Today the Sydney Swans rank among the most respected clubs and brands in Australian sport. The club has played in the AFL finals 15 times in the past 17 years – more often than any club in the competition.
Yet rewind 27 years and it wasn’t the case. Not even close. In fact, the Sydney Swans were nearly no more.
On 21 October 1992 it took the convincing work of club chairman Peter Weinert, president Mike Willesee and former president Craig Kimberley to save the club, together with the most unlikely of allies.
The Swans were in turmoil. The club had won only 15 games in three years, finishing last, fourth last and last in 1990, ’91, and ‘92, and, worse still, were facing financial ruin.
On 1 September 1992 the club told the AFL there was a real possibility it could not continue.
When the AFL Commission met on 14 October, the Swans were given a week to find a solution.
The Swans asked the AFL to waive part of a $1.95m license fee owed to the League.
As delegates assembled again on 21 October, they were given an alternative proposal whereby if the Swans were to go under, Carlton would fill the void in the NSW capital. They offered to play all their away games at the SCG.
It was a scenario not well received by opposition clubs in the 15-team competition, which included the original 12 Melbourne-based VFL clubs plus expansion clubs Adelaide, Brisbane and West Coast. None more so than Collingwood, the Blues’ long-time and most strident rivals.
Collingwood president Allan McAlister was fiercely opposed, and in his book “Big Al – Collingwood, the Untold Story”, he later wrote how he could not believe his ears when told Carlton would effectively not have to play any real away games.
To McAlister, this meant Carlton would play half their games at Princes Park, the club’s traditional ground in Melbourne, and half their games at the SCG, which would effectively become their second home.
“The Blues would have been able to tie up all the Sydney sponsorship and would have been laughing all the way to the bank. It was the most lop-sided suggestion I had ever heard, and my antennae worked overtime,” McAlister wrote.
Not the anointed Collingwood delegate at the crunch meeting to rule on the Swans’ future, he stood up nevertheless and asked to address the assembled club representatives. He argued the Swans debt was not enormous and represented little more than $100,000 to each of the other clubs.
He pleaded for opposition clubs to back the Swans rescue effort and allow the relocated South Melbourne to continue.
Coming on top of the desperate and heart-felt work of Weinert, Willesee and Kimberley, it was enough to carry the vote. The Swans survived.
The AFL agreed to extend the club’s licence to the end of the owners’ term with administrative assistance from the AFL, following which it would revert to a public membership-based club.
The clubs voted for the Sydney Swans to continue on the basis that the money owing was repaid by 2001. It was more than enough.
It was the beginning of the current era. The legendary Ron Barassi took over as coach and restored pride in the club and the jumper, and despite further wooden spoons in 1993 and 1994, things turned around.
In 1996, less than four years after the club faced extinction, the Swans played in the grand final. And the debt was repaid in 1997.
It was much more complex and complicated than one simple vote, as there were many people involved in ensuring the Swans survived. But it was on this day, 21 October 27 years ago, that the Sydney Swans began a new chapter that paved the way for the club to be where it is today.