It was the iconic call that almost didn’t happen at all.
Not only did the Gary Harley-led 2HD commentary team only get the nod to travel down just a few days out from the 1997 grand final, but his own rise to the chair came via a midweek fill-in a couple of years prior.
The rest is history, and from the “best seat in the house” Harley saw the Newcastle Knights’ maiden premiership unfold. This featured an unforgettable description of the decider’s dramatic closing stages, fondly remembered more for the noise levels and uncontrollable excitement than anything else.
“I went berserk,” Harley told the Newcastle Herald in the lead-up to the team’s 20th reunion this weekend. “All of us jumped up and started screaming out after he [Darren Albert] scored near the posts. Then the stadium erupted because 70 per cent of the people were Knights people. I could hardly talk, but we made our way down to the field and we all had a few tears, don’t worry about that.”
After counting down the clock to Albert’s match-winning try, listeners at home then heard a high-pitched squeal followed by a “yahoo” and “we won” shared between Harley and co-commentator Gary Wurth.
Sideline eye Michael Beattie then did his best to take over despite the incredible sound being produced by the thousands of Novocastrians inside the packed-out Sydney Football Stadium.
Harley’s heard the recording back. Most recently this week on the radio station he was working with at the time. But it never gets old because it evokes all of the same emotions from that last Sunday in September.
“It’s the highlight of anything I’ve had to do with rugby league,” he said.
The last-ditch, come-from-behind, against-the-odds nature of the triumph, the fierce rivalry with opponents the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, the club’s breakthrough title and an unrivaled feeling of “community spirit”.
That’s what made the event “special” according to Harley, however, his opportunity to call that moment very nearly didn’t eventuate.
In the early 1990s he got a late call-up to commentate on a match between England and the Knights in Newcastle. Harley continued to call Knights’ games for the best part of two decades. But in 1997 grand final week a Sydney radio “feed” was scheduled, despite Harley having covered the Knights’ regular season. When asked if he wanted to do the call instead of taking the Sydney broadcast, he responded: “I’d give my right arm for that.”
And to make the 22-16 win even sweeter, midway during the season Harley and son Troy put a combined $100 on the Knights to win the competition, at odds of 14-1.
“That was another reason to get excited when the bell went,” Harley said.