Twenty-five years ago this week, finals football came to the Gabba for the first time for the Brisbane Bears. It was phenomenal! A one-point thriller and a 97-point cakewalk eight days later. Two home wins. The smallest and largest margins in a glorious history.
As the Brisbane Lions prepare to meet the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba on Saturday night, it makes for a wonderful journey down memory lane.
Sixteen Gabba finals against nine different opponents for 13 wins and a host of special moments embedded in the psyche of loyal Lions fans.
THE FIRST GABBA FINAL
It all began on Friday night 6 September 1996 when the Brisbane Bears hosted Essendon in a qualifying final. It was 3rd v 6th in a now-forgotten finals system in which the top four sides played the sides that had finished 5th to 8th.
The Bears had gone into Round 22 sitting on top of the ladder but blew the chance to claim their first minor premiership when they lost to Collingwood at Victoria Park in Round 22.
In a thrilling end-to-end contest played in front of a sell-out Gabba crowd of 22,003, Brisbane led by 11 points at quarter-time and trailed by six points at halftime. Two goals late in the third term from Roger Merrett and Alastair Lynch gave them a 10-point edge at the last break.
The fourth quarter was as good as it gets, with a string of prominent names at the forefront. First one side with the upper hand and then the other before a finish that had to be seen to be believed.
Essendon defender Damien Hardwick dropped a chest mark and Justin Leppitch pounced, bouncing it through for full points. Essendon fullback Dustin Fletcher, thrown forward by coach Kevin Sheedy, answered with a long bomb that took an off-break bounce.
Essendon defender Mark Harvey conceded a free kick for deliberate out of hands and Darryl White kicked long to square. Off hands it fell to Leppitsch 3m out. Goal.
Hardwick was unlucky to put the ball out on the full off his toe and Lynch, in his 150th game and his first final, sent a checkside from the boundary through the big sticks. Bears by 26.
But the Bombers weren’t done with yet, as Mark Mercuri pulled off a triple play. First he found Fletcher for a quick reply and then picked out Gavan Wanganeen for another. And finally a 45m snap of his own gave the visitors three goals in five minutes. It was back to 10 points.
The crowd was deafening. Especially when Wanganeen looked to run 25m without bouncing the ball before kicking his third goal of the second half to cut it to four points.
Mercuri had a chance to put Essendon in front from 50m put pushed it right. Wanganeen received from the brilliant Mercuri but couldn’t capitalise. Two points.
Inside the last-minute Essendon full forward Matthew Lloyd kicked long. Ruckman Matthew Clarke pushed back to help Andy Gowers on the edge of the square and together they got the ball to ground. It spilled over the back and Wanganeen, running flat out towards goal, gather and snapped in one motion from 5m. A flying Danny Dickfos, coming from nowhere, tackled the would-be Bombers hero as he kicked. He did just enough. It hit the post.
“Seventeen seconds left … this is the most unbelievable climax to a final we’ve seen for many, many years,” said Ian Robertson on Channel Seven. “Many, many years.”
The siren sounded and Brisbane won 101 to 100.
EIGHT DAYS LATER … THE SECOND GABBA FINAL
From the ridiculous to the sublime. After the heart-stopping finish to the qualifying final, the Bears cruised to a 170 to 73 win over Carlton in the semi-final in front of 21,767 people.
With an unchanged side, they kicked six goals in the first term and were never challenged by a Blues outfit. Not even six goals from captain Stephen Kernahan could spare his club their biggest loss in a finals history.
For the Bears, Alastair Lynch kicked seven goals, Craig McRae five and Darryl White three as Marcus Ashcroft was best afield with 34 possessions and a team-high six tackles.
The sad post-script were injuries to Michael Voss and Jason Akermanis which kept them out of a 38-point preliminary final loss to eventual premiers North Melbourne at the MCG the following week.
But as the merger transformation from Bears to Lions kicked into overdrive, Gabba fans had been given an extraordinary introduction to finals football.
LIONS v DOGS IN A FINAL – VERSION ONE
In 1999 the Lions had finished third on the home-and-away ladder and beaten Carlton by 73 points at the Gabba in a qualifying final. The Western Bulldogs had finished fourth and lost to West Coast by five points at the MCG. So the Dogs headed to the Gabba for a semi-final.
It was Brisbane’s first season under Leigh Matthews after the disastrous wooden-spoon of 1998 and the first time the Lions and the Dogs would meet in a final.
The Lions were traveling beautifully despite having lost Michael Voss to injury in the first final. With Brett Voss replacing his brother and Shane O’Bree making his finals debut at the expense of an omitted Brad Scott, the Lions cruised to a 126 to 73 point win.
It was fierce and it was exciting as an emerging football juggernaut kept rolling along to win lavish praise from Dogs coach Terry Wallace.
“Given dry conditions for the next two weeks and this team is going to take a heck of a lot of beating for the flag. They are certainly the best side we’ve come up against quite comfortably this year,” Wallace said, admitting his troops were powerless to stop the Brisbane onslaught.
They knew what to expect, he said, but simply couldn’t counter it. The Lions, up against one of the teams renowned for its hardness and running power, was just too hard and ran too much. Too good in all departments.
A VERY SPECIAL WIN
Only once in club history have the Lions won a final after losing a final in the same campaign. It was in 2003 when, chasing a premiership hat-trick, they had finished third on the home-and-away ladder and were beaten by second-placed Collingwood in the qualifying final at the MCG in week one of the finals.
The 15-point loss put the champion team in unchartered waters. In 2001 and 2002 they’d gone win-win at the Gabba and straight into the grand final. In 2003 they had to do it the hard way, beginning with a Gabba semi-final against Adelaide.
Michael Voss had all but been ruled out for the rest of the season after a knee injury against Collingwood but ‘Captain Courageous’ dragged himself out of the medical room to inspire an overwhelming win that told the football world the back-to-back premiers were not done with yet
On a sweltering 36 degree Brisbane Day, Voss started the game on an exercise bike on the interchange bench. But after joining the contest 20 minutes in he played a key role in a 42-point home triumph in front of a deafening crowd of 32,432.
Almost as if they’d been toying with the Crows, the Lions went on a seven-goal rampage in the final quarter to win 124 to 82.
There was still plenty to do and no more games at the Gabba. And Marcus Ashcroft had suffered a knee problem that would keep him out of a preliminary against Sydney at Stadium Australia. But the true character of the side had shown itself, and history was just around the corner.
AND A SWEET RECENT MEMORY …
It was a night no Lions fan could forget. Brisbane took on the reigning Premiers, Richmond, in a Qualifying Final at the Gabba.
It was the Lions’ first finals win since 2009 and the first finals win for the bulk of the current side. Also, it was the club’s first win over the Tigers since Round 7 2009 and completed the ‘kill list’ for coach Fagan, who finally had beaten each opposition side.
Bruce McAvaney called it 'the game of the year' and it was a pressure-packed clinker, giving the young and developing side a lot of confidence after they’d exited from the 2019 finals in straight sets.
Harris Andrews and Jarrod Berry returned from injury to replace Cam Ellis-Yolmen and Jack Payne, with Kaidean Coleman holding his place from the final round of the home & away season to play his first final in just his fifth game – equal second-quickest in club history behind Richard Hadley and level with Nick Trask.
Ryan Lester got his long-awaited first taste of finals football in his 140th game while Brandon Starcevich and Callum AhChee also made their finals debut and Grant Birchall played his first Brisbane final.
The Lions got the perfect start when Daniel Rich, lurking nearby, took a handpass from Hugh McCluggage who was just outside his range. The 2021 All-Australian goaled from 60m inside the first minute.
It went goal for goal until the Lions got three majors in a row late in the second quarter. First Cam Rayner bounced through a bomb from 60m, then Charlie Cameron hit the mark with a brilliant snap on a tight angle after a clever tap from Oscar McInerney, and finally Lachie Neale banged home a brilliant 55m set shot after two 50m penalties against Shai Bolton and Marlion Pickett right on halftime.
A 13-point Brisbane lead at halftime became 21 points at three-quarter time but the Tigers were always going to come. And come they did. First Daniel Rioli goaled and then Bolton snapped what was initially called a miracle dribble goal from the pocket before replays showed it clipped the post padding.
But still they came. Jack Riewoldt cut it to eight points before a long Eric Hipwood behind for Brisbane was followed by a brilliant McCluggage snap goal inside the last five minutes to clinch it.
Jarryd Lyons was the home side’s leading possession-winner with 24 and was outstanding all night in what he described as the hardest game of his life.
Cameron’s three goals were critical and his forward pressure likewise. And after not touching it in the first quarter, Neale was superb afterward. Andrews, too, was outstanding in defense and McCluggage, Rich and Dayne Zorko likewise around the middle of the ground.
Eleven months on, the Lions are coming off a disappointing loss to Melbourne last week and are looking to repeat the efforts of the 2003 side and turn around a finals campaign that started with a loss.