SYDNEY (South Melbourne) - Part Two: 1934 to 2008

Back to Sydney/South Melbourne Part 1

A homesick Johnny Bowe returned to Perth in controversial circumstances prior to the start of a 1934 season [see footnote 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 7 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 3rd 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 1st 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 4 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 3 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 2nd 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, [see footnote 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:

Rover Terry Brain, one of South's best in the 1934 grand final.

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. [see footnote 13]

Full back Ron Hillis - played more games than any other South player during the 'foreign legion' era.

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 months 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. [see footnote 14] Needless to say, this was good enough to secure pole position going into the finals, and the omens were still good after a 2nd 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 3rd term with what later was diagnosed as a fractured skull must surely have severely damaged the Bloods' prospects.

Unlike in 1934 then 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 2nd 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. [see footnote 15] During the 5 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 9th, 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 1st semi final but then bowed out to eventual premiers Essendon by nearly 5 goals in the preliminary 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.

Jack Graham, a versatile and highly effective performer for the Bloods in 227 VFL games between 1935 and 1947.

The home and away rounds saw the Bloods top the VFL ladder for the 7th 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 2nd semi final. Thirty five year old veteran Laurie Nash bagged the match sealing goal in the dying moments.

SmokingSwans.jpg (70144 bytes)

How times change!  In the 1950s it was not thought strange for footballers to be shown endorsing tobacco products, as are the 2 South Melbourne players pictured above.  What would renowned non-smoker, fitness fanatic and Swans legend Roy Cazaly have made of it all, one wonders?  (Click on image to enlarge.)

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'. [Click here for a detailed review of the match.]  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. [see footnote 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 7th 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 (120 games between 1951 and 1959), versatile key position player Ron Clegg (231 games 1945-54 and 1956-60), and, arguably the most auspicious 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 238 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 403 career goals, represented Victoria on a club record 25 occasions including two as captain, and spent ten seasons as captain of the Swans [see footnote 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 1st semi final which South lost by 53 points to St Kilda

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John Rantall, one of South's, and the game's, greatest ever half back flank specialists.  (Click to enlarge.)

Overall, the 1970s proved no more palatable to South Melbourne supporters than either of the previous two decades. Apart from the 1970 1st 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.

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 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, 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.

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Bob Kingston, a handy utility player who made 94 senior appearances for the Swans between 1961 and 1967.  (Click to enlarge.)

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 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 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 times Richmond premiership coach Tom Hafey, plus players of the calibre of Gerard Healy (from Melbourne), and Greg Williams and Bernard Toohey (from Geelong).

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 2nd 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. [see footnote 18]

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Troy Luff soars above North Melbourne's Wayne Carey in an attempt to mark.  (Click to enlarge.)

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 with 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. [see footnote 19]

Sydney won just 1 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 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.

Unfortunately, the 1997 season saw the Swans plummet to 7th, 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 3rd place - with the attendant benefits of a home final first up - going into the finals. A 2 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 (11th place) raised question marks again.

In 2003 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.  As far as the Swans were concerned, 3rd 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 6th 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.

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 3rd 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 7 unanswered 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 winner with ten minutes still to play.  For most of those ten minutes, 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 almost certainly 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 4th 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, 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," he said.

A year later, Sydney again qualified for the finals, but this time only in 7th 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.

Just over a decade on, the foundations laid by 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. Overall, even allowing for the club's recent success, it is still probably too early to assess whether the Sydney experiment has been a success or failure. However, the importance of the experiment to the success of Australian football as a code is impossible to over-emphasise.

"Up there Cazaly!" was the battle refrain of the victorious Australian troops in the Middle East more than half a century ago; 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.

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11.  For a detailed discussion of the circumstances of Bowe's defection see Bloodstained Angels by Mark Branagan and Mike Lefebvre, pages 44-8. Return to Main Text

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. Return to Main Text

13.  Branagan and Lefebvre, op cit, page 65. Return to Main Text

14.  Equalled in 1936, albeit with an inferior percentage. Return to Main Text

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. Return to Main Text

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. Return to Main Text

17.  The Bloods officially became the Swans in 1953 - much to the ire of old timers, who point out that the club's achievements under the revised moniker have been negligible. Return to Main Text

18.  Similar solicitude over the fate of the Brisbane Bears, the League's other 'experiment', only served to reinforce the consternation. Return to Main Text

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. Return to Main Text