The 1985 football season - A sport on the verge of cracking
Triumph and controversy for Sheedy
Essendon’s pre-eminence under Kevin Sheedy was even more pronounced in 1985 than had been the case a year earlier. The Dons took the proven Hawthorn formula of dynamically aggressive, unremittingly desperate football, epitomised by hard, focused running and impeccable teamwork, and elevated it to a new level. Kevin Sheedy’s Bombers were, quite simply, and by almost universal consent, the most awesomely prepossessing football unit yet to take the field, with almost every player combining height (most were over 180 centimetres) and supreme mobility with consummate mastery of all the fundamental skills of the game. Over and above this, Sheedy’s ever growing tactical acumen and motivational prowess helped ensure that each one of those players was primed to perform at maximum effectiveness week in, week out.
Essendon suffered only three home and away losses in 1985, and rounded off the season in style with emphatic wins in each of the last five minor round matches, followed by a 14.18 (102) to 9.8 (62) second semi final routing of what, by popular appraisal, was the side’s only realistic challenger for the premiership, archnemesis Hawthorn. On Grand Final day, the Bombers were once more opposed by the Hawks and, after taking the better part of three quarters to shake off their dogged but outgunned opponents, produced a last quarter effort every bit as devastating and, from a Hawthorn perspective, demoralising as 12 months previously, adding 11.3 to 3.3 to win by the cruelly emphatic margin of 78 points. It “was a demonstration of sheer excellence at the highest level of Australian football; Hawthorn were, for most of the time, reduced to spectators’ level”.¹
Essendon ruckman Simon Madden (left) won the Norm Smith Medal as best afield, while Paul Salmon (six goals), Leon Baker (28 disposals) and Darren 'Daisy' Williams were among numerous other Bombers to shine. For the losers, Dermott Brereton played virtually a lone hand ahead of centre, booting eight goals, while Rod Lester-Smith and John Kennedy junior never stopped trying, but the image that will probably live longest in the minds of most of the Hawthorn fans who witnessed the game was that of the forlorn figure of all time great Leigh Matthews (below right), on whose glittering 340 match VFL career the curtain had just come down, being chaired from the arena after the final siren by his equally disconsolate comrades.
A few days after the Grand Final, perhaps a trifle surprisingly, victorious Bomber coach Sheedy suggested that, in order to ‘increase interest’, in future the premiership should be decided on a ‘best of three games’ format.² Less surprisingly perhaps, the idea has not, so far, achieved fruition.
The 1985 season was equally memorable for Sheedy, but for less auspicious reasons, on the interstate front. Appointed Victorian state coach for the first time, Sheedy masterminded two superb victories over South Australia, by 57 points, and Western Australia, by 65 points, to re-claim for his team the reputation, if not the title, as Australia’s champion football state. The reason for the failure to procure the title was that during the South Australia clash, on the instructions of the VFL, Sheedy used an extra interchange player, incurring the wrath, and later the sanction, of the National Football League, under whose auspices the interstate championship series was conducted. The ultimate upshot was that Victoria was stripped of the points gained from the win over South Australia, allowing the croweaters to go on and claim their first championship title since 1911 courtesy of an emphatic 30.18 (198) to 16.15 (111) victory over Western Australia in Perth.
The Victorian reaction to this debacle was a predictable combination of acrimony and disdain, with the VFL’s assistant general manager Alan Schwab even declaring that the NFL “did not have the power”³ to impose a penalty of this nature. Nevertheless, the sanction stood, although the NFL’s days as football’s ostensible national controlling body were now numbered.
In South Australia, there was felt to be no cause for celebration, although the consensus appeared to be that justice had been done. State coach Neil Balme summarised the ambiguous nature of most South Australians’ reaction to the affair by observing that, on the one hand, “They (the Victorians) won the game, so it doesn’t matter”, but at the same time “the NFL did the right thing because Victoria had no reason to do what it did. It really was just a silly thing to do. They had no respect for anyone else or the rules and did it for no purpose.”⁴
This perception of the VFL as arrogant was widely shared. In June, WAFL chief executive John Walker, himself a Victorian, expressed indignation over the VFL’s apparent intention to ignore the best interests of the game, as well as the wishes of football administrators and supporters outside Victoria, and proceed with plans to expand its own competition into some kind of pseudo-national affair. Rather than benefiting the code of Australian football as a whole, such a process would, at best, serve merely to bolster the ailing finances of the VFL’s own clubs, some of which had been brought to the verge of bankruptcy by greed, misplaced ambition and poor management.⁵ The best, long term interests of Australian football would be served by the establishment of an entirely new and genuinely autonomous national competition, under the auspices of an impartial board of control, such as the NFL, and with each of the major state competitions having a proportionate input.⁶
Moreover, after South Australia’s rampant display in Perth, Western Australian coach John Todd, who blamed his side’s defeat on “the Victorians’ plunder of WA”⁷, went on to claim, with what proved to be discomfiting accuracy, that the eyes of VFL recruiting personnel would now be firmly re-directed toward Adelaide,⁸ with the eventual result that the gulf in standard between the VFL and the other major state leagues would become wider still.
Mini-boom for the game in SA
Despite the heavy interstate loss to Victoria, football in South Australia underwent something of a mini-renaissance in 1985, with a vigorously contested competition attracting the highest aggregate crowds since 1981.⁹ Mick Nunan’s North Adelaide side surprised most observers by bursting out of the blocks and easing its way into pole position with 11 consecutive wins, but during the second half of the season Norwood, Glenelg, West Adelaide and Sturt all offered stern competition. An absorbing finals series saw these five clubs in opposition, with North Adelaide and a Graham Cornes coached Glenelg ultimately fighting their way through to the Grand Final.
After trailing by 11 points at the first change, and 29 points midway through the second term, the Tigers gradually assumed control and, with seven-goal Jack Oatey Medallist Stephen Kernahan (left) – “the best footballer in SA”¹⁰ in the view of Jeff Sarau, among others – putting on a virtuoso display in his Glenelg swansong, they went on to win with unexpected ease by 57 points. Among the happiest of the victorious Bay players was veteran ruckman Peter Carey, who was the only survivor from the club’s previous premiership triumph in 1973.
Sharks hold off determined Lions
Although Western Australian football was not without its problems in 1985 - which happened to be the WAFL's official centenary year - it did at least manage to provide the most exciting of all the major state league Grand Finals. Subiaco, which had been improving steadily since the appointment of Haydn Bunton junior (right) as coach a year earlier, made it through to the premiership decider for the first time since 1973, and was a warm sentimental favourite against Ron Alexander’s East Fremantle .
In what was the first premiership play off between the two sides in 52 years, the Lions started superbly with a seven goals to three opening term, only for the Sharks to steady, hit back, and, on at least a couple of occasions, give every indication of being capable of running away with the game. Each time East Fremantle threatened to get out of reach, however, the Subi players somehow managed to find an extra gear - none more so than eventual Simpson Medallist Brian Taylor - and when the siren sounded only five points separated the teams, with the momentum very much in Subiaco’s favour. Final scores were East Fremantle 15.12 (102) to Subiaco 14.13 (97). Thankfully for Lions fans, their time of triumph would not be long in coming.
VFA Grand Final is 'one for the purists'
VFA football was enjoying something of an Indian summer at this time, and the Grand Final between Sandringham and Williamstown, watched by a crowd of 22,341 at the Junction Oval, “was a purist’s delight with old fashioned, tough football but played in a marvellous spirit”.¹¹ The Zebras eventually got home by a single straight kick against a dogged Williamstown side that made headlines by electing to hand a senior debut to 14-year-old All Australian schoolboy Ronnie James, who was later to die tragically in a water skiing accident after transferring to VFL club Footscray.¹²
Top End footy goes from strength to strength
The game was also undergoing a boom in Darwin. The 1984/85 season witnessed the inauguration of what would become a traditional Australia Day representative match, in which a combined NTFL side took on – and, at least initially, would very often beat - a prominent club from one of the major southern state leagues. The first such club to brave the northern heat and humidity was eventual 1985 SANFL premier Glenelg, which kept pace with the league combination for a couple of quarters, but ended up being overrun.
Final scores saw the NTFL on 18.18 (126) defeating Glenelg 14.7 (91), with North Darwin’s Warren McCoy being awarded the inaugural Australia Day Medal as best afield.¹³ The NTFL in 1984/85 was dominated by St Marys which became the first club since the inception of the six-team, 20-round competition in 1972/73 to go through an entire season unbeaten. The Grand Final though was hard fought, with Wanderers outscoring the Saints 5.2 to 1.9 in the last quarter before falling short by 13 points.¹⁴
Flags for Sharks, Magpies, Tigers and Bears
Queensland's interstate supremacy continued in 1985 as comfortable defeats of New South Wales and Tasmania, and a hard fought win over the ACT, produced a third successive Escort Shield triumph. In the QAFL, Southport procured a second flag in three years after the closest Grand Final since 1957, the Sharks overcoming Mayne by three points, 11.8 (74) to 10.11 (71).
With the immediate future of Tasmanian football still unclear as various alternative forms of statewide competition came under scrutiny, Glenorchy contested its fourth TFL Grand Final in as many years, emerging as premiers for the second time. The Grand Final against Clarence was a torrid affair, but the Magpies were just that bit steadier when it mattered, and won by four points.
The ACTAFL Grand Final saw Queanbeyan re-emerge as a power after well nigh three decades in the comparative doldrums. The Tigers proved much too accomplished for reigning premier and regular finalist Ainslie, which was seeking a fourth consecutive flag, with the final scores being Queanbeyan 23.18 (156) to the Tricolours' 14.13 (97).
The biggest Grand Final shock in the major state competitions came in Sydney, where 'unbackable' minor premier Campbelltown somehow contrived to lose its only match of the season when it counted most. Grand Final opponents North Shore, with former Hawthorn player John Hendrie starring with seven goals, trailed by five points at the long break before surging home with 12 second half goals to six to win by 31 points. The victorious Bears were coached by ex-St Kilda champion Barry Breen.¹⁵
1.Every Game Ever Played: VFL/AFL Results 1897-1991 by Stephen Rodgers, page 679.
2.‘Inside Football’, 3/10/85, page 3.
3. ‘Inside Football’, 20/6/85, page 1.
4. Ibid., page 17.
5. A report published by the VFL Commissioners in 1985, in recommending that the VFL competition be expanded in 1987 by the inclusion of new teams based in Adelaide and Perth, made no secret of why it thought such a move would be beneficial: “The (VFL) competition will benefit from expansion to Adelaide/Perth through the additional revenues from live television coverage of games and from revenues in Adelaide and Perth.” (Reported in Football Times Yearbook 1986, page 8.)
6. ‘Inside Football’, 13/6/85 , page 15.
7. ‘Inside Football’, 20/6/85 , page 15.
8. Ibid., page 15. South Australia’s five best players in the defeat of Western Australia were most commonly listed as John Platten, Craig Bradley, Malcolm Blight, Stephen Kernahan and Peter Motley. All but Blight, who was 35 years of age at this point, and who had already enjoyed an illustrious VFL career, would be lining up with Melbourne-based clubs in 1986.
9. The aggregate minor round attendance of 815,396 in 1985 was 12.9% up on the 1984 figure of 722,690, which itself had been the lowest aggregate since the inception of the 10 team competition in 1964. (Source: Football Times Yearbook 1986, page 36.)
10. ‘Football Times’, 10/8/85 , page 10.
11. ‘Inside Football’, 26/9/85 , page 23.
12. The Encyclopedia of League Footballers by Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, page 212.
13. NTFL: a History of Australian Football in Darwin and the Northern Territory from 1916 to 1995, by David Lee and Michael Barfoot, page 137.
14. Ibid., page 60.
15. 'Inside Football', 26/9/85 , page 16.
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