Dennis Carroll was a typically reserved 20 year old who had played all of six AFL games for 77 possessions, no goals and just one win, when he awoke on the morning of Thursday, July 2 1981 to a football 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 history.
Having dreamt all his life of playing football in Melbourne, the boy from Wagga was facing a move to Sydney. Suddenly five consecutive losses and an injury, which had kept him out of the most recent game, didn’t seem quite so important as the upheaval that would change his life.
“Basically, we were told by people I trusted that the club was broke and if we didn’t move to Sydney the club would fold,” Carroll recalled.
He played the last eight games of his first season as the Swans finished ninth with eight wins, but it was all secondary. All the talk was about the move to the NSW capital.
“It was a tumultuous time. Senior players like (captain) Barry Round, Mark Browning and Francis Jackson, and coaches Rick Quade and Tony Franklin, who I knew and trusted, were in favour of the move but it split the club in two. Half the players were ‘yes’ and half were ‘no’. And over the summer of 1981-82 we trained in two groups.”
Carroll, working with TNT Express, celebrated his 21st birthday on November 7 in the middle of the biggest drama in the 85-year history of a club that was one of the foundation teams of the competition.
The move to Sydney didn’t happen overnight, with the Swans and the AFL eventually agreeing that the club would play their home games on a fly-in basis at the SCG in 1982.
For the 1982 season the players would live in Melbourne before moving full-time to the Harbour City but, significantly, the club would adopt the name ‘Sydney’.
So, Sunday, March 28 1982 was a monumental day in club history as the Sydney Swans played their first game as an SCG tenant under new coach and favourite son Rick Quade.
It wasn’t the first time they had stepped out on the SCG turf, the long-time home of cricketing legend Sir Donald Bradman - they’d played there in 1980 and ’81 in promotional games for premiership points - but it was the official birth of the new era.
Quade, seven months beyond his 30th birthday and his 164th and last game, began his coaching career against a Melbourne side that had been wooden-spooners under Ron Barassi in 1981.
There were seven changes from the last game at Lake Oval under Ian Stewart in Round 22, 1981 – but no players new to the club as Tony Morwood, Max James, Bernie Evans, Wayne Carroll, Stephen Allender and teenagers Anthony Daniher and David Rhys-Jones returned.
Graham Teasdale had gone to Collingwood, 90-gamer Peter Morrison had quit the club following a dispute over the move to Sydney, Kevin Goss had retired and Ian Roberts was injured.
Peter Melesso, who had debuted in the Lake Oval farewell game, had moved on before playing later with St Kilda and West Coast, Turvey Park boy Mark Fraser went home and Bernie Conlen was not selected and spent the year in the Reserves before heading to West Adelaide.
Dennis Carroll, playing with cousin Wayne for the first time in his 15th game and Wayne’s 18th, wore the #7 guernsey he had inherited from the retired Goss.
The Swans side for their first official game at the SCG, listed in notional positions, was:
B: David Ackerly, Rod Carter, Anthony Daniher
HB: Mark Browning, Max Kruse, Dennis Carroll
C: Brett Scott, Greg Smith, David Rhys-Jones
HF: Tony Morwood, Max James, Paul Morwood
F: Wayne Carroll, John Roberts, Colin Hounsell
R: Barry Round, Bernie Evans, Stevie Wright
INT: Stephen Allender, Silvio Foschini.
Barry Round, who in 1980 had succeeded Quade as captain, led the Swans for the fourth year in ’82 after he’d shared the 1981 Brownlow Medal with good mate Bernie Quinlan from Fitzroy.
In his 259th game overall and his 124th game in red and white as the Swans took up SCG residence, the skipper was one of only three 100-gamers in the ‘home’ side. The others were Mark Browning, in his 123rd game, and Rod Carter, in his 117th game.
Round was a dominant figure with 23 possessions and 21 hit-outs, while Browning had a game-high and career-best 35 possessions as the Swans led by 28 points at halftime after a seven-goal second quarter. They kicked eight goals in the third quarter and won 20.17 (137) to 16.12 (108). John Roberts (4) and Bernie Evans (3) were the leading goal-kickers.
Inevitably, the fly-in scenario was going to cause problems. Eventually somebody would miss a flight and in Round 17, on July 25, they did. Much to the surprise of most, it was none other than Dennis Carroll.
“We’d fly to Sydney on Sunday morning, have brunch at Sydney Airport and catch a bus to the ground for a team meeting before we played,” he explains, having told the story countless times and 38 years later able to see the funny side of it.
“When we started doing a lot of flying one of the big things Quadey insisted on was doing it the right way. We had to travel with pride and represent the club properly. There were to be no shenanigans. We did it really well and to this day I think it’s something we’re proud of,” he said.
“I was still living with Brett Scott and Wayne (Carroll) and to this day I say they must have turned my alarm off but I was woken by a phone call from (Chairman of Selectors) Tony Franklin saying: ‘We’re at Tullamarine … where are you?'
“I was still in bed so he told me in no uncertain terms to get my effing arse out to the airport and get on the next flight and that he’d see me in Sydney. We were playing Footscray and I found myself on the same flight as the Footscray players. I was just a young kid, not very well known, but I was in club uniform and got a few smirks from some of their players who worked out what had happened.
“When I got off the plane in Sydney the boys had finished their brunch and were on the bus waiting. I got on and not a word was said. No ‘how are you?’ or ‘good to see you’. Silence. Although there were a few funny looks from a few teammates.
“At the SCG we went downstairs for the pre-game team meeting and when all the players were assembled Quadey proceeded to let fly. For five minutes he tore shreds off me – metaphorically speaking he pulled out the shot gun and gave me both barrels.
“When I came out of the meeting I still hadn’t had anything to eat so I asked one of the trainers if he could go out and find something. He came back with a dirty old egg sandwich but luckily we had a win and I played OK. But I never missed another flight.”
The fly-in, fly-out Swans, still training at Lake Oval, went 5-3 through the first eight rounds before four consecutive losses. They won the next five to get back into the finals race but lost their last three and finished seventh. David Ackerly was crowned club champion and Round finished equal sixth in the Brownlow Medal.
And then things got really serious. The club traded in its 3205 postcode at South Melbourne for a 2021 option at the SCG, moving north lock, stock and barrel.
Now, if you were shipping a bunch of young footballers from Melbourne to Sydney to live and play where would you base them in the Harbour City? Kings Cross? Probably not!
But as Dennis Carroll prepared for life as a Sydney-based AFL player that was precisely where he was based. Two-and-a-half stars, he said. And he was probably being generous.
Carroll and teammates Brett Scott and David Winbanks spent the first fortnight in the NSW capital at the Astoria Hotel in the heart of the night entertainment and red light district.
With minimal contacts in rugby league heartland, the club had few options in what was almost an anti-lesson for the player welfare development role that Carroll would later take on.
For the younger, single players it was exciting. “I loved it. I was really motivated by the opportunity to be a real football pioneer in a city where the game had been played for a long time but didn’t have much top-end presence. But it was very challenging for the older players with families,” Carroll said.
Through their first four years in Sydney the Swans finished 7th-11th-10th-10th, following their 12-10 campaign in’82 with 22 wins from 66 games in 1983-85.
In July ’85 the ever-colourful Dr Geoffrey Edelsten became the first private owner of a major Australian sporting team when he was the face of a syndicate that bought the Swans.
In ’86 Edelsten lured four-time Richmond premiership coach Tom Hafey to club and Hafey elevated 25-year-old 86-gamer Carroll to the captaincy as he lured Greg Williams, Gerard Healy, Jim Edmond, Bernard Toohey, David Bolton and Merv Neagle to the club.
It’s a story of which Swans fans never tire. Suddenly they were a pin-up team, going 16-6 to finish second on the 1986 home-and-away ladder and 15-7 to finish third in ’87.
Carroll, hugely admired for his ability to unite a team dominated by imports, played finals for the first time. And although the club went out in straight sets both years, he still insists they were closer than many realise to football’s Holy Grail. Especially in ’86.
“There were no home finals back then and although under the current system we would have earned the right to play at the SCG in September, we had to play at the MCG. If it had been different who knows what may have happened?” he reflected.
Sadly, Carroll injured his knee in the last home-and-away game of the ’86 season against Fitzroy at Collingwood’s Victoria Park and missed the finals. Ironically, it was in a marking contest with none other than Paul Roos.
But as disappointing as it was at the time, it did arm him with another good after-dinner story.
“They took me down into the rooms and after 10 or 15 minutes the medical staff left and I was lying by myself in the visitors rooms. Low and behold in walks a familiar face who said ‘how are you mate?’ We had a good chat for five minutes or so,” the wounded skipper recalled.
Accompanied by his own personal ‘minder’, the unlikely visitor was none other than Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
Without the injured Carroll, the Swans lost the 1986 qualifying final to eventual grand finalists Carlton by 16 points before going down to Fitzroy by five points in the semi-final. Not so good were two heavy finals losses in ’87 when the skipper had his only taste of finals football.
Carroll was captain for the next five years as the Swans finished seventh in 1988-89 before sliding down the ladder amid a changing football landscape that saw the addition of the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Bears in 1987 and the Adelaide Crows in 1991.
He filled a critical role as an always respected skipper, and in Round 4, 1991 he became just the second player after the legendary Bob Skilton to captain the Swans 100 times.
Fittingly, the then 30 year old had 31 possessions and picked up three Brownlow Medal votes as his team, looking to bounce back from an 0-3 start to the season, beat Richmond by 37 points at the MCG.
Fifteen weeks later they played Richmond again, this time at the SCG in Round 19. It was Carroll’s 200th game and again he celebrated with three Brownlow votes after 32 possessions in a seven-point win. And a baby daughter.
Astrid Carroll, born the previous day, was the first child for Dennis and Ingrid who had married in 1987. Long before Dennis turned his hand to surrogate parenting at the Swans he and Ingrid raised Astrid, along with Ben who was born in 1993, and Jake, born in 1997.
Astrid and partner Aaron now run their own media/marketing business in Sydney called “Capture Creative”, where Jake works, while Ben is a pilot with Jetstar.
Officially listed as player #1096 on the club’s all-time list, Carroll was the 13th player to post a double century for the Swans and the sixth youngest. Only Vic Belcher, the club’s first double centurion in the 1918 grand final, 1970s star David McLeish and long-time teammates Browning, Tony Morwood and Wright, had been younger.
Carroll stood down as captain at the end of the 1992 season, allowing Paul Kelly to take charge, but sadly what turned out to be his farewell season in ’93 didn’t go to script. A persistent calf problem restricted him two games in Rounds 4-5.
But almost appropriately his last game at the SCG in Round 4 against Essendon was his 100th game at the SCG. He was the first player to post an SCG century, starting a list that now includes Adam Goodes (143 SCG games), Michael O’Loughlin (136), Jude Bolton (128), Mark Bayes (125), Daryn Cresswell (123), Jarrad McVeigh (122), Paul Kelly (116), Andrew Dunkley (115), Leo Barry (103), Stuart Maxfield (102) and Ryan O’Keefe (102).
He finished up against Fitzroy at Princes Park and, having finally confirmed his retirement later in the season, shared an SCG lap of honour with Neil Cordy.
Little did he know that 13 years into his time with the Swans he was barely a third of the way along his extraordinary Sydney Swans journey.