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Max Basheer and the $1 million deal that launched the Crows


This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the SANFL winning the battle to stop Port Adelaide’s first attempt to enter the AFL. The story of how a high-stakes gamble in a Melbourne hotel gave birth to the Crows can now be told in detail, with Michelangelo Rucci reporting how a leading player won’t be taking his secrets to the grave.

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Bruce Weber, the Port Adelaide Football Club president who put SA football in turmoil  in 1990, took all his secrets to the grave. So did Alan Schwab, the AFL’s “Mr Fix-it”.

Max Basheer won’t do the same.

Now 93, the longest-serving SANFL president “saved” South Australian football during this week 30 years ago. In knowing the “enemy” – a Victorian Football League tired of being without an “expansion” team in South Australia – Basheer played the ace that ended Port Adelaide’s first bid to enter the growing national competition.

It was the biggest gamble in Basheer’s five decades in SANFL football administration, and technically exceeded his authority as league president.

But 1990 was not a year for playing by the rules.

At Alberton, there is still the belief Basheer, a noted lawyer, derailed Weber (and by extension the VFL) with the Supreme Court injunction filed on August 9, 1990 by the Glenelg Football Club (with other SANFL clubs later joining the same action while Norwood added another writ against the Port Adelaide board of directors).

To significantly strengthen the SANFL’s legal position, Basheer also had consulted or retained for the league several of the city’s best legal silks, including former ICAC head Bruce Lander and former Federal Court judge John Mansfield.

“We expected Max would seek a legal solution, rather than a commercial one,” says former Port Adelaide Football Club president Greg Boulton, one of Weber’s fellow directors at Alberton during the tumultuous winter of 1990.

Not so.

The critical moment that led to the formation of the Crows as South Australia’s first AFL entry 30 years ago was all about money, not law nor politics. “It’s the only language the Victorians understand,” Basheer told his long-serving SANFL chief executive Leigh Whicker at that decisive meeting – a long, tough verbal session – at the Southern Cross hotel in Melbourne in September 1990.

The finer details of the events from that Thursday never have been made public. Of the two VFL men in the marathon talks, Schwab died in June 1993 with many secrets and league chief executive Ross Oakley surprisingly made little mention of the decisive session in September 1990 in his book, The Phoenix Rises (published in 2014).

Oakley is rather frivolous writing: “I arrived (at the Southern Cross) to see a trolley of grog from I know not where being wheeled into the meeting room. We sat down in the ‘old VFL’ way of doing a deal, being fortunate to conclude the discussions before we were rendered unable to speak.”

Basheer grimaces at this recollection of the most-important SANFL-VFL meeting in football history. He is not as trivial in his account of the meeting that put the SANFL back in control of the agenda in Adelaide. And he will not brush over the Southern Cross meeting with his long-anticipated memoirs that should become the greatest record of contentious moments in South Australian sport, from the battles with Sir Donald Bradman to give football its rightful share of Adelaide Oval in 1971, the floodlighting crisis at Football Park that led to a Royal Commission in the late 1970s, and the winter of 1990. And more.

The book is now an advancing reality. Former Advertiser journalist Penny Debelle is assisting Basheer, who is supporting his sharp memory with the meticulous notes kept in his agendas, in particular the diaries from his record 25 years as SANFL president from 1978 to 2003. Debelle’s reputation for fastidiously cross-checking across decades in print journalism ensures Basheer’s book will stand up to any test – a theme Basheer is ready to challenge with some recent recollections promoted during the 30th anniversary of the wild winter of 1990.

Since Basheer left the SANFL in 2003, the memoirs have always been forecast as a “from the grave” book. There would be no legal action against a dead man. The publication date might change now, particularly with the 30th anniversary of the greatest political fight in SA sport.

Basheer’s diary notes of September 13, 1990 certainly will change the perception that Port Adelaide was legally beaten with its first AFL bid – and explain Basheer’s public statements on returning from Melbourne that he was “almost certain of an SANFL-owned side being in the AFL in 1991.” He had one million reasons to say this.

Basheer, Whicker, Oakley, Schwab and the VFL’s lawyer John Adams had spent hours – from 8am to the lunch break at 1pm that Thursday – arguing the point at the Southern Cross without making progress. “Five hours with nothing being achieved,” Basheer recalls.

Schwab was firm in his commitment to Port Adelaide – and difficult in his responses to Basheer.

“It was tense to start with,” recalled Whicker.

As lunch beckoned, Basheer told Whicker he had “one card to play”. His ace. It played on the very reason the VFL had started expansion in 1986 by selling licences at $4 million to each of the new West Coast and Brisbane franchises, while the SANFL stood firm on not paying any entry fee.

Cash, noted the astute Basheer, was the one deal-breaker the VFL never brushed away in any challenging negotiation.

Whicker recalls: “At the time, even with the millions from West Coast and whatever they got from Brisbane and Sydney, there were still a lot of VFL clubs in dire financial hardship. Max knew what would swing this meeting – it was his winner.”

Basheer wanted to put $1 million of the SANFL’s cash on the table immediately. The money was in an account Basheer has established well before there was the concept of a “future fund”. In life, Basheer – the son of pennywise family grocers – had appreciated the theme of “saving for a rainy day” and now he was in a storm.

“Leigh said I had no authority to do it,” Basheer recalled of Whicker’s warning that such a cash commitment required the approval of the SANFL league delegates in Adelaide. “And I said, ‘I’m going to do it’. I’ll take the blame and the responsibility.”

He indeed did, but not without concern.

Basheer had been telling Oakley that Port Adelaide did not have the cash to pay a licence fee (a point highlighted by the lack of funds at Alberton to fend off the Supreme Court battle). He also had reminded Oakley of the farce that came with selling the Sydney licence to Dr Geoffrey Edelsten.

“We will have $1 million in your league’s bank account on Monday morning,” Basheer insisted. He also spelled out how the SANFL would pay by instalments the remaining $3 million of the licence fee that ushered the Adelaide Football Club from a trademark to a reality.

Ultimately, Oakley cracked. And Port Adelaide was sunk.

“That was the key to be whole deal, the winning hand – everything else followed from the moment Max put that million dollars on the table,” Whicker said. “And in 1990, $1 million is a fair cop.”

On the return flight to Adelaide, Basheer was “worried about how the (SANFL) clubs would react … and I did not sleep well all that weekend” before a meeting with the league delegates on the Monday.

Despite this, Basheer told Whicker to put the deal in writing on SANFL paperwork the next day with the confirmation sent from West Lakes to VFL House in Melbourne by fax.

“And if I had not done it …?” says Basheer.

That weekend, Port Adelaide was idle from the football field – coach John Cahill’s players were enjoying the spoils of a weekend off after winning the SANFL minor premiership.

On the Monday evening, with the $1 million already on its way to the VFL’s bank account, Basheer faced the league delegates.

“One director asked the question,” said Whicker. “I can’t remember which delegate it was, but he pointedly asked Max, ‘Under what authority did you have to do that?’ Max replied, ‘None, any further questions?’

“And the meeting continued without any more said of it.”

A week later, on September 20, SA – not just local football – was changed forever. The VFL clubs, after a week of lobbying from SANFL club leaders, voted 13-1 (Richmond preferred to stand by the league’s earlier commitment to Port Adelaide) to accept the SANFL’s offer to hold an AFL licence.

The Crows were a formal reality on October 9, 1990, eight years after the SANFL first sought to enter the VFL with an “Adelaide Football Club” formed as a composite team representing SA football.

Adelaide Football Club’s inaugural 1991 squad. Photo: Adelaide Football Club

Port Adelaide was put on a seven-year wait for an AFL licence and the VFL finally had at least one team in every mainland state capital – with a complete national television loop worth millions – and credence to carry the new badge of “Australian Football League”.

Thirty years on, there are still many untold stories of how that tumultuous winter played out in Adelaide to at times leave news editors wondering where the bigger war was – in their backyard, or in Kuwait-Iraq?

There are still scars from moments that tested and in some cases irreparably broke friendships.

Basheer cannot ignore his emotions when asked to reflect on the events of 1990 and the game today, a landscape that no longer has the Football Park asset on the SANFL’s books, nor the park named in his honour at West Lakes, Max Basheer Reserve.

He does however have his name on a pavilion on Adelaide Oval’s eastern flank, the starting point of football’s bitter cold war with Bradman. And there is an irony in Basheer’s nameplate on his pavilion is higher than Bradman’s on the western flank.

“I am too personally involved … and it still upsets me,” says Basheer, putting more emphasis on football’s exit from Football Park at the end of 2013 rather than the AFL’s entry to Adelaide in 1991.

“We secured the future of SA football at Football Park, particularly when we controlled the freehold of the land at West Lakes,” said Basheer. “And that agreement for every AFL game needing to be played at Football Park, that was vital too.”

Max Basheer with Prime Minister Paul Keating and SA Premier John Bannon at Football Park, 1992. Photo: SANFL

Weber and Schwab left no testimony. Schwab died in 1993, even before Port Adelaide had secured on Oakley’s watch the second SA-based AFL licence in December 1994. Weber did see Port Adelaide start its AFL chapter in 1997 before his death in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2006. The cost of his ambitions for Port Adelaide was immense, with people not only turning on him in football but also in business, with his steel fabrication company based in the Port Adelaide district.

Basheer, unlike Weber and Schwab, has had both the time and the desire to put on the record his account of 1990 and much more.

Many are already nervous on how perceptions will be changed, particularly on the political battles in South Australian football. While libraries have become accustomed to books from former South Australian players such as Andrew McLeod, Kane Cornes, Mark Ricciuto and Simon Goodwin and legends such as Neil Kerley and Fos Williams, no administrator – not even the grand Bob McLean or Wally Miller – has put pen to paper for a tell-all biography.

Basheer is the exception, with an exceptional life that will make for a grand read.

A new generation of SA sporting fans has grown up never knowing how their home city of Adelaide had its century old football culture transformed by one bitter winter in 1990 – and, most critically, by a million-dollar offer at the old Southern Cross Hotel in Melbourne.

Imagine what else Basheer has to reveal in that upcoming book.

For the rest of the AFL season, you can read news and insights from Michelangelo Rucci – SA’s most experienced and credible football writer – every Friday in InDaily.

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