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Best frenemies: the theatre and politics of Crows, Port and Showdown

Football

The Crows don’t want Port’s prison bars guernsey at Adelaide Football Club home Showdowns, but want Port’s help in lobbying for greater national TV exposure of their clashes. The clubs’ off-field relationship remains as volatile as on, reports Michelangelo Rucci.

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New Adelaide Football Club chairman John Olsen intends to deliver the sequel to what Port Adelaide can and cannot wear on an AFL field.

While not as provocative – nor as annoying in AFL corridors – as former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire in stopping Port Adelaide donning its so-called “prison bars” guernsey, Olsen is ready to put up a road block to his rival wearing a heritage jumper at Showdowns hosted by the Crows.

“I understand their (Port Adelaide’s) request for their home Showdowns ” Olsen told InDaily this week.”

But I might have an issue with that Port Adelaide jumper at Showdowns we host. I am not so convinced it is appropriate at a Crows home match.

Olsen, now in his seventh month as an AFL club chairman, is no stranger to football politics and “backroom deals” after a decade as SANFL president. So he should not be shocked to learn the AFL already has ruled on this point.

Former Port skipper Travis Boak with the prison bars guernsey. Photo supplied

In the one-page agreement between the AFL, Port Adelaide and Collingwood on the bars jumper signed by current AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan in May 2007, there is an asterisk – with a clause added by hand on the right side of the paper – already approving the black-and-white jumper for Showdowns when Port Adelaide is the “away” team.

While Olsen prepares to make himself unpopular with the black-and-white traditionalists at Alberton, he will be seeking an alliance with Port Adelaide president David Koch to start a battle against the breakfast television host’s employer, Channel Seven.

Olsen wants Koch to join him in the fight to put the Showdown on free-to-air television with Channel Seven, giving the South Australian derby a national audience with greater reach than currently on offer with pay-TV network Fox Footy.

It’s time for the AFL to promote the Showdown with a television timeslot that gives us the best opportunity to draw attention to the rivalry across the nation.

“There are 18 clubs that make up the AFL product,” adds Olsen of a national league with 10 teams based in Victoria, “and there are two clubs in South Australia that deliver a match that deserves a prime timeslot with national television coverage on free-to-air television.”

Channel Seven has chosen the battle between unbeaten league leader Melbourne and surprise packet Sydney from the MCG as its Saturday night AFL match, rather than the Showdown.

By the AFL agreement that demands all Crows and Port Adelaide home-and-away matches be shown on free-to-air television in Adelaide – either live or sometimes on three-hour delays to give Fox Footy exclusive benefits – the derby will make it to Channel Seven’s screens in South Australia, but not those beyond the State’s borders.

Seven effectively gets two big AFL matches for the price of one.

Olsen – even with Koch as an ally and with direct access to Seven boss Kerry Stokes – is, as with the Port Adelaide heritage jumper, on a pre-ordained battleground here. Seven repeatedly prefers to “double dip” by taking the ratings in Victoria and New South Wales with the Melbourne-Sydney clash and also grabbing the prime audience in South Australia with the Showdown, while Fox Footy picks up the production costs at Adelaide Oval.

It is win-win for Seven, but not for Olsen’s mission to give the Showdown – a rivalry described by Malcolm Blight as the best in Australian football since the VFL became the AFL in 1991 – a greater national profile.

So Olsen and Koch will be arguing over a piece of cloth while building a pact for a battle with television executives. They will be allies and rivals at the same time.

This is the Showdown, on and off the field in Adelaide. The Crows and Port Adelaide can simultaneously be the worst of friends and best of enemies.

Australia has the Melbourne Cup as the “race that stops the nation”; South Australia has the Showdown as “the game that divides the State”.

“In these COVID times,” says Olsen, “we do get a great release from a good football game.”

It is a football game that spills beyond the boundary line at Adelaide Oval.

This afternoon, on the eve of Showdown XLIX (49 for those who have lost their Roman abacuses), Koch and Olsen will sit side by side at the SA Press Club luncheon in the city, with Koch determined to put on a show in a point-scoring exercise with Olsen. This is the theatre of the derby.

Tomorrow evening, they will sit at Adelaide Oval – that returns to full capacity of 53,500 for the first time in the COVID pandemic era – watching their teams seeking AFL premiership points to re-establish superiority in a 24-year battle that is locked at 24-24 each.

The “war” is actually 31-years old and based on the fall-out of South Australia’s stormy winter of 1990, when Port Adelaide sought to exit the SANFL to join a national expanding VFL and the Crows were formed by the SANFL to be the first Adelaide-based team in the AFL.

Olsen points to an even deeper historical note – the one that Port Adelaide wants to emphasise by wearing its black-and-white jumper in both Showdowns each season.

“As a West Adelaide man,” says Olsen, “I have a long memory of the success achieved by Port Adelaide in the SANFL. There is a deep presumption today that your football loyalties come from an historical association with Port Adelaide or from one of the other nine SANFL clubs.

“That rivalry from the SANFL – by being Port Adelaide or not Port Adelaide – is more entrenched with the State’s two clubs in the AFL.”

Crows senior coach Matthew Nicks has worked in both camps, living most of his Showdown experiences as a Port Adelaide development and assistant coach. He would like to say the Showdown is built on respect. Having lived both sides of the deep divide, he knows better.

“Showdowns are anything for anyone; I don’t know what it is,” Nicks said. “It’s crosstown rivalry, it’s … I’d like to say mutual respect … careful with that though.

The clubs hate each other. And we love that.

“That is what sport is about. There are rivalries across every sport across the world. We have one of the best with the Showdown.”

Port Adelaide midfielder Zak Butters wasn’t born when his club went to war with the SANFL in 1990. He also grew up in Bacchus Marsh, a Victorian regional centre. But after three years in South Australia, 20-year-old Butters has picked up the deep dislike between Port Adelaide and the rival based at West Lakes, just four kilometres away as the crow flies.

“I have a couple of friends who play for Adelaide,” says Butters referring to his fellow Victorian junior squad team-mate Lachie Scholl as one friend at West Lakes, “but I wouldn’t say I like them.”

Crows full back Daniel Talia is no less loving saying: “Obviously, we don’t like them either. The clubs don’t like each other and, no lies, the players don’t.”

After three decades, what is the “spirit of the Showdown”?

“It is just an amazing game,” said Talia. “Both clubs have made the rivalry as great as it is. We both want to win. And so many people have their emotions ride on this game. Walk the streets and everyone wants to talk about the Showdown – it is a great part of living in South Australia.”

Butters waits for the annual release of the AFL fixture looking for the dates of the Showdowns.

“I pencil it in – you want to be there, playing good football and you want to win,” said Butters who will miss Saturday’s derby by an ankle injury. “It is the biggest weekends for the year in South Australia.”

Olsen has lived the Showdown as a State Premier, the SANFL president, a fan and now as the Crows chairman. No-one has had to wear so many hats – and check his emotions – at a Showdown more often than Olsen.

Crows chairman John Olsen. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

“As a fan,” says Olsen, “I would go to the Showdown relaxed. With no official duties, I could enjoy a pie or a pastie, have a drink and get involved in the normal banter of a footy match. It was most enjoyable.

“As SA Football Commission chairman (and SANFL president) when the league owned both teams’ AFL licences, I would play a reasonably straight bat – although we all have our allegiances.

“Once the licences were released (in 2014), I was full bore with my support of the Crows. Now (as Adelaide Football Club chairman) there is even more volume to my support.”

It would be a rare moment when anyone outguns Koch in a debate based on emotional spurs from a football match. But Olsen, the experienced politician, might just do such in a battle with the AFL and Channel Seven executives on the merit of a Showdown as a national showcase match.

“We know what this match means to South Australians,” Olsen said. “It has become part of the psyche of South Australians. It has really cut into our football fabric. Our allegiances and passion for either team is intense – so intense that people outside South Australia marvel at what the Showdown has developed as a rivalry.

This rivalry arouses interest outside our State. It is time the AFL and Channel Seven acknowledge this with a timeslot with puts the Showdown on primetime viewing around the nation.

This would be Friday Night Football – a timeslot promised but not fulfilled by former AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou as a reward for South Australia agreeing to restore elite football at Adelaide Oval after a 40-year exile at Football Park, West Lakes.

Port Adelaide has the home rights to Saturday night’s Showdown. It will return to its black jumper with the teal-and-white V neckline after wearing the black-and-white bars in last season’s one-off derby to celebrate the club’s 150th anniversary.

Every Port Adelaide fan on the terraces is being encouraged to wear the “prison bars” to send a statement to Collingwood and AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan.

Port Adelaide president David Koch and AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

It is a message McLachlan noted in 2014 when Port Adelaide won the fight to wear black and white in the first AFL final played at Adelaide Oval. McLachlan conceded his league had erred in first demanding Port Adelaide, the home team, adopt a jumper to avoid a clash with the black-and-yellow Richmond and added: “Who would have thought grown men would care what other grown men are wearing?

“But that passion is to be ignored at our peril.”

After last week’s ruling from AFL House barring the bars in this weekend’s Showdown, Koch, Port Adelaide chief executive Matthew Richardson and their Collingwood counterparts Mark Korda and Mark Anderson are preparing to meet to end a now-tiresome debate on Port Adelaide’s on-field wardrobe.

Olsen’s thought of adding a sequel will be countered by those Crows fans who argue he should not minimise  to just one Showdown a year the chance of shaming the Port Adelaide players while they don the black-and-white bars.

As for the Crows players, if a guide is taken from veteran Daniel Talia who has played in 18 Showdowns, Olsen should just ignore the issue.

“To be honest, it doesn’t worry us (as players),” Talia said. “I don’t really understand all the history behind their jumper. I’m not into it. Just beating them is enough for me. Every time we win the Showdown, there is no better feeling.”

Port Adelaide and the Crows enter this Showdown challenged to respond to poor performances last weekend. Port Adelaide lost to Brisbane at the Gabba by 49 points to be labelled a “flat-track bully” and the Crows showed the inevitable drain expected with a rebuilding squad with a 67-point thumping from Greater Western Sydney at Adelaide Oval.

Perception, built on the thought Showdowns mean much more to Port Adelaide than the Crows, suggests Port Adelaide responds better on entering a derby on the back of a defeat. Yet, since 2010, Port Adelaide has a 4-5 win-loss record when playing a Showdown after a loss; Adelaide is 7-7 after a defeat or draw.

The clubs have started just three Showdowns since 2010 with both teams beaten in their previous starts. Port Adelaide is 2-1 in this category with Adelaide’s win coming in response to the 103-point drubbing from St Kilda that cost coach Neil Craig his job.

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