1981 Revisited – Round 22: ‘Back in Black’, The Death of South Melbourne

It might seem strange to claim that the most significant game of this round had no bearing on the Premiership race and was witnessed by a mere 8000 spectators.  Particularly on a day when the round’s aggregate attendance of 200,185 was a record for a non-split round (ensuring a record season attendance of 3,354,060).


At the windswept mudheap known as the Lake Oval, the South Melbourne Football Club played the last match of its 107-year history. Whatever claims current supporters might make about the continuity between South and the Sydney Swans, the funereal black worn by many of the heart-broken South supporters this bleak day said it all.  This was the day a footy club died.


A month earlier, the VFL had decreed that the Swans would play its home games in Sydney from 1982. The supporter outrage was predictable.  A resistance group known as “Keep South at South” formed.  KSAS fought hard through August to gain enough signatures to force the club to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting with the aim of preventing the Board from ratifying the League’s decision.  Despite winning this temporary reprieve, the mood at this last game was one of despondent fatalism.  It was mirrored by the team’s lacklustre finish against visiting North Melbourne, a team with arguably a lot less to play for.


The VFL added to the prevailing sense of revolution by announcing this week that it was recommending a plan to make VFL Park a stadium with one of the world’s largest seating capacities. Included in the plan was the intention to stage Grand Final at the ground from 1984. Under the $14 million plan, a further roofed deck of grandstand would be built around the entire public section of the ground, boosting the seating capacity to 104,500 and adding 20 further superboxes, a new 400 seat dining room, 100 private boxes and additional catering facilities.


The League was at pains to stress that the construction cost would be financed from income derived from the extended stadium.  Whilst this would not be a drain on the finances of VFL clubs, it also meant that if the expansion plan was not approved, there would be no money available for VFL Park, or any other ground. For club directors contemplating the primitive and decaying facilities at their grounds, this last point would have been particularly compelling.


On the sensitive issue of relocating the Grand Final, the League was bullish.  “VFL Park is the home of football and we will build our own tradition”, screamed the headline to the Footy Record’s feature article responding to criticism that moving the Grand Final from the MCG would break with tradition.


“Isn’t it fair that football should control its own destiny and create its own tradition? Why should we play our own Grand Final on a ground not under our control, when we have our own magnificent football stadium with late 20th century facilities?” League President Dr Allen Aylett said. “It is the dollars of VFL Park Members and the football public that have built the ground and surrounding 200 acres and they should have the right to watch the Grand Final as soon as possible. It is our responsibility as administrators of our game to give them that right.”


The League’s timing was fortuitous.  It had accelerated planning on the future of VFL Park on the back of a record attendance for Home and Away matches at the ground in three out of the last four seasons. A new record was set this season with two rounds to go and stood at 697,050, going into the massive Essendon-Geelong match in Round 22.


The public duly responded in line with the VFL’s sentiments about its showpiece ground.  A capacity crowd of 75,221 attended the match despite a day of intermittent rain and the fact that many of them came all the way from Geelong and Essendon. The League was quick to point out that the crowd was 11,014 more than the 64,207 that attended the equally critical Richmond v. Carlton match at the MCG.


The big crowd wasn’t let down. Although wet weather compounded the already-heavy conditions (the Footy Record noted that in the five months of the home and away season from April to August, a whopping 445mm of rain had fallen at VFL Park).and low scores were the order of the day in all games, the match at Waverley was a ripper, befitting the high stakes.  In a relentless contest, the Bombers’ 15-win run was ended through a combination of mud, rain and the superb Geelong defence.  The short video highlights show Essendon pushing hard midway through the tense last quarter but missing crucial opportunities to capitalise.  However, it doesn’t show the vital late goals by Terry Bright and Stephen Lunn in drenching rain, which regained the lead for Geelong after the Dons seemed to have dragged yet another game out of the fire. It was the Cats’ fourth consecutive win over Essendon, their best such sequence since the mid-fifties, and they were rewarded with the important double chance.  Despite their spectacular winning run, Essendon’s defeat consigned them to 4th place and the unwelcome prospect of an Elimination Final next week.





If black clothing was the prevailing fashion at South Melbourne, it was matched by the players’ attire at Victoria Park as Collingwood and Fitzroy battled in a literal sea of mud.  Black also was the mood of the home crowd as Fitzroy held the Magpies to an incredible 1.3 in the first three quarters, and Collingwood’s lowest total score at home since 2.19 against St. Kilda in 1968. Collingwood’s fate was similar to Essendon’s – a single loss at the end of a long unbeaten (at home) streak cost them dearly.  In this case, the Magpies forfeited top spot and a precious week’s rest.





For the Lions, their courageous performance at arguably the VFL’s strongest fortress capped off a season of remarkable tenacity.  It also demonstrated a steely defensive resolve among a playing group that had long been derided for playing “pretty” football.  A pumped-up captain, Ron Alexander, gives an indication of the Lions’ feisty attitude in this snippet of a post-match interview.





Progress scores of Fitzroy’s slogging win made for grim viewing at the MCG and Princes Park where Richmond and Hawthorn fans were relying on a Collingwood victory to keep their finals’ hopes alive.  At the MCG, the other results became irrelevant anyway for Richmond, which struggled from the outset against the brilliant Carlton defence.  Another low-scoring affair was blown open by three Carlton goals in four minutes late in the third term, ensuring that the Blues took full advantage of the Magpies demise, taking top spot whilst simultaneously cutting the 1980 Premier out of the finals.


Hawthorn’s 17th straight win over Melbourne and the milestone of Michael Tuck’s 200th game were of no consequence in the light of the Roys’ success. The game is best remembered for the antics of Melbourne’s Mark Jackson playing on Hawthorn’s unflappable Kelvin Moore.  Footage from this game is in the “Jacko” highlights package at 1.20.   In an otherwise awful year for the Demons, Jackson’s consistently high-quality performances at full forward were one of the few bright lights.  His colourful and at times fiery displays certainly provided entertainment value but it’s a shame they overshadowed what a good footballer he was.





In the other inconsequential match, St Kilda gave its home fans some late season cheer with an emphatic win over Footscray.


The extraordinary circumstances of Round 22 provided a fitting culmination to a season laced with drama, brilliant individual and team displays and the seesawing battle among the top seven teams for the precious top five ladder positions. For the lucky five, an equally dramatic finals series now awaited.  For Hawthorn and Richmond, the two teams that narrowly missed out, their strong rebound performances in 1982 demonstrated how unfortunate they were.


But the intensity of the competition among the top seven masked an alarming divide between this group and the also-rans.  As much as this was a concern in purely football terms – many of the late-season games had been predictable and lopsided – it was exacerbated by the fact that the strugglers on-field were also the strugglers off-field. Burdened with growing debt, small supporter bases and sub-standard facilities that the League was not prepared to maintain, their plight looked dire.


Brutal though it was for the rusted-on faithful, despatching South Melbourne to Sydney was a logical response to this problem whilst commencing the VFL’s grand ambition to nationalise the competition.  For the other clubs in similar straits, trudging wearily from their muddy suburban battlefields after a fruitless 1981 season, the message it sent could not have been clearer about the League’s blueprint for the future and their likely place in it.





Geelong 2.3 3.7 5.12 7.13 (55)
Essendon 1.3 2.4 5.6 6.11 (47)

Goals —
Bright 2, Neal 2, Blake, Peake, Lunn.
ESSENDON: Crow 2, Madden, Foulds, T. Daniher, Fields.

Best —
Malarkey. Witcombe, Bruns, I. Nankervis, Peake, Murrle, Neal.
ESSENDON: Andrews, Neagle, Foulds, Stoneham, Van Der Haar.

Umpires: Nash, Dye.

Attendance at VFL Park: 75,221.

Receipts: $191,720.



St Kilda 2.1 5.6 7.10 12.15 (87)
Footscray 3.2 4.4 5.6 5.8 (38)

Goals —
Gorozidis 3, Elphinstone 2, Sarau, Godsell, Burns, Roberts, Nettlefold, Kellett, Faletlc.
FOOTSCRAY: Sait 2, Edmond, Hawkins, Loveless.

Best —
Sarau, Thomas, Elphinstone, Burns, Roberts, Odgers.
FOOTSCRAY: Sait, Davidson, Dunstan, Templeton, Wheeler.

Umpires: Robinson, Sawers.

Attendance at Moorabbin: 11,948.

Receipts: $17,496.



North Melbourne 5.7 7.9 12.13 15.17 (107)
South Melbourne 3.2 6.7 9.11 10.14 (74)

Goals –
Good 5, Briedis 3, Dugdale 2 Spencer 2, Hodgeman, Wright Demetriou.
SOUTH MELBOURNE D. Carroll 4, Browning 2, Foschini 2 J. Roberts, Round.

Best –
Glendinning, Dench, Briedis Spencer, Hodgeman, Good
SOUTH MELBOURNE: Round Carroll, Browning, P. Morwood Smith, Hounsell.

Umpires: Bryant, Marcy.

Attendance at Lake Oval: 8,484.

Receipts: $11,993.



Fitzroy 4.4 5.9 7.11 8.11 (59)
Collingwood 0.1 0.2 1.3 4.9 (33)

Goals –
Quinlan, Francis, Conlan, Poynton, McMahon, Lewis, Wilson, Harris.
COLLINGWOOD: Irwin, Taylor, Moore, OhIsen.

Best –
Serafini, Carlson, Lawrie, Taylor, Conlan, Wilson, Francis.
COLLINGWOOD: Taylor, Williams, Kink, Magro, Picken, Moore.

Umpires: Cameron, Smith.

Attendance at Victoria Park: 32,393.

Receipts: $51,308.



Carlton 3.4 5.9 8.12 9.13 (67)
Richmond 1.6 2.8 3.9 5.10 (40)

Goals –
Bosustow 2, Harmes 2, Maclure, Johnston, Ashman, Marcou, Mackay.
RICHMOND: Roach 2, Lee, Smith, Martin.

Best –
: Sheldon, Bosustow, Doull, Southby, Johnston, Wells, Maclure, English.
RICHMOND: Malthouse, Wood, Lee, Jess.

Umpires: Chapman, Sutcliffe.

Attendance at MCG: 64 207

Receipts: $137,101.



Hawthorn 5.5 6.9 10.14 15.20 (110)
Melbourne 3.2 4.6 5.8 8.9 (57)

Goals –
Davies 5, Murnane 3, Ablett 2, McCarthy 2 Matthews, Goad, Scott
MELBOURNE: O’Donnell 2, Jackson 2, Elshaug 2, Clayton Seddon.

Best –
Knights, Davies, Scott, Wallace, Murnane, Goad.
MELBOURNE: Smith, Gaunt O’Donnell, Fowler, Elshaug, Young’

Umpires: Morgan, James.

Attendance at Princes Park: 7,912.

Receipts: $11,208.





Read The Age, Monday 31st August 1981, for coverage of all matches HERE.




W L D F A % P
CARLTON 17 5 0 2303 1768 130.3 68
COLLINGWOOD 17 5 0 2399 1957 122.6 68
GEELONG 16 6 0 2224 1714 129.5 64
ESSENDON 16 6 0 2323 1820 127.6 64
FITZROY 14 8 0 2413 2152 112.1 56
Hawthorn 13 9 0 2312 2114 109.4 52
Richmond 13 9 0 2323 2207 105.3 52
North Melbourne 10 12 0 2386 2293 104.1 40
South Melbourne 8 14 0 2165 2522 85.8 32
St Kilda 5 17 0 1930 2266 85.2 20
Footscray 2 20 0 1764 2680 65.8 8
Melbourne 1 21 0 1824 2873 63.5 4



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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!


  1. DBalassone says

    Excellent account Stainless.  It was a lot like the conclusion to the 1987 season: every spot from 1st to 7th was in question.  I remember standing in the rain, mud and wind at Victoria Park watching the Pies surrender top spot.  They looked cooked.  Also recall, that with the Pies gone, the Dons were a chance for top spot, yet somehow they slipped to 4th (thanks to the Cats and Terry Bright), despite winning 15 in a row.  They then exited the following week.  They had beaten eventual Grand Finalists Collingwood and Carlton twice that year, so the Pies and Blues were happy to see the back of them.

  2. Stainless, this has been a great season’s effort by you, thoroughly enjoyable, and well supported by newspaper reports and video clips. Now for the finals!

  3. Thanks Sam, whilst Richmond would indeed rebound in 1982 I felt 1981 was the seeds of the misery of 37 years. Sacking Jewell one year after a record breaking GF win was weird. Thankfully 2017 and 2019 arrived!

  4. Paul Field says

    Well written and accurate.
    The continuity mentioned and much heralded even today,is basically a myth and is now redundant anyway with South being totally emasculated in the Sydney club.
    I was intimately involved in the fight to keep us at the Lake oval,the basket case message perpetrated by the VFL and its media enablers was never tested properly nor were the available alternatives given any air time..
    So 107 years were discarded,it was disgraceful then and still is today.

  5. Well said Paul. As someone who baracked for South Melbourne, you articulate it better than i ever could.

    South Melbourne football club ceased to exist after R 22 in 1981, and it is disgraceful how the AFL has recuperated the clubs proud history, and attach it to the corporate entity called the Sydney Swans. South Melbourne and the Sydney Swans are two totally different entities, no matter how the AFL’s marketers want to sprout it.

    The same case applies with Fitzroy & Brisbane.

    The AFL is the main player in Australia’s entertainment industry but it doesn’t mean unquestioning acceptance of all their actions.


  6. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    I’d love to hear from some of our Bloods’ fans who were around at this turbulent time and get their perspectives on South Melbourne’s “death”. Ed – maybe you could spread the word?

    Damian – the Pies certainly looked to be struggling at precisely the wrong time, but there were plenty of intriguing twists and turns ahead.

    Thanks Ian – It’s been a lot of work but I must say I’m enjoying the quality of the footy (rather more than the 2020 fare!)

    Noel – I totally agree about the downward spiral that 1981 triggered at Punt Road. I omitted to mention how quickly Jewell was sacked after Round 22. I think it was within a couple of days. Ruthless! And totally unwarranted.

    Paul and Glen – if I can be provocative, I reckon your sentiments were largely shared by the old South fans until…er…about 2005. Funny how big their Melbourne fan base became around that time!

  7. Stainless, I noticed Rick Davies & Kevin Sait were the leading goal kickers for their team that day. Both in the final match of their only season. Some sort of claim to fame.

    It’s a pity Fitzroy took their foot off after 1/2 time. Collingwood hadn’t been held goalless in a match since R6, 1900

    Wasn’t ‘Jacko’ a good footballer? Averaged 3.75 goals a game. In current AFL ranks ‘Buddy’ averages just over 3 goals a game. I can’t think of anyone else currently who betters, or is close to ‘Jacko’ in this context

    Stainless this alleged South Melbourne,Sydney fan base, how big is it now? I imagine something similar could be said about the Fitzroy, Brisbane sophistry.

    Keep up the good work. Scary how long ago this season was , yet some parts are as clear as a bell to me.


  8. Glen!

    As I understand it the Swans membership in Melbourne is over 20K.
    There is strong engagement between the club and its members.
    Tony Morwood who was the manager in Melbourne for more than 10 years was principally responsible for building this base of support.
    Meanwhile the Lions, unlike the Swans, do not maintain an office in Melbourne.
    The Swans office is located at the club’s spiritual home, the Lake Oval.
    The Swans are in a better place.

  9. Glen – to think that “Jacko” kicked 76 goals in a season where his side won just one game is remarkable. The wet weather made it a tough year for forwards as well. Michael Roach won the inaugural Coleman Medal with 86 goals, well down on his 107 in 1980.

    Hi Dr Rocket – Thanks for the details about the Sydney’s Melbourne-based membership. Those numbers certainly match my observations of Sydney’s substantial support at their games in Melbourne. However, I maintain that this is a recent phenomenon and I would venture that few of the 20k members would have been a) alive in 1981 or b) have any attachment to old South Melbourne. I know there are some notable exceptions to this (including prominent members of the Almanac community), but not many. In short, the passing of time and the post-2000 success of Sydney have served to gloss over the bitterness that prevailed in the first couple of decades after the demise of South Melbourne.

    It’s a sensitive topic I know, but I’m calling it as I remember it.

  10. Philip Mendes says

    Stainless, that video of a happy Ron Alexander being interviewed with mud all over his face brings back some very fond memories. Thanks for sharing.

  11. One of my biggest sporting regrets was missing that last game at the Lake Oval, after having attended every other home game that year. I was gutted with the move to Sydney and moved to Perth after the 1982 season to be as far away from it as I could possibly get and I refused to watch the Swans on TV for many years afterwards and took great joy in their every defeat.There was a massive loss to North Melbourne in one of the early years and there were even calls for them to be brought back to Melbourne. Looking back, the writing was on the wall at a game at Princes Park against Carlton in 1982 when the South Melbourne name was mysteriously replaced on the scoreboard with SWANS as the game was being televised back to Sydney. We had been assured that the name and the jumper would NEVER be changed but of course that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Carlton kicked 12.5 in the first quarter so the bandwagon supporters in the Harbour City would have well and truly switched off by then. I well remember the many meetings at the Lake Oval about the move in 1981 and the passion displayed by many old supporters, and a fiery former centre half-back even threatening an old teammate with violence. Sir James Hardy came to one meeting and told us all to get over it and move on and I felt like doing the same as the old centre half-back. It was an amazing time but sadly the inevitable happened. I have friends who continued to follow them even after the move and they are still just as passionate and they can’t understand why i don’t share their interest as I still have photographs of Bobby Skilton, Barry Round and Laurie Nash and four South team photos on my study wall. To me, South died the day they left the Lake Oval despite the SMFC on the back of the Sydney jumper and the retention of the club song, and my heart sinks every time I drive past the old ground.

  12. Thanks Philip – i thought it really summed up the mood of the Royboys at that time. Another good instalment in store for next week!
    Gerry – wow, that’s what I’m talking about! Truly it was a bitter, divisive time. Thanks for your reminiscences.
    Any other red and white perspectives??

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