1981 Revisited – The Escort Cup: ‘The Night Owls’


Tim Watson’s running goal in which he leapfrogs a fallen pack of players is one of the iconic moments of the 1981 season. The video clip shows Watson’s goal alongside Lance Franklin’s similar leaping, running goal 30 years later. Watson’s effort, in the heavy going at Waverley in mid-winter, certainly doesn’t pale by comparison.


What many folk mightn’t realise is that this famous goal occurred not during the Premiership season but in the Grand Final of the Escort Cup on a chilly Tuesday night in July.


Night football was first played in Melbourne in 1956 when a competition was organised for clubs that did not make the VFL final four. This operated on a knock-out basis at the South Melbourne Ground during September. The original series was wound up in 1971 and the new series started at VFL Park in 1977. Operating as an FA Cup-style knockout competition, by 1981, the night series involved 34 clubs: all VFL, SANFL and WAFL clubs and representative teams from Tasmania, Queensland, ACT and NSW. Back in the days when sports sponsorship by tobacco companies was very much in vogue, the competition was known as the Escort Cup, with a total prizemoney pool of $450,000 offered by W.D. and H.O.Wills.


From the VFL’s perspective, the Escort Cup was useful on a number of fronts. The first matches were played three weeks before the VFL Premiership season, providing plenty of television content for footy-starved fans through March. Once the regular season began, it moved to a regular Tuesday night slot, whereby the League could showcase footy under lights as a bold and futuristic concept. The participation of clubs from outside Victoria provided novelty value for VFL fans, but importantly, at a time when the League was considering expanding the competition, emphasised that this was a national game. Granted, the structure of the competition gave the Victorian clubs a pretty significant “seeding” advantage and no non-Victorian club defeated a VFL club this year. But it did happen on other occasions, serving as a subtle reminder that quality players and teams could exist outside the VFL.


The format of the night series changed considerably over the years, declining in status as the national AFL competition evolved and the professional standards of the game decreed that players couldn’t be asked to play mid-week games as well as on weekends. But in 1981, the competition was in its heyday. The crowds were never great. VFL Park on a winter Tuesday night was, after all, probably the bleakest place on Earth. But the competition at the time had sufficient scale to make most clubs take it seriously, especially as they reached the final rounds.


So it was that 42,000 fans braved the cold to watch Essendon recover from a slow start to beat Carlton with a power-packed second half to win their first trophy since their 1965 Premiership. Separate competition it may have been, but the Bombers’ Escort Cup triumph had a strong sense of continuity with their extraordinary mid-season revival. It remained to be seen whether it would be a precursor to greater glory in September.


1981 Escort Cup Results


First Round Matches


Essendon 13.16 (94) d Fitzroy 7.10 (52)

Subiaco 16.11 (107) d South Fremantle 12.14 (86)

West Perth 13.10 (88) d Claremont 12.15 (87)

East Fremantle 21.15 (141) d Swan Dist. 9.16 (70)

East Perth 19.13 (127) d Perth 16.6 (102)

Pt. Adelaide 14.17 (101) d Woodville 10.12 (72)

Central Dist. 14.18 (102) d West Torrens 9.14 (68)

Nth Adelaide 15.16 (106) d Sturt 10.15 (75)

West Adelaide 15.12 (102) d Norwood 12.8 (80)

Melbourne 6.5 (41) d Footscray 4.7 (31)

Sth Adelaide 13.10 (88) d Glenelg 6.17 (53)

Hawthorn 15.11 (101) d St Kilda 7.6 (48)

Tasmania 13.18 (96) d Queensland 12.8 (80)

ACT 14.24 (108) d N.S.W. 7.9 (51)

West Perth 18.22 (120) d East Fremantle 12.14 (86)

East Perth 18.17 (125) d Subiaco 13.15 (93)

Pt. Adelaide 13.12 (90) d Nth. Adelaide 8.18 (66)

West Adelaide 19.15 (129) d Central Districts 14.8 (92)

ACT 17.4 (106) d Tasmania 11.20 (86)

Footscray 14.15 (99) d ACT 11.7 (73)



Second Round Matches


Geelong 10.15 (75) d Sth Adelaide 4.7 (31)

Sth. Melbourne 16.19 (115) d West Adelaide 8.6 (54)

Essendon 15.17 (107) d Pt. Adelaide 8.10 (58)

Richmond 13.8 (86) d Melbourne 7.10 (52)

Nth. Melbourne 20.13 (133) d West Perth 8.7 (55)

Collingwood 20.18 (138) d East Perth 4.16 (40)

Carlton 10.7 (67) d Footscray 8.12 (60)

Hawthorn 15.22 (112) d East Fremantle 5.4 (34)


Quarter Finals


Sth. Melbourne 8.7 (55) d Geelong 5.12 (42)

Essendon 14.9 (93) d Hawthorn 10.15 (75)

Carlton 10.10 (70) d Richmond 8.13 (61)

Nth. Melbourne 11.15 (81) d Collingwood 9.5 (59)


Semi Finals


Essendon 13.10 (88) d Sth. Melbourne 4.9 (33)

Carlton 9.18 (72) d Nth. Melbourne 4.6 (30).


Grand Final


Essendon 9.11 (65) d Carlton 6.5 (41)



To read further stories from ‘1981 Revisited….’ click HERE



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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. Colin Ritchie says

    Who could ever forget Timmy in that match. An image to behold! Thanks for reminding me Sam.

  2. Portender for 1993 ? I’m trying to think how many blokes who played that night turned up in September 1993. Obviously Tim Watson. Any how i reckon more of those who played here in 1981 would have played in 1993, then those who played in 1968 appeared in the 1981 clash. I don’t recall a player from the 68 grand final still being around in 1981.



  3. Stainless says

    I’ve done a quick scan and there were none of the class of ’68 still around in 1981, and Watson was the only survivor from 1981 who played in ’93. In spite of Essendon’s successful run in 1981, quite a lot of ‘softer’ players were shown the door in Sheedys first few seasons!

  4. Ta Stainless. Watson is the segue from 1981 to 1993.

    None of the Blue Baggers would have been around, ‘Percy’ retiring after 1979. As we knew Robert Walls & Jezza kept their careers going after leaving Princes Park, but none were running around that cold, Tuesday night.


  5. Stainless says

    Bruce Doull and David McKay were the two Carlton relics from the 1960s, both having started their careers at the Blues in 1969. I’m not sure if they played in the Escort Cup final but they were certainly prominent members of the 1981 team, as my upcoming reports will show.

  6. G’day Stainless.

    ‘Relics ‘, an interesting term for two fine players. Yep both kicked off in 1969, the year after Carlton beat Essendon in the G F.

    McKay’s farewell game for Carlton was the 1981 premiership , his final kick being a goal. I’m unsure if he played the night GF, as he missed a few games in the early part of the season. I’m fairly confident Doull would have played in this match.

    I’ve trawled around the ‘net’ but i’ve not found a site providing the details of the match.


  7. Thanks Stainless. I went to a few escort Cup matches as a kid. It always seemed to be cold. Except for the 1980 final when North Melb won. That night was mild from memory.
    The losing Carlton gf team in ’81 was as follows:
    1 Wells, 3 Fitzpatrick, 4 Bosustow, 5 Sheldon, 7 Johnston,
    8 Keogh, 9 Hunter, 10 Waddell, 11 Doull, 27 English,
    29 Sharp, 30 Whitnall, 32 Glascott, 33 McConville, 34 Marcou,
    35 Lenaghan, 36 Maclure, 37 Harmes, 40 Howell, 48 Hocking.

  8. Stainless says

    Thanks Smokie.
    Imagine a side these days risking a list of that calibre in a Tuesday night game when you’ve got a top-of-the-table match the following Saturday!

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