AAMI Footy Flashback – 1961 SANFL Grand Final

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It was dubbed the ”Turkish Bath” Grand Final for good reason.

The 1961 SANFL title-decider was played in front of more than 40,000 fans at Adelaide Oval amid temperatures which soared to as high as 35C in late September.

And it was West Adelaide which finally put behind it the pain of losing five grand finals in succession to triumph by 36 points against Norwood.

Inspired by first-year captain-coach Neil Kerley, the Bloods broke a 14-year premiership drought after previously winning the flag in 1947.

”It was the happiest moment of my sporting life when we won today,” Kerley said after the game.

”I do feel that our first and third quarters – against the wind – were our winning ones.”

Losing the toss before the bounce was about the only misfortune Kerley had all afternoon as he earned a game-high 29 disposals to be regarded as the best player on the ground.

Sporting the No.1 guernsey in the vision below, Kerley regularly throws his body into the fray before being chaired off the ground to begin the red-and-black celebrations.

Umpire Laurie Sweeney called a halt to the play in the second term to usher about 10 trainers from the field, who had been providing respite for the players through the aid of wet towels.

With little hydration to speak of, it was an unusually softly-spoken Kerley who was visibly exhausted while being interviewed post match.

After kicking into the wind and trailing by nine points at the first change, the Bloods controlled the contest for the remaining three quarters, which included kicking a pivotal 3.3 to 2.1 during the third term.

1961 SANFL Grand Final

West Adelaide  3.2  9.5  12.8  16.13 (109)
Norwood  4.5  7.6  9.7 11.7 (73)

West Adelaide: Kerley, Ryan, Hogan, Reu, Eustice, Benton, De Broughe, Johnson
Norwood: Aish, Oatey, Lill, Johnson, Kneebone, Modra, Kite, Minervini

West Adelaide: De Broughe 5; Hogan 4; Benton, Garnett, Wright 2; Ryan
Norwood: Kite, Lill, Minervini, Oatey 2; Feehan, Modra, Vickers

Crowd: 40,909 at the Adelaide Oval

1961 West Adelaide Premiership Team | Photo provided by the SANFL History Centre

Historical SANFL Budget Feature - By Steve Barrett

“We’ll bat first.”

Normally a sound decision when the captain wins the toss at Adelaide Oval, especially with the mercury nearing the ton.

It was no different back in 1961 for the Oval’s biggest match of the year.

Only it wasn’t West Indian captain Sir Frank Worrell against Richie Benaud’s Australians on the first morning of the Australia Day Test.

It was Norwood skipper Peter Aish who made the quip to West Adelaide counterpart Neil Kerley before the ’61 SANFL decider, which the media dubbed the “Turkish Bath” Grand Final.

The mercury climbed to a maximum of 35.1°C (95.1°F) during the first quarter, making it the hottest September day in Adelaide history.

The furnace-like heat was accompanied by a howling northerly desert breeze, worth about four goals, which the Demons (now known as the Redlegs) kicked with, towards the River End.

Eighteen-year-old first-year rover Robert Oatey believes the ground temperature, bereft of shade was closer to 117°.

“It was unbearable,” West’s Ken Eustice agreed. “You couldn’t stand still; you had to keep moving just to get away from the heat.

“Back then, we couldn’t drink water; we could just rinse our mouth out. It was ridiculous.”

In that era, this fluid intake stance was the norm.

“The damn heat is the one thing I remember vividly,” said Blood ‘n’ Tars captain Kerley. “It was medically taboo to drink water. We could suck on oranges but that was all.

“They were the toughest conditions I ever played in – it was bloody torture.”

With both clubs desperate to shake their bridesmaid tags after splitting runner-up honours in the previous seven Grand Finals, the heat was on – in every way.

“Neil Kerley said to me, ‘You’ll be standing Peter Phipps, so you’d better watch out’,” Aish recalled.

“I asked, ‘What do you mean’ and he said, ‘Because he’ll knock your block off’.”

The pre-match mind games went both ways. As the players stood to attention for the national anthem, Norwood’s second-year Victorian recruit George Dellar wandered over to Kerls and started niggling him.

“Got you again today, Kerley; you’re mine,” Dellar said, provocatively referring to the previous meeting in Round 16, which the Demons won and Dellar nullified Kerley’s output after being given a tagging role, well before tagging was widespread.

Kerley said: “As they were playing God Save the Queen, Georgie Dellar was talking to me, nudging me and I thought, ‘You rude devil’.

“When (umpire) Laurie (Sweeney) bounced the ball, a little thing happened to Georgie. I showed him it wouldn’t be so easy this time.”

Moments after the opening bounce, Dellar hit the deck, Kerley teaching his designated ‘shadow’ a swift lesson, Mark Yeates-Dermott Brereton style.

“He fell over… he must have tripped,” Kerley said.

Aided by the breeze, the Demons opened up a 21-point lead early, with wingman Peter Modra, described by Aish as a “great, pacy player”, on fire.

Kerley switched Eustice onto Modra, which worked in the Bloods’ favour and West booted three majors late in the quarter with a brilliant counterattack against the wind.

Norwood led by nine points at quarter-time, but honours were firmly with the Bloods.

“Our first quarter without doubt won us the game,” Kerley said.

“I said to the boys at quarter time, ‘Fellas, we’ve laid the foundation and we can build on this. They’ve played their best shot and now we can get away from them’.”

Shortly after quarter time, West star Jeff Bray, described by Kerley as “the best centre half-back in the State”, left the field with a pulled leg muscle.

Kerley replaced Bray with rangy half-back flanker Trevor Reu, who quelled Norwood dangerman John Lill and according to Kerley, “played as well as Bray could have”.

During the second stanza, Sweeney stopped play momentarily to order several trainers from the field.

“They (trainers) should have been allowed on because the heat was horrific,” Eustice said.

“It was out of character to have so many trainers out there, but the umpire was aware of how hot it was and why they were all on.”

Despite the ferocious heat and the high stakes, there were some light-hearted moments.

When half-forward Paul Garnett, described by Kerley as “a freak… as good as Paul Bagshaw”, lined up for goal from 65 yards out, Lill gave him no chance.

Lill’s direct opponent, West full-back Alan Tregenza, disagreed and the pair placed a wager there and then.

The mercurial Garnett nailed the shot and Lill visited the Bloods’ rooms to pay his debt after the contest.

“I didn’t know about that,” Kerley admitted. “If I did, I would have wanted half!”

Then came the turning point of the match – Eustice charged 70m from his wing and cleaned up Oatey, who was in the scoreboard pocket and looked like goaling.

“John Lill miscued a kick high to Robert with his (non-preferred) right foot,” Eustice recalled.

“The ball was travelling in the air and there was nobody around him.

“By instinct rather than instructions of the coach, I took off, but I thought I’d never make it.

“I was going flat-out and as I got closer, the ball bounced wrongly for Robert and he fumbled it.

“At the second attempt to get it, he looked up at me and I thought, ‘Jesus, I’m going to make it’.

“I gathered pace and went in as hard as I could while he was picking up the ball… it was Good Night Dick!”

Oatey was out cold and Eustice was in the clear.

“He was on the ground and the ball dropped stationary in front of me,” Eustice said.

“To my absolute amazement, it was still inside the line when I picked it up.

“I couldn’t believe it when the umpire didn’t blow the whistle so I took advantage and cleared it away.

“Those circumstances can change a game.”

As a result of that shirtfront, Oatey doesn’t remember much of the second half.

“My opponent Leon Lovegrove ran across to John Lill, who got the ball out in the forward pocket at the northern end,” said Oatey, who since passed away in 2019.

“John tried to kick it with his right foot and the ball went off the side of his boot.

“Ken Eustice came running off the wing and belted me. I was unconscious.”

With ruckman Brian DeBroughe playing out of his skin (he booted five goals as a resting forward), West gained the ascendancy and led by 11 points at the half time break, which most players
spent having cold showers, Eustice doing so fully-uniformed before emerging after the interval dripping wet.

“That (shower) was a luxury I didn’t have,” Kerley said.

“I had to keep my mind on the job, keep talking to them as individuals, but it didn’t worry me.”

Kerley dominated the third term and had the better of Norwood ruck giant Bill Wedding, who had a ripping season but had a gastric complaint on the big day.

“Big Bill Wedding always gave his all,” Aish said.

“When poor old Bill tried a drop-kick, he always left in a hole in the ground!

“He was the driving force in the team and we relied on him a helluva lot; being that tall, nine times out of 10 when he palmed the ball, it would land at centre half-forward.

“Bill was a lot taller than Neil, but Neil was physically very strong. He could nudge Bill out of the way when taking marks.”

Eustice viewed the Kerley-Wedding battle as pivotal.

“Neil used to run straight at him… it was fair, but intimidating,” the 1962 Magarey Medallist said.

“In the previous match, Neil ran into him a few times and Bill said, ‘If Neil continues to do that, I’ll have to strike him’. Neil replied: ‘Don’t miss’.”

Neither side had much left in the tank in the final stanza.

“In the last quarter we were just robots – our run, energy and enthusiasm were all gone,” Kerley said.

“It became a very slow affair. We were virtually moving one leg after another.”

With the Demons trailing by 20 points at three quarter time and West kicking with the wind, Aish, who said he earned his keep that day after keeping West full-forward Doug Thomas goalless, knew it would be tough.

“The physical exertion left a lot of our players wrecked come three quarter-time,” he said.

“Everyone was pooped. The Port Adelaide game (Preliminary Final) drained us.

“They (West) were just far too superior.”

Like many Norwood players of that generation, 162-gamer Aish would never win a flag, although Oatey won two after later crossing to Sturt.

“I don’t remember much after half-time,” Oatey said.

“I came to at the end of the game and I  remember Peter Aish was almost in tears.

“For me, the game is about more than just winning. You’ve got to enjoy it for a bigger reason and for me it was about participation and the friendships you form.”

Norwood’s next premiership was in 1975, while West had to wait until ’83 before saluting again, the Bloods self-imploding, losing to Port by three points the Grand Final the very next season, resulting in the dramatic sacking of Kerley which triggered a prolonged decline in the club’s fortunes.

The 1961 flag was Eustice’s only premiership from five Grand Final appearances.

“As a club we had a feeling we could win it this time,” said Eustice, who was prolific with 26 possessions (all kicks).

“It’s a shame West didn’t win a few more premierships because it was a helluva team.

“We were a very well balanced side and Neil Kerley’s inspirational leadership rubbed off on everyone else.

“You felt weak if you gave up.”

Kerley, who lost a stone in weight that afternoon, was the unanimous best-on-ground.

“We were the favourites, the best side all year, but you’ve still got to win on the day,” he said.

“We were called the mosquito fleet; we were the faster team with guys like Bertie Johnson in the side.”

After the game, Kerley went to the Channel 9 studio to be interviewed by journalist Lawrie Jervis.

After downing two bottles of lemonade, the winning coach vomited all over the newsdesk.

“I had a good spew after the game too, I’m a bit embarrassed to say,” said Aish, who was named Norwood’s best that day.

“I was that worked up heat-wise. We (Aish and Kerley) went there (Channel 9) the same night.

“Someone asked, ‘Where’s Kerley’ and I said ‘I think he’s in the toilet’.”

In 2011, West Adelaide commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the famous win with a function compered by lifelong supporter Ken “KG” Cunningham.

Clearly the Bloods were still celebrating a half a century on, albeit in a more restrained manner than on Grand Final night when a group of Westies players decided to paint a red and black sign reading “WAFC Premiers 1961 and 1962” on The Parade fence.

“At about 1am, three to four of us left a party with two large cans of paint and no brush,” Eustice said.

“We heard a car coming, which we thought was the police, so we threw the paint over the gates.”

Did the Bloods’ fearless leader take part?

“My name is Sergeant Schultz,” Kerley laughed. “I know nothing!”