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Since winning the 1953 premiership West Torrens had frequently promised to repeat the achievement only to suffer repeated disappointment and frustration. In the ten seasons since their success the Eagles had contested the finals half a dozen times and indeed never finished lower than fifth. However, of eight major round matches contested they had only emerged victorious once, with the 1963 season providing probably the most demoralising example. Man for man, the Eagles were arguably the most talented side in the SANFL, and deservedly claimed the minor premiership. However, a flurry of late season injuries saw them go into September somewhat under- strength, and they bowed out of the finals in straight sets. Their reserves, who were reigning premiers, also suffered major round disappointment, losing both the second semi and preliminary finals, and overall 1963 marked the last time prior to their merger with Woodville twenty-seven years later that the Eagles could be considered a bona fide SANFL power. Ultimately, the highlight of the 1963 season for Torrens was Lindsay Head’s remarkable achievement in winning the Magarey Medal for the third time. Head, an All Australian at Perth in 1956, also captured the sixth of an eventual eight club best and fairest awards. His success surprised some observers who had “predicted that Head’s dominance would fade in the tougher brand of football now being played in SA, but his brilliance has not been dimmed.” Widely regarded as “the golden boy” of South Australian football, Head was
beautifully proportioned at 5ft 11in and 12st 3lb” and “a model of fitness and the smoothest ball handler in the league.
Head is a centreman by preference, but is also an accomplished half forward flanker or rover. He is essentially an attacking player, frequently winning games with his ball handling wizardry, finesse and creative play.
West Adelaide was another team on the slide in 1963. Like Torrens, Westies had been a force for most of the 1950s and the early ‘60s but after 1963 they would not again contest the major round for five years, and have won only one senior grade premiership in the past half century. There was no doubting their talent in 1963, but they lacked consistency, performing with dazzling skill one week, and “like a team of Japanese determined to commit hari-kari" the next. Moreover, most of the talent was generated by the team’s smaller players, and it was – and is – pretty much a given that height and strength are among the essentials if a team wishes to mount a serious challenge for the premiership.
Norwood, like West, was a team blighted with inconsistency in 1963, and after looking a solid finals chance for much of the year ultimately finished in fifth place, one win shy of the Blood and Tars. The club’s undoubted star was “Big Bill” Wedding, one of the finest knock ruckmen in Australia, an All Australian at Brisbane in 1961 and winner in 1963 of his third straight club best and fairest award. Wedding would later add the 1964 and 1965 awards to his trophy cabinet as well. The Redlegs’ had a olid defence, capably led and co- ordinated by Ron Kneebone, but ahead of centre “Brian Sawley IS Norwood’s attack. They can rely on no-one else."
For Sturt, the 1963 season was the second of the Jack Oatey era, which would last until 1982, and ultimately produce seven premierships. Five of those flags would come in succession as the club enjoyed the greatest ever phase in its history between 1966 and 1970. In 1963, however, the Oatey system – fast, run-on football in which handball featured prominently – was only just beginning to emerge into fruition, and the quality of players at Oatey’s disposal still fell a long way short of what was needed to implement his ideas effectively and consistently. As a result, the 1963 season brought a 10-10 record and sixth place on the ladder, an improvement of one place on Oatey’s first year at the helm in 1962.
Since claiming the premiership in 1934, for the first and only time, Glenelg had consistently underachieved, qualifying for the finals only four times, and as often as not vying with South Adelaide for the wooden spoon. In 1963 it was acknowledged that the Bays’ ruck division, led by the redoubtable Harry Kernahan and Doug Long, and with the likes of Colin Richens and Bob Anesbury ably scouting the packs, was unsurpassed in the state, but elsewhere, particularly ahead of centre, the side lacked
depth.24 With just half a dozen wins
from twenty matches in 1963 the Bays finished above only South Adelaide on the ladder. Their time would come, however. The
appointment of Neil Kerley as coach in 1967 would herald the onset of what might, with justification, be termed the club’s “golden era”, featuring thirteen grand final appearances in just over two decades for premierships in 1973, 1985 and 1986.
South Adelaide’s failure to achieve more than a couple of wins in 1963 was baffling to many. That the team boasted ability was not in doubt – players like David Kantilla, Peter Darley, Alf Skuse and Lindsay Backman were the equals of any in their positions in the league – and the team frequently produced an exhilarating brand of football, but only usually in bursts. What was clearly needed was someone capable of welding the team’s undoubted talent together effectively and in a way that produced consistent brilliance rather than mere flashes of it. As it happened, a man boasting precisely the qualities required was waiting in the wings. Neil Kerley, controversially dumped as coach by West Adelaide after leading the side to victory over Norwood in the 1961 grand final and getting his team within 4 points of Port Adelaide in the following year’s decisive match, was keen to embrace a new challenge, and firmly believed that he was capable of resurrecting South’s fortunes. Interestingly enough, others also felt the same, and, for the first time in at least two decades, there was a genuine air of optimism at the club as the 1964 season approached. The implications for the league of a strong South Adelaide were not lost on the SANFL, which printed the following story in its 1963 second semi-final issue:
Can Neil Kerley “Do a Bunton” with South next year? Haydn Bunton went to Western Australia three years ago to coach bottom team, Swan Districts.
In one year he lifted them to a premiership, repeated the dose last year, and Swans last Saturday turned on an amazing last quarter to down East Perth in the first semi-final.
If Kerley can lift South next year in the same way, attendances here will rocket just as they did in WA when Swans began moving up the ladder.
Kerley’s impact on South Adelaide would be every bit as pronounced as both the club’s supporters and the SANFL desired. In 1964 the Panthers swept all before them, dominating the competition right from the outset and ultimately claiming the flag with an emphatic 9.15 (69) to 5.12 (42) grand final triumph over Port Adelaide.
Grassroots football in South Australia was in a reasonably healthy condition in 1963. As far as he amateur game went, the South Australian Amateur Football League was the second largest and probably the second strongest in Australia, boasting a total of four divisions, and catering for numerous age ranges. Division one had been recently been dominated by Adelaide University, which prior to 1963 had claimed a hat-trick of premierships. However, in the 1963 grand final Teachers’ College proved to have their measure, and won a hard fought, low-scoring encounter by a couple of straight kicks. It was Teachers’ College’s first ever division one flag, but by the end of the decade they would boast a couple more.
Premiers in the SAAFL’s other divisions in 1963 were: division two – Exeter; division three – Pulteney Old Scholars; division four – Payneham.
Other major metropolitan competitions in 1963 included the East Torrens Football Association (premiers Athelstone), the North Adelaide District Football Association (Broadview), the Central District Football Association (Salisbury North), and the Glenelg- South West District Football Association (Glandore).
Football was popular in country areas all across the state, and many SANFL footballers originally hailed from country clubs. One of the strongest country competitions affiliated to the SANFL, the Broken Hill Football League, was actually in New South Wales not South Australia. However, Broken Hill’s primary economic and social links have long been principally with Adelaide rather than its own state capital, Sydney – it has even adopted the same time zone as South Australia - and these factors have had had direct influences on the town’s leisure activities in addition to its industry. Unusually for a town in Australia’s most rugby-obsessed state Broken Hill eschewed rugby for football, and over the years it had supplied the SANFL with numerous players of the highest quality, including Magarey Medallists like Dave Low, Bobbie Barnes and Bruce McGregor, top full forwards Roy Bent and Jack Owens, and Glenelg and South Australian interstate star of the 1950s – and 1953 All Australian team member - Neil Davies.
The BHFL has long involved just four clubs, Centrals, Norths, Souths and Wests. The 1963 season saw West Broken Hill capturing the second of an eventual three successive senior grade premierships.
Among the other successful country clubs in South Australia in 1963 were Tanunda (Barossa and Light Football Association), South Gawler (Gawler Football Association), Strathalbyn (Great Southern Football League), Jervois (Murray Football League), Crystal Brook (Northern Areas Football Association), Wayback (Port Lincoln Football League), Loxton (Riverland Football League – the fourth of six straight flags), Yankalilla (Southern Football League), West Whyalla27 (Spencer Gulf Football League), Bridgewater (Torrens Valley Football Association), West Whyalla (Whyalla Football League) and Moonta (Yorke Valley Football League).
The major headlines in South Australian football in 1963 were made in relation to the interstate rather than the club sphere, however. After virtually being dead on its feet following the 1958 Melbourne carnival – at least as far as the majority of Victorians seemed to be concerned – interstate football in the 1960s had undergone a remarkable transformation with the so-called “lesser” states bridging the gap with the previously almost unconquerable VFL.
Neil Kerley (no. 1) looks set to mark well against Port Adelaide.
A Review of the 1963 SA Football Season
After a noticeable dip in playing standards, capped by the state’s most inept ever carnival display at Melbourne in 1958, South Australian football was improving rapidly once again by 1963. Mind you, it remained a comparatively genteel affair compared to the VFL, and it would not be until later in the decade that Victorian style fanaticism began to be widespread on both the field of play and in the outer at South Australian league grounds.
The rise in standard of South Australian football – as evidenced by vastly improved performances and results in interstate matches – had not by 1963 resulted in increased attendances. n 1964, two new league clubs, Central District and Woodville, were going to be admitted to the competition and many people felt that this was a premature move and that the impact on gross crowds – just 35,000 a week on average in 1963 – would be negligible. However, a number of unexpected factors combined to render such pessimism misplaced – of which more later.
The most commonly cited reason that, compared to the VFL and WANFL, the SANFL was struggling to attract spectators was that the competition was grossly uneven and hence predictable, and certainly there appeared to be some justification for this view. During the ten seasons prior to 1963 Port Adelaide had participated in eight senior grade grand finals and won seven of them. There had been a brief hiatus at the beginning of the 1960s when the architect of half a dozen of those premierships, Fos Williams, had not been at the helm, but his return to Alberton in 1963 had brought an immediate restoration of the status quo as Port downed reigning premiers West Adelaide in that year’s grand final.
The Port Adelaide philosophy under Foster Neil Williams was not complicated, and indeed closely mirrored that of many of the leading Melbourne clubs. It seldom produced football that was pretty to watch, but it was undeniably effective. Many South Australian football supporters were purists at heart, relishing the elegance of a perfectly executed drop kick or the aerial acrobatics of players like Don Lindner and Geoff Kingston.
The Magpies, by contrast, were not remotely interested in the artistic or spectacular unless its direct consequence was superiority on the scoreboard. This is not to suggest that their style of play lacked any traditional elements. Geof Motley and Trevor Obst, for instance, were both fine exponents of the drop kick. Moreover, Williams adhered to the old- fashioned belief that football was essentially a series of one-on-one contests, and victory tended to emerge from the ability of the majority of a team’s players to emerge victorious from these. Players were also expected to be acutely aware of their individual team-mates’ strengths and weaknesses, and would therefore not hesitate to resort to grubbers or soccer kicks rather than the elegant droppies or pinpoint stab passes so beloved of the purists if by so doing they stood a better chance of retaining possession. If a team- mate further downfield boasted greater pace and superior ground skills than his direct opponent but was likely to be outgunned aerially, what was the point of garnering plaudits for artistic merit with a flawless drop or punt kick if it only meant surrendering possession?
There were some who felt that the incidental ugliness of the Port Adelaide approach was a major cause of the comparatively low numbers of spectators attending SANFL games, but whilst there may perhaps have been a grain of truth in this the fact remains that the Magpies were the best supported club in the league. It was other clubs which struggled to attract patrons, a trend which began to alter in 1964 when South Adelaide, after years of abysmal under-achievement, surprisingly merged as a force under Neil Kerley. Later, major improvements in playing standards at Sturt, North Adelaide, Glenelg and Norwood had further beneficial effects on attendances. South Australia’s interstate successes, notably the win against a full-strength “Big V” side in Melbourne in 1963, also helped regenerate interest. There were other noteworthy interstate performances too – slashing wins over the VFL in Adelaide in 1960 and 1965, for instance, and a rare victory in Perth against then Australian champions Western Australia in 1962.
Paradoxically, these interstate triumphs boasted a common key ingredient which some maintained was a major reason the SANFL struggled to attract large crowds to so many of its matches. The victorious sides in all of the matches mentioned above, as well as the team which provided a record eight All Australians after the 1961 Brisbane carnival, were all coached by Fos Williams. Furthermore, the style of play adopted by South Australia on every occasion was directly modelled on that of Port Adelaide.
The Magpies in 1963 were as ruthless and, as far as the purists were concerned, inelegant as ever, as was noted in the SA Football Budget of 28th September 1963:
Port’s aim, in cooking a rival’s goose, is to first get the goose up to the cooking pot in the goal square.
Then they are not choosey about the method – whether to behead it gracefully, wring its neck, or kick it to death, so long as the goose is killed and another score goes on the board.
Or, as Jeff Pash somewhat more eloquently put it:
You come away from a Port match more and more convinced that football is a simple game. Run like mad, bump hard, grab and kick – that’s about all there is to it. And if you happen to be a coach you may resolve henceforth to concentrate on the most truly fundamental skills – all muscular. Ball-handling, tackling and disposal – do those well and experience will add all the rest, if in fact there is any such remainder ………. Port are wonderfully strong in those things.
On the whole, in 1963 this approach proved successful, and the Magpies comfortably qualified for the finals in second place, a single point behind minor premier West Torrens. They were the recipients of a slight psychological fillip in the first semi-final when North Adelaide ousted West Adelaide from premiership contention. The Blood and Tars had been Port’s nemesis in 1963, emerging victorious from all three minor round encounters between the teams.
Injury beset West Torrens were not expected to provide the Magpies with much of an obstacle as they sought to procure their twelfth grand final appearance since world war two, and so it proved. The Eagles’ most significant absentee was key forward Neil Hawke, whose formidable marking strength and long, accurate kicking for goal – for which, unusually for the time, he favoured the drop punt – had troubled Port in the past. The Magpies ultimately won with a fair degree of comfort, 9.18 (72) to 7.13
Two weeks later in the grand final their opponents were North Adelaide, somewhat shaky victors over Torrens in the preliminary final by a couple of points. Port raced away in the opening term to establish a 31 point lead, but over the course of the next two quarters North transformed the game into a bona fide contest. At the final change, the Magpies led by just two straight kicks, but their superior fitness told in an anti-climactic last term which saw them add 4.5 to 1.2 to win “pulling away”, 11.14 (80) to
6.11 (47). Future Magarey Medallist Trevor Obst was best afield, while it is worth noting that Port won despite lacking the services of full forward Rex Johns, who had booted 54 goals for the season to be the league’s top goal kicker.
Since defeating Norwood by 5 points in the 1960 grand final North Adelaide had missed the major round twice in a row. However, the appointment as captain-coach of dual club best and fairest winner and 1961 All Australian Don Lindner sparked an upsurge in the Roosters’ fortunes, albeit only a brief one. For much of the 1963 season North sat proudly perched atop the premiership ladder only to be overhauled as September approached by Port and Torrens. This left the Roosters to face West Adelaide in the first semi-final, a match they won with perhaps surprising ease by four goals, 13.14 (92) to 9.14 (68). The club’s eventual 1963 best and fairest player, Bob Geisler, gave a dazzling performance on a half forward flank to be both best afield and arguably the key difference between the teams.
An undermanned West Torrens in the preliminary final proved a much tougher nut to crack, but the Roosters, renowned for their long-kicking, open, stylish brand of football proved themselves equally capable of showing real guts and determination when they were needed, and edged over the line by just 2 points.
These same qualities were also in evidence at times during the following Saturday’s grand final clash with Port Adelaide. After seeming to allow the Magpies to get away in the first term, which ended with Port 31 points to the good, North, with the Lindner brothers Don and “Hank” (given name Theo) to the fore, fought back defiantly to be within 4 points at the long break. The third quarter was tense, tight and desperate, with only two goals registered, both to the Magpies. With just 12 points separating the teams at the final change it was seemingly still anyone’s game, but the Roosters were leg-weary after their titanic tussle of the previous week and gradually Port ground them down to record a deceptively easy 33 point win.
Of all these supposedly inferior states, South Australia had arguably manifested the greatest improvement. By the end of the 1963 season the croweaters had played Victoria six times during the 1960s, winning three and losing three. Far and away the most famous of these triumphs had come at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the afternoon of Saturday 15th June 1963. Opposed by a Victorian team which was “not selected on a basis of equal representation of clubs, but (was) the best available”, South Australia played brilliantly in the first half, kicking 8 goals to 3, and then resisted heroically when the expected “Big V” fight back came in the third and fourth quarters. At one point late in the final term, Victoria actually snatched the lead, but a couple of goals by the hitherto unusually quiet Lindsay Head saw the croweaters over the line. Final scores were South Australia 12.8 (80); Victoria 10.13 (73). Best players for the victors included wingmen Barrie Barbary and John Cahill, ruckman “Big Bill” Wedding, and Neil Kerley. During the second half in particular, when the South Australians came under ever increasing pressure, their entire half back line of Geof Motley, Jeff Bray and Ken Eustice repelled many attacks, whilst interstate debutant Bob Hammond, at full back, kept a tight rein on Victorian full forward Doug Wade. Best for the Vics were rover and skipper Bob Skilton, full back Roy West, half back flanker Kevin Murray, 1962 Brownlow Medallist Alistair Lord, who lined up in the pivot, and centre half back Wes Lofts. After the match, “Big V” coach Bob Davis magnanimously conceded, “They were more purposeful and faster and too good for us”. His South Australian counterpart, Fos Williams, remarked "You’ve no idea how happy we are. We have the power football now that has been missing in the past. It is demanded of all our players. We expected to play well and kept pressure on the Victorians all day. The win is the climax to my football career."
It was a different story when the two states met one another once again three weeks later on the Adelaide Oval, however. In an evenly contested match the Vics were cooler under pressure, kicked straighter, and won by 12 points, 8.6 (54) to 5.12 (42). Their most prominent players were Turner, Epis, Dixon, Walker and Wade, while the home state was best served by Kerley, Motley, Shearman, Hammond and Wedding.
South Australia’s only other interstate clash of 1963 had also been in Adelaide, against Tasmania on 1st June. In atrociously wet conditions, the croweaters seized the initiative from the outset, and eventually won with almost embarrassing ease by 106 points. Had the South Australians, whose kicking for goal in the first three quarters had been excellent, not squandered numerous final term opportunities that margin might well have been much higher. As it was, South Australia added 4.17 to 1.0 in the last quarter to produce a final 23~scoreline of 18.29 (137) to 5.1 (31). Lindsay Head was at his dazzling best to be the pick of the victors, while Wedding, Kernahan, Bray and Barbary were also in fine form. For the visitors, Withers, Bingley, McLean, Marney and Bailey put up the sternest resistance.
At the end of the 1963 season South Australian football was on the threshold of arguably the greatest era in its history, an era before the VFL began fully to flex its financial muscles and deprive the state of many of its finest players. During the 1960s every single Magarey Medallist saw out his entire playing career in South Australia, but within a decade it was more or less taken as a “given” that winning the SANFL’s most prestigious individual award was, in effect, merely a stepping stone to a career among the “big boys” across the border.