1981 Revisited – Epilogue: ‘Tainted Love’

I began this series as the 2020 AFL season went on hold.  We had no idea when or even if live footy would return.  To fill the void, several Almanackers proposed the idea of reviewing a memorable season. 1981 was one of those suggested.  Remembering the year clearly, I willingly took the bait.

 

 

The 2020 season resumed in a truncated, compromised form, but I reckon it only strengthened the original basis for choosing 1981 to review – to revel in a great era when footy was played in its purest form.  1981 was a pinnacle in this period.  The game was fast, rugged and spectacularly attacking.  Across the 12 teams, a bevy of champions strutted their stuff.  Matthews, Blight, Quinlan, the Danihers, Bartlett, Doull, Bosustow, Daicos…the list goes on and on.  Characters abounded in an age before professionalism forced players to drop their idiosyncrasies – or be dropped.  Jacko, Andrews, Van der Haar, Maclure, Kink.  How many of these famous names would get a gig today?  Despite the dreadful conditions of the 1981 winter, these stars consistently produced a spectacle that, in many respects, leaves the modern professional game for dead.  As we’ve endured our 2020 diet of dour, congested slogs played solely for television audiences at empty grounds, it’s been wonderful to revisit those wild contests in front of packed terraces at the old suburban grounds.

 

 

Even allowing for its default tone of relentless positivity, the VFL had a fair point when it claimed 1981 to be the most successful season in its 87-year history.  It was a year of record attendances, from the first round, which attracted 191,000 people; the second highest opening figure on record, to the last round, attracting just over 200,000 in driving rain and cold, a new all-time high non-split round figure. Ground record crowds at VFL Park were broken twice, with 79,326 watching Essendon defeat Collingwood in May, followed three weeks later by 92,935 packing into the ground to watch Hawthorn defeat Collingwood on the Queen’s Birthday Monday.  The extraordinary fight for the 1981 finals maintained the public’s interest to the very last round. The home-and-away season aggregate attendance was over 3.3 million, an average of over 25,000 per game.  Considering the capacity and standard of many of the VFL grounds and that the vast majority of games were played concurrently on Saturday afternoons, this is an astonishing figure.  Based on Melbourne’s population at the time, it means that, on average, 6% of the city’s citizens were at the footy on any given Saturday!

 

 

However, the longer I researched, the more obvious it was that, great footy aside, 1981 was significant for a whole range of off-field reasons.  1981 marked the beginning of a period of radical disruption to a competition that had existed for over half a century almost without change.  The shocks would have profound and lasting impacts that are still being felt today.

 

 

In 1981, the League was riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm for the game.  Doing things bigger and better was the mantra.  Ground rationalisation was promoted as the way of the future, with the promise of bigger, safer and more comfortable facilities.  A report by the League’s Corporate Planner, John Hennessy, stated bluntly that without ground rationalisation, the future of the 12 clubs in Melbourne was bleak.  Not all Hennessy’s recommendations eventuated, but they provide a pretty accurate blueprint for how the game would evolve.  They included:

 

 

  • Fitzroy, North Melbourne and South Melbourne’s grounds not being included in the VFL’s long-term plans and no further Ground Improvement Fund monies being spent on these three grounds.
  • Fitzroy playing up to 11 matches at VFL Park from 1982.
  • North Melbourne playing its major matches at the MCG when that ground was vacant and, in the long-term, playing all its matches at the MCG.
  • Where possible, matches between any two of Essendon, Collingwood, Carlton, Richmond being played at either the MCG or VFL Park.
  • All gross VFL receipts from first round matches being banked by the VFL and subsequently distributed to all creditors.
  • All income to the VFL Ground Improvement Fund arising out of Finals matches being pooled and expended at the direction of the VFL Board for Season 1982 and beyond.
  • The eight remaining VFL grounds included in the VFL’s long-term plans being required to lodge detailed future development plans with the VFL by April 1982.
  • The VFL Administration acquiring as much information as possible regarding the economics of sports stadium development.

 

Hand-in-glove with maximising the use of the bigger grounds was the Sunday football experiment. Two trial matches were staged at the MCG during 1981. More than 64,000 saw Collingwood and Essendon meet on August 2 while the following week, 25,000 attended on a wet and windy day to see Carlton meet South Melbourne.  The League also announced a major extensions program at VFL Park which would see the seating capacity of the ground increased from 75,000 to more than 104,000 by 1984. Directors also decided that the Grand Final would be staged at VFL Park in the same year.

 

 

But expanding the game beyond Victoria was the League’s biggest obsession.  In 1981, three inter-club matches were staged in Sydney and Brisbane.  These moves were clearly tapping into a demand (in Brisbane, the gates to the Brisbane Cricket Ground were closed well before the match between Essendon and Hawthorn and the crowds at the Sydney matches were greater than most Rugby League crowds).  However, the real push for a national competition was television’s growing involvement in football. It might sound quaint by today’s standards but the League’s boast that the 1981 Grand Final was telecast live throughout Australia — except Adelaide — as well as New Zealand, with highlights shown in the United States, UK and Mexico, was a sure sign of where its commercial ambitions lay. As revenue from broadcast rights started to dwarf revenue through the gates, it was obvious that the League’s expansion plans would focus on maximising TV audiences.  On that front, nowhere was more important than Sydney.

 

 

Revolutions don’t occur without damage.  Despite the League’s insistence that its expansionist agenda was “in the fans’ best interests”, it couldn’t eliminate a strong undercurrent of supporter discontent.  For much of 1981, this might have been dismissed as typical resistance to change.  Then came the bombshell announcement in July of the real and lasting casualty of the 1981 season.

 

 

In the space of three months, South Melbourne, a foundation club of 107 years’ standing, was effectively obliterated.  The Swans were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A club in desperate financial straits, performing poorly, South was the perfect target for the League and its offer was too good to refuse.  During August, the ‘Keep South at South’ group had taken the club’s Board to court, eventually getting the signatures needed to force an extraordinary general meeting held on September 22. The meeting ended with 80% of the vote being in favour of ‘Keep South at South’.  Yet just two days later, the club was in further crisis.  The players, clearly seeing the move to Sydney as their path to financial security, walked out on a meeting with KSAS and, by early October, had stopped going to training.  On October 14 the VFL refused to back down from its earlier vote, compelling South to play in Sydney in 1982. KSAS in turn refused to back down, and by November 7, most of the playing list was on strike with players owed money and several terminating contracts with the club.

 

 

Desperate to sort out its financial problems, the South board appealed to the VFL for relief and requested $400,000 to be loaned from the ground improvement fund. The VFL agreed on November 18th, making South the first club to be bailed out by the league. But a condition of the loan was that the club had to commit to Sydney for the following two years. In taking the money, South had effectively signed its own death warrant. In 1982, South moved their home matches to Sydney while the players continued to live in Melbourne. By 1983 however, the club name had changed to the Sydney Swans and operations had moved to the Harbour City entirely.  South Melbourne was no more.

 

 

As much as this has been a celebration of one of the great seasons of VFL football, a sentimental journey back to the days when footy was played as it should be played, my review of 1981 must end on this bitter note.  As I watched the death of South Melbourne, I could see that something precious was being destroyed. The breach of trust between the ever-loyal fans and the game’s custodians was irreparable.  The competition was never the same again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’d like to be the first to commend you on this thorough and highly entertaining series Stainless. You’ve done 1981 a great service. Bravo.

    Often forgotten is the VFL’s decision to introduce a rudimentary Draft at the end of 1981 (I wrote about it from my parochial SA perch here and managed to get in a 1981 song title on a technicality).

    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/sanfl-draft-dodgers-1981-should-i-stay-or-should-i-go/

  2. Great work, Stainless.

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