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Chequebooks, upsets and the Artful Dodger — inside the proud history of South Australian footy

Legendary sports broadcaster Bruce McAvaney still remembers the day he first witnessed the man he calls the best South Australian footballer he’s ever seen in action.

It was April 15, 1967, and a 13-year-old McAvaney was among the thousands at Unley Oval to see a South Australian National Football League (SANFL) game between the home side and premiers, Sturt, against North Adelaide.

The visiting Roosters debuted a 19-year-old from Whyalla called Barrie Robran in the centre, wearing what would become a famous number 10 guernsey in North’s red and white colours over the next 14 seasons.

“I saw him, I saw his first [senior] match in the league; he’d come down and played in the reserves finals the year before and made an incredible impression,” McAvaney says.

SA footy champions

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McAvaney was a supporter of Norwood from his childhood like his father, while his mother was a Port Adelaide Magpies fan — a true football fault line in his household.

“I saw him [Robran] at the Unley Oval … I didn’t barrack for either side, but just went there,” he says.

“My father must have taken me, Sturt were a good team to watch — my memory is that he stood [Bob] Shearman and [Paul] Bagshaw and cleaned them up on the one day from the centre.”

Legendary sports broadcaster Bruce McAvaney has fond memories of South Australian football and the champion footballers that came out of the state.(ABC News: Steve Opie)

Shearman was a former Essendon half-back flanker with a strong leap, good hands and a booming drop punt kick, who had come to South Australia, ended up captaining his new state and was a key part of the Sturt side of the mid-to-late 1960s.

Bagshaw was a supremely skilled footballer — known as “Mr Magic” — who would end up winning seven flags with Sturt. But neither of them could stop Robran that day — nor could anyone else.

“It was Coleman-esque,” says McAvaney, referring to Essendon great John Coleman, who kicked 12 goals on debut in 1949.

A brilliant debut in 1967 set the tone for North Adelaide’s Barrie Robran, later named a Legend in the Australian Football Hall of Fame.(Supplied: North Adelaide Football Club)

John Mitchell, from North Adelaide’s Historical Committee, was there in the crowd as well, and would go on to see almost every one of Robran’s 201 games for the Roosters.

“He just turned it on that day — I thought about it while watching (Harry) Sheezel’s debut game (for North Melbourne) recently,” Mitchell says.

“Robran had 23 kicks that first day — they didn’t count the handballs.”

The tale is told that one of the Sturt players went in at half-time and asked “who the f*** is their number 10?”.

Sturt had thumped the Roosters by 85 points in the previous year’s prelim — and they would go on to win five flags in a row — but in round one of 1967, North Adelaide won by 17 points, and a new star was born.

Almost 66 years to the day from Robran’s senior debut, when the opening bounce happens tonight at the Adelaide Oval for Adelaide and Carlton, it will signal the start of a one-round takeover of footy in South Australia by the AFL.

The Gather Round will see South Australia welcome all 18 AFL teams to the state, with matches played at Adelaide Oval, Norwood Oval and Mt Barker in the Adelaide Hills.

And it’s a perfect time to reflect on the history of SA football, and the ones — like Robran — who remain relative mysteries to plenty of fans in the eastern states.

It’s not as if the AFL has only just arrived in the Festival State — South Australia became the fifth state represented in the league in 1991 with the debut of the Adelaide Crows, before Port Adelaide joined in 1997.

Football at Adelaide Oval dates back more than a century — this 1921 SAFL (precursor of the SANFL) grand final saw Port Adelaide facing Norwood. (Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

But for more than a century prior, a league that eventually became known as the SANFL was the main — indeed the only — game in town, and South Australian football had its own champions and heroes, many of whom were only seen in the east in interstate matches.

From Prospect to Thebarton and Woodville, from Alberton to Unley, Norwood to Richmond and Elizabeth and Glenelg to Noarlunga, the suburban grounds echoed to the sounds of local football — and in finals, big crowds would head to Adelaide Oval, with 50,000 to 60,000 fans thronging the famous venue for the SANFL grand final in the 50s and 60s.

West Torrens defender John Graham, a teammate of another triple-Magarey medallist in Lindsay Head, knows what it’s like to face Robran.

“I had the unenviable job for (West) Torrens to be told Monday night that on Saturday you’ve got Barrie Robran,” Graham says.

“Well I’d yell back, ‘you could have told me Thursday night — that would’ve been good, I’d get three or four good nights sleep’.

“Seeing a guy like that, you know you’ve got to have your wits about you. There’s never a quiet moment even when the ball’s down the other end that he can have an influence somewhere on the line within moments. And you had to be right on it.”

When Jezza clapped Robran — North Adelaide, champions of Australia

North Adelaide’s acting captain Bob Hammond lifted the Champions of Australia trophy in 1972, but Barrie Robran’s brilliance had stood out as the Roosters beat Carlton.(Supplied: North Adelaide Football Club)

The Championship of Australia, pitting the premiership winners of South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, had been first played on and off between 1888 and 1914.

Port Adelaide won four of the 11 editions, with West Adelaide and Norwood winning twice each, before the competition ended. When it resumed in 1968, it was just the SANFL against the VFL to start with, with Sturt losing three times and North Adelaide once.

In 1972, there were four states involved, including Carlton from the VFL, East Perth from the WANFL (later the WAFL) and City-South from Launceston in Tasmania. North Adelaide beat City-South to make the final.

“Carlton played East Perth, who had Mal Brown, who went berserk and fought [the Blues],” Mitchell says.

“They got through, they would have been a bit sore and sorry after that game, but they still would have thought they would make mincemeat [of North Adelaide].”

A drawn VFL semi-final had thrown the schedule out, meaning Carlton had to play North Adelaide the day after beating East Perth. On a miserable wet and windy day at Adelaide Oval it was level at quarter-time, then Carlton kicked four goals to two to lead by 16 points at the half.

The Roosters all but blew it in the third term, kicking 3.6 to trail, leaving Carlton five points to the good with a five-goal wind to come. But two goals to the home side, including the winner from Darryl Webb, saw them home.

Robran had a day out in the mud, capped by a moment that has gone down in folklore — even if footage of it no longer exists.

“I can still picture it at my age,” Mitchell says.

“Barrie had three (Carlton) players coming at him, and he back-turned so brilliantly that he evaded all three.”

The last of the trio was Blues great Alex Jesaulenko, who stood and applauded his rival.

“It (North Adelaide beating Carlton) felt fantastic, but it was almost that individual acknowledgement of Robran as much as anything else,” McAvaney says.

“So North Adelaide won and the fact that it was Jezza (applauding Robran), it was like one god to another.”

It was a high point for both the player and the club. The Roosters would lose the 1973 grand final to Glenelg by seven points — they would not win another flag for 15 years.

North Adelaide star Barrie Robran won the Magarey medal three times, the first at the end of his senior debut season in 1968.(Supplied: North Adelaide Football Club)

Robran was the winner (or joint winner) of seven straight North Adelaide best-and-fairests and three Magarey medals between 1967 and 1973, but he wrecked his knee playing for South Australia against Victoria in 1974, ending his period of dominance.

He continued until 1980, playing 201 games for North Adelaide before retiring. He may have signed a form for Carlton in the VFL, but there was never a question of him playing for anyone other than the Roosters.

Halbert’s happy time at Sturt, capped by 1966 flag

The great Port Adelaide side of the 1950s and early 1960s, largely coached by Fos Williams, won eight flags in 13 years (seven under Williams), including a record six-straight between 1954 and 1959. It was succeeded by the Sturt side of the mid-to-late 1960s — coached by Jack Oatey — which won five in a row between 1966 and 1970.

Sturt won its first SANFL flag in 26 years in 1966 — John Halbert (left) says it was the highlight of his decorated football career.(Supplied: SANFL History Centre)

One of the key players for the Double Blues was John Halbert, who played SANFL football from 1955 to 1968, although he missed Sturt’s winning grand finals in his last two years with injury.

He won the Magarey medal in 1961 at Sturt, the same year he was named All Australian. He played in a string of interstate matches for SA, and was acknowledged as one of the best centremen of his generation — although he was moved to centre half-forward later in his career.

He would go on to coach Glenelg and Sturt in the SANFL in the late 1970s and 1980s, and was an inaugural inductee to the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

“1966 was a wonderful year; Sturt won their first premiership in 26 years, I was the captain of the team that year — it was the highlight of my football career,” he says.

Halbert and his teammates got used to playing big finals in a thrilling atmosphere at a heaving Adelaide Oval.

Grand finals of the 1950s and 1960s saw huge crowds at Adelaide Oval — 59,417 fans saw Sturt beat Port Adelaide in 1966.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

“It was very difficult for fans to see the footy [because of the numbers]; they had to try and find a spot in the temporary grandstand … or stand with the crowd and hope they could see over people,” Halbert says.

Like many of his generation, Halbert did not go to the VFL. One consideration was the fact you had to get clearance to go interstate, which usually meant sitting out of football for a year.

John Halbert (right) played 244 games for Sturt, won the 1961 Magarey medal and has been inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame.(Supplied: SANFL History Centre)

Halbert says he was offered the coaching position at Perth in the WAFL and a possible playing spot for Footscray in the VFL after winning the Magarey in 1961.

“In the end … I wasn’t interested in going. I was happy with my job teaching in high school … I really had a strong professional life [in South Australia] and football,” he says.

It was a different time, even as interest from media grew ever stronger.

“There was no TV when I started in 1955,” Halbert says.

“Even when I won the Magarey medal in 1961, it was a radio broadcast.

“I had a broadcaster from radio 5AD waiting outside my house — he interviewed me when I won, then put me in his car to take me to Channel Seven [for TV].”

In addition to annual interstate matches, there were regular Australian carnivals, bringing the Australian rules-playing states together in one venue for a series of matches.

Interstate football was a source of genuine rivalry for many decades — this is a snapshot from South Australia vs Western Australia in 1952.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

The All-Australian team was named at the end of each carnival — and Halbert made it in 1961.

“That’s why it’s a bit of a joke when you hear about AFL footballers [these days] being three-time All-Australians, they might have had three really good years together,” Halbert says.

“We didn’t have that opportunity. Carnivals were usually three or four years apart, if you missed out in one year you were fortunate if you got picked [three or] four years later.”

Upset at the ‘G in ’63: SA beat the Vics and inspire a generation

In a world outside of league football, there was an insatiable desire on the South Australian side of the border to win the interstate matches, dominated by the ‘Big V” of Victoria.

“Interstate football, it was always South Australia first against the Vics. Western Australia could perhaps say the same, but there seemed to be more venom in the games, more angst and more pleasure in [SA] playing Victoria, beating them,” West Torrens defender Graham says.

This was especially so at the MCG, which had not been a happy hunting ground for South Australia. When they came to headquarters on June 15, 1963, it had been 37 years since the visitors had beaten the Vics on their home deck.

There were no less than six future AFL Legends taking to the field, all for Victoria.

Victoria had an “open selection”, which meant selectors were not limited to two players per team. This was not State of Origin, either.

The Big V had the likes of Fitzroy half-back flanker Kevin Murray and Melbourne’s great Ron Barassi at half-forward, alongside St Kilda’s Tasmanian star Darrel Baldock.

South Melbourne’s Bob Skilton was rover and skipper, while Geelong’s Western Australian ruck legend Graham “Polly” Farmer worked in tandem with John Nicholls of Carlton.

On the South Australian side, coached by Williams, there was Shearman as skipper, with Halbert in the centre.

West Torrens star Head was at half-forward, and his club teammate (and Australian cricketer) Neil Hawke was at full-forward.

The visitors had Norwood’s Bill Wedding in the ruck, and the ruck rover was Neil “Knuckles” Kerley, also known as the “King” of South Australian football — who the following year would make history by taking South Adelaide from bottom of the SANFL to the flag as captain-coach.

Leading up to the game, Richmond and Victorian great and later AFL Legend Jack Dyer was asked what he’d say to the Victorian team if he was coach. His replay was succinct — and dismissive of the opposition: “I’d give them a pep talk and go to the races!”.

This didn’t sit well with Kerley, who came together with 1962 Brownlow Medallist Alistair Lord at the opening bounce, leaving the Geelong star on the ground. The visitors kicked three goals in the opening 10 minutes to grab an early lead and were 29 points in front at the half.

The Vics surged back, however, to trail by seven at the final change. The home side hit the front, and it looked like all South Australia’s work would be for naught. But then Head bagged two late goals to stun the crowd of 59,260 fans.

As the siren went, South Australia had won by seven points.

Back in Adelaide, McAvaney was a week away from his 10th birthday. It was a game, and a result, that he has never forgotten, one he rates as the biggest win for South Australian football.

“It was certainly ’97 and ’98 with the Crows [AFL grand final wins], and 2004 with Port Adelaide. But I still feel in my lifetime, 1963 tops them all,” he says.

“So that’s the effect it had on me.”

The team returned to a heroes welcome at Adelaide Airport.

“I think in many ways [it] gave the state a sense of positioning in sport in Australia for at least a couple of decades. So those that are old enough to remember, will never forget it,” McAvaney says.

Lindsay Head, the ‘Artful Dodger’ from West Torrens

Triple Magarey medallist and West Torrens star Lindsay Head was the first SANFL player to reach the 300-game landmark.(Supplied: Woodville West Torrens Football Club )

John Graham was 17 when he started at West Torrens, and played with Lindsay Head for 10 years until Head’s retirement in 1970. Graham was West Torrens captain for a season in 1972 before retiring in 1974.

Head was part of the team that won the SANFL premiership in 1953, his second year in the league.

Sadly for he and West Torrens, the club never made it back to a grand final. But the man known as the ‘Artful Dodger’ only got better, winning three Magarey medals in 1955, 1958 and 1963.

Graham had a front row seat for Head’s brilliance.

“He’d be in the centre, in those days there was one umpire, and it’d be a circle to the centre bounce and he (Head) would stand in the centre either on the ball or as the centreman,” Graham says.

“He’d have three or four players around him either pulling his shorts, pulling his jumper or doing whatever. But when the ball was bounced, no one saw him. He had the ball. That’s how good a player he was, yeah, he just disappeared.”

Lindsay Head’s control of a checkside kick would see him bend the ball with his right foot to hit a teammate on the right wing.(Supplied: Woodville West Torrens Football Club )

Head was right-footed, but he was one of the first to make use of the checkside (banana) kick, both going for goals and in general play.

“He’d run down the ground and see people on the right out on an angle like 45 degrees, he’d bend the ball to get to that player. Just the way he used the football off his boot,” Graham says.

In 1969, Head became the first SANFL player to play 300 games — when he retired in 1970 he set a new record of 327 games.

West Torrens struggled in later years before merging with Woodville in 1990. Every few months, Graham and other former West Torrens players still meet up, in what’s known as the “Gathering of Old Eagles”.

“There’s only Alf Roberts now, he’s 95 and Lindsay, who’s 87, who are alive from ’53,” he says.

“But Alf Roberts played in another premiership in 1945. And we only won four in 93 years, West Torrens won four premierships. The new club, our club has now won five in 32.”

Kangaroos open the chequebook — and SA is never the same

“I always thought those teams that I saw in the 60s and 70s, the very top South Australian team would’ve made the finals in Victoria,” McAvaney says.

“I think Sturt would’ve been in that [VFL] final four. And I think the same about Port Adelaide in the 50s. So that’s how strong the competition was.

“You felt like the Victorians, because of their climate that they’re probably a little stronger, they’re probably a little more physical, but in terms of skill and talent, there was not much between them. So that’s sort of the era I grew up in.”

Malcolm Blight was the first of a series of high-profile South Australian footballers to come to Victoria to play for North Melbourne in the 1970s.(Getty Images)

The 1970s changed the dynamic — particularly the North Melbourne football club, whose rise to the top had plenty of South Australian input.

“When North Melbourne got the chequebook out in the 1970s and Allen Aylett was the president and they got Ron Barassi [as coach] and Ron Joseph — who just passed away — was the general manager. Bob Ansett was behind them as well,” McAvaney says.

It didn’t matter whether they were from Woodville like Malcolm Blight, Port Adelaide like Russell Ebert, or Glenelg like Graham Cornes. The Kangaroos wanted them.

“They lured Blight and Ebert and Cornes to Victoria. And that was a massive thing for us because Blight was at his peak or about to peak,” McAvaney says.

“Ebert was past his peak, but still a very good player. And Cornsey was at the back end as it turned out, but still played some fine footy when he came home.

“But that was a massive thing and it rocked us a bit in South Australia. So that was the beginning of the exodus and in many ways, I think the beginning of the dilution of the SANFL competition.”

In the 1980s, a string of South Australian players went to the VFL, including the star duo of Craig Bradley and Stephen Kernahan to Carlton.

“In the middle of the eighties we had Bradley and Kernahan and [Geof] Motley and [Tony] McGuinness and [Mark] Naley all went to Victoria,” McAvaney says.

“And that was even a bigger wave than the one in the 70s. And really from that point on, the SANFL became certainly far inferior in terms of its strength and its level compared with the VFL.

“So, it’s been a seismic change in my lifetime. It’s been remarkable.”

Gather Round in Adelaide sparking talk of SA football history

McAvaney says he’s pleased that this week’s historic AFL round in Adelaide is sparking talk and acknowledgement of South Australia’s football history and achievements.

“I think it certainly will showcase the game in an incredible way to have all the 18 teams here and all the talent and all the fans from other clubs descending on the state, an incredible sense of pride, a thing that I think will certainly resonate,” he says.

“I’m enjoying the fact that people are thinking, OK, what is South Australia’s contribution to Australian football, Aussie rules — and it [that contribution] is vast, with an incredible history.”

And who does he put in the top echelon of the state’s contribution?

“So Robran’s the best I’ve seen — now Blight, Ebert and Bagshaw I think are right there,” he says.

“And Head was extraordinary. Kerley was a different type of player, not nearly as skilful, but had a huge effect. And then in the modern time we’ve had incredible players like [Gavin] Wanganeen, [Mark] Ricciuto and [Andrew] McLeod. Yeah, well there’s a long list.

Barrie Robran was an athletic player capable of taking big marks.(Supplied: North Adelaide Football Club)

“He [Robran] could do anything, he could play anywhere and do anything, that’s how I sum him up; he could play full forward, centre, half forward, centre wing, he could ruck, he could rove.

“He was brave. He could take a big mark. He was a good kick. He had it all. And I think the fact that he was the only non-VFL player to be a Legend in the Australian Football League Hall of Fame, said so much.”

John Graham says he thinks the Gather Round is “fantastic” for football and for South Australia. But he will be watching on TV rather than going in person.

“I don’t go to the football now at the Adelaide Oval, because … to get a train into the city, walk across the bridges and then climb these stairs (to the stands). I don’t do that mate. I’m 79. But I love my football, I love the way the game is played [today],” he says.

At North Adelaide, Mitchell admits to being excited about Gather Round.

“It’s going to be huge,” he says.

“Even for old-timers like me who don’t support a team, I’ll go and watch St Kilda play, because Callum Wilkie played for North Adelaide and won a premiership (before going to the Saints).”

Some things never change in South Australian football, however, particularly when it comes for old rivalries.

“For us, more recently, North Adelaide had Connor Rozee for a year before he went to the Power,” Mitchell says.

“Now we (North Adelaide fans) would barrack for the Russians against Port Adelaide, but we’d like to see him (Rozee) do well.”




Author: Russell White