It’s amazing to think that the infamous ‘Battle of Britain’ clash between North Melbourne and Carlton was 36 years ago, but looking at the footage, it may as well have been 100 years.
It is just so far removed from the game we now watch.
You just will never see something like this again in football, and if there was anything even closely resembling it, players would be looking at some of the longest bans in history, coaches would be stood down. It was carnage – a lawless rolling fist fight that occasionally had the game of football break out around it. Players targeted each other in an undisguised series of assaults that left both changerooms looking like hospital wards.
It was the post-season of 1987, and the then-VFL was looking to expand the game internationally. Given the large expat Aussie population in England, a trip to The Oval seemed like a good idea, and the sponsor, Foster’s, put up 5,000 pounds in prize money.
And that’s where the problems began.
Carlton’s bombastic president, John Elliott lit a fuse at dinner the night before. The function was for both teams, with dignitaries from both clubs speaking, Elliott, ever the one to make a scene along with a point, was quick to establish that Carlton were the ‘haves’ in this situation.
And the opposition were the ‘have nots’.
When the matter of the money came up, Elliott said that Carlton would put the money over the bar if they won, but if North won “they can help pay for their coach.”
Big Jack was many things. He was a businessman, a political animal, and a showman, but he wasn’t quite one who thought before he spoke all the time.
North’s coach at the time was the legendary John Kennedy – not the type to take an insult in his stride. And he did not take these words from Elliott lightly. Having been eliminated in the first week of finals a month or so before, and having watched the Blues firstly win the flag, and secondly, rub salt into the wounds of the Kangaroos, the veteran leader was furious.
Not the ‘storm out and make a scene’ type of fury, but the more dangerous, tight-lipped, and quietly brooding fury that used to strike fear into the heaets of his charges.
And he did strike fear into his team the next day, with several being told their careers were on the line in this apparently meaningless contest.
Elliott’s words also ruffled the feathers of everyone involved at North, and when the players finally took their positions, there were two teams with vastly different attitudes taking the field. The Blues were in party mode, and rightfully so. They were the premiers, and had spent the last couple of weeks celebrating their success. Some may have even had two-week hangovers from indulging a little too much. The Kangaroos were angry, hungry, and now, having something to prove to their coach, were a dangerous unit.
With the benefit of hindsight, this game seems like an ambush.
And that’s how things started.
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