Life’s all about change, and Youi’s the insurer for all the changes – big and small – that happen to you. That’s why the Brisbane Lions and Youi have teamed-up for the ‘Moments of Change’ series, where each week they’ll look back at some of the defining moments that have shaped the club you know today.

At precisely 2.17pm on Saturday 29 September 2001 the door opened on the visiting team’s dressing rooms deep in the bowels of the MCG. A thunderous roar speared up the players’ race and into what had been a place of quiet and calm as the Brisbane Lions waited anxiously. Finally it was time.

The Club had long waited for this moment. Through 10 years as the Brisbane Bears and the challenging beginnings at Carrara and the failed private ownerships of Christopher Skase and Reuben Pelerman. Through not one but two virtual ‘deaths’ before the move to the Gabba and an historic merger with Fitzroy that gave birth to the Brisbane Lions, it had all been about this. AFL Grand Final Day.

For the Fitzroy faithful, it had been 57 years since they'd been to the competition's grandest stage.

Wooden-spooners in 1991-92-98 and for so long the laughing stock of the competition, the Bears turned Lions were to face traditional power club Essendon, who 12 months earlier had claimed their 16th flag. The Lions were clear underdogs but there was an air of confidence in the camp. They’d won 15 games in a row just to get to the grand final. And they had up their sleeve a secret weapon.

In the wake of the intravenous drip saga, in which 17 days earlier the club had been banned from using a perfectly legal process to rehydrate players with a saline solution at halftime, the club had found an alternative on what by Melbourne standards was a hot 28 degrees.

Unable to gain vehicular access for a portable cool room they might ordinarily have hired, they converted an existing sauna in the Melbourne dressing rooms on the member’s side of the MCG into a cool room. And it was in there that players would spend much of the halftime break, lowering their core body temperature and readying themselves for the hot battle to follow. It was all in and done long before the players even arrived at the ground.

Throughout the week the Lions players had been told repeatedly “it’s only another game”. But it wasn’t. It was a grand final. Media attention like never before, thousands of people at training in Brisbane on Wednesday night and a charter flight to Melbourne on the Thursday. More than 100,000 people on the streets of Melbourne for the Grand Final Parade on Friday morning before 8000-plus at final training.

The on-ground warm-up, usually 40 minutes before the first bounce, was done 90 minutes out to accommodate the pre-match entertainment spectacular, which included Jon Stevens and INXS , Vanessa Amorosi, Men at Work, Julie Anthony and more.

But the players said this was a good thing. It was more of a walk and a look see. An early change to sample the atmosphere and settle the nerves before the warm-up proper was done inside the rooms.

In a pure football sense, the Lions’ preparation had been faultless. Alastair Lynch, who missed the preliminary final through suspension, replaced Matthew Kennedy in the only change to the team. No injury concerns. Ready to go.

In stark contrast, Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy had his problems. Retiring champion Michael Long had limped off the training track on the Thursday with a reported hamstring. This prompted suggestions that if Long didn’t come up Sheedy would play another retiring veteran Dean Wallis.

Wallis’ only game for the season had been in Round 4 but he’d been named to play in the preliminary final before being a late withdrawal. Was it real? Or was it only ever a Sheedy ploy?

There were also reported concerns about the fitness of captain James Hird, who hadn’t finished the preliminary due to a quad issue, plus Mark Mercuri and Dustin Fletcher, but the popular view among seasoned media types was that this was just Sheedy being Sheedy. He was bunkering down and preparing to go to war, they said.

As it turned out, Long didn’t come up and Wallis didn’t come in. Matthew Lloyd, who had missed the preliminary final through suspension, returned, while Gary Moorcroft, who hadn’t played since Round 19, replaced youngster Mark Bolton (omitted).

Even before the first bounce coach Matthews had pulled a surprise. He started regular fullback Mal Michael on the bench, ready to play on Essendon ruckman Steve Alessio whenever he went forward, with Justin Leppitsch picking up Lloyd at fullback and Chris Scott at centre half back on Scott Lucas. Brad Scott started beside his brother, renewing acquaintances with Hird after he’d shut him down earlier in the season.

In key match-ups at the other end, Dustin Fletcher took Alastair Lynch, Danny Jacobs picked up Daniel Bradshaw and Dean Solomon went to a 19-year-old Jonathan Brown, the youngest player in the grand final.

The Lions team as they started was:-

B: Chris Johnson, Justin Leppitsch, Darryl White
HB: Marcus Ashcroft, Chris Scott, Brad Scott
C: Martin Pike, Michael Voss, Robbie Copeland
HF: Shaun Hart, Jonathan Brown, Jason Akermanis
F: Luke Power, Alastair Lynch, Daniel Bradshaw
R: Clark Keating, Nigel Lappin, Simon Black
INT: Mal Michael, Beau McDonald, Craig McRae, Tim Notting.

Michael Voss won the toss and kicked to the City or Jolimont end. The main scoreboard end. The pressure and intensity was up a notch on anything they’d experienced before. It was extraordinary. From both sides. A physical commitment to the contest which was almost dangerous.

Final statistics would show there were more dead-ball situations than in any game that year. Much more. So much so that a Lions team which had averaged 313 possessions per game through the first 24 games of 2001 tallied just 254 in the game that decided their fate. Their lowest tally of the year. It was a battle of wills.

Six minutes in Alastair Lynch was tackled high. Free kick. From 25m straight in front he got things rolling. Luke Power slotted the second and after Essendon replied a brilliant Jason Akermanis left-foot snap saw the visitors up 3-7 to 3-2 at quarter time. They’d been dominant but wayward.

Yet 32 minutes into the second term they trailed by 20 points. It was 4-10 to 8-6. In the shadows of halftime Lynch accepted a sublime right-foot pass from left-footer Simon Black and kicked his second goal. It was critical and cut the margin to 14. It was 5-10 to 8-6.

There was an obvious calm and confidence in the Lions rooms at halftime despite the deficit. They’d survived a 60-minute initiation of the toughest that football had to offer and survived. They were close enough if they were good enough. They’d been good enough 15 times in a row, and they still had their ‘secret weapon’.

A group of players, mainly the midfielders, spent much of the halftime break in the cool room. Some longer than others but all doing what they could to lower their core temperature on a hot day in the hope of going out as fresh as could be for the second half.

Did it help? Who knows? But it was part of Matthews’ plan to do everything possible he could to allow his team to be the best they possibly could. And if players even thought it helped then it was a good thing. It certainly didn’t hurt.

Coach Matthews made some ultra-critical moves at halftime designed to quell the influence of Lucas up forward for Essendon and generate some extra strike power at the opposite end for his own side.

Lucas had been arguably best afield in the first half. So Leppitsch, who had done a sterling job at fullback in keeping Lloyd to six possessions, one mark and two goals, was moved out to centre half back onto Lucas. And Michael, who limited ground time in the first half while assigned to Alessio when he rested forward, took Lloyd.

Not for the first time in his career under Matthews, Chris Scott was swung forward to replace Bradshaw, who had limped off late in the second term. And Tim Notting was unleashed on the wing.

Notting had started 23 games in a row prior to the grand final before found himself starting on the bench in the grand final. There he had stayed until 11 minutes before halftime. It would turn out to be a genius move.

Six minutes after the resumption Marcus Ashcroft had two running bounces and speared a 50m long bomb through the big sticks. It was just the start. The Lions grew in confidence with every minute, and as the game started to open up they all started to run. And run and run and run.

From the 32-minute mark of the second quarter, when Lynch slotted his important team-lifter just before halftime, until the 23-minute mark of the fourth quarter Brisbane kicked 11-8 to Essendon’s 2-4. They led by 16 points at the final change.

But the champions were not about to surrender without a fight. They pulled to within 10 points eight minutes into the final quarter. Then the challengers responded. Notting, whose fresh legs were proving crucial, goaled on the run after Shaun Hart had won a key hard possession.

And then, 16 minutes into the final stanza, the defining moment. Beau McDonald took the ball from a boundary throw-in and twisted his way past two opponents. It was his only possession of the grand final. He gave a deft handpass to Voss who ran to the boundary line.

The skipper unloaded with a mongrel punt. A floating, inside-out torpedo that somehow split the big sticks. Not pretty but effective. Brisbane by 26 points.

Theoretically there was still time but Voss’ one-fingered salute, such a trademark moment 21 years on, said it all. The Bombers had fired their last bullets. Brisbane were finishing full of run. The margin got out to 39 points. And it could have been more had the celebrations not started.

Essendon kicked two late ones to cut it to 26 points before, at 5.13pm, Lynch lived every young footballer’s dream. He had the ball in his hands as the siren sounded. Triumphantly he thrust it skywards as celebrations broke out around him.

The Lions triumphed 15-18 (108) to 12-10 (82). The journey was complete. They had done what fledgling newcomers Port Adelaide and Fremantle had never done. What six clubs had not done for much longer - Sydney, formerly South Melbourne, since 1933, the Western Bulldogs, formerly Footscray, since 1954, Geelong since 1963, Melbourne since 1964, St.Kilda since 1966 and Richmond since 1980.

And what Fitzroy, one half of the Lions heritage via the merger of 1997, hadn’t done since 1944. It was especially sweet for the long-suffering fans of the ‘old’ Lions who had jumped on the bandwagon with the ‘new’ Lions.

For the first time in 105 years of a competition which had begun with eight teams in 1897 and grown into the envy of other Australian sports the premiership had gone to a so-called developing state. To Queensland or New South Wales, regions that thrived not on the fanaticism of kicks, marks and handballs but on the rival rugby codes. Where AFL football had to win an identity before it could contemplate winning a flag.

The Lions had achieved football’s Mission Impossible. And against an Essendon combination which 12 months earlier had been branded the “best side ever” when they beat Melbourne by 60 points in the 2000 grand final. 

A live national television audience of 2.6million people had seen the code’s greatest hour in Queensland, surpassing for the first time the prime time audience that would tune into the National Rugby League grand final the following day. An average audience of 460,800 in south-east Queensland swelled to 670,600 at 5.15pm as Michael Voss held the premiership cup aloft. AFL football had arrived in Queensland.

It was the biggest moment of change in club history.

But there was more to come, beginning with a career moment for Shaun Hart.

In 204 games before the grand final Hart had polled best-afield votes in the Brownlow Medal four times. Once in 1997, once in 1998 and twice in 1999. He’d polled a total of 24 votes or 0.12 votes per game. More the type who just did his job rather than the flashy tape who caught the umpires’ eye, he was at long odds to win the Norm Smith Medal – 60-1 to be precise. Yet win it he did.

A player who four days earlier had told how he’d only been recognized publicly twice in his first six years of AFL football suddenly became a world-wide figure. Watched by an estimated global television audience of 350 million, he enjoyed a rare moment in the spotlight. And, just as he played his football, true to his teammates, he was true to himself and his beliefs.

“I want to thank my Lord and saviour Jesus Christ,” said the proud Born-Again Christian as he began his acceptance speech. “And I want to thank my beautiful wife Linda and my two beautiful boys, Jessy and Ricky.”

There were a multitude of family members among the Lions travel party to Melbourne, but Hart’s wife and children were not among them. Because, in consultation with his wife, he’d made a decision that it was best if they stayed home. Not that he wouldn’t dearly have loved them to be there. Especially after the Lions’ win and his extraordinary personal triumph. But such was his total professionalism that he decided he didn’t want anything that could possibly be a distraction.

That sacrifice, bigger than anyone could realize unless they’d been asked to make it, epitomized the man who wore jumper #32. Little wonder Matthews had described him as the Lions’ hardest-working and most selfless player. The ultimate team player and just a wonderful human being.

So Linda, a English woman who had led Hart down the path of Christianity almost a decade earlier, watched with the boys on television from their Bonogin home on the Gold Coast hinterland. A loving and loyal supporter behind the scenes. As proud as anyone could be of her husband. Rightfully so.

Hart, born in the family kitchen in Ferntree Gully, an outer suburb 32km east-south-east of Melbourne, but raised in Shepparton, was rewarded for an equal game-high 23 possessions and an enormous four-quarter work-rate in the grand final. He polled nine votes in a medal count in which the Lions received all 24 votes from four judges operating on a 3-2-1 basis. Nigel Lappin (5), Jonathan Brown (3), Chris Johnson (3), Michael Voss (2) and Justin Leppitsch (2) collected the rest.

It wasn’t just Hart’s 14 kicks and nine handballs but his intelligent knock-ons, his tackles and his centre breaks that made him such a crucial contributor. And his willingness to put his small frame on the line for the good of the team. A total inspiration.

Early in the game he set the standard when he charged head-first at Essendon captain James Hird for a loose ball. As they collided heavily, with hard-hitting Bomber Damien Hardwick also in the mix, Hart’s helmet went cart-wheeling through the air. He picked it up, shook his himself off and went again.

He did it time and again. But never more importantly than 10 minutes into the final quarter when, with just 10 points between the sides, he again put his body on the line to effect a spoil and win a free kick that resulted in a match-breaking goal for teammate Notting. The first of four in a row to the Lions that put the issue beyond doubt.

There was a certain irony about Hart’s grand final heroics. A certain sense of justification. For 10 years earlier he’d been a member of the Bears’ 1991 reserves premiership side but had celebrated on crutches, having broken his foot early in the game. And 27 weeks earlier he’d missed the Ansett Cup grand final against Port Adelaide with a foot injury.

Seven times placed in the top 10 in the club championship, a wonderful servant over 12 years after arriving at Carrara as an 18-year-old schoolboy taken at No.33 in the 1989 National Draft, he deserved more. And he got it on the biggest and best stage of all.

There wasn’t a Brisbane player who begrudged Hart his medal. Least of all the player who was second in medal voting. Lappin, who according to Matthews sat alongside Hart for unselfishness, was at his silky best. He had 20 possessions and two goals and was another crucial contributor.

Voss, like Hart, had 23 possessions to go with his team-high five clearances and his match-clinching goal early in the final quarter. He was at his inspirational best, and several sensational left-hand handballs had the crowd gasping. Superb. The hard-working Brown, with two pressure goals to supplement his 16 possessions, played far above his tender years, and Johnson, with 18 possessions, overcame a nervous start to provide enormous dash from defence. And Leppitsch, after a season destroyed by repeat hamstring problems, was simply unpassable in a key defensive role.

And that wasn’t to mention a bunch of others who wouldn’t have been out of place among the votes. Brad Scott for his sensational job holding Hird to 10 possessions – two after halftime. Lynch for his team-high seven marks and powerhouse presence at full forward. Had he kicked something better than his 2-4 he would have been a contender. And Luke Power for a team-high three goals after an early cut beside the eye saw him sporting a heavy head bandage.

The Lions match committee said it all when they cast their club championship votes for the grand final. Nine players – Hart, Brown, Johnson, Lappin, Leppitsch, Lynch, Power, Brad Scott and Voss each received the maximum three votes.

When widely-respected Herald Sun football writer Mike Sheahan declared his top 50 players in the competition for 2001 he included no less than seven Brisbane players – Voss (1), Akermanis (5), Simon Black (6), Lappin (14), Brown (39), Johnson (41) and Darryl White (47).

The Norm Smith Medal was presented by ex-Essendon champion Jack Clarke before Clarke and triple Brownlow Medallist Ian Stewart presented the premiership medallions to each Brisbane player. And then Robbie McHale, great granddaughter of Jock McHale, presented the Jock McHale Medal to Leigh Matthews. Finally, Stewart presented the Cup to Matthews and Michael Voss.

The players then completed one of the slowest laps of honour of all-time. Taking turns to hold the cup aloft, stopping every time they saw a familiar face hanging over the fence, or other unfamiliar with whom they wanted to share the moment, the players took fully an hour to make it around the MCG.

Inside they were surrounded by family, friends and fans. Until Leigh Matthews called them into the coach’s room one last time. Accompanied by the coaching staff and football manager Graeme Allan, they stayed for what seemed like an eternity. And rightly so. They had important business to attend to.

It was the brainchild of Pike, the only member of the premiership side who knew before this day what it was like to savor victory on the last day in September, and Power, who said to Voss “we should do something special”. One by one each player spoke about the player next to him. Of the special bond he felt for his teammate.

Outside hundreds of people waited patiently. Once the door opened but it was a false alarm. Only a call for more beer. This wasn’t a job that could be rushed. Indeed, the players would have been delighted if it lasted forever. Because this was what football was all about to footballers. About sharing the moment with those they’d worked so hard for so long to achieve.

Finally, they emerged. Each with their premiership medallion around their neck. On it was written a congratulatory message from AFL Chairman Ron Evans. It read: “To compete, and win, on Grand Final day is every player’s dream. As a member of the Premier team of season 2001 you are now part of the history and culture of the greatest game of all”.

And so began the frantic celebrations. First in the dressing rooms. Then at the Melbourne Tennis Centre, where almost 10,000 people had waited patiently for the team’s arrival. And then at the Crown Casino, where 1,600 people attended the official Premiership Dinner. And that was only Grand Final night.

Matthews sat waiting for the start of the post-match media conference. He whispered to Voss that he couldn’t remember anything about the game. “I’m in a daze, really,” he said. “I feel like it’s a dream. I’m still trying to pinch myself.”

And so he might have been. Because he couldn’t have done a better job in his sleep. It was a masterful coaching performance from the master coach. A final chapter in a three-year journey at the beginning of which the game’s greatest ever player had told how the challenge of winning the first AFL premiership in a developing state had lured him to Brisbane.

In his post-game summary Matthews said: “Early on we played okay but we missed a few shots, and therefore we were behind on the scoreboard.  When you’re behind it’s always out-of-hand in a way. We knew we had confidence to run out the game in the second half but that (Lynch) goal to get us back to 14 points was pretty important.

“These guys’ mental and physical courage to run hard at the end of the game is just fantastic… and there were a few of their guys we knew were not match hardened, and we were always confident we could run over them in the end. If your guys think we work just as hard as the opposition, we’re going to keep going, it’s the most fantastic thing for the team to have that belief that we’re even stronger…our guys believe that.”

In his 13th year as a League coach and his 30th year of League football, Matthews generally stuck to what worked. To the game plan which had served him so well. But on grand final day he saved a couple of tactical gems which typified a day on which just about everything went right for the victors.

The grand final was, as Lions wins invariably were throughout their record 16-game winning streak, a comprehensive contribution from 22 players. While Lloyd and Lucas kicked nine goals between them for the Bombers they had only five goal-kickers. The Lions had nine, led by Luke Power’s three and two each to Lynch, Lappin, Brown and Akermanis.

Overall, the victors had the ball inside their scoring 50m zone 56 times to Essendon’s 47. They enjoyed a 39-26 advantage in hit outs and a 38-33 edge in ruck clearances, including 18-8 from the centre. They were superior 37-27 in ‘hard ball gets’. Team stats all of them. And important ones. For this was a team victory.

Lions                 3-7        5-10     11-12               15-18-108
Bombers           3-2       8-6       9-8                   12-10-82

Goals: Lions: Power 3, Akermanis 2, Brown 2, Lappin 2, Lynch 2, Voss, Notting, Ashcroft, Pike. Bombers: Lloyd 5, Lucas 4, J Johnson, Moorcroft, Caracella.

Possessions: Lions: Hart 23, Voss 23, Lappin 20, Johnson 18, Brown 16, Akermanis 15, Black 15. Bombers: J Johnson 22, Lucas 19, Misiti 19, Wellman 18, Caracella 17.

Best: Lions: Hart (Norm Smith Medal), Voss, Lappin, Brown, B Scott, Lynch, Leppitsch, Johnson, Power, Ashcroft, Pike. Essendon: Lucas, J Johnson, Jacobs, Lloyd, Wellman, Ramanauskas.   

Lions B&F Votes: Brown, Hart, Johnson, Lappin, Leppitsch, Lynch, Power, B Scott, Voss 3, Akermanis, Ashcroft, Black, Keating, McDonald, Michael, Notting, Pike, C Scott, White 2, Copeland 1.

Umpires: Mathew James, Scott McLaren, Martin Ellis

Attendance: 91,482.

Have a read about everything that happened the morning of the 2001 Grand Final

And our incredible run into the Finals

NEXT WEEK: THE AFTERMATH