Soaked Eels inspire dreams of 1986, but there's a long way to go

It was 1986 and the fulltime siren sounded as the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs mounted one last fruitless raid on the Parramatta Eels' try line. The dour and dusty Grand Final battle had ended without a try being scored, the Eels triumphing 4-2, with club legend Mick Cronin toe-poking two penalties between the posts to secure the club's fourth premiership.

Retiring Eels legends Ray Price and Cronin were chaired from the field. The stands at the SCG pulsed with blue and gold fans celebrating as Prime Minister Bob Hawke handed the Winfield Cup trophy to captain Price who raised it skyward in concert with Cronin. It was the last of the Eels' four premierships in the 1980s, a decade where being a Parramatta fan was very easy.

The club, which first played in 1947, hadn't won a title before 1981 and they haven't won one since 1986. Outside of those four glorious seasons, it has been 70 years of frustration and angst for their loyal and regularly tested supporters.

There have been some close calls along the way. Their first Grand Final appearance in 1976 ended in a narrow 13-10 defeat to Manly. The following year they made it to big dance again, with the scores locked at 9-9 at fulltime, a replay was required where the St George Dragons prevailed 22-0. The Eels' first title came in their next appearance in 1981, the beginning of what would be the last premiership hat-trick in the competition's history. Titles in 1982 and '83 were followed by a narrow defeat to the Bulldogs in 1984. Two years later they had their revenge.

After the dancing in Parramatta subsided in 1986, fans faced a long dry spell, their next Grand Final appearance finally arriving in 2001. Eels hearts were broken that day as they were upset 30-24 by the underdog Knights, led by the eighth Immortal Andrew Johns.

Their next and latest shot at glory came in 2009 when they were beaten 23-16 by the Melbourne Storm. The knife of this painful defeat twisted a couple of years later when the Storm were exposed as systemic salary cap cheats and the title stripped from their possession. Sadly, justice didn't extend to handing the trophy to the Eels.

In the interim there have been promising seasons, salary cap issues of their own and finals appearances ending in yet more disappointment.

Still the fans jammed into Bankwest Stadium as COVID safely as they could Thursday night, despite the persistent deluge that threatened to wash Sydney away. Many of those donning the blue and gold, yelling the ubiquitous "get em onside", were not yet drawing breath back in 1986. These were no bandwagon fans; that cart has long been missing a wheel or two. These loyal Eels supporters lived every tackle, each very well aware of the painful history that has galvanised them in support of this season's team - the one finally assembled to break the drought and bring, for most of them anyway, unprecedented joy.

Opposing them on this miserable night, the club which robbed them of their last shot at glory, the Storm. A club that despite its relatively short 21-year existence and tainted past, had just last year claimed its fourth legitimate title, matching the Eels in the trophy cabinet.

Unlike the SCG of the 1980s, Bankwest Stadium's surface was immaculate. Almost every drop of the downpour somehow absorbed and dispersed as the two premiership hopefuls battled it out. In a game which defied the greasy conditions, the Eels matched the Storm 6-6 at half time, before scoring two more tries after the break to prevail 16-12. The final siren sounded with the Eels working their way out of their own quarter. The crowd roared, the sodden mass of blue and gold in the stands rising to celebrate.

There's a long way to go in the 2021 NRL season. But the Parramatta Eels sit atop the premiership ladder after winning their first two games, the reigning premiers their latest conquest. The fans are too experienced to get ahead of themselves, even if each of them dream every night of ending the longest existing premiership drought in the competition. They know to take it, as the cliché says, one game at a time, and that is the Sharks in Round 3.

At the start of the 1986 season, the Eels ran out onto a brand new stadium. Enough time has elapsed to see that venue bulldozed and replaced and still no addition to the premiership tally. The loyal fans will continue to turn up, yell themselves hoarse and hold onto the hope of every fan, that this year will be their year, finally.