1997 AFL Premiership
Adelaide’s first AFL premiership will perhaps always stand as the Club’s greatest triumph.
To rise from a club-worst 12th placing in 1996 to finish fourth at the end of the minor round, win three consecutive finals and then defeat St Kilda by 31 points at the MCG was one of South Australia’s greatest sporting achievements.
Remarkably, the Crows claimed their first Cup despite a terrible run of injuries headlined in September by the loss of their best midfielder Mark Ricciuto (groin surgery), forward Peter Vardy (broken collarbone) and the AFL’s leading goalkicker Tony Modra (knee). Ricciuto and Modra had both been selected in the 1997 All-Australian side.
First-year Adelaide coach Malcolm Blight’s fourth AFL grand final (and first win) as a coach was certainly memorable. “To win four finals in all circumstances, I would like to think it will go down as one of the great wins in the history of the game,” he said after the decider.
The Crows won the flag, on September 27, with a devastating 14-goal second half that in many ways duplicated the blueprint of the previous week’s exciting preliminary final win against the Western Bulldogs.
Adelaide was competitive in the first half but again trailed at half-time, this time by 13 points. Blight again picked the right time to swing Andrew McLeod into the midfield and Darren Jarman to full forward. Slowly the Crows took over the contest, created opportunities and the goals started to flow. Eight goals in the last term sparked massive celebrations.
Blight later recalled: “In the second half of a grand final, the Adelaide Crows kicked 14 straight goals, there was only one point and it was rushed. Not one of those players missed, 14 straight.”
It did not start this way, with Adelaide scoring four behinds in the first three minutes of the game, including two to Jarman (one hit the goal post). St Kilda scored the first two goals of the match but the Crows led at quarter-time by two points. However, they lost Rod Jameson and Clay Sampson to leg strains in the first quarter, leaving just one fit player on the three-man interchange bench.
And the Crows were under siege early in the second quarter when St Kilda’s big forward Barry Hall kicked three goals in six minutes, to lead by 16 points. Goals to Simon Goodwin and Troy Bond steadied the Crows but Robert Harvey replied and Rod Keogh missed a set shot after the siren to hand St Kilda a 13-point lead at half-time.
Bond kicked the first goal of the third quarter, Stewart Loewe replied for St Kilda, but goals to Chad Rintoul and Shane Ellen made the gap one point. Adelaide hit the front and beyond with three more goals in the next six minutes to Jarman, Ellen and Peter Caven but Nicky Winmar scored late and the gap was ten points at the last break.
St Kilda’s hopes of winning its first premiership since 1966 disappeared under a wave of goals in the final quarter. Nathan Burke’s goal at the six-minute mark reduced the margin to nine points but Jarman kicked the next three. Celebrations were well under way when Bond snapped his fourth goal after 25 minutes. Nigel Smart, one of two Crows in the team from Adelaide’s first AFL side in 1991, then made the margin 31 points with the last goal from the last kick of the match.
The surprise cameo performance of the grand final came from Ellen, a defender who had kicked just three goals in 38 games at Footscray and then Adelaide. He played the game of his life on the biggest stage. The Crows needed to find a new full forward after Modra injured a knee in the preliminary final and Blight wanted someone to fit the structure, a player capable of leading and taking a mark. On the Monday night of grand final week, he was told he was starting in the goal square.
Ellen kicked two goals and hit the post once in the opening term and after a quiet second term was swung back into defence. But he had acquired a taste for scoring and with his confidence high, pushed forward to kick two more goals within six minutes in the third term.
His fifth goal came late in the final term as the Crows stretched their lead to 27 points. “I can’t believe it, it’s a dream come true,” said Ellen, who scored 5.1 from eight kicks. And Blight’s forward thinking had been rewarded with the ultimate prize: “With Tony Modra and Peter Vardy missing, we took a risk (with Ellen and Darren Jarman) and fortunately it paid off.”
Spirited performances from McLeod and Jarman broke the game apart.
McLeod had been an important contributor right through September after a stellar minor round but he took it to a new level on grand final day. He started brilliantly at half-back against dangerous St Kilda forward Matthew Lappin and then lifted the struggling Crows when shifted into the midfield during the second term.
He was the Crows’ busiest and most effective player in the first half, with 15 possessions, and then continued to dominate as Adelaide forged to the front before kicking away in the last quarter. When the final siren sounded, McLeod had the football. And a few minutes later he had the Norm Smith Medal around his neck, at 21 the youngest winner. “The last two guys to have come from the NT to play in a grand final (Maurice Rioli and Michael Long) had won the Norm Smith so that put the pressure on me at the start,” admitted McLeod, who finished with 31 possessions and received the most Club Champion votes.
Jarman had played in an AFL premiership with Hawthorn in 1991. But he was not a major contributor in that grand final and some critics continued to question his big game credibility entering the 1997 finals campaign. By the end of September, however, there would be no more doubts. The preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs provided a preview of what was to come.
Jarman was back in the midfield for the start of the grand final but just before half-time Blight told him to start in the centre square at each bounce and then drift down to full forward. His first goal, halfway through the third term, gave Adelaide the lead. Five more goals from five kicks in the last term guaranteed Jarman’s place in football history.
The Jarman Show had it all – perfectly timed leads, clever reading of the play and left and right foot snaps. “The last quarter was the best of my life and to do it on grand final day is unbelievable,” Jarman said after the match. “Special,” said the coach. Jarman finished with 19 possessions, seven tackles and 6.2.
There were plenty of other key Crows including David Pittman, who turned into a centre half-back and shut down Stewart Loewe. Small forward Bond kicked a difficult goal in each quarter, 19-year-old Kane Johnson reduced the impact of 1997 Brownlow Medallist Harvey and Shaun Rehn discarded the knee brace, took over the ruck after half-time and dropped behind the play to help his defenders.
Goodwin, in his 10th AFL game, added rebound across half-back and pushing through the centre square when Jarman slipped forward, and Tyson Edwards came off the bench to subdue the dangerous Winmar. Wingman Kym Koster ran hard all day in a great contest with Austinn Jones and Ben Hart went to full back to cover the early loss of Jameson and stopped Jason Heatley, who kicked the first two goals of the game.
Most players had moments that contributed to the win.
“I never came here with that goal of ‘I must win the premiership’,” Blight said after the win. “I thought I could help the Adelaide Football Club and Bill Sanders (chief executive) and John Reid (football manager) wouldn’t leave me alone until I said I’d take the challenge.”
Two hours after the siren, Blight and his Crows walked out to the middle of a quiet and dark MCG to soak in their success, vowing to return the next year. They then enjoyed hectic official functions in Melbourne at the tennis centre and Convention Centre. The next morning they returned to Adelaide to a rowdy reception at the airport and then joined thousands of fans celebrating at Wayville Showgrounds.
A few days later an estimated 120,000 fans crammed into the Adelaide CBD to watch a motorcade through the streets and later the Premiership Cup was taken on a tour of South Australian regional centres.
Lucky, some would later say. Blight disagreed: “We were there for two hours. There was an opposition. We beat the teams ranked one, two and three to get there. We had a great September.”
B: Ben Hart, Rod Jameson, Simon Goodwin
HB: Andrew McLeod, David Pittman, Peter Caven
C: Kym Koster, Mark Bickley, Matthew Connell
HF: Clay Sampson, Matthew Robran, Chad Rintoul
F: Troy Bond, Shane Ellen, Nigel Smart
R: Shaun Rehn, Kane Johnson, Darren Jarman
Int: Aaron Keating, Brett James, Tyson Edwards
Emerg: Simon Tregenza, Barry Standfield, Brett Chalmers.
Coach: Malcolm Blight
Adelaide 3.8 5.10 11.11 19.11 (125)
St Kilda 3.6 7.11 9.13 13.16 (94)
Best: McLeod, Jarman, Ellen, Hart, Pittman, Rehn, Bond, Goodwin, Caven
Goals: Jarman 6, Ellen 5, Bond 4, Smart, Goodwin, Rintoul, Caven