SUNDAY, July 29, 1990 quickly became unlike every other Sunday morning in the grip of a South Australian winter - notably the last South Australian football season without the AFL positioned in Adelaide.

The weather bureau forecast was for a typically cool (15C), cloudy mid-winter's day with a shower or two from the south-west.

But from the east - from the front page of the Sunday Age newspaper - came the clap of thunder that changed South Australian football, and the State, forever.

The Port Adelaide Football Club was entering the expanding national competition, the newly badged Australian Football League.

The Australian Football League and rebel South Australian football officials are at advanced stage in secret negotiations that would see an Adelaide-based 15th team in the national competition next year.

It is believed the South Australian push to join the national league is centered on the involvement of the State's most famous club, Port Adelaide ...

Sunday Age, July 29, 1990 

Today, on the 30th anniversary of the most significant event in South Australian football, we revisit and reflect with four key players in the saga - AFL chief executive Ross Oakley, Port Adelaide board member and future AFL club president Greg Boulton, Port Adelaide premiership player Bruce Abernethy and SANFL chief executive Leigh Whicker.

ROSS OAKLEY picked up his Sunday newspapers - in a pre-digital era when the news arrived with a thump on the front lawn rather than with a bell on the emails - expecting the usual rundown of the five games played on Saturday. He would have expected a quiet breakfast before going to the MCG for the Footscray-Collingwood match while Hawthorn played Brisbane on the Gold Coast.

"I looked at that front page and thought, where has that (Port Adelaide in the AFL) come from?" Oakley recalled. "Mike Sheahan had beaten our press release by a few days. I knew the cats would now be among the pigeons. It wasn't long before we had a reaction from Adelaide ..."

GREG BOULTON was on his way to club president Bruce Weber's home at West Lakes for a three-hour board meeting starting at 9am.

"We had a hint something might appear in the Melbourne media," Boulton said. "And we knew there would be a negative response from the SANFL ... so we needed to manage that, the media and every other contingency ... we were making sure we had all our ducks lined up."

BRUCE ABERNETHY had turned up at Alberton Oval for the usual Sunday morning training run, hours after Port Adelaide had advanced its win-loss record to 11-3 to command second spot on the SANFL ladder with a 62-point win against the soon-to-collapse West Torrens at Football Park.

Unusual to every other Sunday morning was the increased media attention - and not for anything Port Adelaide had done the day before at league headquarters at nearby West Lakes.

"There were television news crews working on the biggest story in SA football history," Abernethy said. "And what did we know? Nothing ... and we did not know what to believe and what not to believe."

Port Adelaide's bid to become South Australia's first representative in the AFL sent shock waves through the state.

LEIGH WHICKER was in disbelief after he took a telephone call from his league president Max Basheer, who had his quiet Sunday routine smashed by an unexpected enquiry from Melbourne.

"Scot Palmer (famous for his Palmer's Punchlines in newspapers and on Channel Seven in Melbourne) had rung Max telling him that Port Adelaide had got the nod to join the AFL," Whicker said. "All hell broke loose."

Indeed it did. The SANFL had been blindsided, as it was four years earlier when the West Australians broke a pact with Basheer to form the West Coast Eagles as their first entry to the expanding VFL in 1987. Brisbane took the spot the VFL had reserved for the SANFL that refused to budge on key entry conditions, such as the $4million licence fee.

OAKLEY: "Max (Basheer) was the first on the phone. Most of my chats were with Max. We knew we were dealing with a very powerful organisation, not just in sport - the SANFL had some strong political connections too."

BOULTON: "It became very, very, very hot. We always held the view the news would not be welcomed with open arms by the SANFL. We met as a board on the 30th and then made our presentation to the league on the 31st ... it was the first time I saw Max and Leigh collectively turn white."

WHICKER: "It was mayhem - the biggest shock to South Australian football. We thought all the 10 clubs were united to get a better deal for our team in the VFL. Port Adelaide broke away ... and the league had to rally to ensure we controlled the final outcome."

ABERNETHY: "I had just started work with Channel Seven and had (sports editor) Max Stevens on the phone wanting to know what was going on. The media was asking a lot of questions ... and there were not many answers.

"It became a circus. The master of that circus was 'KG' Cunningham, particularly the next Saturday when he turned up at Alberton for our game against West Adelaide."

Port Adelaide signed a heads of agreement with the AFL in early August. The AFL finally had its national network with at least one team in every mainland State.

BOULTON: "We always knew we would be in a for a hard time from the SANFL clubs. And we expected Max would seek a legal solution, rather than a commercial one.

"That is where it got heavy. As club directors we were liable to lose everything, our homes, our businesses, everything."

The Port Adelaide board, as president Mr Bruce Weber addressed the media, (from left) John Cahill (coach), Greg Boulton, Ross Haslam, Dave Boyd, John Firth (solicitor), Bruce Weber, Robert Hoey, David Judd, Jim Nitschke, Geoff Monteleone and Bob Clayton 30 July 1991.

WHICKER: "The injunction (in the Supreme Court) was the turning point. Max had put together a strong legal team, the most competent lawyers he could gather and, with the support of the other nine league clubs, we were able to get that injunction.

"We - the league and the clubs - then carved up a roster on how we would meet every VFL club to get their support for South Australia's first AFL team to represent all of South Australia.

"And then there is that famous meeting Max and I had with Oakley and Alan Schwab at the Southern Cross hotel in Melbourne. Max put $1 million on the table (on his initiative and anticipating he would get the necessary league directors' approval) - and the rest is history."

The Adelaide Football Club was formed and entered the AFL in 1991 leaving Port Adelaide to work through an SANFL tender process for the second licence in 1994 before earning AFL status in 1997.

But 1990 still had hot spots, particularly on the football field.

ABERNETHY: "We had games to win. Port Adelaide was hated well before 1990. Now people had more reason to hate us. We were hated for being premiers in 1989 and in 1988. This just added more fuel to the fire. But the Port Adelaide fans loved us for our ambition. Dealing with hatred from everyone else was nothing new for Port Adelaide."

WHICKER: "Some friendships were broken. Many were certainly strained."

BOULTON: "I always tell the story of how we, as Port Adelaide representatives, would be ignored at league functions. So we decided we would gather by the buffet, knowing no-one would come near us ... and no-one would get fed.

"As a league director, I would be asked to leave meetings or not even be told of informal meetings."

Port Adelaide president Bruce Weber addresses the media as much of his club's bid to join the AFL played out not on the field but in the court rooms of South Australia.

Port Adelaide won its remaining six home-and away games, beating West Adelaide by 108 points, Woodville by 36, South Adelaide by 105, Sturt by 148, Central District by 79 and Norwood by 82. Coach John Cahill had kept his team from being derailed by increasing off-field issues to win the minor premiership with a 17-3 win-loss count.

Port Adelaide slipped up in the second semi-final losing to Glenelg by 11 points kicking 15.9 to 16.14. The rematch was sealed with a 91-point win against North Adelaide in the preliminary final.

The grand final is famous for Magarey Medallist Scott Hodges rewriting the SANFL goalkicking record (to 153 goals) while sinking Glenelg, after hobbling off before half-time with a knee injury ... and for Glenelg and future Adelaide coach Graham Cornes casting doom on SA football based on the upcoming change with the AFL. His post-match sermon in the Port Adelaide changerooms at Football Park remains living proof of how many struggle amid success and ambition at Alberton.

Thirty years on, how do the main players judge the change to football?

ABERNETHY: "Someone at the SANFL owes us an apology. For years we were told the surveys said South Australians did not want AFL in Adelaide. Who were they asking? As soon as we had AFL games we were filling out the joint at Football Park. We were giving South Australian football fans what they wanted - AFL in Adelaide.

"I always hold Bruce Weber in the highest regard. He saw the future. He saw it with Port Adelaide in the AFL. It was true to what Fos Williams wanted - Port Adelaide in a national competition. We had dominated the SANFL, not just with flags but crowds and so many other things. 

"Our club wanted to be the best among the best. It wanted to match it with the best in the country. And we are doing that.

"The writing had been on the wall for the SANFL for some time. The league was too pleased with winning State-of-Origin games - with players who were in the AFL. Where was the future in that? 

"If we had not jumped, do you think Norwood would have not thought about it? All the big SANFL clubs should have thought about it.

"Thirty years on, I am proud of my club for making it to the AFL in 1997. Can you imagine Adelaide without AFL? It is hard to argue this is not the best result for SA football - and I am proud of the way my club saw the future."

Port Adelaide lift the 1990 SANFL premiership trophy as SANFL president Max Basheer looks on.

WHICKER: "Away from the emotion - and there was a lot of emotion - we need to reflect on how Adelaide won two premierships, Port Adelaide has won one AFL flag and all three came in quick time. That is the icing on the cake. They won premierships for their supporters. Isn't that what football is all about?"

OAKLEY: "I've thought Port Adelaide was pretty good through all this. They obviously were very keen to be one two AFL teams we had in Adelaide.

"Thirty years on, our strategy is justified. It was right to first go with a generic team - and then follow with a club with a proven track record on the football field and with strength in the market (by supporter numbers).

"It worked very well in Perth with West Coast first and then bringing together the history of Fremantle football as a rival. You have an even greater rivalry in Adelaide. Everyone has choice with two distinctly different clubs. And there is a great competitive spirit with your Showdowns.

"No-one can be sure what would have happened if we did not deal with Port Adelaide in 1990. I sense the SANFL would have waited to see what happened in Perth (waiting for Fremantle's entry in 1995). It could have taken years to get AFL games in Adelaide ..."

All smiles as the ink finally dries on Port Adelaide's successful bid to become the first non-Victorian club to rise from suburbia to the AFL.

BOULTON: "Thank goodness we did it (in 1990). We would not be playing in the AFL had we not made that move in 1990. We thought we would make it to the AFL in 1990 - we were not aiming for the second licence. That was a genuine bid to be first in.

"Had we not moved in 1990, it would have been a composite side with the first licence - and, with the SANFL determined to get a merger, a combination of clubs (such as Norwood and Sturt) with the second licence as it played out in WA. The SANFL would not have given up on that plan.

"We proved we were the best club to make a bid for AFL entry. We are the only non-Victorian club to rise from a State league to the AFL. We have retained our club identity as Port Adelaide. We made the right call.

"And when I see Port Adelaide winning a great game against a traditional Victorian club such as Carlton, I know it has been all worthwhile. And there is that 2004 AFL premiership that proves the Port Adelaide Football Club is where it belongs - in the best competition, the AFL."

PORT ADELAIDE'S rise from suburbia to the national AFL is captured in words and images in the Port Adelaide Archives Collection. You can order your copy of the club's commemorative book recalling the 150-year story from Glanville Estate in 1870 to national status (and beyond to China) by clicking here.

02:05 Mins
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