DURING the 1950s, Australian football's post-war revival was dominated by two clubs - Port Adelaide in the SANFL and Melbourne in the VFL. And by two men who became legends well beyond their clubs - Fos Williams at Port Adelaide; Norm Smith at Melbourne.
While both clubs became regular fixtures in the SANFL and VFL grand finals during this decade, they also revived the theme of a "Champions of Australia" title with their end-of-season play-offs at the floodlit Norwood Oval from 1955.
Port Adelaide administrative chief Bob McLean had no doubt what the year-ending matches represented - and what they could have led to on a national stage.
"We could rightly claim," said "Big Bob" in the lead-up to the 1955 clash of the premiers, "this game is for the 'Championship of Australia'. And I am taking into account any WA feelings."
Port Adelaide firmly took on the responsibility - and challenge - of repeatedly proving an SANFL club, in particular Port Adelaide, could be more than just competitive in the VFL had there been a vision for Australia's game to have a national league in the late 1950s.
Why did it take another 30 years - and so much angst - to create a national competition in line with so many other sports on the world circuit?
The appetite was there, as noted by the VFL moving games to Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney in 1952 and the Australian National Football Council calling for more in 1954.
Was it the expense of air travel? Or not having trust in television that was still in its pioneer stages in Australia and feared for taking people from the gate - rather than as a cash-paying partner to underwrite the game's costs, as is the case today? And significant in the financial outlays for a start-up national competition would have been the need for improving floodlighting at venues (at a time when the appeal for night sport was being blunted by the "prohibitive" cost of lighting systems).
Football historian Nick Haines might have answered the question by saying: "They (the VFL) did not need our money then (with VFL-AFL licences)."
Or, perhaps, after Port Adelaide had pushed Melbourne in 1955, the VFL felt - as it did in rebuffing the SANFL submission to join the Victorian competition in 1984 - there was fear of a super team from Adelaide. More so after an SANFL combined line-up, featuring star Port Adelaide players, beat VFL runner-up Collingwood, 15.16 to 7.17 with 9.5 to 0.2 in the last term on October 11, 1955.
A national crown for the best Australian football team dates back to 1888 when Australia was a land of colonies rather than a federation of states. Port Adelaide had a perfect record in the "Champions of Australia" play-offs between the SA and Victorian league premiers - four finals, four wins, four titles in 1890 (against South Melbourne); 1910 (against Collingwood while wearing all black); 1913 (against Fitzroy) and 1914 with the Invincibles beating Carlton.
World War I ended a grand end-of-season tradition.
Port Adelaide again had four "championship" games in the 1950s, starting with the 1951 clash with Geelong at Adelaide Oval followed by three duels with Melbourne in 1955, 1956 and 1959.
Bob McLean regarded the 1955 game as the moment - for what happened both on and off the field - that should have been the impetus for a national competition.
Port Adelaide lost - as Advertiser scribe Keith Butler called it - "the fastest and most most thrilling game seen under electric light" - by one point. The winning behind was scored by Frank "Bluey" Adams in the last 15 seconds after team-mate John Beckwith ignored Smith's playbook to get the ball out of the Port Adelaide attack.
Smith - like many Victorians - had his views on the capabilities of non-VFL teams, at least Port Adelaide, dramatically change during this match.
"Port Adelaide is a really good side," Smith said. "And the standard of football over here (in Adelaide) is a lot higher than I was led to believe. Tonight's game was far better than your average home-and-away game in Melbourne. The pace was terrific.
"It was a wonderful game to watch ... and we were a bit lucky to win it."
So much of this match makes the mind wonder what could have been for national Australian football - and how enterprising men such as McLean were for promoting club and game.
McLean had been stymied by the SANFL in 1951 when he wanted high-profile VFL umpire Jack McMurray junior rather than South Australian Ken Aplin in charge of the game against at Geelong. It did create a pre-game headline (always a smart move for promoting an event).
While no name was ever attached to the quotes in Butler's match preview in The Advertiser on the morning of the night game - Wednesday October 5, four days after Port Adelaide beat Norwood 101-38 for the SANFL premiership - it is easy to see "Big Bob" on the phone creating the back-page headline.
Port Adelaide was "insulted" by those pre-game thoughts, as mentioned by Smith, of not being up to VFL standards. There were predictions Port Adelaide would not get within 10 goals of Melbourne (just as there were pundits saying Port Adelaide would not win a game in its 1997 start-up season in the AFL).
"This is typical of the smugness of Victorian football," the anonymous Port Adelaide official told Butler. "Geelong, when premiers a few years ago, thought it would do much the same to us at Adelaide Oval and came very close to being beaten (and would have lost had Port Adelaide kicked straight).
"We will see just how good this Melbourne side is when we meet."
It was a good Melbourne side with 16 of the grand final 20 to play. And McLean certainly whipped the fans into believing an upset was on the cards.
Gates opened on The Parade at 6.30pm for the 7.45pm match with just four policemen on duty at Norwood Oval. The Advertiser described the events before the first bounce as "wild scenes".
At least 4000 fans entered the oval without paying by tearing sheets of iron off the fence, jumping the turnstiles or taking the simple route through the back garden of the caretaker's home. By the time police reinforcements arrived, as many as 23,500 were inside Norwood Oval and they were compelled to turn away thousands more lining up on The Parade.
Those who were lucky to be at the game saw a classic.
Scores were even at 3.3 each at quarter-time; Port Adelaide rebounded from a 21-point deficit half-way through the second term to lead by four points at three quarter-time and might have been further in front had it not played short-kick football in attack.
Williams, as to be expected from the Port Adelaide captain-coach, set the example with his roving. Even Smith was impressed, later describing Williams as "about the best rover" he had seen.
"He's a winner," Smith said. "His position play, elusiveness and courage are outstanding."
The game seemed destined for a draw until Beckwith gave the match the dramatic ending it deserved - even if it was not the result Port Adelaide warranted.
In the Norm Smith biography, "The Red Fox", Beckwith recalled: "I picked up the ball and looked up, thinking 'What am I going to do?'
"The team rule was that we had to kick wide in the back line and we did that religiously. But the game was tied (9.10 each) and I saw a loose Melbourne player - 'Bluey' Adams - in the middle of the ground. So, instinctively, using some initiative, I kicked it in his direction.
"'Bluey' ran on it, had a couple of bounces and kicked a point (with 15 seconds to play and to finish the night with 0.4).
"I was thinking, 'God, I've broken the team rules'. But Norm never said a word. He certainly didn't even say, 'Good kick' or anything like that."
Port Adelaide had made an impression - a very good one for SA football, particularly in the lead-up to the national carnival in 1956 at Perth.
Melbourne captain Noel McMahon left Norwood Oval believing he had never played "in a game where the pace was sustained from start to finish".
McLean recalled many years later that "our team earned the respect and admiration of the South Australian public as well as the players and officials of the Melbourne Football Club for their performance in this memorable game".
And this theme continued ....
(the little stuff that matters most)
AS Port Adelaide was to have been on the MCG this weekend - two days before its 150th birthday - playing for national premiership points against the game's oldest club, it is worth recalling when such games were on show in Adelaide.
The 1950s was the Port Adelaide-Melbourne decade.
Port Adelaide played in eight SANFL grand finals, seven in a row from 1953.
Melbourne played in seven consecutive VFL grand finals from 1954.
Port Adelaide won seven premierships, six in a row from 1954.
Melbourne won five, three in a row from 1955.
Here are the four unofficial "Championship of Australia" games played by Port Adelaide during its "Golden Era" in the 1950s:
Adelaide Oval, Saturday October 6
It was the first time the SANFL and VFL premiers met in a post-season play-off for the bragging rights as Australia's best football team since Carlton beat South Adelaide by six points in 1938.
The pre-game was all about who should umpire the match. Port Adelaide secretary Bob McLean wanted the VFL's best, Kevin McMurray junior - with football great Haydn Bunton declaring, in his newspaper column, that McLean had hit on a strong promotional theme for the match. The SANFL disagreed by demanding its own, Ken Aplin, be in charge. McLean offered to pay Aplin his match fee so he was not out of pocket and to cover all costs for McMurray. But the SANFL stood firm.
Port Adelaide collected the Jubilee premiership trophy (to commemorate 50 years of Australia as a federation of states) and then shot itself in the foot with bad goalkicking conversion - 6.18 in total, including 0.5 in the decisive third term and 2.7 in the last quarter. Geelong was not much better with its 8.14 in an eight-point game.
Injury to Port Adelaide pace-setting wingman Harold McDonald just before half-time also swing the game away from Fos Williams' men.
Bunton's match review concluded: "I wouldn't like to say the Victorians could repeat the effort if another game was played next Saturday."
The match also was notable for having two of West Adelaide's 1947 premiership heroes working as rivals - Fos Williams at Port Adelaide and Bernie Smith at Geelong.
|PORT ADELAIDE||1.2||4.6||4.11||6.18 (54)|
BEST - Geelong: Turner, Flanagan, Morrow, Warner, Fulton, Smith, Davis. Port Adelaide: Russell, Fletcher, McDonald, Boyd, Williams, Abley, Marrett, Salvemini.
GOALS - Geelong: Goninon 2, Flanagan, Morrow, Reed, Trezise, Tuckwell, Turner. Port Adelaide: Clark, Zucker 2, Davis, Trowse.
Norwood Oval, Wednesday October 5
|PORT ADELAIDE||3.3||5.4||8.7||9.10 (64)|
BEST - Melbourne: Adams, Johnson, Barassi, Williams, Melville, Beckwith. Port Adelaide: F. Williams, Thompson, Boyd, T. Williams, Abley, Motley.
GOALS - Melbourne: Johnson, McKenzie, Ridley 2, Barassi, Clarke, Mithen. Port Adelaide: F. Williams 2, Boyd, Coldwell, Marrett, Motley, Stevens, Whitaker, T. Williams.
Norwood Oval, Wednesday October 10
|PORT ADELAIDE||2.6||6.8||9.8||11.8 (74)|
BEST - Melbourne: Cordner, Williams, R. Johnson, Marquis, Mithen, Adams. Port Adelaide: F. Williams, Motley, Fabian, Zucker, T. Williams, Garland.
GOALS - Melbourne: R. Johnson 5, Barassi, Mithen, Webb 2, Adams, Ridley. Port Adelaide: Jaggard, Johns 2, Garland, McDonald, Sawford, Thompson, Trowse, F. Williams, Zucker.
Norwood Oval, Wednesday October 7
|PORT ADELAIDE||5.5||8.7||12.10||14.11 (95)|
BEST - Melbourne: Adams, Beckwith, Tunbridge, Dixon, Fenton-Smith, R. Johnson. Port Adelaide: Motley, Hayes, Tierney, Gill, Boyd, T. Obst.
GOALS - Melbourne: Adams 8, Crompton, Rowarth, Tunbridge 3, Brenchley, R. Johnson, Ridley. Port Adelaide: Dittmar, Hayes 4, Boyd, P. Obst 2, Potter, Thompson.
AND THE SIXTIES
Port Adelaide's eagerness to test itself against the best from the VFL also included a win against Footscray at Norwood Oval in 1957 - followed by a seven-point win against WAFL premier East Fremantle at Subiaco Oval in Perth.
After achieving the status of the SANFL's most-successful club by claiming its 23rd premiership in 1965, Port Adelaide capped off the season by beating VFL club Geelong by 11 points in a night match at Norwood Oval.
And 30 years later Port Adelaide was holding an AFL licence to be on the national stage each weekend, rather than each October.