After an arduous four month wait the Pre Season competition is finally upon us.
In this five week period players will begin to regain their football prowess in a competitive nature after a gruelling summer out on the track. Coaches will experiment with tactical methods and convey young hopefuls emerging from the draft, hoping to lay the foundation for a debut on the big stage. Despite opinions from those claiming that the competition should be scrapped, supporters are no doubt relieved that the moment has arrived. The relieved catchcry, “The footy is back!” is heard repeatedly in February after an off-season that has proved too lengthy for many.
The competition has certainly changed since its debut back in 1956, transforming into different formats and time spans into the competition we have today. There is no doubt that the Night/ Pre Season Series have provided many memorable moments over the years:
Birth of a New Competition
In 1956, the then VFL decided to create a knockout competition comprised of the 8 teams who failed to reach the Finals Series. The series was held under lights at the Lake Oval throughout weeknights in September. The inaugural Grand Final proved to be a success for the VFL as over 32,000 crammed in amongst the palm trees to witness South Melbourne narrowly overcome the Blues by one straight kick. The night series continued in this format until 1971, the Swans and the Bulldogs proving to be the most successful sides of the competition’s 15 year span. Both were premiers three times throughout this era. A decade later the ground was unable to host AFL matches following the Swans’ relocation and after hosting reserves matches the ground was converted into a soccer pitch.
The Wacky World of Waverley
Following a five year hiatus the Night Series was back in 1977 as the VFL installed lights at Waverley Park, however it’s stint in the Eastern Suburbs provided somewhat unusual moments. Older supporters often claim that the weather at Waverley resembled an Antarctic blizzard as large fogs and hailstorms were regular occurrences. At times the footy was often harder to spot than a green frog in a tree. The night when the sprinklers came to life in the middle of a match between Hawthorn and Claremont remains a part of footy folklore. From 1977-87 night series matches were often played at Waverley mid-season on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.
The Pre-Season/Night Series has become an effective corporate and marketing field for big companies. The winner of the competition has also been provided with a healthy pay check over the years. Sponsors such as Escort, Channel 7, Panasonic, Fosters, Ansett Australia, Wizard and NAB have been major sponsors of the Pre-Season competition. As a generous gesture in the 2009 NAB Cup Final, Geelong coach Mark Thompson donated the $50 000 won following his team’s victory to the Victorian Bushfire appeal. This followed the thousands of dollars raised in the Bushfire Appeal Match between the Bulldogs and Essendon weeks earlier.
The Headband Incident
In a night match back in 1977, legendary Carlton defender Bruce Doull had his headband stolen by Hawthorn’s Kevin Ablett. This let off a fuse and the ‘Flying Doormat’ wasn’t a happy man, throwing Ablett to the ground and letting the odd punch fly. This was not the last time Doull would lose his headband, nippy Essendon rover Tony Buhagiar threw the headband over the fence in an Elimination Final six years later.
Did You Hear The Siren?
The most controversial climax to a Night Series final came in 1980 between North Melbourne and Collingwood in front of a large crowd at Waverley. With North trailing by 3 points in the dying seconds, Malcolm Blight accepted the ball in the centre and as the siren sounded sent a spearing pass down the throat of teammate Kerry Good at Centre Half Forward. However the umpire failed to hear the siren and paid the mark. Under immense pressure and with thousands of fans streaming onto the ground, Good kicked truly from 35 metres to sew up North Melbourne’s first Night Premiership.
Tim’s Dazzling Run
Bomber dynamo Tim Watson has shone over the years with his electrifying skill and presence in the Essendon midfield. He was again the catalyst for the Dons in their 1981 Night final victory against Carlton. The vision of Watson leaping over the fallen Simon Madden before racing in to convert from 20 metres is recalled fondly by Essendon supporters. That night the Bombers held off the Blues by four goals in the wet conditions.
The pulse rate for all Demons fans attending the 1987 final was dangerously high in this nail biting contest against the Bombers. The game was low-scoring and immense physical pressure was placed on both sides. With only minutes remaining, crumber Bret Bailey converted with a left foot snap to send the Demons four points up. The score failed to alter as the siren sounded with the Bombers streaming into attack. Delirious scenes followed as thousands of fans invaded the ground at Waverley Park to celebrate a drought-breaking premiership for the Dees, their first in 23 years.
Next Score Wins
By 1989 the Night Series was played in the Pre Season, hence creating the Pre Season competition. The VFL adopted an unconventional rule in the tournament which claimed in the event of a tie it would be a next score wins scenario. This only occurred once in a match between Hawthorn and West Coast at Waverley. Trailing by two goals with only minutes remaining the Eagles looked gone until big Laurie Keane bobbed up to boot two long goals and scores were level as official time ran out. A minute into extra time Paul Peos was unmarked at half forward and booted a behind to signal a win. Judging by the celebration as the siren rang it was clear the players had no knowledge of the rule and it was eventually scrapped soon after.
In 1996, the AFL embarked on an experiment to celebrate it’s 100th season in creating a Lightning Premiership. This competition would be held in similar fashion to a state carnival with a round robin format. New rules were implemented including a 3 point reward for hitting the post, a free kick to the opposition if a player has touched the ball last before travelling over the boundary line and matches were played within a 35 minute period. Essendon were deserved winners, defeating the Brisbane Bears by 17 points in the Final in front of a relatively sparse crowd of just over 17 000.
Saints Finally March In
Approaching the 1996 competition, St Kilda was off the back of a dismal previous season. However with promising youngsters such as Aussie Jones, Joel Smith, Tony Brown and with superstars Harvey, Winmar and Loewe in full flight, the Saints were striving for success. Under the fiery Stan Alves in the 1996 Final, the young skilful Saints were never seriously threatened when racing away to a thumping 58 point victory over Carlton, the reigning day premiers. Scenes of jubilation surrounded Waverley with thousands of St Kilda fans streaming onto the ground celebrating the clubs first flag in three decades, one supporter managing to climb halfway up the goalpost. The Saints had a dismal 1996 home and away season, but would be crowned minor premiers the following year.
The King On and Off the Throne
In 1998, North Melbourne captain Wayne Carey was at the peak of his powers and this was exemplified in that year’s Pre Season Cup Final. Carey dominated around the ground for the Roos against the talented St Kilda side, his 70 metre goal making the vast expanses of Waverley appear to be the size of a kindergarten playground. Carey also took one of his trademark screamers sprinting from the side of the pack, which epitomised his courage. His hand in North’s 14 point defeat of St Kilda was rewarded with a Michael Tuck Medal as best afield. In the Pre-Season of 2002, Carey would transform from hero to villain in the eyes of the North faithful. Only a few days after performing admirably in North’s opening round Pre Season match against Hawthorn, Carey held a Press Conference. The four time Syd Barker medallist admitted to an extra marital affair with the wife of vice-captain and close teammate Anthony Stevens. In the space of a few days Carey’s successful reign at North was over.
Waverley’s Last Hurrah
In what has proven to be a controversial decision, the AFL announced in 1997 that it would scrap Waverley as an AFL venue by the end of the century. In 1999 it hosted it’s last Pre Season Final, fittingly hosted by tenants Hawthorn against Port Adelaide. The Hawks were on top from the opening bounce while in contrast Port Adelaide were woeful, scoring five goals for the entire match. With Ben Dixon contributing well up forward and Paul Salmon on fire in the ruck the Hawks cruised to a 47 point victory in front of 55 000 fans.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, young Carlton forward Brendan Fevola was content to herald in the new Millennium in style. Fevola bagged twelve goals in Carlton’s 88 point annihilation of arch rivals Collingwood at the MCG. The young forward took time to make his mark in senior football, failing to boot his first five goal haul until late 2001.
Poker Faces with the Cup
In the 2004 Wizard Cup Final, the Saints proved they were a force to be reckoned with that season as they defeated the Cats by 22 points in a physical encounter. The stage was set at the opening bounce as Brent Guerra cannoned into Cameron Ling, leaving the Cats star battered and bruised. At the Presentation, coach Grant Thomas and skipper Lenny Hayes controversially stood on the dais stony-faced as they held the cup. The Saints were in premiership contention that season before falling to Port Adelaide at the second last hurdle.
We Are Geelong
In 2006, Geelong won a thrilling NAB Cup Final with an 8 point defeat of Adelaide at AAMI Stadium. Despite losing Cameron Ling early with an ankle injury, the Cats fought back in the final term. With Cameron Mooney booting three vital goals, the Cats scraped over the line for their first Pre Season Flag and first ‘premiership’ since 1963. Despite a horror 2006 season, the Cats have played scintillating football since by adding two day Premiership Cups to the cabinet by the end of the Decade.
Dogs Finally Bite Back
The Western Bulldogs headlined the 2010 Pre-Season competition, claiming a Premiership of any form for the first time in four decades. With new recruit Barry Hall in full flight up forward booting 17 goals for the tournament (including seven in the final), fans from the west praised their new spearhead. With a dangerous blend of youth and experience, the Dogs displayed an exciting brand of footy which would see them cruise to the final. Clashing with another club bereft of Premiership success in St Kilda, the Dogs stormed home to take the NAB Cup by 40 points with a stellar six goal final term. Despite many pundits tipping further Premiership success for the Bulldogs that year, the ‘scraggers’ lost a third consecutive Preliminary Final.
A New Dawn
The 2011 competition would present a different format amidst the introduction of the new Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney clubs. A plethora of round-robin matches were scheduled in the first round (reminiscent of the Lightning Premiership), with three shortened matches played at the same venue on any given day or night. The new Gold Coast side under Guy McKenna surprised many by advancing to the second round, with victory over Sydney and GWS in Blacktown. The new kids on the block would fall to West Coast the following week. For the record, reigning day premiers Collingwood would add another trophy to the cabinet with a 22 point win over Essendon in the final at Etihad Stadium.