It was 20 years ago today….that I left a football game not knowing the result.
No, I did not imbibe a little too much in amber refreshments, unfortunately, nor had I left early in disgust. I, along with 43000 other fans, had abruptly filed out of Waverley Park on that chilly June evening in the dark; not just about the result but for the most unusual reason.
The lights went out.
Ok, before I go any further it was actually 20 years and 1 week ago today, but the avid Beatles fan in me has always wanted to begin a story Sgt Pepper style and this may well be the only chance I’ll ever get.
St Kilda and Essendon’s round 10, 1996 meeting will forever hold a place in AFL folklore. This seemed highly improbable as the players converged for a boundary throw in, late in the 3rd quarter with the Bombers deep in attack and leading by 20 points.
As the two ruckmen wrestled for position, the lights noticeably flickered, before blacking out completely to a surprised but hearty cheer from the crowd. Folklore has it that Essendon goal sneak Darren Bewick snapped an unrecorded major amongst the chaos.
In today’s age of smart phones and instant information, it is somewhat difficult to understand how little information was known by those in the crowd. As officials from St Kilda, Essendon and the AFL scrambled, the mood in the arena’s famous bowl shaped stands slowly shifted from bemusement to restless to “lord of the flies”.
Essendon Full Forward Scott Cummings has told the tale of his fear of what fate might befall him as he stood next to St Kilda’s Fullback Jamie Shanahan in the dark. His fears were mislaid but the players, like the spectators, were unaware of what was to happen next.
The collective ignorance wasn’t confined to the players and fans. Those in charge were also lost for answers to the unprecedented situation unfolding before them. First step in the process was to find out what had happened and how long it would take to fix.
Emergency lighting returned to the ground, meaning all involved could finally see a little better, but the light towers remained unmoved. The emergency power meant Optus Vision’s coverage of the game could resume which led to the famous footage of Malcolm Blight presenting to camera lit by torchlight.
It was discovered that the power outage was as a result of an accident in the area and local authorities were unsure as to when power would be returned. As a result approximately 50 minutes after the lights went out, the game was officially abandoned.
Whether it was the news of the abandonment or just thousands of people being left to their own devices in the dark, it was at this point things got really interesting.
A field invasion normally reserved for a full forwards 100th goal began. Fans converged around bonfires in the centre circle and, perhaps the event most remembered, a behind post was removed and hoisted upon fans shoulders and given a lap of honour around the ground.
Each spectator was given a pass out upon exit, a souvenir of the AFL’s most extraordinary night – a souvenir my mother has since misplaced – and the task of finding your car in the dark. Waverley Park’s carpark was a difficult place to find your car in spring sunshine so this was a daunting task in darkness.
On the morning after the night before the AFL were left with the difficult situation of how to decide the result of the abandoned game. The expected decision would be the match declared a draw, Essendon declared the winner or the option proposed by both clubs that both be awarded 4 points.
The AFL deemed that a draw would be unfair to Essendon who had built a 20 point lead in the game. That an Essendon victory would be unfair to St Kilda who had more than an entire quarter left to bridge the gap. It was also felt that both sides being awarded 4 points would be unfair to the other clubs.
So it was decided that both clubs would return on the Tuesday night and play out the remaining 24 minutes across two 12 minute halves. Further it was decided that both clubs could bring in players who had not been selected for the Saturday night.
With a big game the following weekend ahead against Richmond, the Saints were aggrieved. Coach Stan Alves wasn’t prepared to risk his players in a “helter skelter” contest on Tuesday with little chance of reward when there were bigger fish to fry on the Saturday. The club requested to forfeit the game, a request that was refused.
So on the Tuesday night the gates were thrown open and 17,000 people watched St Kilda and Essendon begin where they left things a few days earlier. Essendon were never really threatened and ran out winners by 22 points.
The only real interest from the mini contest was the return of Essendon’s injured captain James Hird. Ruled out of the contest on Saturday night, he was fit to play on Tuesday night and played well. So well many media outlets named him in Essendon’s best despite missing ¾’s of the game. Contrary to an often told urban legend, Hird did not receive the 3 Brownlow Votes, St Kilda champ Robert Harvey did.
In the aftermath the AFL brought in laws to ensure a game’s result wouldn’t be decided 72 hours later again. It was decided in the event of another abandonment, a draw would be declared if it took place before half time and a winner declared if it happened after the long break.
Then there was siren-gate, but that’s a story for another day….
(All photos in this article courtesy of the Herald Sun)