Malcolm Blight was dubbed the ‘The Messiah’ after leading Adelaide to a premiership in his first season as coach of the Club in 1997.
The Australian Football Hall of Famer reflects on the historic Grand Final win over St Kilda.
In 1997, Adelaide started from fourth spot and won four consecutive games, reaching the decider following a sensational comeback Preliminary Final win over the Western Bulldogs. The excitement in South Australia was palpable. More than 10,000 fans turned out to watch the team train at Football Park ahead of the Club’s Grand Final maiden appearance …
“The atmosphere in Adelaide was something to behold. In Melbourne, I’d been to the Grand Final as a player and as a coach before, but Adelaide was just alive that week.
“It was just a really good spot to be, firstly, as a Crows supporter and, secondly, to be involved in football in South Australia.
“I think it was a bit of pride, to say that we’ve finally actually made it to a Grand Final.”
Adding to the challenge in ’97 was Adelaide’s mounting injury list. The Club’s two All-Australian players that year, Mark Ricciuto and Tony Modra, were both sidelined. Ricciuto missed the entire finals series with a groin injury, while Modra ruptured his ACL in the Preliminary Final.
Utility Trent Ormond-Allen, who also played in the thrilling win over the Bulldogs, was ruled out with glandular fever. Midfielders Matthew Liptak and Simon Tregenza, and popular forward Peter Vardy were also unavailable …
“It was sad that those blokes missed out, particularly the two All Australians – they had great years.
“You can’t put your finger on it, but there was enough drive and enough pride within the group to keep it going, which was a credit to them.”
The absence of Modra, who kicked 84 goals for the season and won the Coleman Medal, forced a restructure in Adelaide’s attack.
In a move that is now part of Grand Final folklore, Blight started regular defender Shane Ellen up forward.
Ellen, who had only three career goals to his name, hadn’t kicked a goal all season, but bagged five in a match-defining display against St Kilda …
“When Tony Modra went down in the Preliminary Final, we had to do something different. I actually liked to play a certain way in terms of structure.
“I’d watched Shane Ellen play for South Adelaide on a really windy day down at Noarlunga. In the first quarter, he led out a couple of times and took a couple of really nice marks. He kicked 1.1 and the behind only just missed, it was a nice kick.
“In the second quarter South kicked against the breeze and Shane never went near the ball. I had to go at half-time. I think I went to Glenelg Oval to watch another player.
“I don’t know why, but something just clicked in my mind to think that if he could lead a bit, grab the ball and kick it … then maybe. Just maybe.”
The Crows were dealt two more injury blows on Grand Final day. Defender Rod Jameson and onballer Clay Sampson both suffered soft tissue strains in the first quarter, leaving just one fit player on the three-man interchange bench. Despite this, Adelaide stormed home to kick 14 goals to St Kilda’s six in the second half to run out 31-point winners.
Blight believes the Club’s revered fitness program, which was overseen by would-be Senior Coach Neil Craig, was crucial to the result …
“We’d had a seriously long build-up. I wasn’t great at getting the footballs out too early during pre-season. I think blokes unfit do damage to their bodies.
“Coming from interstate, I just wanted to make sure that the players had good miles in their legs and Neil was on the same page.
“It worked out well. It doesn’t work all the time, but I thought we were a really fit team.”
One of the players who benefited from Adelaide’s untimely run with injuries was Tyson Edwards. Only 21-years-old at the time, Edwards was still finding his feet at AFL level and, after being dropped for the Semi-Final win over Geelong, was recalled for the last two finals.
Also aged 21 or under on Grand Final day were Andrew McLeod, Simon Goodwin and Kane Johnson …
“It was probably the $64-dollar question. With those really good players being out injured, was this young group going to be good enough? As it turned out, they all became absolute stars!
“We all know what Andrew achieved in that finals series, but Simon, Kane and Tyson too – everyone contributed.
“Did I know that all four of those guys would go onto play 300 or nearly 300 games, and win best and fairests? No, of course not. It was quite freakish, really.”
McLeod, who finished with 31 possessions and 11 marks, was awarded the Norm Smith Medal for the best player on the ground in the ’97 Grand Final …
“Andrew did it all year. At the end of the home and away games in the best and fairest voting, Mark Ricciuto was out in front and Andrew was running second.
“He played half-forward, then half-back and had an occasional run through the midfield. He’d had a great, great season. He was just silk – I think he’s one of the five silkiest players of all time.”
The brilliant Darren Jarman, who kicked six goals in the second half including a Grand Final record five in the last quarter, was also instrumental …
“Darren was just a wonderful player. I loved him in the middle and I loved him up forward. Because he was one of our onballers, he also had to play half-back at times and I loved him there!
“My role as coach was to try and put him where the action was. I said to him, ‘I dreamed this thing about you playing full forward from the centre of the ground.’ I think he laughed, which was fair enough too. In the Grand Final, it actually worked out really well.
“We had such a brilliant second half. The fact unknown is that the Crows kicked 14 goals straight in the second half in a Grand Final. There was only one point and it was a rushed point, so that was a remarkable effort of skill.
“When we kicked our 13th goal in the second half I was pretty happy. The 14th was a bit of a bonus!”
Adelaide’s maiden premiership win broke a run of three Grand Final defeats for Blight, who made it to the last Saturday in September with Geelong in 1989, 1992 and 1994 …
“The Friday night before the game, I didn’t sleep very much. I ended up being involved with 10 Grand Finals as a player and a coach, and I felt the same the night before every one.
“Then there was the thing of three losing Grand Finals hanging over my head! To be a losing coach in four Grand Finals would’ve broken some sort of record, I think! I’m glad we won.
“Most coaches who have been involved in premierships say it was a feeling of relief on the final siren, but I was happy as hell! The chest pumps up and you’re smiling and laughing.
“I was rapt rather than relieved.”
The AFL premiership cup was on its way to South Australia for the first time and pandemonium broke loose in the state. A water cannon salute greeted the plane carrying the team as it landed at Adelaide Airport. Thousands of fans lined the streets of the CBD at a ticker-tape parade as the Club received the key to the city …
“It was pretty hard to go out for a while there! Everywhere we went, you sort of got swamped but it was fantastic.
“I remember a few mates of mine from Adelaide days saying they followed the Crows, but just felt a bit shy about wearing their t-shirt or their tracksuit top around. Well, they could wear it with pride from that day onwards and it’s been worn very proudly ever since. That was the really nice thing about being from Adelaide.
“In some way, being a South Australian true born, because of population only it was like Victorians had always been something to look up to, or had it over us because of that.
“I just think that the Crows winning in 1997 just brought that back to equilibrium. That the SANFL and South Australians could actually play the game.”