Let’s back Jack

by LachlanWaterman

The 1976 SANFL Grand Final was Port Adelaide coach John Cahill’s first Grand Final as a coach.

He had the Port Adelaide creed instilled into him as a player and captain by the inimitable Foster Williams, and Cahill was a fast, fanatical learner.

’74 was an ice breaker; ’75 Cahill added dimensions to the Magpies modus operandi, and ’76 having finished minor premiers was thought to be the final piece in the premiership jig-saw. Then came the Jack Oatey master class.

While Port rested, Sturt slogged it out; losing the Qualifying Final to Neil Kerley’s tigers, looking down both barrels against Norwoodin the First Semi-Final – until a scintillating running goal from Michael Graham ignited the double blues resurgence.

With three key players sitting in the grandstand Sturt faced Glenelg again in the Preliminary Final, scraping home by seven points. Sturt had defied the odds to make the GF, and surely against a fit and ferocious Port Adelaide this would be too much. INJUSTICE IF PORT LOSE was the back page headline on the then Adelaide News.

Sturt coach Jack Oatey gathered his players into the blue room at Unley oval on the Friday night before the game, with the injustice article enlarged and plastered around all four walls. “Jack was absolutely furious,” Robert Klomp Sturt Centre Half Forward recalled. He then proceeded to go around the room player by player highlighting the finals played by their opponent and how inexperienced Port were in Grand Finals. By the end of the address we were ready to run through the walls.”

66,000 people crammed into FootballPark– some sitting alongside the boundary line and saw Sturt start well. “We kicked into a strong breeze and held Port to two goals and kicked one ourselves. At quarter time we knew we had them, Klomp commented.

Sturt broke the game open halfway through the second quarter and were never threatened. The unselfish teamwork had Oatey’s fingerprints all over it and was reflected in its goal kickers – Bagshaw 3, Graham 3, Klomp 3, and Wild 3. Oh, and Rick Davies had a nonchalant 40 possessions in ruck.

With Sturt kicking into a stiff breeze, Davies was taking several marks on the last line of defense that prompted master coach Oatey to ask affable runner Dave Edwards:

“What’s he doing back there?”

Edwards returned with the answer “getting the ball.”

Oatey asked again: “Why is Rick going defensive? Edwards returned again: “Getting kicks Jack; he says that’s where the ball is.”

A stern Oatey asked for a third time: “What is he doing back there?” Edwards on his third return to the Sturt dug-out and by this stage Davies had taken five telling marks on the last line of defense: “He’s getting kicks Jack. He says that’s where the play is.”

Oatey, chasing his tenth league title, responded with a grin: “Of course he is. Isn’t he a champion!”

While Sturt players and officials partied, Port pondered. Particularly Cahill. In 1977 there would be no mistake and Cahill broke through for the club’s first flag since 1965. There would be more to come in ’79, ’80 and ’81; a brief stint with Collingwood and West Adelaide, before another hat-trick in ’88,’89,’90.

Cahill knew footballers and what made them tick. He had a gift for making them feel special. Super-important. Almost super-human. He got an inspired response from his players who often played out of their skins on big occasions. Port supporters will have fond memories of unheralded eighteen year old defender Tony Hannam streaming out of defense in the 1977 Grand Final. Passionate South Adelaide supporters (if they exist) will recall an expected advantage in ruck in the ’79 Grand Final. A fresh faced Robert ‘sticks’ Dolan was best on ground for Port.

Cahill transformed George Fiachii from a regular reserves player into a dashing, rebounding dynamo, culminating with the Jack Oatey Medal in 1990. “Jack gave me the confidence I lacked. He had that art of making you feel ten foot tall and bullet-proof.” Stephen Williams was another who was deeply indebted to Cahill’s positivity, while cheeky local Tim Ginever developed into Port’s personification of leadership.

The Cahill magic continued with further triumphs in 1992, 1994, and 1995 before being appointed Ports inaugural coach in the AFL: “The players knew the history of the club, they knew the commitment and they knew the effort they had to give every week. It was our desire and attitude that set us apart from the rest of the competition. We expected to win and if we lost we knew we would make the effort to win the following week”, Cahill recalled.

The media’s preoccupation with Port’s aggression short-changed its pristine foot skills. Recall Brian Cunningham snapping from any angle with either foot; ‘Bomber’ Clifford’s torpedo goal from inside the centre square in the 1981 Grand Final and the bullet-like delivery of the great Russell Ebert.

In the late 80s and 90s it was the precocious young talents of Nathan Buckley, the mercurial Rohan Smith, Scott Hodges post-high from outside fifty, and the pin-point accuracy of Stephen Williams and Daryl Borlase.

The Let’s Back Jack campaign adopted by the Port committee in 1974 saw Cahill yield an incredible 11 Grand Finals for 10 premierships in 16 seasons in charge, handing the reigns to Stephen Williams in the back half of 1996 with Port again successful, collecting their 36th title.

Cahill returned to Alberton for a coaching cameo in 2005 leading the club to the Preliminary Final – its best finish since 1999. In 2008, he signed a two year contract with South Adelaide – the club he first played for as a junior to re-invigorate the inept Panthers, but resigned eight matches into the season citing ‘outside influences.’

Once described “the prince of nice guys”, Cahill was an obvious selection into the AFL Hall of Fame, but no doubt the pain of 1976 sits uncomfortably in the pit of Cahill’s stomach.


  1. Jeff Dowsing says

    It’s sad to see what has become of such an incredibly proud, successful club.

    Perhaps both incarnations of Port need to ‘Get Jack Back’ in some way shape or form.

    Thanks Lachlan, always enjoy reading about the SA Magpies.

  2. Great yarn Lachlan.

    Are the SANFL still making Port pay for those years of dominance?

  3. I am a big believer in cycles. The best organisations win premierships every 15-20 years. This year Norwood won their first flag for 15 years. You can never underestimate a club like Port. Ever. Having said that, it is great to see them struggling.

  4. Barry McGee says

    the S.A.N.F.L is not the same without the magpies doing well .The POWER have sucked the life out of the club. I am planning to start going to matches again and hope they improve enough to make it worthwhile .I must say that clubs like North Adelaide and such certainly showed their true colours and sunk the boot in while we have been down .Without the Maggies the competition is boring .

  5. Barry, I would NEVER write Port off. Norwood broke a 15 year drought this year and i am a big believer in cycles. Port will come again. It will be interesting to see how Ken McGregor goes this year. Thanks for your post.

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