IT was a night filled with so many surprises - the biggest kept to last by Port Adelaide Football Club president David Koch ...

And it was initially ignored by many because this bold vision from Alberton seemed so outlandish (as was another significant play by Port Adelaide in 1990).

March 7, 2014.

The running sheet was overloaded for the Friday evening show that marked the Port Adelaide Football Club's season launch.

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First, there was the premiere showing of Port Adelaide's new AFL home, the redeveloped Adelaide Oval where the club had achieved so much as a pioneer in South Australian football during the late 1800s and an unrivalled pacesetter in the 20th century. Just the view of football's original home after a $535 million redevelopment would have been enough, particularly for those who had tired of the concrete basin at West Lakes.

But there was more ...

Next was the parade of promising and established players who had signed new deals to extend their stay at Alberton - Ollie Wines for another two seasons; Justin Westhoff for three along with Jasper Pittard and Cam O'Shea for another two.

And more ...

Membership had reached a record count of 44,350 and the club was again showing appeal to commercial sponsors; there was a 10 per cent growth in this critical division during the previous 12 months. That hard-earned new business model driven by former president Brett Duncanson - at great cost to him and his board - was delivering a sustainable football club.

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By the time the television campaign for the new season was presented on the big screens - with coach Ken Hinkley insisting his team would "never give up" - everyone had dined out with the seven-course feast.

"We will turn up; we will never give up because we are Port Adelaide," Hinkley proclaimed for the campaign that was ultimately backed up with a preliminary final at the MCG against eventual premier Hawthorn.

Surely, there was no more after such a loaded presentation?

But Koch, the self-confessed showman, had one more powerful act for the big party. He was taking the Port Adelaide Football Club to China. Repeat, China. A pre-season game in Macau was the vision. The club's board met in Hong Kong three months later - and had seen a new commercial market in which Port Adelaide could make it case without being cramped by 17 rival AFL clubs all chasing the same sponsorship dollar in Australia.

There should have been fireworks cued to this announcement.

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As is to be well articulated in the fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is one thing to survive as an AFL club ... the real test is to thrive off the field to underwrite an expensive football campaign and more at a time when football clubs have been more than just football.

Remarkably, Koch's road to China did not echo beyond a few paragraphs, down page in the late edition of The Advertiser. The Australian football media did not react until much, much later.

Six years have passed now since that bold promise at Adelaide Oval became much, much more with the Australian Prime Minister (Malcolm Turnbull) lifting the stakes from a pre-season game to a premiership match with a formal announcement in Shanghai on April 14, 2016.

Port Adelaide has played three games for AFL premiership points in China - the first home-and-away season matches outside Australia and New Zealand. Many thought one match was impossible; some defined it all as a "sideshow".

It began immediately after Turnbull's call. In 2017 - against Gold Coast at the 1930s Jiangwan Stadium - with the game "threatened" by US-North Korea tensions on nuclear weapons. The strangest report was the notion that the Shanghai game would be moved - in case of nuclear war - to Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast. Who would have thought south-east Queensland was a nuclear bunker?

It stalls in 2020 by a devastating pandemic that has put much more than sport on hold.

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It remains a dream game - a "bucket list" match - for some Port Adelaide fans, in particular those who had committed to this year's match that was to have been played in the past week as part of AFL round 12.

Port Adelaide's China Strategy has reaffirmed the football club will not be hemmed into its 5015 post code - a theme well noted in 1990 when president Bruce Weber put the club on the path to the national stage. That night in 2014, Koch broadened the horizons to international platforms.

Port Adelaide in China can be a divisive topic today, as noted by AFL premiership master Michael Malthouse's recent comments calling for the games in Shanghai to end. It is strange how so many Australian football devotees note they have the world's greatest game, but become reticent about taking the great game to the curious world. But then it did take more than a century for Australia's only indigenous game to form a national league.

Malthouse's notion that Port Adelaide's only motivation is to make money is intriguing. Has that not been an underlying concept of Australian football since they started selling tickets at the gate in 1860?

And does anyone protest on Greater Western Sydney's vision to take AFL games to the US? This international plan also is to generate finances for a new AFL club needing to advance from being sustainable to thriving in a critical and tough corner of the Australian sporting landscape.

Whether Port Adelaide returns to Shanghai for a fourth AFL premiership match is an agenda item that time - well into the post-COVID wash up - will determine. But what is to be made of Port Adelaide's stroll on the Silk Road to Shanghai since Koch made his bold announcement at Adelaide Oval in March 2014?

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Two of Port Adelaide's top-three sponsorship deals have come from the "China Strategy". The commitment from Shanghai Cred owner Gui Goujie will stand as the biggest from any commercial partner in the club's 150-year history.

As Malthouse notes, it is about money - big money - that has taken many sporting teams to China recently to tap into the world's second-largest economy. From China, Port Adelaide has found a revenue stream that today makes up 10 per cent of the club's annual turnover. It is a significant return.

So it has been about finding a new commercial edge, at a time when the Port Adelaide Football Club tired of being repeatedly tagged as a "handout club".

"And," says Andrew Hunter, the club executive who led the China strategy from 2015 until his recent move to Perth, "the Port Adelaide Football Club demonstrated its courage to push into a new frontier. This is consistent with our club's history.

"We also picked up 12 premiership points," adds Hunter of the two wins against Gold Coast and last year's triumph against St Kilda. And some percentage from an average winning margin of 61 points.

Hunter will offer his insight on the China Strategy from 2015 to today with a book on Wakefield Press' release list for September-October. The postscript is still to be written in very uncertain times.

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Port Adelaide played four AFL games on international soil in the 2011-2020 decade - once in London where the league has been promoting the Australian game for decades; and three times in China.

Clearly, COVID-19 leaves much to be re-established at home for Australian football - and well beyond the AFL. But Port Adelaide's 150-year story is filled with examples of the club seeking to thrive rather than just survive.

Port Adelaide in China has carried many subplots from tourism, cultural exchanges, sporting diplomacy, television rights, educational exchange programs and the chance to have the AFL keep up with other major sporting bodies seeking a piece of the huge Chinese market.

Port Adelaide did something other clubs - bigger clubs - feared was going to be too tough and too consuming. In 1990, there was the proverbial cuckoo that took residence in the nest Bruce Weber built. Ultimately, Port Adelaide prevailed - and succeeded - with its national vision.

The international dream certainly was not going to be easy. It is probably even tougher now (just like the AFL circuit became for Port Adelaide during the dark hours from 2008-2012). But there always is a reward for those who refuse to be put off from a challenge because it is tough. It fits that underdog spirit in the Port Adelaide way. 

ON THE WORLD STAGE

Port Adelaide's four games on foreign soil

'The Oval' in Kennington, South London, traditionally a venue for international cricket, played host to Port Adelaide and the Bulldogs during the 2012 pre-season.

LONDON

Port Adelaide 14.4 (88) d Western Bulldogs 13.9 (87) at The Oval, November 4, 2012

Kennington, south of the Thames in central London, was the start of a new era for Port Adelaide, although newly appointed coach Ken Hinkley left interim coach Garry Hocking in charge. After falling 39 points behind in the third term, Port Adelaide overwhelmed the Western Bulldogs with an unbroken run of nine goals.

Brad Ebert clinched the one-point win with a goal from 50 metres in the last minute while out wide where usually a rope would have marked the boundary for an international cricket match.

The game was played two months after the Port Adelaide playing group had been rocked by the death of team-mate John McCarthy in Las Vegas.

Port Adelaide's first game abroad at 'The Oval' was abandoned early due to unruly pitch invaders.

Geelong 13.10 (88) d Port Adelaide 10.7 (67) at The Oval, October 21, 2006

Before 2012, Port Adelaide lost by 21 points to Geelong at The Oval in a match noted for streakers and some overly physical encounters. 

Both teams sent out inexperienced line-ups on October 21, 2006 - and the ultimately farcical game ended at least four minutes early as streakers interrupted the brawls on the field.

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SHANGHAI

Port Adelaide 16.14 (110) d Gold Coast 4.14 (38) at Jiangwan Stadium, May 14, 2017

Port Adelaide won more than four premiership points from the first AFL home-and-away game played outside of Australia and New Zealand. The club also gained esteem for putting on a perfect show when many had considered the China assignment too difficult to complete. The image of the exhausted but proud Port Adelaide staff in the centre of Jiangwan Stadium after the game is just as powerful as the picture of captain Travis Boak and his victorious team holding the trophy as the AFL champions of China after beating an ill-prepared Gold Coast team by 72 points.

The match highlight was Justin Westhoff's unorthodox goal - "out of my backside" - from the boundary in the 19th minute of he second term.

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Port Adelaide 11.16 (82) d Gold Coast 6.6 (42) at Jiangwan Stadium, May 19, 2018

Another Port Adelaide 2004 AFL premiership player emerged as a rival coach - Stuart Dew with his first clash against his former club played in China. Port Adelaide remained AFL champions of China, but the margin was reduced from 72 to 40 points with the Gold Coast players in a better frame for this match than 12 months earlier.

Port Adelaide held Gold Coast scoreless in the last term - and outscored the Suns 5.7 to 1.3 in the second half. Most notable during the half-time break was the heavy negotiating by political figures, especially the Victorian State government representatives wanting a Melbourne-based club, in particular St Kilda, to join Port Adelaide in Shanghai in 2019.

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Port Adelaide 22.7 (139) d St Kilda 9.15 (69) at Jiangwan Stadium, June 2, 2019

And St Kilda it was. This was the first of what was to have been at least three games with Port Adelaide in China. As with Gold Coast in 2017, St Kilda had a difficult preparation for the match - including losing players who suffered food poisoning at home before the international flight.

The 70-point margin - built on stunning goal conversion - was highlighted by the move of regular defender Dan Houston to the midfield. Port Adelaide had 13 of its 22 players on the goalkicking list. 

NEXT

FINALLY, there will be an AFL premiership game to preview again - and no ordinary match. It will be the derby against the in-town rival (rather than crosstown rival considering West Lakes is next door to Alberton) in Showdown XLVIII at Adelaide Oval.

Port Adelaide is holding the Showdown Shield - and looking to level the ledger at 24-24.

And the team will be in the black-and-white bars for the first time in an AFL Showdown. Should be that way for all derbies .....