By STEVE BARRETT
The time for reckoning for North Adelaide was now.
Humiliated by Port Adelaide in 1989 (grand final) and 1990 (preliminary final) and with one flag to show from a seven-year stretch of minor-round mastery since ’85, Mike Nunan’s Roosters were in danger of going down as one of the SANFL’s great underachievers.
Everything seemed to go to plan in 1991, though, even to the point North finished third and avoided potentially playing only one game in 34 days if it finished top.
“You don’t give anything away but towards the end of the minor round we were changing the context of what was happening at training,” explained coach Nunan, laying to rest rumours the Roosters threw their last match against Glenelg after leading by 17 points at three-quarter-time.
North made light work of Woodville-West Torrens (qualifying final) and minor premier South Adelaide (second semi-final) to advance to the decider against underdog West Adelaide.
The Bloods were wallowing in bottom place after round eight and coach Kevin Morris’s position was under increasing scrutiny, before they staged a remarkable turnaround.
“I remember we played South at Adelaide Oval and there was a banner across the Victor Richardson Gates which said ‘Kevin Morris is half a coach’,” recalled gun West centreman Peter Banfield, runner-up to Panther Mark Naley for the 1991 Magarey Medal.
“After that KM got us together on the Tuesday night, we had a barbecue, watched Major League and had a really good chat about what we’re trying to do.
“We cleared the air and from there went on a real roll.
“We all jumped on for the journey.”
West Adelaide midfielder Peter Banfield
''We cleared the air and from there went on a real roll. We all jumped on for the journey."
Down and out at 3-8, the Bloods went on a 9-2 tear to pinch fifth spot before crushing three-time reigning premier Port by 84 points in the elimination final – described by Banfield as “one of the greatest games I ever played in” – thumping the Eagles by 50 points in the first semi-final and ousting South in the prelim.
Tagger Matthew Simpson was best-afield that day after completely blanketing Naley and was handed the task of shadowing North star Darel Hart in the decider.
To suggest this one turned out differently – for Simpson and West – is an understatement.
Hart briskly got away from Simpson to slot four first-term goals and put the Roosters, kicking into a stifling northerly, ahead by eight points at quarter-time.
Attempting to stem the bleeding, Morris switched veteran Robin McKinnon onto Hart and made the eternally fateful call to move Simpson onto Steven Sims.
Sims was a helluva player – a tough-as-teak rover selected by St Kilda with the No.2 pick in the 1986 VFL Draft and crowned North’s club champion in ’91.
Unfortunately though, his decision to hammer his fist into Simpson’s head from behind – under Football Park’s old scoreboard in the 14th minute of the second stanza – is what he is still most remembered for.
“It was one of the really ugly incidents in footy that I wish never happened,” recalled West ruckman Mark Mickan, who was barely metres away.
“Matty was a fine, clean player who didn’t deserve that.”
Nunan said he “can’t condone the episode” which is “something Steven has to carry forever”, while Hart laments Sims’ legacy is that split-second brain fade, not his footballing feats.
“Simsy swung in frustration and unfortunately it was very nasty,” Hart said.
“He regrets the incident and unfortunately he’s not remembered for the very good player that he was.”
Simpson was knocked unconscious, stretchered off and spent two nights in hospital – and Sims had a bounty on his head for the rest of the match, which he completed with his right eye severely swollen.
“We were really angry at the treatment and we lost our way after half-time, no doubt about that,” said Banfield, who was the Bloods’ best with three first-half majors as acting captain, having replaced regular skipper Leon Grosser who injured his left knee with 20 seconds left in the preliminary final.
“We were looking for retribution, whereas North came out focusing on the game.”
Star-in-the-making Tony Modra, thrashed by Roosters full back Sean Tasker all afternoon, inexplicably played on after marking in the goalsquare and shanked his point-blank range shot out on the full deep into time-on before Tim Perkins’ swift reply – three bounces through the guts and goaling on the run from 55m – further extended North’s advantage.
With the mercury soaring over 32 degrees and West fatiguing after a six-day break, tempers frayed wildly after half-time.
No-nonsense defender Sean Blythe, Simpson’s housemate and best friend, ran with Sims in the second half and, along with back pocket Dean Schumann, dished out some heavy treatment on the controversial Rooster, which instigated a massive brawl that spilled into the crowd on the Grandstand wing.
During the frenzied melee – perhaps the most violent in grand final history – play continued and Hart helped himself to another six-pointer.
North backman Trevor Clisby, in his farewell match, registered a rare goal after he was the recipient of two 50m penalties, West’s discipline evaporating.
Further fights erupted in the fourth period – Shane Fitzsimmons repeatedly punching Peter Kreig, and Banfield striking Tim Perkins to incur the only suspension of his VFL/SANFL career.
“It’s been portrayed that Simsy started it – well he certainly didn’t,” said Hart, who booted seven majors to claim the Jack Oatey Medal.
“The first goal I kicked, I got a punch in the head from Glen Goss and he didn’t get reported.
“He didn’t look at the ball, he’s done nothing but try to kill me.
“It’s very clear who set the scene for the day.
“Thankfully the game has changed from those days.”
Nunan said: “There was a lot of niggle from both sides but once that (Sims) incident occurred, our focus went straight back on the ball and perhaps West focused on one player.
“The quality of the football was good but I think a lot of people don’t necessarily remember it for that.”
North Adelaide premiership star Darel Hart
"Thankfully the game has changed from those days."
The Bloods were exhausted and, finally, out of fight down the stretch as only the Roosters’ inaccuracy prevented the final margin swelling beyond 75 points as Craig Burton jagged his fourth after the siren.
Fifteen charges were laid against 11 players and nine blokes were suspended for 29 matches, Sims (a SANFL record 12 weeks) the worst hit.
“Whether you win or lose, playing in a grand final should be a highlight,” Mickan said.
“But because of all the incidents that happened, I don’t remember that game fondly.”
Banfield described the ’91 decider as “one out of the box”.
“I’ve played and coached a lot of footy and it’s the only time I’ve ever been involved in a game like that,” he said.
“Some people might say it’s not a great legacy, but to me it’s left some form of legacy.
“If it’s changed SANFL footy and made it cleaner, that’s a good thing.”
Nunan accepts the unsavoury acts will remain foremost in people’s mind but is adamant the quality of football his silky-skilled team produced should be equally readily recollected.
“The focus on those incidents I think detracted from the quality of footy that was played,” he said.
“Our skill level, especially in the last half, was fantastic and there was a definite difference between the two sides in terms of skill level.
“Nothing could alter the result of ’89, but winning this grand final was a reminder we had enough character to claw our way back to the top.”
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