in addition to a club best-and-fairest award and regular selection for Victoria.

Against the Bulldogs in September that year he was unstoppable. Having seen off Danny Southern, Keenan Reynolds, Steve Kretiuk and Brad Nicholson, Lyon did as he pleased on the MCG. Pulling in 11 marks and kicking 10 goals, four behinds, Lyon went close to eclipsing a host of finals records. The feat was even more remarkable for the fact that Melbourne coach Neil Balme took a cautious approach to a niggling injury to the star forward's ankle and made him sit out the final quarter.

Inside Football's Andy Maher concluded, "It was just a joy to sit there and watch him weave his spell over the flummoxed Bulldogs defence." With Todd Viney, Andy Lovell and the Lovett brothers feeding Lyon's precision leads and Footscray's star Chris Grant taken out of the game by a heavy first-half bump from David Neitz, the Dogs didn't stand a chance. It was arguably the greatest solo performance of Lyon's career but his three goals in the following week's preliminary final against West Coast at the WACA were not enough to stop Melbourne being unceremoniously dumped from the Premiership race.

Danny Del-Re kicks himself into the record books

Growing up in the north-western suburbs of Melbourne, Danny Del-Re was an avid Footscray supporter who had dreams of pulling on a Bulldogs jumper. Del-Re recently told AFL Media, "I used to go home and have a kick with Dad in the backyard and just used to imitate Dougie Hawkins." Making his way down to the Whitten Oval to turn out with the Bulldogs under 19s, Del-Re soon found himself back in the VFA playing for a Terry Wheeler-led Williamstown. After three years of stout defensive work, Del-Re would follow Wheeler back to Footscray when the latter was appointed senior coach for the 1990 season.

Reinvigorated as a straight-shooting key forward, Del-Re came out of nowhere in 1992 to boot 70 goals as his Bulldogs tasted finals action. By half-time of the 1992 qualifying final against Geelong, the late-bloomer had six goals to his name, his Bulldogs an unlikely 16-point lead and "everything was going great". At one stage, the spearhead ran rampant with three goals in the space of four minutes, cutting Geelong's defence to shreds. Reality soon came crashing into view during the third term. Geelong scored 15 goals to three in the second half, pummeling the hapless Dogs to the tune of 61 points.

Del-Re ended up with eight goals from his nine disposals, a record for any Bulldogs player in a final. In an era of shoot-outs between a cavalcade of legendary forwards, Bill Brownless poured on nine of his own at the other end to snuff out the Bulldogs' chances. Another five goals in the Bulldogs' semi-final triumph over St Kilda the following week was as good as it got for Del-Re. Upon Wheeler's departure at the end of the 1993 season, he fell out of favour with his replacement Alan Joyce. Having failed to rekindle his league career with 97 goals for South Adelaide in 1995, Del-Re finished with 139 goals from his 62-game AFL career, but his status as a cult hero in the west was assured.


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