Russell Ebert lifts the cup after winning the 1977 flag
1977 Grand Final
Port Adelaide 17.11 (113) defeated Glenelg 16.9 (105)
Football Park, Sept 24. Crowd: 56,717
Umpires: P Mead, R Bennett
Best: B Cunningham, R Ebert, B Light, M James, T Evans
Goals: T Evans 7, I Eckermann 3, D Granger, B Cunningham 2, G Blethyn, T Sorrell, M James 1
Port Adelaide team
FB: T Hannan, G Phillips, R Gerlach
HB: I Warren, P Woite, I Eckermann
C: B Light, R Ebert (C), K Kinnear
HF: T Sorrell, D Granger, A Porplycia
FF: P Belton, T Evans, D Cahill
Ruck: J Spry, M James, B Cunningham
Reserves: A Giles, G Blethyn
1977, the year that followed 1976. A simple enough fact but especially significant for Port Adelaide supporters. 1976 was the year Port was to throw the monkey off its back, to break the drought in premierships extending back to 1965. But despite dominating the 1976 season with the minor premiership, Magarey Medal (Russell Ebert with a record number of votes) and 90 goals kicked by Randall Gerlach, Port stumbled at the final hurdle to contemporary nemesis, the Jack Oatey-led Sturt.
What else was there to do for Port Adelaide but pick itself up and dominate again? In 1977 Port finished minor premiers by 7 points and Tim Evans topped the goal kicking table in only 14 games. Max James finished runner up in the Magarey Medal to former Magpie Trevor Grimwood who had joined Fos Williams at West Adelaide. Sturt on the other hand stumbled through the 1977 season to miss the finals, finishing seventh with 9 wins.
1977 was significant for other reasons. After a two year absence following a dispute with the Port Adelaide Council, the Port Adelaide Football Club returned to Alberton as its home ground. Just as Port Adelaide is coming home in 2014 to the Adelaide Oval so it came home in 1977 to Alberton Oval. In an epic round 1 match at Alberton, Port Adelaide overcame Glenelg with a trademark withering six to zero goal last quarter to triumph 25.12 (162) to 20.15 (135) in front of 16,558 spectators.
The following week Port crashed back to earth with an 82 point loss to Norwood at Football Park. Although a humbling defeat it was a reality check for Port that kick-started an 8 game winning streak. The next week Port smashed Centrals by 101 points then soundly beat Sturt by 60 points, 21.9 (135) to 11.9 (75) in the traditional Anzac Day Grand Final rematch in front of an astounding 32,395 spectators. People flocked to Port v Sturt clashes in the 1960s and 1970s.
Glenelg finally broke Port’s winning streak at the Bay Oval, then Port met its round 2 conqueror Norwood at Alberton Oval. In a scintillating clash, Port Adelaide defeated traditional arch-rival Norwood by 2 points, 9.17 (71) to 10.9 (69) in front of 22,738 spectators at Alberton – a record for the ground. A titanic struggle was played out in front of an extraordinary crowd resulting in a thrilling Magpie victory.
Port Adelaide continued on its merry way in the 1977 season, winning 7 of its last 10 games (including a draw with Sturt) with one of only two losses by a solitary point at Unley to that team again, Sturt. Port finished the year as clear minor premier with 17 wins, 1 draw and 4 losses.
Despite finishing minor premier in 1976 and contesting the Grand Final, some important player turnover was essential to Port taking the ultimate step in 1977. Port Adelaide had turned over its side significantly from the 1976 defeat to Sturt, with the most notable inclusions of journeyman North Adelaide premiership ruckman John Spry, Essendon century goal kicker Geoff Blethyn, and returning prodigal son Trevor Sorrell after a playing coach stint in Tasmania. Rookies Tony Hannan and Len Warren would play their part on the big day, as would Ivan Eckermann, returning to the club after his initial stint in 1974-5. Kym Curtis, a young key forward from Port Augusta also joined the club in 1977, playing 13 games including the Second Semi Final but would just miss out on the big day. Curtis experienced premiership success two seasons later.
Deserving special mention is Randall Gerlach who decided to play on in 1977 against medical advice for a debilitating chronic kidney condition that ended his career at age 24. Gerlach brought up his 100th game for Port during the 1977 season. Six months after playing in the 1977 Grand Final, Randall’s kidneys would shut down, consigning him to dialysis and kidney transplants.
Important moves were made at both ends of the field during the season that would freshen up the Port side. For several years Port’s squad had contained two great full forwards in Randall Gerlach and Tim Evans. Gerlach had kicked 90 goals in 1976 as Port charged into the Grand Final. Gerlach led the forward line during much of 1977 but he was replaced at the goalfront by Evans later in the season. By round 15, Gerlach led Port’s goalscoring with over 40 goals, while Evans was not in the league’s top 20 goalkickers (cutoff at 30 goals). Amazingly, by the end of the 22 round season Evans topped the SANFL goalkicking list with 75 goals, adding another 12 goals in two finals matches to finish with 87 goals for the season. Lethal roving duo Brian Cunningham and Darrell Cahill added nearly a century of goals between them for the season, while tall goal scoring half forward Trevor Sorrell contributed over 40 goals, as did Gerlach.
At the other end of the field high-flying star full back Max James was growing restless in defence and continued trying to convince coach John Cahill to move him on the ball. Following a Simpson Medal winning performance in the state game against Western Australia playing as an on-baller, James started the next week in his customary role in defence for Port against traditional rival Norwood at Norwood. With the game slipping away, at half time James was moved onto the ball and sparked a revival that saw Port get up by 10 points. James’s new position was secured but presented Cahill with a new challenge. To accommodate James’s move, young forward Greg Phillips was moved to full back. Phillips took to the role with aplomb and was to carve a hugely successful career at Port and Collingwood as a key defender.
However in 1977, this created a very young and inexperienced backline with club champion and 1975 Magarey Medallist Peter Woite and wily back pocket Carl Fragomeni the only experienced defenders. The situation was exacerbated with a season ending injury to Fragomeni on the cusp of the finals leaving inexperienced defenders Ivan Eckermann, Tony Hannan, Len Warren, Greg Phillips and Randall Gerlach partnering Woite in the backlines to contest the Grand Final. Another young defender, Tony Giles was to come off the bench in the Grand Final to replace the injured Eckermann across half back.
1977 was also the centenary season of the South Australian National Football League, founded in 1877 as the South Australian Football Association. Port Adelaide was one of the original founding members of the SAFA.
Just as Port Adelaide had opened the centenary season against Glenelg so it bookended the 1977 season against the Bays in the Grand Final. Glenelg under the guidance of Neil Kerley in previous years had established itself as a modern-day football force with the 1973 premiership and grand final appearances in 1974 and 1975, in 1974 dispensing Port in the Preliminary Final. An intense and often bitter rivalry between Port Adelaide and Glenelg was building.
Port Adelaide legend John Cahill coached the Magpies in the 1977 Grand Final while champion Victorian and Carlton premiership coach and player, John Nicholls coached Glenelg. On the playing side, Port Adelaide featured greats such as Russell Ebert, Peter Woite, Brian Cunningham, Darrell Cahill, Max James, Randall Gerlach, Bruce Light and a young Greg Phillips. Well known to Port supporters on the black and gold side were Graham Cornes, the Phillis brothers Fred and Wayne, Peter Carey and former Carlton star Syd Jackson.
Port Adelaide had defeated Glenelg three times previously during the 1977 season, including a 25 point win in the Second Semi Final two weeks earlier. Glenelg had won once, at Glenelg Oval in June. All this counted for nought come the bounce down at 2.20pm on Saturday 24 September 1977 at Football Park in front of 56,717 spectators in the Grand Final umpired by Peter Mead and Robin Bennet.
Those fortunate enough to be at the game witnessed one of the great, skilful, tough, tight, bruising grand finals. Glenelg jumped out to a 5 goal to 2 goal lead raising ghosts of grand finals past for Port supporters. Tim Evans kicked two goals late in the quarter to steady nerves and get Port Adelaide into the match. Bruce Light, Port Adelaide’s electrifying, fiery wingman was reported in the first quarter but disregarded this setback to feature high in the best players with a typical bustling performance. Following Glenelg’s early breakaway and Port reeling the Bays back in, the game became a close, high-scoring game. Port kicked 5 goals to 3 in the second quarter to lead by 10 points at the half time break, which was punctuated by an all-in brawl featuring John Spry employing a fearsome choker hold to try and see the colour of Graham Cornes’s tongue.
As was the theme of the game, injury and controversy were playing a key role. As noted, Port had already lost reliable back pocket Carl Fragomeni to injury late in the season. By half time Tim Evans and feisty wingman Kym Kinnear were concussed, Evans’s condition euphemistically attributed in the media to a ‘clash of heads’ with Glenelg full back Fred Phillis. Evans had already kicked 6 goals to half time and was to finish with 7 goals for the match. Dangerous ball-magnet rover Darrell Cahill and Ivan Eckermann had thigh injuries. Eckermann, a rugged defender who had been transformed from a goalsneak early in his career returned to the forward line to make up numbers. Ivan was nearly immobile in a forward pocket sporting a huge pressure bandage on his injured thigh. In a game of heroes, Eckermann kicked 3 goals in the second half while hobbling in the forward pocket.
As an aside, on the Sunday Football Show the following day, John Cahill was asked what message he ran out to Eckermann after Ivan had missed a seemingly simple set shot for goal. Cahill replied that he had told Ivan if he had anyone fit left on the bench Ivan would have been dragged!
Glenelg opened quickly after half time kicking early goals before Port steadied again through goals to Evans and Eckermann, and after 4 goals apiece for the term Port still held Glenelg at arm’s length by 9 points at three quarter time. In the final quarter Port Adelaide slipped away to a 26 point lead but 3 late goals to Glenelg cut the final winning margin to 8 points, 17.11 (113) to 16.9 (105).
The SANFL’s centenary season had seen one of its greatest Grand Finals won by its proudest and most powerful club, the incomparable Port Adelaide Football Club. This was truly a game of heroes. Tim Evans and Ivan Eckermann were magnificent in the forward line, contributing 10 goals between them. Evans led all scorers on the day with 7.2. Superbly skilled rover Brian Cunningham was typically fearless, busy and dynamic winning best on ground plaudits; Port’s champion centreman and then triple Magarey Medallist Russell Ebert used his sublime skills by hand and foot to create many opportunities for Port; the big bear Randall Gerlach, who retired after the game, was tireless providing ruck support to Spry as well as playing in defence and using his big frame and vice-like grip in the unfamiliar role of stopping instead of finishing off attacks as he stymied many forward thrusts by Glenelg; Max James in his on-ball role was commanding around the ground; young defenders Greg Phillips, Len Warren, Tony Hannan and Eckermann/Tony Giles performed admirably on the biggest occasion; Bruce Light as mentioned was hard-working and exciting on his wing, while workhorse ruckman John Spry was tireless in ruck. Every player that day is a Port Adelaide hero.
Port Adelaide coach John Cahill experienced the depths of despair in 1976 in his first Grand Final in charge of Port Adelaide. Perhaps a new hardness was forged in the fires of that defeat as Cahill climbed the mountain as Port Adelaide’s jubilant 1977 Premiership coach. Cahill would not lose a Grand Final again after 1976.
Port Adelaide had grabbed the monkey from its back and hurled it into oblivion. Russell Ebert accepted the Thomas Seymour Hill Trophy on the ground with the immortal words “It's taken us a bloody long time, but by geez it's worth it!” Little did Russell know how many more times that trophy would be returning to its rightful home over many years to come.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs