Was this the greatest performance of them all?

By ASHLEY BROWNE

Had Wayne Carey chosen to turn it on in just about any other Friday night in any other year, all of Melbourne and much of Australia would have been talking about it for several days afterwards.

Bruce McAvaney would have called the game and dubbed it as "absolutely special" at least a dozen times by now, on both Sunday afternoon and Monday night TV shows. At any other time, the game would have been televised throughout Australia and most football fans would be in a position to judge whether Carey's 11 goal, 15 mark and 31 possession effort against Melbourne rated as one of the great individual matches.

But, alas for Carey, and for football, he chose the Olympics as the time to strut his stuff. Only 20,955 were at the game and significantly fewer would have watched it live on Optus Vision. By the time the football radio shows cranked into gear on Saturday afternoon, they too, were more obsessed by Olympian matters such as Kieren Perkins' gold medal.

It wasn't until the working week commenced yesterday, with its obligatory discussion about the weekend's football, that talk of Carey's outing started to surface. Every second call to Australian Football Video yesterday was an inquiry about the price and availability of a video of the match. The company expects to sell more than 150 copies, a phenomenal result.

"A lot of people were pissed-off that the match, wasn't on (free-to-air) TV" said the company's Name A Game manager, Lee Meadows. "Melbourne's entire score only beat that of Carey by one point. A lot of people think that's memorable. A lot of our sales are to people from interstate and the country who can't get to see the match. But this is different. People want to see it."

North Melbourne itself is also trying to have copies of the match on sale to supporters in time for Friday night's match against Hawthorn at the MCG - a few days earlier than usual, although in keeping with the "Denis Pagan School Of Keeping The Lid On Things", there will be none of the ceremonial and commemorative merchandising that marked feats such as Geelong's record score against Brisbane in 1992 or even St Kilda's night premiership this year.

Pagan wasn't concerned yesterday that most people hadn't seen highlights of Carey, but rather, that Hawthorn had. He has already watched the match twice - on Saturday and Sunday mornings - and pronounced it as one of his captain's best. But don't expect him to watch it again once the season is over, just for enjoyment's sake.

"I don't watch football for enjoyment, it's my job," Pagan said. "But he did have a superb game. It'll probably earn him 10 out of 10 in the best and fairest."

Whether it was his best game, Pagan is unsure. Foremost in his mind is the 1994 finals series, in which Carey kicked six goals in both the elimination final against Hawthorn (which went to extra-time) and the preliminary final against Geelong a fortnight later. Carey was best on ground in both games, which he played with a torn calf muscle.

"In the 21 days between tearing the muscle and the end of the Geelong game, Wayne trained for approximately 10 minutes," Pagan said. "To then be best on ground in two finals was nothing short of freakish, and a testament to his talent and commitment."

If the pressures of the job require Pagan to take a slightly detached view of Carey's performance against Melbourne, his teammates are still talking about it - even if they've seen it all before. "It was awesome ... the best game I've ever seen from him," said Mark Roberts. "You would have to go a long way to see a better game. He made David Neitz - a fantastic player - look very ordinary."

"He was pretty handy, wasn't he?" said Craig Sholl, who enjoyed the show from particularly a close vantage point in the forward pocket.

Even Neil Balme was a fan: "Not that I enjoyed watching it of course," said the Melbourne coach, "but he was just fantastic. It was the best I've seen him play."

So say many people. The pity was the size of the audience. It deserved better.

- article from The Age, Tuesday 30th July, 1996