Many songs have little known subsequent verses. Australians who were school children in a certain place and time still vaguely remember singing the additional verse of our national anthem; radiant Southern Crosses and sharing of boundless plains with those who’ve come across the seas (although recent governments would obviously prefer this occurred only on Fairstar the fun ship). Then there’s the additional verse to God Save the Queen, added during the Jacobite Revolts, urging the crushing of rebellious Scots.
On a less violent note, when the Norwood Football Club adopted and adapted Melbourne’s “it’s a grand old flag” club song (to the tune of American George M. Cohan’s similarly named US patriotic march), it had to decide what to do with the second verse. Melbourne’s version starts “Oh, the team played fine in the year ‘39”. A fine rhyme for Melbourne given they won the VFL premiership in ‘39 but Norwood lost the SANFL elimination semi-final that year – not so fine to be songworthy.
Thankfully the Woods Street wordsmiths needed only to go a decade further back for rhyming success. Hence, in the second verse of the Norwood club song: “Oh, the team played fine in the year ‘29”. However, it more regularly than is normal leaves me wondering; how fine did the team play in 1929 and how much was it just a rhyme of convenience? What actually happened in the SANFL in 1929?
What was the SANFL in 1929?
First off, let’s paint the background; put some context into this story. The South Australian National Football League (SANFL) is the oldest surviving football league in Australia and one of the oldest in the world. Formed as the SAFA in 1877, by 1929 the league had run for over 50 years and recently renamed itself to the SANFL.
South Australia understatedly boasted a modest population of just over 500,000, compared to some 1.7 million today. The league consisted of eight teams - all eight remain in the competition in some form: West Torrens has merged with Woodville; Port Adelaide has become an AFL Reserves side; and additions of Central District (1964) and Adelaide Crows Reserves (2014) make it the 10 team competition it is today.
As today, the keenest rivalry in the SANFL was between the working class Port Adelaide in the city’s north western suburbs and the more patrician eastern suburbs outfit in Norwood. However, unlike today, the SANFL was the biggest game in town – the only game! The idea that the SANFL would one day pay $4 million just to field a team in the VFL would have had you guffawed out of the Adelaide Club.
The season’s four opening bounces occurred on 27 April 1929 at precisely 2.50pm. Football writers kept their powder dry on predictions before the matches started, though suggesting Port Adelaide, as 1928 premiers, would likely be firm favourites in their fixture against a young Sturt at Unley. This proved to be the case as the Magpies comfortably accounted for the Double Blues thanks to nine goals from Les ‘Elsie’ Dayman.
To be fair it was not a big news day as cheaper rail freight rates to Broken Hill and the comparative coldness of the previous day were the key news items covered. Meanwhile, The Advertiser noted the interest in North Adelaide’s debutant, Ken Farmer, having been promoted from the Association (reserves) team for the season. This interest proved prescient as he kicked 62 goals in 14 games in his first season. He then went on to kick at least 100 goals in every season from 1930 to 1940, collecting 1,419 goals and being held goalless only once. Across his career Farmer broke more records than a clumsy DJ – a phenomenon.
The Register’s front page on the following Monday was devoted to the “First Football Surprise for 1929”, featuring a photo of recently arrived minnows Glenelg (joined the SAFA in 1921) in the process of upsetting the fancied West Adelaide by five points. Then as now Adelaide journalists needed little provocation to put football on the front and back pages of the paper.
Glenelg’s surprise win dominated the narrative of Round 1 as Norwood comfortably beat South Adelaide, and West Torrens thrashed a 17 man North Adelaide by 10 goals, despite four goals to Farmer on debut.
Autumn into Winter
As the season progressed Glenelg maintained its newfound form, winning its first three matches. Port Adelaide accounted for Norwood by 33 points at Alberton Oval in Round 3 only to have their own winning streak ended by West Adelaide notching its first victory in Round 6 in a four point thriller.
By the halfway point of the season, Port Adelaide sat atop the ladder on 16 points (one of many points of difference from the V/AFL, the SANFL system awards two points for a win and one for a draw. You are not allowed to ask why unless you can first answer why the entire AFL points system is divisible by two), two points ahead of Norwood with West Adelaide and Sturt making up the four.
At this stage the papers had a rematch of the 1928 Grand Final firmly in mind, giving the Ports the advantage because as Sport put it: “Norwood should advertise amongst ‘Persons Wanted’ for a goalsneak” (full forward). Norwood’s premiership ambitions were further thwarted by a broken cheekbone to captain/coach, Walter ‘Wat’ Scott, and a season ending knee injury to 1925 Magarey Medallist (the league’s best and fairest award), Alick Lill.
Elsewhere In the news an industrial dispute in Newcastle’s coalfields had raised the spectre of a general strike and newspapers closely tracked the progress of the Southern Cross, piloted by Charles Kingsford Smith in its attempt to break the record from Australia to Britain.
Kingsford Smith the previous year had completed the first crossing of the Pacific from the United States to Australia. However, more recently his first attempt to reach Britain in 1929 had led to tragedy as he made an emergency landing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Two friends participating in the subsequent search had died in the Tanami Desert following a crash of their own in what became known as the “Coffee Royal Incident” (the suggestion being that his emergency landing had been a publicity stunt).
Race to the finals
As the 1929 finals series approached, West Torrens climbed off the bottom of the ladder with rousing wins against Norwood and Port Adelaide in successive weeks at Thebarton Oval. By the end of Round 13 the Eagles were only percentage out of the top four behind North Adelaide.
A bye round on 10 August allowed space and time for the running of a charity carnival through the streets of Adelaide culminating in a gathering at the Adelaide Oval, attended by 41,000 people. In addition to roosters on bicycles and Leong, the greatest of all Chinese dragons (with 30 pairs of legs), the main drawcard was a women’s football match between the staff of Moore’s Department Store and the Mirror Shirt and Pyjama factory.
This remains the largest crowd ever at a women’s Australian Rules football match. The Moore’s girls wearing, black and white, overcame the cream and blue clad Mirrors by 11 points in a spirited affair.
The following week, Round 14 saw the only draw of the season as Norwood and North Adelaide could not be parted at the Parade (Norwood Oval). While not a good exhibition of football the game was close all day and North’s goalsneak, Farmer, was described by The Mail as “marking like a champion” on his way to kicking five goals. Such was the excitement amongst the 7000 fans as the final siren approached that a female spectator fainted, although is believed to have died in the subsequent 88 years. Norwood missed its last three shots on goal, levelling the scores, and despite the sharing of the points, honours were with North Adelaide. However, this would prove to be a vital point for the Redlegs.
Meanwhile, the SANFL vigorously disputed allegations from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union that South Australian players on a state trip to Western Australia had done “nothing but drink” leading to the loss of both games to WA. Team manager, Thomas Seymour Hill (after whom the current SANFL premiership trophy is named), argued that half the team were, in fact, abstainers. He went on to state that while the party was invited to inspect a brewery in Perth, only five attended and “not one… suffered from an over consumption of liquor”.
As the league prepared its proposed rule changes for the upcoming meeting of the Australian National Football Council (focussed on the reintroduction of the flick pass and the introduction of prior opportunity to the holding the ball rule), a windy and spiteful Round 16 set up the final round of games perfectly. West Adelaide (two players reported for striking) again upset Port Adelaide (one player reported), this time by three points at the Adelaide Showgrounds.
At the Parade the Redlegs, ran down Sturt’s 35 point third quarter lead to draw within one win of Port Adelaide at the top of the table. With Sturt grimly hanging on to a six point lead, two late goals from forward pocket Heinrich Krome, reversed that advantage. Just before the siren sounded, Sturt’s Gordon “Grassy” Green, in search of his eighth goal and the leveller, hit the post, handing Norwood a vital victory.
That meant an injury and suspension (Jack Wade was controversially suspended for the remainder of the season) weakened Port Adelaide would meet Norwood in Round 17 at the Parade to decide the minor premiership. Most seriously for the Magpies, centreman Reg Conole suffered a compound fracture of the nose while centre half forward Harold Logan damaged ligaments in his shoulder.
Meanwhile West Torrens beat South Adelaide by 11 goals to remain in fourth spot, just one point ahead of North Adelaide who beat Glenelg by nine.
The minor premiership
The last minor round of matches in 1929 took place on Saturday 7 September with three of the four games potentially affecting the finals. At the top of the ladder Norwood hosted Port Adelaide and a sardine-like crowd of 18,085 (taking a suburban ground record of £1006 in admission fees – roughly equivalent to $75,000 today) witnessed a compelling tussle all afternoon.
Despite the publicly noted disadvantages of injury and tribunal, Port Adelaide had more of the attack but could not consistently break through the Norwood back three of Syd Ackland, Hartley Pike and Arthur Geary. Against the run of play the Redlegs stole the advantage late in the first half with two goals to take an 11 point lead.
Port pulled Norwood’s lead back to two points at three quarter time and when they hit the lead in the last quarter through a goalsquare soccer to Drozena ‘Dribb’ Eden (Port Adelaide’s second Indigenous player after his brother John) the crowd reached fever pitch.
The Magpie lead was short lived, however, as Norwood took immediate possession at the next bounce, a chain of possessions leading to a Gordon Wait goal. The Redlegs took control of the match thereafter adding a further four behinds as the siren sounded the minor premiership (its particular significance to be explained in the next spellbinding episode).
In praising the quality of the contest Port captain Victor Johnson was also quick to point out the comparative youth and inexperience of his side and the general good luck that had fallen Norwood’s way on the day. But, at least, he said the game had not been “a butcher’s shop” referring, presumably to the spiteful nature of the previous round of matches.
Meanwhile, West Torrens overwhelmed an undersized West Adelaide by 20 points at Thebarton to lock in its finals spot, condemning to irrelevance North Adelaide’s nine point win over South Adelaide at Adelaide Oval.
In the non-footballing world, following a tumultuous year for industrial relations, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce staked the reputation of his government on defeating an amendment to his Maritime Industries Bill, which would remove the Commonwealth’s arbitration role in the industry. The amendment would require a referendum or election the bill before the legislation could be enacted. In the end the amendment passed by one vote and the Governor-General subsequently agreed to Bruce’s request for a Federal election to be held on 12 October.
This brings us to the end of the first thrilling instalment of the 1929 SANFL season. In Part 2 we learn all about the finals series and why Norwood’s minor premiership proved so important in its flag tilt. Also, could a man with the most Australian name ever, Stanley Bruce, really lose an election because of maritime legislation?