It had been 51 years since the Swans had a won a final. Or 18,620 days to be really precise. A long, long drought. Which is why this day 23 days years ago was very, very special.
It was 7 September 1996 and a memorable day in club history. Not only did the Swans post their first finals win since the 1945 preliminary final but they did so at the SCG.
It was a Saturday night and a bumper crowd of 37,010 packed the SCG as the Swans, coached by Rodney Eade and captained by Paul Kelly, hosted Hawthorn in the 1996 qualifying final against Hawthorn.
It was the 177th AFL match played at the famous venue, which had first hosted the game at the highest level when Fitzroy and Collingwood travelled north on 23 May 1903.
There were two games in 1903, one in 1904, one in 1952, two in 1979, four in 1980, including South Melbourne’s first appearance against Geelong, and two in 1981, including one between South and Collingwood.
Regular AFL football had been played at the SCG since 1982, when South Melbourne played their home games at the SCG before relocating to the NSW capital in 1983, but the club’s four finals during the long drought were all played in Melbourne.
There was a 1970 final against St.Kilda at the MCG, a 1977 final against Richmond at Waverley, two 1986 finals against Carlton and Fitzroy at the MCG, and two 1987 finals against Hawthorn at Waverley and Melbourne at the MCG.
After a hat-trick of wooden-spoons in 1992-93-94 the Swans won eight games to finish 12th of 16 teams in 1995 in the final year of what had been a strong re-establishment phase under Ron Barassi.
But in 1996 the club set themselves to make a serious move up the AFL ladder in 1996.
With Eade having taken on the coaching reins, the club suffered a first-up nightmare - a 90-point loss to Adelaide at Football Park in which they trailed 1-0 to 12-6 at halftime as Stuart Maxfield, Kevin Dyson and Craig O’Brien made their debut in red and white.
They lost to Fremantle in Round 2 but things turned around quickly. In Round 5 they made it three wins on the trot since 1989. They salvaged a draw against Essendon in Round 6 after being 29 points down early in the final quarter, and beat Melbourne at the MCG in Round 7 in the Centenary Match, when they wore a replica playing uniform of the very early years.
Captain Kelly looked a treat as he led his team out wearing red and white vertical stripes, red and white hooped socks, and long black knickerbocker-type pants which went all the way down to the socks.
After a Round 8 loss to West Coast in Perth they won eight in a row and at Round 15 got to the top of the ladder for the first time since Round 18 1987.
They fell again in the WA capital in Round 16, going down to Fremantle, and after Lockett kicked his 100th goal of the season in Round 19 they won three in a row again and were back on top of the ladder at Round 20.
In Round 21 Lockett was reported for striking and it was almost overlooked that the Swans had lost o Essendon by 18 points. It was all about ‘Plugger’. And it was all for nothing when he was cleared.
Going into Round 22 the Brisbane Bears, under former Swans coach John Northey, sat in pole position, ahead of the Swans on percentage. West Coast and North Melbourne were equal third half a game back.
On the Saturday afternoon of the final week of home-and-away matches the Bears lost to 11th-placed Collingwood at Victoria Park, opening the door for the Swans. Beat West Coast at the SCG and they would win the minor premiership for the first time since 1945.
They did. Even without Lockett, who missed with a groin strain.
In driving rain and gale force winds the Swans led by 27 points at quarter time and four points at halftime before holding the Eagles to two goals in the second half and win by 35 points.
It was the old finals system whereby in the first week of September it’s 1st v 8th, 2nd v 7th, 3rd v 6th and 4th v 5th. Hence, the Sydney v Hawthorn match-up as coach Eade made one change from Round 22, replacing Wade Chapman with 19-year-old Justin Crawford.
The Swans took an aggregate 1807 AFL games’ experience into the final, but only 25 were finals. And these were spread across six players. Bayes (6) was the only player who had previously played for the Swans in the finals. Derek Kickett (6), Dyson (5), Maxfield (3),, O’Brien (1) and Roos (1) had the rest.
Lockett, in his second season in Sydney, had kicked 114 goals to top the home-and-away goal-kicking list and win the Coleman Medal after a late charge from Hawthorn’s Jason Dunstall, who kicked 14-0-6-10 in the last four rounds to finish with 101.
Later in September, Lockett, Kelly and Roos were named in the All-Australian side, with Kelly further recognised as captain. The superstar trio each polled 14 votes in the Brownlow to finish equal 14th and seven votes behind joint winners Michael Voss and James Hird.
The ineligible Corey McKernan had also polled 21 votes to be part of a controversial finish, which followed huge betting plunge on 1995 Brownlow winner Kelly after the AFL specially asked Kelly to attend the medal count in Melbourne rather than via video link from Sydney.
And at the end of the season, Kelly polled 270 votes to win the third of his four Bob Skilton Medals. Andrew Dunkley (236) was runner-up from Cresswell (211), Lockett (201), Roos (197), Maxfield (154), Shannon Grant (151), Greg Stafford (150), Michael O’Loughlin and Adam Heuskes (144).
But that was all part of the good times that would come later in September.
First there was the long-awaited and historic first AFL final at the SCG,
Hawthorn, coached by Ken Judge and skippered by Dunstall, had finished eighth with 11 wins and a draw. Paul Salmon (18 votes) and John Platten (15) had led the club count in the Brownlow, and Shane Crawford was the only Hawk picked in the All-Australian team.
It was a Hawthorn team on a mission. They had finished 15th in 1995, their lowest finish in club history, and headed to the SCG meaning business despite two home-and-away losses to the Swans.
They received a massive boost shortly before the first bounce when it was revealed that Lockett would not play due to a groin injury. It was an unsettling blow for the home side, who still started favorites with the bookies but trailed by nine points at halftime.
As fate would have it, a match billed as a showdown between Lockett and Dunstall, two of the all-time great full forwards, suddenly found itself without either of the two drawcards shortly after halftime when Dunstall was stretchered off with a serious knee injury.
Hawthorn led by three points at three-quarter time and after a fluctuating final term scores were level deep in time-on. Maxfield pumped the ball long to the goal square were Daryn Cresswell miraculously pulled down an overhead mark from behind Hawk Nick Holland.
Cresswell converted from the square to get Sydney home 13-12 (90) to 12-12 (84).
O’Brien kicked five goals and Jason Mooney three, and in an era where 30-possession games were rare and a game in which the entire Swans possession count was 260, Maxfield and Dale Lewis led the way with 21 each.
After waiting 18,620 days for one finals win Swans fans waited only seven days for another when Lockett returned from history to kick his famous point after the siren to get the Swans home by a point over Essendon in the preliminary final at the SCG.
Sadly, Sydney were beaten by 43 points by North Melbourne in the grand final to cut short the club’s remarkable turnaround, but still the faithful remember ever so fondly the club’s first final at the SCG and their first finals win in 51 years on 7 September 1996.