It is one of the forgotten days in Swans history …Exactly 65 years ago today, on 17 September 1956, South Melbourne won a premiership.
Not THE premiership, but a premiership nevertheless. The first night premiership in VFL/AFL history.
The night grand final was played two days after Melbourne had thumped Collingwood at the MCG in the real grand final.
It was the culmination of a consolation series introduced for the eight teams that missed the finals and played mid-week under lights at South Melbourne’s Lake Oval.
South Melbourne had finished 9th on the 12-team home-and-away ladder with six wins and a draw from 18 games. They were out of finals contention at Round 14 but had beaten finals contenders Footscray and Essendon in the last month, and in the night grand final beat Carlton, who had only missed the finals when beaten by Footscray in Round 18.
The history books show the Swans, coached by Herbie Matthews, won 13-16 (94) to 13-10 (88) at Lake Oval on Monday night, 17 September 1956 in front of a crowd of 32,450.
Details are scant at best, which gives a pointer to the apparent status given to the game at the time. Even the book ‘In The Blood’, the official club history written by Jim Main, affords it just one paragraph to acknowledge the result at the end of the 1956 chapter.
Further research reveals the win was built on a second quarter in which South out-scored Carlton 4-2 to 0-3 to open up a 31-point lead. Carlton had a chance to take the lead in the last quarter but a dropped pass from Carlton great Ken Hands gave South Melbourne the win.
It was the culmination of a busy stretch for the players. After a 32-point win over wooden-spooners North Melbourne in the final home-and-away game on Saturday 18 August South beat 11th-placed St.Kilda in the first round of the night premiership on Thursday 23 August in a game that attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The back page of “The Age” read “Wild Brawl Mars Night Football”, with a sub-heading of ‘Seven Players Felled in Fierce Incident’.
The story read: “All 36 players, a dozen trainers, umpires, police and several spectators jostled and fought for four minutes in the worst scenes in a VFL match since the Carlton v South Melbourne grand final in 1945. Three players and a trainer were reported after seven players had been knocked to the ground.”
It continued. “A South Melbourne ruckman and a St.Kilda player” clashed in the goalsquare at the grandstand end directly in front of the bulk of the 14,000 spectators. Within seconds 20 players were fighting furiously, three men were on the ground and umpires were being jostled aside as they attempted to separate players.
A second fight developed on the bowling green wing when South wingman John Elder was knocked unconscious “150 yards” from the centre of the main scuffle. Two South teammates ran to tackle the St.Kilda player responsible as he “fled down the ground dodging blows” before Elder left the ground with a suspected broken jaw.
Two trainers swung punches as South Melbourne ruckman Jim Taylor and two other players had been hit. A boundary umpire who had left the main fight near the goal mouth pursued one of the trainers but was jostled aside as he attempted to take the player’s name.
When field umpire Frank Schwab eventually bounced the ball in an effort to restore order all players were crowding in the goalmouth. Trainers and police were mingling with players.
In the night premiership semi-final on Thursday night 6 September ‘The Age’ reported South beat North by five points after a late goal from ruckman Ian Monks. The drive from centreman Mick Sibun and the cool, outstanding forward play of Fred Goldsmith, who had kicked four goals in the first half, had played a decisive part. Ron Clegg, too, was a reliable avenue to goal at centre half forward, while Marshall Younger was a good contributor after coming on as a reserve.
Equivalent reports for the night series grand final are not available, but general commentary told how the night series collectively had seen a lot of violence on and off the field.
A contributing factor was that at the time licensed venues in Melbourne closed at 6pm, which meant the night series gave patrons a later location to have a drink and saw regular crowds of 20,000-plus.
The night grand final was part of a huge year for football in which a 17-year-old Bob Skilton had debuted for South Melbourne.
The official grand final attracted a record attendance of 115,802 due largely to the opening of a new grandstand at the MCG. The ground was so packed that spectators sat between the fence and the boundary line.
Gates were closed for safety reasons but during the third quarter crowds milling outside the ground broke a perimeter fence and more people poured in. Accordingly, ticket sales were used for the finals series for the first time in 1957 to prevent over-crowding.
The 1956 season had been played earlier than normal to accommodate the Melbourne Olympic Games, which were held from 22 November to 8 December and included Australian football as one of two demonstration sports.
A match between the Victorian Amateurs and a combined VFL/VFA team was played at the MCG at 4.10pm on Friday 7 December after the bronze medal soccer match between Bulgaria and India.
Players had to deal with various hazards still on the ground, including the Olympic flagpole. The 16m structure was to be left standing until the conclusion of the closing ceremony as part of Games protocol despite the fact that it sat awkwardly in the forward pocket, well in from the boundary line.
A support structure installed for the inside lane of the running track also posed problems for players at risk of tripping if they did not identify the sharp rise in height of the surface.
The size of the playing area itself was reduced dramatically to 155m x 132m due to the cinder track around the inside of the stadium, while the sandpits used for the long jump and triple jump had only recently been covered, making for unsteady ground.
Under Olympic guidelines at the time, only amateur players were allowed so the demonstration teams were made up more of up-and-comers and veteran types in a combined VFL/VFA side coached by Bruce Andrew, a dual Collingwood premiership player and secretary of the Australian National Football Council and captained by recently-retired Melbourne premiership skipper Denis Cordner.
The only South Melbourne player in a young and largely inexperienced team was 24-year-old centre half forward Neil McNeill, who had played 11 games with the club in 1955-56. He wore jumper #23.
Among the emergencies was Prahran VFA player Lindsay Gaze, who would go on to represent every Australian Boomers Olympic team as a player or coach from 1960-84, and father fellow Australian basketball great Andrew Gaze.
Crowd estimates varied between 15,000 and 30,000, Among the spectators were the Duke of Edinburgh, the former husband of Queen Elizabeth II. The Duke, who died aged 99 in April 2021, was given an explanatory commentary during the game by VAFA secretary Jack Fullerton, who sat beside him.
It was an historic day, too, for Channel 7. Or HSV-7 as the current AFL broadcaster was then known. Although the match was not broadcast on TV the network did commission a trial run ahead of the introduction of live broadcasts in 1957, when Channel 7, Channel 9 and the ABC all broadcast the final quarter of a live VFL match each week.
For the record, the Amateurs, reportedly sick of losing players to the more profile VFL competition, had a point to prove and pulled off an upset win by 26 points.