What’s an AFL license worth? On 6 May 1988, 32 years ago today, it was a paltry $10.
That was the token price the then VFL paid to take back the license of the Sydney Swans from failed owners Powerplay and effectively save the club from football oblivion.
It was a dark day that turned into a time-changing golden moment for the Sydney Swans, which had struggled from one drama to another after becoming the first privately owned AFL club when it was bought by Dr Geoffrey Edelsten.
Edelsten, a general practitioner turned entrepreneur originally from Melbourne, bought the Swans on 31 July 1985.
He paid a reported total price of $6 million, which included the repayment of all club debts and a license fee to the League.
For a time things had gone well, after Edelsten lured former four-time Richmond premiership coach Tom Hafey to the club in 1986 and secured a group of quality recruits headed by Greg Williams, Gerard Healy, Bernard Toohey, David Bolton, Merv Neagle, Jim Edmond and Glenn Coleman.
They even signed the mercurial Maurice Rioli but he never pulled on the red and white after the League ruled the club could not fit him in under the salary cap. Similarly, Simon Madden, one of the League’s best ruckmen at the time, was in the sights of the high-rolling Edelsten, before he made a late decision not to move north.
In 1986 the Swans finished second on the home-and-away ladder with a 16-6 win/loss record. But quickly the club was rocked by revelations that Edelsten was not the sole owner of the club, and that the license to play in the then VFL was held by Powerplay, a public company with links to Westeq, owned by John Holmes. It saw Edelsten resign as chairman in July 1986.
Things turned sour on the field, too. Although the prolific Williams provided a highlight when he shared the Brownlow Medal with Robert Dipierdomenico, after their outstanding home-and-away season the Swans were denied the right under now revised AFL regulations to host any finals. They went out in straight sets.
Sydney Lord Mayor Doug Sutherland took over as chairman as Powerplay purchased Edelsten’s shares in the club in October 1986.
Desperate to strengthen the club’s ties to Sydney, Powerplay adopted a new guernsey which featured the Sydney Harbour Bridge and was worn for the first time in a 1987.
It was a season which mirrored that of ’86, with the Swans going 15-7 through the home-and-away season to finish third before again exiting the finals in straight sets when forced to play interstate.
And again, there was a football consolation as Warwick Capper became the first Swans player since 1935 to kick 100 goals in a season.
Powerplay plunged into financial difficulty and against the wishes of coach Hafey they unloaded a string of highly rated players at the end of the 1987 season. Capper was sent to Brisbane, John Ironmonger to Fitzroy and Paul Hawke to Collingwood.
So dire was the situation that assistant-coach Craig Davis, a former Carlton, North Melbourne and Collingwood forward, four years into retirement, agreed to make a 1988 comeback.
It was 1527 days between his 155th career game in Round 17, 1983 and his 156th game in Round 1 1988. He was 33 years 188 days. And he kicked four goals in his first game back in a 26-point loss to Footscray at Waverley.
On 23 March 1988, the League sent finance manager Greg Durham to Sydney to try to sort out the Swans financial affairs but soon after Powerplay put the beleaguered club on the market.
When it quickly became evident there were no serious bidders the AFL paid $10 to buy back the license and save the club from oblivion. Durham took over the day-to-day operations as the League appointed a 14-man Board headed by Sydney businessman Graham Galt, chairman of Aarque Holdings.
The Board also included respected journalist and former Swans reserves player Mike Willesee along with former Swans president and Just Jeans chairman Craig Kimberley. The pair would later become known as the True Believers, part of a group who would later step in to save the Swans once again.
The Swans finished seventh in 1988 with a 12-10 record, sacked coach Hafey on 7 September and pocketed another Brownlow Medal via Gerard Healy.
A long, hard battle awaited the club, but at least they were back on a stable footing.