The advent of the Adelaide Crows in 1991 was arguably the single most momentous event in the history of football in South Australia. While the impact of two world wars may arguably have been more damaging in the short term, ultimately their effects were transitory. The emergence of the Crows, however, would change the face of South Australian football forever.
For the member clubs of the SANFL the most obvious change was in terms of their profile: no longer were they the primary shaping force of football in the state. In a sense, where once the SANFL had been cast in the role of protagonist, now it was very much a member of the supporting cast. What this has tended to mean in practical terms is that, for aspiring footballers of the highest order, the SANFL is now perceived as being merely a means to an end - that end being, hopefully, participation in the AFL. Previously, until perhaps as late as the mid-1980s, each of the three major state Leagues in Australia - VFL, SANFL and WAFL - were perceived as conferring ‘league status’ on the footballers who played in them, albeit with the tacit acknowledgement that, in terms of all-round quality and importance, the VFL tended to be superior (see footnote 1). As more and more top South Australians and West Australians joined Victorian clubs, so the standard of football being played in Adelaide and Perth declined, a development which was accelerated, particularly in the west, by the admission to the VFL in 1987 of the Perth-based club West Coast. For a time, South Australia strenuously resisted following in Western Australia’s footsteps, but a series of dramatic developments in 1990 (see footnote 2) led to the formation of the Adelaide Crows and their admission the following year to what, by that stage, was referred to as the AFL.
Virtually overnight, the clubs which comprised the SANFL were faced with a radically different ball game, one which necessitated an immediate and thorough re-evaluation of their strategies, objectives and fundamental orientation. Put simply, the 'understudy-protagonist' relationship mentioned earlier was now very firmly in place, a state of affairs rendered all the more inviolable by the AFL’s increasingly aggressive marketing of itself as the only competition that really mattered, both currently and, in its alleged former guise as the VFL, historically (see footnote 3). (The word ‘alleged’ is carefully chosen. The retrospective superimposing of ‘AFL’ over ‘VFL’ when delineating the game’s records since 1897, quite aside from being fundamentally inaccurate, is also self-defeating in that it significantly diminishes the scope, richness and diversity of a sport which, for more than a century, has been an integral feature of the social, economic and cultural infrastructure of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, and parts of New South Wales and Queensland, not merely the Melbourne-Geelong axis.) The gross distortion of the game’s heritage which such a point of view represented was more or less lost on the emerging generation of South Australian football fans, many of whom, by avidly and uncritically lapping up the AFL’s misrepresentations, lent to them a spurious credence.
In contrast to this, the previous generation of South Australian football aficionados, nurtured on the rich milk of a vibrantly intoxicating local competition that enjoyed near saturation media coverage, could perhaps be excused for sometimes feeling both bewildered and alienated. Even some of the players were perplexed. As South Adelaide veteran David Stoeckel explained when refuting a journalist’s suggestion that, despite having enjoyed a prolific SANFL career with the Panthers, he must surely harbour some regrets over not having played football at ‘the highest level’:
“My ambition had always been to play in the SANFL because as a kid that was the only competition you really cared about”. (see footnote 4)
It should not be inferred from this that the formation of the Adelaide Crows was in every way inimical to the well being of clubs in the local competition; in certain ways, quite the opposite was true. During 1991 the Crows developed into a much hyped and highly profitable organisation, and a substantial proportion of the profits made were siphoned back to the SANFL clubs, which, in a sense, ‘owned’ the Crows. Less tangibly, the Crows raised awareness of and support for the sport of Australian football, even if at times it appeared that the average Crows supporter was more interested in side issues - like evaluating and comparing various players’ physical attributes, or ‘putting one over the Vics’ - than the attractions of football per se. While it could be argued that football could not afford to turn up its nose at any supporters, however inexpert, there was also an opportunity here, which the SANFL very quickly grasped and began to exploit, to appeal to the hard core, old fashioned type of football supporter for whom the game was closer to a way of life than a recreation. A call for a return to ‘grass roots football’ was, in essence, an appeal to the purist, and the SANFL lost no time in adopting such a call as a major feature of its marketing strategy as it endeavoured to minimise the inevitable erosion of its local support base.
Essentially, the SANFL - and its constituent clubs - appealed to two things: first, people’s senses of nostalgia - evoking that halcyon if slightly indeterminate era when a trip to the footy was a thing of rugs and thermoses and kicks with Dad on the oval at half time; and secondly people’s egos, by means of the implicit notion that grassroots football supporters were the holders of the ‘true faith’, in marked contrast, for example, to the johnny-come-latelies who had indiscriminately flung themselves onto the Crows bandwagon.
As far as the individual SANFL clubs were concerned, such a change of emphasis almost necessitated a kind of re-invention process, and no club has been more pro-active in re-inventing itself in recent years than South Adelaide. Most obviously of all, in 1995, after many years of indecision, the club finally re-located to Noarlunga, which since the 1970s had been the heart of its metropolitan zone. The aim here was simple: to become a readily identifiable and integral component of the local community - a standard bearer if you like - something to which its years of playing home matches at the Adelaide Oval in central Adelaide had been signally and singularly inimical. There is still much work to be done, but it is at least arguable that the club is in as potentially strong a position as for over a half a century; the challenge now, needless to say, is to transform ‘potential’ into achievement.
The distinction between traditional, ‘grassroots’, suburban football and its modern, Americanised, ‘chardonnay set’ alternative became slightly blurred with the admission to the AFL of a second South Australian team, Port Adelaide, in 1997. However, although the Power tended to attract a more ‘traditional’ following than the Crows, they could not realistically be regarded as a suburban or community oriented club per se; in the Adelaide metropolitan area, quintessential ‘community football’ was now the undisputed province of the SANFL, and in particular its nine local manifestations, the clubs.
From South Adelaide’s perspective, the fact that it was now being more or less compelled to seek salvation through community involvement and interaction was ironic in the extreme, as we shall see.
First though, we need to travel back more than a hundred years, to a time when football in Adelaide was still struggling to decide on an identity for itself. In 1875, the Adelaide Football Club, the oldest in South Australia, had become so disorganised that a group of its members decided to secede and establish a new club, bearing the name South Adelaide. The situation rapidly became confused when, in April the following year, another group of disaffected Adelaide Football Club members held a meeting at the Draper Memorial Schoolroom and decided to form a second breakaway club - also called South Adelaide.
Within a few days, common sense prevailed and, following a meeting of its members at the Havelock, the 1875 club voted unanimously to merge with its recently established namesake. Proudly espousing the motto ‘unity is strength’, South Australia’s second oldest surviving football club, after Port Adelaide, had been born, and over the course of the next twelve months or so it would play a highly significant, but surprisingly little feted, role in helping create an enduring identity for football both in Adelaide, and in the colony as a whole.
Arguably the key figure in shaping that identity was a certain Charles Cameron Kingston, a colourful personality who would go on to become one of the leading public figures in South Australia of the nineteenth century. In 1876, however, he was the inaugural secretary, and some time player, of the newly formed South Adelaide Football Club, and his mission - if that is not too strong a term - was to see to it that South Australia adopted the Victorian version of football, in which throwing the ball was prohibited, a player running with the ball had to bounce it “every ten yards or so”, and marking was allowed irrespective of whether or not the marking player’s feet were rooted to the ground at the moment he caught the ball. When the South Australian Football Association - the oldest organising body in Australian football - was established in 1877, Kingston’s persuasiveness (and, one can not help but imagine, his eloquence) ultimately ensured that the rules of play adopted were more or less identical to those in operation at the time in Melbourne. Had Kingston not been around it is just conceivable that generations of South Australians would have grown up culturally and athletically diminished, forced to endure scrums, mauls and line-outs rather than - as the divine will surely intended - boundary throw-ins, ball ups and the perpetually fluctuating enigma of the holding the ball/holding the man rule.
Given Kingston’s seminal role in shaping the Association it was perhaps only fitting that his club should carry off the inaugural premiership. Indeed, for the remainder of the century South would vie for SAFA pre-eminence with Norwood and, to a lesser extent, Port Adelaide, as the following chart shows: Mind you, as early as 1879 the club’s entire future had been placed in jeopardy amidst allegations that certain of its players were persistently and deliberately overstepping the mark in terms of on-field aggression. During a match between South and Norwood a major conflagration arose in which the principal protagonists were Osborn, the Redlegs’ skipper, and South’s Curtis. Afterwards, most of the blame was directed at Curtis, and there were even calls to disqualify not just the player, but his entire club, from the Association. Fortunately for South, the Association seemed a little nonplussed over how best to handle the situation, and the matter eventually petered out.
However, later in the season after South had featured in another extraordinarily acrimonious match, this time against South Park, the SAFA stamped its authority by decreeing that, for the remainder of the year, any team scheduled to meet South Adelaide could, if it wished, decline to participate without forfeiting the match, which would effectively be declared drawn. No fewer than five of South’s last six opponents for the 1879 season availed themselves of this dispensation and, as a result, effectively gift-wrapped the premiership and handed it to Norwood.
Although the 1880s yielded only one premiership - in 1885 - the ‘city club’, as it was known, was recognised as being at the forefront of the game in Adelaide, a status it reinforced when, in 1884, it became one of the first South Australian sides to beat a visiting VFA club. South downed the powerful Melbourne team 4.11 to 3.9 on the Adelaide Oval, with behinds, although recorded, not actually counting towards a team’s score. That same year, the club also ventured onto ‘foreign fields’ itself when two matches were played against a New South Wales representative side in Sydney. South won one of the games easily by 8 goals, but was fortunate to escape with a draw in the other.
Four years later, South Adelaide was one of twenty-five Australian football clubs to be given the honour of competing, under Australian rules, against the visiting British rugby team. The tourists were not entirely inept at the ‘foreign’ code, winning 5 of the 18 matches contested, and indeed some of them were highly enthusiastic about the game, professing to prefer it to rugby. The game against South Adelaide was hotly contested, with South winning 8.9 to 5.9 (once again with behinds not counting).
Another noteworthy encounter during the club’s early years came in 1892 when it held the mighty Carlton to a draw on the MCG. Indeed, had behinds been counted in the score at this time South would have won.
The 1890s was South’s halcyon decade. Captained by Jack ‘Dinnie’ Reedman, one of the club’s, and South Australia’s, all time great players, as well as “a fine tactician”, (see footnote 5) the Blue and Whites adopted a system that repeatedly left its rivals floundering. (For example, Reedman allegedly came up with a method for creating and then exploiting the loose man, an idea which, in some ways, could be regarded as the cornerstone of the modern game.) South also boasted some of the era’s most accomplished players, notably the extraordinarily versatile Alf Bushby who, allegedly, was “recognised as the finest player in South Australia of this period, and second only to A.J.Thurgood of Essendon, Victoria, as the champion footballer of Australia” (see footnote 6). Other greats included the prolific goalsneak, Jack Kay; Ernie Jones and Clem Hill, both of whom achieved even greater fame as Test cricketers; and not forgetting Reedman himself, a formidable ruckman to rank with the best who enjoyed a record eleven seasons (1888-98) as club skipper.
After finishing third in 1890 and 1891, the Blue and Whites were either premiers (six times) or runners up (three times) in each of the ensuing 9 seasons. In fact, they might be considered somewhat unlucky not to have procured seven premierships during this time: in 1897, the last season in South Australia in which behinds were not included in the score, they lost by a goal against Port Adelaide in what was effectively a premiership play off. And the scores? Port Adelaide 3.1; South Adelaide 2.14. Overall, however, there could be no doubt whatsoever that, for most of the 1890s, South Adelaide was South Australia’s strongest team.
Despite this, compared to opponents like Norwood and Port Adelaide the club was not particularly well supported, and revenue was limited. While South enjoyed on field success, the potential seriousness of this state of affairs tended to be ignored or glossed over, but the time was coming when, as a result of forces outside its control, all the hard work that the committee had undertaken to assemble, and Reedman to nurture, a top quality team of perennially successful footballers would be undone.
In 1897, the SAFA voted to introduce an electorate system of player registration, whereby players would be required to play for the club in whose electoral district they resided. The system was loosely implemented that very year, but only on a voluntary basis. However, from 1899 it became compulsory and, over the longer term, the big loser was the South Adelaide Football Club.
Initially, however, although the club lost a large number of highly talented and experienced players, including the likes of ‘Dinny’ Reedman, Jack Kay, Ern Jones, and Edward MacKenzie, the overall impact was negligible, as there were also a number of significant gains. Principal among these was the arrival from Norwood of the leading goalsneak in the colony, Anthony ‘Bos’ Daly, who promptly proceeded to help himself to 32 goals for the season as South procured the 1899 premiership courtesy of a 5.12 (42) to 2.2 (14) challenge final victory over Daly’s former associates from the Parade. Unfortunately, however, in 1900 he was on the move again, this time to West Torrens, and although the blue and whites were still sufficiently strong to play off for the premiership (losing by 13 points to North Adelaide) the ‘halcyon era’ was very definitely over.
Over the course of the next decade, particularly after Sturt was admitted to the competition in 1901, the effects of the electorate system would truly begin to hit home. South Adelaide was the only club to vote against Sturt’s admission - hardly surprising when you consider that the newcomers were to be allocated a major slice of South’s territory, which would see them able to claim as many as a dozen former Blue and White players in their debut season.
South Adelaide’s zone was actually centered on east Adelaide, one of the few areas of the city where the population was not expanding; moreover, with limited finances at its disposal, the club did not have ready recourse to alternative methods of recruitment. (Sturt, for example, had a major beneficiary in the shape of John Frederick Dempsey, whose money was used as bait to lure large numbers of top quality players to Unley from interstate; these players, known as ‘Dempsey’s Immigrants’, would effectively sow the seeds of the Blues’ first ever premiership in 1915.) The situation rapidly became self-perpetuating, and would continue, with only fleeting interludes, for most of the remainder of the twentieth century.
This is not meant to suggest that the club took the situation lying down. Far from it, in fact: in 1908, for example, it joined West Adelaide in breaking new ground for the SANFL by appointing a paid coach in the shape of former player, Fred O’Brien, who was enticed back from Broken Hill with the by no means meagre offer for the time of 10 shillings a week. His efforts were unsuccessful, however, and the club continued to struggle.
Between 1906 and 1914, South failed to contest the major round, and its overall success rate was poorer than 25%, easily the lowest in the competition during that period. Despite this, the club continued to be home to many fine players. Among the most notable of these were:
Jack Tredrea, ruggedly indefatigable and resolute performer, who freely - and somewhat colourfully - admitted to putting “plenty of ginger into my play because I do not believe in making a parlour game of the great Australian pastime”
George Wallace, a champion left footed rover who joined South from West Adelaide in 1905, and went on to give the club many years of sterling service, besides playing for South Australia on numerous occasions
Alexander Job, a clever wingman who represented South Australia when it won the 1911 Adelaide Carnival
Frank ‘Dinky’ Barry, a fleet of foot rover “who was sometimes accused of running too far with the ball”, but who nevertheless was recognised as one of the finest players of his era, winning the Magarey Medal in 1915
In 1915, South Adelaide at last began to give signs of emerging from the doldrums when it won 8 and drew 1 of its 12 minor round matches to qualify for the finals in second place, a game behind Port Adelaide. Lack of finals experience told in the semi final clash with Sturt, however, and the Blues, thanks to straighter kicking for goal, won by 24 points to end South’s season. With the war then intervening to bring organised, top level football to a halt, it is tempting to imagine that the club’s most realistic opportunity of securing a flag since the turn of the century had gone.
When full scale football resumed in 1919, a newcomer to the South Adelaide ranks was soon eliciting fulsome praise:
The cleanest of players, he reminds me very much of Dave Low, that man of men, who always went for the ball, never intentionally interfering with his opponent. It is in this that a footballer shows his strength. If he cannot beat his man fair and square, what need is there to risk giving a free? Dan Moriarty gives great promise of being one of the greatest footballers of modern times.
The writer showed uncanny prescience, for in winning successive Magarey Medals in 1919, 1920 and 1921, Moriarty established a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled. Not that his greatness was merely a matter of records, statistics and inscriptions on the club honour board; his play was of such incomparable quality that it made you sit up and take notice whoever you were, and whatever your football background. For example, renowned Western Australian football historian Dolph Heinrichs, in reviewing the 1921 Perth carnival, wrote:
If South Australia could only run an honourable third in a small select field, it could claim, I believe, the finest player of them all. I refer to Dan Moriarty, who on his form against Victoria and WA, was one of the greatest half backs who ever played on a West Australian football field.
Meanwhile, former Sturt and South Australian great Victor York Richardson recalled:
It may not be considered good football nowadays, but I remember an interstate game between Victoria and South Australia in which either Dan Moriarty or Wells Eicke four or five times in succession took spectacular finger tip marks at half back and kicked far down the ground, only to see the other of them return the ball practically to the position from which it had been kicked. Good football by today’s standards or not, it had the vast crowd roaring with delight at the sheer brilliance of each individual effort by these counterparts in each team.
Unfortunately for South Adelaide, Dan Moriarty’s football career was only brief, and although his presence in the side was not quite sufficient to propel the side to a premiership, or even indeed to a grand final, things would get a lot worse after his retirement. During Moriarty’s seven years at South the club contested the finals on three occasions, with third place in 1921 and 1923 its best return; following his departure, it would not participate in the major round for a decade, and finished dead set last no fewer than six times; moreover, during that period, every one of the other seven SANFL clubs won at least one premiership.
At the root of South’s problems was the league’s inequitable zoning system which allocated the club “only 1.5 per cent of the area allotted to football clubs and 6.5 per cent of the population of the metropolitan area; half the quota required assuming an equitable distribution among eight league clubs”. When, in 1929, South’s concerns on this matter were endorsed by a special Boundaries Commission to which both the SANFL chairman and vice-chairman were party, the club must surely have felt that it was at last on the verge of achieving parity with the other teams in the competition. However, the full league committee rejected the Boundary Commission’s proposals, and South was back where it started.
Despite the team’s collective inferiority to most of its opponents, South Adelaide continued to attract a fair number of exceptional players. During the early twenties, besides Moriarty, there was rugged, straight ahead half back ‘Jim’ Handby, who later played for Glenelg where he won the 1928 Magarey Medal; Boulder City-born and Broken Hill-raised Wally Allen, “Australia’s champion wingster”; prolific goal kicker and captain Steve McKee, who was also a fine weight lifter, and who went on to become a sporting journalist of note; the formidable A.J. ‘Bulla’ Ryan, always in the thick of the action, and who almost invariably dominated his key position, both for club and state, despite being only 175cm tall; and brilliant rover Jack Daly, son of former Norwood and West Adelaide champion ‘Bunny’ Daly. Later on the club was blessed with the talents of Frank Tully, a fast, courageous rover who established a record by playing 168 consecutive league games; two outstanding wingmen in Jack Mackay and Laurie Cahill; arguably the club’s greatest ever full forward in the shape of C.C. ‘Dinny’ Munro, who booted a total of 393 goals in eight seasons; and sublimely talented half forward flank specialist, Max Murdy, who was unlucky enough to finish second in the Magarey Medal on no fewer than three occasions.
Perhaps the club’s finest player of the 1930s, however, was the 'human horse stinger', Jack Cockburn. Recruited from Blyth in 1934, when already 24 years of age, Cockburn won the Magarey Medal the following year, and in that season’s first semi final issue of 'the SANFL Football Budget' was afforded the following eloquent tribute by 'Corinthian':
Although of particularly robust physique, Cockburn has compelled admiration by the transparent fairness of his methods, and his concentration on the ball. What an easy task our umpires would be set if every player emulated Cockburn’s style! The ball is invariably his objective, and his brilliance in gaining possession by dashing groundwork, and brilliant high flying, has made him the outstanding player of the season.
After the team finished bottom in 1934 with just four wins from 17 matches, South’s committee embarked on a determined, Australia-wide recruiting campaign that was ultimately to bear spectacular fruit in season 1935. Under new coach Vic Johnson, a burly former Port Adelaide ruckman, the blue and whites gave no indication of what lay ahead when they lost their opening round fixture at home to Norwood by 47 points. The following week, South travelled to Prospect and received a 23.5 (143) to 12.10 (82) hiding from North Adelaide, at which point the club’s supporters must surely have sighed with resignation, muttering “here we go again”.
In round three, however, South scored a hard fought 26-point victory against West Torrens, a team which had made the four the previous year, and over the following weeks it became clear that, under Johnson’s fervent tutelage, the team was playing with greater tenacity, cohesion and purpose than for many a year. The level of improvement was vividly demonstrated in round 8 when the team travelled to the Parade for the return meeting with ladder leaders Norwood and emerged with an astonishing 21.17 (143) to 8.7 (55) victory. By this stage, all thought of consecutive wooden spoons had been well and truly dispensed with; the conversation among the club’s supporters was now focused on the finals, and even - dare they hope? - the premiership.
South’s flag-winning credentials went up a further notch after a 15.12 (102) to 11.13 (79) defeat of Port Adelaide at Adelaide in round 13. Prior to the game, most of the 'smart money’ was on the Magpies for the premiership; afterwards, the blue and whites had achieved the status of ‘danger team’, not least down Alberton way, where nothing is ever taken for granted.
South duly qualified for the 1935 major round in second position with an 11-6 win/loss record. It was the club’s best minor round performance since 1915, and the first time the club had reached the finals since 1923. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, in the second semi final clash with Port Adelaide many of the players on whom the team had come to rely during the course of the season suddenly forgot how to play; the Magpies won 17.17 (119) to 10.13 (63), comprehensively recapturing the favouritism of most of the pundits in the process. Indeed, there were some who now felt that Sturt, impressive winners over Norwood in the first semi final, had supplanted South as the major challengers to Port’s supremacy.
In a tough, slogging preliminary final, the blue and whites reasserted themselves, if not quite convincingly, then at least with enough fortitude to see off the Double Blues. A key to South’s victory was the display of Jack Cockburn. Barely sighted in the centre against Port Adelaide, Cockburn was shifted to centre half back for the clash with Sturt, and proved virtually impassable all match. In winning 13.15 (93) to 11.13 (69) the blue and whites had qualified for the grand final for the first time since 1903 but, Cockburn’s display apart, there had been little in their performance to suggest they could overturn the Magpies.
A major part of football’s allure is its unpredictability, however. When the South players ran out for the grand final in front of 26,496 spectators, Johnson had them bursting with ambition and resolve. They needed to be. In a fearsome arm wrestle of a game, the underdogs held sway until three quarter time, and then:
In the last quarter Port attacked relentlessly and with three minutes to go trailed by only two points. From the bounce South swept into attack and following a succession of flashing passes Munro took a well judged mark over West to score a goal. The ball had barely bounced when the bell rang.
South had broken the camel’s back with a win that was full of grit, determination and no small amount of skill. Final scores were South Adelaide 15.9 (99) to Port Adelaide 13.13 (91).
The last SANFL team to enjoy a meteoric rise from obscurity to pre-eminence, Glenelg in 1934, had found the dizzying heights of new found success asphyxiating, and plummeted straight back to earth with a thud (the Tigers finished last in 1935). The question many football supporters were asking now was whether South Adelaide could avoid the same fate.
South made a solid start to the 1936 season to put its supporters’ fears to rest, and although it was ultimately unable to repeat its 1935 success, it did at least manage to contest the finals for a second successive year, which in itself was a fairly noteworthy, indeed almost novel, achievement. Unfortunately, first semi final opponents North Adelaide proved too strong, winning a high standard encounter by 28 points.
Under new coach ‘Buck’ Ashby the side showed marginal improvement in 1937. After winning 11 out of 17 minor round matches the blue and whites were placed third on the premiership ladder going into the finals. South’s first semi final opposition was provided by West Torrens, against whom victory had been procured in round 16 at Thebarton in somewhat unusual circumstances, South winning by 3 points (7.25 to 9.10) despite kicking 2 fewer goals. On 1st semi final day, the blue and whites’ dominance was more accurately reflected on the scoreboard as they won with ease by 50 points, 15.13 (103) to 7.11 (53). The good form continued in the preliminary final when South overcame Norwood for the first time in the season, scoring 18.17 (125) to the Redlegs’ 15.11 (101).
The blue and whites’ second grand final in three seasons once more pitted them against Port Adelaide, which was the reigning premier, and which had annihilated Norwood in the second semi final by 63 points. Needless to say, this made the Magpies a raging hot favourite going into the big game, but South’s excellent late season form helped attract an excellent crowd of 35,895, the biggest to witness a grand final since 1925. Sadly, South did not quite have Port’s measure on this occasion, losing by 4 straight kicks, but there was always next year.
‘Next year’ was, from a blue and white perspective, sensational, and to an arguably unprecedented extent. South opened the season with scores of 25.24 (174) against West Adelaide, 31.15 (201) against Glenelg, and - most satisfyingly of all - 20.24 (144) against 1937 nemesis Port Adelaide. That was merely the hors d’oeuvres: during the remainder of the minor round, the side accumulated a record 2,244 points at an average of 132 per game en route to a 15-2 win/loss record and the club’s first (and ultimately only) minor premiership of the twentieth century. Likened to a machine owing to the systematic precision of much of its play, never before nor since has a South Adelaide team dominated the competition to the extent that it did in 1938. Former South champion Steve McKee, writing midway through the season in 'the SANFL Football Budget', expressed the opinion that the team, after initially seeming “well balanced at all points except at full back where lack of high marking strength theoretically exposed South to the danger of defeat” was now, following the move of former Glenelg player Jack Boyle to that position, pretty close to being 'the complete article’.
The accuracy of this assessment was emphatically demonstrated during the 1938 finals series when the blue and whites coasted to a ‘straight sets’ premiership courtesy of wins over Norwood (by 20 points in the second semi-final) and old rivals Port Adelaide (by 46 points in the grand final). South’s record-breaking season reached a record-breaking climax when it established a new grand final ‘high’ with a tally of 23.14 (152).
One week after the grand final South Adelaide met VFL premier Carlton in an unofficial championship of Australia match at the Wayville Showgrounds. Despite the inappropriateness of the venue for such a prestigious match, the teams put on a captivating display that finished in the most dramatic circumstances. After trailing by 15 points at three quarter time, South fought back strongly in the last quarter, and when George Jobson marked within goal kicking range as the final bell went, only 6 points separated the sides. Unfortunately for South, however, Jobson’s kick missed everything, leaving Carlton victorious 10.22 (82) to 10.16 (76).
Among the many noteworthy contributors to South’s record-breaking season were Laurie Cahill, who won the club’s best and fairest award, leading goalkicker Clem Rosewarne (82 goals), the Dawes brothers, Jim and club captain Jack, fleet-footed rover Len Lapthorne, "who never looked anything but a gleeful imp of mischief on the field", the resolutely irrepressible Jack Cockburn, effervescent speedster Max Murdy, and the formidably powerful Keith Brown.
With all of these players except for Rosewarne still available in 1939 South was always going to be difficult to beat. Unfortunately, after a solid minor series which yielded 12 wins from 17 matches, good enough for second position on the ladder, the side capitulated when it counted. Against Port Adelaide in the second semi final, poor kicking for goal was partly responsible for a 19 point loss, but in the following week’s preliminary final meeting with West Torrens the side under-performed dismally and was soundly beaten by almost 6 goals.
Still a force to be contended with in 1940, and widely recognised as the premier attacking force in the league, the blue and whites reached their fourth grand final in six seasons after solid finals victories over Norwood (by 31 points) and Port Adelaide (by 20 points). Sturt, however, justifiably won the premiership by 19 points in front of a meagre crowd of 28,500, which emphasised the inimical impact that war was beginning to have both on football, and on the society which nurtured and spawned it.
Six consecutive finals appearances remains by some measure the club’s most auspicious sequence since the inception of district football. Over the next two and a half decades, however, it would all too often seem, to supporters of long standing, like a dim, distant memory, or perhaps a dream.
Between 1942 and 1944 the SANFL conducted a restricted, four team competition in which South joined forces with Sturt, finishing third, fourth and third. On the resumption of full scale football in 1945 the club embarked on the most sustained period of under-achievement in its history. The bare statistics make dire reading: in the nineteen seasons from 1945 to 1963 the side’s success rate was a paltry 19.5%; it finished bottom in an eight team competition no fewer than eleven times, seventh on six occasions, and sixth twice; in 1948 and 1950 it failed to win a single match, and never once managed to win as many games as it lost. The problem, at least in the view of the club’s administration, centered on the inadequacy of its metropolitan recruiting zone, and although the committee tried desperately, and repeatedly, to duplicate its successful pre-war interstate and country recruitment strategies, other clubs were now increasingly doing the same, and by and large with more resources at their disposal, and hence greater success.
Lack of success notwithstanding, South Adelaide was often a happy club, boasting an active and vibrant social life. Football, after all, is essentially a game - or, if that no longer quite holds true in an era when the AFL’s declared perception of itself is of being ‘Australia’s premier sporting brand name’, then it was at least more nearly the case half a century ago.
At the end of a 1954 season which had seen the senior side win 5 out of 18 matches to finish seventh, an official club party comprising 26 players, 14 officials, 10 ‘A’ Grade staff, and three ‘guests’ embarked on a 12-day interstate tour which took in brief visits to Ballarat and Melbourne, and a lengthy stay in Tasmania. During the tour, a match was played against 1954 TFL premier Hobart, with South winning by 6 points, but the main objectives of the trip appear to have been rest, relaxation and sight-seeing - with a spot of gambling at the 1954 Caulfield Cup in Melbourne on the return journey thrown in for good measure (see footnote 21). Of course, such journeys are commonplace nowadays, but in the 1950s they were still comparatively rare, and highlighted the fact that, although nothing like ‘professional’ in the strict sense of the word, to be a league footballer was often to enjoy benefits denied to the majority of the population at large.
Pre-eminent among South Adelaide footballers of the 1950s was the great Jim Deane. A dual Magarey Medallist (including a retrospective award for the 1957 season, in which he initially lost to West Adelaide’s Roy Benton on a countback), Deane also played successfully with Richmond in the VFL for two years. Despite being an almost totally one-sided player - far from unusual in those days - he “was so good it didn’t really show - or matter” (see footnote 22), Described by Jeff Pash as “elegant and effortless” (see footnote 23), and by Merv Agars as “a tremendous competitor, a prodigious kick getter and a polished performer” (see footnote 24), Deane deserves to be remembered as one of the game’s all time greats.
In 1959, the SANFL finally acceded to the club’s repeated pleas to extend its metropolitan recruiting zone by granting it a substantial slice of the southern suburbs, meaning that for the first time it was possible for South to go about the task of forging a meaningful local identity for itself. Although it would take some time for the benefits of this to be properly felt, it needs to be born in mind as a significant underpinning factor to the eventual, albeit fleeting, success that the club enjoyed under Neil Kerley.
To anyone reading between the lines, South Adelaide’s latent pre-eminence was apparent even during the wooden spoon year of 1963, when the team won just two of its 20 games. On numerous occasions during the year, the side did everything but win, prompting the ‘Budget’ writer to pose the question, “How well do you have to play before you can win more than one out of ten matches? Ask South that, and if they don’t gnash their teeth they ought to'' (see footnote 25). During the first half of the season in particular, before disillusionment set in, South lost many games that could realistically be classed as ‘winnable’, suggesting that the problem was not one of lack of talent, but rather of inadequate application of talent. All the elements of a good orchestra were there; what was needed now was an expert conductor, and throughout the 1963 season South was determinedly courting the man they had in mind.
That man was Donald Neil Kerley, who in 1961, as playing coach, had been responsible for steering West Adelaide to what its supporters, and many neutral observers, regarded as a long overdue premiership. The following year he had failed by just 3 points to repeat the achievement, and to the astonishment of many had been dumped as West coach in favour of Doug Thomas. Although he carried on with the club as a player in 1963, the South committee sensed - rightly, as it turned out - that here was a plant ripe for the picking.
Initially - and, given South Adelaide’s playing record over the previous 20 years, understandably - sceptical, Kerley was ultimately won over largely through the persistence of South’s president, Clem Croft, who, along with several of his fellow committee members, visited him on numerous occasions, and basically would not take ‘no’ for an answer (see footnote 26). When Kerley finally accepted their invitation to coach South it was with eyes wide open as to the reality and scale of the task confronting him. That the team possessed talent was undoubted, but it needed to be fitter, he realised, and it needed to be much more focused. Consequently, he put the players through the most gruelling pre-season training regime any of them had experienced in preparation for the opening game of the season which, as chance would have it, was at home to Kerley’s former club, West Adelaide.
Kerley himself had not yet been cleared to play, but he received a tumultuous ovation from the crowd as he made his way to the coaching dug-out prior to the start of the game; clearly, most members of the public were firmly on his side over his sacking debacle with West. Much more importantly though, as far as Kerley was concerned, his team did him proud, putting in a solid, tenacious and cohesive all round four quarter effort to comprehensively vanquish the Blood ‘n Tars by 36 points. Already, it was obvious that the maestro had made a significant difference to his team which, mirroring its new found tenacity, had now adopted the Panther as its emblem.
Keenly aware that Port Adelaide was the benchmark against which all other SANFL clubs were currently measured, Kerley would no doubt have derived at least a glimmer of satisfaction from the front page article in ‘the SANFL Football Budget’ for 30th May 1964, the week after South had scored a notable upset win over the Magpies. Under the heading ‘South took Port on at own game’, the writer observed:
South proved a point against Port last week. They took the Magpies on at their own game and beat them ..... (The) victory proved many things. One is that Neil Kerley has coached them on the right lines, and has them very fit. Secondly, they now have the will-to-win. Very few teams have come back to win after Port have run to a 16 points lead in the third quarter. South did. Courage and will-to-win have won Port many league matches. Repeat that for South now, and there is the complete picture. (see footnote 27)
The win over Port saw the Panthers sitting proudly at the head of the premiership ladder, with six wins and just 1 defeat, and thereafter there was no question of letting up. By the end of round twenty the side had qualified for its first post-war finals series in second place with a 17-3 win/loss record, equal on points with minor premier Port Adelaide.
South supporters were presumably having to pinch themselves prior to the second semi final in which 38,918 spectators were treated to a bona fide classic, in which Port, having trailed by 32 points at the last change, snatched victory at the death by a single point. Given that it was the Panthers’ first finals outing there was little reason to feel discouraged, and when Sturt was comprehensively outplayed to the tune of 39 points in the following week’s preliminary final the scene was set for a titanic, quintessential ‘David vs. Goliath’ premiership decider.
Of the South Adelaide team which took the field in front of 56,353 spectators on grand final day, only Neil Kerley, Lester Ross (ex Norwood) and Ian Day (ex West Adelaide) had played in a grand final before. Aware of this, 'the King’ had kept everything low key in the build up to the big game, and right from the early moments of the opening term it was clear that the players were not about to let their coach down. As usual, Port’s tackling was ferocious, but the Panthers gave as good as they got, and in half forward Alf Skuse (10 kicks in the first quarter), rovers Ian Day and Alan White, strong marking ruckman David Kantilla, and elusive centreman Lindsay Backman they had the dominant players on view. The South rucks were on top early too, although later this would change. By quarter time, the Panthers had kicked the only two goals of the game and were 12 points to the good - still anybody’s match, but a sound start.
The Magpies began the second term well but were prevented from capitalising on their superiority by a bustling, hyper aggressive South Adelaide defence. The Panthers, who had hardly managed to get the ball ahead of centre all term, led 2.6 to 0.8 as time-on approached before hitting Port with not one, not two, but three massive body blows in the shape of goals to White, Day and Dick Jackson to go into the main break with a handy looking 26 point advantage. At half time, astonishingly, the reigning premiers and flag favourites had yet to kick a goal.
South added to the Magpies’ misery early in the third term thanks to another goal from White, and although Eric Freeman finally managed to register a major for Port at the 7 minute mark, White’s 3rd goal moments later restored the Panthers’ healthy lead. However, with Magpie coach Fos Williams ringing the changes, Port finished the quarter strongly, adding 3 goals to get within 16 points at the final change. The scene was set for a thrilling finale.
South did most of the attacking early in the final term but could only manage minor scores. Then, seven minutes in, Eric Freeman goaled for Port to bring the margin back to 13 points, and the crowd to fever pitch. A lesser team would have buckled at this point, but the Panthers had graduated from the Neil Kerley School of Applied Fortitude and Resolve, and buckling was the last thing on their mind. A brilliant mark to Skuse, followed by a goal, extended the difference to 19 points, and shortly afterwards wingman Brian Ploenges found Ian Day in the clear, and the future television commentator gleefully put the seal on a great win. South had taken everything the ‘Mighty Magpies’ had thrown at them, and triumphed.
On a day when “Every man in the South side pulled his weight - and a little bit more” (see footnote 28) selecting best players is perhaps a tad inappropriate. However, most media observers gave David Kantilla (18 kicks and 10 marks) the nod as best afield, closely followed by Alf Skuse, Lindsay Backman and Ian Day, all of whom had well in excess of 20 possessions.
Statistical summaries of the game show that South had quite a few more kicks and many more handpasses than Port, while the Magpies, particularly after the first quarter, dominated in the air. What statistics cannot show, however, is the amount of passion, desire and pure old fashioned ‘G and D’ generated by the men in navy and white, as a result of which a twenty-six year premiership drought had been eradicated, and the beleaguered optimism of the club’s loyal and long-suffering supporters rekindled.
Five days after the grand final, South, without four members of its premiership team, took on VFL premier Melbourne at Norwood Oval in an unofficial championship match. The Demons had enjoyed a break of 19 days since their grand final, and were much fresher, coming back from 12 points down at the last change to win by 11 points. Melbourne coach Norm Smith was, as ever, a modest winner, indicating “that he thought South was slightly the better side on the night, had more of the play, and was one of the fastest sides he had seen” (see footnote 29).
The 1965 season proved to be one of missed opportunity for South, and the fact that the team’s eventual third position on the ladder was a source of genuine disappointment to the club’s supporters shows just how much progress had been made in such a short space of time. However, it might all have been so different had the Panthers not succumbed, in the most controversial of circumstances, by a solitary point to Port Adelaide in the second semi final. After trailing by 30 points during the third quarter South came storming back to hit the front by 5 points with just a couple of minutes left on the clock. Then:
Kerley on the half back line steered a kick in the direction of Skuse, only to see Port defender Elix run in and intercept. Elix’s kick was gathered, on the bounce, by Mead, some 45 metres from Port’s goal, whereupon he was promptly and resolutely claimed by Schmidt. Predictable cries of “Ball!” and “Holding the man!” went up, with umpire Cunningham, bravely and controversially, agreeing with the latter. Hordes of spectators spilled over the fence and onto the ground; within seconds, the Port Adelaide goal square was swarming with bodies, only a few of which belonged to footballers. Mead’s kick for goal, a flat punt, was straight but low; had any of the South defenders been able to take a running leap at it, they might well have been able to intercept it, but as it was there was no room for them to maneuver. The ball tumbled through for a goal. Port Adelaide was home by a point!
After the trauma and tension of such a finish, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that the Panthers hit the track for the following week’s preliminary final against Sturt a trifle flat. As ever under Kerley, their endeavour and commitment could not be faulted, but such qualities alone were insufficient against the emerging power of Jack Oatey’s Double Blues, who eased home by sevenpoints. If there is any truth to the theory that every club has at least one season which deserves to be called ‘the one that got away’, then this almost certainly was South’s.
If the Panthers were undeniably unfortunate in 1965, the following year they let both themselves and their coach down badly when they meekly capitulated to North Adelaide at the first semi final stage. To make matters worse, Kerley and certain members of the South Adelaide committee were no longer quite seeing things eye to eye, with the committee allegedly interfering in things like team selection that Kerley felt were ultimately the province of the coach. At the end of the 1966 season, Kerley left for pastures new at Glenelg, bringing the curtain down on a brief, but noteworthy, period of success for South.
During Neil Kerley’s three year stint as coach of the Panthers there is no doubt that they became, in some respects, the darlings of the media. Everyone loves a ‘rags to riches’ story, and with Kerls playing ‘fairy godmother’ to Port Adelaide’s ‘ugly sisters’ that is precisely what South provided. The SANFL was enjoying a boom time in terms of attendances during the mid-1960s, and a major reason for this was that South Adelaide had breathed new life into a competition which had tended to be dominated by Port Adelaide (eight flags in 10 years) for so long that people were becoming disillusioned and bored.
Neil Kerley’s successor as coach, Peter Darley, was already a club stalwart who simultaneously happened to be one of the finest ruckmen in the game. Dubbed ‘the jumbo Prince’ because of his elegant way of dominating the ruck, Darley won no fewer than seven club best and fairest awards, achieved All Australian selection in 1969, and tied with Barrie Robran for the 1968 Magarey Medal, only to be ruled ineligible because of having incurred a suspension during the season. Noted opponent John Nicholls recalled Darley as being “a good mark, a very strong kick” and “a very smart cookie as far as using his body in ruck work goes” (see footnote 30). However, in three seasons as coach, despite being “an inspiring leader” (see footnote 31), he failed to build on the foundations laid by Kerley, and indeed had to endure the discomfiting experience of seeing his charges slowly but steadily lose the plot entirely, finishing fifth in 1967, sixth in 1968, and tenth and last in 1969.
Things did not get much better under Jim Deane (1970-71) or Dave Darcy (1972-73-74) either. It was only after the appointment of Haydn Bunton junior as coach in 1975 that improvement, gradual at first, and then more marked, began to occur. By the late 1970s the ‘little master’ had the team producing football that was firmly rooted in the South tradition - blisteringly fast, cohesive and eye-catchingly skilful. It was a style of play ideally suited to night football, as the Panthers proved in winning the NFL night series in both 1978 and 1979.
In the former year, the competition involved club teams from South Australia (5), Western Australia (4), and the VFA (3), plus representative teams from Tasmania, the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland. After a 31 point opening round win over Port Adelaide, South scored wins over Sandringham by 59 points at Norwood, and Port Melbourne, after having to overcome “what might best be described as ‘home town difficulties’” (see footnote 32), by 5 points in Melbourne to set up a grand final meeting with Glenelg.
The Panthers approached the match, played at Norwood Oval, with as much seriousness as if it had been a day grand final, an approach that was ultimately completely vindicated as they overwhelmed the Tigers “with an aggression and determination that was almost frightening” (see footnote 33). The match was strenuously fought for the first three quarters, with South having led narrowly at every change by 9, 8 and 14 points. During the last term, however, the Panthers played “their best football for the season” (see footnote 34), adding 4.6 to 1.1 to win with consummate conviction by 37 points, 9.9 (63) to 3.8 (26). Geoff Baynes, John Schneebichler, Shane Butler, Stuart Palmer and Wayne Slattery were South’s best.
In 1979, the Panthers played off for two premierships, beating Norwood 7.9 (51) to 5.10 (40) at the culmination of a truncated NFL series, but succumbing by 31 points against Port Adelaide in the grand final of the competition that really mattered, the SANFL. In retrospect, however, perhaps the most important occurrence in 1979 from the South Adelaide Football Club’s point of view was the decision of the SANFL to award the club the growing urban areas of Adelaide extending south to Noarlunga as part of its territory. For the first time since the inception of electorate football 80 years earlier, the club now had the opportunity to set down roots and establish a meaningful local identity.
Haydn Bunton’s record eight year association with the club as senior coach ended after a disappointing 1982 season which saw the team plummet from fourth place in 1981 to eighth. Under his replacement, Graham Cornes, the Panthers returned to the finals action in 1983, but lost heavily to North Adelaide in the elimination final. In the club’s Annual Report, Cornes identified three areas in which the team would need to show dramatic improvement if it was to mount a credible premiership challenge in 1984:
- accuracy of disposal;
- physical strength; and
- speed of movement of the ball. (see footnote 35)
Unfortunately, although South did manage one more minor round win in 1984 (13 as against 10), it was no match for eventual premier Norwood in the elimination final.
On the brighter side, during the Graham Cornes era the Panthers maintained their reputation for producing some of their best football at night, reaching the final of the Escort Cup in both 1983 (when they lost to West Torrens) and 1984 (when they scored a comprehensive victory over Sturt).
Cornes returned ‘home’ to Glenelg in 1985 and the Panthers endured a calamitous and much publicised start to the season under new coach, Don Scott, a former star ruckman with VFL side Hawthorn. South lost the opening seven games of the season, and Scott was on his way, with ex Sturt star Rick Davies stepping into the breach with the unenviable task of trying to restore some respectability to the club.
Over the remainder of the 1985 season, he actually succeeded to some extent in doing so: the Panthers won 8 of their remaining 15 games to clamber to eighth place on the ladder. The team also made a promising start to the 1986 season when it won its second Escort Cup grand final in three years courtesy of an 11 point victory over Graham Cornes’ Glenelg. However, this achievement merely flattered to deceive, as over the course of the next three seasons the club’s performances went from bad to worse. In 1986 and 1987, under Davies, South finished ninth and tenth respectively, before enduring the ignominy of another wooden spoon under Davies’ replacement, John Reid, in 1988. The following year brought marginal on field improvement, but much more worryingly the club now found itself confronted by financial difficulties of such magnitude that extinction was threatened. By May 1990 the situation had become so dire that, in what seemed like a last bid attempt to avoid having to close its doors for good, the club began actively to seek a merger arrangement.
On 10 May 1990, under the headline 'South Adelaide Crisis: Counting the Cost', South Australia’s only football newspaper, 'Football Times', reported:
South Adelaide, one of SA’s oldest football clubs, is in the throes of dying. With a debt of $500,000, combined with an annual interest bill of close to $100,000, the club is seeking a merger with another club. (see footnote 36)
Inside the publication, various writers speculated on possible merger partners (with Sturt appearing favourite), congratulated South on showing guts in facing reality, and delighted in blaming the SANFL for the crisis. However, in retrospect the most astute analysis of the situation came from Lance Campbell, who observed:
There is an irony in the South Adelaide saga. It is that for as long as the club exists, it has a better long term chance of survival than some others in the SANFL. In other words, South could live for another 100 years if it had another million dollars now. Yet that sum of money couldn’t guarantee the futures of West Adelaide, West Torrens and Woodville. South has the player rights to the land where hundreds of thousands of the people of Adelaide will live in the decades to come. Already the club is beginning to groom young footballers from the other side of O’Halloran Hill, and reaping its rewards in the junior grades. Developers eye every spare hectare down there. It cannot be any other way than that the region will become even more densely populated in time. Torrens, West and Woodville, hemmed in by the sea and the city, have no such hopes.
So it’s no wonder that the South faithful are now seeking the alternatives to the Sturt ‘merger’ dumped upon us as all but a fait accompli last week. Over one last hurdle, just one more jump - and South, with help, could be back in the pack containing the clubs with the best chances of maintaining their individual identities - Central District, Port Adelaide, Glenelg and Norwood. (see footnote 37)
Aided by some rousing on field performances, the ‘Save South Adelaide’ campaign achieved a memorable, some would say miraculous, success. By the end of the 1990 season, all thoughts of a merger had been shelved, while the team’s performance in recovering to make the finals after a poor start to the season had fans buoyant. Indeed, not only did the side reach the finals, once there it performed with considerable credit, riding the crest of a wave of popular sentimental support to crush Norwood by 42 points in the elimination final, and giving North Adelaide a scare early on in the first semi final before succumbing by 56 points.
The arrival of the Adelaide Crows on the scene in 1991 was something that the South Adelaide administration, spearheaded by president Ray Hendrie, a former player with the club, regarded positively (see footnote 38), and as was discussed in part one of this account there certainly proved to be aspects of South Australia’s foray into the pseudo-national environment of the AFL that local club administrators were able to utilise to good effect. In South Adelaide’s case, the move to Noarlunga Oval in 1995 remains, potentially at any rate, the most important single development in the club’s history.
As Central District has conclusively demonstrated in connection with Adelaide’s northern suburbs, building a strong local identity, and forging meaningful community relationships, are perhaps the most crucial elements in achieving success at state league level in the modern game. So far, South Adelaide has failed to emulate its northern counterpart, but the scope to do so exists, and indeed one could almost venture to suggest that, if the Era of the Panther does not arrive soon, the club will have only itself to blame.