The Battle of Britain: Nirvana regained
Kennington Oval in south London has been the home of Surrey County Cricket Club since 1846. It was built on a 10 acre plot of land which had previously been used as a market garden and was first used for cricket on 13 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 25 and 26 May 1846. For much of the 19th 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 6 and 8 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 11 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 Robinson¹ 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 sugarcoated 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 Vancouver², 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, 50 metres from goal. When the Carlton rover refused to relinquish the ball, Demetriou was brought to within 35 metres of the big white sticks, which elicited both another patient rule explanation from the white haired woman to our rear, and a 2nd 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 15 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 20 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 2nd 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 2nd 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 50, 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 shortcircuited 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 50 (and about 5 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 7 scoring shots for the quarter, but only 3 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 3rd 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 18 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 5 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 3 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 30 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.......
|North Melbourne||3.2||10.2||12.6||16.8 104|
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)
- Ray Robinson was the presenter at the time of Channel 4'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.
- Melbourne defeated Sydney 20.19 (139) to 12.9 (71) in front of 33,000 spectators.