New Year’s Eve 1999 was an unusual time for a number of different reasons, not least of all because of the now long-forgotten Y2K hysteria that saw constant updates on the television coverage of the celebrations. Another particularly peculiar aspect of the night took place at the MCG. Just a day after the 1999 Boxing Day Test concluded, with Brett Lee’s debut inspiring Australia to a 180 run victory, the ground was in use again for the last AFL game of the millennium between Carlton and Collingwood.
The match, an initiative of Carlton and Collingwood Presidents John Elliott and Eddie McGuire, came about in large part as a result of a change in the format of the Ansett Cup and the upcoming Sydney Olympics. With the traditional knockout competition becoming a round-robin due to start in January due to the necessity of an early start and end to the AFL season, the dream was conceived. If we are starting in January anyway, why not play this one game early and give fans one last opportunity to see Australian Football in the 20th Century?
Despite Carlton coming off a Grand Final appearance and Collingwood a wooden spoon winning season, the traditional rivals were anticipating a crowd in the region of 80,000 for the unique occasion. That these estimates were wildly inaccurate should have become apparent when it became known that it wasn’t a big enough event for the Collingwood President to attend. Despite being at the heart of the initiative, Eddie McGuire was not at the MCG as his day job at Channel 9 required him to spend the evening on Sydney Harbour.
The Collingwood President wasn’t the only prominent person from the two clubs to be a no show on the night though. Not one of Carlton’s starting midfield on Grand Final day just three months earlier were in attendance either with Matthew Allan, Brett Ratten, Fraser Brown, and Craig Bradley, all given the night off. In fact, of the 24 man Carlton squad, just 12 had represented the club on the last Saturday in September.
Two people who were in attendance were Mick Malthouse and John Worsfold. The pair, who had been so integral to West Coast’s Premiership wins in 1992 and 1994, were on opposite teams for the first time after a long and successful partnership out west. For Malthouse it would be his first competitive outing as Collingwood Coach after his celebrated off-season appointment. Worsfold’s Grand Final week appointment as Carlton Assistant Coach was less welcomed, with his new boss David Parkin threatening to quit as Coach as a result. While Senior Assistant Wayne Brittain would take on match day coaching responsibilities, it would be the first time Worsfold and Parkin had shared the coach’s box.
Malthouse was the big signing in an active off-season for Collingwood who were looking to rebuild quickly after receiving the second wooden spoon in the club’s history. While the preseason competition would soon lose its lustre in 2000 it was still highly valued and as a result, this match was identified as an important first step on the path back to relevance for the Pies. Not surprisingly then, that it was pretty much a full-strength squad that took the park in search of the first win of the Malthouse era.
While the importance of the night for the Collingwood players was keenly felt in their dressing room as they prepared for the match, it wasn’t shared by the respective supporter groups of the two clubs. As Malthouse and Brittain shared their last-minute instructions to the players, and 100’s of 1000’s of people gathered a short two km’s up the road for the NYE celebrations in the city, the MCG stands were sparsely occupied. So fraught were the crowd numbers, the AM edition of The Age reported that only 2000 people had passed through the gates by the time they had to go to print.
Between printing of the AM and PM editions, a few more had entered the ground, but the final figure of 16,685 was a long way short of what the boffins would have been hoping for when they dreamed the concept up. While the crowd might have failed to live up to expectations, the performance that followed from an 18-year-old with just two AFL games to his name would have been beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.
In an 18 disposals, 12 marks, 12 goal performance, Brendan Fevola announced himself to the football world. Proving more destructive than the Y2K Bug that had terrified the world for the previous year, Fevola went from no-name to household name in the space of 100 devastating minutes. As explosive as the fireworks that would light up the Melbourne night sky, he marked everything that came his way in a Night Series Record-breaking performance.
With Fevola on fire up forward, the second-string Blues were never seriously challenged by a disappointing Collingwood outfit. Conceding just three goals in the first three quarters, poor kicking for goal was the only blight on the Blues copybook as they eventually ran out 88-point winners.
Despite his undoubted potential, Fevola would not start the new millennium in the form he ended the old. Despite playing 14 games in a Carlton team that would finish second on the AFL ladder, he would manage just 26 goals for the year. He and impatient Carlton fans would have to wait until 2003 for his breakout season. Perhaps not surprising when his prematch routine ahead of the Millennium Match became known years later.
Speaking on The Howie Games podcast in 2016, Fevola admitted that he had stopped in at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party on the way to the game where he joined in the festivities by downing two cans of bourbon. The next stop was the McDonald’s drive-through where he ordered two McChickens in a pre-match meal that would make the club’s nutritionist shudder.
Sadly for Fevola, after announcing himself to the football world on New Year’s Eve, it would be his activities on the same night 11 years later that would bring an end to his enigmatic AFL career. Between the two nights, he would kick 623 goals, win two Coleman Medals, seven Carlton leading goalkicking awards, and three All-Australian jerseys. His 575 goals in Navy Blue enough to place him third on Carlton’s all-time goalkicking list.
A much-loved figure, Fevola created countless memorable moments across his accomplished 204-game AFL Career. Despite this, perhaps the one that stands out most was the very first, the night he celebrated New Year’s Eve with 12 goals in front of an empty MCG.