I was there when… Sydney made its first grand final in 51 years

Paul Roos
Paul Roos was there for another memorable finals series, this time for Sydney. (Picture: Sydney Swans)

In 1996, Paul Roos took part in Sydney’s finals campaign that culminated in its first grand final appearance in 51 years.

You can read the first part of our I was there when… series with Roos here.

Part 2: Sydney Shoots for the Stars

Leading up to the 1996 finals series, the Swans were flying. They had made the finals for the first time in nine years and were minor premiers for the first time since 1945.

But there was a cloud over the start of their finals campaign with Tony Lockett having a groin issue, and Roos recalled a lot of the lead-up to the finals series that year was focused around the injury.

“I remember there was a big media circus, and part of it was because it was the number one player in the comp, if not Wayne Carey, then Tony Lockett,” he said.

“When he got injured, I think in the last game, and from there all the way up to the game against Hawthorn it was ‘will he play, won’t he play.’

“Throughout that whole two, three weeks of finals prior to him coming back, there was a lot of talk.

“I think the one thing you don’t know is how long you’ll last in finals, so we were confident about going in there. We didn’t think he was going to be out for the whole finals series, so we had to win some games, which we did.”

Not your typical final

Without Lockett, Sydney had a titanic struggle against Hawthorn in the qualifying final, only broken when Daryn Cresswell took a massive contested mark and goaled late to confirm a six-point win.

Roos spoke about that Hawthorn side who gave the Swans a massive scare.

“Yeah, absolutely they did, I think it was Cressa who kicked the goal to seal the game in the dying minutes, it was an incredibly close game,” Roos said.

“Obviously Tony was an incredibly important part of the team at the time, you know he’s the number one, number two player in the competition. [But] we had a lot of good players, we had a good system, we had a good coaching group.”

“We always knew Hawthorn had a great pedigree of winning finals; we knew going into that game [that] it wasn’t your typical one vs eight game.”

With a spot in the preliminary final secured, Sydney was one step closer to a grand final berth.

Sydney may have come away with the victory, but it was far from easy. (Picture: Sydney Swans)

One step away

But first, it had to deal with an Essendon side that it drew with, then lost to during the year.

With a tough opposition to come, and Lockett still not at full fitness, Roos spoke about what the team was thinking going into the final.

“I think the evenness of that competition at that stage meant that any team could win, and Essendon had some really incredible players, you know Dustin Fletcher, James Hird just to name a few,” he said.

“Plugger came back, and we knew he was back, but we knew he also wasn’t 100 per cent so there was still talk of how we’d perform, how we’d go.

“We were expecting kind of a close game.”

Early in the last quarter, Sydney fell behind Essendon, and the Bombers looked like they were set to face North Melbourne the following week.

But Roos didn’t lose faith at that stage.

“Even getting to that stage you’re really confident in your teammates, you’re really confident in your system so it’s a matter of doing what’s expected of you,” he said.

“And I think that’s a strength of all great teams… even though you have varying degrees of talent between your teams, everyone plays to the system and plays to their strengths.”

One memorable moment

Tony Lockett kicking the most famous score of his career. (Picture: Sydney Swans)

The Swans pushed back and then the moment of the match came, when Lockett took a mark, and the siren went.

All he needed to do was score, and Sydney would be in the 1996 grand final.

But, as Roos recalled, that might not have been a sure thing, with Lockett’s injury.

“Tony obviously took that mark, and he only had to kick a point, but he was a fair way out so under normal circumstances I reckon everyone in the grandstand would have thought ‘oh he’s only gotta kick a point no problem at all,’ he said.

“But he’d had that groin all week, and I remember thinking ‘jeez he’s gonna have to kick a torp here, or is he gonna kick a drop punt?’ because he was outside 50, so it was pretty intense.”

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Lockett’s shot sailed through, for the most memorable point he’d ever kick in his career.

The joy of victory, and a grand final berth. (Picture: Sydney Swans)

But, would Sydney have been able to push on had he missed? Roos said the momentum shift made that tough to say either way.

“I don’t know, it’s funny when you think about who’s got the momentum when the team draws,” he said.

“Probably they [Essendon] would have dodged a bullet, so it would have been harder for us I suspect, you know with Tony kicking for goal.

“If he had’ve missed, then it probably would have been advantage to Essendon, not necessarily from a physical point of view but from a psychological point of view.

“Having said that, we’d come back from a number of goals down to get to that stage so it’s a little hard to tell really.”

No fairy-tale this time

Grand final day didn’t go to plan for Sydney this time. (Picture: Sydney Swans)

Unfortunately, premiership glory wasn’t to be for Sydney the following week.

Although it led early, North Melbourne took control in the second half and eventually won the premiership by 43 points.

25 years on, Roos reflects on the occasion pragmatically, given where the Swans had been just a few years earlier.

“I reckon after the immediate disappointment of losing – we’d beat North Melbourne during the year quite convincingly – but in the cold hard light of day we were beaten by a better team, built over the course of a couple of years,” he said.

“We were probably more exhausted than they were going into the grand final. There were a couple of big things that happened in that game, some unsung players played really well.

“At the end, you don’t like to say it, but it was probably a fair result.

“We’d had a fantastic season, and we really launched into the next part of what was to become a really successful era for the footy club.”

That era saw Sydney make four consecutive finals series for the first time in 60 years, with berths in ’97, ’98, and ’99.

Roos may not have achieved premiership glory as a player, but less than a decade later, he would achieve it as a coach.

Part three sees Roos recall the 2005 season when the Swans finally tasted premiership success for the first time in 72 years.

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About Thomas Grattan 119 Articles
Thomas is a journalist whom you'll often see writing and talking all things Aussie Rules. He also writes on a range of other sports including Netball and Basketball.

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