The prehistory of Neil Kerley


Every story you have heard about Neil Kerley is probably true.

Did he really have his jaw broken during a match for Glenelg and at half time order one of his players to masticate on a couple of packs of chewies and then have him spit the wad out so he could use it to reinforce his chops and resume the match?


After losing a grand final by three points and seeing a last gasp shot from a team mate hit the goal post, did he return that night in darkness and chop down the post and burn it on a bonfire?


Was he once involved in a brawl at Port Adelaide involving 30 players and when facing the tribunal hearing point out to the commissioner that only West Adelaide players had been reported and so it was logical they must have been fighting among themselves and so shouldn’t be suspended?

Yes – and he got two weeks.

Did he ever leave the field during his 265 games of league football due to injury?


Was he ever injured?


Did he take over coaching five sides that had finished in the bottom three the previous season?

Yes and three went on to win premierships.

Did he play for 14 seasons of league football – eight of which he was captain-coach?

Yes and another three in the country as captain-coach.

If he had a yabby net, a fishing rod and a rifle could he live off the land?

He practically does now.

On his 70th birthday did he attempt a stunt dive off the river bank in front of his shack, misjudge the distance to the water and almost kill himself?


“It was just over there,” he says, standing on the banks of the Murray and pointing.

Is it possible to get an accurate location when Neil Kerley points with one his twisted old fingers?


“I can’t hear in this ear now and something has gone in my inner ear so I have lost balance,” he says.

Did Neil Kerley really turn 80 this week?


Did he think he would make it to 80?

“Not when I was 25”.

When he was 25, Neil Kerley was on his way to becoming the most ferocious and charismatic player in South Australian football. As an undersized ruckman for West Adelaide he roamed suburban grounds looking for contests. He had skill and could read the play but his greatness was his sheer footballing strength. He loved the physical part of the game and deep within him he also loved the possibilities the game offered.


Because Neil Kerley didn’t start in the game as a boy, he arrived at West Adelaide in 1956 already a self made man. The years before had built him into one who feared nothing, had the self confidence to face any challenge and knew that others would fall in behind him.

How that person was created is where the stories really get hard to believe.

We are having a coffee sitting on the decking on the river’s edge. The weekenders are at work in the city so Neil and Barbara have Walker Flat to themselves. Their stretch of the Murray is framed by expanses of lush lawn and enormous River Red Gums. Flocks of corellas gather and screech in the canopies causing Kerls to threaten to get his gun out.

“They make terrific yabby bait those things,” he growls.

They bought the shack in the early 1970s after a chance meeting with the owner at the kiosk. The place is modest and neat. He plays golf every week up at Swan Reach, fishes, tends his nets and grows tomatoes in cut down 44 gallon drums.

Two deck chairs are positioned near a small barbecue.

“At 5:30 those two chairs are in shade and Barbara and I sit there and solve the world’s problems.”

The world was a different place in 1934 when Neil Kerley was the second of six kids living on a small vegetable block at Loveday near Barmera in the Riverland. His father Laurie was a returned serviceman who answered the call again in the Second World War. He came home wounded in 1945 and died the day after his second son’s 11th birthday. Neil stayed at home with his four younger siblings as his mother and older brother Mick went to Adelaide for the funeral.

The Kerleys grew up in rural poverty. The bush and the river were their life. When they swam the water was so clear they could see the bottom. They wagged school to hunt rabbits and fish. They all had jobs on the farm. Among Neil’s responsibilities were ploughing which he usually did before school. On Sundays they went to mass in their best clothes.

The first time Neil left the Riverland was to go on a legacy camp at Onkaparinga in the Adelaide Hills. He left school when he was 14 to work picking mallee stumps for a local carter using a tractor and chain.

His mother Lillian was of Irish descent, her maiden name was O’Brien. She laid out the framework of his life.

“Determination and do things right the first time, don’t cheat and don’t give in.”

When he was 16 Kerls kissed his mum goodbye. She asked him where he was going and he replied he didn’t know. He got on his motorbike and rode out of town. For two years he worked as a jackaroo in the outback, often spending weeks alone along fence lines, working a shovel and crow bar until his hands were raw. At night he pissed on the calluses to clean and harden them.

He returned for National Service where he served alongside a giant called John Holness. When they finished their stint in the army Holness asked Kerls what he was doing next. He didn’t have an answer so he followed his mate to Koolymilka.

No matter how hard you try it is almost impossible to conjure up what Koolymilka was because nothing exists of it today. It was a labour camp for the nearby Woomera test range. It is a desert where the earth is a blend of scorched sand and gibber stones made smooth by thousands of years of biting wind. Workers here lived in tents and laboured in the extreme heat.

They made Kerls captain coach of the footy team because he seemed to have some skills whereas the others didn’t. They didn’t have jumpers either or footy boots. For matches they brought a grader onto the ground to push the big stones to one side. The smaller ones cut the players up.

Kerley was 18 and didn’t know how to be a captain coach so he wrote to Jack Oatey at West Adelaide asking for advice. He replied that he should be honest, train them hard and teach them skills. He did his best holding practice sessions in the sand hills, going from tent to tent looking for recruits and expelling those who hit the grog.

The football was played with a frontier zeal befitting a cold war outpost. Wearing only work boots, singlets and shorts, Kerley ended most matches unconscious in a pile of gibber stones. Koolymilka lost the first five games.

Then he recruited his big mate Holness who argued he didn’t know how to play. Kerls said it didn’t matter because he has a specific job for him. If anyone hit Kerley then Holness was to dong the bloke standing next to him. It happened and he did and Kerley got up off the ground and told the opposition captain that if anyone hit him again then his big mate would keep dishing it out. Kerley remained upright and along with a star aboriginal forward Kenny Davies turned the club fortunes around.

The team received guernseys after five rounds and then some boots. Players started kicking straighter and marking. There was enthusiasm around the camp about playing even through long training sessions. Saturday nights came alive in the tent city after victories.

Koolymilka won the premiership.

Neil Kerley Koolymilka - Circle (Mike Sexton)

Kerley was recruited by North Whyalla the following season. The iron triangle city was then a hub for ship building and players were sought from among the workers at the shipyards and the BHP steel mill and iron ore works. Kerley drove trucks and worked on the waterfront, met Barbara and coached the club to premierships in the two seasons he spent there. This time he had to convince older players to follow him and did so by leading from the front, not cheating and doing the hard work on the field so others could do the easy things. He coached the combined Whyalla side. Then he celebrated his 21st birthday.

In 1956 Neil and Barbara were married and on their way to Mount Gambier where he had accepted another job to play and coach. West Adelaide grabbed him. He walked into the club ready to go.

At 80 sitting back on the river again and reflecting on things he says simply: “I have had an unbelievable life.”

You can believe that.

Kerley South Adelaide 1964

South Adelaide’s 1964 ‘bottom to top’ premiership team with Neil Kerley (captain coach) front row – centre left


Mike Sexton’s book on the 1964 SANFL season.  You can read Crio’s review here:




About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. mickey randall says

    Michael- such is the enormous presence that Kerls has, not just over footy in SA, but other pursuits, that his is the name that springs to mind when I think of yabbying.
    Great yarn.

  2. that is fabulous

  3. Thanks Mike – a great yarn about a SA legend

  4. Wonderful stuff Mike. I did not know the Koolymilka story. I saw Kerley play quite a lot in my childhood – first for Westies and then South. 64 was my first GF. Ian Day and David Kantilla are quite clear in my memory. Kerley’s protection was critical to Kantilla’s ruck domination.
    From memory Kerley was about 6’1″ but had a good leap on him, which together with the strong body made him an effective ruckman despite lacking inches. He was a good mark around the ground. Sort of a poor man’s Teddy Whitten – lacking Whitten’s brilliance – but making up for it with presence and work ethic.
    Of course my West Torrens is one of the 2 teams he didn’t coach to premierships.
    I would love to get Wayne Jackson’s take on Kerley – and how he influenced him as a man and in business – not just in football.
    I saw most of Jackson’s footy career – and the contrast in his crude playing style and sophisticated business career – always struck me as unusual.
    IJackson is one of the great men of Australian footy, and I wonder how much influence Kerley had on him?
    Thanks again Mike – your SA footy history pieces are a joy.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Mike fantastic read I knew the footy side of it but didn’t no about his hard upbringing a true legend in , SA and , Australian football Thanks Mike

  6. What an amazing story, a great read – this is why this man is a legend of South Australian football.
    A very enjoyable read.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Jim Rosevear has written two books about Kerley (titled Knuckles and Knuckles II)

    The cover photo of the second book shows Kerls being chaired off the ground after the 1964 premiership, alongside him is his mother Lillian, with the note “Neil, to this day does not know how she got out onto the oval so quickly among fifty thousand people”

    Ron Barassi and Wayne Jackson wrote the forewords to the first book (published in 2003)

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    PB – But he couldn’t get the ‘Dogs over the line either

  9. Thanks Mike. Ripper, tough, honest…rarely is the phrase “doesn’t suffer fools” relevant, but Kerls looked at people straight and expected the same in return.
    Big John Holness was also a fantastic bloke – Kerls must have given him some leeway re the grog….big John used to vacuum those pony glasses.

  10. Peter Schumacher says

    I think that it was in 1964 that Melbourne played South Adelaide at Norwood Oval at an end of season match to determine who was the best team in the country (sorry Sandgropers), South v Melbourne, Kerley V Barassi. As I recall, South held their ground until about three quarter time. I remember a barrracker saying significantly when South was in the ascendancy, “you’re looking pretty sick Melbourne”, sadly, from my point of view, Barassi and Melbourne prevailed. Still, pretty good for a team that had finished stone motherless last the previous season. Kerley was an absolute legend.

  11. Fantastic read Michael. My knowledge of SA football is very limited (non existent more like it). I would love it if there were some footy docos on the great SANFL and WAFL grand finals of past to go along with the VFL/AFL ones they produce. We are missing out on all that great history and some of the key players have gone or are getting very old.

  12. Stories like this are the reason why we love our SANFL footy, and don’t want much to do with the corporates. Well done!
    And Swish, yep (unfortunately).

  13. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    We should forever be indebted to whoever is behind these two sites.

    Both have their own YouTube channels as well.

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    A “Rothmans” presentation of the 1964 SANFL Grand Final

    Gee I miss those red point posts.

    And watch Kerls flick the switch to vaudeville with our old mate KenCunm

  15. Dr Goatboat says

    great stories… a Redlegs man I feared it when we played against him or one of his teams…I seemed to recall he had a few close colleagues …tregenza comes to mind…
    Loved him in the State games

  16. rod grierson says

    Great story. From recollection the aboriginal super star at Koolymilka was Kenny Davey not Davies. Afore runner of the Davey boys who played on the West Coast and the AFL. Later on Eddie Betts playing for the Works team won a mail medal and a premiership.

  17. Brillaintly written Michael Kerley what an amazing man.

  18. Jeff Hollywood says

    Neil’s older brother Mick was a pretty fair football player also – hard as nails and had a handshake that could crush diamonds.
    Ol’ Mick was one of the nicest blokes I have known… and a pretty good clay target shooter as well!

  19. michael,
    that is a great read.
    my father raved about neil kerley and now i know why !
    thank you.

    i didnt know he came from loveday.

    he would have known my family well i would say.

    if it is ok with you i would like to add your story to my memoirs about my fathers love of sport for it unveils a lot about the life and times of the days when my father was very active in the riverland.

    please email me with your permission to do this, and if you would like a copy of the family memoirs i am putting together email me your address and i will post you a CD.

    [email protected]

  20. malcolm mcphail says

    what a great story of a champion man and football ambassador.i also coached koolymilka in 1985, we lost to centrals that year but previous we defeated village sports club in my first year at woomera working as a baker for the dept of defense, I was only 22 yrs of age , it was such a highlight of my 40 yrs in footy , so proud to have coached this club with its initial ties to neil kerley

  21. VALE, Tony Kerley. I could not make your funeral mate, but I raised a glass and my thoughts went back to Cobdogla swamp….. remember the time when the duck punt went down? Old Mick yelled out :
    ” ABANDON SHIP” I will always cherish that Duck Opening morning – staying at MA Grose’s place and spending time with beaut’ blokes from Loveday. I also remember taking part in a water melon raid on a blocky that Mick knew, after sunset of course – ya reckon they didn’t taste any good! All you Kerley blokes were legends in the Hollywood household – cheers

  22. The claim that Westies cut the goal post down after losing the Grand Final by 3 points is incorrect. The year was 1958 & the margin was 2 points. What I can’t remember was what number Kerls wore as a player before becoming captain! Anybody Know?

  23. King ‘Knuckles’ Kerley
    As the AFL deals with its own player mental health issues, AFL Legend, Neil Kerley, wants to share his thoughts to help you beat your problem…
    “I love what Yvonne is doing to help bring about positive change in peoples’ lives and for some reason I came up with a few ways that may help some people. I hope so and I hope our Government gets behind the initiatives that she and many of my AFL mates have presented to them in, United Action For Life; to give us hope for a better, healthier, happier future – it’s a great Plan for All Australians.
    Neil Kerley OA, Former Footballer and Media Personality.
    Kerls Top Five Tips to help you beat your problem…page 355 of the book, Making Sense of Life Before We L’Eve…Those Were The Days.
    A former Australian Rules footballer, player, coach and football commentator for the Seven Network for many years, Donald Neil Kerley OAM, affectionately known as Knuckles, King Kerls or just Kerls, took three clubs to four SANFL Grand Finals over three decades in more than 600 games. He represented SA as both a player and playing coach for 32 state games and he is now adding his support for all Australians for ways in which to help deal with mental health and well being issues.
    He says he never understood depression or mental illness before because he has never suffered from it and is only now realising what a major problem it is that we have with mental health in this country.
    Having been sacked from the same Club, twice, after taking them to win the flag, twice, he says he never let disappointment or anger rule him. “We can all learn ways in which to turn life challenges around with a positive mind set,” Kerls maintains. “The best way to get over a hurt or a hurdle is to use that inner anger and disappointment to spur you on to greater and greater success.”
    Kerls gives his Top Five Tips that may help you beat your problem:
    1. Just remember, it’s not always dark at night… there is always light at the end of the tunnel… a lot of people hope it will happen, only some people make it happen, be one of them.
    2. Make sure you laugh and smile every day to lift your spirits, regardless of what is happening around you.
    3. Select your four best friends who you know you can trust for self help and support.
    4. Don’t put all your faith and hope in medications – medication may help, but it’s not a cure; go for daily walks and breath in plenty of fresh air.
    5. Face your challenges head on and beat them with a positive attitude, you can do it!

    “We do hope to be able to raise enough funds from the proceeds of my book and associated funds to create Holistic, Integrative Sanctuaries for people experiencing mind imbalances, where they can rest and recoup in safe, loving hands with appropriate support. It will take a great deal of work and effort – and I encourage anyone wishing to assist in this process to contact me. Perhaps those with deep pockets may like to contribute!” said Yvonne Nicolas, on the eve of the launch of her memoir, “Making Sense of Life Before We L’Eve…Those Were The Days”. “We are not talking about new buildings, but using the ones we have scattered in cities, rural and beach-based locations, and creating a plan for those who can’t afford, to be funded by those who can. Having spoken with various parties, it is possible and probable in relatively easy terms if we use the ‘it takes a village’ approach…your support is vital!”

    FACEBOOK: @ByYvonneNicolas

  24. Bruce Lindner says

    Neil Kerley should be one of the first to have a statue at Adelaide Oval. He epitomises everything that makes a legend and he excels in all the criteria required to justify his rightful place as a sentinel at this Sporting Mecca. How that ‘Statue Selection committee missed his South Australian achievements at this oval is inexcusable. Sure he has a bar named after him but this man deserves more than that. A statue of this iconic SA football great ( while he’s still alive) should be one of the first things the SMA plan in the near future. Then the gallery of statues would have more gravitas and be closer to what it was meant to be. The recognition of those that contributed and performed with great distinction at Adelaide Oval for their sport at the highest level and for South Australia.

  25. Rod Sutherland says

    Absolutely Bruce
    What a great idea
    There are several images that come to mind as a player and as a coach that would look good. Maybe a competition or popular vote to choose from a shortlist. BTW my father had a bit to do with Neils football career

  26. Joey Hollywood says

    I’m not too sure…. Neil, is a Loveday boy, born and bred….. Riverland Legend. I reckon he might get more value from a new Aluminium boat, with a Honda 4 stroke motor and a 5 shot Browning Auto for Quacker gathering. Don’t think a statue would thrill old Knuckles too much!!!

  27. I enjoyed your facts but I know one for certain is incorrect & it relates to the 1958 Grand final in which an accompanied Neil Kerley cut or chopped down the goal post after Westies had lost a grand final [you state] by 3 points]. I will always remember that year because Port could not beat Westies in the minor round & also lost to westies in the 1st semi final. I remember the year really well as Westies had one of the most talented sides ever at the time! But it lost to Port by 2 points – not 3 points as claimed by you! And I can even recall the reason why -. Jack Richardson kicked the ball in the dying minutes of the 1958 Grand final & the ball hit the inside of one of the goal posts [fairly high up]. If it had gone through, Westies would have been Premiers! They had already lost a number of grand finals to Port by narrow margins but in 1958 it definitively was a 2 point margin!

  28. TRintheus says

    There are stories and there are stories.

  29. Kellie Hollywood says

    VALE, Knuckles, Ol’ Mick and beautiful Joaney ,and Tony of course!
    Loveday Riverland blockies and tuff as nails.
    Barb, if you read this, I would like to purchase Neil’s Model 1 Bruno .22, that old DAD sold him years ago????
    I have, at 65 now, so many memories of the Duck Opening, at Cobbi Swamp, with Spogg Grose – The STOKER and the Kerleys.
    Real people you can trust and look up to. Mick, was the biggest man that I have ever seen… and hand shake that would kill a black dog! When he put his arm around you, coming back from rabbit spotlighting, up at Wanbi in the FJ Ute….. it felt like I was in the arms of MOTHER MARY….and safe from all harm. See you in Heaven or Hell you Kerley Blokes.

  30. Jeff Hollywood says


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