How a football club helped change a city
Can a football team change a town? Can sport become a symbol of renewal, and give a community a sense of optimism and purpose?
Elitists who regard sport as a mindless pursuit would scoff at the suggestion. They would probably hold that the only change a football team can make to a town is to pollute people’s brains with useless trivia, distract them from pressing social realities, and eat into valuable self-improvement and family time.
The 20-year history of the Adelaide Crows – sorry, the mighty Adelaide Crows – provides a compelling counterpoint to those who would dismiss sport as frivolous or meaningless.
The growth of the club, and its ability to make so much history in such a short space of time, has coincided with a significant turn-around in the fortunes of its hometown. That’s not to say that the Adelaide Crows saved Adelaide. But the club came along at a time when the one thing the city needed most was a sense of self-belief.
With the Crows celebrating their 20th anniversary, it is worth reflecting on the Adelaide of 1991 and the Adelaide of 2011.
In 1991, Adelaide felt like a boarded-up backwater, and SA the rustiest of the rust-belt states. In the same year the Crows entered the competition, the State Bank had collapsed, exposing the taxpayers to a $3.15 billion debt. Given the high unemployment and low levels of growth and investment, this figure seemed insurmountable.
As Victoria clawed its way out of its own economic mire, we remained stuck in ours, and were dealt a further psychological blow with the news that we would be losing the Grand Prix, most gallingly to Melbourne, courtesy of the double-dealing Bernie Ecclestone.
It was a time when South Australia had little to feel good about. It was a time when, in Adelaide, it also felt as if there was nothing to do. The arrival of the Crows helped change that. This flash, cashed-up club gave South Australians something to rally around. Supporting the club was a mass public activity which the state had never experienced.
More than 30,000 people joined the club. General admission tickets were hard to come by. The success was instant, and it represented an important cultural break with old Adelaide, those eastern suburbs types who wanted Sturt and Norwood to enter the national competition on the grounds of misty-eyed tradition, people who would probably die happily of old age sitting in the drizzle on the Parade marking off the goals and behinds in the Footy Budget.
As the Crows started to get their act together on the park and inspire respect and even fear from their competitors, the State started to regain a sense of confidence, which even manifested itself in a previously-unseen cocky swagger.
Coopers released a limited edition T-shirt the week of the 1997 Grand Final which read “This Saturday we’re making Victoria Bitter”. We did, as if it was never in doubt.
The following year the Grand Final came the day after a massive gas explosion in Victoria. At half time, with the Kangaroos having played all over us, Dennis Cometti declared “Well, Melbourne’s out of gas, and so are the Adelaide Crows.” About 90 minutes later we’d won by 35 points.
The man who would later sully our jumper, Wayne Carey, had kicked 1.4, including a couple of eminently replayable out-on-the-fulls, Andrew McLeod had won a consecutive Norm Smith medal, and Victoria was bitter all over again.
I was in Adelaide for the first of those GFs and Melbourne for the second and the feeling among South Australians was something I had never felt before.
For so long all we had had was State of Origin football, which in effect was a harnessing of our state’s chip on the shoulder into a bi-annual sporting event, where we could vent our spleens at those thieves from over the border who had pinched all our best players and undermined our once-mighty local competition.
With the arrival of the Crows, every week was state of origin. In the initial years of the club we cheered things which more mature clubs take for granted. It still seems hilarious that a meaningless minor round game – the Crows’ thumping victory on debut against Hawthorn in 1991 – was released on VHS with a combat typeface reading CROWS: FIRST BLOOD, and sold out within minutes.
This over-celebration of our early victories soon gave way to a much more dour and admirable insistence that we were actually in the comp to make and win grand finals. This was best evidenced by then coach Malcolm Blight’s claim in 1999 that he believed in miracles, that anything less than a three-peat was not enough, up to his exasperated declaration that he “couldn’t give a rat’s toss bag” whether we made the finals that year or not.
There is still a tendency towards forgiveness and excuse-making on the part of Crows fans, and the club itself, which other more established clubs would not tolerate. Hopefully the club will adopt a zero tolerance approach to the idea of almost winning, rather than hailing appearances in the first week or two of the finals as an acceptable result.
In the same way that Footscray has told Rodney Eade that anything less than a Grand Final appearance is a fail, you would hope Adelaide tells Neil Craig that 2011 is the year for him to prove that he’s not a fitness coach, but a premiership coach.
As Adelaide and the Adelaide Crows look towards the next 20 years, it feels as if the city is at a turning point which in its own way is just as dramatic as in those dark days after the State Bank collapse. The difference this time is that it involves a terrific opportunity, rather than a rearguard action aimed at getting ourselves out of strife.
And it’s football which again will be the number-one driver of change for this town, in terms of business activity, quality of life, energy and personality, architecture, the way we live and work. The proposed redevelopment of the Adelaide Oval has been described as a massive psychological test for the city, a final battle between old Adelaide and new Adelaide.
It would open up North Terrace to the riverfront, shift the city’s centre away from the drab Victoria Square, encourage more residential development within the square mile as our food and wine culture expands along the Torrens.
The opponents of change appear to believe that Adelaide reached a level of perfection in the late 19th century and that it would be nice if nothing ever happens here ever again. These people had their first loss 20 years ago when the Adelaide Crows came along and I for one am barracking for their defeat again.
Carn the Crows.
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