The Hat-trick: Port wins it thrice for Brice
Port Melbourne has appointed South Melbourne player Gary Brice captain-coach. Brice played three seasons with Port before joining South in 1970.
— Barrot’s back with Oakleigh: as coach - Marc Fiddian, The Age, 25 October 1979
Four decades on and the aforementioned 22 words proclaiming Gary Brice’s return to North Port Oval after a decade at South Melbourne continues to arouse special memories for the appointee and Borough diehards of a certain vintage. Interestingly Fiddian, VFA correspondent for The Age, passionate advocate and competition historian placed the significance of Brice’s appointment behind Bill Barrot’s imminent homecoming to Warrawee Park.
An add-on. Afterthought. Innocuous. Hindsight is wonderful, wouldn’t you agree?
Less than 12 months later Bustling Billy’s second stint in charge of the Devils (he’d spent the 1977 season in the Oakleigh hot seat) had come to an end. Conversely Brice was in the midst of leading his team into the most successful era of its 106 year existence.
“A club official approached me to see if I was interested. I was, so I applied for the job and went through the process.” Brice’s brief, to return Port Melbourne to the lofty heights it reached during a glorious mid-70’s run that netted the club three flags in five seasons, appeared simple enough. Reality suggested otherwise. The departure of seasoned veterans Peter Bedford, Peter McKenna, John Greening, David Thorpe, Tony Haenen, Neville Stibbard and Ivan Rasmussen, combined with a loss in excess $20,000 for the 78/79 financial year made the rebuild a little trickier.
“I spoke with a few of those who left regarding their intentions. Regardless of their decisions I was committed to recruiting younger players, I’d suggested as much during the interview for the senior coaching position.”
The playing list suffered further blows during the pre-season when Rod Carter and Kevin Goss crossed to neighbouring South Melbourne to chase their VFL dream. Help came in the form of quality recruits Peter Wilkinson, Peter Bradbury and Tony Ebeyer. “Norm Goss and Jack McFarlane were our main recruiters. They had great networks as well as an eye for talent. The club's reputation helped it attract good footballers."
The return of the brilliant Jim Christou stiffened the on-ball corps and the rapid development of the athletic Stephen Allender presented an additional tall option at either end of the field.
1980 - BACK FROM THE DEAD
Nearing the halfway point in the season the 5-3 Borough journeyed to the pre-gentrified inner northern suburbs to face the previous season’s premiers Coburg. Far from a happy hunting ground, the Harding Street venue had become somewhat of a cemetery for visiting sides in recent times; the Lions' unblemished home-stand run stretched back 13 months. Additionally, the unconquered Burgers were in slashing form, two wins clear of second-placed Geelong West. In an often spiteful game that included a once-in-generation occurrence of a player count, Port Melbourne declared itself a contender. The 12-point triumph, underpinned by a 10 goals-to-six second half, burst Coburg’s bubble of invincibility and gave the visitors an all-important psychological advantage over the ladder leaders.
Did the stirring victory convince Brice he had the necessary talent to challenge for a flag?
“Not at that stage. We’d been quite inconsistent. Players such as Stephen Allender, Grant O’Riley, Tony Ebeyer, Peter Bradbury, Glyn Evans, Frank Johnson and Peter Wilkinson were still in their development stage”,
Consecutive losses to Sandringham and Geelong West in Rounds 11 and 12 saw Port temporarily tumble from the top tier of the competition. The playing stocks received a timely boost with pre-June 30 acquisitions Peter Hall and Terry O’Neill crossing from South Melbourne. “The Sandringham and Geelong West loses raised some of doubts, specifically concerning our defensive structure. The addition of O’Neill and Hall had a huge impact, they tightened up our back six,” said Brice.
Riding a six-game winning streak into September, Port finished their home-and-away commitments in second place, winning 13 of their 18 contests. A 33-point final-round win over minor premier Coburg — the Burgers' second loss to the Borough in as many starts — provided Brice and co the perfect preparation for a pennant push. A 50-point triumph over the Lions in the Second Semi Final a fortnight later ensured that the Brice’s boys, regardless of opponent, would start short-priced favourites come Grand Final day. Coburg’s 11-point Preliminary Final defeat of Geelong West a week later set up a fourth Borough/Burger brouhaha for all the chockies. First-year coach Gary Brice was confident of a season sweep.
“It wasn’t until we were a few weeks out from the finals that I thought we had a chance. We were the only team to beat Coburg during the Home and Away series and I thought we had the wood on them. The Second Semi Final victory reaffirmed my belief”
The competition's match day publication, The Recorder, agreed with the first year coach but forewarned the favourites of the dangers of complacency:
Although in a Grand Final just about anything can happen, (and usually does) Port Melbourne should be able to take an early initiative and take the premiership. They are the form side and have more strength all around the ground
– David Andrew, VFA Recorder – 1980 Grand Final edition.
Unlike their previous three high-scoring encounters, the 1980 Grand Final will be remembered as a dour, last man standing, fight to the finish. A combination of blustery conditions and the deployment of a shrewd 'keepings off' game plan saw Coburg dictate terms from the early exchanges. Brice’s theory regarding the poor start is an interesting one.
“Our reserve side, coached by Bob Bonnett, had an upset victory in their Grand Final. We (the senior team) had completed our preparations and were ready to go. Suddenly, the news of the seconds victory was relayed to us. Usually the reserves would wait on the ground until the senior side entered the arena. After hearing the result I got the reserves side to join us in the warm up area. The two teams embraced and the club song was sung. It was a very special moment having the two teams together on the day, however the excitement might’ve tipped the senior players over the edge emotionally. We started slowly. To their credit Coburg not only jumped us but controlled the game until late in the last quarter.”
In addition to his unconventional tactics, Coburg coach Colin Kinnear swung a couple of telling positional changes with key forward Ron Beattie dropping back into defence with regular full back John Douglas moving up field. “I wasn’t too concerned with their placements. I was more concerned about how our young players would handle the pressure of a Grand Final. By the same token Aanensen, Cook, the Christous, Swan, Paul Goss and Harland provided plenty of finals experience."
When Fred Cook snapped the first goal of the match with less than 30 seconds expired on the game clock an uneasy feeling of “oh no, not again” would’ve surely washed over the Burger brains trust. They needn’t have feared as their charges responded magnificently. Ruckman Gary Milroy proved more than the equal of Port colossus Vic Aanensen, on-ballers Robert Herbert and Gary Halbert were dominant through the middle of the ground and Robert Smith was giving Terry O’Neill a torrid time up forward. Smith’s first goal of the afternoon brought up his 'ton'. If not for their inaccuracy up forward the Lions' 15-point cushion — 3.5-23 to 1.2-8 — would have been a lot more comfortable.
Port’s frustrating afternoon continued throughout the second period with no sign of the grim arm wrestle abating. With their on-ballers denied possession, the customary abundant supply to tall forwards Fred Cook (right), Stephen Allender and Grant O’Riley was reduced to a trickle. On the rare occasions they threatened to breach the Burger back-line Beattie, Brad Nimmo and Dean Hartigan stood firm. 52 minutes separated Cook’s opening major and the Boroughs second goal, a clever snap from Tony Ebeyer just before time on. At half time Coburg 5.8-38 led Port Melbourne 2.9-21.
Five minutes into the second half and the pre-match favourites looked to have turned the corner. An exquisite chain of handpasses involving Ebeyer, Wilkinson and Jim Christou handed Swan the easiest of goals reducing the leeway to 13 points. Malcolm Collins replied within a minute and John Douglas, relishing an afternoon free of defensive duties added another. Sensing the Lions were about to run away with the match Channel 10’s Phil Gibbs shared his thoughts with the viewing audience thus:
The pulses are pounding, hearts are beating for Port Melbourne and they can’t get into the game.
Vic Aanensen’s high tackle on David Fisher instigated an all-in brawl. Plenty of pushing and shoving ensued, however no numbers were taken. On the stroke of three-quarter time Fred Cook strolled into an open goal to bridge the gap by six points. As the two sides received their final instructions Port Melbourne 5.11-41 trailed Coburg 8.10-58.
When John Douglas slammed through his second major of the afternoon the Lions had one hand on the trophy. 23 points clear, 20 minutes remaining. The well-endowed lady was clearing her throat. The gusty conditions that nullified the influence of Port’s tall forwards meant responsibility for an eleventh-hour revival would rest with their dynamic midfield.
Timing their run to perfection Jim Christou, Peter Wilkinson, Tony Ebeyer, Glyn Evans and Bill Swan seized the moment. Christou in particular was brilliant with three outstanding goals inside the final 15 minutes of play. The third in which he dodged, weaved and avoided a cluster of desperate Coburg defenders was one for the ages. At the final siren Port Melbourne 11.15-81 had prevailed over a gallant Coburg 10.10-70. The 1980 VFA flag was on its way to the North Port Oval.
Fitness, skill, talent, or did Coburg simply panic? Brice believes there was no single factor behind the miraculous comeback.
“All of the above. I had supreme confidence in our preparation. Peter Saultry, our fitness guru, had the players in peak condition. I knew we could run the game out. We had overrun Coburg the previous three times we clashed. Our superior skill level came to the fore in the final 10 minutes. We kicked four goals and won by 11 points”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more succinct summation of Port’s final quarter snatch and grab effort than the one that appeared in the Spencer Street broadsheet the following morning:
Once Port clicked – at the most vital stage – Coburg was unable to regain its earlier superiority and the premiership virtually slipped through its fingers.
– Port snatches flag in Lion taming finale - Marc Fiddian, The Age, Monday 22 September 1980
1981 - PORT POWER
Following a 122-point pounding of Frankston in Round 2 of the 1981 season, Port Melbourne leapt to the top of the 10-team table. Maintaining that early season momentum, the reigning premiers would not relinquish their spot at the summit for the remainder of the home-and-away program. 16 wins, two losses, an imposing percentage of 161.79%. Port first, daylight second. On 10 occasions the free-scoring Borough managed double-digit majors in a quarter. So clinical was the 16-goal final quarter mauling of Brunswick in Round 13 that any bootleg video emanating from the game would’ve earned an “R” rating from censors.
Averaging in excess of 157 points per game Fab Forwards Fred Cook (106), Jim Christou (61), early season returnee Graeme Anderson (55) and Grant O’Riley (53) completed their season obligations with half-century-plus goal tallies. Greg Dermott, Mick Thompson and John Christou marshalled a rock-solid back half that allowed a mere 97.3 points per game, the stingiest in the competition.
So dominant were the reigning champs that only a combination of stage fright and/or a superhuman effort on Grand Final day from its opponent would deny them back-to-back pennants. So, how did Brice keep his team focused?
“The pressure was on to repeat. Our preparation for the 1981 was harder, by design, than the previous pre-season. We knew we were the best team in the competition, however success isn’t guaranteed. We had to prove it on the big day.”
Preston, which had a disappointing 6/12 record the previous winter, vaulted the chasing pack to emerge as the number one contender. Port took both regular season clashes between the teams and made it three-from-three with a comfortable 71-point victory in the Second Semi Final to advance to the ’81 decider. Seven days later the Bullants survived a whirlwind 11-goal final-term onslaught from Sandringham to take out the Preliminary Final and set up another pow-wow with Port.
The voice of the competition predicted the Borough would retain their mantle as the best team the VFA:
Port Melbourne are a consistent, solid combination who seem to be able to rise to the occasion. Their teamwork will trouble the Bullants who run a lot on confidence. They certainly won’t be able to jump Port today as they did Sandringham last week. Port Melbourne seem to have Preston’s measure – they’ve proven that three times this season already. They should make it four times today and in doing so take out the VFA First Division Premiership.
– Andrew Rajcher, VFA Recorder, 1981 Grand Final edition.
When the raging favourite jumped out to a five-goal lead inside the opening quarter of an hour prayers were being recited for the Preston Football Club. Fred Cook, who’d entered the match with a season tally of 98, brought up his sixth century of goals in a season with an early brace of six-pointers. At quarter time Port Melbourne 6.6-42 led Preston 2.1-13. Miraculously, Harold Martin’s under-siege charges dug deep, quelled the haemorrhaging, and landed a few counter punches of their own. Shane Halas, with five first half goals, was inspirational up forward. As players trudged off the arena at the main break Preston 9.4-58 trailed Port Melbourne 9.9-63. With a meagre five points separating the sides, a Bullant boilover, unthinkable half an hour earlier, was now a distinct possibility.
Brice recalled his anxiety and anger at the long break?: “We started well and held a handy lead at quarter time but Preston staged a great comeback. We held a slight lead at half time but to say I was unhappy is an understatement”
Goals to Anderson, Cook and Christou inside the opening five minutes of the second half re-established the minor premiers’ superiority. Liston Trophy winner Aanensen was unstoppable; midfielders Ebeyer, Brendan Kavanagh, Goss, Swan and Evans did as they pleased. Grant O’Riley, well held by Paul Bolger in the opening hour, grabbed everything that came his way. With 30 minutes of the 1981 season remaining Port Melbourne 19.14-128 had raced ahead of Preston 11.8-74. The ‘Ants were physically and mentally spent and the pungent stench of death wafted across the Junction Oval. VFA followers, specifically those who enjoyed a Sunday afternoon at North Port Oval, were aware that acts of Borough benevolence under the stewardship of Gary Brice were non-existent.
It was gonna get ugly!
So vicious was the last half hour of the 1981 finale, highlight packages sit comfortably alongside the handiwork of legendary Hollywood maverick Sam Peckinpah. Fred Cook’s sixth goal of the match moved his team to 26.15-171 to set a record Division 1 Grand Final score¹. Having eclipsed the previous high mark, a rampant Port set about obliterating it. In a rare foray forward Russel Davies’ snap shot at the 33-minute mark saw the 200 point milestone passed. Appropriately the magnificent Jim Christou brought the scoring glut to a halt. In what would prove to be his final act in Red and Blue stripes Christou’s fourth, the Borough’s 32 nd goal of the afternoon, mercifully ended the Ant’s agony. When all was said and done Port Melbourne 32.19-211 had thrashed Preston 15.8-98. Coach Brice, bristling an hour earlier, was suitably pleased with what he witnessed after half time.
“At quarter time we thought the game was a forgone conclusion and relaxed our intensity. To their credit the players responded with an avalanche of goals in the second half. A magnificent second half.”
The 113-point winning margin is 13 points better than the one set by Port in 1977 against Sandringham. The massive win, not unexpected, confirmed the brilliance of Port and showed just how far it is ahead of any side in the competition.
– Port’s flag and record. Preston swamped – Mark Madden, Sun News Pictorial, Monday 21 September 1981
1982 – NEVER IN DOUBT
The summer of 1981/82 saw a seismic shift in the balance of power amongst the VFA elite. Preston, not satisfied with a silver medal finish the previous spring, attracted a bumper crop of recruits headlined by the appointment of former Magpie Ray Shaw (right) as captain/coach. Additional arrivals to the 'Ants Cramer Street nest included Geoff Austen, Andy Plowman and Tony Kelly. The reigning premier meanwhile was dealing with the departures of Grant O’Riley (Fitzroy) the Christou brothers (Northcote) and the recently retired Vic Aanensen.
While many Borough fans had thoughts of emulating the trifecta of flags that Wally Carter's Williamstown² had managed in 1954-56, thoughts of a 'three-peat' certainly hadn’t crossed Brice’s mind. “The loss of those players was immense. The third flag was never a consideration. We had to inject new players such as Robertson, Tantsis, Rodda, Chadband and Davis into the team.”
The latest model rolling off the North Port production line wasn’t as flashy as previous years, however the standard features — solidness, dependability, plenty of grunt — remained.
Preston’s 29-point opening round victory at North Port Oval in Round 1, under a billowing 1981 pennant unfurled earlier that afternoon, put the football public on notice — the Bullants were the team to beat for the 1982 flag. The champs quickly got back to their winning ways and headed into the Round 7 clash at Coburg sitting in second place with a 4-2 record. The stirring five-goal victory that followed was made all the more meritorious considering Port were 22 points adrift at the start of the final period. An 11-goal final term Borough blitzkrieg turned likely defeat into a comfortable five-goal victory and saw them replace the Lions at the top of the table.
Port’s Round 12 trip to Preston City Oval pitted the competitions top two teams, both sporting 9-2 records. Hopes of a hard-fought classic were laid to rest before the quarter time siren had sounded. Nine goals clear of the visitors at the first break, the 'Ants eventual winning margin of 72 points provided a brutal reality check for Brice’s boys and posed what appeared to be an unanswerable question — if the two sides met in September, what could you do to stop a repeat shellacking?
Entering the final Sunday of the regular season in third position, Port Melbourne hosted second placed Coburg. The equation was simple: win and attain a double chance, lose and the margin for error decreased dramatically. In a complete reversal of their meeting in May the Burgers barnstorming 10-goal-to-four second half turned a 29-point half time deficit into a hard fought seven point victory. To achieve what would be a club first — a third consecutive premiership — the Borough faced a September of sudden death starts.
First Semi Final opponent Geelong West had beaten the Borough by two points when the sides clashed a fortnight earlier at the Roosters’ Western Oval domicile. Leading from go to whoa, the wise old heads of Anderson (five goals), midfielder Swan, and dashing defender Glenn Robertson piloted Port to a comfortable 62-point victory. Seven days later Preston punched their ticket to the “big one”, a comprehensive eight goal belting of Coburg consigning the Lions to a Preliminary Final engagement with Port Melbourne. With the Lions five goals clear entering the time on period of the third quarter, Port fans feared the worst. A couple of late majors reduced the gap at the final change to 21 points and delayed the administering of last rights. Turning for home the Borough had history on their side and a slight zephyr at their backs.
Reviving the ghosts of the ’80 decider, the Borough’s seven goals to one final term blitz doomed the Burgers to oblivion. The winners were best served by on-ballers Peter Wilkinson and Billy Swan. 'Biff' Dermott and Glenn Robertson marshalled a defence that was under siege for sustained periods of the match. The report of rugged half back Mick Thompson for striking Coburg’s Robert Herbert tempered Port’s post-match celebrations. Thompson’s Grand Final dreams were shattered when he was subsequently suspended for two matches by the VFA Honorary Commissioners the following Tuesday night.
For the second time in 12 months the Bullants and Borough would square off for all the marbles. All indicators suggested a Preston pennant. Three wins and healthy percentage clear of the Borough at the completion of their home-and-away commitments. Two comfortable victories in their regular season clashes; 13 wins on the trot. Still, the doubts remained. In his match preview for The Recorder, Bullants – In a pinch, Michael Lovett wasn’t convinced the decider was a forgone conclusion:
No side in the VFA rises to the occasion like Port – the bigger the challenge, the game and the crowd, the better the Borough love it.
Lovett stuck with the 'Ants — on one proviso:
Providing Preston puts the past to the back of its mind and concentrates for 120 minutes today, it should get home in what I predict will be a great Grand Final.
Brice held a few reservations of his own.
“Entering the Grand Final I still wasn’t confident. We had a first year ruckman (Brett Chadband) taking on the Liston trophy winner Geoff Austen. Injuries to key players throughout the season hampered our attempts to build a solid fitness base. The two finals leading in to the Grand Final were exactly what we needed to bring some players up to scratch after significant injuries. The win over Coburg the previous Sunday gave us confidence in our ability to run out a hard match. I’d grade our fitness a 'B', our skill level was nearing an 'A'. Determination – 'A'."
When Kalev Vann (left) ran through gun Port midfielder Peter Wilkinson at the opening bounce the message from the Bullants bunker was clear — we will not be intimidated! Enjoying first use of the two to three goal breeze favouring the scoreboard end of the Junction Oval, Port struggled early. Ray Shaw was gathering possessions at will and Austen took the early spoils from Chadband in the big man department. Borough forwards Graeme Anderson and Fred Cook had their moments, late majors to Tony Ebeyer and Glyn Evans provided Port with an 18-point quarter-time buffer, 5.9-39 to 3.3-21. Whilst their work rate must have delighted their coaching staff an inability to capitalize on their early opportunities would have given them cause for concern.
'Ants forwards Shane Halas and Darryl McGaw struck early after the restart to put Preston within a straight kick. Billy Swan’s bullet like pass found Fred Cook but the competition's leading goalkicker fluffed his chance. Despite dominating his clash with Plowman, the 34-year-old Cook was suffering from a serious case of the kicking yips. Entering the day with 134 goals to show for his season work, Cook hadn’t added to his impressive season total, his three shots all missing the target. Scoring remained at a premium. Port’s inaccuracy in front of goal had cost them a more imposing half time advantage — 7.13-55 to 8.6-54 — but more importantly, red and blue hearts were beating true. The true believers now had a fellow traveller in Gary Brice.
“It wasn’t until half time in the Grand Final that I thought we could win the flag.”
Majors to Vann and Russell Ohlsen (right) inside the opening four minutes of the second half had those attired in red and white anticipating a 14 th win in a row. But rumours of the demise of the Borough were greatly exaggerated. Backmen Demetriou, Hall and Robertson held steady, Chadband matched Liston trophy winner Austen at both the stoppages and general play and Swan and Kavanagh collected kicks as they pleased. Five goals, three from the boot of Fabulous Fred Cook, in a scintillating 15-minute burst saw Port slip out to a 17 point lead, 14.14-98 to 12.9-81 at the last change.
From his position in the ATV10 commentary box, Rex Hunt shared his thoughts with those watching the match from the comfort of their lounge rooms:
“ Looking down at the Preston camp they look extremely flat to me. They look shell shocked.”
A thin line separates prescience and piffle. Ten minutes into the final term of the 1982 VFA Grand Final, Hunt was proven right. Majors to Anderson and Bruce Davis pushed the gap out to 30 points. Halas got one back, but Port would not be denied. Kavanagh snapped truly from 20 metres, and was followed by an inspirational effort from Borough talisman Bill Swan. Grasping his chance the indefatigable Swan smothered Terry Wight’s attempted hand pass out of the back line, gathered, steadied and rammed home Port’s fourth goal for the term. It effectively switched off the minor premiers' lifeline. Preston battled valiantly and drew to within seven points at the 30-minute mark of the period but it was too little, too late. When the siren rang out across the picturesque St Kilda arena Port Melbourne 21.15-141 had defeated Preston 20.14-134.
For the Borough faithful it truly was a case of witnessing the vision splendid.
“Port won because it played as a team all day, used the ball more effectively in attack, often sharked hit outs from Geoff Austen and capitalized on fumbling by Preston players.”
– Port scores a hat trick – Marc Fiddian, The Age, Monday 20 September 1982
Coach Brice alluded to the result being decided “above the shoulders”.
“Preston were spooked by us. Our finals record was impeccable and the media kept playing up that aspect. It worked in our favour. You can take great confidence from winning Grand Finals. Players have done it before and believe they can do it again."
I asked Brice whether he’d always intended to select players such as Andy Demetriou, Tantsis and Davis considering how little senior football they’d played that year. “Demetriou had been on the long term injury list and his selection was the cause of much debate. We took the punt and he did a great job for us on the day. So to Tantsis, Davis and the whole team”
Port Melbourne’s pursuit of a fourth successive flag would end with defeat to Geelong West in the 1983 Preliminary Final, the 49-point loss bringing down the curtain on Gary Brice’s initial stint in the North Port Oval coach’s box. Brice returned to Postcode 3207 at the start of the 1985 season. Posting a 12-6 record the Borough finished the home and away season in fifth place, their inferior percentage to that of Williamstown costing them a finals berth.
Just one question remained. Did Brice have a favourite of the three premierships?
“No, they were all unique. We came back from the dead to beat the best team in the competition in 1980. The pressure to go back to back was immense the following year and we produced the goods and established a record Grand Final score. No one expected us to win in ’82. It was a fairy tale win”
A big thank you to Gary Brice for his valuable input into this piece and to my wonderful comrades Angelo Cristoforo and Chris Teazis for providing source documents that assisted with the research for this story.
1. Oakleigh held the record for the previous highest score in a First
Division Grand Final, scoring 25.17-167 to defeat Dandenong 18.15-123 in
2. Other VFA teams to complete a premiership hat-trick were Northcote (1932-24), Coburg (1926-28) and North Melbourne, which claimed flags in 1914 and 1915, and another in 1918 after the competition took a two-year hiatus in 1916-17 during World War I.