Essendon crash Melbourne's party

The Olympics seemed a million miles away from Melbourne yesterday as 96,259 people crammed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the city's biggest party - otherwise known as the Grand Final of Australian Rules.

The Olympics seemed a million miles away from Melbourne yesterday as 96,259 people crammed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the city's biggest party - otherwise known as the Grand Final of Australian Rules.

And if the match was not a classic thriller it did produce a little moment of history asEssendon, the hottest of favourites, simply crushed Melbourne 19.21 (135) to 11.9 (75) to become the first side to win 24 games in one season. Essendon lost just once in the regular season of 22 games, becoming the first team to do that since the season wasexpanded in 1970.

"I'm prepared to lose one to get the premiership," said the Essendon coach, Kevin Sheedy. "We didn't kick well for goal early, but that's the pressure of a grand final."

The day was a personal triumph for Essendon's captain, James Hird, who has fought a long battle against a chronic foot problem which has meant he has played just 22 games in the three years since he won the 1996 Brownlow Medal as the league's best and fairest player.

"Last time this year we were watching North Melbourne beating Carlton," Hird said. "That hurt - we all thought we should have been there. We planned for this day, we haven't looked sideways. This is our moment."

Sheedy, who won his fourth title on Saturday, praised his captain. "His performance right through the year to come back from a career-threatening injury has been remarkable," Sheedy said.

For Melbourne, searching for their first title since 1964, the defeat rekindled painful memories. Their only other grand final appearance since 1964 came in 1988 when they lost to Hawthorn by 96 points.

The loss was a sobering experience for their coach Neale Daniher, who got Melbourne into the Grand Final in only his third year in charge and led the team to wins in 10 of their last 11 matches. He refused to criticise his team, even though they made frequent handling and kicking errors. "Today we were losers, no doubt about that," said Daniher. "But over the season I see our young team as winners."

After an even and fiercely contested first quarter, Essendon took over in the second quarter, slamming in six goals to two to lead by 41 points at half-time. The only lowlight for the favourites was Michael Long's needless high shot on Troy Simmonds just before half-time which left the Melbourne player unconscious.

After the incident, the game briefly threatened to get out of control as players started wrestling, but it soon settled down and Essendon finished off the job clinically. Paul Barnard and the leading goalkicker Matthew Lloyd each finished with four goals.

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