Era, era on the wall; 1977-1986

Part 6 – Castles made of sand

Many a footballer of the late ’70’s to mid ’80’s vintage count themselves lucky to have played in the big league when they did.  Whilst few earned enough to set themselves up for life, they at least lived comfortably and without a sensationalist media tracking their every word and movement.  As a spectator there was also much to commend the ‘Victorian’ League’s final decade.

Fuelled by compelling characters and tough, attacking football played on suburban dung hills and VFL Park’s great expanses, the game powered to a peak in 1981.  One home and away match at Waverley between Collingwood and Hawthorn shoe-horned over 90,000.  Gridlock in the carpark commonly ensued and many a child’s bladder would threaten to burst in the back seat of the Falcon.

The Junction Oval scoreboard spun like a pokies machine
for Fitzroy and St Kilda in 1983; 19 goals in one quarter!

Throughout this time (framed by Allen Aylett’s ascension as VFL Chairman and the beginning of a national competition), team score averages topped 100.  An all-time high of 112 was reached in 1982. This represents 25 points more per team than today’s spectacle.  The prolific full forwards of the early ’70’s passed the baton to a brace of replacements who kept the white calicoes waving.  After Hudson’s last hurrah in 1977 (110 goals), Templeton, Roach, Blight, QuinlanBeasley, Capper and Taylor all raised the ton, albeit none quite matched the enduring feats of Huddo and McKenna.

Despite many skilled ball magnets such as Bartlett, Matthews, Ashman, Daicos, Flower, Watson and Garry Wilson, it was an age when big men were better recognised for their influence.  Four Brownlows were awarded to ruckmen (Teasdale, Round and Moore x2) and four to key forwards (Blight, Templeton, Quinlan and Glendinning).


Red shorts, Templeton kicks 15 and a farcical crowd invasion
(including Footscray coach Don McKenzie).  What’s not to like?

Clubs – good, bad and indifferent – all hell bent on instant success, threw good money after ordinary footballers and money they didn’t have after good footballers.  Most players couldn’t spell professionalism, let alone comprehend what it entailed (notwithstanding a majority of players also worked regular jobs).  Duffle coated diehards became exasperated by established heroes such as Moore, Templeton, Teasdale, Quinlan, Dempsey and Raines who changed colours as readily as their jock strap.  The ‘Pies and Tigers in particular engaged in a futile poaching war.  Meanwhile Allender, Cox, Foschini, Paul Morwood, McLean and Buckenara counted among the names who railed against the prevailing transfer rules which, good intentions aside, verged on restraints of trade.

“We won on the ground and all their lawyers can’t take the four points away from us.  It’s a shame football has come to this.”
Embittered Swans coach Ricky Quade on Morwood and Foschini’s defections to St Kilda

Arguably, to their detriment, the WAFL and SANFL competitions showcased their talent in some wonderful State of Origin encounters.  As a consequence they were pillaged.  Hardie, Platten, Kernahan and Bradley followed the likes of Maurice Rioli, the Krakouer brothers, Bosustow, Hunter, Peake, Buckenara and many more.  Most fired, a few backfired, and ultimately the spectacle was all the better for the injection of this mysterious A Grade talent from over yonder.

Another avenue to which Victorian fans were prepped for a national competition was the old night series (rebirthed in 1977) which featured interstate clubs.  It seems incomprehensible now that a quasi FA Cup format, played alongside the main competition on a Tuesday night at VFL Park in the depths of winter, endured 11 years before moving to a more purposeful and fan-friendly preseason.

“It took some time for me to really believe I was good enough to play football alongside that man.”
Hawthorn recruit Gary Ablett referring to Leigh Matthews in 1982

The looseness of the time was evident on-field.  Heroes and villains such as Percy Jones, Kink, Carman, Muir and Jacko made the live experience compelling.  Send in the clowns was perhaps a more appropriate VFL anthem than Up there Cazaly.  Another joker, Ray Byrne, presented Kevin Bartlett a toothless comb before a game whilst off-field Lou Richards was at the height of his fame, front and centre in many a public prank.

Of course there was collateral damage, and as skilled as the Hawks and Bombers were at the peak of their rivalry, so-called ‘hitmen’ in Roger Merrett, Ron Andrews and Dipper provided an advantageous intimidation factor.  Few came off worse than Neville Bruns in 1985.  The subsequent police assault charge laid against Leigh Matthews was unusual, and the incident itself a catalyst for trial-by-video.  A frosty Coach’s Corner exchange on World of Sport the next day gave new meaning to the lunchtime Sunday roast (popular in the day).




The relocation of South to Sydney in 1982 proved as tumultuous as Matthews’ final season.  In a sad way Dr Geoffrey Edelston is still attempting to recapture his heady sugar daddy days with leggy Leanne at the SCG, when the tiny togged Warwick ‘I only take what’s mine‘ Capper worked wonders as a marketing tool.  The ‘Eighties certainly weren’t short on bruising, flamboyant, high flying excitement.  The VFL had already dipped its toes in showbiz pre-Sydney when Barry Crocker paved the way for decades of cringeworthy crooners when he sang at the 1977 Grand Final.  Meanwhile the Bluebirds (followed by the Swanettes) provided a pleasant distraction for pubescent boys and staunchly hetero men folk in the outer.




The footy experience remained an egalitarian, affordable escape from the drudgery of school or work.  A 2-can limit (per purchase) was a bummer for some, but a boon for family goers and a fair response to the tragic death of a spectator at Princes Park (hit whilst protecting his 6yo son in 1982).  Rusted-ons rode the fortunes of their team week-to-week at their familiar, if not luxurious home terraces, and every second week at not so hospitable away digs.  Other relics, such as dressing gowns, also endured.

“I didn’t mind the media guys, blokes like Peter Simunovich, Mike Sheahan, Trevor Grant and Mick Davis, because they used to write the truth. That must just have been the way papers were then. Now they write shit.”
Essendon Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Egan

A win demanded a quick dash home to catch a replay on Seven’s Big League, with Palmer’s Punchlines a must-see.  A quarter of TV viewers watched Peter Landy introduce the best of the day’s action and another 7% tuned into Channel 2’s replay.  Sundays offered up The Winners, World of Sport and either the VFL Reserves or the Swans if they were at home.  There was no shortage of print coverage either with the The Age, The Sun, The Herald, The Truth, Inside Football and the Sporting Globe all viable publications.  Meanwhile on radio the Coodabeen Champions were born.



Fascinating footage at Arden St, 1979; Barassi berates
his players and passionate North fans join in the chorus

Despite all the excitement, as the ‘Eighties wore on crowds slumped to levels not seen since the early 1950’s.  The game’s ills were illustrated by Seven’s downsized (and rejected) offer of $2.7m for TV rights in 1986 (they paid $3.5 the year before).  Whilst both amounts represented a sizeable leap on the 1977 figure of $200,000 pa, it clearly wasn’t enough to pay the VFL’s bills.

The wily Kevin Sheedy’s baby Bombers finally grew up and battled the Blues and Hawks for the spoils, yet underneath it all the game had stagnated.  Besides gallant efforts by perennial battlers NorthFootscray and Fitzroy (whose coach Robbie Walls pioneered ‘the huddle’ kick-out strategy), September was a largely predictable affair.

New Magpies, same old story (Collingwood FC)

As a result of a largesse that dated back a decade or so, five of the 12 clubs slid into technical bankruptcy, and another three teetered on the brink.  The changing club/player/sport/business dynamic was superbly portrayed by the feature film The Club (1980) conceived by playwright David Williamson, and the screenplay couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate team.  By the mid-‘Eighties the once mighty Collingwood was but a phone call away from being wound up by their bankers, having spent a motza on, to quote fictional Magpie coach Laurie Holden, ‘the wrong bloody players!’.  And for the nomadic Lions, leaving the Junction Oval for Victoria Park was another step towards being placed in palliative care.

“The truth is that Australian Rules football is designed for daytime, with the old fashion wind, rain and sunshine, using a leather ball on odd shaped grounds.”
The Age columnist Garrie Hutchinson, 1980

Alas, Allen Aylett’s grandiose visions of a national competition weren’t shared by the fans, nor club administrators.  Attempts to merely introduce Sunday matches and night football were a battle.  The public mood was encapsulated by a chorus of booing directed his way at the 1984 Grand Final.

Powerful enemies John Elliott and Ian Collins weren’t the caring, sharing type and their fight against football socialism, particularly gate revenue equalisation, led to them secretly plotting a breakaway national league.  Aylett fretted as days of reckoning approached.   Who was going to save the clubs from themselves?  Little wonder Aylett’s national obsession didn’t quite materialise under his watch.

With hardened businessmen such as Elliott, Lindsay Fox (St Kilda), Bob Ansett (North) and Ranald MacDonald (Collingwood) calling the shots, of course the only winner would be self-interest.  Only when the sick and sorry hierarchies realised an independent body was the only remedy could Aylett’s dream become reality.  The overdue creation of an independent VFL Commission in 1985 proved one of football’s great watershed moments.  No more baby steps – with the power no longer vested in the clubs, big changes were afoot.

To summarise 1977-86, as one of the star goal slingers who typified the era of excess would say, ‘WOWEE‘!

Video links
1977 Collingwood v North Melbourne Grand Final Draw
1977 Nth Melb. v Collingwood GF Replay I 1977 season highlights
1978 Hawthorn v North Melb. Grand Final I 1978 season highlights
1979 Carlton v Collingwood Grand Final I 1979 season highlights
1980 Richmond v Collingwood Grand Final I 1980 season highlights
1981 Carlton v Collingwood Grand Final I 1981 season highlights
1982 Carlton v Richmond Grand Final I 1982 season highlights
1983 Hawthorn v Essendon Grand Final I 1983 season highlights
1984 Essendon v Hawthorn Grand Final I 1984 season highlights
1985 Essendon v Hawthorn Grand Final I 1985 season highlights
1986 Hawthorn v Carlton Grand Final


5 balls

Part 7:  Growing pains and gains (1987-1999)

The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)
Part 2: A war of attrition (1939-1948)
Part 3: Safe, at home and away (1949-1959)
Part 4: A popular routine (1960-1966)
Part 5: Rocking the suburbs (1967-1976)



About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Thank you the good work keeps coming from you Jeff.

    This was certainly an exciting era but it was the beginning of the end for the game i hadi loved. The death of South Melbourne, with their replacement by a Sydney team who despite having no organic links with South Melbourne,,was allowed to usurp their name, the playing of vFL matches on Sunday, hastening the demise of the VFA and the increased corportiisation of the game were what made the game what it is now.

    I might be an old stick in the mud but my halcyon period was the era Jeff covered in Part 5. It’s still a great game but not the game i played/watched in my youth. Keep up the top work jeff it’s been a good trip down memory lane.


  2. Luke Reynolds says

    Great stuff Jeff. 1986 is the first year I can clearly remember following footy, so the era immediately preceding it is of great interest.
    However he is thought of as a bloke now, Wawrick Capper was wonderful for the game in 1985-87. We saw so much of the Swans on TV, and you’d always watch just to see the number 39. No Swans fans at the primary school I went to yet we all screamed “CAAAAPPPER” when flying for a mark in kick to kick.

  3. Brilliant Jeff,
    Gotta love the promo for VFL park. The Coles Cafeteria lady dishing out warm coke straight from the carton.. catering yep!
    What a dump that joint was, and how did they ever get footage of the sun shining out there?
    ‘Just park the car’….and be prepared to sleep in it.
    Seemed the league would fixture Dogs and Geelong every year there, so the 2 sides furthest away could soak up the ambiance of one of Auckland’s outer suburbs.
    Also the great KT what a freak in an abysmal footy team

  4. Thanks Cowshed, I couldn’t resist including that classic promo. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking but for all its faults I’d still rather venture to ‘one of Auckland’s outer suburbs’ than the Docklands (assuming there was a rail link by now – a big assumption given Melbourne Airport’s still waiting).

    Whilst it rained like cats & dogs often enough (I lost feeling in my feet one day and I felt like I was running on the stumps of my legs when I went for a post match kick) scheduling the Cats & Dogs there was pretty dumb.

    Such a shame KT’s knees gave out in his prime. There’s footage of him getting his 100th on a muddy, windy day at Vic Park in ’78 too if you trawl Youtube hard enough.

    Luke, I think one of the funniest features I’ve read in the Age’s Good Weekend was a profile of The Wiz. He’s the accidental footy legend who’s made the most of his abilities and limitations!

    Glen, this era was my first and I guess for many that tends to remain their favourite. But I do wish I could go back in a time machine and experience ’67-’76 for myself. I’m sure I would have loved it just as much.

  5. Yes i went to a few of those Geelong Footscray matches at VFL park in the 1977-1986 period. They met there in 1977, 1980, 1983, 1984 and 1986 in this period with Geelong wining three of the encounters. They also played there prior to 1977, with clashes in 1971, 1973, 1974 and the elimination final in 1976. Off the top of my head the last clash there was in 1986 when Geelong lost by two points.

    I think i’m right re the above information. I ‘m getting old but my memory for sporting trivia is still pretty good.


    PS: Geoff i have some memories of 1969, the two years prior are fairly sparse to my memory. I do recall relations in Springvale had Tigers 1967 memorabilia prominent in their house for quite a few years.

  6. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Love it JD. 1981 was my favourite year apart from the GF. Record crowds close matches and great marks and goals. The VFL and the clubs got greedy after that and that’s why many were broke by the mid-80s. Fitzroy was up there for many of those years, too. Could have pinched it 1983. Cheers

  7. Congrats Jeff for another terrific piece and some marvellous memories of KT. I was there on that overcast day at Victoria Park when he notched the ton. I reckon it was a bloke by the name of George Brown (7 games) that passed the ball to him for the goal that brought up the century.

    I would argue that Ross Glendinning’s 1983 Brownlow Medal was won from Centre Half Back. He did spend a little time up forward that year (20 goals).

    Would love some clarification as to where Bernie Quinlan played in 1981. In his piece in the Age the morning after he shared the award with Barry Round, Ron Carter referred to him as “Quinlan, Fitzroy’s Centre Half Forward” My memories of Quinlan in the late 70’s/early 80’s were of him spending a fair bit of time on the ball, moving to a spot deep in the forward line in 1982/83 (?)

    Am I imagining this?


  8. My favourite footy era too, and I concur with Phil: 1981 was the best year ever (bar everything that happened after the 26 minute mark of the 3rd term in the GF). Really recommend that 1981 That was the year that was link. Lots of Daicos magic (Hafey move him to the forward line that year).
    You’ve got me thinking Mic – I could be wrong but I recall Quinlan playing Ruck Rover in 1981 with stints across half-forward. A bit like Blight in his Brownlow year in 1978 perhaps. How good were these guys:
    Blight 1978 78 goals as a Ruck Rover/half-forward
    Quinlan 1981 73 goals as a Ruck Rover/half-forward
    But the crème de la crème has to be Lethal in 1977 with 91 goals as a rover/forward-pocket sitting next to Peter Hudson. Lethal had 648 possessions that year, so I’m assuming most of his time was spent on the ball. Unbelievable.

  9. Thanks Phil, Mic, Damo.

    It’s funny how there’s so much love for ’81. My best mate who remembers it better than I do also contends it was footy’s best year in it’s best era. I have That was the Season that Was (1981) on VHS and I tend to agree it was a special year besides the last quarter and 3 minutes of the Grand Final.

    Along similar lines to the recent post on the highest aggregate scoring games I’m fascinated by individual scoring feats of this era. On baller / forward flanker types booting 7+ tallies on a regular basis, some of them by just good ordinary players as old Jack would say.

  10. Yes Mic a few of us were there in 1978 when Templeton got his ton; we jumped the fence, as one did in those days.

    1981 to me is best remembered for the VFA first division premiership. Port Melbourne thumping Preston by 107 points after a tight first half. Champagne football !!!

    In VFL ranks 1981 might be best recalled for Mr G Sidebottom missing the bus on preliminary final day. There are other memories though i’m not sure if this is the right site to raise them !


  11. Thanks Damien – thought Bernie spent a bit of time on the ball, your support is greatly appreciated.

    Hawthorn had three 50+ goal kickers in 1977 – Hudson, Matthews L and John Hendrie. It afforded them the luxury of playing Mick Moncrieff in the back half for all but a few games. Moncrieff kicked 90 goals either side of ’77 (97 in 1976 and 90 in 1978) – and yet they failed to even make the decider.

    Glen – you were more athletic than me then, and probably more so than me now, my preference was to enjoy the moment from the other side of the fence at Victoria Park that day. The 1981 Port Melbourne outfit of which you talk so fondly was a superb team. Only team that stood a chance against them was Coburg who finished the season in sixth place. Port went 6-0 against the other three finalists (Preston, Sandy, Frankston) with an average winning margin in excess of nine goals in those home and away matches. The second half of that years Grand Final was a clinic, great to watch so long as you didn’t follow the Ants.


  12. No probs Mic. The amazing thing about both Blight and Quinlan is after winning their Brownlows as on-baller/half-forwards they both later became full-forwards who topped the ton.

    Looking back on those 1980-81 ‘That Was the Season That Was’ links, I’m starting to think that Kade Simpson is the reincarnation of Leigh Carlson.

  13. daniel flesch says

    Thanks Jeff. as for this :. “One home and away match at Waverley between Collingwood and Hawthorn shoe-horned over 90,000. Gridlock in the carpark commonly ensued and many a child’s bladder would threaten to burst in the back seat of the Falcon.” I’ve been to just the one match at Waverley and it was this one. . Must have been a few the same that day. My team won , the three other people in our car were Magpie supporters. In the the 3 , i think , hours stuck in the carpark i had to pretend to be disappointed AND apolegetic as they reminded me every so often that it had my “bloody idea” for us all to got the footy together .

  14. Onya Daniel, in our car we wallowed in each other’s misery and my older brother somehow discreetly peed into an empty Coke can. We had to back up again for another instalment against the Bombers (78,000) for the same result both inside and outside the stadium.

    The curious aspect of VFL Park was the enormous care the dozens of blue coats invested into ensuring you parked your vehicle just so, but when the game was done they had all vanished. It was every driver for themselves as 15 lanes attempted to become 1 very quickly in an attempt to exit onto Police Road and the freeway. There was a couple enormous post match punch-ons in the carpark at a couple Pies-Blues games I attended.

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