This was their Finest Hour

By Peter Cornwall

“This is the finest hour in the history of the Sturt Football Club”

Zane Kirkwood didn’t say it after the Double Blues went back-to-back with an incredible one-point grand final win against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval last year.

It was Paul Bagshaw who muttered those stirring words after Sturt had shocked overwhelming favourite Port in an against-the-odds triumph before a record crowd in the 1976 Grand Final at Football Park.

But the words could well have been spoken by Kirkwood. Kirkwood, the Blues’ skipper had helped lift his side to a performance that surely eclipsed even the Rick Davies-inspired 41-point grand final glory of 41 years earlier.

In 1976 Sturt was undermanned due to injuries and had battled back from a qualifying final defeat to win three gruelling finals in a row against the other teams of the “big four” of the time – Norwood, Glenelg and the Magpies.

Sturt had been crunched in the last two minor round games – against Port and Glenelg – then lost to the Bays in the qualifying final and was being written off as too old and too slow. In the knockout semi-final against Norwood the Blues had no-one left on the bench when they lost Malcolm Greenslade (broken arm) and Noel Pettingill (knee) in the first quarter and at half-time they trailed by 21 points. Yet they won by 21. In the preliminary final against Glenelg they were behind 12.9 to 14.16 at three-quarter time before storming home by seven points.

Yet the odds were even more against the Blues last season. To beat a Port Adelaide grand final team that included 16 full-time AFL footballers plus inspirational skipper Steve Summerton was a colossal achievement against the odds.

While Sturt’s players were working for a living away from football, Matthew Lobbe was being paid as much, if not more, than the entire Sturt line-up for his footy. Ruck giant Lobbe and best-and-fairest winner and Magarey Medal runner-up Brendon Ah Chee, who kicked two pressure goals in the climactic last quarter, were considered good enough to be picked up by other AFL clubs the following month in the trade period. Port was strong all season as the Power charged into the AFL finals with a relatively injury-free run.

When the grand final favourite stormed back in the last quarter from 18 points down to level the scores with three successive goals, few gave the Blues much chance to kick clear again in the last 15 minutes.

Not only did the Blues have to rebound from a qualifying final loss to Port, they had to fight back after starting the season with four straight losses. When they tackled West Adelaide at Unley in round five, there were some concerns they could repeat the slide of the Bloods, who had won the flag in 2015, then collected the wooden spoon the following year. The Blues only lost two more games for the season. But in the finals they had to overcome red-hot Central District (by seven points), minor premiers the Eagles (by 20 points) and then Port, all in hard fought, seesawing battles to claim the flag.

Sydney premiership defender Marty Mattner has forced his way into Sturt folklore by masterminding flags in his first two seasons as league coach. In 2016 he set the scene for how he wanted the Blues to play through all the grades, coaching the reserves as well as the league team. The huge workload hit paydirt when the Blues in 2017 won the reserves and under-18s flags as well as the league premiership.

All three sides finished the minor round in third spot – the reserves side, coached by Gianni Petrucci, making the mightiest comeback of all, having been bottom with just two wins after round 10.

As a wingman, Mattner was a key member of Sturt’s 2002 grand final-winning side. His running goal from outside 50 after a couple of bounces was one for the highlights reel as the Blues claimed their first flag in 26 years. At the Swans, Mattner learned about the kind of full-ground defensive pressure that has led to back-to-back flags at Sturt, a club that for many years had been known for its finely-tuned skills rather than the tough, hard, desperate footy that wins flags.

Mattner’s stunning tackle to stop Hawk Grant Birchall at half-back when Sydney was leading by four points in the last two minutes of the 2012 AFL grand final was critical, the ball transferred deep into the Swans’ forward line for Nick Malceski to snap the winning goal.

Last-gasp tackles can be the difference between winning and losing. With less than 90 seconds remaining in last year’s SANFL grand final and Sturt clinging to a one-point advantage, Kory Beard’s desperate diving tackle on Logan Austin, followed by Patrick Wilson’s unbreakable bearhug on Matt White halted Port’s final assault on the flag.

In rating Sturt’s success of the past two years, it has to be remembered just how hard it is to win back-to-back flags. The Blues hadn’t done it since their five in a row from 1966-70. The Eagles – West Torrens or Woodville-West Torrens – have never won back-to-back flags. Glenelg has only once (1985-86), South hasn’t since 1898-99, West hasn’t since 1911-12 and North last did it in 1971-72. Norwood’s threepeat of 2012-14 was its first back to back flags since 1922-23.

To win premierships in the top three grades in one season is even more remarkable. Central District is the only other club to have achieved this feat, winning the league, reserves and under-19s flags in 2003. Port, in 1955 and the Eagles in 1993, won league, reserves and the fourth tier, then under-17s.

And let’s not forget, five years ago Sturt, having pocketed its second straight wooden spoon, was almost bust – the doors about to be shut for good.

The turnaround came off-field first, with strong leadership from president Jason Kilic and general manager Sue Dewing. The Blues have made strong profits for the past four years, with a record $715,000 profit in 2016 and a net operating surplus of $498,000 last year.

The club’s recruiting has hit all the right targets, starting with Kirkwood and Beard crossing from Port Adelaide when the Magpies became the Power’s reserves side in 2014. The 2016 premiership was in no small way due to the additions of Scott McMahon, Aidan Riley, James Battersby, Brodie Martin and Jack Osborn. And Sam Colquhoun, Tom Read, Jake Sutcliffe and Byron Sumner boosted the Blues’ line-up for their back-to-back attack.

As Sturt’s players celebrated under Adelaide Oval’s Jack Oatey Stand, the Oatey name was still being talked of in glowing terms. No longer was it to look back on the glory days created by master coach Jack Oatey, who guided the Blues to seven flags between 1966-76, but rather to recognise his grandson David’s contribution to Sturt’s current standing. As general manager of football Oatey played an important role in the back-to-back triumphs – after being part of Norwood’s coaching staff for its flags of 2012-14. David’s father Robert played in Sturt’s 1974 premiership.

And there’s another feel-good story. Chris Thredgold, the captain who missed a spot in the 2002 grand final win, has been a catalyst to the past two flags as the club’s football director.

When Blues boss Kilic was Central District’s guest at a pre-game lunch last year commemorating the Bulldogs’s 2007 premiership – one of a stunning nine flags in 11 years between 2000-10 – the celebration firmed in his mind the desire for his club to build a dynasty.

Kilic has adopted the mantra “from good to great” as his vision for the club. It would be fair to argue Sturt, having beaten the odds to win back-to-back flags, has already achieved that lofty goal.

But the Blues’’ task for 2018 is just as tough. It is to remain great – to build on their ‘finest hour’ and continue building that dynasty.