They may not always have enjoyed the most glamorous of reputations (although, as we shall see, there have been at least two eras in which their name was virtually synonymous with glamour) but the North Melbourne Football Club - known during an early part of their history as Hotham, and for a recent part of their history as the 'Kangaroos' - have played a unique and highly significant role in the history of Australian football.
Formed as long ago as 1869, making it the fourth oldest among current AFL clubs (see footnote 1), details of its inception are rather sketchy. It would probably be reasonable to imagine, however, that the circumstances giving rise to the club's formation were more circumstantial and informal than pre-meditated. Among the facts that we do know are that the club's first ever match took place in 'the Royal Park' (within the western boundaries of today's Zoological Gardens), and - reputedly - that the ball used in the match was purchased by a local resident called Tom Jacks, who sold some roofing iron to pay for it. As for the result of the match, and even North Melbourne's opponents, such details are lost in the mists of time.
All of this is not meant to suggest that football as a whole at this time was completely disorganised and uncoordinated. In actual fact, it was evolving rapidly, aided in 1870 by the drawing up for the first time of a proper, formalised 'premiership fixture', as well as by the introduction of an independent, on-field rule adjudicator, or 'umpire' (prior to this, the two competing team captains had been jointly responsible for applying the laws of the game, and ensuring fair play). North Melbourne participated in this inaugural premiership season as a junior club, although matches against senior teams, sometimes 'at odds' (see footnote 2), were also occasionally arranged. In 1872, North Melbourne achieved a notable win by two goals to one over Carlton in just such a match, providing evidence that the team was gradually increasing in strength.
After enjoying a highly commendable 1873 season which yielded seven wins, six draws and just one defeat (against Albert Park, an established senior club), North Melbourne was officially accorded senior status, along with another promising junior club, St Kilda.
Football in Melbourne during the 1870s was gaining rapidly in popularity, but as far as its protagonists, the players, were concerned it remained essentially an amateur pre-occupation. The introduction of an agreed fixture list in 1870 had been a major step forward, but teams still sometimes failed to turn up or, as happened in one match between North Melbourne and Carlton in 1874, became more interested in brawling than playing football, leading to the umpire abandoning play. This faux pas aside, however, 1874 proved to be a promising debut year in elite company for the northerners, who won seven and drew two of their 11 'completed' fixtures, a success rate bettered only by the established 'old brigade' of Carlton, Melbourne and Albert Park.
As any modern Kangaroos supporter will - with due apologies for the pun - ruefully confirm, threats to the club's viability and survival have recurred, with depressing frequency, throughout its history. In 1876, the club effectively ceased to exist as an independent organisation, but instead of going to the wall completely it managed to secure an amalgamation with Albert Park. Moreover, despite fielding teams under the somewhat lumbering name of 'Albert Park cum North Melbourne' it soon emerged that it was the northerners, who supplied both the club captain in the shape of Harry Fuhrhop, and most of the better players, who were, in effect, the dominant partner. The upshot of this was that, after the merged side had enjoyed an impressive season on the field to finish 3rd on the wins table behind Carlton and Melbourne, the impetus was there for local inhabitants to dig into their pockets and come up with the funds necessary to re-establish the North Melbourne Football Club as an independent organisation.
At Sutcliffe's Hotel on 12 April 1877 the re-constituted club, bearing the name of the town in which it was officially situated, Hotham, was formally inaugurated, and within weeks it had emerged as one of the prime movers in the establishment of the second major Victorian Rules Football Association to be formed in 1877, the VFA (see footnote 3).
Competition in the VFA got underway on 2 June 1877, when Hotham and Melbourne contested the new body's first ever official fixture. Perhaps appropriately, the game ended in a draw, with both sides scoring one goal. At season's end, 'the Australasian' summarised the club's efforts thus:
Hotham, merely another name for the old North Melbourne, which last year was a wing, or might I say the body, of the Albert Park, but now possessing an independent separate existence makes a good third (behind Carlton and Melbourne) and is little, if any, behind in point of play to either of the preceding, and numbers some first class players, such as Fuhrhop, McLean, Byrne, Ryan, Gardiner, Lacy, Grainger, Thompson, Dillon, Power, Smith and Swift in its ranks. (See footnote 4)
Hotham's performances during the VFA's first 11 seasons were inconsistent but seldom inept. At best, the club finished third twice, while a wooden spoon in an evenly contested 1883 season represented its nadir.
In 1882, following an amalgamation between the Hotham Cricket and Football Clubs, the team based itself at what would become its long term home of the North Melbourne Recreation Ground, Arden Street, where in years to come the famous gasometer would dominate the skyline, making the ground one of the most instantly recognisable in Melbourne. Two years later, at the insistence of the VFA, it replaced its blue and white horizontal striped jumpers with the now familiar vertically striped design, in order to provide a visible contrast when playing Geelong. Then, in 1888, came the third significant development of the decade with the club reverting to its original name of North Melbourne. This followed an Order of Council of the previous year which had seen the Town of Hotham officially re-named as the Town of North Melbourne.
The club's penchant for intercolonial travel was exercised on several occasions during the 1880s, with trips to Tasmania in 1881 and 1887, and South Australia in 1889. There were also matches in Melbourne against Norwood in 1880 and Port Adelaide in 1889. Of a total of 10 such intercolonial contests, Hotham/North Melbourne was successful in eight.
As the 1890s developed, it became increasingly evident that the VFA, which on occasion contained as many as 15 clubs of widely divergent strength, was becoming unwieldy. As early as 1889, Geelong had proposed the formation of a new association comprising a nucleus of the strongest VFA clubs supplemented by teams from throughout the colony of Victoria. Although nothing came of this initial proposal, similar suggestions were mooted more or less annually until things finally came to a head in 1896, when officials from Geelong, Essendon, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Melbourne and South Melbourne met together and agreed to establish the breakaway Victorian Football League, which would get underway the following year. Despite finishing sixth (above Geelong) on the VFA ladder in 1896, North Melbourne was not invited to join, for reasons which Gerard Dowling describes as primarily economic and political, although perceptions of the club's potential playing strength may also have contributed to the decision (see footnote 5).
When the VFL commenced operations in 1897, it consisted not only of the six clubs mentioned above, but also Carlton, which like Geelong had finished below North on the ladder in 1896, and the perennially weak St Kilda, which was presumably included as it enabled the new competition to extend its reach into Melbourne's southern suburbs. As for the VFA, it was reduced overnight into a runt organisation of perceptibly inferior stature, comprising five established clubs which between them had never won a single premiership, plus newcomers Brunswick. North Melbourne's difficulties in this new milieu were compounded by the unavailability of its home ground at Arden Street, which was being reconstructed, but to its credit the side performed admirably, winning 14 out of 20 matches to come home second behind Port Melbourne, an achievement repeated in both of the next two seasons.
As a new century dawned, the VFA began flexing its muscles to provide football supporters with a viable and vibrant alternative to the VFL which was gradually taking on an overtly professional bearing that was not to everyone's taste. By 1903, the Association comprised 10 clubs, and it was decided to follow the lead of other major competitions like the VFL and SAFL by scheduling a finals series between the top four clubs at the end of the home and away rounds. As would be the case until the inception of the Page-McIntyre finals system in 1931, the team finishing on top of the ladder after the home and away rounds (Richmond in 1903) would, if it lost either its semi final or the final, be allowed to challenge the winner of the final for the premiership. This system was invoked in the very first year of the finals after Footscray overcame Richmond by 16 points in a semi final. Richmond's opponents in the challenge final, however, proved to be North Melbourne, which had shown scintillating form in downing both West Melbourne, 9.10 (64) to 4.4 (28), and Footscray, 7.11 (53) to 4.9 (33).
The challenge final was scheduled for Saturday 19 September at the now defunct East Melbourne Cricket Ground. A crowd estimated at 20,000 turned up on a day when a fierce breeze blew straight down the ground, assisting the northerners to establish a handy 3.4 to 0.0 opening quarter lead. Play was vigorous, scrappy and often crude, setting a pattern for many future Association grand finals. In the 2nd term, North had just as much difficulty as Richmond scoring into the breeze, but managed to restrict the opposition to just 1.4, thereby going into the long break with a useful 12 point advantage. After a tight opening 15 minutes during the 3rd quarter North broke away to rattle on 4 quick, and effectively match-winning goals, and although it was again held scoreless kicking into the breeze during the last term its ultimate winning margin was a comfortable 21 points. Arguably the key factor in North Melbourne's win was its supremacy in the ruck, where Graham, Morrison and skipper Paddy Noonan continually gave the side first use of the ball, with centreman Mick Londerigan and wingman Stewart among those to repeatedly benefit. It had been a long wait, but as so often proves to be the case, repeating the achievement would not be anything like as problematical.
Indeed, North Melbourne's initial 'repeat performance' could not, arguably, have been any easier. After finishing the 1904 home-and-away season in 4th place, North overcame minor premiers Richmond by four points in a hard fought and somewhat controversial semi final after which the losers were intensely critical of umpire Allen (see footnote 6), before comprehensively outplaying Footscray in the final. Admittedly, North only actually won this latter encounter by 17 points, but with 19 scoring shots to seven its overall supremacy was unquestioned.
The situation now, of course, was that Richmond, as the season's minor premier, had the right to challenge North Melbourne to a final, decisive match to determine the destiny of the 1904 premiership. However, displaying behaviour more traditionally - if erroneously - associated with the lemming than the Tiger, the Richmond Football Club issued a statement to the effect that they would only participate in a challenge final if the umpire appointed to control the match was somebody other than the aforementioned persona non grata by the name of Allen. Such a proclamation was, of course, the equivalent of a red rag to a bull to the VFA, which not surprisingly saw itself as having little alternative but to appoint Mr. Allen as the challenge final umpire, whereupon Richmond, to muddy the metaphor, manifested a mule-like stubbornness by refusing to take part.
The upshot was that North Melbourne, having remained unbeaten during the finals series, was awarded the flag - surely the easiest, and certainly one of the most controversial, VFA premierships of the twentieth century.
Richmond had its revenge in 1905 when it convincingly defeated minor premier North Melbourne in both the final (by 20 points) and challenge final (by 25 points).
Over the next couple of seasons, North Melbourne's on-field fortunes declined. After finishing 4th in 1906, the side endured its worst season since the VFL breakaway the following year when it managed just two wins from 18 matches and finished 2nd last. However, sensational developments were afoot as, its poor recent playing results notwithstanding, the club had lofty ambitions. Shortly after the 1907 season ended, it was revealed that North Melbourne was planning to merge with West Melbourne with a view to tabling an application to join the VFL. It proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. True, the VFL was widely known to be seeking to expand, but Richmond was in a much healthier financial position than North, even allowing for any potential additional revenue to be generated by the merger; moreover, there was an increasingly influential school of thought within the VFL which espoused the advantages, in what in future would be termed a 'PR sense', of being seen to 'dilute' its burgeoning professional image, and which placed the amateur club University, which had been seeking admission intermittently since 1898, in pole position, along with Richmond, to join.
Richmond's and University's eventual admission to the VFL left the newly concocted and as yet unnamed North-West Melbourne club in a state of limbo which was rapidly transformed into hell, as the VFA, at a special meeting convened on 22 November 1907 at Jackson's Hotel, voted resoundingly to expel both North Melbourne and West Melbourne, individually and jointly, from the competition (see footnote 7).
Technically, it could be argued that the original North Melbourne Football Club, formed in obscure circumstances back in 1869, ceased to exist at this point, and that the club which emerged in 1908, and which has existed ever since, was in fact an entirely new and separate organisation. From the contemporary perspective of the VFA, however, not to have a club based in the North Melbourne area would have been seen as seriously debilitating, and so it should come as no surprise to note that the VFA ladder for the 1908 season includes a team bearing the North Melbourne moniker. Established early in 1908, the club had an entirely new committee, and indeed its admission to and continuation in the VFA was conditional on no members of the former executive being permitted to hold office.
Acknowledging, if no doubt still regretting, the events of the recent past, this newly formed North Melbourne Football Club opted to incorporate the red and white of recently disbanded potential merger partner West Melbourne into its still predominantly blue and white playing uniform, but after just one season decked in this 'eyesore' the team reverted to just blue and white. The club's first couple of seasons spawned mediocre on field results, but by 1910 the side was discernibly beginning to flex its muscles. The chief impetus behind this improvement was the recruitment prior to the start of the season of four top echelon Carlton players, George 'Mallee' Johnson, Frank 'Silver' Caine, Charlie Hammond and Fred Jinks, who shared a disillusionment of what they regarded as the premature and unfair dismissal of coach John Worrall. Johnson, who was appointed coach at North, had begun with Richmond before establishing a reputation for himself with the Blues, for whom he starred in three successive VFL premiership sides, as one of the game's premier palming ruckmen. The prematurely greying (hence the nickname 'Silver') Caine was regarded as Carlton's star forward, and would top the VFA list with a then record 75 majors in 1910, while Hammond, like Johnson, was a first rate ruckman. Jinks, too, was a more than capable ruckman, although his chief strength was his versatility, which enabled him to play in a variety of positions with equal success.
North Melbourne's 1910 ensemble proved to be one of the strongest seen in the VFA up to that point. On 27 August, the side scored 23.21 (159) in crushing Preston, which managed just 1.1 (7), while overall it managed 15 wins and a draw from its 18 minor-round engagements. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the side then lost a hard fought semi final to Brunswick by a goal, necessitating the invocation of the right of challenge.
The challenge final took place at the North Melbourne Recreation Reserve, with an estimated 28,000 spectators squeezing into the ground, several thousand of whom watched the match ensconced on the perimeter cycling track. Brunswick enjoyed first use of the breeze and got off to a promising start by kicking 4.3 to North's 1.1 in the opening term, but thereafter the northerners, with a winning ruck division led by Syd Barker and Charlie Hammond, and an increasingly watertight backline, assumed complete dominance, adding 8.13 to 1.6 over the remaining three quarters of the match to win with ease.
Over the next couple of seasons, North Melbourne lost all four of the 'boom' recruits of 1910, but despite this the side continued as a force, finishing third both years. The 1912 season concluded in especially memorable fashion with a North Melbourne-Brunswick semi final that twice ended in a draw; North went on to win the second replay by 15 points, only to lose the final to eventual premiers Essendon Association, which defeated minor premiers Footscray in the challenge final.
After finishing second to Footscray in 1913 North embarked on a change of image the following year by introducing a new, predominantly navy blue playing uniform. The innovation bore immediate fruit as, under the captaincy of the diminutive Charlie Hardy, the side won 14 out of 18 home and away games to secure the minor premiership from Footscray on percentage, before comfortably overcoming Essendon Association in a semi final.
With the Great War having just started, many people's minds were on matters other than football, but a reasonable crowd of 12,000 nevertheless turned up to watch North Melbourne and Footscray do battle in the final at East Melbourne. Rumours that North would 'play dead' so as to enable the VFA - and both clubs - to swell their coffers by staging a challenge final proved unfounded; after a closely contested opening term, the navy blues pulled away to secure a comfortable 35-point victory. Far and away the most popular player on view was North centre half forward 'Dingo' Moran, who had just enlisted in the Australian Expeditionary Force; needing seven goals to top the Association's goal kicking list for the season, he finished with five. The key to North's victory, as was usually the case during this era, was its consummate supremacy in ruck, where Syd Barker, George Rawle and Charlie Hardy (three goals) constituted easily the most potent force in the VFA at the time.
With playing ranks depleted because of the demands of war the standard of football declined appreciably more or less across the board in 1915, but North Melbourne proved an exception. With the 1st ruck combination of Barker, Rawle and Hardy arguably the equal of any such trio anywhere in the land, and other fine players in the shape of defenders Bert Franks, Harold Hart and Ted Gardiner, half forward Dick Condon, and wingman Ralph Cornell, the northerners would undoubtedly have done themselves justice in the VFL. Indeed, they went some way toward proving this for, after clinching the first unbeaten VFA premiership since Essendon in 1893 with an 8 goal thrashing of Brunswick, they took on league side St Kilda at the Junction Oval in a match aimed at raising funds for a wounded soldiers charity. Played under League rules, with 18 rather than 16 players a side, North proved too strong in virtually every department, winning 8.9 (57) to 4.7 (31), and eliciting a claim by a sports writer in 'The Leader' "that North Melbourne is the finest Association combination ... for years" (see footnote 8).
Because of the war, the VFA chose to suspend operations in 1916, and when it resumed two years later only six clubs were in a position to field sides. One of these was North Melbourne, which by securing another unbeaten premiership effectively made it three VFA flags in a row. The teams played a reduced minor round of just 10 matches in 1918, with only Brunswick offering more than a token challenge to the northerners. However, when North and Brunswick clashed in a semi final there was only one team in it, with North's eventual winning margin of 48 points scarcely doing justice to its rampant superiority. The final against Prahran was similarly one-sided, with the irrepressible 'dynamic trio' of Syd Barker, George Rawle and Charlie Hardy once again the major driving forces behind North's win. The game was as good as over by quarter time as North Melbourne led 6.2 to 0.2. By the long break the margin had swelled to 60 points, and although North took the foot off the accelerator to some extent after half time the final margin was nevertheless an emphatic 93 points, 18.13 (121) to 3.10 (28).
For most of a 1919 season that saw the VFA return to its full, pre-war complement of ten clubs, North's supremacy looked set to continue to go unchallenged. At the end of the minor round the club occupied its customary place at the head of the ladder, having won all 18 matches played, 6 more than semi final opponents Brunswick. The Magpies, however, who always seemed to reserve their best for meetings with the northerners, inflicted North's first defeat since July 1914 with an ease that was as discomforting as it was unexpected. Only poor kicking for goal prevented Brunswick's winning margin from being more than 9 points, but at least North Melbourne had the comfort of knowing that, as minor premier, it enjoyed the right of challenge, which it duly implemented against the winner of the final, which rather surprisingly proved not to be Brunswick, but Footscray. Alas, the form which had so mysteriously and signally deserted North in the semi final against Brunswick continued to prove elusive, and the Tricolours led at every change in securing a 22-point victory. Again, were it not for some tawdry kicking for goal by the Footscray forwards, the margin could well have been considerably greater.
North Melbourne's era of VFA dominance, and arguably the greatest period in the club's entire history, had come to an end. Such achievements inevitably generated ambition within the club, and in 1921 an audacious bid to enter the VFL by what might be termed 'the back door' was launched. Midway through the season, on 30 June, the club announced that it would be disbanding, and seeking to amalgamate with established league power Essendon, which was being forced to abandon its home ground at East Melbourne. The new combination, which would boast the best players from both merger partners, would have its headquarters at the North Melbourne Recreation Ground. For a time, the proposed deal actually looked likely to gain the rubber stamp of the Essendon committee, but when Essendon procured the use of the Essendon Recreation Reserve for 1922 the agreement collapsed, and the North Melbourne Football Club found itself once again, just as in 1907, in limbo. With the same resilience it had displayed fifteen years earlier, however, in 1922 the club once again rose, Phoenix-like, from the ashes, this time via an ostensible merger with the Essendon Association side, which after a period of dominance prior to World War One, had fallen on hard times. In many ways the arrangement was similar to that which would later occur between the Brisbane and Fitzroy Football Clubs, whereby one, immeasurably stronger partner effectively absorbed the other - hence the use of the term 'ostensible'. Although the Essendon Association team enjoyed nominal representation on the new club's committee (just as Fitzroy would with Brisbane), to all intents and purposes the North Melbourne Football Club which resumed in the VFA in 1922 was the same one as had disbanded the previous year, with the Essendon Association Club in all practical senses defunct.
Within three years North Melbourne would finally achieve its long harboured ambition of participating in Victoria's premier football competition when, along with Footscray and Hawthorn, it was admitted to the VFL. The issue of the possibility of expanding its competition was initially raised during an ordinary meeting of the VFL on 11 July 1924, and thereafter matters proceeded apace, with at least half a dozen VFA clubs coming under review (see footnote 9) before the final three were chosen.
With the nucleus of the 1924 side that had finished 5th in the VFA still intact, North Melbourne took the field at Corio Oval to face Geelong in the opening round of the 1925 VFL season. Apart from the most ardent North Melbourne supporter, few gave the Shinboners, as they were increasingly popularly becoming known (see footnote 10), anything better than a remote outside chance of winning, and when Geelong led 3.5 to 0.1 at the first change it seemed such pessimism was justified. However, over the remaining three quarters of the match North managed to raise its game impressively, and with sure ball handling and polished team play outscored the Cats 9.12 to 5.6 en route to a magnificent 8 point win. In retrospect, the win would appear even more meritorious as it was 1 of only 2 home and away defeats inflicted on eventual premiers Geelong all season. Of the three neophytes, North was the only one to win on the opening day of the season, and with a total of 5 wins from 17 matches for the year was able to secure 10th position on the ladder, with the other newcomers finishing 11th (Footscray) and 12th (Hawthorn).
Sadly, however, it was a false dawn, for on the whole North Melbourne's first decade in league ranks proved to be a disaster. In 1926 the side plummeted to the wooden spoon when it managed to avoid defeat just once courtesy of a come from behind round 13 draw at Hawthorn. Further wooden spoons followed in 1929, 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1935, by which time the club was in abject straits financially, and in dire risk of going under. In 1936, a deal struck with the Melbourne City Council and the North Melbourne Recreation Reserve committee, and which involved the cricket club as well as the football club, helped ease the financial worries; the arrangement involved the Council taking over liability for the new grandstand, and the Recreation Reserve committee agreed to pay an annual rent of £175 and to release 80% of net revenue to the clubs.
On the field, however, North Melbourne continued to struggle, although the emergence of high calibre players like John Lewis, Charlie Cameron, Charlie Gaudion, Jack Smith, Ted Ellis, Wally Carter, Keith McKenzie and Roy Deller gave the supporters something to cheer, and laid the foundations for the winning culture that was to emerge in due course.
With no real concessions, either financially or in terms of recruiting, being afforded by the league, it was perhaps no surprise that North Melbourne, Footscray and Hawthorn endured such prolonged periods of mediocrity following their admission to the 'big time'. In North Melbourne's case, it was a full twenty seasons before the side even managed to record more wins than losses for the year, but this achievement - 10 wins and 8 losses in 1944 - signalled better times just around the corner. Indeed, the 1945 season could be said to herald the start of North's first genuinely auspicious era since entering the league - its 'coming of age', if you will. With former Richmond player Bob McCaskill in his second season as coach the side overcame a slow start to earn a club record (in the VFL) 13 home and away wins from 20 matches, good enough to secure 3rd spot on the ladder and a first ever foray into the finals.
Because of the unavailability of the MCG the finals in 1945 were played at Carlton's home ground of Princes Park, a state of affairs that cannot have helped finals novices North who found themselves fronting up to the Blues in the 1st semi final. As so often seems to happen when an inexperienced side makes its major round debut, the Shinboners were psychologically emasculated by the occasion, and did not really start to play until the last quarter, by which time Carlton was already 10 goals to the good. In the end, North at least managed to put some respectability into a scoreline which saw the Blues emerge victorious by 26 points, 14.10 (94) to 8.20 (68). Undoubtedly helped by playing the finals in their own back yard, Carlton went on to become the first VFL club since the inception of the Page-McIntyre finals system in 1931 to win the flag from 4th position on the ladder.
As far as North Melbourne was concerned, the proverbial monkey was off its back in terms of securing the respect of the other eleven league clubs. No longer could a game against the Shinboners be pencilled in by the opposition as an easy victory, and although the side failed to contest the finals in each of the next three seasons, the days of perennial flirtation with the wooden spoon were well and truly over, at least for the time being.
In 1949, with former champion Wally Carter at the coaching helm, and with a nucleus of young, predominantly untried players, North made another significant breakthrough by not only qualifying for the finals, but doing so as minor premiers. Unfortunately, the intense atmosphere of finals football once again got the better of the team, and it capitulated in straight sets to Carlton (by 18 points, after leading by a goal at the last change) and Essendon (by 17 points). Important lessons had been learnt, however, and in 1950 the side, boasting a new nickname of 'the Kangaroos', went as close as it would go to a premiership for a quarter of a century.
Captained by the superbly skilled Les Foote, North Melbourne achieved a number of important milestones in 1950. In round 6 at Arden Street the side inflicted a 15 point defeat on Essendon, which proved to be the eventual premiers only reversal for the season, while three weeks later it overcame Collingwood at Victoria Park for the first time since entering the VFL a quarter of a century earlier. The third significant milestone came on preliminary final day when, after looking down and out a quarter time when they trailed opponents Geelong by 39 points, the Kangaroos, inspired by a majestic performance from Foote, fought back tenaciously to record their first ever VFL finals victory, 14.16 (100) to 12.11 (83).
In truth, the side could be considered somewhat unfortunate to have been forced to play off in the preliminary final after a remarkable game against minor premiers Essendon in the 2nd semi final the week before. After Les Foote, on winning the toss, had made the somewhat surprising decision to kick into the breeze in the opening term, North found themselves on a hiding to nothing almost immediately, with Essendon rattling on 5.5 to 0.3 by the 1st change. However, Foote had either known precisely what he was doing, or else was blessed with amazing good fortune, for thereafter it was the Kangaroos who dominated affairs completely. By half time, the margin had been reduced to just 7 points, and when North kept pace (3.2 to 3.3) with the Dons while kicking into the breeze in the 3rd quarter the odds of an upset victory appeared high. Twenty minutes into the final term the Kangaroos took the lead for the first time, but in a frantic conclusion to the game they proved unable to add to their score. Essendon meanwhile whittled the margin back from 5 points to 4, and then shortly before the siren a behind from John Coleman reduced the deficit to just 3 points. With thirty seconds left to play, the difference remained just 3 points, with the Dons attacking relentlessly, and North battling grimly to stay in front. With the ball bouncing harmlessly towards the boundary line North's normally ultra reliable full-back Jock McCorkell made a costly and wholly uncharacteristic error of judgement. Rather than seeing the ball over the line, he elected to keep it 'live' by punching it back into play, whereupon the most dangerous player on the Essendon forward line, John Coleman, pounced on it and delivered an inch perfect pass on to the chest of Ron McEwin, who goaled easily. There was no time left for North to concoct a response, and the siren went with the scoreboard showing Essendon 11.14 (80) having defeated a gallant, and undeniably unfortunate North Melbourne 11.11 (77).
Given the closeness of all three matches between the sides in 1950 (see footnote 11) the Kangaroos had absolutely no reason to feel inferior when they fronted up to Essendon once more on grand final day a fortnight later. Just as in the 2nd semi final, the Dons enjoyed first use of the breeze, although on this occasion they elected to do so themselves after veteran captain-coach Dick Reynolds won the toss. Within a minute of the opening bounce Essendon had a goal on the board courtesy of Coleman, but North fought hard to stay in touch, and at quarter time the Dons' 21 point advantage was arguably merely a reflection of the impetus afforded by the breeze. A tense and vigorous second term produced just 1 goal, to North full forward Jock Spencer, and at the long break the margin was 13 points in Essendon's favour.
During the third quarter the wind changed direction but any advantage to the Kangaroos was undermined when heavy rain began to fall, and it was the Dons in fact who assumed control, extending their lead at the final change to 20 points. North tried everything - not all of it strictly legal - in the last term in an effort to get back into the game, but Essendon proved too accomplished, and ran out comfortable if bruised victors by 38 points, 13.14 (92) to 7.12 (54). Follower Les Foote, second rover 'Tim' Robb, half back flanker Ted Jarrard and centreman Kevin Dynon were among the more prominent contributors to North's effort.
History repeatedly shows that teams which lose grand finals often use the experience as a spur to future achievement, but sadly this did not prove to be the case for North Melbourne. After missing the major round in 1951, '52 and '53 the side made the 1st semi final in 1954, only to lose by 5 goals to Melbourne. The Kangaroos' only other finals appearances of the decade came in 1958, when, in the 1st semi final, they overcame Fitzroy by just 4 points in wet conditions thanks to a goal right at the death by Noel Teasdale, and then lost the preliminary final to eventual premiers Collingwood by 20 points.
The 1958 season was a particularly noteworthy one for one of North Melbourne's all time champion players, Allen Aylett, who secured virtually every individual honour available to him, with the exception of the Brownlow Medal. In addition to winning practically every media award going for his performances for North during the home and away rounds, Aylett won the first of three successive club fairest and best trophies, and, while representing the VFL at the Melbourne Centenary Carnival, became the first 'Big V' representative ever to be awarded the Tassie Medal (see footnote 12).
Although in purely statistical (not to mention business) terms the 1960s proved to be a miserable decade for North (see footnote 13), the team continued both to produce and to recruit players of the highest order although, along with Hawthorn, it remained unable to provide a Brownlow Medallist (see footnote 14). Apart from the aforementioned Aylett and Teasdale, there was the awkward looking but highly effective and versatile John Ibrahim, strong marking centre half forward Bernie McCarthy, lightweight but brilliant wingman Laurie 'Twinkletoes' Dwyer, dashing defender Peter Steward, and redoubtable key position player John Dugdale.
Despite its consistently poor recent form, North entered the new decade with considerable confidence. For one thing, it had recruited Barry Cable, arguably the finest rover in Australia at the time, from Perth, and thoughts of his potential partnership with Sam Kekovich, who some judges rated as the most exciting ruck-rover in the game set many a Kangaroo supporter's pulse racing. Moreover, players like Steward, Dwyer and Dugdale were now at the peak of their effectiveness, and could realistically be expected to propel the club up the ladder from the promising 8th position it had secured in 1969.
In theory, all of this sounded fairly persuasive, but before the season had even properly got underway the 'Roos had lost several major pieces of their jig-saw after Kekovich, Dugdale and Dwyer were all sidelined, the first two players with serious injuries, and Dwyer with a debilitating attack of glandular fever. Both Steward and Cable (4th in the Brownlow voting) performed heroics, but they had too few friends; North finished an emphatic and demoralising last.
With former playing hero Allen Aylett now spearheading the club's administration as a radical and forward thinking president, in 1971 North Melbourne audaciously announced a 'Five Year Plan' to secure a VFL premiership. Such pronouncements frequently backfire, but Aylett was careful to ensure that the club took drastic and meaningful action with which to back it up. Every aspect of the club's operation came under intense analysis with a view to trimming the fat and maximising efficiency. Nevertheless, it is doubtful if such measures alone would have been sufficient to propel the team which won just one game in 1972 (earning an inevitable wooden spoon) to a remarkable four consecutive grand finals for two flags between 1974 and 1977.
For all its consistent lack of success, the North Melbourne Football Club was nothing if not opportunistic, and the old saying 'give a dog an even break' was seldom better exemplified than in 1972, when the VFL unintentionally provided North with a luxury ticket to a hitherto only hazily imagined world.
Prior to the commencement of the 1973 season North Melbourne's playing stocks had risen appreciably via the signing of three bona fide champions in the shape of Doug Wade (208 games and 834 goals with Geelong), Barry Davis (220 games for Essendon) and John Rantall (over 200 games with South Melbourne). These signings were made possible by the introduction by the league of a rule whereby a player who had given his club ten years service could obtain a transfer, without any restraint, to the opposition club of his choice. The VFL at the time was concerned about the possible legal ramifications of a case involving rugby league player John Tutty in New South Wales in 1971, in which the courts had eventually ruled that the New South Wales Rugby League's regulations on the transfer of players constituted a restraint of trade. Although the VFL's hastily drawn up 'Ten Year Rule' was soon withdrawn, it was in place long enough to enable North to make major headway towards its goal of securing a senior premiership by 1976 (see footnote 15).
In addition to the trio of champions mentioned above, North also procured the services of one of the legends of the game as coach, when former Melbourne and Carlton supremo Ronald Dale Barassi was enticed into the fold. Whatever else you could say about Barassi, he was a born winner, who had an undoubted knack for bringing out the very best in his charges. Moreover, the club's acquisition over the next couple of seasons of a number of players whose 'best' has perhaps seldom been excelled in the history of the game made Barassi's job all the easier. Notable among these were full forward Darryl Sutton from Glenorchy, and wingman Wayne Schimmelbusch from North's old VFA rivals Brunswick, both of whom debuted in 1973, and 1972 All Australian and Magarey Medal winning ruck-rover Malcolm Blight from Woodville. Blight would make his North debut in 1974, although he would miss the finals series with glandular fever. He would be joined in the Kangaroos side that year by another indisputable champion in the shape of Barry Cable, who was returning for a second stint at Arden Street following his highly successful single season sojourn in 1970.
Perhaps not surprisingly, North improved beyond measure in 1973 to manage 11 wins and a draw from its 22 home and away matches, good enough for sixth position on the ladder, its highest placed finish since 1959. Moreover, Keith Greig's victory in the Brownlow Medal, which was repeated the following year, was the club's first in that award.
With the addition of Cable and Blight to the mix in 1974 North Melbourne was transformed into a bona fide premiership contender, winning 16 out of 22 home and away matches to finish 2nd on the ladder behind Richmond. Just as in 1950, however, the finals would ultimately prove a disappointment, although unlike the 1950 side the version coached by Ron Barassi was not going to waste the lessons learned.
North started its 1974 finals campaign in style with a 15.13 (103) to 8.17 (65) qualifying final thrashing of Hawthorn, made possible by an overwhelming last quarter burst of 7.5 to 2.2. In the following week's second semi final against Richmond, however, the Kangaroos found themselves on the back foot right from the start. At quarter time the Tigers had rattled on 5.7 to North's no score, and although North managed a measure of improvement after that there was never the remotest hint of danger to Tom Hafey's side.
In a rain-marred preliminary final clash with Hawthorn, North just managed to squeeze over the line by five points. Only 15 goals in total were scored all match, just four of them after half time when conditions became particularly inimical to good, open play.
The grand final, by contrast, was played on a perfect afternoon for football, but unfortunately for North the Richmond machine, one of the best oiled and most efficient in VFL history, was in irrepressible form. North tried hard, and never allowed the Tigers to hold full sway, but Richmond won every quarter except the third, and to the enormous disappointment of perhaps 90% of the crowd of 113,839, pulled away in the last term to win, it seemed, with something to spare. Final scores were Richmond 18.20 (128) to North Melbourne 13.14 (92), with wingmen Keith Greig and Wayne Schimmelbusch, rover Barry Cable, half back flanker John Rantall, and centreman John Burns best for the vanquished northerners.
Barassi was apoplectic, telling his players that losing the ultimate game of the year constituted the ultimate failure. The club's post-match function at the Southern Cross ballroom was permeated with the stigma of defeat, Barassi having warned his players that he would not tolerate seeing any of them smile.
The feelings of dejection and hurt on which Barassi so calculatedly focused, and which he reinforced at every opportunity, contributed in no small measure to the club's long awaited breakthrough premiership in 1975. As Barassi himself later recalled, "The hunger won it for us" (see footnote 16).
Indeed, after an appalling start to the season which saw the side lose its opening four games, that hunger no doubt verged on malnutrition. In any event, the form of the team gradually improved, with 11 wins from the last 13 matches of the year finally securing 3rd spot on the ladder going into the finals. A comfortable 20 point qualifying final defeat of Carlton raised confidence, but Hawthorn threw a substantial spanner into the works by downing North by 11 points in a bruising 2nd semi final. The one good thing about this defeat was that it enabled the Kangaroos to achieve revenge over their 1974 nemesis Richmond in the preliminary final, and this they duly did with greater ease than the final margin of 17 points suggested.
And so to grand final day, and the first occasion since the club's VFA era that it had played off for the premiership in two successive seasons. The Hawks, having out pointed North in the 2nd semi final, were not surprisingly the punters' favourites, but just as in 1974 the Kangaroos enjoyed enormous sentimental favouritism and this, coupled no doubt with the memories of Barassi's stinging rhetoric of twelve months earlier, enabled them to sprint out of the blocks and have a couple of goals on the board through John Burns before their opponents had properly settled. Hawthorn fought back strenuously, but North was never headed, and finally won by a surprisingly emphatic 55 points after extending its lead (12, 20 and 29 points) at every change. John Rantall, who had kept Hawk champion Leigh Matthews quiet all afternoon, was one of many key contributors to North's win, along with fellow half back flanker Brent Crosswell, full back David Dench, wingman Keith Greig, and the roving pair of John Burns and Barry Cable. At that night's post grand final function, club president Allen Aylett, after opening his address with the wry observation that "Tonight is a little different to last year", went on to describe the team's achievement as "almost a fairytale". Moreover, he went on:
"We don't just owe our success to the footballers but some of the richest men in Melbourne, to pensioners in little back rooms or little garages in Kensington. They are the people who have supported the cause." (See footnote 17)
North Melbourne claimed some further silverware a fortnight later when the side was successful at the last ever staging of the Australian club championships in Adelaide. After easing to a 39-point win over WANFL premiers West Perth in a semi final played on Saturday 11 October, the Kangaroos outclassed home favourites Norwood, 17.15 (117) to 5.11 (41) two days later to take out the championship in style. North's South Australian utility Malcolm Blight won the Winfield Medal as player of the series.
Hawthorn achieved conclusive revenge over North Melbourne in 1976 by emerging victorious from all five meetings between the teams. In addition to the two minor round contests, the sides met one another in the final of the short-lived NFL national championship series, which involved leading clubs from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, and there were also two confrontations during the finals. The Hawks won the qualifying final with ease after a closely fought 1st half, and then on grand final day, motivated by thoughts of team mate and cancer victim Peter Crimmins lying on his death bed at home listening to the match on the radio, they pulled away from North in the final term to win a rugged encounter by 30 points, 13.22 (100) to 10.10 (70).
Four months after the grand final defeat, at 5.15pm on 24 January 1977, the North Melbourne players assembled at Arden Street to commence training for the new season. Gathering the players in a circle around him, Ron Barassi reminded them that they were no longer the best team in the competition. Then, in a much louder, more intense voice, he spat out the words "Hawthorn thrashed us last year!" His distaste was almost palpable. It was clear he felt insulted, demeaned, and wanted the players to share those feelings. "This is the year we become number one again!" he insisted, eying each of the players individually for any sign of wavering or dissent. Seemingly satisfied with their response, he moved on to more mundane subject matter, but in those few moments the tone for the entire year ahead had been set (see footnote 18).
In direct contrast to the club's previous premiership year of 1975, North began the campaign that would eventually secure its 2nd League pennant in fine style, winning its first five contests of the season, including a memorable 10 goal thrashing of Hawthorn in the opening round. Newcomers to the side this season included former Melbourne veteran Stan Alves, who had transferred to North in the hope of playing in a premiership side, John Cassin, who had begun his league career with Essendon and had spent the 1975 and 1976 seasons with West Torrens, and Stephen McCann, a Western Australian from Geraldton who had yet to play senior league football. All three would feature in North's eventual grand final winning side, although one player who would not was the club's champion wingman and dual Brownlow Medallist, Keith Greig who, after sustaining serious cruciate ligament damage in the round 6 loss to Richmond at the MCG, went on to miss the remainder of the season.
Although the team lacked consistency after its impressive opening burst of victories it nevertheless qualified for the finals with some comfort, managing 15 wins from 22 home and away games to occupy 3rd spot on the ladder. Little did the players know it, but they were about to embark on the longest, most arduous journey to a premiership in VFL history. That journey began with a worryingly impotent qualifying final performance against arch rivals Hawthorn which resulted in a resounding 38-point loss. Barassi was furious, expressing his indignation both privately and publicly. Some of his public remarks about his players perhaps transcended the boundaries of tact and common courtesy to which football coaches habitually adhered; however, in hindsight they can clearly be seen to have had the desired effect.
Week two of the finals saw North Melbourne facing Richmond in the cut-through semi final at VFL Park, and right from the start the Kangaroos were a transformed side, comfortably winning every quarter en route to a 16.14 (110) to 9.9 (63) triumph. Barassi's satisfaction at the performance was reinforced when he learned that the Kangas' next finals opponents would be Hawthorn, which had lost to Collingwood in the 2nd semi final.
"If we don't beat this mob on Saturday, with the incentive we've got now" he informed his players, "then I seriously doubt that we'll beat them for years to come - until both sides have changed substantially". (See footnote 19)
North Melbourne's performance in annihilating Hawthorn in the 1977 preliminary final was perhaps its finest of the Barassi era with the players observing their coach's pre-match instructions to a tee.
"I want you to go out there with every manly fibre you possess .... and play the game of your life .... the game of your life!" he had demanded, before going on to define what he meant by 'the game of your life' as: ".... the physical game .... the physical game of running in .... because that'll bring with it the tackling, the pressure, the handball, the backing up, and the talking .... all the things we've practised and are supposed to be the best at in the VFL competition!" (See footnote 20)
Hawthorn struggled gamely to stay in touch during a fiercely contested first half, but after the long break the Kangaroos were rampant, kicking 9.9 to 1.4 to win by the scarcely credible margin of 63 points. North had many fine contributors to the win, but veteran rover Barry Cable, making one of his last ever appearances in a North jumper, had close to 40 possessions in what some observers claimed was, quite literally, 'the game of his life'.
Prior to the 1977 grand final, North Melbourne and Collingwood had only met once previously in a VFL finals game. That was in the 1958 preliminary final when a combination of solid, tenacious defending by the Magpies and atrocious kicking for goal, especially early on, by North saw eventual premier Collingwood emerge victorious by 20 points, 14.12 (96) to 10.16 (76). The teams' two meetings in the 1977 minor round had resulted in a win to North by nine points in round 2, and a more emphatic 39-point win to Collingwood in round 15. The Magpies who, under proven premiership coach Tom Hafey had risen from wooden spooners in 1976 to flag contenders a year later, were in the virtually unprecedented position of attracting a measure of sentimental support, but a majority of the 108,244 spectators who packed into the MCG on the afternoon of Saturday 24 September 1977 almost certainly wished for a North Melbourne victory.
At three quarter time, such an eventuality seemed unlikely. The Kangaroos had started well enough, and at the first change had led by 17 points, but since then it had been all Collingwood, with the Magpies adding 8.7 to a curiously hesitant and wayward North's nine straight behinds. As Collingwood fans celebrated what they thought was the end of a 19-year premiership drought, Ron Barassi gave one of the most important three-quarter-time addresses of his career.
Insisting that the game was far from over, he also made some potentially risky, but in the upshot gloriously successful, positional changes, moving key defenders Darryl Sutton and David Dench to the forward lines. Within moments of the resumption, Sutton had a goal on the board for North, and a couple more quickly followed from Baker and Dench. Suddenly, the Kangaroos were doing everything right. A succession of minor scores followed before full forward Phil Baker, at the 14-minute mark of the final term, kicked the goal that brought the 'Roos back on terms, with the momentum seemingly all theirs.
Collingwood, however, dug deep, and shortly afterwards claimed a behind to recapture the lead. Two behinds to North followed before Phil Baker, after marking, booted his sixth major of the day to send the blue and white contingent in the crowd into raptures: a seven-point advantage to North, with six, maybe seven, minutes to play. The Magpies attacked repeatedly, with Peter Moore finally procuring a point that brought the margin back to a single straight kick.
Then, with less than a minute remaining, Bill Picken sent a high, speculative kick towards the Collingwood goal square and the long-limbed, wiry form of the appropriately nicknamed 'Twiggy' Dunne somehow managed to get both hands to the ball to initiate probably the most momentous 30-second period of his life, which culminated in his splitting the centre with a low trajectory flat punt that put the two teams back on even terms.
Moments later, the siren went, and players from both sides collapsed to their ground in numb weariness mingled with, perhaps, a modicum of relief. Both sides had failed to win, but at the same time neither side had lost; in a sense, it was almost as though the previous 120 minutes of sweat, toil, desperation, skill, fervour and passion had never even occurred and, for the first time since 1948, and indeed only the second time in VFL history, the grand final would need to be replayed.
Whereas the first game had been tight, tough and tense, all of which probably favoured Collingwood, the replay saw fast, open, skilful football - North Melbourne's forté - very much to the fore. With the 'three Bs' - Briedis, Blight and Byrne - in stupendous form, the Kangaroos were headed only briefly in procuring an impressive 27-point victory, which but for some wayward kicking for goal would have been much heftier. There were brief occasions when Collingwood threatened to get back into the game, only for North to steady, and pull away once more.
"As you think back on this day, which has been one of the great spectacles in Australian sport" declared Barassi to his players in his intensely emotional post-match summation, "I hope you'll agree that all that hard work .... and all that shit put upon you by the coach .... was worth it ...." (See footnote 21)
There is little doubt that the players, to a man, would have agreed that it was, but unfortunately for the club's supporters the memories generated by this remarkable achievement would have to last them for a long, long time.
Not that North Melbourne's days as a league force were entirely over. In Ron Barassi's final three years as coach the club finished second, third and fifth, suggesting a gradual, but by no means calamitous, decline. The 1980s, however, were fraught with inconsistency, as the side contested the finals one year, only to endure rank mediocrity, or worse, the next. Nevertheless, the club continued to provide a home to many of the finest players in the land, including triple fairest and best winner Matthew Larkin, South Australian rover Kym Hodgeman and, perhaps most notably of all, a tremendous Western Australian trio comprising the electrifying Krakouer brothers, Phil and Jim, and 'the Rolls Royce of Sherman tanks', 1983 Brownlow Medallist Ross Glendinning.
It took the arrival as coach of former journeyman back pocket player Denis Pagan, who had played 121 games for the 'Roos between 1967 and 1974, to turn things around for the club. Pagan took over from Wayne Schimmelbusch early in 1993 and his impact was immediate, as he steered the side which had been placed 12th the previous season to a third-place finish at the end of the '93 home and away rounds.
A 51-point elimination final thumping at the hands of West Coast quickly ended the 'Roos' season, and proved that there was still considerable work to be done, but the club was clearly moving in the right direction, as was emphasised when it qualified for the preliminary final in each of the next two seasons.
By 1996, the Pagan brew was coming nicely to the boil. In an era when football was changing rapidly and dramatically, both on and off the field, Pagan's Kangaroos achieved success by means of what might be called quintessential old fashioned methods, reminiscent of the football played in the VFL of yore. As Bernie Sheehy, evaluating Pagan's approach in the grand final issue of 'Football Record' put it:
"His (Pagan's) principles and preaching have been strong and constant - frightening strength at the contest, the ball and the opposition; a minimum of fuss, flair and possessions; long kicks towards powerful marking players. Pagan's consistent message, his astute match-ups, his shrewd manipulation of his own resources and North's two genuine superstars - Carey and McKernan - assured North of a strong season." (See footnote 22)
The strict, unswerving adherence of his players to these principles enabled North to qualify for the finals in 2nd spot before surging into the grand final with crushing wins over Geelong (50 points) and Brisbane (38 points). Grand final opponents Sydney had topped the ladder after the home and away series, but had not been nearly so impressive during September, and most observers expected Pagan's Kangas to triumph. This they duly did, easing home by 43 points after a torrid, frenzied but never needlessly belligerent first half, which saw the Swans leading at one stage by four goals. In addition to the "two genuine superstars" referred to above, North was best served by Norm Smith Medallist Glenn Archer in a back pocket, on-ballers Anthony Stevens and Anthony rock, and half back flanker Wayne Schwass. Final scores were North Melbourne 19.17 (131) to Sydney 13.10 (88), leaving the Kangaroos Australia's undisputed champion team for the first occasion since 1975, and premiers of the V/AFL for only the third time. However, off the field, matters were not proceeding so swimmingly.
Put simply, the problem was that, by the 1990s, Australian football at the top level had become a major business, with success measured predominantly in economic terms. While the winning of premierships was almost certainly 'good for business' it could not, on its own, produce solvency, let alone ensure the vibrant economic health necessary if a club was not merely to survive, but endure long term. With perhaps the smallest dedicated band of supporters in the league - a league which, to put it bluntly, was no longer merely a suburban Melbourne (and Geelong) concern - it was becoming increasingly doubtful whether North, with a set-up fostered by and quintessentially orientated towards suburban footy, had the resources or structure to survive, at least as a single, autonomous organisation.
As far as the actual football was concerned, however, the club continued to thrive. After reaching a fourth consecutive preliminary final in 1997, the 'Roos qualified for the 1998 grand final against Adelaide after clinching only the second V/AFL minor premiership in their history. Widely favoured to win, North had enough scoring opportunities in the 1st half to be at least 10 goals ahead at the long break, instead of which, with 6.15 to the Crows' 4.3, the margin was a mere 24 points - virtually nothing in the context of the modern game, as Adelaide all too quickly demonstrated by adding 11.12 to 2.7 in a rampant second half performance to win with an ease that not even its most ardent supporters would have imagined possible. From North Melbourne's perspective, however, the 1998 grand final remains, classically and irretrievably, 'the one that got away'.
In 1999, the side enjoyed another memorable season on the field by winning 17 out of 22 home and away matches to finish 2nd on the ladder behind Essendon, before qualifying for its 10th V/AFL grand final with solid finals wins over Port Adelaide (44 points) and Brisbane (45 points). Most observers considered that Essendon and North were by some measure the competition's two outstanding teams in 1999, and so with the Bombers' dismissal from contention by Carlton in the preliminary final the Kangaroos were left with the much simpler, on paper, task of overcoming the Blues to take out their fourth league premiership, and their tenth in total.
For once, the grand final panned out more or less precisely as the pundits expected: Carlton was valiant but ultimately under-resourced, while the Kangaroos simply got stronger and stronger the longer the match progressed. At quarter time it was North by 12 points, a margin it extended to 20 points at the long break, and 43 points by the final change. Final scores were Kangaroos 19.10 (124) to Carlton 12.17 (89), with the victors, understandably, easing off somewhat during the final term. Overall, however, the Blues had no answer to the likes of Norm Smith Medallist Shannon Grant (19 possessions and 4 goals from a wing), centreman Peter Bell (a staggering 31 touches), the indefatigable Mick Martyn and electrifying Byron Pickett on the last line of defence, and the formidably imposing figure of centre half back Glenn Archer.
The 1999 Grand Final proved to be the high watermark of the Pagan-Carey era. The Kangas were unceremoniously crushed to the tune of 125 points by Essendon in the first week of the 2000 finals series, and although they fought their way back to reach the preliminary final, they could not overcome Melbourne. In 2001 North missed the finals for the first time since 1992, but it was an off field drama just before the start of the 2002 season that tore the club apart and essentially ended a golden era for the Kangaroos.
Team captain Wayne Carey was forced to leave the club after revelations of an affair with the wife of vice-captain, Anthony Stevens. Carey, arguably the best player of his generation, had to stand out of football for one year, before gaining a clearance to Adelaide. Pagan left the club a year later to coach Carlton, while the nucleaus of the great side of the 90s aged and slowed.
Maintaining supremacy is harder than ever in today's AFL which utilises a draft system, modelled on American sports, aimed at helping to ensure that the weaker clubs get priority access to the best up and coming young players. In this context, the Kangaroos' period of comparative mediocrity since 1999 should be regarded as neither surprising nor alarming.
After frustratingly inconsistent 2003 and 2004 seasons in which the team repeatedly conspired to play like premiership contenders one week, and potential wooden spooners the next, ambitious and highly competitive former player Dean Laidley had his charges mount what looked at times like a realistic premiership challenge in 2005. However, when the pressure was intensified during the elimination final clash with Port Adelaide, the 'Roos found themselves unable to cope, and went under by the embarrassing margin of 87 points. The 2006 season saw further shortcomings emerge as the side underwent a somewhat unexpected decline into mediocrity, with seven wins from 22 home-and-away matches consigning it to 14th place on the ladder, its worst finish since 1984.
However, today's AFL is a competition of unrelenting flux and capriciousness, with teams' performances often improving or declining markedly in the space of just a single season. Given that the 'Roos, at their best, were still capable of challenging the top sides in 2006, few people would have been surprised to witness their surge up the ladder in 2007. Fourth after the home and aways, they ultimately got to within one game of their first grand final appearance since 1999.
Finals qualification was again comfortably achieved in 2008, but the side's premiership aspirations were immediately derailed by Sydney to the tune of 35 points. A year later the team endured a dismal time, managing just seven wins and a draw from their 22 home and away matches, a record which consigned them to 13th place on the ladder. The 2010 season brought some improvement under new coach Brad Scott, with the 'Roos managing victories in precisely half their matches and failed to nab eighth spot, and finals participation, only on percentage. It almost the same story in 2011, the team again finishing eighth.
Early results in 2012 suggest that North Melbourne continues to tread water, a state of affairs that does not auger well for the club's future. With a relatively small supporter base, North needs on field success to keep the wolves of the AFL at bay.
With awareness of the need to bolster its financial position at the forefront of the club hierarchy's minds, North Melbourne in 1999 had altered its name to 'The Kangaroos', reasoning that by adopting the unofficial emblem of Australia as its own, the club could somehow transcend its suburban roots and become 'Australia's team'. It could also have be seen as positioning for a relocation interstate, with Sydney, Canberra, the Gold Coast, and Tasmania all being touted over the years as possible new homes. In late 2007 the club officially rejected an AFL proposal to relocate to the Gold Coast, and almost immediately reverted back to 'North Melbourne' as its official moniker. The club's heart and soul remain in Melbourne, and nothing short of a full scale relocation - which may yet be forced on the club - is ever going to change that. Significantly, North are now playing regular home fixtures in Hobart, Tasmania, which could be a portend to the AFL's next expansion bid.
Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from australianfootball.com writers