While the history of the Adelaide Crows is all too brief, the background to the club's formation is long and complex. South Australia was the first colony after Victoria to embrace Australian football (or 'Victorian Rules' as it was known initially), and this fact served to emphasise the close relationship which existed between the two colonies right from the outset. [^1]
As with many close relationships, however, intense rivalry lay just below the surface, and what better means than a sporting contest for bringing this out into the open?
It very soon emerged, however, that as far as the game of Australian football went, the rivalry between Victoria and South Australia was destined to be a pretty lop-sided affair. It could not, for instance, bear comparison with the great cricketing rivalries which existed (and still exist) between England and Australia, or Victoria and New South Wales. In spirit it was much closer to the legendary biblical conflict between David and Goliath - with a single, obvious and glaring difference: in the gospel according to Australian football it was almost always Goliath who emerged smiling.
Over the years, this substantial gulf in standards inevitably tended to produce a difference in perspective: interstate (or intercolonial) football, for instance, was viewed in South Australia as an essential barometer of the game's progress, and a player who was picked to represent his state could therefore be said to have reached the very pinnacle of footballing achievement.
In Victoria, the prevailing attitude was very different: interstate matches were viewed somewhat in the nature of a necessary nuisance; necessary insofar as Victoria, in its acknowledged position as Australian football's supreme power, had a self-evident duty to promote the game in as many parts of the country as possible; a nuisance in the sense that the playing of interstate fixtures either disrupted the schedule of VFA and later VFL club matches (when the interstate games took place in Melbourne) or deprived the clubs of the services of their most accomplished players (when the venues for these games were interstate). [^2]
The notion that the results of interstate matches in some way represented a yardstick of the game's progress and status in different parts of the country was laughable. Victorian supremacy was in the nature of a 'given', and the occasional defeats suffered against South Australia or Western Australia in no way undermined this. For one thing, interstate football was obviously accorded much greater respect outside Victoria, and it was therefore only to be expected that players chosen to represent Western Australia or South Australia, not to mention the 'minor states', would tend to put in the games of their lives when confronted by the might of the 'Big V'. In such circumstances, the occasional upset was inevitable, but by the same token it was really nothing to make a fuss about.
At club level, intercolonial contact began during the 1870s when clubs like St Kilda and Melbourne visited Adelaide. From the Victorian point of view such visits provided excellent opportunities to 'spread the word', relax, and, during the matches, to experiment by 'blooding' youngsters or trying players in unaccustomed positions; the actual results of the games tended to be perceived as being of negligible importance, however.
By contrast to this, South Australian clubs would see the games as providing firm and incontestable evidence as to which of the two colonies currently reigned supreme on the football field.
An excellent illustration of this divergence in viewpoint is afforded by the so-called 'Championship of Australia'. From as early as 1888 challenge matches were sporadically held between the premier clubs of South Australia and Victoria with a view to determining Australia's champion team. At any rate, that was the interpretation placed on these contests by most South Australians. Victorians on the other hand, with occasional exceptions, tended to view them as exhibition matches, and no more. After all, had not the de facto champions of Australia already been decided, via the VFA premiership ladder (and later the VFL grand final)?
Not surprisingly, the repeated victories in these affairs by South Australian clubs were greeted somewhat differently on opposite sides of the border. In Adelaide, they were a cause of great rejoicing, with the members of the victorious team feted as conquering heroes. In Melbourne, however, the defeat would be philosophically accepted but then quickly forgotten. After all, the loss of what to all intents and purposes was merely a practice match could hardly be said to have any long term consequences; Victoria's football supremacy was, as has been noted above, in the nature of a 'given', and no conceivable set of circumstances could ever undermine it.
To the objective observer a number of conclusions are possible. First, the Victorians' belief in the essential superiority of their own brand of football was based on fairly strong evidence, and, as the years went by, such evidence became so strong as to be irrefutable; by the 1970s an overwhelmingly large proportion of the finest players in Australia, irrespective of their state or territory of origin, were plying their trade in Melbourne. The second conclusion to be drawn is that the arrogant manner with which the Victorians took their superiority for granted had the inevitable side effect of increasing the resentment with which football supporters from other states viewed the VFL; when the VFL began increasingly to attract the cream of the talent from these states, those feelings of resentment could not help but be reinforced.
In some ways, South Australia was something of a poor relation when it came to providing Victorian clubs with players of demonstrably high quality. Compared to Western Australia and Tasmania, for example, South Australia tended to send a lot fewer of its champions over the border to sample the big time, and those who did make the journey were almost invariably less successful. For every Bernie Smith (Geelong's 1951 Brownlow Medallist from West Adelaide), Western Australia were apparently able to come up with a Farmer, a Cable, a Moss and a Richardson. Even tiny Tasmania yielded Baldock, Stewart, Hudson and Hart within the space of just five or six years in the 1960s and it is doubtful whether South Australian football ever provided the VFL with a quartet of such imposing pedigree.
In fairness, over the years there have been proportionately many more elite South Australians than Western Australians or Tasmanians who have elected to remain at home.[^3] The likes of Barrie Robran, Neil Kerley, Lindsay Head, Geof Motley, Bob Hank, Peter Darley, Ken Eustice, Paul Bagshaw, Bob Quinn, Bill Wedding and Ken Farmer might all have been expected to perform creditably in Victorian football, but for one reason or another they preferred to remain in South Australia. Moreover, South Australian clubs occasionally proved capable of attracting high calibre Victorian recruits, thereby ensuring that the standard of club football in the state remained tolerably high. [^4]
From about the mid-1970s, however, the situation began to change, and the exodus of star South Australians across the border accelerated. This helped contribute to a general decline in the standard of South Australian League football, and a corresponding drop off in spectator interest. (Although clearly there were also other factors at work undermining the game's appeal, such as the emergence of a wider range of alternative attractions.)
In 1972, the average attendance at SANFL minor round matches was 9,390 per game, or 5.4% of the Adelaide population; ten years on the population of Adelaide had increased, but the proportion of that population who watched SANFL football had fallen away sharply, to just 3.8%, at an average of 7,344 per game. Meanwhile VFL attendances over the same period had held steady.
As the 1980s continued, so did the departure of prominent players across the border. Whereas a decade or two earlier the majority of top South Australian players had been content to remain at home, it was becoming increasingly rare for individuals with the ability to represent the state, say, or figure prominently in the voting for the Magarey Medal to resist the lure of the VFL limelight. Of the South Australian team which lost by 30 points to Victoria at the MCG in 1971 only half a dozen went on to participate in the VFL, and of these only rover Ray Huppatz (67 games with Footscray and 19 games with North Melbourne) could be described as having more than a fleeting acquaintance. Huppatz's co-rover Mick Nunan and full forward Malcolm Greenslade played just one and two VFL games respectively for Richmond while stationed in Victoria on National Service, ruck-rover Graham Cornes played just 5 games for North Melbourne, gargantuan ruckman Dean Farnham managed a mere 17 games with Footscray, and centreman Russell Ebert spent a single season with North Melbourne late in his illustrious career. By contrast, no fewer than a dozen of the South Australian 21 which trounced Western Australia by 87 points at Subiaco in 1985 went on to play VFL football, with Craig Bradley, John Platten, Greg Anderson, Stephen Kernahan and Andrew Jarman all achieving at least a fair measure of notoriety.
The SANFL's administrators were by no means remiss in attempting to stanch the flow of talent. As early as 1981 a bid was tabled to enter a composite South Australian team in the VFL, but this was rejected.[^5] Twelve months later, SANFL General Manager Don Roach remained convinced that South Australian football's long term interests would be best served by involvement in an expanded VFL competition:
Success and planning by the VFL in marketing and refining Australian football has led the SANFL to the conclusion that the VFL's plan to expand its competition has considerable merit. The SANFL wishes to become part of that expanded competition. [^6]
However, despite South Melbourne's sanctioned (some would say enforced) relocation to Sydney, the VFL's enthusiasm for 'the national concept' was somewhat less than full blown. Indeed, even the admission to the League in 1987 of Brisbane and West Coast could just as easily be attributed to economic reasons (the VFL was heavily in debt and required the clubs' $4 million license fees to assist in its recovery) as to any genuine desire to see the game broadening its appeal and influence beyond the borders of Victoria. However, it rapidly became clear that "the future of Australian football (was) in presenting the top level competition in as many capital cities as the game and its marketing can support". [^7] In this context the inclusion of a team from South Australia - traditionally one of the three major football states - became both crucial and inevitable. The only real uncertainty was over time scale.
Ironically, the admission of a Western Australian club, and the teething problems it faced in coming to terms with the enhanced demands of a national competition, contributed in no small way to the SANFL administration's uncertainty over their own participation. Complicating the picture was the fact that, in the short term, the standard of football on display in the SANFL actually improved slightly, due in part to an influx of high quality Western Australian players who, having failed to achieve selection in the West Coast Eagles' inaugural squad, were keen to continue their careers in what was, by popular consent, 'the second best competition'. In the 1987 interstate clash between Western Australia and South Australia in Perth the visiting South Australians won with beguiling ease, providing deceptive reassurance "that South Australia's decision not to enter the extended VFL competition (was) justified, at least for the time being". [^8]
A year later, West Perth director John Clinch claimed that the formation of the West Coast Eagles had 'ruined' Western Australian club football, and he advised the SANFL to refrain from entering a team in the expanded VFL at all costs.
Clinch's advice was very much a case of preaching to the converted. In a bid to maintain playing standards, the SANFL in 1988 introduced a Player Retention Scheme, funded by a combination of League gate receipts, TAB Footypunt proceeds, sponsorship, and a lottery. The purpose of the scheme was to provide financial incentives to top players to remain in South Australia. These incentives consisted of scaled payments related to a player's achievements which the player would receive in a lump sum on retirement. Needless to say, any member of the scheme who elected to transfer to an interstate club automatically forfeited his right to receive the payment.
The introduction of the scheme attracted controversy, both in South Australia, where, perhaps predictably, it provoked arguments over the relative merits of those players included and excluded, and, more damagingly, in Victoria, where it was felt that, by playing regular State of Origin matches at Football Park, the VFL was providing the SANFL with a substantial proportion of the funds needed to keep the scheme viable. Certainly the refusal of the AFL to sanction a State of Origin match between South Australia and Victoria in Adelaide in 1990 bears many of the hallmarks of an act of retribution for the SANFL's reluctance to participate in the developing national competition; it may also have reflected the AFL's growing suspicion that the SANFL was using the funds raised via these matches to subsidise its isolationist position. [^9]
The 1990 SANFL season saw attendances continuing to decline. In July, Western Australia came to Football Park and were considered by some to be unfortunate to lose to the home state by 21 points, providing further evidence that the WAFL competition was recovering from the debilitating early impact of the establishment of the West Coast Eagles. Indeed, most WAFL clubs were now operating profitably, a situation in marked contrast to that prevailing in South Australia where clubs like West Torrens, Woodville, and, most particularly at the time, South Adelaide, hovered near or even just below the breadline.
Despite all this, the SANFL administration remained firm in its refusal to consider entering a team in the AFL. According to League President Max Basheer there were two fundamental obstacles in the way of South Australia's involvement in the national league. The primary concern remained protection of the local competition, but there was also a feeling of resentment over the proposed $4 million joining levy. "We've been involved with football here for more than 100 years and developed the game and a market in South Australia," maintained Basheer. "Why should we have to pay to be part of the AFL?"
Matters came abruptly to a head on 31 July when perennially successful Port Adelaide, concerned that it was effectively being forced to subsidise several of the other SANFL clubs, made an independent and unilateral application to join the AFL. The move was totally unexpected and precipitated South Australian football into a period of quite unprecedented turmoil, controversy and confusion. Port Adelaide, already far and away the most loathed (as well as the best supported) SANFL club, became Public Enemy Number One in South Australia, whilst simultaneously - and paradoxically - earning the respect and admiration of many football aficionados in Victoria. The SANFL was left with little option but to table a counter submission of its own and, once this had happened, it soon became clear that Port Adelaide's bid was doomed. For a start, the marketing potential of a composite side clearly outstripped that of an established club, however well supported. Equally importantly, the SANFL could guarantee the availability of Football Park, a ground with few equals anywhere in Australia.
In November 1990 the new Adelaide Football Club, to be known as the Crows, was officially born. Admission to the AFL was earmarked for the following season. In just three short months the SANFL had, albeit without wanting to, come almost full circle in its attitude to the national league. Against this backdrop, the quiet dismantling of the SANFL's Player Retention Scheme went almost unnoticed.
The man chosen to pilot the Crows through what he would later refer to as "the uncharted waters" of their debut season in the AFL was Graham Cornes. His selection was somewhat ironic given his renowned and frequently stated antipathy toward the AFL. Cornes indeed later admitted that he had thought long and hard before applying for the post given that:
"I've been such an outspoken critic of the AFL and the VFL's attempts to subjugate football in this country and in a sense I felt in one way we were capitulating to them". [^10]
Considerable media hype attended the Adelaide Crows' preparations for their inaugural season, providing football in South Australia with much needed impetus. A crowd of over 40,000 turned up to Football Park for a pre-season practice match against Essendon which the Crows won, and when the side reached the semi finals of the Fosters Cup and began the season proper with an 86 point annihilation of flag favourites Hawthorn 'Crow Mania' burgeoned. Thereafter, however, the team's on field fortunes settled into a predictable pattern: competitive and winning more often than losing at home, brittle and occasionally dire away. The side won 10 and lost 12 matches in 1991 to finish 9th - a respectable performance which, on balance, was slightly better than expected. Interest in Australian football in South Australia was arguably at its highest level since the early 1970s and the repercussions of the Crows' arrival permeated most levels of the game. Thanks largely to dividends received from the Adelaide Football Club all SANFL clubs bar one recorded profits in 1991.
On the field the Crows, most of whom were AFL 'rookies', played a typically South Australian brand of football in which handball and high rates of (not necessarily damaging to the opposition) possession featured prominently. If not inordinately successful, it was nevertheless a highly attractive mix and an average of more than 40,000 fans attended each of the team's home matches during the year.
Adelaide showed marginal overall improvement in 1992, winning 11 out of 22 matches, but, perhaps most encouragingly of all, rounding the season off with 5 wins out of the last 6 games. Significantly, however, wins away from home, other than in Sydney and Brisbane, continued to prove elusive.
The Crows opened the 1993 season with three straight wins including, most promisingly of all, a 28.10 (178) to 12.12 (84) destruction of Richmond at the MCG. However, thereafter the familiar pattern reasserted itself, and Adelaide's only other away wins during the 1993 minor round came at the Gabba and the SCG. Despite this, the Crows' home form was even better than in previous years, with Hawthorn the only visiting side to escape from Football Park with the 4 match points all season. In the final home-and-away fixture of the year, Adelaide needed to defeat Collingwood - something it had never previously managed to do - at Football Park in order to qualify for the major round and, despite being inhibited early by the inevitable tension associated with the occasion, finished strongly to get home by 24 points in front of 48,522 ecstatic fans.
The following Sunday saw Adelaide pitted against Hawthorn at the MCG in an elimination final. It was hard to imagine a more difficult assignment. Not only were the Hawks the most successful AFL club of recent times, they also had the not inconsiderable psychological advantage of having defeated the Crows in both meetings during the season. In the sides' previous encounter just a fortnight earlier at Waverley, Hawthorn had kicked a devastating 8.6 to 0.1 in the opening term before going on to win by 27 points 'easing up'. Few scribes imagined that Adelaide could get within five goals of the finals hardened Hawks, with many predicting a defeat of embarrassing dimensions.
A major part of the appeal of top level sport is its unpredictability, however, and the Crows caused a major upset by playing tough, committed football throughout to emerge victorious by 15 points, 16.14 (110) to 13.17 (95). It was a display which remains an undoubted highlight in the club's short history, its main instigators being the running brigade of Mark Bickley, Matthew Liptak, Greg Anderson, Tony McGuinness and Simon Tregenza, together with spidery ruckman Shaun Rehn, whose seemingly tottering frame belied his formidable courage, influence and all-round effectiveness.
The vagaries of the AFL's final six system meant that, despite finishing the home and away series in only fifth spot, the Crows, by virtue of third placed North Melbourne's capitulation to sixth placed West Coast, had qualified for a second semi final confrontation with Carlton at Waverley. Once again Adelaide's runners were prominent but this time the luck was with the Blues who recorded a hard fought 18 point victory, despite managing seven fewer scoring shots.
The first half of the preliminary final against Essendon at the MCG on Saturday 18 September 1993 saw the Crows play some of the best football of their brief existence up to that point to race into a 42 point long break lead, their 12.12 (84) exactly doubling the Bombers' tally of 6.6 (42). A grand final berth in only the club's third season would have been an astonishing achievement but, sadly for the Crows, football matches are won after 4 quarters of play not 2. Throughout the second half Essendon ignited all over the ground to add 11.3 to the Crows' dismal 2.4 and snatch a dramatic and, from Adelaide's point of view, heart-rending 11-point triumph. The game was watched by 76,380 spectators - up to that point, the biggest ever attendance at a Crows game - and was universally heralded as an all too rare finals classic, but as far as the players and supporters of the Adelaide Football Club were concerned a lack lustre victory by 30 or 40 points would have been infinitely preferable.
In both 1994 and 1995 the Crows were among the bookmakers' pre-season favourites for the flag, and on each occasion the side's achievement in reaching the grand final of the AFL's pre-season knock-out competition only served to reinforce these expectations. However, when the pressure intensified during the season proper the team wilted.
In 1994 the general feeling was that the Crows failed to do justice to themselves in winning just 9 and drawing 1 of their 22 home and away matches to finish 11th. Coach Cornes was the major casualty of this decline, making way at season's end for former Fitzroy coach Robert Shaw, a Tasmanian with a reputation for coaxing maximum effort and achievement from teams of limited ability. Sadly, in 1995, particularly after the serious knee injury to Shaun Rehn in round 3 which put the 1994 club champion on the sidelines for the season, a team of limited ability was precisely what the Crows looked - and the Shaw magic was notoriously ineffective in turning things around. One got the impression that, even at their very best, the Crows would fall some way short of matching it with the real heavyweights of the League like Carlton, Geelong, West Coast and Essendon.
Notwithstanding which, Shaw refused to be downhearted after a last round home defeat by Richmond left the Crows in the comparative ignominy of 11th place once more with just 9 wins for the year:
"All I can say is that ... we will be a better side, we will recruit better, we'll attack everything better and I know it's easy to say but we can promise better. We've got a real chance if we've got genuine supporters - and I think we have." [^11]
Shaw's optimism proved to be grossly misplaced. In 1996 the Crows endured their worst season up to that point, winning only 8 of 22 home and away matches to finish a depressing 12th on the ladder. Before the end of the season Shaw had become the most visible casualty of this failure, although many media observers and some supporters believed that the bulk of the blame lay elsewhere, principally with the club's board of management. Nevertheless, there were plenty of smiles when Shaw's replacement, former Woodville and North Melbourne hero and Geelong coach, Malcolm Blight, was announced; surely now, it was argued, the Crows would start to blossom.
Certainly no one then - or now - would question the Adelaide Football Club's potential to develop into a genuine AFL superpower. However, potential never won a premiership. Shaw's declared intention when he arrived in Adelaide was to foster the emergence of a genuine club spirit, something which the Crows' status as the focus for the aspirations and affection of almost an entire state has made extremely difficult. Two years later Malcolm Blight faced the same task, with the public's expectations, if anything, even higher. Blight was one of South Australia's favourite and most successful footballing sons and the media made it difficult not to attribute messianic properties to his return.
The Adelaide Football Club Board, after years of repeated disappointment, were understandably more cautious, citing their sole aim for 1997 as to see the Crows contest the finals. Thankfully, after a somewhat shaky start, the achievement of this aim never looked in doubt.
The 1997 AFL home and away season was one of the most even on record, and Adelaide's 12-10 record proved good enough to secure 4th spot, and a home final against West Coast. The Crows negotiated this hurdle with surprising comfort, outscoring their opponents in every quarter en route to a 14.15 (99) to 9.12 (66) triumph.
Geelong in the following week's semi final, again at Football Park, provided much sterner resistance, but in the end home ground advantage arguably proved decisive. Adelaide won by 8 points, 11.10 (76) to 9.14 (68), setting up a preliminary final encounter with the high flying Western Bulldogs at the MCG, an assignment which the Melbourne media, with typical predictability, tended to characterise as 'mission impossible'.
No one told this to Malcolm Blight and his hyper-resilient Crows, however. Trailing 4.11 (35) to 10.6 (66) at the long break, Adelaide's season looked over, but in a stirring second half performance, which in many ways mirrored Essendon's display against the Crows in the preliminary final of four years earlier, the visitors added 8.10 to 3.7 to claw and scrape their way into the grand final by just 2 points.
Grand Final opponents St Kilda were 2/5 on favourites going into the match, having topped the ladder after the home and away rounds, and won both their finals encounters comfortably. Adelaide, which would be facing its fourth arduous finals match in as many weeks, was widely presumed to be unlikely to be able to keep pace with the fresher, fitter Saints, who would also have the benefit of the passionate vocal support of a large proportion of the MCG crowd. In addition, the Crows would be without both of their 1997 AFL All Australians, Tony Modra (who also won the Coleman Medal for kicking most goals during the home and away rounds) and Mark Ricciuto, and their absence was felt to more than counterbalance the Saints' loss of ruckmen Peter Everitt and Lazar Vidovic.
The opening quarter of the grand final was typically intense and fast-paced with both sides squandering numerous goalscoring opportunities. Adelaide enjoyed a 2 point advantage (3.8 to 3.6) at the first change but the 2nd term saw St Kilda beginning to flex their muscles; the first six minutes of the term saw them add 3 goals and, from the Crows' point of view, there appeared a very real danger of their running away with the match. Adelaide had also lost both Clay Sampson and Rod Jameson with injuries which were adjudged sufficiently serious as to prevent their further participation. As so often in 1997, however, the Crows rose to the challenge.[^12] Their tackling intensified, and midfielders like McLeod, Koster, Goodwin and Bickley began to impose themselves on the game. The long break saw the Saints' lead trimmed to just 13 points with the outcome still very much in the balance.
The third quarter of the 1997 AFL grand final was arguably the most important yet played by the Crows, who responded positively to every challenge laid down by their opponents, as well as laying down the gauntlet very firmly themselves, to add 6.1 to 2.2 and go into the lemon time huddle 10 points to the good, and with the momentum firmly in their favour. During the final term Darren Jarman, who had been moved to the goal square shortly before half time and who had booted 1 goal in the third quarter, suddenly exploded to life and added a further 5 goals as Adelaide took control all over the ground. St Kilda kept plugging away but in the end there could be absolutely no doubt as to the Crows' superiority. Andrew McLeod capped off a consistent season with an effervescent performance across half back and later on the ball to be a decisive winner of the Norm Smith Medal. Meanwhile Shaun Rehn, beaten in the ruck early on by Brett Cook, and actually dragged from the ground during the 2nd quarter, was a dominant, imposing figure all over the field after half time, while Shane Ellen (5 goals), Troy Bond (4 goals), Nigel Smart and Ben Hart were all conspicuous contributors.
Predictably, almost the entire state of South Australia went into raptures after the match, with the Crows players being accorded a ticker tape welcome home as well as the collective freedom of the city of Adelaide. Mingled with the satisfaction, however, was an ominous - to other clubs - sense of purpose and resolve. [^13] As club chairman Bob Hammond put it:
"We as a club always believed that no matter what happened today we'd be a better team next year and in the next few years, and I still believe that."
Such optimism seemed misplaced for much of the 1998 season as Adelaide struggled to maintain consistency. Indeed, had they lost to West Coast at Subiaco in their final home and away match of the season, the Crows might conceivably have dipped out of the finals altogether. As it was, a first ever win over the Eagles in the west earned 5th spot and, on the positive side, the likelihood of a second chance should their qualifying final against Melbourne at the MCG be lost. Conversely, however, it guaranteed that, whatever the outcome of their first final, the Crows would spend the entire 1998 major round 'on the road'.
Inconsistency reared its head again when Adelaide duly succumbed to the Demons by 48 points, their comparatively meek performance giving little indication of what was to come over the ensuing three weeks. With all four qualifying finals going to form the Crows survived to fight again, and their 'reward' was, on the face of things, the slightly less onerous task of fronting up to Sydney at the SCG. Conditions were more suited to mud wrestling than football, but the Adelaide players rose to the occasion superbly, leading from the start en route to a 14.10 (94) to 10.7 (67) victory.
If the Sydney win had been commendable, the performance against the Western Bulldogs in the following week's preliminary final at the MCG was close to astonishing. Going into the match as underdogs, the Crows tore into the opposition from the start and never relented as they racked up an incredible 68-point victory. Andrew McLeod contributed seven and Matthew Robran six of the side's 24 goals, with Rehn, Caven and Goodwin also performing well.
Just as a year earlier the 1998 grand final saw Adelaide pitted against the season's minor premier, which on this occasion was North Melbourne. Again, just as in 1997, the Crows went into the game as outsiders (with odds of 5/2 as opposed to 3/2 for the 'Roos) and trailed at the long break, only to storm home in the second half. There were other similarities: Darren Jarman again had a 'day out' in front of goal, Andrew McLeod again won the Norm Smith Medal, and the opposition's primary playmaker, Wayne Carey - as opposed to St Kilda's Robert Harvey - failed to exert his expected seismic influence on proceedings.
At half time North, having frittered away a number of apparently straight forward goal scoring opportunities, led by 24 points, 6.15 (51) to 4.3 (27). Crows coach Malcolm Blight made a number of telling changes at the start of the third quarter - Ricciuto to the half back line, Johnson to a wing, for instance - but the main change was in the attitude of his charges who lifted all over the ground to outscore their opponents 11.12 to 2.7 over the remainder of the game and win by 35 points.
Centre half back Peter Caven, a former journeyman performer with Fitzroy and Sydney, provided a candid evaluation of the afternoon’s events:
"I just can’t believe it. I still feel like I’ve got a game next week. I’ve got to keep on pinching myself. We were five goals down at half time (sic.) and the boys came back....it’s unreal."
After a tentative start to its AFL career, the Adelaide Football Club was now one of the indisputable heavyweights of the competition. No club has more members and potential financial resources, and during the second half of the 1990s no club had been better performed - in September at any rate. An exchange between Tim Watson and Leigh Matthews during the last quarter of Channel Seven’s television coverage of the grand final summed things up nicely. "The Crows are a super team," opined Watson, to which Matthews responded, with predictable Victorian cynicism, that that was perhaps going a little far; what they were, he suggested, was a super September team. Watson’s response was quick and suitably dismissive. "It’s the only kind that matters," he rightly pointed out.
In Australian football, at whatever level, no truer observation could be made. As the twentieth century neared its end the Adelaide Crows appeared to have metamorphosed into most Victorians’ worst nightmare: the 'super team' of Australian football.
Sadly for Adelaide, however, 1999 brought, if not an end, at very least an embarrassing hiatus in the emerging Crows' dynasty. The pre season loss of star ruckman Shaun Rehn started a decline which rapidly accelerated as the season wore on; mid way through the year coach Malcolm Blight decided he had had enough and would not resume in 2000, and thereafter the players' confidence appeared to evaporate completely, as crushing losses to the likes of Sydney, Brisbane and the Kangaroos served to exemplify. At season's end a tally of just eight wins consigned the Crows to an all time low of thirteenth position on the premiership ladder.
Whilst season 2000, under new coach Gary Ayres, brought marginal improvement - 9 wins and eleventh spot on the ladder - there was really very little for Crows supporters to get excited about. And although the side played some marvellous football in 2001 to qualify for a fourth finals campaign in eleven seasons it chose the opening week of the finals to put in arguably its worst display of the year in losing heavily to Carlton. The 2002 season saw the Crows manage their best home and away season to date with 15 wins but the finals once again proved a disappointment, an exciting semi final win over Melbourne being rendered redundant a week later by Collingwood in the preliminary final. Nevertheless, those betting against an Adelaide Football Club resurgence over the ensuing few years would have done well to remind themselves of the club's enormous financial resources, fanatical support, and highly accomplished, finals-hardened player base which, with a little more consistency, could arguably be said to be the equal of any in the competition. [^15]
As if to emphasise these points, the Crows tuned up for the 2003 season in exemplary fashion, winning the AFL's pre-season competition for the first ever time with a 31 point grand final defeat of 2002 finals nemesis Collingwood. Alas, however, this proved to be a false dawn, as the side proved incapable of sustaining this level of performance on a consistent basis over the course of a full season. At times brilliant, at other times almost embarrassingly brittle, the overall pattern of the Crows season was re-created in miniature during a finals series which saw them overwhelm West Coast before capitulating with barely a whimper against eventual premier Brisbane. The 2004 season turned out even worse, with coach Gary Ayres eventually electing to jump ship when it emerged that finals qualification was impossible.
Ayres' successor, Neil Craig, possessed a reputation for thoroughness and a refusal to accept second best, qualities which came pronouncedly to the fore during a 2005 season which saw the Crows procure their first ever minor premiership. After that, the finals were a major disappointment, with a home loss to St Kilda in a qualifying final effectively derailing the club's premiership aspirations. A convincing win over Port Adelaide in a semi final followed, but the challenge of West Coast at Subiaco in the preliminary final proved a bridge too far, and the Crows ultimately finished fourth.
For much of the 2006 season Adelaide once again appeared to be the team to beat for the premiership, but inconsistency during the run home saw the side drop to second place on the ladder behind West Coast. A solid first up finals performance at home to Fremantle raised hopes, but in the preliminary final against the Eagles the Crows, despite having home advantage, were distinctly second best, losing by a somewhat flattering 10 point margin, 11.9 (75) to 11.19 (85).
In recent seasons the Crows have continued to be regular finals participants only to fail to do themselves justice when the stakes were at their highest. In 2007 the team displayed an at times alarming inconsistency that ultimately saw them stutter into the finals in eighth place. An elimination final in Melbourne against a Hawthorn side that haad spent much of the season in the top four was a tough assignment, but Adelaide produced a vibrant and tenacious display that ultimately fell short by just 3 points. However, the fact remained that, after the promise shown in 2005 and 2006, the Crows' overall performances in 2007 could only be regarded as immensely disappointing, and one felt hard pressed not to wonder if the team had 'missed the boat'. At the risk of over-dramatising things, one sensed that season 2008 could well have turned out to be a make or break year for the Crows' set up, with the ultimate verdict on Neil Craig's tenure as coach arguably hanging in the balance. As it was, Adelaide endured another frustrating season, with occassional good performances being interspersed with at least as many dismal ones. The Crows reached the finals, but there was little conviction about the achievement, an impression which their prompt dismissal from premiership contention by Collingwood only served to ratify.
Another frustrating finals campaign followed in 2009, beginning promisingly with a 26.10 (166) to 10.10 (70) elimination final mauling of Essendon, only to again fall foul of the Magpies, albeit by just 5 points in a semi final that, for most of the night, seemed eminently winnable. Something of a slump followed in 2010 with the Crows managing just nine victories for the year to miss out on finals participation for the first time since 2004.
Similar lack of success in 2011 cost coach Neil Craig his job. After a horror 103-point defeat to St Kilda in round 18, Craig handed in his resignation and was replaced by Mark Bickley as a stand-in coach for the remaining six games.
At the end of that season, though, the Crows turned to Brenton Sanderson as head coach - a member of the Crows' inaugural list of 1991, who subsequently forged a successful playing career at Geelong and went on to a distinguished five-year career as assistant coach of that club during its greatest era. Seeking to bring a greater physicality and intensity to the Crows' game style, Sanderson's methods bore immediate fruit with a solid 34 point win over West Coast in the 2012 NAB Cup (Preseason) final. The continuation of that form into the regular AFL season has given Crows' supporters heart that the team will once again taste September action and do so with a newfound sense of steel. This improvement continued during the 2012 home and away rounds with the Crows ultimately qualifying for the finals in second place on the ladder behind minor premiers Hawthorn only on percentage. Sydney then threw something of a spanner into the works with a grinding 29 point win at Football Park in the preliminary final, meaning that Adelaide faced a sudden death semi final clash with an in-form Fremantle. After trailing by 13 points at the main interval the Crows imposed themselves on the game after half time and went on to record a narrow but well earned 10 point win. Crows supporters displayed an element of fickleness, or perhaps it was pessimism at their team’s ultimate prospects: only 31,742 of them attended the match.
Eight days later Adelaide travelled to Melbourne to take on Hawthorn in a cut-throat preliminary final. The Crows were brave and belligerent, never allowing the Hawks to settle, but ultimately they fell short by an agonising 5 point margin. Hawthorn on-baller Sam Mitchell provided a brutal summation: "We're on the right side of the ledger and that's all that really matters. I don't think anyone really remembers what happens too much except for in the big dance next week." [^16]
Buoyed by their promising 2012 campaign the Crows entered the ensuing season high on confidence and ambition, but found themselves confronted by insurmountable constraints and obstacles. Perhaps the most significant of these was the denudation of the team’s forward division: key forward Taylor Walker was injured early in the season, and was outed for a year, while fellow forward Kurt Tippett had been controversially lost to Sydney. [^17] One consequence of this was that the Crows accumulated more than 400 fewer points in 2013 than 2012; another was that the team managed just 10 wins for the year as opposed to 17. Sanderson’s position as coach was perhaps not quite under threat, but he could not afford another mediocre season.
Unfortunately, another mediocre season was precisely what he got, with the Crows winning just 1 more game than in 2013 to finish tenth. The team was not helped by injuries to key players, most notably captain Nathan van Berlo, who missed the entire season after rupturing his Achilles tendon, and performances overall were highly inconsistent. This was particularly true at the club’s new home ground of Adelaide Oval where they lost 5 times (6 if you include the away fixture against Port Adelaide). Shortly after the conclusion of the minor round Sanderson was relieved of his post with the club citing “different perspectives on the team” as the reason. Three weeks later, Port Adelaide assistant coach Phil Walsh was appointed as his replacement.
Adelaide started the 2015 season promisingly but disaster lurked just around the corner. On 3rd July, two days before the Crows’ scheduled round fourteen match at home to Geelong, coach Phil Walsh was stabbed repeatedly during a domestic dispute and subsequently died of his injuries. The Geelong match was promptly cancelled with both teams being awarded 2 points. The tragedy gave rise to expressions of shock and sympathy from all sections of the football community. For the Crows, it represented a body blow from which they arguably did not recover until the following season.
In the short term, Adelaide appointed former Woodville-West Torrens, Carlton and Essendon player Scott Camporeale as interim coach, with John Worsfold taking on the supporting role of coaching director. Under Camporeale, the Crows won 7 out of 11 matches and ended up qualifying for the finals in seventh place. This was followed by a 7 point elimination final defeat of the Western Bulldogs in Melbourne, but six days later the Crows sustained a 74 point loss against Hawthorn in a semi final and their season was over. Camporeale chose not to apply to become permanent Crows coach and the job went to former West Coast and Claremont footballer Don Pyke who was awarded a three year contract.
Prior to the start of the 2016 season Adelaide lost arguably their finest player, and reigning club best and fairest winner, Patrick Dangerfield, who was traded to Geelong. His absence was widely expected to have a severely detrimental effect on the Crows’ performances but in fact they enjoyed a solid season, qualifying for the finals in fifth place with a 16-6 record, behind fourth placed Greater Western Sydney only on percentage. They then comfortably accounted for North Melbourne in an elimination final before succumbing by 6 goals to Sydney on the SCG in the following week’s semi final. Overall, however, it could be adjudged a season of genuine promise as the Crows not only won enough matches to have earned them the double chance in most seasons, they accumulated more points for (2,483) than any other team.
Many observers felt that the Crows were now primed to make a serious bid for a long overdue premiership, and for the most of the 2017 season there seemed no reason whatsoever to change this view. When the home and away rounds were completed Adelaide was perched proudly atop the AFL ladder having won 15 and drew 1 of their 22 fixtures. They then comfortably accounted for Greater Western Sydney in a qualifying final and Geelong in a preliminary final to set up a grand final encounter with Richmond. However, despite the fact that the Crows had finished above the Tigers on the premiership table the match was scheduled not for Adelaide Oval, but for Richmond's home ground of the MCG. Adelaide held their own, particularly early on, but the longer the match went on, the more dominant the Tigers seemed, and their eventual winning margin of 48 points was throughly justified. However, it would be hard to claim that this margin accurately reflected a difference in ability between the two teams; rather it was a legacy of Richmond's being granted home ground advantage for the match.
Given the promise shown in 2017 there were high hopes that the Crows would again give the finals a shake a year later. However, amidst rumours of internal disharmony the side's form was mixed and they ultimately failed to qualify for the September fray, finishing 12th. The 2019 season brought scant improvement, with 10 wins from 22 matches only good enough for 11th place. Much worse was to follow, however, as the abbreviated 2020 season opened with a horror sequence of 13 consecutive losses which ultimately consigned the team to a first ever wooden spoon.
Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from australianfootball.com and, more recently, John Devaney once more.