Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game



The journey from the central Melbourne suburb of Albert Park to the Sydney Cricket Ground is a long one, and not just geographically. In many ways, it is also a journey which parallels and symbolises the emergence of what might be termed 'the modern game' - the game of TV ratings, corporate maneuvering, and the ever intensifying bid for the sponsorship dollar, as distinct from both the gentlemanly leisure pursuit of the nineteenth century and the 'meat pie and sauce' image which, rightly or wrongly, characterised much of the last one. Put simply, an enterprise like the Sydney Swans could not have even been conceived of prior to the 1970s as it pre-supposed a world (and a world view) which did not exist until then.

Whether the Sydney Swans will turn out to have been an enterprise in tune with the world remains to be seen, but what is certain is that, over the years, the club has provided more than its fair share of enjoyment and excitement to adherents of the sport of Australian football.

Light on the Emerald Hill

As early as 1868, there were references to a football club known as 'Albert Park or South Melbourne' which enjoyed the modest record of one win and three draws from its six fixtures for the year. However, it is doubtful whether this club can in any real sense be held to be the antecedent of the South Melbourne Football Club which went on to become a prominent force in the Victorian Football Association, a founder member of the Victorian Football League in 1897, and which in 1982 took the drastic and unprecedented step (in Australian sporting terms at any rate) of relocating to Sydney.

A national football competition was a million light years away from the thoughts of the dozen people who attended a meeting at the Temperance Hall, Napier Street, Emerald Hill in 1874 at which it was decided to establish a football club to represent the district. Originally known as the Cecil Football Club the name was changed within a few weeks to South Melbourne, but it was to be six years before on field success began to arrive. The stimulus for this success was an amalgamation of sorts with Albert Park in 1880, [1] although given that just about the only aspect of Albert Park's identity to survive the merger was the red and white playing uniform design perhaps 'take-over' would be a better description.

South Melbourne immediately finished as runner up in the VFA to Geelong, and the following year went one better. Further pennants followed in 1885, 1888, 1889 and 1890, and for the majority of its period of involvement in the VFA the side remained a force. Indeed, the three in a row combination was arguably the finest to have emerged in Victoria up to that point and among its more prominent players were Ben Page, Jimmy Young, Peter Burns, Harry Purdy, and skipper 'Sonnie' Elms.

As the 1890s progressed, discontent developed among certain of the VFA's leading clubs, South Melbourne included, and it gradually became clear that there was no way that the status quo could be maintained much longer. The basic bone of contention was that the VFA's weaker clubs were, in effect, being financially supported by the competition's heavyweights, to the overall detriment of everyone concerned. The weaker clubs became complacent, while the stronger sides were impeded from developing because they did not reap the full financial rewards of their success.

In 1896, South Melbourne and Collingwood finished the season with an identical win-loss record and the VFA ordered a play off to determine the premiers. On the eve of what was effectively the competition's first grand final, representatives of half a dozen leading VFA clubs met and agreed to establish a new competition, the Victorian Football League, the following season. Both grand final combatants, needless to say, were among the six dissenting clubs (which soon afterwards became eight), and in the circumstances Collingwood's 6.9 to 5.10 grand final victory (behinds not counting) may almost have seemed an irrelevance.

..."a fast, crowd pleasing game"

A drawn game against Fitzroy (behinds now counting for the first time) cost South Melbourne a place in the first ever VFL finals series in 1897, [2] and 1898 ended in similar disappointment. The following year, however, the red and whites went all the way to the premiership decider against Fitzroy only to succumb by a solitary point in appallingly wet conditions.

It was to be another eight years before South Melbourne again contested a premiership play off but the result in 1907 was equally disappointing as Carlton won by 5 points. Revenge was not all that long in coming, however. After narrowly missing the finals in 1908, the southerners topped the ladder the following year, before defeating old nemesis Collingwood with some comfort (10.8 to 6.11) in a semi final. A crowd of 45,000 attended the final between Carlton and South in which the red and whites froze, ultimately going down by the convincing margin for the times of 22 points. Resorting to their right of challenge [3] the following week South combined with the Blues to produce "a fast, crowd pleasing game" [4] in which, in contrast with the final, the result remained in doubt right to the end. Final scores were South Melbourne 4.14 (38) to Carlton 4.12 (36) with South's best comprising sandgroper ruckman Albert Franks, defenders William 'Sonna' Thomas and Jack Scobie, [5] half forward flanker Jim 'Joker' Cameron, second rover Alex 'Bubs' Kerr, and full forward Len 'Mother' Mortimer.

South Melbourne again claimed the minor premiership in 1912 but had to defer to Essendon on two occasions in the finals. Prominent players for the southerners in their 4.9 (33) to 5.17 (47) challenge final loss against 'the Same Old' included Milne, Scobie, Price, Mortimer and Thomas.

A losing semi-final against St Kilda in 1913 was followed by a sixth successive appearance in the finals the following year when the side might have been considered unlucky to finish as runners up to Carlton. The semi final brought a 5.14 (44) to 5.7 (37) triumph over Geelong and when this was followed by a comfortable 5.13 (43) to 3.6 (24) defeat of minor premiers Carlton in the final the omens appeared good for a repeat of the 1909 success. However, despite managing four more scoring shots than the Blues in the following week's challenge final South went under by 6 points, 4.15 (39) to 6.9 (45).

A loss to Collingwood in the last minor round game of 1915 saw South miss the finals, but, with the war in Europe escalating, football was now seeming increasingly irrelevant. Indeed, public opinion was divided over whether the VFL competition ought to continue, and in 1916 South Melbourne along with Melbourne, Essendon, St Kilda and Geelong went into recess, joining University which had withdrawn from active competition the previous year.

South Melbourne did participate in a six-team competition the following season, but the standard was low, as were attendances. Collingwood ended the southerners' season by 10 goals in a semi final.

With the war nearing its conclusion all clubs bar Melbourne returned to the fray in 1918 and there was a corresponding rise in both playing standards and public interest. South enjoyed spectacular success winning all except 1 of their 14 home and away matches to take out the minor premiership with ease. A 5 point semi final victory over Carlton followed and South Melbourne entered the final against Collingwood comfortable in the knowledge that, as minor premiers with a right of challenge, defeat would not mean the end of the road.

... South put in a stirring last quarter

Not that defeat was remotely in the minds of the eighteen men who took the field in South Melbourne colours on grand final day in front of 39,168 spectators at the MCG - the biggest crowd to have attended a football match in Melbourne for five years. The Magpies, however, were equally determined, and for the first three quarters of the match they dominated, leading 7.12 to 6.6 at the final change. Worse still, as far as South were concerned, was the fact that they would be coming home kicking to the end at which they had failed to register a single point in the second term. However, the deployment of Vic Belcher to the ruck had the effect of suddenly giving the red and whites a marked ascendancy, and with fellow ruckman Jack Howell, [6] centre half back Jack O'Halloran, full back 'Chip' Turner, centre half forward Alan O'Donaghue and half back flanker Arthur Rademacher also prominent South put in a stirring last quarter to add 3.2 to 0.3 and grab victory by just five points.

Full scale VFL competition resumed in 1919 with nine senior clubs. University did not re-emerge at senior level but did remain as a secondary league member for a brief period.

The fact that South Melbourne was still very much a league power was underlined in round 12 when St Kilda were vanquished to the tune of 171 points, a VFL record margin of victory which was not to be eclipsed for sixty years. Once the finals arrived, however, South's form deserted them, and a 14-point semi-final loss to Richmond ended the team's premiership defence.

After narrowly failing to qualify for the finals in 1920, South Melbourne appointed the legendary Roy Cazaly to the position of captain coach.

Cazaly neither smoked nor drank and by breathing control had added to his upward leap. (His) years at St Kilda (where Cazaly played 100 games) proved to be his training ground for the great ruck combination he formed at South Melbourne with Mark 'Napper' Tandy and Fred 'Skeeter' Fleiter. It was Fleiter who was first to call "Up there, Cazaly!" when Roy flew for the ball. This catch cry was soon adopted by every South supporter, and eventually employed as a battle call in the Middle East when Australians fought in world war two. [7]

Despite Cazaly's impressive credentials as a player, South's two seasons under his coaching were disappointing to say the least. The team finished seventh (of nine) in 1921 and plummeted to last the following year, precipitating Cazaly's replacement as coach by Charlie Pannam. Cazaly continued to play for the club, however, and was still giving exceptional value as late as 1926 when, as a 33-year-old, he became the first recorded winner of South's best and fairest player award.

Collingwood stalwart Charlie Pannam had controversially deserted the Magpie nest in order to take up post as Cazaly's successor. The financial incentive offered to Pannam of £12 a week represented six times what he was getting at Victoria Park but the reaction of the Collingwood faithful was similar to that at Melbourne over forty years later when Ron Barassi left the Demons to join Carlton. [8]

South spluttered along during the early rounds under Pannam, not breaking through for a win until the round five clash with Carlton at Princes Park. In the wake of this victory South Melbourne's fortunes immediately began to improve and the team went into the final round fixture at home to St Kilda knowing a win would be enough to secure a berth in the finals. A crowd estimated to be in the region of 50,000 (although officially given as 40,441) turned up to see a tumultuous encounter in which South's superiority was never really in doubt, although poor kicking for goal ensured that St Kilda supporters entertained some hope of their side making a comeback until quite late on. Final scores saw South Melbourne 8.20 (68) defeating St Kilda 7.6 (48), a result which earned South a semi final meeting with Essendon the following week. With Ted Johnson equalling the VFL finals goalkicking record of seven majors South overcame the Dons by 17 points, 10.14 (74) to 8.9 (57), only to succumb by two straight kicks to Fitzroy in the final the following week. However, amidst the disappointment there was a recognition that third place was considerably better than might reasonably have been expected prior to the season's start, and confidence for the future was high.

In 1924, the VFL experimented with a new finals formula which saw the top four clubs after the home and away matches meeting each other in a round robin series to determine the premiers. South continued their good form of the previous year to finish the minor round in second place but then fell in a heap in the round robin series, recording only 1 win from 3 games to finish fourth.

The 1925 season saw the admission of Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne to the VFL bringing the total number of teams in the competition to twelve. It was also the beginning of a long drought for South Melbourne which saw the club miss the finals for seven consecutive seasons.

the 'foreign legion' experiment

The period from 1932 to 1937 remains probably the most auspicious in South Melbourne/Sydney's V/AFL history. Popularly referred to as the 'foreign legion' period, South in essence became the first VFL club fully to appreciate the lucrative recruiting possibilities which existed interstate. Under ambitious president Jack Rohan and his deputy Archie Crofts the Bloods shrewdly elected to focus on the virtually untapped wealth of playing talent which existed west of the Nullarbor, where - conveniently for South - unemployment was currently running much higher than in Victoria, and the prospect of a job and £12 a week for playing football was likely to prove almost irresistible.

Another reason for the decision to focus on the west was that the club had just appointed - not entirely without controversy, it might be added - former Subiaco champion Johnny Leonard as its playing coach for 1932. Leonard had just spent a season coaching Marlborough in the Victorian country, and cynics were quick to point out that, at thirty years of age, and notwithstanding his undoubted champion status in his home state, he had never previously participated in Australia's elite competition, the VFL.

Rohan, Crofts and the rest of the South committee were convinced they had appointed the right man, however, all the more so after he helped enable the club secure the signatures of three other prominent sandgropers: ruckman Brighton Diggins and half back flanker Billy Faul from Subiaco; and former South Fremantle follower Bert Beard from Kalgoorlie. When you added to that list former Richmond stalwart Jack Bissett, who had been forced out of the strong Tigers line up by the emergence of all time great Jack Dyer, and the much sought after young roving recruit Herbie Matthews, not to mention nineteen year old champion in the making Bob Pratt, already a young 'veteran' of two seasons, it was extremely difficult not to feel sanguine about the club's prospects for the coming year.

Such optimism probably did not extend to the side's winning its first 10 games of the season on end, but such is what the Bloods duly did. However, once the bubble burst with a 3 point loss to Collingwood in round 11 the team never quite recovered. Admittedly, they did manage a finals spot for the first time since 1924, but in the first semi final they were comfortably ousted from premiership contention by Collingwood to the tune of 26 points. Even so, overall there seemed solid ground for optimism, with the interstate recruits and Pratt (71 goals for the year, a particularly impressive total when you consider it was achieved without much in the way of support) all having performed well.

South were dealt a major blow prior to the start of the 1933 season when Johnny Leonard departed, with the club's blessing, to take up an attractive job offer back home in Perth. He was replaced by Jack Bissett.

The Bloods' major recruiting coup in the 1932-3 close season was the capture of Laurie Nash from City in Launceston. The son of former Collingwood player Robert Nash, Laurie was without question the most sought after footballer in Australia at the time. Despite standing only some 175cm in height and possessing contours more suited to a wrestler than a footballer Nash was a superb, sometimes spectacular mark and a magnificent kick, and was equally at home at both centre half forward and centre half back. With both Richmond and Footscray also energetically chasing him, the fact that Nash ended up at the Lake Oval gave rise to inevitable allegations of underhanded dealing. Unlike in the Haydn Bunton [9] case, however, nothing was ever proved, and Nash accordingly lined up at the start of the 1933 season alongside other boom recruits in rover Hans 'Ossie' Bertram and ruckman Wilbur Harris from West Torrens, wingman Johnny 'Stab' Bowe from Subiaco, City centreman Frank Davies, and former East Perth champion James 'Brum' O'Meara from the Western Australian goldfields.

The 'foreign legion' experiment was now at its peak, and the Bloods opened the season competently with 4 wins from their first 6 games. However, with the VFL now entering one of the most competitive phases in its history the prospects of a sustained run of success such as that with which the side had opened the previous season seemed remote. Indeed, the 1933 season was shaping up as one of the most open in years, suggesting that the premiership would ultimately go to the side which managed to hit its stride at just the right moment, as opposed to the one which was consistently and undeniably head and shoulders above the rest.

As far as South were concerned, a mid-season 43-point victory over perennial power side Carlton was arguably the season's turning point. Thereafter, the side won every remaining game for the minor round, sometimes by prodigious margins, to finish second behind Richmond with 13 wins from 18 matches.

The second semi-final saw the Bloods put on their poorest display for months over the first three quarters to change ends at 'lemon time' 26 points in arrears, 6.9 (45) to Richmond's 10.11 (71). In retrospect, the 1933 premiership was probably won over the next 30 minutes as South inexplicably rose from the ashes to add 8.2 to a solitary goal and win 'pulling away' by 18 points. The Bloods had qualified for their first grand final since their premiership year of 1918, but equally importantly they had consigned the Tigers to a do-or-die tussle with danger side Geelong in the following week's preliminary final.

Richmond duly overcame the Cats, albeit with no small amount of good fortune, but in a grand final watched by a record Australian crowd for a football match of 75,754 they found a flag-hungry South too hot to handle.

The Bloods, wary of Richmond's traditionally ferocious opening quarter bursts, were themselves aggressive and imposing from the start. Quarter time saw South l3.5 to 0.2 in the lead, and over the remaining three quarters the Bloods never allowed the pressure to abate. They extended their lead to 28 points at half time and 39 points at the final change before going on to record an improbably comfortable 42 point victory, 9.17 (71) to 4.5 (29). In a memorable side attraction to the main event, Bob Pratt booted three of South Melbourne's grand final goals to overhaul Collingwood's Gordon Coventry by a single major and take out the season's VFL goalkicking honours, the first South Melbourne player to manage the feat. [10]

Best players for South included centre half back Laurie Nash (a clear choice as best afield), centre half forward Brighton Diggins, back pocket 'Jack' Austin, rover Herb Matthews, centreman Len Thomas, and wingman Johnny Bowe.

In reflecting on the 1933 premiership triumph - the last in the club's history for more than seventy years - the part played by the interstate brigade can not be overstressed, with all bar Harris and Davies appearing regularly and to good effect throughout the season.

A homesick Johnny Bowe returned to Perth in controversial circumstances prior to the start of a 1934 season [11] in which South's 'foreign legion' were very much perceived as the glamour side of the VFL. This reputation was reinforced in round 1 at the Lake Oval when Collingwood sustained their first opening round loss since 1925, but thereafter South temporarily lost the plot. With seven rounds played the Bloods were 4-3 and looking anything but premiership hopefuls, but as in 1933 the team came home strongly, ending up with 14 wins from 18 matches and third spot on the ladder. Bob Pratt had been in particularly spectacular form all season at full forward and had accumulated a record breaking 138 goals.

All the hard work appeared likely to have been for nothing, however, as Collingwood outplayed the Bloods for three quarters in the first semi final, with only accuracy in front of goal keeping the southerners in it. With six minutes left, the Magpies led by 16 points and South's season seemed over. Miraculously, however, the 'Bloodstained Angels' suddenly came alive and rattled on four goals without reply, culminating in a 50 yarder from Pratt after a 'stand on the shoulder' mark. The final scoreboard showed South Melbourne on 11.12 (78), just three points ahead of Collingwood on 9.21 (75).

The Bloods' preliminary final opponents, Geelong, offered surprisingly scant resistance a fortnight later and South cruised into their second consecutive grand final encounter with Richmond by virtue of a comprehensive 10-goal win, 15.18 (108) to 7.6 (48).

The 1934 Tiger was an altogether tougher proposition than in 1933, however, having supplemented its renowned ferocity and 'never say die' spirit with potency in attack as it proved by demolishing Geelong in the second semi final by 84 points. That said, no one genuinely expected to see such a one-sided grand final, in which Richmond's superiority was never in any doubt. Predictably, this gave rise to widespread rumours of bribery, [12] but the actual truth of the matter was probably far more mundane: the Tigers were simply a more accomplished all round side. Final scores were Richmond 19.14 (128) to South 12.17 (89), but only a late flurry of South Melbourne goals prevented a real embarrassment. In the final wash up:

Few at South Melbourne escaped the Grand Final disaster with their reputations intact. Nash retained some honour with his second half efforts and 6 goals. So too did Hughie McLaughlin, Jock McKenzie and Terry Brain who roved well despite his losing rucks. Pratt's two goals had rounded off his 1934 scoring feast at the precise figure of 150 for the season. It was ironic that when his goals were so desperately required, Pratt's magic had been smothered by the fanatical Richmond defence. And to add salt to the wounds, news filtered back from Western Australia that East Fremantle's George Doig had finished off the WA Grand Final by establishing a new Australian scoring record of 152 goals for a season. The final twist was that Doig's team had been beaten for the flag by Johnny Leonard's West Perth. [13]

By 1935 the days of widespread VFL poaching of interstate talent were over, at least for the time being. Indeed, the VFL itself introduced a regulation whereby anyone wishing to participate in the competition had first to satisfy a twelve month residency requirement.

Notwithstanding this, South were still very much a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, with 16 wins from 18 minor round games, the side rattled up its best home-and-away record ever. [14] Needless to say, this was good enough to secure pole position going into the finals, and the omens were still good after a second semi final against Collingwood which saw the Bloods emerge with a thoroughly convincing 21 point victory.

Unfortunately, when the sides again met a fortnight later in the big one South had sustained a major body blow. On the Thursday of grand final week, Bob Pratt was involved in a traffic accident after stepping off a tram in High Street, Prahran, and his injuries were such that he was forced to miss the game. Although Pratt had been less prolific than in 1934 he had nevertheless managed to accumulate 103 goals from 18 games and his contribution to a closely fought grand final might well have proved decisive. As it was South's inaccuracy in front of goal, particularly late on when the pressure was at its height, was the major difference between the sides as Collingwood emerged 11.12 (78) to 7.16 (58) victors. While no one at South offered any excuses, the loss of playing coach Jack Bissett at a crucial point in the third term with what later was diagnosed as a fractured skull must surely have severely damaged the Bloods' prospects.

Unlike in 1934, the South Melbourne players had some reason to feel satisfied with their performance for the year, and confidence was high as they embarked on preparations for the 1936 season with Bissett still at the helm. Sadly, despite being the team to beat throughout the home-and-away rounds, South once again had to defer to the Magpies come finals time. A hard fought second semi final saw the Bloods throw away a 13 point three quarter time advantage to go down by the same margin, 10.17 (77) to Collingwood's 12.18 (90). However, after a comfortable 26 point preliminary final triumph over Melbourne the Bloods fronted up for the grand final re-match against the Magpies convinced that they were set to turn the tables.

Such optimism proved to be ill founded as the only thing which kept South in contention for much of the match was their opponents' waywardness in front of goal. However, that aside there was no doubting Collingwood's clear superiority as they chiselled out an 11 point victory, 11.23 (89) to 10.18 (78). The game brought to an end arguably the greatest era in the history of the South Melbourne Football Club. [15] During the five years from 1932-36, the Bloods won 78 and lost 23 of their 101 matches reaching the finals each year for four consecutive grand final appearances but, sadly, only one premiership.

The retirement and departure of Jack Bissett and the return as coach of Roy Cazaly heralded a decline from which the club would not properly emerge until the twenty-first century. In 1937 the side plummeted to ninth, the biggest fall from grace of a previous season's grand finalist witnessed in the VFL up to that point. Worse still was to follow as in both 1938 and 1939 the Bloods ended up with the wooden spoon, Cazaly's reign as coach coming to an end after the first of those seasons. Contributing to the decline were the departures in successive seasons of arguably the team's most dangerous and damaging footballers. In 1938, Laurie Nash accepted a lucrative offer to join Camberwell in the VFA where he went on to net 410 goals in four seasons, and in 1939 Bob Pratt elected to follow suit by crossing without a clearance to Coburg where he played with considerable success before returning to the Lake Oval for one further season in 1946, twelve months after Nash had made a similar return.

South's next appearance in the major round came in 1942 but the absence of Geelong as well as numerous top players from the competition owing to the war devalued the achievement. The Bloods beat Footscray comfortably in the first semi final but then bowed out to eventual premiers Essendon by nearly 5 goals in the preliminary final.

the "bloodbath" grand final

When South Melbourne next appeared in the major round in 1945, things were almost back to normal as all twelve sides competed and the war had just ended. The MCG was still being used by the military authorities, however, and the finals took place at Princes Park.

The home-and-away rounds saw the Bloods top the VFL ladder for the seventh and (as South Melbourne) last time with 16 wins and 4 losses. They then gained enormous satisfaction by overcoming old rivals Collingwood by 11 points in a thrilling second semi final. Thirty-five-year old veteran Laurie Nash bagged the match sealing goal in the dying moments.

After Carlton and Collingwood staged a torrid preliminary final South must have licked their lips at the prospect of playing the victors whose appetite for success, not to mention their ability to cope with the rigours of a tough finals encounter, must surely have been undermined by the experience.

Such reasoning was all very well in theory, and may in part explain why South appeared to sacrifice their normal fast, open style of play for an approach centred more on brute intimidation and vigour; sadly, it was an approach which underdogs Carlton found eminently to their taste and, all their wounds and bruises from the previous week notwithstanding, they rose to the occasion to secure a hard earned 28 point victory in a match which has gone down in history as 'the Bloodbath grand final'.

From South Melbourne's point of view, half-forward flankers Vic Castles and Keith Smith, follower Jack Dempsey and wingman Bill King were among the few players to enhance their reputations. As regards the incidents which gave the game its 'Bloodbath' epithet no fewer than six South players (compared to four from Carlton) were reported, of whom five incurred suspensions. [16]

Despite their grand final loss, however, South were expected to remain a force for some time as they appeared to have the nucleus of a strong side. However, with few exceptions the remainder of the twentieth century proved to be a litany of failure piled upon failure. Following the 1945 grand final loss the Bloods slumped to seventh the following year and thereafter failed to grace the MCG in September until 1970, making them easily the worst performed side in the competition during that period.

As has always been the case throughout the club's history, however, outstanding individuals continued to emerge, including classy full back Fred Goldsmith (119 games between 1951 and 1959), versatile key position player Ron Clegg (231 games 1945-54 and 1956-60), and, arguably the most noteworthy of them all, champion rover Bob Skilton, one of the most decorated - and highly talented - players in the history of the game.

Nicknamed 'Chimp' (not by his own choice, let it be said), Skilton debuted with South in 1956 and went on to rack up 237 appearances with the club before retiring fifteen years later having achieved virtually every honour the sport of Australian football could confer - except the one he most cherished, a premiership. Voted South Melbourne's best and fairest player on no fewer than nine occasions 'Skilts' also won three Brownlows, topped the club's goalkicking three times in accumulating 412 career goals, represented Victoria on a club record 25 occasions including two as captain, and spent ten seasons as captain of the Swans [17] as well as two (1965-66) when he also coached. Given all of this it is therefore something of a football tragedy - if one that has been so often stated that its truth has tended to become eroded - that Skilton's only appearance in the VFL major round came in the twilight of his career in the 1970 first semi-final which South lost by 53 points to St Kilda.

Overall, the 1970s proved no more palatable to South Melbourne supporters than either of the previous two decades. Apart from the 1970 first semi final the club's only other major round appearance came in 1977 but this proved to be equally fleeting, Richmond comfortably overcoming the Swans in the elimination final by 34 points.

Off the field problems were mounting, too, although in this regard the Swans were by no means alone. Financially, by the turn of the decade the club was in dire straits, and in desperate need of a sizeable cash injection.

"a major period of transition for football"

The 1970s were a major period of transition for football, and in particular its most prestigious and elite platform for exposure, the VFL. Social and economic developments were having increasingly direct effects upon the on field expression of the game. Clubs were, of necessity, becoming more professional, and this led to longer training hours for players, more meticulous planning on the part of coaches, and a corresponding improvement in the standard of the spectacle afforded by Australian football. Conversely, many clubs were over-stretching themselves in their attempts to compete and maintain their profiles in an increasingly diverse and complex market.

The VFL management itself was acutely conscious of these developments and of the desirability of expanding so as to impact more on the national rather than just the state market. An interstate match between Victoria and South Australia was scheduled for the SCG in 1974 in an attempt to help promote the game in New South Wales. Five years later, a game for premiership points between the previous season's VFL grand finalists, Hawthorn and North Melbourne, drew 31,291 spectators to the same ground, while a succession of follow-up games also proved popular.

Gradually, the school of thought was developing that, if the VFL was to continue to prove viable in an ever-expanding market, it had to establish a niche for itself in Australia's largest city, Sydney. Rumours of cash-struck Fitzroy being offered financial incentives to re-locate to the Harbour City began to emerge.

In the end, however, it was South Melbourne and not the Lions who grasped the nettle and, in 1981, after protracted and bitter internal wrangling involving officials, coaching staff, players and supporters, the club made an agreement with the VFL whereby, in 1982, they would play 11 matches at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The basic reason for the move was, predictably, economic, but its effects were much more widespread: many ardent followers of the sport of Australian football were lost to the code, while innumerable others were rendered bitter and cynical and lost all confidence in the league.

Initially, the move to Sydney was somewhat less than a full scale re-location. The players still lived and trained in Melbourne but travelled to Sydney every fortnight to play their 'home' matches. This may in part explain why the residents of the Harbour City appeared to have some difficulty identifying with 'their' new team, which for the 1982 season was labelled simply the Swans. Crowds were much lower than anticipated and sponsorship was proving unexpectedly difficult to procure. By the end of the year the club was more than $1.5 million in debt and, from a financial point of view, the move could justifiably be termed a disaster.

By contrast, the team had performed surprisingly well on the field, narrowly missing the finals, and defeating North Melbourne 13.12 (90) to 8.10 (58) in the night series grand final.

Despite its financial difficulties the club reinforced its Sydney connection for 1983, bolstered by a $900,000 subsidy from the VFL, which clearly wanted to see the experiment succeed. A Sydney-based club manager, Barry Lyons, was appointed to exert day to day control over club affairs, and the club was officially re-named 'Sydney Swans Limited', thereby at once reinforcing its trend-setting new identity and alienating yet more Melbourne-based traditionalists.

On the field the team struggled, and crowds continued to disappoint. However, it gradually became clear that the Albert Park connection had been well and truly, for better or for worse, severed.

In 1985, the Sydney Swans became Australian football's first privately owned club and a 'money no object' recruiting policy saw the arrival, prior to the start of the 1986 season, of four-time Richmond premiership coach Tom Hafey, plus players of the calibre of Gerard Healy (from Melbourne), and Greg Williams and Bernard Toohey (from Geelong).

a fleeting purple patch

For a brief time the Sydney experiment caught fire. In 1986 and '87 the Swans made the finals, attracting huge crowds to the SCG where they enjoyed some spectacular successes. In one purple patch in 1987 the side kicked successive totals of 30.21 (201) against West Coast, 36.20 (236) against Essendon, and 31.12 (198) against Richmond. Never before had a VFL team managed two successive 30-goal hauls let alone three.

Once finals time arrived, however, the Swans fell in a heap, losing all four major round matches contested in 1986-87. Had the league's subsequently introduced policy of holding finals matches outside Melbourne been in place at the time, however, things could well have been different. Certainly the Swans deserved a better reward for their achievement in 1986 of winning 16 of 22 home and away matches to claim second spot on the ladder than being forced to travel to Melbourne to take on inferior-ranked Carlton in front of over 50,000 fanatical Blues supporters.

In retrospect, the 1986-7 period can be seen as something of a false dawn for the Sydney experiment, with the ensuing seven seasons proving as bleak as almost any in the club's long and often tortured past.

The private ownership experiment was also a failure. In the end, the club owners overstretched themselves and the club ended up in a much worse position financially than it had been before the move to Sydney.

To the consternation of many Melbourne-based football supporters, particularly those connected with the less affluent clubs like Fitzroy and St Kilda, the league continued to step in with economic support whenever the Swans appeared to be at death's door. [18]

In 1993, after an even worse than usual start to the season, the AFL masterminded the appointment as Swans coach of football legend Ron Barassi, probably one of very few people associated with Australian football who had a readily recognisable name outside the sport's heartland of the southern states and the Northern Territory. The league was also behind a number of other off field moves aimed at bolstering the club's financial and administrative positions. [19]

Sydney won just one match for the season in 1993. The following year brought slight improvement (4 wins) before, in 1995 - Barassi's last season - the side began to show signs of a possibly exciting future. True, the Swans only won 8 games, but they finished the season with a positive percentage, and among their wins was a hefty 72-point annihilation of arguably one of the greatest sides in Australian football history in the shape of eventual premiers, Carlton.

In 1996, under new coach Rodney Eade, a graduate of the Glenferrie Academy of Hard Knocks, Sydney finally blossomed, winning the minor premiership and attracting near record attendances to the SCG in the process. Hard fought home finals victories over Hawthorn (6 points) and Essendon (1 point) followed, earning the Swans a berth in their first grand final since the infamous 'bloodbath' encounter of 1945.

Opponents North Melbourne enjoyed the home ground advantage in the 'big one', however, and this may just have been decisive, for after a closely fought first half the 'Roos added 11 goals to 5 to win with some comfort. In the wake of the grand final, the biggest danger for those connected with Sydney was falling into the mindset which considered that 'just getting there' was sufficient but Rodney Eade was all too well aware that yielding to that mentality would be the quickest way of ensuring that the Swans' descent of the premiership ladder was every bit as rapid as their climb up it had been.

Unfortunately, the 1997 season saw the Swans plummet to seventh, although injuries to key players did not help. On its day, the side remained capable of winning against anyone, and this was firmly attested to in 1998 when a series of strong performances secured third place - with the attendant benefits of a home final first up - going into the finals. A two-point qualifying final defeat of St Kilda raised hopes, but reigning premiers Adelaide proved too strong on their visit to the SCG the following week. Tony Lockett's century of goals - the sixth in his career - provided some consolation.

In 1999 the Swans continued to play an excellent brand of football on occasion, but consistency proved impossible to achieve. Eighth position on the ladder going into the finals was not improved upon after a 69 point qualifying final hiding from the Bombers.

Things got even worse in the 2000 season, the absence for much of the year of inspirational skipper Paul Kelly being a major contributory factor to the side's failing to reach the finals for the first time since 1995. When normal service was resumed the following year with the Swans enjoying their by now customary, if on this occasion fleeting, involvement in the finals, hopes were raised, but an inconsistent 2002 season (eleventh place) raised question marks again.

In 2003, under new coach Paul Roos, it is probably fair to suggest that the side produced football which was significantly better than the sum of its parts led you to expect. In any case, it was good enough to qualify for a home preliminary final against reigning premiers Brisbane, and the fact that it ultimately went down by 44 points was no disgrace given that the Lions were arguably the greatest team in Australian football history up to that point. As far as the Swans were concerned, third place on the ladder probably exceeded expectations in considerable measure, and with the challenge on to maintain and improve on such lofty standards, it was perhaps not surprising that the side endured a somewhat inconsistent 2004 season which ultimately yielded sixth spot going into the finals. Once there, the inconsistency persisted, with a comfortable elimination final defeat of West Coast being followed by a dismal 51 point thumping at the hands of St Kilda in the following week's semi final.

a premiership at last

The Swans' improvement in 2005 was at first almost undetectable, but ultimately immense, culminating in a heart-stopping, perhaps somewhat surprising, but nonetheless prodigiously satisfying grand final defeat of West Coast. The premiership was won the hard way too, as after qualifying for the finals in third place with a 15-7 record the side had to overcome the initial setback of a controversial qualifying loss to the Eagles at Subiaco, before scraping home by 3 points against Geelong in a semi-final at the SCG. The preliminary final against St Kilda at the MCG brought a marked lift in performance as the Swans, thanks to 7unanswered last quarter goals, won with considerable breathing space, 15.6 (96) to 9.11 (65).

Many superlatives have been used to describe the grand final, in which Sydney led at every change before appearing to short circuit early in the last term and allow the Eagles to snatch a 10 point lead.

It would have been all too easy then for the Swans players' resistance to crumble, but in the event the precise opposite occurred as a goal from Barry Hall put the game in the melting pot once again and, after the sides had exchanged a series of behinds, Amon Buchanan snapped what proved to the match winning goal with ten minutes still to play.

For most of that time, the Swans managed to lock the ball in or near their forward fifty, but in the dying moments Eagles ruckman Dean Cox pumped the ball to within thirty metres of his side's goal where a huge pack of players formed to contest the mark. Had an Eagles player managed to take it, a goal would almost certainly have ensued, but the Sydney's AFL All Australian defender Leo Barry, epitomising the courage the Swans had displayed all afternoon, took a sensational grab which in effect sealed the win.

Sydney won 8.10 (58) to 7.12 (54) in what was the lowest scoring V/AFL grand final since 1968, and one of the tensest and most exciting of all time. For the Swans, the win broke a seventy-two year premiership drought, and established Sydney as, for the first, but not the last, time the pre-eminent city in Australian football.

After a somewhat hesitant start to the 2006 season the Swans re-grouped to mount another sustained and wholehearted premiership challenge.

After qualifying for the finals in fourth place with a 14-8 record they achieved arguably one of the greatest results in the club's history when they overcame West Coast by a single point at Subiaco in a qualifying final. Granted a week's rest by this success, they were much too good for a determined but beleaguered Fremantle side in their preliminary final at Homebush, winning 19.13 (127) to 14.8 (92).

This set up another grand final clash with the Eagles and, in front of a crowd of 97,431 at the MCG, the two sides produced one of the greatest grand finals of all time, and the closest since 1966.

At half time, Sydney trailed by 25 points having been thoroughly outplayed, but during the second half the match was turned on its head as the Sydneysiders surged back into contention thanks to some brilliant play by the likes of livewire utility Nic Fosdike, dashing Irish half back flanker Tadhg Kennelly, mercurial half forward Michael O'Loughlin and 2006 Brownlow Medallist Adam Goodes,[20] who had struggled to get going during the early phases of the game.

Back to within 11 points of the Eagles at the final change, the Swans managed on three occasions during the closing term to reduce the margin to a solitary point, but the West Australians held on to secure a noteworthy, and, on balance, narrowly deserved triumph. Final scores were West Coast 12.13 (85) to Sydney 12.12 (84). Swans coach Paul Roos was philosophical, as well as immensely proud of his players:

"To come back and give ourselves a chance to win the game was a tremendous effort. They played better in the first half and we played better in the second half, but I couldn’t be more proud or pleased with their efforts." 

A year later, Sydney again qualified for the finals, but this time only in seventh place, and an away final against Collingwood proved just too tough a proposition, the Magpies leading at every change before winning by 38 points.

The 2008 season brought marginal improvement as the Swans ultimately finished fifth after comfortably overcoming the Kangaroos in a home elimination final before losing their semi final clash with the Western Bulldogs by 37 points. This was followed by a disappointing 2009 campaign which produced just eight wins, only good enough for twelfth place on the ladder, the Swans' worst finish since 1995.

The 2010 season brought substantial improvement as the Swans qualified for the finals in fifth place, which was where they ultimately ended up following a 5 point elimination final defeat of Carlton and a loss by the same margin to Western Bulldogs in a semi final.

That semi final marked Paul Roos' final game as Swans' coach and he was replaced by assistant John Longmire in a succession plan. Longmire, the former North Melbourne premiership player, had reasonable success in his rookie season, 2011, guiding the Swans to sixth place (which included an elimination final win over warm favourites St Kilda at Etihad Stadium). But the highlight of the season was a 13 point round twenty-three win over Geelong at Skilled Stadium - consigning the Cats to their first home defeat in four years.

"one of the Australian game's foremost clubs"

In 2012, the Swans exceeded all expectations. After qualifying for the finals in third place they travelled to Football Park to take on an Adelaide side which had only lost once at the venue all season. In a tightly contested, low scoring war of attrition Sydney produced a match winning second term when they scored 5 goals to 1 and eventually won by 29 points, 11.5 (71) to 5.12 (42).

Next up were Collingwood in a preliminary final at Stadium Australia, and the Swans proved dominant all night in winning by 26 points, 13.18 (6) to 10.10 (70). The grand final pitted Sydney against the team which had dominated the home and away season, Hawthorn, and it would be fair to say that the Hawks were warm pre-match favourites. After a first quarter which saw Hawthorn score 4.5 to 1.4 there seemed little reason to change this assessment, but in the second term the Swans booted 6 goals straight to a solitary behind to turn the match on its head. Not that it was over by any means, because Hawthorn were the better side in a fast, furious third term which concluded with Sydney a solitary point to the good. The twists and turns continued in a remarkable final term which saw first Hawthorn and then Sydney seize the initiative. A minute into the quarter Luke Breust goaled for the Hawks and when David Hale added another a minute or so later it was Hawthorn by 11 points. A behind to Lance Franklin pushed the Hawks’ lead out to 2 straight kicks but Sydney came roaring back with goals from Dan Hannebery and Kieren Jack to level the scores. A rushed behind then gave the Swans a lead which was never relinquished, although the Hawks missed several relatively easy chances to register goals. In the end it was Sydney by 10 points, 14.7 (91) to 11.15 (81), after one of the best grand finals of recent times. Ryan O’Keefe scooped the Norm Smith Medal for best afield after a 28 possession, 15 tackle performance, while others to shine included wingman Daniel Hannebery, on baller Josh Kennedy, and veteran forward Adam Goodes.

Since the 2012 premiership the Swans have maintained their position as one of the Australian game’s foremost clubs. In 2013 the side was beset by long term injuries to a number of players but even so managed to get as far as a preliminary final clash with Fremantle in Perth. The Swans’ loss in this fixture was their first at Paterson’s Stadium since 2009.

After a low key start to the 2014 season Sydney rallied to become the competition’s outstanding team and claim their first minor premiership for eighteen years. They then cruised into the grand final on the strength of home finals wins over Fremantle and North Melbourne. Their opposition, as in 2012, was provided by Hawthorn, but this time it was the Swans who were favourites. The Hawks, however, playing with consummate controlled aggression burst out of the blocks superbly, booting 5 opening term goals to 2. By half time the margin was 42 points in Hawthorn’s favour and it had become abundantly clear that there would be no way back for Sydney. Hawthorn ultimately won by 63 points, 21.11 (137) to 11.8 (74); it was the Swans’ heftiest losing margin for the season.

In 2015 Sydney enjoyed another commendable season, winning 16 of their 22 minor round matches to qualify for the finals in fourth place. However, their form during the finals was disappointing, and they bowed out of the flag race with losses in successive weeks to Fremantle in Perth and North Melbourne at Stadium Australia.

With John Longmire still holding the coaching reins Sydney continued to perform well in 2016, winning 17 minor round matches to procure another minor premiership. They then sustained a shock qualifying final loss against Greater Western Sydney but recovered to reach the grand final with wins in successive weeks against Adelaide and Geelong. Opposed by surprise grand finalists Western Bulldogs, Sydney battled hard all day but ultimately fell short by 22 points.

Sydney once again participated in the finals in 2017, but after comfortably downing Essendon in an elimination final they fell well short of Geelong in the following week's semi final, the Cats winning with beguiling ease by 59 points, albeit after the Swans had held their own until quarter time. 

The 2018 season saw the Swans struggling at times, particularly at home, but they still ultimately did well enough to qualify for a home elimination final against intrastate rivals Greater Western Sydney. Unfortunately their fickle home form reared its ugly head once more and they slumped to a 49 point loss.

Almost three decades on, the foundations laid by Ron Barassi and co. in the early to middle 1990s mean that the Swans now seem inordinately well-equipped to consolidate their position in Sydney, but it must nevertheless be admitted that Australian football is still a long way from being a dominant sport in their adopted home, as newcomer Greater Western Sydney have also been finding. 

"Up there Cazaly!" was the battle refrain of the victorious Australian troops in the Middle East during world war two the battle arena of Australia's largest city, however, is proving rather more problematical for the advocates of Cazaly's code, and in particular the re-planted seed from Albert Park which today boasts the name of the Sydney Football Club.


  1. This date is held by some to constitute the official birth of the South Melbourne/Sydney Football Club.
  2. This was contested by the top four clubs after completion of the home and away rounds.
  3. In the majority of seasons between 1897 and 1930 the VFL minor premier had the right of challenge if defeated at any stage during the finals.
  4. The Sydney Swans by Kevin Taylor, page 22.
  5. Scobie later went on to play for Carlton.
  6. South Melbourne's Jack Howell, who gloried in the nickname 'Chook' (or 'Chooka'), was, according to some sources, voted the season's champion player by the press. His son (also Jack) later bore the same nickname and emulated his father by also appearing in a premiership side, with Carlton (and, ironically, against South Melbourne) in 1945. A third generation Howell, Scott, completed the trifecta by helping Carlton to the 1981 flag.
  7. The Sydney Swans, pages 30 and 32.
  8. Although as far as the hierarchy at Collingwood was concerned there was no overt animosity directed at Pannam, only toward South Melbourne. Indeed, once Pannam's playing career was over he was warmly received back in the Victoria Park changing rooms and indeed later undertook official duties with the club.
  9. When it was proved that Bunton had received a financial inducement to join Fitzroy he was forced to stand out of football for the whole of what would have been his first season.
  10. JE Barratt had kicked 40 goals to top the VFA's goalkicking list in 1889.
  11. For a detailed discussion of the circumstances of Bowe's defection see Bloodstained Angels by Mark Branagan and Mike Lefebvre, pages 44-8.
  12. What was later substantiated was that Bob Pratt had been offered - and, needless to say, refused point blank - a bribe of £100, from an anonymous source, to 'play dead'. It is therefore somewhat ironic that Pratt's performance in the grand final was arguably his worst for the season.
  13. Branagan and Lefebvre, op cit, page 65.
  14. Equalled in 1936, albeit with an inferior percentage.
  15. In terms of objective, quantifiable success, i.e. premierships won, the club fared better during the 1880s, but football had come a long way since its embryonic early days and it is at least arguable that achievements in the VFL counted for significantly more than achievements in the old VFA.
  16. The six South players to be reported were: Ted Whitfield (12 months suspension), Jack Williams (12 weeks), Herbie Matthews (8 weeks), Jim Cleary (8 weeks), Don Grossman (8 weeks) and Keith Smith (cleared). In the context of an excessively rough and spiteful game the most unfortunate of these appears to have been 1940 Brownlow Medallist Matthews whose only crime was to have thrown the ball away after conceding a free kick; these days he would simply have conceded a 50 metre penalty.
  17. The Bloods officially became the Swans in 1953 (although some of the club's fans still prefer the Bloods moniker).
  18. Similar solicitude over the ongoing health of the Brisbane Bears, the league's other 'experiment', only served to reinforce the consternation.
  19. See Barassi; the Life Behind the Legend by Ron Barassi and Peter McFarline for a penetrative - if partial - analysis of the maneuvering behind Barassi's move to Sydney and the administrative restructuring which coincided with it.
  20. This was Goodes' second Brownlow, the first having been won in 2003.


John Devaney - Full Points Publications


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.