Harry the hero! How Blues stunned the Lions with the comeback to end all comebacks

Harry the hero! How Blues stunned the Lions with the comeback to end all comebacks

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Final quarter, two minutes and 18 seconds on the clock.

Josh Dunkley picks up a scrappy kick inside Carlton’s attacking 50 from Ollie Hollands, and with as much power as he can muster after nearly four quarters of intense battle on a warm Brisbane night, boots it for his life as long as he can.

It doesn’t go far. Locked in a one-on-one contest on the wing with Jack Payne, a nominal defender who has looked like a fish out of water when swung into attack in the second half but seems ideally suited to halve a contest of this nature, Mitch McGovern, once the most maligned player on a Blues list full of maligned players, reads the drop zone better, gets his wiry frame in the way, and clutches the intercept mark centimetres from the turf.

He wastes no time, gets to his feet, and crosses into the centre square, where Nic Newman waits. Newman is a story of his own; 24 years old before an AFL team finally took a punt on him, the one-time Frankston journeyman has been a staple of the Blues’ defence since being traded from Sydney five years ago.

Newman’s normally precise kicking won’t do him much good here; there are 18 Lions ahead of him as he looks upfield, most crowding the space inside 50 that Carlton have used to such devastating effect from the moment their comeback was launched from the small matter of 46 points down midway through the second quarter.

So he does the only thing he can: he takes as much of a run-up as he is able, and drives the ball long – and, importantly, as high as he can manage – into attacking 50, and puts his faith in Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay.

Harry McKay kicked the winning goal in Carlton's one-point win over Brisbane.

Harry McKay kicked the winning goal in Carlton’s one-point win over Brisbane. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Last year, this would have been Curnow’s domain and his alone – indeed, it was he who, with three goals in the third quarter to turn the Blues’ surge into an avalanche, too quick and crafty for Payne once the ball hit the ground, as three of his four majors from the night came from snaps in general play.

But with the Lions set to swarm at ground level, there is precious little chance even Curnow can work his magic if the ball jars loose. The Blues have one hope – and he’s running for the ball at top speed, with every step gaining just enough space ahead of Harris Andrews to be in the perfect spot as the ball begins to arc towards the ground.

McKay marks.

For him, that’s usually the easy bit: anyone who saw him line up a set shot in 2023 knows that there is quite literally a 180-degree range in which this kick could go. And despite nailing two of his three kicks at goal for the evening to date, this one comes with four quarters’ worth of fatigue, the pressure that comes with the match resting on one’s boot, and two years’ worth of mental demons that have seen Harry McKay spray kicks like a blocked fire hose with far, far less at stake.

So naturally, McKay goes back, and absolutely flushes it.

Who says fairytales don’t exist in football?

But McKay’s heroics are just the last, epic twist of an astonishing Carlton tale.

A team without its best defender, a top-two midfielder, several other key players and its most senior campaigner nursing a knee injury after half time has no business doing what the Blues did to Brisbane after half time, on their home patch, no less.

An utter embarrassment looked on the cards when the Lions bolted to 46 points clear in the second term – and bar for a sudden burst of inaccuracy from Eric Hipwood and Charlie Cameron, it likely should have been more.

Instead, the Blues flipped every aspect of the match on its head. Seven tackles to quarter time? Well, try 16 for 63 Lions disposals in the third quarter, Brisbane hounded and harassed to within an inch of their lives where once they had breezed from half-back and through the corridor with all the pressure of a practice match.

Struggling to break even in disposals? Well, have 35 more in that same quarter to deny the Lions the football – and with it, the territory they so crave to give the most fearsome forward line in the game a chance to burn their defenders running back into the space they love to create near goal. And while you’re at it, make most of those uncontested possessions as well, doing unto the Lions with pace and aggressive kicking from defence what they have done unto so many rivals in the last few years.

Hugh McCluggage, the Lions’ most dynamic on-baller? From the 12-minute mark of the second term to three-quarter time, he’d have zero disposals. Dayne Zorko? Three. Josh Dunkley? Three as well. Jarryd Lyons? A mere seven. Lachie Neale? Eleven, but just one a clearance, as George Hewett made it his mission to push, shove and otherwise bully the reigning Brownlow Medallist away from the coalface as much as humanly possible.

That the Lions still won the inside 50s 17-14 in that quarter is immaterial: long, high bombs inside 50 to a forward line that has never been capable of regularly controlling those were far easier to defuse for an undermanned Blues backline than the speedy, hit-up leads of the first half.

Then, when the turnover was achieved, the Blues hit the accelerator: with sub Jack Carroll’s pace and elite skills making him a central player from the moment he was subbed on for Docherty at half time, Carlton sliced and diced the AFL’s resident slicers and dicers.

Two-way running has never been a particularly strong trait of the Lions, and it was telling that, when the Blues surged forward, how much space Curnow could work with on the ground. He doesn’t need much; Brisbane provided plenty.

From 14 inside 50s, the Blues piled on 7.2. The Lions? One goal six from their 17, and few if any were gimmes. That’s what pressure does.

All that explains how Carlton turned a game dominated by the Lions so quickly and so emphatically into their dominion; even in the last quarter, as the lead ebbed and flowed, Brisbane, the reigning grand finalists, were never doing more than hanging tough against an opponent with the scent of a famous victory in their nostrils.

But having pulled in front courtesy of McKay, there were still 71 seconds to cling on. And when Oscar McInerney received a ruck free kick and drove the Lions deep into attack, 47 seconds remained, with the Blues left to defend 15 metres against the most dangerous crop of forwards in the league.

Not a problem.

Swarming numbers around the ball, with Blake Acres guarding the last line and Adam Cerra on defensive side of the stoppage, the Blues had both goals and points to defend – a draw would have been ill reward for such a comeback.

So when, with the ball knocked loose, McGovern chose to slap it forward with all his might, a charging Charlie Cameron racing after it, hearts were in mouths.

But his desperation has method to the madness: close enough to the boundary line to hem the Lions ace in without trickling over for an obvious deliberate free, Cameron was swiftly wrapped up by David Cuningham as he tried to gather, with Neale shunted just over the boundary line by Nic Newman.

31 seconds left; 30 metres further away from goal. The odds are shortening.

Still the Blues clung on: a McInerney flip over the back, a quick, five-metre kick forward from Dunkley, a desperate race after the ball from Jaspa Fletcher.

A monstrous, dispossessing tackle from Lachie Fogarty, who with nine for the night fulfilled his role of pressure forward to a tee. Another boundary throw in, and ten seconds taken off the clock.

Then, flashpoint. Acres gathers from the next dispute, and like McGovern before him – though by foot this time and not fist – hoofs the Sherrin towards the boundary line.

It’s clearly a predetermined play – wobble the ball outside 50, and at worst it is out of scoring range, with enough time to set up and defend the incoming kick.

Except there won’t be any need. Because McKay, once again leading Andrews to the ball, has his second great moment – gathering the ball with a tactical fumble centimetres from the line, his touch is all that’s required to turn a certain deliberate out of bounds into a throw-in.

Nine seconds remain.

Any hope the Lions have is soon snuffed out – Tom De Koning, who in fighting and probably shading the more experienced McInerney might have ended Marc Pittonet’s career, wins the tap, keeps the ball in close, and Matt Cottrell gathers.

Strong as an ox despite a spindly frame, Cottrell’s acting is on point – fighting Zorko’s tackle with every fibre of his being, he feigns a handball attempt while making sure he keeps that ball locked in. The clincher is his desperate wrench to free his right arm, without which he likely is pinged for holding the ball regardless – punching the ball in faked desperation, he forces another stoppage.

Time has run out.

De Koning wins another tap, this one to advantage, down to Hewett, who with 27 disposals and five clearances has done his bit to diminish Neale’s influence while having plenty of impact of his own.

His clearing kick would have mean safety with five further seconds on the clock; here, it’s immaterial. The siren sounds.

That is how Carlton pulled off their win for the ages, surely their finest outside a final under Michael Voss.

With ferocious, all-consuming pressure, from their brightest stars down to the guys like Fogarty and Cuningham riding on a week-to-week basis hopeful of retaining their spots in a team going places.

With a nerveless set shot from a man who had more riding on it than any other player in the game would have in the same situation.

With a young ruckman fighting and fighting and never giving in against a seasoned rival.

With no Jacob Weitering, no Sam Walsh, and a bevy of journeymen and youngsters filling their shoes.

Teams have won premierships with less belief than what Carlton can take out of this one, beautiful, Gabba night.

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