The prehistory of Neil Kerley


Every story you have heard about Neil Kerley is probably true.

Did he really have his jaw broken during a match for Glenelg and at half time order one of his players to masticate on a couple of packs of chewies and then have him spit the wad out so he could use it to reinforce his chops and resume the match?


After losing a grand final by three points and seeing a last gasp shot from a team mate hit the goal post, did he return that night in darkness and chop down the post and burn it on a bonfire?


Was he once involved in a brawl at Port Adelaide involving 30 players and when facing the tribunal hearing point out to the commissioner that only West Adelaide players had been reported and so it was logical they must have been fighting among themselves and so shouldn’t be suspended?

Yes – and he got two weeks.

Did he ever leave the field during his 265 games of league football due to injury?


Was he ever injured?


Did he take over coaching five sides that had finished in the bottom three the previous season?

Yes and three went on to win premierships.

Did he play for 14 seasons of league football – eight of which he was captain-coach?

Yes and another three in the country as captain-coach.

If he had a yabby net, a fishing rod and a rifle could he live off the land?

He practically does now.

On his 70th birthday did he attempt a stunt dive off the river bank in front of his shack, misjudge the distance to the water and almost kill himself?


“It was just over there,” he says, standing on the banks of the Murray and pointing.

Is it possible to get an accurate location when Neil Kerley points with one his twisted old fingers?


“I can’t hear in this ear now and something has gone in my inner ear so I have lost balance,” he says.

Did Neil Kerley really turn 80 this week?


Did he think he would make it to 80?

“Not when I was 25”.

When he was 25, Neil Kerley was on his way to becoming the most ferocious and charismatic player in South Australian football. As an undersized ruckman for West Adelaide he roamed suburban grounds looking for contests. He had skill and could read the play but his greatness was his sheer footballing strength. He loved the physical part of the game and deep within him he also loved the possibilities the game offered.


Because Neil Kerley didn’t start in the game as a boy, he arrived at West Adelaide in 1956 already a self made man. The years before had built him into one who feared nothing, had the self confidence to face any challenge and knew that others would fall in behind him.

How that person was created is where the stories really get hard to believe.

We are having a coffee sitting on the decking on the river’s edge. The weekenders are at work in the city so Neil and Barbara have Walker Flat to themselves. Their stretch of the Murray is framed by expanses of lush lawn and enormous River Red Gums. Flocks of corellas gather and screech in the canopies causing Kerls to threaten to get his gun out.

“They make terrific yabby bait those things,” he growls.

They bought the shack in the early 1970s after a chance meeting with the owner at the kiosk. The place is modest and neat. He plays golf every week up at Swan Reach, fishes, tends his nets and grows tomatoes in cut down 44 gallon drums.

Two deck chairs are positioned near a small barbecue.

“At 5:30 those two chairs are in shade and Barbara and I sit there and solve the world’s problems.”

The world was a different place in 1934 when Neil Kerley was the second of six kids living on a small vegetable block at Loveday near Barmera in the Riverland. His father Laurie was a returned serviceman who answered the call again in the Second World War. He came home wounded in 1945 and died the day after his second son’s 11th birthday. Neil stayed at home with his four younger siblings as his mother and older brother Mick went to Adelaide for the funeral.

The Kerleys grew up in rural poverty. The bush and the river were their life. When they swam the water was so clear they could see the bottom. They wagged school to hunt rabbits and fish. They all had jobs on the farm. Among Neil’s responsibilities were ploughing which he usually did before school. On Sundays they went to mass in their best clothes.

The first time Neil left the Riverland was to go on a legacy camp at Onkaparinga in the Adelaide Hills. He left school when he was 14 to work picking mallee stumps for a local carter using a tractor and chain.

His mother Lillian was of Irish descent, her maiden name was O’Brien. She laid out the framework of his life.

“Determination and do things right the first time, don’t cheat and don’t give in.”

When he was 16 Kerls kissed his mum goodbye. She asked him where he was going and he replied he didn’t know. He got on his motorbike and rode out of town. For two years he worked as a jackaroo in the outback, often spending weeks alone along fence lines, working a shovel and crow bar until his hands were raw. At night he pissed on the calluses to clean and harden them.

He returned for National Service where he served alongside a giant called John Holness. When they finished their stint in the army Holness asked Kerls what he was doing next. He didn’t have an answer so he followed his mate to Koolymilka.

No matter how hard you try it is almost impossible to conjure up what Koolymilka was because nothing exists of it today. It was a labour camp for the nearby Woomera test range. It is a desert where the earth is a blend of scorched sand and gibber stones made smooth by thousands of years of biting wind. Workers here lived in tents and laboured in the extreme heat.

They made Kerls captain coach of the footy team because he seemed to have some skills whereas the others didn’t. They didn’t have jumpers either or footy boots. For matches they brought a grader onto the ground to push the big stones to one side. The smaller ones cut the players up.

Kerley was 18 and didn’t know how to be a captain coach so he wrote to Jack Oatey at West Adelaide asking for advice. He replied that he should be honest, train them hard and teach them skills. He did his best holding practice sessions in the sand hills, going from tent to tent looking for recruits and expelling those who hit the grog.

The football was played with a frontier zeal befitting a cold war outpost. Wearing only work boots, singlets and shorts, Kerley ended most matches unconscious in a pile of gibber stones. Koolymilka lost the first five games.

Then he recruited his big mate Holness who argued he didn’t know how to play. Kerls said it didn’t matter because he has a specific job for him. If anyone hit Kerley then Holness was to dong the bloke standing next to him. It happened and he did and Kerley got up off the ground and told the opposition captain that if anyone hit him again then his big mate would keep dishing it out. Kerley remained upright and along with a star aboriginal forward Kenny Davies turned the club fortunes around.

The team received guernseys after five rounds and then some boots. Players started kicking straighter and marking. There was enthusiasm around the camp about playing even through long training sessions. Saturday nights came alive in the tent city after victories.

Koolymilka won the premiership.

Neil Kerley Koolymilka - Circle (Mike Sexton)

Kerley was recruited by North Whyalla the following season. The iron triangle city was then a hub for ship building and players were sought from among the workers at the shipyards and the BHP steel mill and iron ore works. Kerley drove trucks and worked on the waterfront, met Barbara and coached the club to premierships in the two seasons he spent there. This time he had to convince older players to follow him and did so by leading from the front, not cheating and doing the hard work on the field so others could do the easy things. He coached the combined Whyalla side. Then he celebrated his 21st birthday.

In 1956 Neil and Barbara were married and on their way to Mount Gambier where he had accepted another job to play and coach. West Adelaide grabbed him. He walked into the club ready to go.

At 80 sitting back on the river again and reflecting on things he says simply: “I have had an unbelievable life.”

You can believe that.

Kerley South Adelaide 1964

South Adelaide’s 1964 ‘bottom to top’ premiership team with Neil Kerley (captain coach) front row – centre left


Mike Sexton’s book on the 1964 SANFL season.  You can read Crio’s review here:




About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a journo working for the ABC in SA. His scribblings include "1964", "Fos Wiliams on Football" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. mickey randall says:

    Michael- such is the enormous presence that Kerls has, not just over footy in SA, but other pursuits, that his is the name that springs to mind when I think of yabbying.
    Great yarn.

  2. that is fabulous

  3. Thanks Mike – a great yarn about a SA legend

  4. Wonderful stuff Mike. I did not know the Koolymilka story. I saw Kerley play quite a lot in my childhood – first for Westies and then South. 64 was my first GF. Ian Day and David Kantilla are quite clear in my memory. Kerley’s protection was critical to Kantilla’s ruck domination.
    From memory Kerley was about 6’1″ but had a good leap on him, which together with the strong body made him an effective ruckman despite lacking inches. He was a good mark around the ground. Sort of a poor man’s Teddy Whitten – lacking Whitten’s brilliance – but making up for it with presence and work ethic.
    Of course my West Torrens is one of the 2 teams he didn’t coach to premierships.
    I would love to get Wayne Jackson’s take on Kerley – and how he influenced him as a man and in business – not just in football.
    I saw most of Jackson’s footy career – and the contrast in his crude playing style and sophisticated business career – always struck me as unusual.
    IJackson is one of the great men of Australian footy, and I wonder how much influence Kerley had on him?
    Thanks again Mike – your SA footy history pieces are a joy.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Thanks Mike fantastic read I knew the footy side of it but didn’t no about his hard upbringing a true legend in , SA and , Australian football Thanks Mike

  6. What an amazing story, a great read – this is why this man is a legend of South Australian football.
    A very enjoyable read.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Jim Rosevear has written two books about Kerley (titled Knuckles and Knuckles II)

    The cover photo of the second book shows Kerls being chaired off the ground after the 1964 premiership, alongside him is his mother Lillian, with the note “Neil, to this day does not know how she got out onto the oval so quickly among fifty thousand people”

    Ron Barassi and Wayne Jackson wrote the forewords to the first book (published in 2003)

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    PB – But he couldn’t get the ‘Dogs over the line either

  9. Thanks Mike. Ripper, tough, honest…rarely is the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools” relevant, but Kerls looked at people straight and expected the same in return.
    Big John Holness was also a fantastic bloke – Kerls must have given him some leeway re the grog….big John used to vacuum those pony glasses.

  10. Peter Schumacher says:

    I think that it was in 1964 that Melbourne played South Adelaide at Norwood Oval at an end of season match to determine who was the best team in the country (sorry Sandgropers), South v Melbourne, Kerley V Barassi. As I recall, South held their ground until about three quarter time. I remember a barrracker saying significantly when South was in the ascendancy, “you’re looking pretty sick Melbourne”, sadly, from my point of view, Barassi and Melbourne prevailed. Still, pretty good for a team that had finished stone motherless last the previous season. Kerley was an absolute legend.

  11. Fantastic read Michael. My knowledge of SA football is very limited (non existent more like it). I would love it if there were some footy docos on the great SANFL and WAFL grand finals of past to go along with the VFL/AFL ones they produce. We are missing out on all that great history and some of the key players have gone or are getting very old.

  12. Stories like this are the reason why we love our SANFL footy, and don’t want much to do with the corporates. Well done!
    And Swish, yep (unfortunately).

  13. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    We should forever be indebted to whoever is behind these two sites.

    Both have their own YouTube channels as well.

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    A “Rothmans” presentation of the 1964 SANFL Grand Final

    Gee I miss those red point posts.

    And watch Kerls flick the switch to vaudeville with our old mate KenCunm

  15. Dr Goatboat says:

    great stories… a Redlegs man I feared it when we played against him or one of his teams…I seemed to recall he had a few close colleagues …tregenza comes to mind…
    Loved him in the State games

  16. rod grierson says:

    Great story. From recollection the aboriginal super star at Koolymilka was Kenny Davey not Davies. Afore runner of the Davey boys who played on the West Coast and the AFL. Later on Eddie Betts playing for the Works team won a mail medal and a premiership.

  17. Brillaintly written Michael Kerley what an amazing man.

  18. Jeff Hollywood says:

    Neil’s older brother Mick was a pretty fair football player also – hard as nails and had a handshake that could crush diamonds.
    Ol’ Mick was one of the nicest blokes I have known… and a pretty good clay target shooter as well!

  19. michael,
    that is a great read.
    my father raved about neil kerley and now i know why !
    thank you.

    i didnt know he came from loveday.

    he would have known my family well i would say.

    if it is ok with you i would like to add your story to my memoirs about my fathers love of sport for it unveils a lot about the life and times of the days when my father was very active in the riverland.

    please email me with your permission to do this, and if you would like a copy of the family memoirs i am putting together email me your address and i will post you a CD.

  20. malcolm mcphail says:

    what a great story of a champion man and football ambassador.i also coached koolymilka in 1985, we lost to centrals that year but previous we defeated village sports club in my first year at woomera working as a baker for the dept of defense, I was only 22 yrs of age , it was such a highlight of my 40 yrs in footy , so proud to have coached this club with its initial ties to neil kerley

  21. VALE, Tony Kerley. I could not make your funeral mate, but I raised a glass and my thoughts went back to Cobdogla swamp….. remember the time when the duck punt went down? Old Mick yelled out :
    ” ABANDON SHIP” I will always cherish that Duck Opening morning – staying at MA Grose’s place and spending time with beaut’ blokes from Loveday. I also remember taking part in a water melon raid on a blocky that Mick knew, after sunset of course – ya reckon they didn’t taste any good! All you Kerley blokes were legends in the Hollywood household – cheers

  22. The claim that Westies cut the goal post down after losing the Grand Final by 3 points is incorrect. The year was 1958 & the margin was 2 points. What I can’t remember was what number Kerls wore as a player before becoming captain! Anybody Know?

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