Thursday 2 July 1981, 38 years ago today, the country awoke to a bombshell. On the back page of The Australian, the national newspaper, under a big, bold heading “Sydney move by VFL club”, was one of the biggest stories in football history.
South Melbourne, a foundation member of the VFL in 1897, was moving north. A club that had played to that point 1553 matches, including 26 finals and 11 grand finals. A club that had been premiers in 1909, 1918 and 1933, and had won the Brownlow Medals nine times. A club that had fielded 1099 players.
The Sun in Melbourne also ran the story on the back page under a huge headline which read SYDNEY OR BUST, with a sub-heading “South tells VFL: club wants 1982 switch”. The Age headline, also on the back page, read “South’s survival kit” and was accompanied by a sub-heading which read “Officials want to retain identity of club”.
It was massive. It should have been on the front page.
Each of the papers told how, on 1 July, South Melbourne had asked the VFL to play the club’s away games in Sydney, and to play the home games at VFL Park, Waverley. Under the club proposal, all matches were to be played on Friday nights and were to be televised.
The proposal was put by Graeme John, South Melbourne president, Craig Kimberley, VFL director and Jack Marks, South Melbourne Club Ltd chairman.
It was trumpeted by John as “a giant step forward in terms of development and competitiveness” as an emotional Marks noted “any South Melbourne supporter under the age of 55 has never seen a premiership win” and said the club would disintegrate within two years if nothing was done.
“Survival is the utmost thing in our mind and I couldn’t give a damn where we played if it ensured the club would retain it’s identity,” said Marks, confirming the club’s dire financial plight.
It was revealed that South Melbourne had suffered an operating loss of at least $150,000 for the five previous years, and forecast that the proposal to play in Sydney would turn an operating loss of $180,000 in 1980 into an operating profit of $90,000 in 1982.
Significantly, it was noted that the VFL had frozen South Melbourne’s share of the ground improvement fund, which stood at $500,000 in 1981. This meant the club was unable to improve the facilities at Lake Oval in South Melbourne, which had been the club’s home since 1874.
It was reported, too, that plans drawn up in 1980 to build a 3000-seat grandstand at Lake Oval would cost $3 million, necessitating a $2.5million loan and annual service costs of $500,000.
Clearly, the message from the South Melbourne administration was that there was no alternative. If the club continued to operate as it had done it would not survive. But if it adopted the Sydney proposal it would not lose its identity, either through an amalgamation or a ground-sharing arrangement, which could even lead to amalgamation.
It wasn’t exactly a new idea. Fitzroy had already rejected a proposed move to the Harbour City and on 29 January 1981 VFL vice-president Graham Huggins had resigned to take up a position as a VFL consultant in Sydney.
As was written by Jim Main in the club’s official history “In the Blood”, Huggins’ move to Sydney had followed a report commissioned by the VFL on the possibility of a club being based in Sydney. Prepared by John Hennessy, it was titled “The Sydney Solution! VFL at the crossroads” and listed key needs if a move was to be successful, including 6000 members, a national sponsor, average attendances after a selling-in period of 17,500, and financial set-up assistance from the League.
After confirmation of the proposed move broke on 2 July, the club sent a letter to members outlining the benefits of the proposed move, including an increased recruiting zone and rich sponsorship opportunities. It was noted that the club’s colours would be retained and South Melbourne coach Ian Stewart and his players had given their unqualified support to the club.
Significantly, too, Bob Skilton, arguably the club’s greatest player, declared that while he did not like the prospect of the Sydney move, he could see no alternative.
It was the start of a hugely volatile period.
On 5 July a protest meeting at Lakeside Oval was held as “Keep South at South” was established, but on 29 July the VFL board of directors approved an amended South Melbourne proposal to play 11 home games at the SCG in 1982.
Initially, all the off-field dramas did not affect the players as they posted four wins in a row after the bombshell announcement, including an 18-point win over ladder leaders Collingwood at the SCG in Round 17. But four losses followed and they finished ninth.
In August, as the season wound down, the KSAS group brought legal action against the South Melbourne board and the VFL, seeking to stop the parties entering into contracts that would prejudice a vote on the proposal by South members.
The South board, operating according to the club’s Articles of Association following a KSAS petition, called an extraordinary meeting on 22 September at which members would vote on four KSAS resolutions – that the meeting had no confidence in the present board of management, that the board be removed from office immediately, that the board be reduced from 10 to six, and that the KSAS board ticket be elected.
In the lead-up to the vote South Melbourne players sent a letter to members requesting that they give their vote to Ricky Quade, former chairman of selectors who had been appointed coach after Stewart’s resignation. It was signed by captain Barry Round, Graham Teasdale, Mark Browning and Francis Jackson.
A proxy war ensued and after much public squabbling it was announced that the KSAS group had won control of the club by “less than 10 votes”, but quickly it became evident that there was a huge split between the new board and the players.
At 1pm on 28 September the KSAS board called the players to a special 6pm meeting that evening.
According to The Age, at 6:16pm the meeting started at Lakeside Oval and the players requested a private 20-minute meeting. This was denied and at 6:19pm all but five of the players marched out and reconvened in the carpark. At 6:23pm the players decided not to return and left.
The parties met again in the days that followed and for a time it seemed like the angst was reducing but on 14 October the VFL refused to rescind their decision to approve South Melbourne’s proposal to play 11 home games at the SCG in 1982.
This reaffirmed the players’ resolve to play in Sydney, and on 23 October it was reported that “about 20 players, including most of the senior team” had retained a solicitor to put their case to the club administration.
On 7 November three Melbourne-based papers reported that 18 South Melbourne players were effectively on strike after their demands had not been met by the club. Summonses were issued by 17 players claiming they had not been paid since Round 10 and were owed $79,000. It was reported that “at least 11 players” had terminated their contracts with the club after the club had refused to commit long-term to the Sydney move.
On 18 November the South Melbourne administration appealed to the VFL for a $400,000 loan to alleviate liquidity problems, and on 25 November this was confirmed on the basis that the club commit to Sydney for at least two years, would not use the money for recruitment, and that the VFL would administer the loan.
On 3 December captain Round quit the club and a week later other players walked out on a meeting with the KSAS administration, after the KSAS board had refused to resign. The Age reported that the rift between the parties had widened, and the Sun suggested the VFL was set to take over the club.
It was a standoff and on 11 December Bill Collins, the country’s leading horse race caller and a committed South Melbourne supporter, took over as president after finally the board had stepped aside. On 17 December the media detailed a new composite board of management that had been formed as part of a peace deal with the players.
But it wasn’t over yet. On 20 December John Rantall was appointed coach for the 1982 season over Quade on the back of Collins’ casting vote. Four of the five board members who had voted for Quade resigned. It was suggested, too, that players would follow.
It wasn’t that Rantall was not a popular and respected figure – he was – but the players were hugely loyal to Quade after his prominent role in the earlier battles. The club’s very future was on the line, according to League chief Allen Aylett, and on 24 December the Sun reported that Rantall had chosen to “put South Melbourne first” in order to let Quade coach the club in 1982.
Finally, peace was restored. South played their home games at the SCG in 1982 on a fly-in basis under coach Quade and captain Round before the playing group relocated to Sydney ahead of the 1983 season.
It was the first step of an expansion program, which has subsequently seen two teams in WA, SA and Queensland, and a second team in Sydney.