Last Friday night at the MCG two of Australian Football’s oldest rivals clashed in a final in Melbourne for the first time in 34 years. Since their first Victorian Football Association (VFA) match in 1877, the Swans and the St Kilda Saints, one time neighbours by Melbourne’s Albert Park Lake, have been fierce rivals. For over a century South Melbourne (now the Sydney Swans) and St Kilda vied for the affections of Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs.
Their last Melbourne finals clash was the 1970 first semi-final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in front of a first semi-final record crowd of 104,239 people, which produced a first semi-final record gate of $111,020. In fact, according to the ancient copy of the Courage Book of VFL Finals I discovered at my parents place recently, every final in 1970 was played in front of record crowds, culminating in the still standing grand final record of 121,696 people for the famous 1970 Carlton versus Collingwood clash.
1970 was a different football world. The Australian Football League (AFL) was the Victorian Football League (VFL), the VFL was the VFA, and there were no Brisbane Lions, no West Coast Eagles, no Adelaide Crows and no Fremantle Dockers. Port Adelaide were a famous South Australian club whose fans supported Collingwood in the VFL and whose players wore a feared picket fence jumper, rather than a naff lightning bolt shocker.
There was no Telstra Dome, VFL Park was a plan not an historical footnote, and ten Victorian clubs played their home games at suburban grounds. In fact in 1970, Fitzroy’s old Brunswick Street Oval and Richmond’s Punt Road Oval were the only suburban grounds to have been abandoned. True the Saints had moved from the Junction Oval to Moorabbin, but the Fitzroy club still existed in its own right and had moved in to take St Kilda’s place at the Junction. Next season only Geelong will be playing at a traditional suburban venue.
Back then there was no Friday or Saturday night football, Sundays were reserved for the VFA and only four teams played in a final series of four matches, rather than the current eight teams playing a total of nine finals matches.
Of course the Sydney Swans were at that time still the South Melbourne Football club. Had anyone suggested then that the next time the Swans and Saints met in a final that South would have morphed into Australia’s most popular club, representing our biggest city, they would have been laughed out of the MCG.
In 1970 St Kilda were experienced finals campaigners and had recently won their one and only flag in 1966. For South it was their first final since the 1945 “blood bath” grand final loss to Carlton and Bob Skilton’s first and last finals appearance.
A significant marker of the different era was the fact that one of South’s key players was a former Sheffield Shield cricketer, Peter Bedford. Fifteen years later St Kilda’s Simon O’Donnell would be the last athlete to reach the elite level at both cricket and “aussie” rules.
The match went largely as expected with St Kilda jumping South to lead by 20 points at the first change. The bloods fought back strongly to lead by five points at the main break, but by three-quarter time the Saints had drawn away to a 22 point lead. Carl Ditterich sealed the match for the Saints with a couple of early goals in the last quarter and the Swans were eventually swamped by 53 points with St Kilda winning 22.11 (143) to 13.12 (90). Eerily the margin last Friday night was a very similar 51 point win to St Kilda.
To me though the amazing thing about the 1970 match was the size of the crowd. Over 100,000 people at a St Kilda versus South Melbourne match. Even allowing for several thousand neutral fans, that is a massive number.
It always makes me wonder what sort of a super power representing Melbourne’s southeast may have emerged if South had coupled with the Saints rather than flying north. Many South fans did in fact change their allegiance to the Saints after the bloods move to Sydney. Last Friday, on a cold and wet night these two old rivals still managed to draw over 50,000 fans to the MCG. An astonishing figure when you consider that two well supported Victorian clubs, Essendon and Geelong, only topped that figure by 2,685 the following night.
Any slight possibility of a merger ended however in 1996 as a former Saint, Tony Lockett, lead the Swans to a grand final against North Melbourne. That year was in many ways the watershed year of the Sydney experiment. It marked the Sydney public’s acceptance of the team as an integral part of their city and dispelled the last serious doubts about the club’s viability and benefit to the national competition. Just as importantly though it was the year in which a large part of the lost tribe of South Melbourne fans returned to the red and white fold.