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Footy at Adelaide Oval: Part Two

Peter Cornwall  February 8, 2014 2:15 PM

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The picturesque Adelaide Oval has been a famous football battlefield for many generations

The memorable games at Adelaide Oval didn’t have to be finals or interstate clashes. A 1984 Sunday afternoon minor round clash between South Adelaide and Port Adelaide ended with the ball in the hands of strapping young Panther Darren Harris at half-forward, more-or-less level with the line to start the centre square. The famous heritage-listed Adelaide Oval scoreboard, designed by architect Kenneth Milne and first used in 1911, showed the Magpies were up by two points but, as Harris started to run in, the final siren went. Harris tracked back for his decisive kick, the crowd starting to run onto the ground as Channel Seven commentator and Tigers premiership captain Peter Marker declared: “That’s a huge kick, that’s a gigantic kick. He’ll have to kick that 60 metres.”

Harris’ powerful, straight kick just carried over a huge pack of Port Adelaide players, Marker’s co-commentator Ian Day yelling this was “the most electrifying finish I have seen in 20 years of calling football.”

Twenty years earlier Day had played a prominent role in a stunning Panthers win against Port at Adelaide Oval. The 1964 grand final is the SANFL’s classic rags-to-riches tale, engrained in the memories of South supporters as the club’s only grand final win since 1938. It came against all odds, Neil Kerley having taken over as captain-coach of a club that had just won the wooden spoon. The narrator of the Rothmans newsreel of the game gives Day an enthusiastic wrap, declaring:  “Ian Day has a great opportunity of sealing the flag for South … his kick is through the centre in a great moment for Daisy who now goes into retirement as Souths win the premiership nine goals 15 to Port’s 5.12.”

Footy is a passionate and emotional game. And at Adelaide Oval in 1996 there was plenty of both when Sturt, SA’s power club of the 1960s and ’70s that, battling crippling financial debts and a mounting collection of wooden spoons, had come so close to closing its doors forever the previous year, ended a losing run of 26 matches over 602 days. Fans rushed onto the ground after the Blues had overcome West Adelaide by seven points to mob Phil Carman’s men in scenes you would have sworn would only come after a narrow grand final victory. There were a few tears shed – but not as many as at the last minor round game of 1990 at the ground.

This was a day of endings and beginnings. The clash between West Torrens and Woodville was the last game for the clubs as separate entities. It was the last game before they would be merged together as the Woodville-West Torrens Eagles. By a fateful quirk of the SANFL program, Torrens and Woodville had been scheduled to meet in the last minor round of 1990 at Adelaide Oval. This had been a year of upheaval for the local competition, which the following year would have the Adelaide Crows represent it in the Australian Football League.

The forecasts for the future of the SANFL competition weren’t exactly rosy, so the Woodville and West Torrens clubs started talks of a possible merger. By the time the final minor round came around, members of both clubs had voted in favour of it.

“It was fairly emotional,” recalled Torrens great Bruce Lindsay, “standing in the middle of Adelaide Oval knowing that was the last time you would wear that jumper.” The following year Lindsay would be one of the first to wear a Crows jumper. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as the Eagles fans had yelled a deep-throated “Bru-u-u-ce” every time this crowd favourite booted the ball out of defence, so did the new breed of Crows supporters.

Thirty-nine-year-old Ralph “Zip Zap” Sewer, in the final one of his 394 games uniquely spread over four different decades, set the crowd alight, while charismatic full forward Allen Jakovich booted 13 goals, topping the century for the season as the Warriors won by 45 points.

As has been the case at so many historic football moments at the ground, many of 7770 fans who had been on a rollercoaster ride that day ended out on the hallowed turf. In moving scenes, opposing supporters swapped scarfs and flags. The following year they would be supporting the same team.

The famous Adelaide Oval battles haven’t just been waged on the field of play. There was a protracted tussle with council and residents before lights were constructed for night sport in 1997. But the Oval’s first night football clash under lights remarkably had been played 112 years earlier.

Adelaide beat South Adelaide 1.8 to 0.8 in this historic 1885 clash. But steam-engine driven electric lamps, three on each side of the ground, “did not sufficiently illuminate the field,” according to The Register. A belt on one of the engines slipped from its wheel and “for a minute or so that side of the Oval was in darkness”. And while the ball was painted white, the coloring on it soon washed off. Yet a remarkable crowd of 8000 turned up for the game.

It was another historic occasion in the Oval’s colorful history but not all “firsts” at the ground took place a long time ago. The first Australian Football League game was played at Adelaide Oval in 2011, when a crowd of 29,340 saw Port Adelaide edge out Melbourne by eight points. Port fans in previous generations had become accustomed to gutsy, against-the-odds wins in big games at the famous ground. With Fos Williams at the helm there always seemed that critical self-belief in close grand finals as emphasised by wins against North (11 points in 1951), West (three points in 1954, two points in 1958 and three points in 1962), Norwood (11 points in 1957) and Sturt (three points in 1965). No one had more grand final success at Adelaide Oval than 1964 Magarey Medallist Geof Motley. He played in nine premierships and was the matchwinner in 1957 when Port trailed Norwood by 24 points in the second quarter. It was then Williams switched Dave Boyd into the centre and Motley to half-forward and he took the game by the scruff of the neck, booting seven goals. The Magpies still were a goal behind at the last break but Motley kicked four final-quarter goals, Keith Butler writing in The Advertiser it was “his fast, clever dashes that finally spreadeagled the Norwood defence and wrote the final chapter to an epic match”. 

Port also pulled one out of the fire in the epic second semi-final thriller against South in 1965. Port’s Peter Mead, who went on to become a grand final umpire, was awarded a free for holding-on 45 yards from goal with three seconds remaining and the Magpies trailing by a point. According to Butler, Mead’s kick “amid scenes of wild excitement, made the height and distance with little to spare”. Mead said: “I was worried by the distance – the goals have never looked so far away.” And Port beat Sturt by one point in the 1966 second semi-final.

But in the late sixties Sturt overthrew the Magpies as SA’s power side. Under 10-time premiership coach Jack Oatey, the Double Blues used silky skills to end the Magpies’ reign. The skill factor was never more emphasised than by rover Peter Endersbee’s stunning two checkside goals from the scoreboard pocket boundary line in the 1968 grand final. So little was known about the miraculous curling kick back then the Rothman’s highlights reel of the premiership-decider pronounced the kicks “back screw punts”. They are used frequently now, usually described over the border as banana kicks.

There have been plenty of great SANFL rivalries but none are more celebrated than Port Adelaide-Norwood clashes. Adelaide Oval witnessed plenty of these, one being in the 1901 grand final when a late Port shot went astray and Norwood hung on for a thrilling four-point triumph. Though rivals back then, they hardly were mortal enemies. “The two teams, immediately after the match, met together and enthusiastically praised each other for their fine efforts,” The Register noted. Seems pretty unlikely these days.

Mercurial Norwood goalsneak “Cool Alec” Bent was a last-gasp premiership hero in 1925. In the dying moments the Blue and Reds were five points behind West Torrens which, inspired by forward “Snook” Adams and 203cm ruckman “Booby” Mills, had broken through for its first flag the year before at Adelaide Oval. Bent “punted high and amid a veritable tumult the ball sailed through the goal”. It’s a fine, fine line between pleasure and pain, as the song says.

There was plenty of pain for Central District, which was admitted to league ranks in 1964, as it had to wait until Football Park had been well established before breaking through for a first premiership. But the Bulldogs’ first final win was an unlikely and celebrated achievement. The Doggies had never beaten Sturt, which had won five premierships in a row, losing 16 straight games against the Blues before they prepared for battle in the knockout first semi-final of 1971. Central trailed by five points at three-quarter time but Belfast-born rover Robin Mulholland etched his name in Adelaide Oval’s folklore with a stunning five-goal final quarter, the Bulldogs charging home by 27 points.

This was a boilover that was something akin to Glenelg’s first premiership of 1934. The Tigers, who lost their first 56 league games from 1921-24, had never played in the finals before this season. And in the second semi-final they were flogged by Port Adelaide by 65 points. But in the closing stages of the grand final against Port, with the game on a knife-edge, ruckman George “Blue” Johnston, that year’s Magarey Medallist, flew seemingly higher than the spires of the stunning St Peter’s Cathedral that is the Oval’s famous backdrop. The Glenelg champion’s critical mark in the goalsquare was followed by the decisive six-pointer. The Tigers added three more behinds to win by nine points. 

The high-flyers have consistently brought Adelaide Oval crowds to their feet but the cheers that greet the goalkickers have often been the loudest. A Sturt spearhead became the stuff of legend in the 1932 grand final against North. Gordon “Grassy” Green arrived at the Oval “feeling a bit flat” after enjoying a poker game in a smoke-filled room until two o’clock on the morning of the big game. “I asked our trainer Alf Longmore for something to pep me up and he gave me a dose of smelling salts,’’ Grassy later recalled. He missed his first shot for goal from 15 metres and copped some stick from the crowd, North supporters happy to tell him it just wasn’t going to be his day. Incredibly, his next nine shots all were goals. Sturt’s Malcolm Greenslade equalled the grand final record with 9.4 against Glenelg in 1969, as the Blues set a new record grand final score with 24.15.

The greatest of all goalkickers, North Adelaide’s legendary Ken Farmer, bagged 15 goals – including 11 in a stunning second half – in a minor round clash with Glenelg at Adelaide Oval in 1936, while future Test cricket paceman Neil Hawke in 1957, aged 18, kicked 15 for Port Adelaide against South on the ground he was to take so many wickets. “The breaks went my way,” he modestly said.

You didn’t have to kick a bag of goals to get the crowd roaring. Or to be the matchwinner. West Torrens’ Ray Hank kicked just one goal in the 1953 grand final blockbuster against Port Adelaide. But what a goal. The Eagles were holding on like grim death just one point up as Port mounted a threatening last-gasp attack to the scoreboard end. But Torrens half-back Frank Graham brilliantly intercepted a Magpies handball and cleared down the members’ grandstand wing, where Errol Lodge marked. His kick was marked by Doug Cockshell, who thumped the ball into the scoring area. It ended up in the hands of Hank, whose tired drop kick just beat the opposition defenders for the matchwinning goal.

“I can go out to the Adelaide Oval and I’ll say look at that spot out there. It would be at least 180 yards out,” Ray joked. Older brother Bob said: “Ray reckons the kick was 50 yards but it wasn't that far! But it went through. We were gone if Frank hadn't intercepted that handball.”

There have been so many what-ifs, so many close calls, so many great memories. The great moments of Adelaide Oval make an unforgettable past. And there will be so many more to come in a glorious future.