Any country footy club essentially lives and dies by the success of it’s first team. The A Grade is the elite level for amateur footballers (although in more modern times a semi-professionalism has crept in) and represents the best athletes fielded by the club. As the very best footballers with the most commitment, they are the pride of the community. Their performance directly reflects on the club – therefore bar takings and membership numbers, so a premiership year sees more people coming to matches, and then staying back at the club, for longer. After all, people love to see their club as winners.
South Gawler has always been unapologetically parochial and fiercely independent – with junior development central to the club ethos from the earliest years as James Fitzgerald decreed – precisely the reason for our survival and consistent success. This spirit and tradition was forged during the nineteen twenties, when our A Grade began to dominate the GFA – and we became the tall poppy.
The legend begins with the only loss in season 1920 to Salisbury solely attributed to influenza preventing the full side to play. Local newspaper The Bunyip commented:
From the spectator’s point of view it was a much better game with South weakened, for this combination has reached such a degree of excellence that football has been robbed of its pleasure by the hollow victories they have secured.
A few years later, after reaching twenty eight victories in a row in 1923,The Bunyip began describing the competition as
a game of cat and mouse.
By the mid-1920s, the local scribes feared that South had outgrown the GFA and the competition was doomed:
It is unfortunate that football in Gawler has reached this stage, and another season of such matches should spell the termination of the Association. It is unpopular to advocate that the Souths have now reached such a strength that their combination is spoiling play in the district. Nevertheless, such is a fact, and it is time that the Association asked for a division of the teams, the Souths area contributing two teams to the premiership. This could be accomplished with ease by this club, for they have many juniors fit to fill the gaps and it looks as if both firsts and seconds will carry off the premiership honours. No fault can be found with the Souths for the high excellence they have achieved.. all credit to them for the magnificent way in which they entered into training and practice, but their very excellence has “disturbed” the morale of the other teams, and there is no snap and verve necessary to put stimulus into the game.
After seven consecutive premierships, disinterest with South’s lack of competition and general unconfidence in the administration saw the Gawler Football Association disband in 1926. Debate about the old time Gawler Football Club reforming and applying to resume the South Australian Football Association had occasionally surfaced since the evolution of the senior Gawler Football Association, but talk soon turned again to South simply applying to play in Adelaide itself.
To even up the competition, the GFA encouraged the South seconds – who had become so strong since 1908, to break away from South and form an entirely separate club. The formation of this new A Grade club now just called Rovers in 1927, was engineered to end South’s total domination of the competition. Nevertheless, South A Grade continued on to win four more flags from the next seven finals campaigns – but then ultimately would not win another premiership at any level between 1934 and 1951. Ironically, Rovers was to fold in 1947.
In 1951 the B Grade and A Grade competitions were finally amalgamated, as the local competition entered a golden era – and by the mid-1950s South A Grade sides began to regularly win flags again. The swelling GDFL in 1955 was divided into three competitions, “League”, “A” and “B” Grades. South’s first team were in the League competition, and the seconds were in the B Grade. Clubs such as Lyndoch and Roseworthy who only had the one senior team, were placed in the A Grade. The idea was that such clubs had teams too good for seconds but then not good enough to compete with the A Grades of South, Willaston and so on. The great number of teams enabled a third intermediate competition.
However by 1960, an over-confident GDFL began to falter. Two clubs could not field B Grade sides – thus ending that competition, and the elevation of two other teams from B Grade in 1960 to A Grade in 1961, was of great concern to many Souths. We had gone through undefeated in both A and B Grades the previous year and had sixty players out on the training track.
Then in 1961, the GDFL presented a ‘gift’ of 300 pounds to the newly formed Central Districts Football Club, even though the League was struggling financially at the time – while questions regarding the management of funds created tension as the League levied all clubs for twenty pounds to help their ailing finances. In addition, the formation of the Central Districts Football Association – designed to foster players for Central Districts Football Club, only added injury to this insult – as it virtually decimated the GDFL
Many of our members, along with other Gawlerites, were also discontented about the new league team being at Elizabeth and not Gawler, which had always been an established and respected football centre. Some people were even convinced it should have been South to be the new league team.
So the membership voted for South to defect to a better standard in the Adelaide Plains Football League for season 1961. A controversial move, while the other foundation clubs Gawler Central and Willaston remained to rebuild the ailing GDFL, which at times had become home for every wandering club north of Adelaide. Although members were deplored by the misguided publicity accorded the Club, South was enticed back in 1963. Fortunately, we then continued to enjoy consistent success throughout the 1960s and 70s with arch-rivals Two Wells and Willaston.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, South experienced the highs and lows at both ends of the A Grade premiership ladder. After probably being the biggest fish in the smaller GDFL pond for so long, the Lions then sometimes struggled to compete with the money of the Barossa clubs in the burgeoning new league which we had initially instigated. In 1995 South were fined and the A Grade stripped of premiership points for technically breaching the import rule. After winning three titles in the early nineties and appearing in our last A Grade Grand Final in 1996, unfortunately we also crashed to bottom in 1997 and then 2005 for only the fourth time in more than a hundred years.
While an A Grade Grand Final appearance has elluded us since 1996 and today many country footy clubs are facing economic hardship and participation challenges, there is stout, good reason for the Lions to be optimistic. Our junior partcipation and development is considered the best in our region – and it is a rich source of locals, not wholly relying upon importing semi-professionals, which is the secret to sustaining success. The last A Grade dynasty of the 1990s is a classic example of how a depth of homegrowns can be blended with only a handful of marquee imports.
The 2009 Under 17s Premiership win was South Gawler’s fourth junior Premiership in six years, meaning the Lions have won a third of the Premierships available in Under 15s and Under 17s over that period. Add to this a couple more Grand Final appearances, the successful inclusion of the Under 9, 11 and 13 program – plus the healthy squad numbers in all grades – and it can be clearly seen South Gawler’s junior program is thriving. Ultimately, senior success will come of this – it is inevitable as it is the only way how. Our club has been through longer dry spells before throughout its hundred and thirty odd years, so we must keep the faith and remain confident that the tide will turn eventually turn.
South Gawler boasts a long and proud tradition of thirty seven A Grade premierships. The Lions currently hold the record for the most senior premierships in South Australia and is equal fourth the most winningest club in the entire Australian Rules world. And the stars of local footy have always been the greatest A Grade players – men such as Aaron Bayliss, Aaron Bevis, Robert Copson, Eddie Schwerdt, Jeff Brown, Anton Noack, Zac Sibenaler, Robin Mulholland, Bob Gordon, John Nottle, Ron May, Laurie Rusby, Eddie Mahoney, Alan Pearce and Peter Swift – to name but a handful.
To play A Grade footy is the ultimate, and an honour with a grand history to draw inspiration from.