SEPTEMBER 23, 1990: The Ovens and Murray’s darkest day.
It was that muggy Sunday at the Albury Sportsground when Lavington and Wodonga clashed in a grand final that would become known simply as the “Bloodbath”.
In the aftermath, 15 players were suspended for a total of 68 weeks and several men spent the night in hospital after a first-quarter brawl of the most brutal and epic proportions.
Footage of the fight went Australia-wide and both teams were condemned by everyone from league officials to politicians.
But amid a post-mortem littered with broken bones, fractured skulls and spilt blood, a football club’s glory was forgotten.
Tomorrow, players, coaches and officials from Wodonga’s 1990 premiership team will come together to celebrate the 20-year reunion of one of the great grand final performan-ces in Ovens and Murray history.
Among those celebrating will be then coach Jeff Gieschen, who rates the 1990 flag as one of his greatest sporting moments.
“The exhilaration and relief and joy after that match was overwhelming because we knew what we’d gone through to win it; but unfortunately a lot of gloss was taken off it because of what happened,” Gieschen said.
But there was a time when Gieschen thought his Bulldogs wouldn’t even see out the match.
WODONGA went into the match as massive underdogs after the experienced Blues had beaten their younger opponents three times previously that year.
“We went there thinking we were probably up against it ... and knew we had to do everything right,” Gieschen said.
As the Bulldogs prepared for battle, players and officials were left shocked when Wodonga’s reserve-grade captain-coach Richard Bence was stretchered into the rooms “in an awful state”.
Umpire Ken Wright knew something strange was brewing when he visited the Wodonga rooms before the match.
“I could sense there was something in the air when I saw Richard Bence ... but I obviously didn’t expect what happened,” Wright said.
Less than 30 seconds after the first bounce, all hell broke lose.
“When the fight initially broke out, I was virtually in a state of shock and then there was this overwhelming sense of helplessness, having to sit on the sidelines watching so much blood spilt and such intense brawling,” Gieschen said.
“At that point and for much of the first part of the game, the outcome of the match was secondary in my mind ... at the forefront of my mind were thoughts like ‘are our boys all right?’ and ‘what’s the damage?’.
“At quarter-time, instead of your normal quarter-time address trying to fire the boys up, it was just about finding out who could continue, how bad our injuries were and what we were capable of.”
The events of the second quarter exacerbated Wodonga’s concerns.
Lavington, the dominant team of the 1990 season, flexed its muscle after quarter-time and the Blues were able to extend their two-point margin to 17 points at half-time.
To most onlookers, the writing was on the wall for a big Lavington win.
But to the wives and families of Wodonga players still bleeding and hurting from the first quarter’s brutality, a bigger issue was at hand.
“PROBABLY one of my most stark memories is of half-time when some of our club officials came up to us and said ‘look, we’ve had discussions with parents and girlfriends and wives ... and maybe we shouldn’t go out after half-time’,” Gieschen remembers.
“And it certainly crossed my mind because I knew we weren’t well; you only had to look at the players and see all the glassy eyes, all the blood and all the bent noses to see how bad things were.”
Distressed by the sight of his team out on its feet, Gieschen asked his captain, Ernest Whitehead, whether the players had had enough.
Whitehead, who had been knocked unconscious in the first quarter, only had to ask a couple of his teammates before he knew the answer.
“The players were never going to throw the towel in — not after what we’d already been through,” Whitehead said.
“We were always going to go out on that ground, even if it meant we had to prop blokes up against the point post.”
Wodonga started to work its way back into the contest in the third quarter but inaccuracy (1.6) meant they still trailed by 13 points going into the last quarter.
Despite the deficit, president John Henderson, a former Collingwood captain, was in no doubt which side would win the flag.
“I’d never been more confident in my life that we’d get up and win it,” Henderson said.
“Lavington put so much effort into taking it up to us physically that I think they forgot about the football and after the fight, they seemed to just run out of legs.”
With Whitehead benched with a hamstring injury, deputy skipper Drew Pevitt led from the front.
Mark Stephens, who’d had his jaw broken in three places earlier in the day, played the best 30 minutes of his life; ruckman Steve Murphy stood tall against the big Lavington bodies and youngsters like Andy Nicholls battled on like men possessed as Wodonga kept the mighty Lavington goalless and kicked 5.7 of its own to clinch the flag by 20 points.
For Gieschen, the heroes were countless.
“There was an enormous amount of courage shown by 20 players and I felt a tremendous amount of pride,” he said.
Whitehead hopes September 23, 1990 will eventually be remembered for the right reasons.
“It was strange to be involved in a grand final where the winning team ending up feeling quite frustrated because all the focus went onto the first quarter and the tribunal and the injuries, and the win was overshadowed,” he said.
“But to me, the win was testament to persistence and courage and people rising above that when it mattered.
“Hopefully that doesn’t get forgotten.”