Part 7 – Growing pains and gains
As the 20th Century drew to a close there was no shortage of bona fide champions doing the rounds and blitzing the finals. A more professional game bore relentless, attacking football. Although tagging emerged as an artform, tackling wasn’t yet so manic or scientific. Consequently the stars found time and space to shine.
The era was marked by some extraordinary games and goalkicking feats; Geelong amassed 25.13.163 against Hawthorn in 1989 (Gavin Exell 9 goals) yet somehow lost and Ablett famously booted 14 against Essendon in 1993 and again the Cats succumbed (with Salmon kicking 10). Shootouts like these now seem a very distant memory.
Whilst threading 13.1 against the ‘Bad News’ Bears in 1991 might not seem so remarkable a feat, Peter Daicos did so whilst unveiling the guided dribble kick so commonly used today. The Macedonian Marvel’s career, which appeared shot by injuries in 1987, enjoyed a remarkable renaissance between 1988-1992. Playing midfield and then as a prolific small forward, Daicos would be the last and possibly greatest exponent of the torpedo punt kick (and others too difficult to categorise).
Then there was the elusive, reclusive Gary Ablett – another mercurial footballer who alone had the magnetism to pull thousands more through the turnstiles in a manner not known since John Coleman.
The ‘Nineties was also an era of experimentation. Innovative Fremantle coach Gerard Neesham’s water polo tactics included defensive corralling and protecting the ball carrier, ‘Pagan’s Paddock’ capitalised on Wayne Carey’s brilliance, kicking sideways to switch play became de rigour and even the oft maligned Tony Shaw left a legacy in devising set plays (albeit their effectiveness was short-lived). But with comparatively limited resources and statistical breakdown, the game was still driven more so by intuitive, skilful footballers than complex, indeterminable strategy that’s resulted in ugly congestion and stoppages so common nowadays.
The wettest winter since 1952 – remember when the ‘G looked like this?
So team score averages were back above 100 again by the early ‘Nineties. The emergence of a new batch of gun forwards was a significant part of the equation. Ablett, Lockett, Dunstall and Modra all topped the ton and memories of 1970-71 were revived in 1993 when Modra, Ablett and Dunstall all helped themselves to more than 120 goals (plus a whopping 16 players topped the half-ton). A standout year in AFL history, 1993 was also incredibly even. Sure Sydney was abysmal and on life support, however just three and a half wins and 26% separated the top 12 clubs at the conclusion of the home and away season. Poor Melbourne finished a lowly tenth with ten wins and ten losses at a very respectable 112%!
The replacement of zoning with a US styled draft system and salary cap was quickly having the desired effect. This was also evident in that seven different clubs mounted the dais in the 1990’s and another three at least made the big dance. Arguably the best team over the journey was Geelong, yet all they had to show was a hatful of hollow runners-up medallions and a lead role in the greatest grand final of all time (according to this brilliant article).
“Never again would it be so bold, so brutal, so dangerous, so uncomplicated. Never again would it be so much fun. It’s been a quarter of a century. It feels like yesterday.”
Jonathon Horn on the 1989 Hawthorn v Geelong Grand Final
Adelaide’s inclusion in 1991 did create issues however, namely the dreaded bye (and the curious term ‘match ratio’) for the first time in 67 years. Worse was the acutely flawed final 6, introduced as a reaction to an expanded 15 team competition. Despite tweaking, Ken McIntyre’s final 6 was a lemon compared to his final 5 or today’s final 8 systems. Another structural change in 1991 included the abolition of the Victorian based Under 19’s competition, a logical response to the draft system.
Other changes came to pass in 1988; 15 metre penalties became 50 to discourage time wasting and for a brief two year period a free kick was just that (no handball allowed). Any literal merit was outweighed by the rule exhibiting little practical sense.
The League celebrated its centenary in 1996 – a legends game featuring many of the greatest players in modern history was a highlight
Significantly, the interstate clubs didn’t exist merely to tick the national box. West Coast and Adelaide imposed their will on the competition by winning big, and often. Remember the hand wringing of xenophobic Victorian fans? The super-sized Eagles upped the ante on muscle and defence but not before the wiry Michael Tuck triumphed one last time, as his Hawks did six other occasions across his record 426 games.
“There is a pig at full-forward.”
Sandy Roberts, commentating a Sydney v St Kilda game in 1993
A lowly crowd of 9756 and one pig (labelled ‘Pluga’) attended the 1993 round 18 encounter between the Swans and Saints at the SCG. Unlike the little porker, the real Plugger was a fearsome opponent for any full back, unwitting defender or pesky reporter who dared cross his path.
Many more pigs attended an earlier match in the same year at Victoria Park and were called out by St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar in football’s version of the iconic black power salute. Racism became the burning topic again in 1995 when an incident between Damian Monkhorst and Michael Long precipitated an awkwardly staged apology. A code of conduct ensued and knuckle dragging players (and Presidents) evolved somewhat, though it continues to be a long and winding road to enlightenment.
Ah well, there was only about seven Poms watching anyway.
Speaking of knuckles, despite trial by video’s growing influence in forensically uncovering naughtiness across the large green expanse, dust-ups were still a common occurrence. Easily the most unfathomable and vicious occurred between Carlton and North at the end of the 1987 season in a London ‘exhibition’ game. The more famous all-in during quarter time in the 1990 Grand Final was a romp in the grass by comparison.
With the advent of weekly cross-nation games rendering State of Origin redundant, interstate football enjoyed two last hurrahs in 1989 and 1995. Unfortunately the sizzlers were outweighed by the fizzers as clubs excused their players and the public excused themselves.
Games were reduced time-wise in 1994 from 25 to 20 minute quarters plus time on but like the marginal reduction in chip bucket sizes, few noticed with more time-on also coming into effect. Such was the speed of the game (and player attrition rate) a third interchange player and a third field umpire were introduced the same year. Just four years later teams were granted a fourth interchange player, again reflecting the game’s advances.
Football still had a sense of humour with the Coodabeen Champions in their radio heyday. Rex Hunt and his own brand of theatrics also hit peak popularity. Funnier still was EJ, especially when he ‘stuck it right up ’em’. Even the Footy Show had its moments back in the early days, filling the yawning gap Channel 7 had been unable to fill since World of Sport’s demise in 1987. Kevin Sheedy also sparked levity by tying down windsocks, initiating the jacket waving tradition against West Coast and the marshmallow wars with the Kangaroos.
Although the football experience remained affordable and accessible, many fans in Melbourne failed to find the funny being weaned off their suburban digs in a bid to maximise crowds and facilitate a more civilized, family friendly experience. The League appeared vindicated when for the first time average attendances topped 35,000 in 1998. Despite lampooning over the years, when the last Ventura shuttle bus left Nunawading Station for the egalitarian ‘Arctic Park’ it was a sad occasion, and arguably a greater loss with the passing of time.
Angry, and very funny…
After more than six decades of the same 12 clubs taking the field, five new ones were included in the space of 10 years. As the 21st Century approached the AFL Commission determinedly pushed hard to implant its vision of a national competition. To state the obvious, too many Melbourne teams was causing an administrative migraine. Popping Fitzroy was the easiest way to reduce the swelling. Whilst inevitable, the heart breaking and humiliating manner in which Fitzroy was dismantled in 1996, with its carcass conveniently shipped north to prop up the ailing Bears, still resonates 20 years later. ‘Ross the boss’ Oakley bore the brunt of fan fury, however people power did manage to snuff out other orchestrated merger attempts in 1989 and 1996. ‘Melbourne Hawks’ anyone?
On sacred turf Victoria Park’s last rites were read and the final siren sounded at Waverley Park in 1999. Committed fans began to wonder whether they were still on a thrill ride or the ghost train.
Off field instability and uncertainty began taking a toll. Nostalgic types lamented irretrievable losses that added up to what made the clubs and the game unique. Little things subsided such as home grounds and the Saturday afternoon routine, amusing characters and banter in the outer, a reserves competition and curtain raisers to name a few. Notwithstanding many fans who lived through this era would readily swap today’s product for what small mercies they could still cling. After all, that which seems ordinary at the time, as it does in all aspects of life, tends to become extraordinary on reflection.
That said, the era managed to retain a reasonable balance between satisfying corporate needs and those of average punters, TV viewers, theatre goers and players. Nor had the game yet overdosed on serious pills. Besides the racism issue and tragic events such as the deaths of Darren Millane and Ron James, most of the League’s drama still related to on-field events and football related matters. For players the football-life balance continued to shift with less time available for non-footy pursuits, the impact of which had yet to be seen (more on the AFL as soap opera in following editions).
Above all else though, as a spectacle, football was as good as it had ever been.
1987 Carlton v Hawthorn Grand Final
1988 Hawthorn v Melbourne Grand Final
1989 Hawthorn v Geelong Grand Final
1990 Collingwood v Essendon Grand Final 1990 season highlights
1991 Hawthorn v West Coast Grand Final
1992 West Coast v Geelong Grand Final
1993 Essendon v Carlton Grand Final 1993 season highlights
1994 West Coast v Geelong Grand Final 1994 season highlights
1995 Carlton v Geelong Grand Final
1996 North Melbourne v Sydney Grand Final
1997 Adelaide v St Kilda Grand Final 1997 highlights
1998 Adelaide v North Melbourne Grand Final
1999 North Melb v Carlton Grand Final 1999 highlights
The 90’s: The decade that delivered
Part 8: Lost in transmission (2000-2010)
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)
Part 6: Castles made of sand (1977-1986)