State Footy: Phil Cleary plays big part in glorious VFA Grand Final memories

By Rod Oaten

Oh, for the nostalgia of the good old VFA Grand Final.  It was an unsophisticated, grass roots event, full of tribal loyalty and tension between the supporters. No corporate boxes, but then I guess corporations didn’t get involved with what really was working-class footy.  You would often see a club president or secretary doing all sorts of menial jobs  before the game; even players had roles off the field on match days.

I didn’t get to any VFA  games or Grand Finals before the early ’80s; teaching up country, young kids and overseas travel made it a bit difficult. But I still managed to see a bit of VFA on Channel 0 in the  late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s on Sundays  throughout the season, and on those special Sundays in September. Who could forget Dandenong’s Frosty Miller, Preston’s Harold Martin, Port Melbourne’s Fred Cook, Oakleigh’s  Bob Johnson, Geelong West’s Joe Radojevic, and of course Coburg’s  Phil Cleary. The clubs and the names could go on and on.  These “colourful” characters added spice to your Sunday’s footy. In those days only the VFA played on Sunday and the crowds were big and always involved in every aspect of the game.

One of the first games I saw live was down at the St Kilda Junction Oval when Coburg took on Williamstown for the 1986 flag. Both teams looked great in their traditional jumpers and as we all expected, there was only a few points in it at half-time. After the big break Phil Cleary, captain coach of Coburg, was sent off after exchanging” pleasantries” with Terry Wheeler, captain coach of Williamstown. The Seagulls were delighted that he had been sent off and kicked 7 goals in a very short time to take a commanding lead at three-quarter time. Cleary returned to the field for the last quarter but even though the Burgers kicked 9 goals, the damage had been done, and the Seagulls were victorious.
The VFA moved the Grand Final to Windy Hill in 1988 and 1989 for more of the Coburg v Williamstown drama. There were big crowds for both of these games, with well over 20,000 at each game. Cleary had retired as a player but coached the Burgers with an intense passion. The 1988 game was again close until half-time, but Coburg had a huge third quarter, kicking 7.6 to Willy’s 1.3.
At the orange break Phil passionately urged the team to victory,
reminding them of the injustice Coburg had suffered two years before.
The Burgers held on to win by just over 4 goals and Phil smiled at

In ’89 it was on again, same teams  and same ground, same
pressure. Williamstown’s goalkicking was let them down early in the second quarter, missing some getable shots. Coburg made the most of limited opportunities and held a four-goal lead by three-quarter time.  Phil mustered up all his oratory skills and pleaded with the Coburg players for one more quarter of hard footy.

Over at the Williamstown huddle Barry Round was doing the same for the Seagulls. The last 25 minutes were very tight and extremely nerve-wracking, but the Burgers reigned supremeto win two premierships on the run.

In the ’90s the VFA changed  to the VFL.

They played  Grand Finals at Princes Park. I remember one GF in the ’90s between Frankston and Springvale.  David Rhys-Jones was captain-coach of Frankston . On this particular day they had held on to a slender lead throughout the last quarter, battling against a gale, continually forcing the ball into the non-scoring pocket and blocking up play.

In the last few seconds Springvale kicked the winning goal, the siren went, and I remember the utter disappointment and exhaustion of the Frankston players and the jubilation of Springvale team.

The same thing happened the following year to Frankston; this time they were beaten by Sandringham.

Over the years many teams have disappeared from the  VFA/VFL, some new ones have been added and the majority have an alliance with an AFL club. There are still a few stand-alone sides, the most famous being Port Melbourne, one of the oldest football clubs in Australia. They got close to playing in this year’s GF; maybe next year will be their turn.

This year I’m picking North Ballarat (love their old-style jumper; it reminds me of the Sunshine strip ) to defeat Northern Bullants.


  1. Damian Watson says

    Great work Rod,
    I remember seeing vision of Phil Cleary sent off on Youtube.
    How long was that rule in place in the VFA competition?

  2. Rod,
    Didn’t know you by the surname. Great to see you at the Clyde and back-read these wonderful articles this morning (with a sore head I must admit!).
    You’ll notice young Tommy on the Knackers list also.

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