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During world war two Australian servicemen occasionally arranged scratch football matches in Hyde Park, but once the war had ended the only regular fixture in the English 'Australian Rules football calendar' was the annual 'varsity match organised by the Australian clubs at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. This remained the situation until March 1955 when, in response to a challenge issued after the previous year's 'varsity match, a combined team from Oxford and Cambridge made the trip down to the Big Smoke for an "exhibition match'"against a team drawn from London's even then sizeable Australian colony.
Preparations for the match were exhaustive. The avowed aim of the day was to 'sell' the game, and to this end the London contingent in particular had been very meticulous in scouring the streets for the cream of the capital's available ex-patriot talent. The Australian High Commissioner, Sir Thomas White, known to be a staunch supporter of the game, was contacted, and enthusiastically threw his weight behind the venture. It was not merely a case of the odd word of encouragement either as Sir Thomas placed the not insubstantial resources of Australia House at the organisers' disposal thereby eliminating much of the cost of promotion, advertising, printing and so forth.
Coaching of the London team was undertaken jointly by ex Preston player Harold McDonald (a member of staff at Australia House), and Graham Cock, formerly of Collingwood. "Sek" Hume, captain of Oxford, coordinated the Universities' training programme.
When Australian airline Qantas learned of the venture they offered to fly any football gear required from Australia free of charge. Unfortunately, the organisers were unable to take advantage of this offer as the Australian National Football Council flatly refused to support the venture in any way, refusing even to sanction the loan of two sets of playing jumpers. Just on the off chance one of the organising committee then contacted English Football Association secretary Sir Stanley Rous who came to the rescue with no hesitation whatsoever, providing the committee with two complete sets of soccer jerseys in blue and white. Had the match ended up being a success in terms of generating interest amongst the local population it is ironic in the extreme to reflect that this would have been no thanks whatsoever to the sport's controlling body, which nevertheless would no doubt have been very quick indeed to associate itself with any burgeoning football infrastructure in the "home country".
Another incidental contact led to a major London department store offering the use of its sports ground at Wimbledon as the venue for the match, which was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon early in March 1955.
The organising committee took their promotional responsibilities seriously, advertising the match widely, attracting interest from the media, and producing an attractive printing programme detailing the sport's rules, scoring system and field positions.
One thing the organisers had no control over, however, was the weather, and London in March is a bit like Melbourne at any time: you get what you get. In the event, what they 'got' was a frigid, overcast afternoon, with the (soon to be realised) threat of snow in the air.
With television and newsreel crews supplementing the sparse crowd, Sir Thomas White, having earlier greeted the players on both teams, bounced the ball to start the game. The Universities, despite being without the star of the recent 'varsity match in the shape of 1953 Rhodes scholar Duncan Anderson (pictured above, left), an All Australian Amateur full forward from University Blues in the VAFA, began brightly and, with the wind in their favour, posted two early first quarter goals. Another Rhodes scholar, Alan Dowding, who by this time was undertaking postgraduate study at Cambridge, was the dominant player afield early on. Blond-haired Dowding, a wingman in South Australia's successful AAFC carnival side at Perth in 1948, burrowed tenaciously into packs, tackled ferociously, and disposed of the ball with telling accuracy. Unfortunately, few of his team mates appeared to be on the same wavelength and when, midway through the term, the threatened snow arrived the writing was on the wall as far as the Universities' prospects were concerned.
With weight and strength to the fore at the expense of pace and skill the Londoners - much bigger and brawnier than their opponents - gradually assumed control.
During the second quarter, with many of the spectators having retreated to the warmth of their cars or one of several local hostelries, the London players peppered the goals continually, albeit somewhat haphazardly at times, to set up a commanding lead. Players like Ken Ashdown (a former Western Australian carnival player from West Perth) and 102kg South Australian ruckman Doug Giles were simply too physically powerful for their rivals.
However, with the ball now greasy and the playing surface degenerating by the minute into a slushy morass, the game as a spectacle became less and less appealing (other than to those purists who see virtue in all of football's multifarious manifestations). Most casual observers departed, as did the "heretics" from Sydney and Brisbane.
With the Universities combination unable to make any inroads into the London lead during the 3rd term, despite having use of the stiffening breeze, the only question remaining at three quarter time was how much the Londoners would ultimately win by. With the pressure off during the final term the players of both sides relaxed and produced the most cohesive football of the afternoon. Sadly, any chance of making an impression among the local population had gone, as just about the only spectators remaining were friends of the players and umpires.
For the record, the scoreboard at the final siren showed London 52 points to the good, 13.13 (91) to the Universities 6.3 (39).
After the game a trio of Royal Australian Naval personnel who had travelled down from their duties at the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness issued a challenge to the Londoners on behalf of their football-loving colleagues. The abject failure of the afternoon's activities from a promotional point of view were swiftly forgotten as plans for an Australian Rules invasion of Cumbria were hatched.
As for the widespread induction of the natives into the splendour and fascination of "God's Own Game" that, sadly, would have to wait, as indeed it waits still.
In an ideal world, history would present us with a picture of the past that was accurate and verifiable, based on facts. However, as everyone knows, history is written by the winners, who all too often regard it, not as the intellectual and moral challenge it ought to be, but merely as a tool to bolster their own position. History in the hands of the empire builder almost invariably degenerates into propaganda, with the facts being magnified, distorted or ignored, depending on the circumstances.
A classic recent example of this has been the AFL’s depiction of the history of Australian football, which hinges on the deliberately concocted myth that today’s AFL and the VFL of yore are essentially the same beast. The AFL would like to be perceived as having been a truly national organisation for a good deal longer than it actually has – to be, if you like, Australia’s equivalent of Major League Baseball in America, or the elite soccer leagues of western Europe. Given that the AFL has effectively acquired control over every aspect of the football industry, the actual facts of the matter can be cheerfully ignored.
So what are those facts?
For a start, football’s present day pyramidal structure, with the AFL at its apex, is a comparatively recent development. For most of the twentieth century, each state or territory, including Victoria , had its own pyramid, topped by an elite competition. In states where football was the main winter sport, the fundamental differences between those elite competitions were quantitative rather than qualitative, although the fact that Victoria had many more footballers to draw upon than any other state obviously had potential qualitative implications as well (or, to put it another way, the more footballers you have, the more good ones there are likely to be).
This is light years away from suggesting that the elite competition in Victoria, the VFL, had a complete monopoly on the best talent in the nation. Quite simply, it didn’t, and there are hard facts to back this up. Let’s start by comparing the composition of modern AFL teams with their VFL counterparts of the past. In order to compare like with like as closely as possible, we’ll use a couple of premierships won half a century apart by Essendon. When the Bombers beat Melbourne in the 2000 grand final their team comprised eleven players who were recruited locally, four from country regions of Victoria, and seven from interstate.
For comparison, let’s look at the Bombers’ flag-winning team of 1950. Who were the equivalents of Michael Long, Darren Bewick and Sean Wellman back then? The simple answer is – nobody. The entire Essendon team of 1950 was Victorian, comprising sixteen local and four country recruits. Similarly, their opponents, North Melbourne , boasted an entirely Victorian line-up. Where then were the interstate stars? The same place they had been since football’s earliest days, and the same place they would, with a few exceptions, remain for many more years – interstate.
The fact that top level football was not restricted to Melbourne, and that the very best players could equally be found, if in smaller numbers, in SA, WA or Tasmania was something that the football public, journalists and players of yesteryear were well aware of, but which, for obvious reasons, the AFL of today would like to play down. Thus, for example, you get:
History may, indeed, always be written by the winners, but for that very reason it’s always worth questioning.
For a city which has never in its history boasted a population in excess of 30,000,¹ Broken Hill’s contribution to the sport of Australian football has been extraordinary, and indeed arguably unrivalled. The fact that the city is situated in New South Wales makes its story even more intriguing, even if not quite unique.
The original Broken Hill settlement was founded by Charles Rasp, a boundary rider who discovered iron ore (although he originally thought it was tin) in the region in 1883. Almost forty years earlier, in 1844-5, Charles Sturt had coined the expression ‘Broken Hill’ when writing, in his diary, of the distinctive, boomerang-shaped orebody protruding from the earth right at the very heart of the region that he decided to name the Barrier Ranges. That region has proved to be far and away the world’s single richest source of silver, lead and zinc for well over a century. As for the city of Broken Hill, as intimated in the opening paragraph, this has proved to be one of, if not the, richest sources of Australian football talent anywhere in the world, on a per capita basis at any rate - of which more later.
Football first came to Broken Hill on 4th April 1885 when a scratch match between Day Dream and Silverton took place at the Day Dream mine. This was the first of many such matches, and by 1888 an informal competition involving Broken Hill, Silverton, and Silver and Blues had commenced. Two years later this competition achieved formal status with the establishment of the Barrier Ranges Football Association, precursor of today’s Broken Hill Football League.
Life in this remote corner of New South Wales was very rough and ready, but football rapidly became an important civilising influence (much needed in a region where the ratio of males to females often exceeded two to one), as well as a key element in the social fabric. One of the main reasons for this was that many of Broken Hill’s earliest inhabitants hailed from either the Victorian goldfields, which had long been, and of course remain, a hotbed of the indigenous game, or the copper mines of Moonta and Kadina in South Australia. Later on, there was much movement to and fro between the Barrier and the Kalgoorlie-Coolgardie axis in Western Australia, where gold was discovered in 1892.
Once at the Barrier people tended, as is almost always the case, to emphasise and cling to those aspects of their lifestyles and behaviour patterns that they regarded as being quintessential to their identities, as well as to socialise and mix primarily with people hailing originally from the same geographical areas as themselves. Such predilection, needless to say, was as readily observable in footy as in any other walk of life, as is clearly evidenced by the fact that the two strongest clubs during the BRFA’s formative years were known simply as ‘Victorians’ and ‘South Australians’. Indeed, between them these two clubs shared all of the fledgling Association’s first ten premierships, with the South Australians indeed annexing all bar two.² Fulfilling the role of ‘whipping boys’ at various times, and to varying degrees of ineptitude, during this era were Broken Hill, North Broken Hill, South Broken Hill and Hotham.
The days of generic clubs such as South Australians were numbered, however. In 1900, in accordance with what was happening in many other competitions throughout Australia, the BRFA was reorganised along district lines, a development which perhaps emphasised Broken Hill’s transmutation from transitory mining settlement to permanent town.The first premiership of the reorganised competition was contested by the same four clubs which continue to make up the BHFL today: West Broken Hill, which became the first ‘non-colonial’ premier, North Broken Hill, Central Broken Hill and Alma (later re-named South Broken Hill). The inception of the district scheme also brought a reduction in the number of players per side from 20 to 18, three years after the same innovation had been implemented by the VFL.
As the population increased, and the number of players boasting top level experience in other parts of Australia continued to rise, so the standard of football being played in Broken Hill improved. In 1904, a combined Barrier side took on and defeated a visiting Port Adelaide side, a result that was clearly no fluke as it was promptly repeated the following year. The 1905 season also brought the first ever match between a BRFA team and one from the VFL, when a Collingwood side that was to reach that season’s Grand Final visited the ‘Silver City’³ and left with honour and pride intact but also, one imagines, with rather less skin on their knees than when they arrived⁴.
The national significance of the Barrier Ranges competition at this time is indicated by its being invited to send delegates to the first ever Australasian Football Conference, held in Melbourne in November 1905. In addition to the delegates from the BHFA there was representation from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Kalgoorlie-Border, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Launceston and New Zealand. The Conference, which was chaired by H.C.A. Harrison, paved the way for the inaugural Australasian football championships, held in Melbourne in 1908, as well as constituting, in effect, the establishment of the Australasian Football Council (AFC), One of the Victorians’ two wins came in 1895 when the South Australians went into temporary abeyance as a mark of respect for two of their players, ‘Scrap’ Panter and Archie Trembath, who were among those killed in an underground disaster at the South Mine.
‘Silver City’ is just one of several popular descriptions for Broken Hill coined over the years. Others include the ‘Oasis of the west’ and the ‘Capital of the Outback’.
In 1905 the BRFA spent £300 on the Jubilee Oval, which remains the League’s headquarters to this day. For many years this oval had no covering of grass, meaning that players needed a special, if not quite unique, kind of courage in order to succeed. Clearly the Collingwood players were not found wanting in this regard as they triumphed over the Barrier combination with some comfort, eventually winning by 28 points, 7.7 (49) to 2.9 (21). which would provide a national administrative underpinning of sorts for the code for much of the twentieth century, until eventually usurped as an authority by the VFL during the 1980s.
The national significance of the Barrier Ranges competition at this time is indicated by its being invited to send delegates to the first ever Australasian Football Conference, held in Melbourne in November 1905. In addition to the delegates from the BHFA there was representation from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Kalgoorlie-Border, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Launceston and New Zealand. The Conference, which was chaired by H.C.A. Harrison, paved the way for the inaugural Australasian football championships, held in Melbourne in 1908, as well as constituting, in effect, the establishment of the Australasian Football Council (AFC), which would provide a national administrative underpinning of sorts for the code for much of the twentieth century, until eventually usurped as an authority by the VFL during the 1980s.
The emergence of the AFC was a clear indication that football was becoming more professional in its outlook, a fact emphasised in Broken Hill in 1908 with the appointment, at Wests, of Bert Renfrey as the first paid coach in the Association’s history. Renfrey would go on to enjoy an auspicious career in the SANFL, leading South Australia to its historic carnival win of 1911, but at Wests he was less successful. Indeed, for much of the pre-world war one period it was Norths who dominated the competition, winning premierships in 1902, 1904-5, 1907 (unbeaten), 1908, 1909, 1911 and 1915. The Bulldogs’ main rivals during the early part of this period were Wests, who secured flags in 1900-1 and 1903, while Brokens (a temporary name change from Central Broken Hill) provided stiff opposition in the years leading up to the outbreak of war with premierships in 1910 and 1912-13.
Renfrey was just one of many ‘big name’ players, mainly from South Australia, to ply their trade at the Barrier during this time; most notable amongst the others perhaps were Magarey Medallists Jack Mack and Harold Oliver, both from Port Adelaide. Home grown champions also emerged, with North’s Dave Low, who went on to win the 1912 Magarey Medal with West Torrens, Jack Woollard, captain of Port Adelaide’s 1910 championship of Australia-winning team, and Algy Millhouse, who captain-coached Norwood in 1914, arguably the pick of these.
Meanwhile, the Barrier’s combined teams continued to engage in fixtures against powerful interstate clubs and representative 18s. In 1909, East Fremantle became the first West Australian club to visit Broken Hill, losing the first but winning the second of a two match series en route to Melbourne. From the East Fremantle perspective it was certainly an educational experience, with “the hard gravel ground......as strange to the team as the WACA ground in a wet July would have been to the combined Barrier team”. Moreover, “interpretations of the rules frequently nonplussed the visitors, but the home team’s handball resembled throwing to such an extent that Wilson (Old East’s captain) protested strongly”⁵.
The following year saw the Barrier take on the Ballarat Football League in another two match series, with its players kicking themselves out of contention in the first match, which was lost by 4 points, but making emphatic amends a view days later with a 16.13 (109) to 6.8 (44) triumph. Barrier and later Broken Hill representative sides took to the field wearing yellow and blue playing jumpers, a colour combination that was chosen to reflect the distinctive combination of blue skies and yellow wattle blossom that often dominated the region’s scenery.
In 1912 the BRFA’s representative team ventured interstate for the first time when it engaged in a return fixture against the Ballarat Football League, losing a hard fought match by 3 straight goals.
Mining activity in and around Broken Hill reached a peak in the years between the two world wars, and coincidentally the quality of the football being produced also “reached a previously unequalled standard”⁶. This was no thanks to the SA(N)FL and its clubs for whom the Barrier competition provided as rich and consistent a vein of readily plunderable talent as did the surrounding hills for the smelting works at Whyalla, Port Kembla and Port Pirie.
Among the many top ranking players to make a highly successful transition from the outback to the city were Dick Osborne, an eventual South Australian state representative initially rejected by Sturt but who soon afterwards found success with West Torrens, Alan Beck, a premiership player with Port Adelaide, livewire, intelligent rover Matt Kinnear (North Adelaide), Len Sly (South Adelaide), ‘Singer’ Barnes (West Adelaide), ‘Tiger’ Potts and Roy Bent (both Norwood). Even better perhaps than these noteworthy players were a handful of bona fide champions in the shape of 1922 Magarey Medallist Bobby Barnes, brother of ‘Singer’, his team mate at West Adelaide, Bruce McGregor, who went one better with consecutive Medals in 1926-7, and one of the deadliest goalsneaks the game has seen in Jack Owens, who topped the SA(N)FL’s goal kicking ladder on three occasions (once jointly) and his club, Glenelg’s, on no fewer than ten in amassing what, until the emergence of Ken Farmer a decade later, was a South Australian record 817 career goals.
The Barrier Ranges Football Association became the Broken Hill Football League in 1927, a name it has retained ever since. The competition during the 1920s tended to be closely contested, with Wests proving the most successful club with four senior flags, one clear of Souths, and two more than Norths. The remaining premiership, that of the 1925 season, was not won by Centrals as you might imagine, but was actually withheld by the Association after Centrals refused to take the field after half time in the Grand Final against Wests because they maintained that the central umpire was not giving their players ‘a fair go’.
This debacle led to the establishment of a much more accountable controlling body, in relation to which the name change can be seen as being virtually tantamount to a statement of intent; nevertheless, compared to the streamlined and highly competent administrative underpinning enjoyed by competitions like the VFL the BHFL remained, in certain senses, something of a backwater, a state of affairs which may not have been devoid of charm, but which nevertheless prevented the game in Broken Hill from developing in ways that hindsight tells us may have been feasible, such as by entering a team in the SANFL at some point, for instance.
During the height of the economic depression of the 1930s mining centres such as Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Broken Hill enjoyed, if not quite prosperity, then certainly an average standard of living measurably superior to that which was readily attainable elsewhere. This meant that, for a time at least, the escalating drain of players away from Broken Hill to clubs in the capital cities (mainly Adelaide) was arrested, and the standard of play, as intimated above, remained as high, if not higher, than ever before (or indeed since). Among the numerous matches engaged in by Broken Hill representative sides during the inter-war period was a long-running series of contests against South Australian ‘second best’ 18s. The Broken Hill combinations were never remotely disgraced in these contests, and indeed were victorious on quite a number of occasions, including a hefty 40 point success at home in 1938.
The match between South Australia’s second 18 and the BHFL at the Adelaide Oval on 29 July 1939 was a near classic which, although eventually won narrowly by the home side, emphasised in no uncertain terms that the football being played at the Barrier at the time was of comparable standard to that being played almost anywhere in Australia. The South Australian team was by no means the ramshackle collection of ‘has beens’ and ‘not quites’ that might be supposed. It was captained by Sturt’s Parker ‘Bo’ Morton, one of the finest full forwards of his day, and included the likes of George ‘Bluey’ Johnston of Glenelg, a young Jack Broadstock (West Adelaide), plus Magarey Medallists Bill McCallum (Norwood) and Jack Cockburn (South Adelaide). Despite this, and the unfamiliarity of the cold, wet conditions, the visitors dominated the early exchanges to lead 5.6 to 1.1 at the first interval. South Australia played its best football of the match in the second term to seize back both the initiative and the lead (by 7 points) at the main break, but thereafter it was only poor kicking for goal by the Broken Hill combination that prevented what might nowadays, in hindsight, be regarded as something of an upset. Almost certainly this would not have been the case at the time, however: Barrier football was widely, and rightly, respected, and had there been any kind of national competition in existence during the 1930s it might have been reasonable to expect to see the name ‘Broken Hill’ appearing more than once on any roll of honour. The final scores in this particular match were South Australia 19.14 (128) to Broken Hill 16.17 (113) with the Barrier’s forwards in particular proving that they were the equal, if not better, than anything South Australia had to offer.⁷
Other noteworthy matches engaged in by the BHFL during the inter-war period included an 18.14 (122) to 3.10 (28) annihilation of CANFL club Acton in Canberra in 1929, a 26 point defeat of a CANFL combined side, again in Canberra, in 1935, and wins against East Fremantle and Claremont (both at home) in 1938 and 1939 respectively.
Since world war two the profile and standing of competitions like the BHFL has steadily diminished, but the key word here is ‘steadily’ as it was certainly not an overnight occurrence. Indeed, as late as the 1970s the BHFL’s representative side was still enjoying a fair amount of success, recording wins over the likes of Woodville (by 24 points in 1970), Coburg (by 25 points the same year), and West Adelaide (by 7 points, 1972). By the early 1980s, however, the developing professionalisation of the code was beginning to have a distinctly detrimental effect on the competitiveness of ‘non-league’ combinations such as the BHFL; when the league took on perennial SANFL wooden spooner Woodville in 1982, for instance, it was unequivocally beaten.⁸
The talent conduit between BHFL and other, ostensibly superior competitions, notably the SANFL, was still in full swing, however. Neil Davies, for example, was a star with Glenelg, Richmond and St Marys, Colin Casey played 251 league games in thirteen seasons with Sturt, while Andy Bennett enjoyed a successful career as a player and coach in three states, and these are just a few of examples.
As late as the 1970s Broken Hill could realistically lay claim to still being one of the genuine hotbeds of the game, but one is forced to wonder whether that is still the case. For example, a glance at The ‘AFL Record’ Guide To Season 2005 reveals that only two players then on AFL club lists (Essendon’s Dean Solomon, and Brent Staker of West Coast) actually hailed originally from the city which could arguably, at one time, lay claim to being the per capita capital of Australia’s only indigenous sport.
Of course, it may simply be that football is undergoing a temporary slump, and that all will be well once more in a few years time, but somehow this is hard to accept. Football today, for both participants and observers, is increasingly perceived as providing just one among many potential ways of utilising the leisure dollar, and in country Australia, once the heart and soul of the game, it is all too easy nowadays to choose alternative spending outlets. This state of affairs is likely to be here to stay, one senses, forever leaving the history of Australian football in Broken Hill as perhaps the code’s quintessential tale of romance, sparkling ambition, excitement, allure, and against-the-odds achievement - but, ultimately, one is constrained to admit, of unfulfilled potential, missed opportunity, and acutely exasperating failure.
He was 6ft. 5in. (196cm).
He had represented two states.
He had played in 10 league Grand Finals.
Bob Johnson, the ex-Melbourne star, gave a magnificent exhibition of 'power' football to rip the Broken Hill Combined team's defences to shreds in the match against East Fremantle at the Jubilee Oval on July 3, 1965.
How lucky for the locals that 'Big Bob' couldn't kick the goals as easily as he could get the ball. He kicked seven from countless shots.
Broken hill gave a good account of themselves, but as seems always the case in matches such as these, they fell down in attack again.
Dick Dally (BH) won the Craven 'A' Trophy for the best man afield. Ray Egan (BH) and Mike Regan (EF) trophies for outstanding play for their respective teams, and Jarvis Petit (BH) and John Martinson (EF) for the best placed men.
Johnson captained the visitors and Dave Schmidt the BHFL team.
The local team comprised:
BACKS: J.Johns (West) M.Hurley (Central) T.Rimmer (South)
HALF-BACKS: N.Fillery (South) J.Petit (North) R.Preston (Central)
CENTRES: P.Squire (Central) W.Hardy (North) V.Gauci (West)
HALF FORWARDS: M.Andrich (South) J.Richards (North) G.Lakes (West)
FORWARDS: J.Eddy (North) D.Dally (North) R.Parkes (Central)
RUCKS: D.Schmidt (North) G.Bennetts (West)
ROVER: R.Egan (North)
RESERVES: B.Goldring (North) G.Milne (West)
COACH: G.Hill (Central)
East Fremantle: 4.1 11.5 16.6 16.10 106
Broken Hill: 2.1 5.5 9.6 12.10 83
East Fremantle: Johnson 7; Schnell 4; Regan 2; Nylander, Prowse, Shorthill
BHFL: Egan 3; Dally, Parkes, Rimmer 2; Eddy, Gauci, Richards
East Fremantle: Regan, Martinson, Johnson, Watson, Schnell, Holt
BHFL: Dally, Egan, Petit, Lakes, Squire, Andrich
Attendance: 5,000 (approx.)
Note: An indication of East Fremantle's strength is that they defeated Swan Districts in that season's WANFL Grand Final.
Everything that follows is true. None of the names have been changed to protect the guilty (except the ones I can't remember).
Autobiographical Introit Part One: The Eve of the Match
It was all Stefan's and Francis's fault. They were a year older than the rest of us and so, understandably, we deferred to their judgement. Whether what followed had its origins as a calculated prank on their part, which ultimately went too far, or was from the start a genuine error, I never knew, but the results, for me at any rate, were far-reaching and seminal, shaping my life as surely and as emphatically as any event before or since.
When you're eleven, each weekend is a vast oasis of time stretching out far beyond the horizon. Monday morning, and the humdrum routine of school, remains an unproven and, at 6 o'clock or so on a Friday evening, highly improbable hypothesis.
Friday 30th June 1967, at roughly 6pm, found me, aged eleven, leaving school football training with a group of friends. The oasis that week seemed especially lush and expansive, for on the morrow I would, as I saw it, be making my interstate football debut at the Adelaide Oval, where South Australia would be going head to head with the might of the 'Big V'. Admittedly, it was only my debut as a first hand spectator of such events, but the knot in my stomach would surely not have been any tighter had I been selected to play at full back against the new 'wunderkind' of Victorian football, Royce Hart.
The fact that I experienced such a pronounced sense of anticipation was perhaps allowable, but it was, at the same time, unprecedented. Could it have been that, subconsciously, I was aware that, after watching this particular match, my already by this stage fairly long-standing infatuation with Australian football would be transformed into a full-blown, and all-consuming, love affair?
First though there was the deceptively straightforward matter of getting home from footy training. Normally, this particular journey took about forty-five minutes; tonight it would be virtually four hours before, tired, wet and bedraggled - but still luxuriating in a miasma of excitement over the prospect of Baldock, Nicholls, Shearman, Eustice and co. the next day - I vaulted the garden fence ready to proffer my hastily concocted, but I hoped believable, explanation as to why I was so late.
Normally, I walked directly home from training with two or three others who lived in the same neighbourhood. Tonight, for some reason, a group of about a dozen of us - several of whom (though not Stefan and Francis) would be attending the next day's interstate match - decided to walk home together, effecting, as it were, a kind of half-circuit of the town, dropping people off as we went. The agreed route meant that I would be one of the last to arrive home, but even so the entire journey ought not to have taken more than an hour and a half.
Had we been a few years older the most logically persuasive explanation of our ensuing waywardness would likely have had to do with the disorientating effects of an over-indulgence in alcohol. In reality, it was intoxication of quite a different kind which was to blame, as we spent the early part of our journey engaged in excited chatter over South Australia's prospects in the following afternoon's big game, all the while, with Stefan and Francis leading the way, wandering further and further off the beaten track.
At first, I treated it all as a bit of a joke. I realised straight away that we were heading in the wrong direction, but Francis and Stefan either had a mysterious, and hopefully amusing, agenda of their own, or were genuinely lost - a state of affairs likely to have even more hilarious consequences. Anyway, as long as the sun stayed up, then due west - the direction in which I lived - was easy enough to pinpoint. Meanwhile, although I made a few half-hearted objections, I was more or less content to bide my time and see what transpired.
Then the sun went down. Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves at the end of a road I knew: it was where some friends of my parents lived and was, I knew, a good five kilometres from home. "This isn't the way," I announced defiantly, resolving that, whatever the consequences, I was going no further in this direction. However, to my surprise, both Stefan and Francis agreed. So did the others, and we headed back the way we had come.
Whether Stefan and Francis suddenly felt that enough was enough, or had, by this stage, begun to awaken to their error of judgement, will doubtless never be known, but I believed at the time - and have never since had reason to change my mind - that we were genuinely lost.
Almost an hour later we came across the railway track, which told us that we were at least travelling in broadly the right direction. However, it soon emerged that we had travelled a good deal too far to the north; home, for me, was still at least an hour and a half away.
Fortunately, we all - Francis and Stefan included - knew more or less where we were; getting home was now only a matter of time rather than orientation. As chance would have it, Francis and Stefan lived nearest, so we dropped them off first. It was just after nine o'clock when we reached Stefan's house, and as the rest of us reassured his anxious mother that we all knew our various ways home and that, yes, we would proceed there promptly and without deviation, it started to rain. This seemed to cause Stefan's mother still further anxiety, but I managed to alleviate her worries with some impromptu off the wall humour that was secretly aimed at Stefan's sister, watching from behind the door, who was in the same class as me at school, and who I quite fancied.
Almost an hour later, saturated both in H20 and self-admiration, I was the last but one to arrive home. "See you tomorrow," I said to the Forder brothers, who still had a ten minute walk ahead of them. "I'll call for you at 8.30." The plan was that we would then rendezvous with the remaining members of our party at the train station.
The Forder brothers muttered something incomprehensible and hastened off. I gripped the garden fence with both hands, successfully implemented my recently mastered vaulting technique, and went inside to face the music.
Autobiographical Introit Part Two: Nirvana's Four Foundations
A total of four key factors combined to make the next day both memorable and significant. Had any of these four factors been absent, then it is unlikely that I would be able to look back on my attendance at the 1967 interstate football match between South Australia and the Victorian Football League as anything more significant than a somewhat enjoyable or interesting event. As things turned out, it became much, much more.
The first factor was that the 'music' I had confronted on the previous night had been surprisingly muted and brief; I think my mother was more relieved than angry, all too eager to swallow my thin excuse of "it was all Stefan's and Francis' fault".
The second factor was the fact that the match itself was, according to popular opinion, one of the finest interstate contests seen in Adelaide for years, with the standard of the play of the highest order, and the result in doubt until (quite literally) the end.
The third factor was the rain, which fell intermittently throughout the day, and which limited the attendance to less than 40,000. This meant that, unlike for many games at Adelaide Oval during this particular era, it was possible for all spectators at the ground to obtain a clear, unobstructed view of the action.
The fourth and final factor emerged when I called on the Forder brothers early that morning. Chris, the younger one, answered the door, barely opening it sufficiently for me to make him out. He seemed shrunken somehow, emaciated. "We can't come," he said sullenly. "We've been grounded."
I stared back, bemused, the events of the previous night already consigned to distant memory. "You're joking," I said.
"Nah. Gazza, Pete and Clarkey aren't going either - they 'phoned."
I gulped back at him like a goldfish. Gazza, Pete and Clarkey were to have met us at the train station. It duly emerged, after further whispered interrogation, that our circuitous walk home the previous evening had not encountered universal parental acquiescence, and that I would be going to the match alone, or not at all.
The thing was, my mother thought I was going with a group of friends, and it was on that understanding that I had received her consent to travel all the way to Adelaide by train without adult supervision. Strictly speaking therefore, I knew I ought to have turned back, and gone home. However, I was eleven years old, and had been looking forward to this day for weeks on end. Besides, how would my mother ever find out that I had gone to the game alone? I certainly wasn't going to tell her.
"See you Monday then," I said to Chris, and the fourth factor clicked into place, for without the distracting encumbrance of friends I was to be free to concentrate on the actual on-field football action as never before. Prior to this, trips to the footy had involved messing around with my mates, and having a kick on the oval during the breaks between quarters; on this occasion, I would embrace nirvana.
The Big Match Build-up
South Australia entered the match with a new look line-up. Injuries had robbed the team of key, proven interstate performers in the shape of John Cahill (Port Adelaide), Robert Day (West Adelaide), Geoff Kingston (West Torrens) and Bob Schmidt (South Adelaide), while stalwarts like Neil Kerley (Glenelg) and Bill Wedding (Norwood) had been excluded. Kerley, in fact, was named as coach of the team, while Wedding's somewhat controversial exclusion would arguably prove decisive; as a ruckman, he had repeatedly proved himself capable of competing on even terms with the formidable Victorian big men, who on this occasion would ultimately emerge as South Australia's undoing. Nevertheless, there were still a fair number of very good players in the South Australian team, including tenacious captain Ken Eustice from Central District, the Sturt duo of Paul Bagshaw and the long kicking Bob Shearman, the 1966 Magarey Medallist Ron Kneebone (Norwood) and his eventual 1967 successor Trevor Obst (Port Adelaide), a pair of North Adelaide interstate debutants in Barrie Robran and Dennis Sachse (three parts potato to one part league footballer, but a highly effective full forward nevertheless), and my own particular hero, Port Adelaide's test cricketing goalsneak, Eric Freeman.
The VFL team, which was coached by Collingwood's Bob Rose, was, as usual, packed with talent, as well as, on this occasion, possessing more experience than the South Australians. Skippered by St Kilda's Darrel Baldock, the team possessed an awesome looking ruck division comprising John Nicholls (Carlton), Len Thompson (Collingwood), John Schultz (Footscray) and Noel Teasdale (North Melbourne). These would be supported by a pair of top quality rovers in South Melbourne's dual Brownlow Medallist - later to win a third - Bob Skilton, and Ross Smith of St Kilda, who would win the same award later that year. Attracting more attention than any of these players, however, was Richmond's young Tasmanian spearhead, Royce Hart, who had made his interstate debut a fortnight earlier against Western Australia, when he had booted 7 goals. Aged just 19, Hart would be opposed by another of my favourite players, Port Adelaide's dogged, miserly full back, Ron Elleway, who treated every goal kicked against him as a personal indignity. Prior to the match, the media was treating this particular duel as potentially crucial to the outcome of the match.
Others stars in the Victorian line up included Hawthorn's beanpole wingman Des Meagher, Essendon's rugged half back Barry Davis, Richmond utility Bill Barrot, who had been best afield against Western Australia a fortnight earlier, the versatile Denis Marshall of Geelong, and reliable defenders like Wes Lofts (Carlton) and Peter Walker (Geelong)
The consensus in the press appeared to be that the VFL was a marginal favourite to win this game. However, there was certainly no trace in any of the match previews of the inferiority complex which began to beset South Australian football in the 1970s. Why should there be? South Australian interstate teams had proved themselves more than a match for the Vics on several recent occasions, while matches between South Australian and VFL clubs had, over the past few seasons, begun increasingly to favour the croweaters. However, after squandering most of my lunch money on potato chips, chocolate and ginger beer at Adelaide station, I distinctly remember thinking, as I walked to the ground through yet another shower of rain, "Bloody wet weather football - suit the Vics!"
In still, cool, overcast conditions, with rain falling intermittently, South Australia's Ken Eustice won the toss and chose to kick to the scoreboard end. The oval was in excellent condition, with the exception of the central cricket wicket area, which was somewhat muddy.
The first quarter was evenly contested, with the two sides testing one another out. Right from the outset a pattern emerged whereby the Victorian ruckmen won the majority of the hit-outs, only to see a comparatively large proportion of them sharked by Murphy and Chessell, the two South Australian ruck rovers. Overall, this meant that neither team gained a decisive advantage from the ruck contests.
Given the slippery conditions, it was perhaps surprising that neither teams' rovers were especially prominent, although Ross Smith (VFL) occasionally caught the eye with his verve, pace and clever use of the ball, while South Australia's Potter kicked the goal of the term when he somehow managed to break clear of a surging pack of players and elude several flailing attempts to tackle and spoil, before snapping truly from a tight angle.
Wingman Des Meagher was the VFL's most effective player in this term. He managed 8 kicks while keeping his opponent, Barrie Robran, kickless, and repeatedly sent his team deep into attack.
South Australian skipper Eustice played on a half back flank on the Victorians' match winner from a fortnight earlier, Bill Barrot. On this occasion, Barrot met his nemesis, as Eustice was too quick and aggressive for him, providing a frequent source of vital rebound for the South Australians.
Neither full forward, Sachse for South Australia, or Hart for the VFL, showed to much effect in this term, although Sachse did get one clear-cut opportunity which resulted in the ball striking the goal post.
Victorian skipper Baldock was conspicuous early, only to fade over the remaining 3 quarters.
Paul Bagshaw in the centre for South Australia proved to be a thorn in the Victorians' side all day, forcing Big V coach Bob Rose to try a succession of opponents on him, with limited success.
Overall, South Australia got the ball into attack more than their opponents this term, but were frequently repelled by the Victorian half backs before getting into scoring range. As a result, their lead at the first change was just 5 points. Quarter time: South Australia 3.4 (22); VFL 2.5 (17)
In the 2nd quarter Freeman at centre half forward raised his game, giving South Australia a reliable route to goal which they repeatedly utilised. Waiting at the end of these forays as often as not was Dennis Sachse who, towards the halfway mark of the term, kicked his first goal in interstate football after a good mark, and followed up with his second shortly afterwards after being needlessly pushed in the back by Lofts. This made the score 6.4 to 3.7 in South Australia's favour. The home side was now completely on top, with the ball continuously in their forward lines. Three times in rapid succession Sachse marked brilliantly within easy reach of goal, only to miss the target each time with awkward looking tumble punts that skidded off the side of his boot. If only it had been Eric Freeman with his unfailingly accurate drop punts, I thought to myself, we'd have had 3 goals on the board. As it was, the Vics were still very much in the game.
Perhaps inevitably, the wind went out of South Australia's sails at this point, and the Victorian effort all over the ground was raised a notch or two as they fought back to be within just 3 points at the long break. Des Meagher, having allowed his opponent Barrie Robran latitude earlier in the term, was particularly prominent during this phase, as was Essendon's Alan Noonan on a half forward flank. Across half back Denis Marshall enjoyed another good quarter, while big John Schultz was a prominent figure all over the ground.
For South Australia, Bagshaw continued to win in the centre, while his Sturt team mate Darryl Hicks was in effervescent form on a wing. Full back Ron Elleway still had Hart in his pocket, while the ruck-roving pair of Murphy and, more particularly, Chessell were continually in the thick of the action.
The overriding feeling at half time though was that South Australia had led a vital opportunity slip. Half time: South Australia 6.7 (43); VFL 5.10 (40)
The 3rd term brought tough, slogging, uncompromising football from both sides, with clear goal scoring opportunities at a premium. The Victorians continued to be well served by their half back division, while big Len Thompson from Collingwood was winning the majority of the hit-outs. Rover Ross Smith and ruckman John Schultz were also noteworthy performers.
For South Australia, Norwood rover Bob Oatey played his best quarter of the match, thriving in the now sodden ground conditions, while ruck rovers Chessell and Murphy continued to undermine Thompson's ruck supremacy to a fair extent by intercepting numerous hit-outs. They were also much in evidence around the ground, as well as limiting the effectiveness of the Victorian resting ruckmen when resting themselves in a back pocket.
Hart at full forward for the VFL side had still not managed to break clear of Elleway, while South Australian centre half back Ron Kneebone was now keeping tight wraps on Baldock.
At the other end of the ground, Wes Lofts had reasserted his supremacy over Sachse, while Peter Walker was engaged in a fascinating duel with Freeman which saw him dominate when the ball was on the ground, but look a trifle suspect during aerial contests.
At three quarter time the status quo had been maintained; it was still South Australia by 3 points. Three quarter time: South Australia 8.9 (57); VFL 7.12 (54)
The final term had almost everything you could wish for from a game of football: superb play from both teams, no fewer than five lead changes, and a smattering of controversy to boot.
South Australia seemed the better side during the opening 15 minutes of the quarter but could not convert. It seemed they had done so on one occasion, however, when, from a scrimmage on the goal line, the ball was knocked back to Dennis Sachse who appeared to kick truly, only for the goal umpire to raise just one flag. It later transpired that he was of the view that, during the scrimmage, the ball had travelled over the goal line for a rushed behind, but to many spectators in the ground, and not a few players, it seemed that big Dennis had missed another 'sitter'.
During the second half of the term the Victorian rucks began to exert a telling effect, both in rucking contests, and around the ground. It was probably the first time in the entire match that the Vics had managed to get a genuine run on, and the omens for South Australia were ominous.
This was point was reinforced when, after getting no change out of Elleway for three quarters, Royce Hart finally broke free for a couple of vital goals, scored within a minute of one another, enabling the Vics to hit the front.
VFL coach Rose replaced Bob Skilton, who had had a dismal afternoon, with Fitzroy rover John Newnham, and this ultimately proved to be almost a match-winning move. For South Australia, Neil Kerley decided to leave things as they were.
The closing minutes of the match were as nerve-racking and dramatic as you could wish. As the time on period commenced, South Australia led narrowly, but 3 minutes in the Vics nosed in front and looked home. South Australia had other ideas, however, and from the centre bounced they surged into attack for Freeman to restore their lead from a long snap.
A point to the Vics soon tied the scores, and with time running out a draw looked probable. With just over a minute to go, normally reliable South Australian half back flanker Brenton Adcock of Sturt appeared to have plenty of time to deal with a loose ball near the boundary, but he fumbled badly, allowing it to trickle over the line. From the ensuing boundary throw in, the Victorians force the ball forward, and Newnham kicks what proves to be the winning goal. Had Adcock managed to collect the ball, as he probably would have nine times out of ten, he would have had plenty of time to safely clear his lines and almost certainly secure the draw.
One final moment of drama remained. In the dying seconds, South Australia mounted a last, desperate attacking thrust which culminated in the ball being kicked high to the teeth of the goal square. As players set themselves, and moments before the ball arrived, the siren sounded; nevertheless, the pack of players still contested the mark, with Eric Freeman taking a beauty within point blank range of goal, but alas! the game is already over. Final score: VFL 11.19 (85); South Australia 11.13 (79)
BEST - VFL: Meagher, Smith, Marshall, Schultz, Davis, Walker South Australia: Elleway, Hicks, Chessell, Eustice, Bagshaw, Potter
GOALS - VFL: Baldock, Hart, Nicholls 2; Meagher, Newnham, Noonan, Schultz, Skilton South Australia: Sachse 3; Darley, Freeman, Tilbrook 2; Potter, Shearman
ATTENDANCE: 39,564 at the Adelaide Oval
Autobiographical Postscript: Nirvana Achieved
I returned home in something approximating to a state of rapture, South Australia's narrow and - in my view - unjustified loss notwithstanding. It was as if the scales had been whisked from my eyes; enlightenment had dawned. Football, far from being just a game, was a metaphor, indeed a conduit, for life itself. As of this particular day, and this unique and unrepeatable set of experiences, football and life, for me, would become so inextricably intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. Football became my life, my raison d'etre, my fulfillment. Had the catalyst for this been of a somewhat different kind you might reasonably have deduced that I had undergone a religious experience, and indeed that is the closest, most meaningful comparison I can draw.
Despite the fact that I had had a keen interest in football for several years, this was the first time I had been confronted full on by all its essential beauty, drama, pain, exhilaration and allure. I was, to coin a cliché, born again, and nothing in the world would ever be quite the same.
Before catching my train home, on a sudden impulse I spent the last few cents of my lunch money on a bar of Cadbury's fruit and nut, my mother's favourite. It was a shrewd move. Later that evening, bribe duly proffered and taken, I wallowed once again in the thrill of watching all the major incidents from the match on Channel 9's 'Big Match Replay'. This represented a virtually unprecedented luxury, given that Saturday nights traditionally saw us, as a family, ensconced before the dubious delights of SAS 10's 'Country and Western Hour'.
Once again, I marvelled over Potter's miraculous early goal, Sachse's big grabs, the sinuous guile of Bagshaw, the pace of Hicks, the tenacity of Eustice, Kneebone and Obst, the prodigious kicking of Freeman, Elleway's asphyxiating stranglehold on Hart, and, most transfixing and compelling of all, those final, tumultuous, electrifying minutes which, despite my fervent prayers to the contrary, still ended with the siren blaring out at least a couple of seconds too soon.
1. For example, at the teams' previous meeting at Adelaide Oval two years earlier, South Australia had won by 64 points, while keeping the Vics to their lowest ever interstate score of just 3.1 (19). Two years prior to that, the South Australians had scored a notable victory at the MCG against a VFL side extolled, prior to the game, as one of the strongest ever to take the field.
2. Port Adelaide, for example, had beaten Geelong in 1965, and would defeat Collingwood at the end of the 1967 season, while Sturt had thrashed Collingwood in 1966 and would do the same to Carlton later in 1967.
3. The vagaries of fortune in football would be clearly evidenced three weeks later at Subiaco Oval when, playing for South Australia against Western Australia, Bagshaw would receive a consummate caning from Syd Jackson.
Adelaide Oval which, like many cricket grounds throughout Australia, borrows part of its name from the home of Surrey County Cricket Club in south London, was first used as a cricket venue in November 1872, with football being played there from 1877. Eventually it became the South Australian headquarters of both sports, as well as arguably the most visually pleasing of all major international sports grounds. From a football perspective, its perfect oval shape and lush grass playing surface made it - indeed, still make it - one of the code's premier venues, although it ceased to be the headquarters of the SANFL in 1974.
Between 1965 and 1969 I made many trips to the Adelaide Oval, usually to watch football, but also, on occasion, cricket. My first visit to the ground was in 1965, when I was part of a record crowd of 62,543 for the SANFL grand final between Port Adelaide and Sturt. Perched on my father's shoulders, I can dimly recall seeing Port champion and 1964 Magarey Medallist Geof Motley battling for the ball near the scoreboard boundary - Port's left back pocket - before gaining possession and clearing with a low, raking drop kick. Then a raucous cacophony of abuse from the spectators behind us, whose view of the game was being interrupted by my skinny nine year old frame, forced my father to deposit me back on the ground, where I remained for the rest of the afternoon. Port duly won the grand final by 3 points, after holding off a determined finish by the Blues, but my pleasure in the achievement was somewhat sullied by my failure to observe more than about fifteen seconds of the action.
Most of my subsequent visits to the ground during the footy season were for minor round matches, when a clear view of the action was assured. These trips were always in the company of friends, with the exception of the 1967 interstate match (covered above), and the 1969 first semi final replay between West Torrens and West Adelaide. I travelled to the '67 state match on my own, owing to circumstances largely outside my control, and as is explained in the article on that game, this enabled me to concentrate on the on field action as never before, transforming my affection for the game into a full blown love affair in the process.
In September 1969 I knew that I would be returning to England early in the new year and, because of athletics commitments, the last Saturday on which I would be free to attend a football match was the Saturday originally earmarked for the second semi final meeting of minor premiers Glenelg and Sturt. However, a draw in the first semi final between Westies and Torrens meant that it was those two teams, and not the Bays and the Blues, who would be fronting up at the 'home of football' on the afternoon of Saturday 13th September. My experiences at the interstate clash of two years previously was, needless to say, still fresh in my mind, and acutely conscious that this would in all probability be the last occasion for some time that I would be able to witness top level football at first hand, I resolved to try to replicate those experiences by attending the match on my own.
Determined to drink deeply of every aspect of the day, I set off for Adelaide at first light (of which there was very little, with the dismal, grey, omnipresent gloom of the weather both matching and reinforcing my mood), and was one of the first spectators to be admitted to the ground prior to the start of the Thirds second semi final between West Torrens and Glenelg which, painfully aware as I was that my aspiration to be playing in just such a game in three or four years time was no longer feasible, I scrutinised every bit as avidly as the League game. It proved to be a close, hard fought affair until the closing stages, with the Eagles steadying during the run in to win by 17 points. Future League players in Neville Caldwell (Glenelg) and Milan Faletic (Torrens) featured in the game.
Was West Torrens' win an omen for the League game? It remained to be seen, but first I had the Seconds second semi final to look forward to, and my only opportunity of the day to see my beloved 'mighty Magpies' in action. Alas, in 1969 the Magpies were anything but mighty: the League side had failed to qualify for the finals for the first time since the Dark Ages, while the Seconds, despite securing the minor premiership with some comfort, appeared on this particular occasion to have inherited the seniors' malaise. It wasn't until just before half time that they even managed to score a goal, and opponents and arch rivals Norwood won with ease.
Although I supported neither of the protagonists in the League game, I found - and still find - it virtually impossible to derive maximum enjoyment from watching a sporting contest without going through the formality of 'choosing sides'. I therefore decided to barrack for Westies, for the simple - and, to my teenage mind of the time, wholly persuasive - reason that my best friend was a West Torrens supporter. Besides, whilst it might be hard for those whose only experience of the West Torrens Football Club was of its two decades of decline prior to the merger with Woodville to imagine, in 1969 almost everyone seemed to be jumping on the Torrens bandwagon. In part, this was attributable to boredom over the longevity of Sturt's premiership reign, but there were ostensibly sound and logical reasons to jump aboard as well. The Eagles' last defeat had been on 21st June, twelve weeks ago. Since then, they had beaten every team in the competition, including the all powerful Double Blues, at least once, whilst playing "a premiership brand of football" characterised by pace, determination and, most noticeably, a superb team system that enabled them to 'tough things out' and stifle the opposition even when things did not appear to be going their way.
The first semi final a week earlier had been a case of 'business as usual' for most of the first half, with the Eagles seemingly comfortably in control. However, when a Murray Weideman motivated West raised both the tempo and the pressure after half time it was a different story, and in the end only poor kicking for goal by some of their players prevented the Blood 'n Tars from securing what would, at the time, have been regarded as something of an upset win.
The replay started off in similar vein to the first encounter, with Torrens players first to the ball, and using it more purposefully than their opponents. Peter Phillipou on a half forward flank was particularly prominent, contributing 3 of the Eagles' 5 opening term goals, while the Torrens small men like Birt, Gibson and Barnes were proving too quick and elusive for their opponents. Despite this, a goal to Jonas just before the quarter time siren reduced the margin to just 2 goals when, on the balance of play, it ought perhaps to have been twice that. Despite the heavy ground conditions both teams were handling the greasy ball cleanly, although in this they were undoubtedly helped by the fact that the threatened rain had so far held off. The wind had also dropped considerably since earlier in the day, facilitating the accurate foot passing for which both teams were noted. Quarter Time: West Torrens 5.2 (32); West Adelaide 3.2 (20)
The second term saw the temp of the game increase as Westies tried desperately to gain the ascendancy. In this this they were at least partially successful as their 1st ruck combination of Russian, Weideman and Pannenburg began to come more into the game while second rover Wallis chipped in with 2 goals to bring the Blood 'n Tars to within 7 points at the long break. For Torrens, captain-coach John Birt "was playing his heart out attempting to lift his side", while John Graham, whose form had been a key factor in the team's revival over the second half of the season, was near impassable at centre half back. All of the scoring in this term took place in the opening 13 minutes, with the run up to half time being characterised by hard, slogging, attritional football. I can clearly recall thinking that the drab nature of both the weather and the football acutely and accurately reflected my state of mind. Half Time: West Torrens 6.4 (40); West Adelaide 5.3 (33)
After a rare mistake by Torrens full back Gould, Leonard snapped truly for West early in the third term to narrow the margin to just 1 point. The Eagles replied with minor scores to Phillipou and McSporran, but most of the ensuing ten minutes was played out in what, in years to come, would be the zone between the respective fifty metre arcs. It was desperate, almost frantic football - most definitely not for the frail of heart. Midway through the term, West took the lead for the first time with the goal of the match to date. Murray Weideman pulled in a strong, one handed mark and immediately played on with a handball to centre half forward Milsom, who so far had scarcely been sighted. Milsom handballed to Pannenburg, received the ball back on the double play, and then hand passed to full forward Jonas. Pannenburg, who had followed the play down field, and was in metres of space, then gleefully accepted Jonas' handball and ran into an open goal to make the score West 7.3 to Torrens 6.6.
The Eagles hit back almost straight away with a long goal from Birt that bounced through, but for the remainder of the term it was all West. Another precise hand passing sequence involving Bertelsmeier, Day and Pannenburg culminated in Fraser goaling brilliantly, and then David Jonas sank his boot into a trademark drop punt that travelled close to sixty metres straight through the centre. Shortly afterwards, Pannenburg accepted a handball from Weideman to bring up the Blood 'n Tars' tenth goal with an adroit snap, and suddenly the only question appeared to be 'how much West?'
The remaining five minutes of the quarter saw Torrens attempting to up the momentum but West, with captain-coach Weideman a steadying influence a kick behind the play, proved equal to it. Three Quarter Time: West Adelaide 10.7 (67); West Torrens 7.7 (49)
For the first time in the day, the sun broke through at the start of the final term. Clearly, it was shining on behalf of the Blood 'n Tars, for early in the quarter half forward Robert Day gathered the ball off hands and calmly slotted it home to push the margin out to 4 goals. Once the sun disappeared, however, the Eagles rallied to produce one last desperate push for victory, which saw first McSporran and then Mulvihill goal easily to reduce the difference to just 12 points with at least twenty minutes still to play. Clearly, the next goal would have a crucial bearing on the result of the game, and it was Westies who snatched it courtesy of Pannenburg, who kicked truly after Hewitt had cleverly soccered the ball to him from the middle of a heaving scrimmage of players.
Still Torrens would not concede defeat, however, and Birt replied almost immediately with a clever left foot snap to peg the deficit back to 2 goals. When Lindsay Head hit Brian Mulvihill on the chest with a perfect daisy cutter a few minutes later the big centre half forward had an excellent chance to bring the Eagles to within a single straight kick, but his shot ebbed away for a behind. West promptly took the ball to the other end of the ground and Robert Day, deep in the scoreboard pocket, registered full points with a textbook drop punt. This major finally seemed to knock the stuffing out of the Eagles, and for the remaining six minutes the Blood 'n Tars attacked relentlessly, only for Leonard, Verrier and Pope to miss the target with relatively easy shots. A rushed behind to West proved to be the final score in an absorbing and hard fought match in which the victors' greater steadiness under pressure proved decisive. Final Score: West Adelaide 13.11 (89); West Torrens 10.8 (68)
BEST - West Adelaide: Pannenburg, Wallis, R.Hooper, Day, Weideman, Russian, Bertelsmeier, Bray West Torrens: Birt, Pill, Graham, Head, Phillipou, Bills, Wildy
SCORERS - West Adelaide: Pannenburg 3.1; Wallis 3.0; Jonas 2.4; Day 2.0; Verrier 1.2; Fraser 1.1; Leonard 1.0; Pope 0.1; rushed 0.2 West Torrens: Phillipou 3.1; Birt 3.0; Mulvihill 1.3; Barnes, McSporran, Stokes 1.1; rushed 0.1
ATTENDANCE: 26,315 at the Adelaide Oval
Despair, Denial and Departure
Having more than once suffered bereavement since that day, I would have no hesitation in likening the state of mind accompanying the loss of a loved one to the way I felt during my journey home that evening. Although not yet fourteen years of age, I was intensely aware that something precious, important and life affirming had been stripped from me, perhaps not permanently, but almost certainly for a very long time. Nevertheless, fourteen year olds are nothing if not resilient: over the next few months I more or less succeeded in putting the impending disaster to the back of my mind, preferring to focus on the immediate if transient delights of football (for a few weeks more at any rate), cricket and athletics, as well as artfully, if somewhat reticently, exploring a nascent interest in the other sex.
When 'D Day' was three months away, it still seemed hard to believe in.
With two months to go, it was still remote and vaguely nebulous - perhaps it wouldn't happen after all?
Then the final month: I made a conscious, concerted effort to savour every moment, to make things meaningful and stark. According to certain Oriental philosophies, or so I had read, it was possible, by sheer willpower, to slow time down to the merest trickle. I tried.
The Wilderness Years
Of all humankind's innumerable achievements, the invention of language is undoubtedly both the most important, and the most impressive. Nevertheless, as I'll explain a little later, it has its limitations.
For most of the 1970s, my experience of Australian football was transmitted almost entirely at second hand, by means of the written word: letters from friends (at least initially); VFL and SANFL annual reports (in response to my all too frequent, in truth rather pathetic 'begging letters'); and copies of 'Football Life', 'Football Record' and the 'SA Football Budget'. The nearest I got to a first hand appreciation of the greatest of games was on those intermittent occasions when ITV screened brief, 15-20 minute highlights of the VFL grand final. I saw snatches of the 1972, 1973 and 1974 grand finals in this way, even managing to record the commentary (audio only, of course) for posterity. Incongruous as it may seem, for years afterwards, the inane drawl of Messrs Williamson, Skilton, Barassi et al was tantamount to aural nectar to me, simply because, ridiculously pitiable as it may sound, it was all I had.
Playing football in a proper sense was out of the question, of course, although I did on occasion don my old Sturt jumper and take my battered old Ross Faulkner up to the playing fields at the rear of our house, sometimes with friends for an attempt at 'kick to kick', but usually alone. If all of this seems a little dour and sad, it probably was, but I hope it also helps explain why my passion for the game retained its universalistic bent during a period when, in Australia, the VFL revisionist agenda was proceeding apace (of which more anon). (I should also point out, in case I have conveyed the impression that my passion for football was all embracing to such an unhealthy extent as to exclude all other interests and hobbies, that I was in more or less every other respect - I think! - a perfectly normal, hormonally driven, self obsessed, zit-infested adolescent.)
It may seem strange that I was able to maintain such a keen and fervent interest in the game despite the comparative lack of any tangible means of reinforcement, but let me assure you that, based on my own experience, obsessions can be nurtured and sustained in many ways. When I began studying towards my degree in 1975, one of our first major assignments involved preparing a 20 minute lecture, on a subject of our own choosing, for delivery to the rest of the year. We then had to field questions for a maximum of another 10 minutes. My chosen subject, (no surprises here) was 'The History and Development of Australian Football', and while I have little doubt that the powers-that-were at VFL House in Jolimont would not have accorded me any plaudits whatsoever (even then I tended to see the game as 'Australian' first and foremost, with parochial state loyalty at best a distraction, and at worst an irrelevance), it certainly attracted a lot of questions from the floor, so many in fact that the presiding lecturer was eventually forced to intervene and forcibly move the proceedings on. Whatever else Australian football did for me in the 1970s, it certainly helped to get my college career off to an interesting and, I like to think, successful start.
As the decade progressed, and hormonal developments that had perhaps been somewhat stymied by my attending a single sex school burst more fully to the fore, other pre-occupations temporarily displaced football from centre stage. Incredible as it may now seem, I did not learn of the inception of state of origin football, or the grand final results in the various state Leagues of 1977-78-79 and '80, until 1981, by which time I had been married a year and was, as the saying goes, 'making my way in the world'.
During the 1980s the effective distance between Australia and Britain began to shrink, year by year, at an almost exponential rate. More to the point, in September and early October 1983 the recently created British independent television station, Channel Four, screened weekly half hour highlights of that year's VFL finals series every Monday night at 8.00pm. Admittedly, it was only half an hour, but the presentation was excellent, and for me it represented something of a re-awakening after hibernation. Over the next few years my passion for the game steadily burgeoned once more, fuelled by books, various magazine and newspaper subscriptions, and, perhaps most excitingly of all, the new, modern 'wonder' of the VHS video cassette. Suddenly, football was 'closer', and my understanding and appreciation of it more immediate, than for many, many years.
But there was a problem. As I intimated above, the written word has its limitations, especially when - and I do not mean this as a slur - those producing that written word are what might be described as artisans rather than artists. Words may well create pictures in the mind, but those pictures can only ever be as good as the ability of the person concocting them allows. In the decade and a half since leaving Australia I had read numberless words and digested endless statistical information about the game, but none of this had managed to provide me with a real awareness of how dramatically perceptions of the sport had altered in its homeland.
Let me put it another way. By the middle of the 1980s, my access to information about Australian football was reaching saturation point, whereas previously I was only getting a very limited - hence, inevitably distorted - picture. In a sense, I retained a perception of the game and its history that I like to think was pretty standard for football lovers, particularly non-Victorian football lovers, living in the mid to late 1960s; at the same time, I had almost completely avoided the 're-education process' to which football supporters living in Australia had been continually and, to a very large degree surreptitiously, subject in the intervening fifteen or so years.
I would almost venture to suggest that I was the equivalent of the Japanese soldier living alone in the jungles of Borneo who could not be persuaded to believe that the war was over - except that, in my case, the war very definitely was not over. Football had been betrayed, and while I was certainly not so arrogant or egotistical as to believe that I could do much if anything to counter-act the processes of distortion, calumny and re-invention, I was equally certainly eager to try.
As the 1980s wore on, Channel Four's annual coverage of VFL football became more extensive, which, from my point of view, was certainly very good; friends to whom I'd blabbered on for years about 'the greatest game on earth' could now see, at least in microcosm, what all the fuss was about. Conversely, the actual way in which the programme was presented took on a much more overtly polemical bent, and given that the audience was largely comprised of Brits who knew no better than to believe without question what the smart man in suit, tie and freeze-dried smirk told them, this made me seethe. In 1987, when the VFL, out of the goodness of its heart, expanded its horizons to embrace the hitherto 'untouchable' realms of Brisbane and Perth, we were regularly treated on Channel Four to statements like "1987 will, in future, be looked back on as a key year in the game's push towards being played, for the first time, right across Australia" and (this one, uttered by Stephen Quartermain, has remained indelibly on my memory ever since) "Prior to 1987, big time football was played in Victoria, and Victoria only".
My feelings therefore when it was announced that Carlton and North Melbourne would be playing an exhibition game at the Oval in London a fortnight after the VFL grand final were, initially at any rate, somewhat mixed. However, before very long the quasi-religious fervour which underpins my feelings towards the game, regardless of the sullying effects of any amount of corporatised slander or pseudo-political machination, enveloped and transfixed me. This was football after all - God's Own Game, which I had not witnessed at first hand for eighteen years.
I would go, I would savour, I would believe, and, if the fates, gods or daemons willed it, I would find salvation.
Kennington Oval in south London has been the home of Surrey County Cricket Club since 1846. It was built on a ten acre plot of land which had previously been used as a market garden and was first used for cricket on 13th May 1845. In August of that year, after a match between the Gentlemen and Players of Surrey, a meeting was arranged to discuss the formation of a Surrey County Cricket Club. Duly formed, the new club made its debut on the Oval in a 2 day match on 25th and 26th May 1846. For much of the nineteenth century, the ground was a hub of major sporting activity in the London area, including the 1873 FA Cup final, and several soccer and rugby union international matches. The first Test cricket match to be played in England took place at the Oval between 6th and 8th September 1880, when England beat Australia by 5 wickets.
By the turn of the century, the Oval had become a dedicated cricket venue, as it remains more or less to this day. The proviso 'more or less' relates to its intermittent use for Australian football, which was first played on the ground in 1972, when Carlton defeated the Australian All Stars, and has been staged there virtually annually since 1986. Unfortunately for me, the 1986 match, which featured the same combatants as in 1987, Carlton and North Melbourne, was not well publicised outside London, and I knew nothing about it until a year or so later.
Diary Entry Excerpt, Sunday 11th October 1987
(My wife and I) caught the Tube from Elephant and Castle to the Oval, where the old man awaited us. He told us that he'd been nattering to the infamous Ray Robinson in a nearby café, to which we immediately repaired in the hope, sadly unfulfilled, of finding the Great Man still there. By way of consolation, my wife and the old feller tucked into sugar-coated doughnuts and execrable looking coffee, while I contented myself with chewing my fingernails and running through the scores of every VFL, SANFL and WAFL grand final played since World War Two in my head.
We were among the first punters to arrive at the Oval, with which I was most impressed; it's an all-seater stadium which - in complete contrast to the average English soccer ground - is clean, congenial and quintessentially pre-disposed toward spectator comfort. The turf looked resplendent, in spite/because of all the recent torrential rain, and the playing area would have to be nearly as big as that at Adelaide Oval.
We bought some souvenirs - T-shirt, sweatshirt, Ross Faulkner footy, and some match programmes - and, with almost three hours to go before the first bounce, and virtually every seat in the house to choose from, ensconced ourselves in a vantage point of my choosing, deep in the right forward/left back pocket directly opposite the famous gasometer. (Ought to make North feel right at home, I mused.)
Gradually, the ground filled up, mostly with Australians, although I did overhear a good half a dozen English accents in our vicinity.
We got talking to some girls sitting near us, and it emerged that one of them was the sister of Port Adelaide and former East Perth player Stephen Curtis. "Do you know who won the SA grand final?" I asked, but she confessed that she had lost interest in the SANFL as soon as Port got eliminated. (I finally found out the result a few days later when the grand final review issue of 'Football Times' arrived.)
The contrast between the two teams when they trooped out onto the ground to warm up was most marked. Whereas all the Carlton players were impeccably turned out with neatly zipped up navy track suit tops, and socks meticulously at full mast, the Kangaroos looked as though they had just finished a gruelling training session, or even a match. If the Blues represented the quintessence of football's new, corporate, anodyne image, North Melbourne seemed just as quintessentially a hark back to the game's suburban, grass roots, 'meat pie and sauce' era. Needless to say, the moment these thoughts passed through my head, I resolved to barrack for North.
Not knowing quite what to expect, and with a burning sensation in the pit of my stomach that had made it impossible to think of food or drink since breakfast time, I consciously switched off access to all external input save that which emanated from the expanse of green immediately before me. After more than 18 years in the desert, I had finally, or so I told myself, arrived at an oasis.
In 1987, the VFL arranged a four team international knock-out competition, sponsored by Foster's, in which Melbourne and Sydney played one another in Vancouver, Carlton and North Melbourne met in London, and the two winners contested a final, deciding match in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Hawthorn and Essendon played a separate, one off encounter in Tokyo.
Just prior to the opening bounce it was announced over the tannoy that the match would be contested over four quarters of precisely twenty-five minutes each, without time-on. Ever the traditionalist, it goes without saying that I felt both chagrined and short-changed by this; after eighteen years, I wanted as much football as I could get.
Such minor quibbles quickly became submerged, however, as the game started, with both sides managing an early goal to settle the nerves. At the 8 minute mark, North, kicking to the scoreboard end, led 1.1 to 1.0 when a Wayne Johnston snap from deep in the left forward pocket hit the goal post to bring the Blues level. "'Ow cum theev stopt?" enquired a sonorous voiced Yorkshireman in the row behind us, whereupon his companion, a white haired, bespectacled woman with a crisp Australian accent, ventured the first of several concise and cogent rule explanations I was to overhear that afternoon.
A minute or so later the Kangaroos edged in front once more when Andrew Demetriou won a holding the ball decision against Adrian Gleeson at half forward right, fifty metres from goal. When the Carlton rover refused to relinquish the ball, Demetriou was brought to within thirty-five metres of the big white sticks, which elicited both another patient rule explanation from the white haired woman to our rear, and a second goal to the 'Roos, who now led 2.1 to 1.1.
The series of unsavoury incidents for which the game would ultimately be remembered began after approximately fifteen minutes. Matthew Larkin, scampering through the centre of the ground with the ball, spotted teammate Paul Spargo on a lead at half forward left, and steered a kick in his direction. However, unfortunately for Spargo, the kick proved to be just a little too high, affording Carlton's David Rhys Jones a perfect opportunity to run in from behind and, using Spargo and Spargo's immediate opponent Ian Aitken for leverage, get high off the ground to take a veritable sizzler of a mark. "Foul!" shouted the Yorkshireman, an assessment with which North Melbourne's Donald McDonald, who swiftly arrived on the scene breathing fire, appeared heartily to agree. As McDonald and Rhys Jones engaged in a swift bout of fisticuffs, players from both sides rushed in, and a fiery, tempestuous series of altercations ensued. After a couple of minutes, however, things seemed to calm down, and Rhys Jones stepped back to take his kick, with an entourage comprising one goal and one boundary umpire, both scribbling his number into their notebooks. This apparent calm proved deceptive though, as twenty metres or so to Rhys Jones' left McDonald and Aitken suddenly began to engage in a spot of shadow boxing which soon became more serious; at this point Alastair Clarkson, seeing red, sprinted across and felled Aitken with an enormous king hit from behind. Within seconds, every player on the ground had rushed over to the scene, giving rise to a much longer and, one sensed, considerably more acrimonious conflagration than before, which resulted in several players from both sides being reported.
Before play could resume, the forlornly recumbent figure of Ian Aitken, who it later transpired had sustained a broken jaw, was carried from the arena on a stretcher.
The remainder of the quarter was played out in an atmosphere of smoldering antipathy, but without any further actual pugilism. The Blues appeared to be the stronger side, but a lack of penetration beyond half forward prevented them from capitalising. Quarter Time: North Melbourne 3.2 (20); Carlton 2.3 (15)
There was still a lot of venom in the game early in the second term, particularly when either Rhys Jones or Larkin went near the ball. As far as general play was concerned, Carlton still appeared to be the stronger side, or at least to enjoy the lion's share of the possession, but North's more direct style was reaping at least as much scoreboard success from less apparent effort. With 16 minutes of the second quarter gone, and the 'Roos leading by 7 points, Wayne Johnston was forced to leave the field after being kneed in the right thigh during a marking contest. Moments later, Peter German extended North's lead with a prodigious effort from outside fifty, only for Naley's snap to restore the status quo within a minute. The Blues again began to dominate, but once again found the North half back line virtually impenetrable. With a couple of minutes to go in the term, a Carlton attacking foray short-circuited at centre half forward giving rise to a swift Kangas counter thrust which culminated in Peter German marking and converting from less than 30 metres out directly in front. A thumping effort from Spargo from just outside fifty (and about five metres in front of where we were seated) made it 7 straight for the 'Roos just before the half time siren. Carlton, too, had managed seven scoring shots for the quarter, but only three of these had been full pointers. Half Time: North Melbourne 10.2 (62); Carlton 5.7 (37)
Had the Blues been less intent on seeking retribution for the Ian Aitken incident, and more intent on chasing the ball, the 3rd term might well have seen them fight their way back into the match. As it was, they managed to outscore North 3.4 to 2.4, but the quarter was more notable for the frequent conferral of 15 metre penalties than it was for the standard of the football.
The third term also brought the first rain of the afternoon, rendering both ball and playing surface greasy (the latter particularly so in that most of the players, anticipating a dry afternoon, were wearing flat, rubber-souled boots), and leading to numerous fumbles, as well as more than a few 'accidental' collisions off the ball.
Darren Ogier, who would later secure 'fame' of a sort by being voted the best player afield, playing for Earl's Court, in the 1991 BARFL grand final, was fairly prominent for Carlton in this quarter. Having begun the match on the forward lines, he was moved to a half back flank where he earned a number of telling touches. In all, Ogier went on to play a total of 13 matches and kick 15 goals for the Blues between 1985 and 1987 before moving, ironically, to North, for whom he managed just 2 games and 3 goals in 1988. In 1989, he finished his VFL career at Sydney, where he played a further 8 games and kicked another 16 goals. Three Quarter Time: North Melbourne 12.6 (78); Carlton 8.11 (59)
Carlton made a concerted bid to get back into the game early in the final term, and by the 12 minute mark had reduced the margin to just 13 points. The Blues then frittered away a number of scoring opportunities before the Kangas, in just 2 kicks, brought the ball from deep in their own right back pocket to half forward right on the 50 metre arc, where Darren Harris marked strongly. Renowned as a prodigious kick of the football, the former South Adelaide man made light of both distance and angle to more or less seal the game in North's favour, or at least so everybody seemed to think. The scoreboard at this stage read North Melbourne 15.7 (97) to Carlton 11.12 (78).
With the game apparently petering out to a predictable climax, one of the aforementioned girls with whom we were sitting gave vent to a huge sigh, and declared, with seemingly heartfelt exasperation, "This is absolutely the worst game of footy I've ever seen!"
I had to chuckle. No doubt to her it this was a completely fair and accurate assessment. However, for me it was 'absolutely the best game of footy I'd seen for nigh on 2 decades', which meant that, in a sense, the actual quality of the football on display was irrelevant - I was, if you like, watching the game with critical faculties 'turned off', for after eighteen years of football isolation I had - or at least it somehow felt that I had - 'come home'.
Then, as if to reinforce the point, we were treated to an incident-packed closing five minutes during which the result of the match could have gone either way. First, both Adrian Gleeson and Mil Hanna goaled for the Blues, to narrow the margin to just 8 points with three minutes to play. Then, from the centre bounce following Hanna's goal, Carlton forced the ball forward yet again, with Hanna being awarded a free kick, just thirty metres from goal, after being illegally interfered with from behind in a marking contest with Hickey. However, moments later, after David Rhys Jones, who had collected the spilled ball to relay it back to Hanna, decided to give the nearest North player, Rohan Robertson, 'one to be going on with', the umpire had no hesitation in reversing the decision. Carlton's last chance of stealing the game had therefore gone, and from the Kangaroos' perspective there was a kind of poetic justice in the fact that it was Rhys Jones, the major villain of the piece as far as they were concerned, who had ultimately consigned his team to defeat.
North Melbourne promptly rubbed salt into the Blues' wounds by taking the ball straight to other end of the ground and goaling through Dean McRae. The game ended in some confusion a couple of minutes later as, with the siren broken, it was left to the umpires to somehow convey to the players that play was over. Final Score: North Melbourne 16.8 (104); Carlton 13.13 (91)
In a typical piece of antipodean hyperbole, this match subsequently became dubbed 'the Battle of Britain'. Less portentously, but perhaps more appositely, the Yorkshireman to our rear remarked, "By 'eck, tha don't 'old back much, do thee?"
North Melbourne flew to Los Angeles shortly afterwards to take on Melbourne for the Fosters Cup, with the Dees recording a 16 point win, 19.13 (127) to 16.15 (111).
Of the souvenirs of that day, I still have the match programme, and am actually wearing the sweatshirt as I type this, while the Ross Faulkner footy was put to good use as the East Midland Eagles' first training ball. However, the main souvenir I came away with was a re-kindled enthusiasm for the game, which was perhaps best summarised by the closing sentences of the diary entry from which I quoted earlier:
Today's whole experience left me thinking about what I might do to promote the game of footy in this country. Pretty pretentious, what? Still, somebody's got to do it, so why not me? 'You don't get nowt for owt!' as that Yorkshire geezer at the match might well have put it.
As yet, I haven't come up with any particularly inspiring ideas, but watch this space.......
BEST - North Melbourne: German, Law, Fairley, Spargo, Demetriou, Harris Carlton: Hanna, Williams, Dean, Naley
ATTENDANCE: 15,000 approx. at the Oval, Kennington (with an alleged 1,500 locked out)
1. 'Footy World', 2/9/69, page 7.
2. 'Footy World', 16/9/69, page 3.
3. Why a Sturt jumper? Simply because it was either that or nothing. When my mother took me to John Martin's on my 11th birthday to buy me my promised present of a football kit - jumper, shorts and socks - she refused point blank to relinquish her cash in exchange for my preferred choice of a Port Adelaide ensemble on the grounds that "it's too ugly!" Forced to make do with 'second best' I opted for the Double Blues for the twin reasons that nobody at school had a Sturt jumper, and Bob Shearman was one of my favourite players. Consequently the Sturt jumper ended up with a (slightly skewed) number 1 sewn onto the back. (I was never so excessively one-eyed as to be completely oblivious to the merits of opposition players: besides Shearman, I had a lot of time for his team mates Endersbee and Adcock, whilst also appreciating the talents of the likes of Barrie Robran, Robert Day, Peter Marker, Graham Cornes, Denis Modra, Bob Simunsen, and the Western Australian pair of Austin Robertson and Bill Walker.)
4. Ray Robinson was the presenter at the time of Channel Four's VFL highlights programme. I had conducted a correspondence with him during which it emerged that he seriously and genuinely believed that no football of any worth had ever been played outside the borders of the state of Victoria - except by Victorian teams travelling interstate, of course. I asked my Dad whether he had been able to see the strings by which Mr. Robinson was presumably controlled, but he just looked at me blankly. "Perhaps it was one of those pole contraptions up the arse, then?" I helpfully proffered, eliciting an equally oblivious response. Sometimes I think Sturt supporters speak a different language to the rest of us.
5. Melbourne defeated Sydney 20.19 (139) to 12.9 (71) in front of 33,000 spectators.
Stumbling Towards Tradition: Central District's Early Years
Since the turn of the present century, the Central District Football Club has enjoyed unequalled success in the SANFL, but this position was not arrived at easily. Over the years, the club and its supporters suffered many disappointments and false dawns, eliciting considerable derision and disdain in the process. Indeed, something that very few people today probably recall or realise is that, four decades ago, the club actually went within a hairsbreadth of being stillborn.
In 1959 the SANFL made the momentous and highly controversial decision to expand its competition from eight clubs to ten via the admission of Central District, representing Adelaide's rapidly growing northern suburbs, and Woodville. The two cinderella clubs would initially be required to serve an indeterminate probationary period in the seconds competition, beginning in 1960, but by 1962 it was clear that many of the key figures in the SANFL hierarchy were beginning to doubt the wisdom of the proposed expansion. Consequently, in a bid to clear the air and focus minds, the League set up a special three man committee, chaired by its vice-chairman, Don Brebner, to examine the issue in detail, and to make formal recommendations to the clubs as to how the competition ought to be structured from 1964 onwards. In brief, the committee's recommendations were:
When these proposals were submitted to the eight club delegates for approval, voting was split 4-4, with Port Adelaide, Sturt, West Adelaide and West Torrens voting 'yay', and the other four club delegates 'nay'. The decision as to whether or not Central District and Woodville should be admitted to the League competition, or even continue to exist, was therefore placed squarely in the hands of of League chairman, Tony Kenny, who had the casting vote. Seldom can such power over the entire future of the game in South Australia have been conferred on one individual, but thankfully for future fans of the Bulldogs he made what history has shown to be a wise decision.
Not that Centrals' problems were over - far from it. When the club was finally admitted to the senior SANFL competition in 1964 it was the equivalent of a lamb among wolves, and if adversity can be regarded as one of the essential building blocks of maturity and tradition, there was plenty of it to come during the side's early seasons, much of it ruthlessly dispensed by men wearing the black and white jumpers of South Australia's most famous club. In 1964, the Bulldogs met Port Adelaide twice, losing by 124 points at Alberton and 137 points at Elizabeth, and managing an aggregate score over the two games of just 6 goals 9. For inaugural Centrals captain-coach Ken Eustice, the Port Adelaide system represented something to which the fledgling club could do much worse than aspire.
Despite being a West Adelaide product, Eustice's own style of play bore many of the characteristics espoused by Port Adelaide mentor Fos Williams, himself an avowed and ardent Eustice admirer, and it was largely because of Eustice's influence that Central District, in its early years, developed a style of play in which the old fashioned virtues of passion, aggression and determination often helped compensate for a basic lack of talent. That said, it would be wrong to suggest that Eustice saw football as a game for mindless thugs. In a coaching manual published in 1967 his key advice to young, aspiring footballers was, "Always keep your cool. Play with your head as well as your body. Try to play intelligently - but always play with determination".
Unfortunately for Eustice, most of his charges at Centrals lacked the talent necessary to implement his philosophy, which meant that, to the objective onlooker, there was little apparent system to the Bulldogs' play, which seemingly revolved around the simple expedient of getting the ball and kicking it as far as possible in a goalwards direction in the often forlorn hope that a team mate down field would be successful in doing the same. My father, a Sturt supporter, frequently amused himself by referring to the Centrals style of play as "bush football", and indeed when it was compared to the scientific, skill-oriented Double Blues approach of the day, he undoubtedly had a point.
A Trip To Elizabeth
My best friend Charlie was a West Torrens supporter, which is the main reason that Saturday 15th July 1967 found me, an ardent Port Adelaide fan, at Elizabeth Oval for the meeting of home side Central District and the Eagles. Accompanying us was Charlie's granddad - 'Pops' - a jocular and, to my youthful perception, extraordinarily wizened man, with brown teeth and firm, unwavering opinions. Some of these opinions related to footy, and were characteristically expressed with adamantine terseness, almost as if by rote.
"How do you think Centrals will go against Torrens at the weekend, Pops?"
"Ah, no hope Centrals, no hope." (Uttered machine gun style, almost as a single word, and rounded off with a half embarrassed, mirthless chuckle.)
"What about Sturt against South?"
"Ah, no worries Sturt, no worries." (The same knee-jerk, staccato certainty; the same mirthless laugh.)
Regardless of the opposition, Pops's answers never varied. Centrals was always "no hope", Sturt "no worries".
Mind you, in 1967 you did not have to be a football genius to make these kinds of assessments. The premiership ladder printed inside the 'SA Football Budget' for 15th July made the contemporary balance of power clear. After twelve rounds Sturt and North Adelaide were comfortably clear with 11 and 10 wins respectively; then came Port Adelaide (8 wins), Norwood (7), Glenelg (6), South Adelaide, West Adelaide and West Torrens (5 each), with Centrals (2) and Woodville (1) far and away the poorest performed sides.
However, what the ladder does not reveal is the recent trend of disastrous form that had seen West Torrens sustain five consecutive losses to tumble from third from top after seven rounds, to third from bottom prior to this match. Indeed, so poor had Torrens' recent displays been, that the Budget writer felt justified in suggesting that "All Centrals need is a return to top form from Tom Grljusich, to be reasonably confident of their third win for the season".
Originally from South Fremantle, where he would return at the end of the season, Bulldogs vice-captain Grljusich was a strong marking, quick thinking, powerful key position player who, along with Ken Eustice, formed the backbone of Centrals' woefully under-resourced and extremely inexperienced side. Other key players for the Bulldogs included Sonny Morey, an original member of the club's League team whose career would finally blossom after Eustice's replacement as Centrals coach, Dennis Jones, transformed him from a live-wire but erratic wingman into the best rebounding back pocket in the state; former East Fremantle rover Keith Shorthill; promising ruckman Gary Smith; and long kicking full back Terry Phillips, who later in the year would beat off the challenges of players from Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania to win the inaugural 'Craven Filter Champion Kick of Australia' contest.
On paper, West Torrens had a much stronger line-up than Centrals, even allowing for the absence through injury of two key players in the shape of centre half forward Geoff Kingston and ruckman Chris Butler. In Lindsay Head, the Eagles had one of the most skilful players in the League, indeed in Australia, while centre half back Glen Pill, utility Fred Bills, rover David Lee, half forward Peter Phillipou, and full back Tracy Braidwood were all players of the top rank. Also appearing for the Eagles in this match was a man by the name of Wayne Jackson, who would later enjoy much greater notoriety as a football administrator. In the view of Pat Hall, "there is no doubt that Torrens have the ability to extend any side in the competition, if they decide to put their best foot forward". This ability had been amply demonstrated during the first meeting between Torrens and Centrals in 1967 when, in round 4 at Thebarton, the Eagles had enjoyed an effortless 59 point success, but since then the players' confidence had declined appreciably. At season's end, second year coach Ron Ashby would become the inevitable scapegoat for the team's decline, making way for former Essendon and Victorian rover Johnny Birt.
In contrast to the old world charm of Thebarton, the verdant splendour of Adelaide, the almost palpable air of tradition at Alberton, or the ramshackle claustrophobia of Norwood, Elizabeth Oval in 1967 was a threadbare and uninviting place. Despite the fact that you were only some twenty-four kilometres from the heart of Adelaide, you almost got the feeling that you had 'gone bush' with, as suggested above, some of the football played by the home side only serving to reinforce the impression.
During the interval between the seconds game (won surprisingly by ninth placed Centrals against second placed Torrens by 60 points), a brief ceremony took place out on the ground in which the General Manager of John Martins donated a perpetual best and fairest trophy to the Central District Football Club. At the time, such an event was a comparative novelty, with business and football enjoying at best a platonic friendship rather than the full-blown love affair that would all too rapidly develop.
After the two teams had engaged in a couple of warm up laps, and had their sprigs and fingernails inspected, Torrens captain Fred Bills won the toss and elected to kick to the southern end of the ground, which was favoured by a fairly stiff, four or five goal breeze.
The Eagles were straight into attack from the opening bounce and, with the exception of a brief spell during the middle of the term, that was where they remained. The Bulldogs, however, defended with commendable determination, repeatedly forcing the play onto the eastern side of the ground from which, given that the wind was blowing from the north west, kicking for goal was more problematical. That, at least, was certainly the Eagles: experience: as time-on commenced, they led by 7 points, 1.8 to 1.1, having squandered numerous scoring opportunities either by poor kicking or over elaboration. On at least two occasions, players marked within easy goal kicking range, but elected to play on, placing team mates under intense pressure with poor handballs, as a result of which the Centrals defenders were able to clear the danger.
Deep into time-on, the Bulldogs back line finally cracked, not once, but twice, allowing a somewhat relieved group of West Torrens players to head for the quarter time huddle 19 points to the good. Even so, on balance of play it ought to have been much more.
Up in the grandstand, where the three of us were sitting as a concession to Pop's advancing years, I munched cheerfully on the pie I had bought in preference to a Budget, and asked Charlie what letter Port was on the progress scoreboard. "D," he informed me, from which intelligence I was able to ascertain that the Magpies, like Torrens, had seemingly squandered scoring opportunities in the opening term against North at Prospect, as despite having managed 7 scoring shots to 3, they trailed by a point. Ah well, early days.
"What letters are South and Sturt?" I asked. "G and H," proffered Charlie, and then added. "Hey, Pops - Sturt's leading South by 4 points."
The old guy chuckled sagely, or was it wistfully? "Ah, no worries Sturt, no worries."
Quarter Time: West Torrens 3.8 (26); Central District 1.1 (7)
Central District's lack of experience and poor team discipline were glaringly exemplified for most of the second term. Despite enjoying the not inconsiderable wind advantage, Centrals failed to dominate to anything like the same extent that Torrens had in the opening quarter. Kicking long and hopefully only succeeds as a tactic if you have superior numbers at the fall of the ball, or else players who are capable of winning more than their share of one on one contests. With Braidwood, Jackson and Graham in superb touch on the Torrens back line, the Bulldogs were unable to concoct more than a handful of scoring opportunities, and although by the long break they had managed to reduce the margin to 11 points, there was nothing to suggest they were capable of overhauling their more poised and efficient opponents. Half Time: West Torrens 4.9 (33); Central District 3.4 (22)
The third term was a virtual carbon copy of the first, with Torrens enjoying almost total territorial domination, but Centrals defending with considerable grit and effectiveness. A prolonged break in the play when Torrens forward John Staker was taken from the ground on a stretcher after sustaining a badly gashed leg threatened to undermine the Eagles' momentum, but with David Lee, Freddie Bills, John Graham and Lindsay Head in the thick of the action they maintained their ascendancy virtually all over the ground except in front of the big white sticks.
During the lemon time interval, Charlie and I jumped the fence and headed out onto the ground. While Charlie trotted over to the Eagles camp to listen to Ron Ashby's words of wisdom, I elected, for some obscure, unknowable reason, to eavesdrop on Eustice. It was a providential decision, giving rise to an experience that I can still recall quite vividly almost 40 years later, an experience rendered almost seminal in my recollection - no doubt disproportionately so - by the subsequent events of the final quarter.
By no means the most formidable of physical specimens, Eustice nevertheless commanded rapt attention from every one of his players, not to mention the thirty or forty or so interested onlookers. It wasn't so much the substance of what Eustice was saying - indeed, other than assimilating a handful of expressions that my father later painfully convinced me ought never to form part of a well-behaved 11 year old's vocabulary, I remember little of what was actually said - it was more the expression on his face, and the sheer animal ferocity with which the words were uttered. Quite why I should find such bald, unfettered emotion so inspiring is unclear, but the fact that I did so is undeniable. Indeed, had Eustice asked me to don a Centrals jumper and line up on Eagles champion Lindsay Head for the final term I have little doubt that I would have succeeded in comprehensively blanketing him, to the extent that he would probably have been dragged, leaving me to run riot during the closing minutes of the match with 3 or 4 match-winning goals.
OK, I exaggerate.... but seldom can so much invective, and so much saliva, have been so fervently and advantageously expended. Footy may well be the world's most majestic and spectacular sport, but underpinning and informing it is a primal energy that the conventions of civilised society for the most part emasculate or divert. Footy too, which inevitably reflects society to some extent, is not above such emasculation, but thankfully to date the essence of the game has remained untouched, although recent needless experimental tinkering with the scoring system, as essential an element in the fabric of the game as the shape of the ball or the concept of the handpass or the mark, perhaps prefigures a worrying stage in the sport's development. The more regimented and subject to measurement and control a sport becomes, the less capable it is of tapping into those elemental reaches of the human soul in which philosophy, science and theology alike inform us, fulfilment and self-realisation lie. Three Quarter Time: West Torrens 6.14 (50); Central District 3.4 (22)
But back to Elizabeth Oval in 1967, and the to me incredible sight of a hitherto inept and uncoordinated Central District outfit raising both the tempo and the tenor of its performance to such an extent that, for the entirety of the last quarter, Torrens scarcely managed to get the ball ahead of centre, let alone trouble the scorers. It is a dreadful cliché, but no less true for that, that the Bulldog players played like men possessed, always seeming to have more bodies at the fall of the ball than their opponents, and slowly but surely reducing the margin with what, at the time, seemed like predetermined certainty. With a couple of minutes to go, and scores deadlocked, Julian Swinstead, having marked within easy goal kicking range, kicked truly, and Centrals had finally captured the lead, so that Eustice's passionately fiery, if scarcely comprehensible, diatribe had born fruit. Indeed, during that tumultuous final term, no one took the sentiments uttered in the 'lemon time' huddle to heart more thoroughly and unquestioningly than the coach himself, whose 12 final quarter kicks gave him a match total of 35, and automatic selection - later endorsed by the umpires at Magarey Medal time - as best afield.
The Bulldogs' eventual 6 point win was one of only five achieved by the team all year, and like all the others (Woodville by 4 and 7 points, West Adelaide by 4 points and Norwood by 4 points) it was achieved both against the odds and against the grain, a victory not so much for talent as for passion and strength of will, two of the most essential contributors to success, not just in football, but in virtually any field you care to name.
"Port's lost," said Pops, with rather too much relish for my liking. He pointed at the scoreboard, where the attendant had just affixed the fateful numbers 'C 12.7 D 8.12'. I determinedly adopted a poker face, belying my inner angst. '19 points!' I quickly calculated. 'That's almost a massacre!'
Then came a moment I couldn't help but enjoy. 'G 8.25' the scoreboard informed us. Dreadful kicking, but....... Yes! There it was: 'H 9.8' - a win to South by 11 points. "Hey Pops, Sturt's lost," I helpfully announced, carefully if somewhat exaggeratedly adopting my most cherubic facial expression. His response, like so much else, is lost in the mists of time.
Final Score: Central District 8.8 (56); West Torrens 6.14 (50)
BEST - Centrals: Eustice, Shorthill, Hage, Stutley, Bentley West Torrens: Braidwood, Graham, Jackson, Bills, Head, Lee
SCORERS - Centrals: Hage, Swinstead 2.0; Webber 1.2; Foley, Grljusich 1.1; Shorthill 1.0; Eustice 0.2; Bentley, Smith 0.1 West Torrens: Lee 2.2; Tucker 2.1; Staker 1.3; Shepherd 1.0; Head 0.3; Phillipou 0.2; Bills, Caldow 0.1; rushed 0.1
ATTENDANCE: 4,098 at Elizabeth Oval
1. The South Australian Football Yearbook 1963, pages 7-8.
2. Quoted in The South Australian Football Record Yearbook 1968, page 87.
3. 'SA Football Budget', 15/7/67, page 8.
4. This is evidenced by the fact that, in the 1967 Magarey Medal count, the Bulldogs polled an aggregate of 42 votes, with Eustice (15) and Grljusich (11) netting more than half of that total between them. Grljusich, who grew up in Perth idolising all time great Graham 'Polly' Farmer, shared to some extent his hero's uncanny ability to open up the play with prodigious, perfectly directed hand passes to unmarked team mates.
5. 'Footy World', 19/7/67, page 3.