KEITH Thomas's greatest achievement in a demanding decade at Alberton is that he can leave a Port Adelaide Football Club - or more to the point, the Port Adelaide Football Club. 

The Port Adelaide Football Club that proudly notes its story is Since 1870.

This was far from certain on his arrival as chief executive officer on September 5, 2011. It might have become "Port Adelaide of 1870-2013" with a new calling card (just as South Melbourne became Sydney in 1982 and Fitzroy is Brisbane from 1997).

No one man saves a football club. But Keith A. Thomas was the day-to-day leader of the team that was on a mission that went well beyond just surviving as "Port Adelaide". There also needed to be success - and pride - on and off the field.

Thomas departs Alberton this week with a string of achievements that have reinforced the club's standing, both at home within the Port Adelaide community and across a national competition that repeatedly reminds Port Adelaide of its need to become much more than a traditional powerhouse of South Australian football. There is even history in the making on the international stage.

As a snapshot, the Port Adelaide Football Club - under the team led by Thomas in the past 10 years - has:

STOOD united as one Port Adelaide Football Club. Never Tear Us Apart.

TAKEN football from its exile at Football Park in suburbia to the game's first cradle at Adelaide Oval - and with a $535 million jewel from the redevelopment crafted by Port Adelaide.

KEPT every Port Adelaide senior player in a Port Adelaide jumper and chasing victory for Port Adelaide - and only Port Adelaide - in club competitions since 2014.

PUT Australian football on the world stage with AFL premiership matches in Shanghai, China - a task no other external professional sports league has tried in mainland China.

REAFFIRMED Port Adelaide will not cut corners in to football program to achieve success.

GAINED independence from a difficult sub-licensing agreement with the SANFL that first tore Port Adelaide in two and then threatened to put it out of business.

FOUND meaningful appeal to significant corporate backers.

ESTABLISHED the Port Adelaide Football Club as a leader in the community, from caring for the underprivileged, Indigenous communities, youth and the defence forces. The core philosophy became "do good to be good". Give before you take.

GIVEN pride to a football community that insists its club "exists to win premierships."

But if it did not exist at all ...

DAY ONE: Keith Thomas at Alberton Oval during his first day as Port Adelaide CEO.

"The contrast from walking in the door in 2011 and out the door in 2020," says Thomas, "it is a stark difference. And you can forget how bad it was ..."

Another snapshot might be worth revisiting. By the end of 2011, the notes were dire: Port Adelaide's appeal had dropped to a record low in its AFL club membership tallies since 1997 (29,092 in 2010); fallen to a record low standing of 16th in 2011 with a 3-19 win-loss record and an under-performing team that was playing before more and more empty seats at Football Park where the 2011 season average for home crowds fell to 21,678. 

We tend to forget how close we came to being booted out of the AFL competition. We were dealing with a prevailing attitude, particularly in Victoria, that South Australia could not support two AFL clubs.

Port Adelaide president David Koch

"Basket case" was the inevitable tag thrown on Port Adelaide.

And it is always darkest before a new dawn. The worst was still to come in 2012, particularly with deepening debt and the political power plays between the AFL and SANFL. Between the SANFL wanting Port Adelaide to no longer be "Port Adelaide" and the AFL developing a "Plan B" for a rebadged franchise working the central Australian corridor between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin, Thomas - and his team - were defying a doomsday script.

"It is surreal when you think about it," says Thomas.

And what does it all mean a decade later?

"We are Port Adelaide," answers Thomas, "and proud of it.

"We are Port Adelaide ... and we don't apologise for it. We are proud to be Port Adelaide."

THE OUTSIDER, THE "NORWOOD FLOG"

My relatives in South Australia in the first two years (2012-2013) would refer to Keith as "The bloke from Norwood". The undertone was, he is the SANFL plant; the lackey to Leigh Whicker and the SA Football Commission; we can't trust him ... he is the outsider.

Port Adelaide president David Koch

OUTSIDERS have not done badly at Port Adelaide. Indeed, two of them - West Adelaide premiership rover Fos Williams and Norwood ruckman "Big Bob" McLean - made Port Adelaide "more Port Adelaide" by their long tenure at Alberton from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Keith Thomas leaves with the same respect. But it did not begin this way while the 2011 season was coming to another unsatisfactory ending at Port Adelaide.

Thomas was in the start-up of the Stadium Management Authority at Adelaide Oval in 2010 - after a solid career in management with a commercial radio network - chasing sponsorship deals for the redeveloped arena when his name was attached to the Port Adelaide Football Club during State parliamentary sittings. So uncertain was Port Adelaide's future, politicians could not resist the soap box to tear at the club's image.

At the time, long-serving SANFL chief executive Leigh Whicker had earmarked Thomas in a succession plan at SA football headquarters.

"When Keith said he was prepared to take the Port Adelaide job, two things came to mind immediately," Whicker said. "He was going to Port Adelaide as a Norwood champion ... and with the self-belief that he was going to make a difference. And he has certainly made a difference ...

"The Port Adelaide Football Club was very fortunate to have Keith in some extremely difficult times."

In some ways this was 1992 revisited with Port Adelaide needing a new face - a trusting face - at its front door. Then it was Brian Cunningham chosen to put his honour into a football club seeking a new image after the brutal fight for an AFL licence in 1990. 

But Cunningham is Port Adelaide ... club hero, premiership captain, local boy. Thomas, in 2011, was not. Not then.

Thomas's football resume read - 304 SANFL league games with Norwood from 1979-1986 and 1989-1993 with the gap filled with 28 VFL-AFL games at Fitzroy. He also had served the traditional rival with time on the Norwood board - and there was that none too small matter of how Thomas had boldly defied Port Adelaide in the 1984 SANFL grand final at Football Park.

It took some time for many Port Adelaide supporters to warm to Keith Thomas as CEO given his involvement with fierce rivals Norwood.

"It took courage to let me in," says Thomas. "With that background, I was unlikely to be trusted. It was a massive risk."

Perception is not always reality.

Thomas was Port Adelaide before he was Norwood.

"I grew up with a love of Port Adelaide; I came to Alberton Oval to watch Port Adelaide with my Dad," recalls Thomas. 

But it was not until he was denied - by the SANFL boundary rules - the chance to be "Port Adelaide" as a player that he truly understood what separates Port Adelaide from the rest.

"The moment," says Thomas, "was walking out of those old, unwelcoming changerooms at Alberton Oval to play an under-17 game with Norwood. The reception was not too kind. And this was under-17s. So you learn, from the other side of the divide, just how serious they take their football at Port Adelaide - every game, every opponent. No matter when or where, it always counts with Port Adelaide. So this club demands the best from everyone all the time.

"Norwood values its history. But Port Adelaide is unconditional on success."

Thomas had to wait 34 years to return to Alberton on the other side of that critical divide that defines "them and us" in Port Adelaide culture.

"And he needed to wait a couple more years with my family that is generational Port Adelaide," adds Port Adelaide president David Koch.

"In the middle of 2014, they started to refer to him as 'KT'. It was moment my relatives saw Keith as one of the Port Adelaide family. He was 'KT'. That is when I felt we were going to make real strides here."

'KT' grew up admiring Port Adelaide but recruiting lines forced him to spend his playing days visiting Alberton Oval as an adversary.

Thomas accepts he needed to earn the faith of the suspecting Port Adelaide community. More so when there were so many external agendas to bring down the Port Adelaide Football Club. Was Thomas saviour or undertaker-in-waiting?

Thomas is now part of Port Adelaide's rich heritage ...

"And when you are part of this club, you are forever grateful for the privilege," Thomas said. "I just hope I have been able to contribute ... I hope I have done enough."

We will remember Keith as the chief executive who built a team, on and off the field, to get us out of our darkest hour. We were on the brink. We were on the cliff's edge. We were about to fall out of elite company.

Port Adelaide president David Koch

FOOTBALL. FOOTBALL!

Football is No.1 with Keith. He has always provided resources to invest in the football department and football program. We have not been left wanting anything. Keith has allowed us to have good people involved in our football team. He has allowed us to get things done. He has given us the best chance to be successful. That has not always been the case at Port Adelaide because of financial pressures. Keith changed that.

Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley

CRIPPLING debt. Empty seats. Agitated members. Doors slammed in the commercial sector. And increasing despair - and no confidence - from the AFL licence holders at SANFL headquarters.

Where do you start as the new Port Adelaide Football Club chief executive in August 2011?

"With football," says Thomas. It is where Port Adelaide started in 1870 - with football.

Late in Season 2012 - with Port Adelaide at 5-13 and out of finals contention, drawing fewer than 15,000 fans at Football Park and beaten by the league's newest franchise, Greater Western Sydney - club hero Matthew Primus was sacked as coach.

"We had not given enough, not enough adequate support, to see what Matthew could be as an AFL coach," admits Thomas referring to a football program that was being constantly under-resourced amid regular funding cuts from from the SANFL.

Thomas was not going to have Primus' successor suffer the same fate.

"And we did not have the time to get this wrong," adds Thomas. Just nine years after winning the AFL premiership, Port Adelaide in 2013 was needing to prove its relevance to a national competition - and it was determined to make the move from Football Park to Adelaide Oval with grand momentum.

The new senior coach needed everything.

Fitness coach Darren Burgess, who had left Port Adelaide for English Premier League club Liverpool, returned to Alberton at the end of 2012 with Thomas fending off the intense bidding from AFL rival Richmond - and busting the budget to recondition a team noted (and mocked) by rivals for being unable to finish quarters and games. The legacy of this decision is Port Adelaide today has the AFL's best injury and recovery program of the past decade.

"Regaining Darren signalled our intent - it was a statement; we intended to be good," Thomas said.

Keith Thomas' first port of call as CEO was to ensure inbound senior coach Ken Hinkley's football program was adequately equipped to compete in the AFL.

The new coaching panel was built around an untried mentor who had been overlooked again and again - former Geelong stalwart Ken Hinkley - while many other notable candidates turned away from a club noting Port Adelaide's future was very shaky. Being at an AFL club with a seemingly limited future is not attractive to coaches with long-term ambitions. Port Adelaide needed a courageous football coaching panel capable of coping with an uncertain future.

Keith was prepared to give me an opportunity after no-one had done so in the past. I have known only one chief executive in my eight years as Port Adelaide coach. It has not always been smooth; we have hit some bumps along the way. But Keith has always shown belief in what we are doing - and what we are capable of doing. 

Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley

Port Adelaide's revival from 2013 began with five consecutive wins. The season delivered the first AFL finals appearance since the 2007 AFL grand final - and an elimination final win against Collingwood at the MCG.

Port Adelaide members started to walk tall again.

Season 2014 was even better. Port Adelaide entered Adelaide Oval with such powerful football (winning the first seven home games) that Brownlow Medallist Gerard Healy referred to the city ground as "The Portress". Hinkley's team won the first Showdown at the Oval, the first AFL final at the Oval (beating Richmond wearing the traditional black-and-white bars) and closed the season with a dramatic preliminary final loss to eventual premier Hawthorn at the MCG.

These two uplifting years - that restored the club's relevance and saved its future from becoming a concerning agenda item at an AFL Commission meeting - compare with Port Adelaide's start-up years in the AFL from 1997. Except at the beginning, there was an understanding the new guys on the AFL block needed time to establish themselves. The clock was ticking perilously in the other way when Thomas arrived in September 2011 and Hinkley took charge as "the right man standing" in October 2012.

But survival - and just surviving - is not the same as living up to Port Adelaide's mantra of "We exist to win premierships". Port Adelaide is not about just making up the numbers.

"We needed to build a platform for the ultimate success - and sustained success," Thomas said. "That is the lesson of 2018.

"We started at 11-4. We were thinking top four. We missed the finals. 

"We learned we were not culturally strong enough. 

"We made big decisions at the trade table. We drafted top-end young talent. We put a focus on connection. And this period was the making of Ken Hinkley. He had to change - and he acknowledged he had to change. This made Ken more vulnerable, the player group had to become more vulnerable to each other ... and this has served us well."

Keith has shown courage to back this football team and make us better  - he has given us the best chance to be successful on the field knowing that drives success off the field. 

Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley

PEOPLE MAKE CLUBS

KEITH Thomas introduced himself to the elderly gentleman watching the past and future clash while Port Adelaide trained as an AFL group on the Adelaide Oval venue that had defined its SANFL traditions with premierships.

It was late August 2011, a week before Thomas formally started as chief executive - and days before Port Adelaide closed the season against Melbourne at the Oval (with the risk of collecting a wooden spoon for the first time in more than a century). The new man at Port Adelaide was testing his place with a life-long Port Adelaide soul.

"You must listen," says Thomas. "Only then will you learn what a football club means to the people who matter most - the members, the fans. And I wanted to know what this fan had as his relationship with the Port Adelaide Football Club.

"I met a man who was grappling with two identities. He told me how he barracked for Port Adelaide in the AFL. But his heart was with the team in the SANFL ... and he was not happy with how this separation was done."

It had been this way since the SA Football Commission handed Port Adelaide its AFL sub-licence with the demand the AFL and SANFL arms not be linked ... not even to sell souvenirs from the same memorabilia booth.

Thomas arrived at Alberton after the "One Club" campaign to reunite the AFL and SANFL chambers of the Port Adelaide Football Club's heart had been hard won by the work of AFL club president Brett Duncanson, SANFL club chairman Bruce McFarlane, front-office soldier Matthew Richardson and, in the public arena, club heroes George Fiacchi and Tim Ginever.

"We had too many competing forces; we were not aligned ... we were not all together as Port Adelaide," Thomas recalls.

Keith Thomas helps the Port Adelaide cheer squad erect the banner prior to a clash with North Melbourne at Docklands in 2014.

By 2014, after many political battles at SANFL tables, Thomas had completely united Port Adelaide with the combined AFL-SANFL football program that kept every Port Adelaide player at Alberton rather than farmed around SANFL rivals. And the crowning, living moment of unity is the Never Tear Us Apart anthem in the 60 seconds before the first bounce of an AFL game at Adelaide Oval ... and the recharged spirit of the Port Adelaide fans.

"I hope that is our gift to our people - the moment they stand proudly to declare they are Port Adelaide ... and proud of it," Thomas said. "Our members, our fans are at the centre of this moment. Those 60 seconds of Never Tear Us Apart are a very special moment - for them and it is all about them.

"In 2020, at the 150th year of the Port Adelaide Football Club, the importance of our people, our unity, our strength as one club is at its most relevant point by the challenges imposed with the COVID pandemic.

"Our people stood up to say, 'We are Port Adelaide' ... and we stand together. And you will not tear us apart again.

"Our people knew we drifted from what Port Adelaide is, from our core values and beliefs. They had voted with their feet  by leaving their seats at Football Park. But they came back once we committed to being Port Adelaide. And being proud as Port Adelaide."

Without doubt, Keith's greatest strength is his care for people - and his passion for communities and what football can deliver off the field. He has played a big part in questioning how the club is connected with our members, our people and our community. He has done this like no other because Keith is about people and understands the power in our supporter base.

Port Adelaide president David Koch

Keith Thomas has championed Port Adelaide's heavy involvement with its community programs, pictured here at the Aboriginal Power Cup.

Thomas's defining decade at Port Adelaide not only put together a football club but he - and his team - also built a community into the Port Adelaide Football Club. This unfolded during an era when the traditional link between football clubs and their traditional communities has been broken too often.

"This is why we added to our mantra of existing to win premierships, the responsibility to make 'our community proud'," said Thomas. "We have broadened our purpose as a football club. We have declared we are about winning, but winning in the right way. In a way that makes our community proud for our success and how we achieved it.

"This also put our focus on recognising the purpose of a football club and the role it can - and should play - in making a better society. Our community programs in Aboriginal education and health, in youth and towards diversity are among the best. It is all about using the standing of our football club for greater good. This gives substance to our football club.

"The stronger our standing in the community, the greater our appeal to corporate partners. We are giving back to the community before we take. We have more substance as a football club.

"And none of this is a distraction to being successful in football. It is true to the core values of the Port Adelaide Football Club from the start. Our club began in 1870 to give something to our community. Our responsibility is to continue that mission while standing as a pillar of society."

CHALLENGER

SIX years into seeking new anchors for Port Adelaide's future on the national stage, Keith Thomas set sail for China ... Shanghai, Jiangwan Stadium.

"We proved," says Thomas reflecting on the three AFL games played for premiership points in China from 2017-2019, "that this club is capable of anything - anything.

"There has never been a more challenging undertaking than playing a game of Australian football - for premiership points, rather than an exhibition match - in mainland China. No other professional sport has tried taking its game to China - no one. 

"It is an enormous undertaking, but we pulled it off - and we are immensely proud of that."

Port Adelaide also has proven it can find its financial lifeline away from Australia, striking critical sponsorship deals offshore.

Thomas oversaw Port Adelaide's bold endeavor to take an AFL match for premiership points to mainland China.

In Keith's decade as chief executive our agenda has included the move to Adelaide Oval, securing our licence from the SANFL, making sure we could stand on our own two feet to build an agenda that is not diluted or influenced by anyone outside our football club ... and we have played in China. This is massive.

Port Adelaide president David Koch 

Thomas is grateful his board was led by a creative president with grand ambitions to match Port Adelaide's reputation. The refit of the football program late in 2012 also came with a new board led by David Koch.

"David Koch wants this club to think big - Adelaide Oval and China are big moves," said Thomas. "I am amazed at what this club has been prepared to do. For the past 30 years it has repeatedly put everything on the line to be a bigger and better football club ... chasing an AFL licence, taking football back to Adelaide Oval, China ... we have stood as tall in our off-field ambitions as we have on the field."

LEGACY

It is really hard to capture what Keith Thomas has done for our football club because his influence and achievements are monumental. He is one of the most significant contributors to the Port Adelaide Football Club in the AFL ... he has made sure there is a Port Adelaide Football Club in the AFL.

Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley 

KEITH Thomas leaves Port Adelaide without a premiership.

"And that is what defines Port Adelaide, so you feel you have not quite made it," Thomas says. "We didn't get there in my time, but I hope I'm leaving with the club closer to that premiership; I hope that success is not far away.

"There are many good people who are devoted to achieving that success - and they deserve that success. Travis Boak is one of them. His loyalty to Port Adelaide, particularly in 2012 when he was courted by Geelong to return to his home. His 2020 season was enormous - as is his influence and care for his team-mates and his football club.

"It is a measure of Travis in how he has contributed while this club was challenged in adversity. He is one of many good people who have made this club better in my time." 

Port Adelaide should be forever grateful that it had the good fortune to have Keith Thomas. You were led by a quality person of the highest esteem. This should leave an enormous legacy to uphold.

Former SANFL leader Leigh Whicker

Not in question is how Thomas has re-established core values at Port Adelaide. He also has sought a progressive agenda to ensure the club has not fallen into that limiting trap of "living in the past". Port Adelaide is traditional - and innovative.

"That is the greatest challenge, particularly in moving to the AFL," Thomas said. "It is about understanding what is Port Adelaide and what will endure regardless of when and where we play and exist. 

"How do you hold the values of the past when you are challenged to progress in a sophisticated, modern football landscape? We learned that lesson with the captaincy. In adopting two captains (Tom Jonas and Ollie Wines) last year we were looking at a model that gave us the best chance to win - just as Port Adelaide expects. We backed the football program that was making change with the core motive in that decision based on winning. 

"It also challenged a tradition, a treasured tradition. Philosophically we were not wrong to embrace anything that was to make us better as a football team. But there are some traditions that define you as a football club. Having one captain and putting him in the No.1 jumper is one of those traditions. And we listened to our members on how much they value that tradition - and our values of being a relentless club that will never, ever give up being Port Adelaide and winning."

Keith leaves us but his influence does not. It is still there in the quality team he has built at the Port Adelaide Football Club. We have an executive team that is highly regarded externally, particularly by the AFL.

The greatest legacy is Keith having made our passionate supporter base more engaged with our club.

I would put Keith's contribution to our club and his achievements in line with those of the men who put Port Adelaide in the AFL.

Port Adelaide president David Koch

Thomas leaves the Port Adelaide Football Club with this advice to those who will carry the responsibility of leadership at Alberton: "Take the time to listen. Take the time to understand who and what Port Adelaide is. Listen to its people - and understand how special this football club is to them."

Keith Thomas departs Alberton with everyone able to still say, "We are Port Adelaide."

"And," adds Thomas, "proud to be Port Adelaide."