It was left to the great John Nicholls to bring poignant finality to the Australian game of football at Princes Park, one hundred and nine winters after the good Alderman James Moloney christened Carlton’s hallowed turf with a flat punt.
For the thousands of supporters who watched through teary eyes, this was a cherished instant: ‘Big Nick’ thrusting the Sherrin skyward from the shadows of the Robert Heatley Stand, to bring a moving end to the 962nd and final Carlton game ever to be played by the elms on Royal Parade.
John Robert Nicholls was the greatest among the greats to pay their last respects to Princes Park on that crisp winter Saturday in May. The club’s games record holder Craig Bradley was there; so too its Brownlow Medallists John James and Greg Williams; Bruce Doull and the Silvagnis Sergio and Stephen; together with Mike Fitzpatrick, Wayne Johnston, Peter Jones and the three-time premiership coach David Parkin. Four former Carlton Presidents – George Harris, Ivan Rohrt, John Elliott and Ian Collins – together with the incumbent Graham Smorgon, were amongst the 1000 dignitaries who frequented the marquee in the parklands to the rear of the Heroes Stand for a formal luncheon preceding the match.
Heroes of the 1995 Grand Final were there; men like Stephen Kernahan, Brett Ratten and Andrew McKay, who all came with their kids. The famed ‘Mosquito Fleet’ attended – Rod Ashman, Jim Buckley and Alex Marcou – who owned that glorious patch of turf in those halcyon days of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
And then there were the old timers; wartime legends like Ken Hands, Jim Clark and Doug Williams, who against South Melbourne on that very ground some 60 years before had won them and worn them in The Bloodbath. Together they raised the ’45 cup, one of 16 trophies to catch a glint of the midday sun as 16 premiership pennants caught hold of a welcome zephyr.
More than 30,000 people came to Carlton to pay their respects, on a day in which a fellow foundation member of the VFL, Melbourne, posted an emphatic if unpopular and ultimately meaningless 18-point victory.
As the fading light of early evening cast an eerie pall over Princes Park, Nicholls emerged from the interchange dugout to the centre circle where he had prevailed for so many seasons against the likes of Farmer, Schultz and Thompson. There he took possession of the matchday football from the Carlton captain Anthony Koutoufides and strode to the foot of the since-demolished Robert Heatley Stand.
In the shadows of the Heatley, Nicholls stopped and turned to face the Legends Stand, then raised the football high. Then and there the greatest Carlton footballer of them all brought down the curtain on a glorious epoch in Victorian social, cultural and sporting history.
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