John Cunningham remembers the 1997 Grand Final like it happened yesterday. When asked to give his memories for this article, his immediate response was one of disbelief. “15 years?” he said, staring in astonishment. “It’s gone so quick!”
Whilst long-starved Norwood supporters would beg-to-differ with ‘JC’s’ assessment, for the class of 97’, time has literally flown. 2012 marks the 15th year anniversary that the Norwood Football Club achieved the ultimate success.
Since that time, Central District has emerged as the pre-eminent super power, with only Sturt and Woodville-West Torrens challenging their superiority in the Noughties.
However, a different super power reigned supreme during the Nineties. The Port Adelaide Magpies had won five of seven premierships leading into the 1997 season. It would need to take a team full of talent and experience to pose a challenge to this dominance.
John Cunningham, one of Norwood’s prime movers at the time, recalls the preseason of 1997 as one of great optimism. “The senior list was probably one of the strongest in the long and proud history of the club”, he reflected recently. “We had added guys with plenty of AFL experience - Andrew Jarman, Jim West, Glen Malloy, and picked up a handful of guys from other clubs including Damian Obst from Sturt.” It seemed Norwood was destined to challenge its archrival from the very beginning.
And while the new additions presented plenty of hope that Norwood would create history for the first time in 13 years, expectations were quickly tempered. During the first practice match in preparation for the 1997 season, Cunningham popped his anterior cruciate ligament, most commonly known as an ACL. Without the revolutionary LARS surgery technique to aid a speedy recovery, there was no other choice but to undergo a full knee-reconstruction. “Fortunately for me, the operation went well. The surgeon advised me that there may be the chance I could come back early if I was willing to take the risk. By round four of the SANFL season, I decided to commence full rehabilitation with the aim of playing finals football later in the year.”
Whilst Cunningham was recovering from his serious knee injury, the Redlegs went on their winning way through the 1997 season. At the completion of the Home and Away series, Norwood was perched on top of the ladder. And despite the absence of players like Cunningham, Norwood’s recruits had adequately filled the void. It would prove to be a testament to the quality Norwood had in its playing stocks at the time, with no less than 10 Redlegs in the SANFL state team. However, the most important time of the year was approaching and expectations were at their highest.
In the last Home and Away match of the year, Norwood overcame its archrival Port Adelaide by 27 points. Although the confidence gained from that match would be needed when the sides resumed acquaintances two weeks later, it proved to count for very little. In the second semi final at Football Park, a hungry Magpies team desperate to shake that year’s premiership race outplayed Norwood. Garry McIntosh, Norwood’s favorite son and captain, recalled that while the loss hurt, the focus of the group could not be deterred. It was the moment the Norwood faithful had been waiting for - a chance at the club’s first premiership in 13 years. An enticing encounter made all the more momentous by the fact the club would come up against its one-hundred year rival, the Port Adelaide Magpies. “We were still very confident going into the next week,” he recalled. “We had had plenty of the ball but unfortunately we could not put it on the scoreboard. We had some strong leadership at the club, and along with Peter Rohde (club coach) we were able to keep our strong sense of belief.”
A quick response was needed - a sudden death clash against Central Districts waited in the Preliminary Final the following week. The mid 1990’s were arguably the most critical in the development of the Bulldog’s as a super power of the SANFL competition. After years of mediocrity, systems were put in place that enabled them to become legitimate contenders for premiership honors. Late in the 1997 season, Central would beat the Redlegs by 7 points. Full of anticipation, this match promised to be a struggle right to the very end. And a struggle it was – Norwood overcoming the Dog’s by a miserly 11 points. McIntosh remembers the grit, determination and strength of the Norwood side – “Our ability when they (Central) challenged us, just to keep doing the things that made us a strong side all year. Our contested footy, our hard two-way running and our skills were able to get us over the line.” Following the victory, McIntosh remembers feeling both relief and excitement about the week to come. “There was a mixture of both (relief and excitement). Relief because there was a lot of expectation on this group, and excitement because we had another chance to break a 13 year drought.”
It was the moment the Norwood faithful had been waiting for a chance at the club’s first premiership in 13 years. An enticing encounter made all the more momentous by the fact the club would come up against its one-hundred year rival, the Port Adelaide Magpies. However, the week leading up to the Grand Final would prove to be one of extreme happiness for some, and disappointment and heartache for others. On the eve of the League side’s finals campaign, John Cunningham, Tod Davey and Aaron Keating had all recovered from injury to commence playing in the reserves. It gave all three players the best possible chance of breaking into the League side in time for the Grand Final decider. Conversely, McIntosh would have to face the SANFL tribunal following the win over Central’s. He was subsequently suspended for one match for striking Stewy Dew. Cunningham recalls the controversy of the event, “Whilst not reported during the game, ‘Macca’ was cited by video review for punching Dew. Up until that point, video review had never been used to report and suspend a player. Unfortunately for ‘Macca’, he was the first.” McIntosh himself remembers the incident as none other than accidental contact. “Dew had the ball up near his head. I attempted to punch it clear but accidentally clipped the corner of his eye,” said McIntosh. As captain of the side, McIntosh was forced to put his personal emotions aside for the benefit of the team. “I was very disappointed (at being suspended). I was ‘rubbed out’ for a minor incident which inevitably turned out to carry a penalty of 13 years, not just 1 match.”
With tension and expectation at its peak, Norwood would go on to record a resounding win in the Grand Final decider. After an intense opening term, the Redlegs would kick away to a convincing 73-point victory over the Magpies. As fate would have it, John Cunningham, the man who suffered a seemingly season-ending injury, would go on to win the Jack Oatey Medal as the best player afield. “Being fortunate enough to win the Jack Oatey Medal is obviously a once in a lifetime experience,” said Cunningham. “It justified the decision to try and comeback before the season finished. To achieve such a wonderful individual honour, along with being lucky enough to be selected as one of the 21 players on the day was an amazing experience. That team will go down as one of the all time greatest.”