The pride of South Australia
Many South Australians are passionate about Australian Football or the older name of Australian Rules Football but long-time fans are less keen on branding the entire game as AFL. Football has traditionally been an important bond for local, regional and suburban as well as colonial and state loyalties, while team rivalries such as those between clubs such as Port Adelaide and Norwood also long represented geographic and class divisions.
Whereas New South Wales and Victoria have vied for both political and economic leadership in Australia going back to the gold rush days of the nineteenth century, their sporting rivalry has mainly found expression on the cricket field. Between South Australia and Victoria there has been a one-sided enmity chiefly connected with football; between South Australia and Western Australia, parity.
The enmity invariably comes from the South Australian side for what is perceived as Victorian arrogance, not only regarding playing standards but ownership of the game as well. South Australia is the little brother having sand kicked in its face by a bullying Big V – or so it is often felt.
The effect is the creation of a surly disposition which partly a reflection of an ambivalent response to the term ‘Croweater’ which often has derogatory connotations. According to one source it derives from the fact that early SA settlers were forced in hard times to eat crows – a most unsavoury bird – when the colony was first established in 1836. And yet the willing adoption of the term in full or in part (by the Adelaide Crows) suggests not only a self-deprecatory streak but a realistic response to Victorian strength and numerous defeats. The best South Australian football could hope for was to be the best little league in the business and to just occasionally ‘kick a Vic’ – to revive a phrase from the late 1970s.
About this time, the introduction of State of Origin matches saw South Australia perform better in interstate football than in the preceding 100 years, especially at Football Park. In May 1983, the home side led all the way against the Vics and booted 26.16 to win by 56 points. For the rest of the 1980s, the states met six times with three wins apiece. The closest margin was South Australia’s four-point loss when Stephen Kernahan kicked a remarkable ten goals on Bruce Doull in a night game at Football Park in 1984 and a four-point win at the same venue in 1987. During the same decade there were six further contests against Western Australia and again the results were three wins each. The most astonishing result was the Malcolm Blight-led South Australian team which kicked a massive 30.18 to give it an 87-point win at Subiaco Oval on 15 June 1985.
Against the background of such success, some in South Australia felt the time was right to push for the inclusion of local teams in an expanded national competition. Indeed, some critics accused the South Australian National Football League (SANFL) of dragging its feet in that regard. However, to do so ignored the fact that in the late 1970s it had been a strong proponent of such a league to operate under the auspices of the then National Football League. Some of the thinking at the time was for a national competition comprising six VFL clubs, two each from South Australian and Western Australia, and one each from Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. Yet, the Victorian Football League (VFL) regarded the position of their 12 clubs as inviolable. The SANFL then underlined preliminary plans for the possible entry of one or two teams as permanent members of the VFL and in 1981 made a submission for the inclusion of an Adelaide Football Club in the VFL only for such a proposal to be rejected.
The years from 1986 to 1990 were turbulent ones for South Australian football, not least because the flood gates of player migration east had finally opened. Historically the leading South Australian players had been reluctant to make the move east, but in 1986 six of the best in Stephen Kernahan, Craig Bradley, John Platten, Peter Motley and Tony McGuinness took the plunge, followed by Tony Hall and Mark Naley in 1987. The popular destination that year was north-east, and the fledgling Brisbane Bears. The Williams brothers (Mark via Collingwood), Martin Leslie (first selection in the new national draft), Matty Campbell, and Mark Mickan all made the move, although other Bears’ draftees in Chris McDermott and Andrew Jarman decided to stay put.
Most of the migrants proved their worth, perhaps none more so than Kernahan and Platten (a Brownlow Medalist in his second year) but the pressures on football in Adelaide were great with plans put in place regarding player retention, ground rationalization, club financing and programming. By 1988, it was obvious the league could not stay out of the VFL’s extended competition and, in 1989, with more than 50 SA players in the Victorian league, seven of the clubs reported financial losses, and they included the grand finalists Port Adelaide and Glenelg.
In 1990 a poll conducted by The News, Adelaide’s evening newspaper, found strong divisions among SA football supporters about joining the AFL. Fifty-five per cent of them were opposed to the idea, nearly half saying that the license fee of $4 million was too high, and 40 per cent claiming that they would still attend local league matches. However, the impetus for the SANFL to join the AFL was Port Adelaide’s rogue action of going behind its back to become the AFL’s 15th club, which led instead to the league entering the Adelaide Football Club - thwarting Port’s dream.
In October 1990 the SANFL player retention scheme was dismantled and 21 players were paid out. Adelaide then named Glenelg coach Graham Cornes as coach for two years. The Sharks was the name originally favoured by league officials for the new club and it continued to be bandied around for several weeks. By November, however, the Crows was adopted and the emblem included a shield with a black crow emblazoned across the face. The colours were derived from those long used by state sporting teams of navy blue, red and yellow. By December the club secured some of the best seats at Football Park, directly opposite the main grandstand, and in January 1991 the Toyota Motor Company was named club sponsor through its Camry vehicle. Toyota and its dealers formed a consortium to co-sponsor the Crows for three years at a reputed cost of $1 million. With 41,000 fans watching the Crows defeat Essendon in a trial game in February they were advised to buy a season’s ticket to be sure of seats to watch their club. This was football of a new order.
The coming of the Crows in 1991, followed by Port Adelaide gaining a second licence as Port Power in 1997, changed the football landscape in South Australia as the main competition essentially became one of the main feeder leagues for the AFL. The effect has been various. At one level there is a loss of suburban loyalties or tribalism: at the other there was the advance at least initially of a supposed state-wide loyalty in advancing the Crows as ‘The Pride of South Australia’. South Australians had long followed Victorian football, especially since televised black-and-white coverage began in the 1960s, but the AFL now became a much stronger influence with a home team to support. While the Crows wore the state colours they were not a state team and many people felt uneasy about this and preferred to follow the Victorian teams they had often supported in addition to their SANFL side. When the Crows’ losses were treated almost as an occasion for state-wide mourning, many were uncomfortable about this, believing it to be an unhealthy response to following a sports team.
Port Adelaide beat off other proposals to win the second licence and this had a number of advantages. It gave local supporters a team to hate as well as to love; and it took pressure off the Crows. Diehard Port fans were naturally delighted to be in the big league but all those South Australians who simply ‘hated Port’ (as many Victorians hated Collingwood) now had a team to dislike at the national level. Victorians sometimes misread reactions this side of the border and came to believe that Croweaters hated Victorians en masse. That is only true for some. A significant minority of local fans were barracking against Port Adelaide in the 2004 AFL grand final and even took perverse delight in the Power’s 119-point thrashing by Geelong in 2007.
It could be argued that the Crows’ first premiership in 1997 was assisted by Port’s entry into the competition. Late in that first season the Power were a competitive side and lost a late-season local derby when the Crows came from behind, a win which presaged a strong finish to the season. One of the benefits for the Crows that year was that it was not carrying the football hopes of the entire state nor did it entertain more than realistic hopes of success.
With the emergence of the Australian Football League (AFL) operating a national competition, those Victorian football followers who had denigrated South Australian football for most of the past had to revise their opinions after the Crows’ premiership successes in 1997 and 1998 and the Power’s success in 2004. In terms of cumulative success rate, the Crows and the Power stand at sixth and seventh respectively, out of the nineteen teams that have competed in the AFL competition.
Despite the long and noble history of South Australian football, many local long-time observers feel its contribution to the national game, and role in developing the code, has often not been properly acknowledged when the game’s history has been written, and that sticks in their craw.
South Australia has been an important innovator with the invention of the checkside punt and checkside ruck and further credit could be given to Jack Oatey and Lindsay Head. It has been influential in the development of handball and the drop punt and names such as Alan ‘Bull’ Reval and Jack Broadstock were important influences in the 1930s and 1940s. It is certainly beyond argument that the Magarey Medal (awarded since 1898) to the league’s ‘fairest and most brilliant player’ is the code’s oldest individual honour.
Many of the greatest players and most influential figures in Australian Football learnt the game in South Australia, and a brief list of those would include Tom Leahy, Dan Moriarty, Jack ‘Snowy’ Hamilton, Ken Farmer, Bob Quinn, Jack Oatey, Bob Hank, Lindsay Head, Fos Williams, Neil Kerley, John Cahill, Barrie Robran, Russell Ebert, Malcolm Blight, Stephen Kerhahan, John Platten, Craig Bradley, Shaun Rehn, Nathan Buckley, Mark Ricciuto, and Andrew McLeod. However, when the inaugural selections were made for the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996 there were three ludicrous omissions – Leahy, Farmer and Kerley – and others, such as Hank and Hamilton extremely unlucky to miss out.
Of the omissions Tom Leahy was widely regarded in his day (and for many years afterwards) as the leading ruckman in Australia of the first quarter of this century. He was the ‘Mr Football’ of his time, and despite losing several years to the First World War held his own in Australian Football Carnivals (1908, 1911, 1914 and 1921) and 31 interstate matches against the best Victorian big men. Ken Farmer remains Australian football’s most consistent full-forward who in a thirteen-year career between 1929 and 1941 kicked 100 goals each season apart from his first and last. Indeed, so prolific was he that he was given the title ‘Football’s Bradman’. In 224 games for North Adelaide he kicked 1419 goals including 23 goals 6 behinds in one match and was never held scoreless. And Neil Kerley was the ‘King’ of South Australian football from the 1950s through the 1980s, very much the SA equivalent of Ron Barassi. Like Barassi many supporters followed Kerley whenever he changed clubs. Kerley was an inspiring player-leader and an inspirational state captain who often seemed to be driven by hate for Victorians. By leaving these three players off the original list (and Leahy has still not made it) South Australian football was kicked squarely in the guts.
Regarding the inclusions there were further complaints and insults. When triple Magarey Medallist Barrie Robran deservedly attained official ‘Legend’ status in 2001 there was criticism that this supremely talented footballer did not deserve the honour because he had not proved himself in Victorian club football. That same year when Stephen Kernahan was inducted into the Hall, his citation recognized only his career at Carlton. Absent was any mention of his distinguished record for Glenelg and South Australia - over 150 games and over 300 goals (which pushed him above the 1000 goal mark in senior football) were missing from the official record. Fortunately the AFL has now recognised Kernahan’s entire career record as it has those of other ‘crossover’ champions such as Craig Bradley and John Platten.
One hopes that belated recognition is a sign that a more inclusive understanding of the history of Australian football is emerging, and that the unique place of South Australia in that history is appreciated.