If one theme defined Port Adelaide in its first decade in the AFL - more so than the "chokers" tag - it was persistence. No matter how often Mark Williams' teams were knocked down from 2001-2003, they came back again and again until they proved everyone wrong in 2004.

"They were calling us chokers as we were walking down the race at half-time (down by just one point at the MCG to the triple defending champions of Brisbane)," recalls Williams of the first AFL grand final played without a Victorian competitor.

"I do remember the things people say .... and we're not chokers; we're Port Adelaide." 

Port Adelaide was to have relived the 2004 AFL grand final at the weekend - by hosting Brisbane at Adelaide Oval in the league's original round 9 fixture. But, just as little went to script in September 2001, 2002 and 2003, the early celebrations in the Port Adelaide Football Club 150th anniversary season have been choked by the restrictions put on Australian football during the COVID-19 pandemic.

12:21 Mins
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Keith Thomas press conference - 15 May 2020 | PTV

Keith Thomas speaks to the media following the announcement the 2020 AFL season will recommence on June 11.

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If the Port Adelaide Football Club has learned anything in its 150-year story, it is very little that is worth having in football comes easy. Each setback leaves more to savour with the ultimate success.

The persistence that drove Port Adelaide to its first AFL grand final and premiership is true to the same doggedness that marked the club's first title, the SA Football Association premiership in 1884.

The timelines for both premierships carry striking similarities, on the calendar and in the perseverance found at Alberton.

Port Adelaide took up the new Australian game in 1870; it sought entry to the new Australian league in 1990.

After six years as a pioneer football club in Adelaide, Port Adelaide became a foundation member of the SA Football Association. There was that six-year wait in the SANFL after 1990 while the second-licence debate ran until December 1994 and the AFL waited for the 16th national licence to be released (by Fitzroy) for Port Adelaide.

Port Adelaide took hard knocks in its first seven SAFA seasons - and carried the "bridesmaid" tag as runners-up three times (1878, 1879 and 1883) before ending Norwood's dominance in 1884. The pathway to AFL glory had a similar torment - those three "choking" episodes from 2001-2003 until Brisbane's command was finally broken on September 25, 2004.

"We had quite a few years of mental torment from not quite getting there," recalls Williams.

In 2001, Port Adelaide continued its strong late-season form from 2000 to win its first AFL pre-season title (solidly beating Brisbane in the Ansett Cup grand final at Football Park). Ranked third at the end of the home-and-away season with a 16-6 win-loss record, Port Adelaide went to the Gabba for its first final and lost by 32 points to Brisbane. The three-point loss to Hawthorn in the home semi-final at Football Park put Port Adelaide out in "straight sets" and signalled Williams' team was not ready for September.

Stuart Dew was in his fifth season in 2001 having been part of Port Adelaide's inaugural AFL squad in 1997. The 2001 AFL final series was his second major round - after playing in the 1999 elimination final loss to North Melbourne at the MCG - and the one he believes scarred Port Adelaide the most.

"I've reflected a lot," says Dew, now the Gold Coast senior coach searching for every lesson from his 206-game playing career at Port Adelaide and Hawthorn.

"It is '01 that doesn't get talked about much externally, but from a personal point of view I feel that year had we got through Hawthorn, the preliminary final against Essendon - and we did play well then against Essendon - would have changed our destiny.

"Instead, that finals loss to Hawthorn scarred us a bit. Everyone talks about '02 and '03 ... "

11:01 Mins
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In 2002, Port Adelaide won the first of its three consecutive McClelland Trophies as the AFL minor premier carrying an 18-4 win-loss record from March-September. The first final - a qualifying final against Collingwood at Football Park - was supposed to be won on the basis of Port Adelaide's strong form leading up to September (six consecutive wins and 14 wins from the previous 15 matches). And there was the significant absence of Collingwood captain, Magarey and Brownlow Medallist Nathan Buckley.

Port Adelaide lost by 13 points. The next weekend, Port Adelaide won its first AFL final by beating Essendon by 24 points at West Lakes - and the campaign ended to Brisbane in the preliminary final at the Gabba.

In 2003, it was "deja vu all over again" with an 18-4 record in the home-and away series putting Port Adelaide three wins clear of second-ranked Collingwood. This time, an injury damaged Sydney was considered easy fodder for Port Adelaide in the home qualifying final at Football Park. Again, Port Adelaide's poor start was telling in the 12-point loss. Again, Port Adelaide beat Essendon in the home semi-final - and made its exit from the finals stage in the preliminary finals, this time to Collingwood at the MCG.

"By 2004," says Williams, "we were bullet proof ... we were pretty resilient. We believed in what we were doing."

The third McClelland Trophy was won with a 17-5 count - giving Port Adelaide a phenomenal 69-19 record from 88 home-and-away games from 2001-2004. But it was 2-6 in finals before the clean sweep of Geelong, St Kilda and Brisbane in 2004.

"The premiership in 2004 was a real relief," says Dew. "We were playing under intense fear - we were a quality team that had not got the job done. The pressure had built up - and that is fair enough."

Premiership captain Warren Tredrea speaks of a team propelled by the fear of losing: "We knew we had to deliver ..."

For the pioneers who chased Port Adelaide's first flag in the SAFA, there was no finals series. Losses in the home-and-away series from 1877-1883 - in particular to Norwood or South Adelaide - could spell sudden-death in the championship format of SA football in the 19th century.

Just as lessons were learned at Alberton from 2001-2004 for success in the AFL, the "Magentas" of the 1880s had to make significant change "after straining every nerve to gain supremacy".

On the field, Victorian recruit Richard Turpenny gave Port Adelaide that edge from his experiences in Melbourne - as Mark Williams did from the knowledge garnered at Collingwood, Brisbane and Essendon before be returned to Alberton in 1997 as John Cahill's assistant coach.

There was the off-field leadership of Robert Cruickshank, a leading Port Adelaide identity (born at Birkenhead in 1865) with interest in so many sports, in particular rowing, yachting, Australian football and ultimately horse racing. Under Cruickshank's direction, Port Adelaide by the 1890s created its cutting edge with the demand a player needed to train during the weekend to be in the magenta guernsey.

The strain of chasing a second flag was just as telling on Turpenny as it was on Williams. By 1885, the critics were savage writing: "The team has some of the best individual players in the colony ... but they lack unity ... they have not been well handled by Turpenny; in fact, on occasions they have become quite disorganised."

Williams did get longer than Turpenny to chase a second flag and after the refit at the end of 2006 by drafting Travis Boak, Robbie Gray and Justin Westhoff - Port Adelaide did surprise by rising from 12th to second and reaching the 2007 grand final.

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Bob Philp remembers the night before the 1963 Grand Final when the phone rang and it was Fos Williams on the line...

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Williams left Port Adelaide in 2010 having established far more than just a premiership squad. The legacy of the 2004 premiership team lives on well beyond Alberton today.

From the 22 premiership heroes, there are:

ONE premiership coach - Damien Hardwick with two flags at Richmond.

TWO current AFL coaches - Hardwick and Dew. It also should be noted that Port Adelaide's 2004 club captain, Matthew Primus, became a senior coach at Alberton - and three of Williams' assistant coaches in 2004 took charge of AFL clubs: Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn, Phil Walsh at Adelaide and Dean Bailey at Melbourne.

SEVEN current AFL assistant coaches - Brett Montgomery, Chad Cornes, Jarrad Schofield and Dean Brogan at Port Adelaide; Brendon Lade at St Kilda; Josh Carr at Fremantle and Adam Kingsley at Richmond. Also to be noted in this group is Josh Francou, who also was injured during the 2004 campaign and is now an assistant coach at Gold Coast. Carr, Schofield and Cornes also have led SANFL and WAFL teams to grand finals with Carr winning at North Adelaide and Schofield at Subiaco.

ONE AFL club football chief - Josh Mahoney at Melbourne.

ONE AFL club director - Gavin Wanganeen, after Darryl Wakelin held the same role at Port Adelaide.

ONE still playing - Shaun Burgoyne at Hawthorn.

Also to be acknowledged are premiership defenders Michael Wilson and Matthew Bishop for the significant work they undertook in the Port Adelaide football department.

It is indeed an extraordinary group from 2004.


(Five things we learned in the past week)

1) June 11 - this is the date for the AFL recess to end with the start of round 2. Port Adelaide will move to the Gold Coast where it opened the season with a 47-point win that has commanded top spot on the AFL ladder for eight weeks now. This will stretch to 11 before the new fixture unfolds - a record that is almost certain to never tumble.

2) A new version (and probably the 15th written by AFL executive Travis Auld and his team) of the AFL fixture is due this week. Port Adelaide was to have played Adelaide at Adelaide Oval in the original round 2 - and in the black-and-white bars. Surely no-one at AFL House would have the Showdown played on the Gold Coast in the next month? They will save this derby for rounds 16 or 17 at Adelaide Oval in September? Surely?

3) Malcolm Blight hit this one perfectly: "There's still some people with an archaic view in South Australia. They write and talk about it lots of times - if anything goes wrong in football, the view is it's got to be Victorian-centric. So it's got to be wrong (by extension). You could shoot down their debate in flames nearly every time, but what's the point. I find them just naive actually." For the record, the AFL Commission is led by a West Australian (Richard Goyder) and the AFL chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, is South Australian-born.

4) Best book to gift to AFL executives today as they negotiate the challenges of differing State laws and protocol with the COVID-19 pandemic: Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people".

5) No Port Adelaide in the SANFL. There will be a new answer to the question: "Which team do you most want to beat?"