1981 Revisited: Introduction

The temporary loss of football is a trivial by-product of the worldwide medical and economic crisis engulfing us. But it’s a good illustration of how quickly and dramatically this has affected all parts of society.

 

Two weeks ago, AFL clubs were making final preparations for the season ahead. Even one week ago, the enormity of what was unfolding was just dawning. Footy was played. Defiantly. A Canute-like defiance perhaps, played out before empty stands, but there remained a sense that we could somehow carry on as normal. By last Sunday, all sense of normality had evaporated.

 

March 26. I’m gazing wistfully down the near-deserted Swan Street precinct that, six months ago, was a sea of deliriously joyous yellow and black. There will be no reprise of those scenes tonight. For weeks the fridge magnet confidently proclaimed the significance of the date. Collingwood versus Richmond at the MCG. An early Grand Final preview perhaps? At the very least, two heavyweight contenders squaring off in time-honoured fashion. All wiped. By something we can’t even see.

 

Nothing – not even world wars nor the Flu pandemic a century ago – has managed to shut down football totally. Until now. In the midst of this crisis, it’s easy to be prophet of doom about the game’s future. But in whatever form it emerges, later this year, next year, whenever, footy will survive.

 

We can wring our hands, lamenting the loss of what we had. We can dismiss footy as an irrelevance in a time where far weightier matters dominate every waking moment. Neither response really cuts it for me. With all due respect and empathy to the many players and staff directly affected, footy’s travails are low on the list of the nation’s challenges. But equally, we cannot ignore the game’s significance in our lives. Footy is too widely loved to vanish from our consciousness. It has too many big and powerful allies to succumb. COVID-19 may mark the demise of a wealthy, domineering AFL as surely as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand marked the end of Europe’s decaying old order. The important point is that Europe emerged in 1919 – bloodied, battered, irreparably changed – but it emerged nonetheless. The end of an era should not be confused with – the end.

 

This then is my rather ponderous introduction to my method of coping with a year without footy. The power of memory is a wonderful gift at a time like this and I’m choosing to draw on it to recall a footy season that in many ways was also the end of an era, albeit one not nearly as seismic and very much of the game’s own making.

 

The 1981 VFL season was memorable in many ways. The competition is thriving, setting new attendance records. On-field, the game is in rude good health. The fast, open footy that evolved through the 1970s is at its zenith, performed by a galaxy of star players and memorable characters. Just four years after Channel 7 paid the VFL $100,000 to televise the Grand Final live, the co-dependency between television and the League is growing, the massive commercial opportunities becoming apparent to both.

 

Yet beneath the headline gloss and the “big” money flowing into the game, the VFL remains the same, 12-team suburban competition that it has been since 1925. Although it’s possible for top players to earn a living from the game, it’s still an amateur competition built on amateur club structures. For all their individual charm, the old suburban grounds are primitive and constricted, severely limiting the game’s potential to grow attendances. Above all, the majority of clubs are in financial difficulties. There’s an entrenched and growing divide between the haves and have-nots. Only four different teams have won premierships in the previous 14 years.

 

Under the stewardship of President, Allen Aylett and General Manager, Jack Hamilton, the VFL has, for several years, been pursuing several agendas that will, in time, radically reshape the competition into the national Australian Football League we know today. These are, chiefly:

 

  • Ground rationalisation
  • Sunday football
  • Expansion of the competition outside Victoria.

 

Simple and logical though these reforms might appear today, I cannot overstate how radical these ideas seem in 1981 and the extent of die-hard fans’ opposition towards them. As much as it requires vision and boldness, transforming a much-loved but hidebound institution into something unrecognisable to its core constituents demands a softly-softly approach. The VFL has been quietly tinkering with these ideas for several years. The odd match has been shifted to its showpiece ground, VFL Park. Sunday afternoon reserves games have been trialled and televised. In 1979 and 1980, several matches were played in Sydney and televised live back into VFL heartland. But it was in 1981 that the League will remove its kid gloves. For South Melbourne supporters particularly, the League’s decisions in 1981 will be brutal and heartbreaking. Whatever your opinion, they were pivotal in the game’s history and mark this season as the last in the old tradition of the VFL.

 

All the while, on those muddy, ramshackle suburban grounds, a season will unfold that those of us lucky enough to be there will regard as one of the all-time great ones.

 

Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to piece together an account of the 1981 season that mixes personal recollection with historical narrative, match reports with analysis of the goings-on behind the scenes. The season from my perspective remains clouded in disappointment as my beloved Tigers fail to recreate the magic of their successful 1980 campaign. This sense will no doubt prevail through the match accounts, but I’ll try my best to channel my days as a history student to provide some balance and objectivity.

 

Today, 39 years ago, Round 1 begins.  Come along.  BYO cans.  Crowds welcome and on those packed terraces, no chance of social distancing!

 

 

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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. Colin Ritchie says

    It certainly will be interesting to see which way footy goes once everything clears up. After what we are going through has cleared up, I think people will realise money isn’t the be all and all of life, but your health is the main priority. One thing is clear, rich man, poor man it doesn’t matter which but bugs like the coronavirus takes no favourites, money cannot buy your way out of it. I think the AFL may look at footy in a more community minded spirit and not chase the big dollars. Time will tell!

  2. Yep Sam i have fairly strong memories of 1981. My first year at Uni, Port Melbourne’s second flag in a hat trick, of course Ian Botham single handedly destroying us in the Ashes series.

    1981 saw the death of South Melbourne. I can not understand/comprehend anyone considering Sydney as being the same club. It was a momentous event. In hindsight the destruction of South Melbourne was good for football, giving us a national game, not simply a parochial Melbourne one.

    As a Port Melbourne supporter Sunday to me was sacrosant as the day the VFA played. Many others old enough to recall the VFA? The VFL was played on Saturday. That concept is now long been in the dust bin of history.

    The 1981 season was a high scoring one, with clubs passing the century marks regularly. One match where both teams passed the ton was in Melbourne’s sole win of the season in R3. I won’t say any more about this match Sam, in case you’re doing a feature on it.

    Look forward to reading the articles. Where have my last 39 years gone?

    Glen!

  3. Glen!

    Plenty of VFA content on yesterday’s Coodabeen Champions including an interview with Harold Martin who was very fond of playing at Port. Great listening if you have the time

    https://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/coodabeensfootyshow/coodabeen-champions/12078682

  4. G’day Gerry. Yeah i caught the tail end of the interview.

    He certainly wasn’t a pin up boy for us Burra supporters.

    Glen!

  5. Yes, he said the Burra folk would get into him from the moment he walked through the gate with his bag but also said he loved playing at Port

  6. Shane John Backx says

    Was a great season, right up until 3/4 time in the GF.

  7. Frank Taylor says

    I’ll second that Shane…..
    You can’t play an injured player and expect to win a flag. Peter Moore declared himself fit and it was apparent that he couldn’t jump from the 1st bounce.
    Didn’t learn……. 2011 and Jolley and Ried, same again.
    Got properly run over in the last.
    Both times.

    Nice preamble SS – dunno whether I can read the following installments, but I’ll try……

    Cheers and Floreat Pica
    Frank

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