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How a pear-shaped novelty became the Grand Final stage

Simon Madden took one look at the strangely shaped ground Essendon would be playing at a week later and knew where he wanted to line up.

"It was shaped liked a pear. At one end there were no pockets, so the ball would have to come to me. I said to Sheeds [coach Kevin Sheedy], 'play me at full forward this week, I think I've got a chance'."

Not only did this ground have a natural funnel to scoring goals, its first VFL/AFL game also set off a little known code-war on crowd figures.

Almost 40 years later, that pear-shaped ground has changed immensely and its 360th AFL game on Saturday night will be its greatest Australian rules moment - an AFL Grand Final. Queensland has saved the 2020 AFL season, and the Gabba will enjoy the spoils of only the second Grand Final away from the MCG in 75 years, and the first outside of Melbourne.

But back in 1981, playing a VFL home and away game in Brisbane at a cricket ground that was shaped to fit a greyhound track around it seemed a hare-brained novelty.

In 1979, the VFL decided to expand its wings into Australia's biggest city with two regular season games at the SCG in Sydney. In 1981 Brisbane was included in its northern exposure push, driven by the evangelical VFL president Allen Aylett and a want to nationalise the league. Not only did these games fit the long-term dreams of national expansion, it also had a short-term market test - a rare live TV broadcast into Melbourne at a time when the Victorian Government would not allow VFL football on Sundays.

A game had been played in Brisbane in 1952 at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground as part of an expansion round -- John Coleman kicked 13 in an easy Essendon win -- but the idea lay dormant until 1981 when the VFL took its first premiership game to Brisbane's world-recognised cricket oval - the Woolloongabba ground, better known as the Gabba.

It was Round 14 on June 28, 1981 when this new footy venue was to be baptised. 'The Age' previewed that "Nineteen years later, the VFL is still in the promotional business up north. Essendon and Hawthorn meet in Brisbane tomorrow, both desperate to consolidate their positions in the top five."

For Madden it represented a new experience.

"The whole concept of having a proper game up there was a big thing. These were the days of a trip to VFL Park where you needed a packed lunch," he tells ESPN. "You needed to plan on which way you'd drive to Waverley, or you'd take the bus as a team to Geelong - these were road trips! A game for premiership points interstate was really different."

Madden's Gabba odyssey started with a reconnaissance mission the Sunday prior. He and teammate Tim Watson flew to Brisbane for two days filled with children's clinics and media promotion where he first spied the ground and its shape.

"It was pear-shaped and had a dog track around it - it was fascinating. At the pear-shaped end, if you were playing full forward, the ball had to come to you. If they came out of the centre or from the wing there was only one place to go - 15m out in front of goal to the full forward."

But while eyes were briefly on the Gabba in the lead-up to the game, the fringe benefits were perhaps the more memorable part of the scouting mission: "We also had a bloke take us out that night and I remember it because it was the first time I'd ever eaten properly cooked mud crabs!"

Despite the 'VFL Record' appearing to showcase a Gold Coast beach on its cover about a match in Brisbane, the enthusiasm was evident as league president Aylett beamed: "I believe it will be a great day for Australian football in Queensland. Over the past three years several clubs have wanted to play matches for premiership points in Brisbane."

The weather in Brisbane that day peaked at 24 degrees in the afternoon, and in a nod to the shift from chilly Melbourne, goal umpires shed their traditional jackets for short sleeves and ties to resemble computer programmers.

On the TV screen, Peter Landy said the loss of the jackets was "sensible" and referred to the ground as pear-shaped within the first minute. Lou Richards couldn't work out where the wings were because "it's such a peculiar shaped ground" and in perhaps the only similarity with the Gabba in season 2020, Richards offered that it was "very difficult to distinguish the positions here because of the shape of the ground."

The dog track was prominent (its home straight was the factor behind the ground's elongated shape), and the length of the ground was shortened due to a large concrete ramp coming down from the track. Not a problem during roped-boundary cricket matches of the era, but more of an issue for a VFL game.

Ian Sturgess was a Melburnian who had moved to Brisbane to become the assistant secretary of the Queensland Cricket Association that would result in 29 years involvement with the ground. On that day he was managing ground logistics, as he would for cricket matches there for many years, on a ground that was not even used for the local leagues on a weekly basis.

"For a cricket match, the ground would be roped-off like a circle with a little picket fence, but that couldn't happen with a footy game as we needed more space," he tells ESPN. "The problem was that at that end, there was large concrete ramp for the ground staff to enter the field, placed right in the middle where the goals would be, which would have been unsafe. This didn't come into play at cricket matches because it was just excess grass behind the boundary, we used to put marquees and spectators in there."

At the 'top' of the pear the goals had to be 10m clear of the ramp, shortening the ground once again. Footage of the game shows the ramp visible every time a goal is kicked to the right of screen. Madden's pre-game excitement was well founded. Just over a minute into the game, he gathered the ball in the centre square at the 'fat' end and launched it through the middle for a goal. A far cry from the big grounds with heavy conditions of a Melbourne June that might take two kicks from that centre position.

"I got a goal early and the confidence was up," Madden recalls of the first of his seven goals. Before he was to become the ruckman of the 1980s, he was spending as much time in the forward line and that season ceded more rucking duties to younger brother Justin. Even so, his pre-game observation about the ground got his coach's attention because this day he was to stay at full forward exclusively for the first three quarters.

While Madden moved into the ruck at three-quarter time, there was some drama in the bowels of the Gabba at the same time. One of Sturgess' jobs on match days at the Ground was to get crowd figures.

"There weren't paper tickets as such - you'd buy a token before you got to the turnstiles and pop it in, so you could get very accurate crowd figures," he says. "So during a match day I'd do checks at all the turnstiles to get a crowd figure. It was pretty simple as there wasn't many entry points."

A few months prior he'd gleefully reported back a new record for a non-international event, and the biggest crowd of the era when a star-studded Queensland and Western Australia McDonalds Cup Final was played. Some 20,043 people came out to see a smorgasbord of international players in Greg Chappell, Allan Border, Jeff Thomson, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Kim Hughes. His counting this day took a twist though.

"I'm getting the figures as normal through the day. At three-quarter time I was called into the office of the Brisbane Cricket Ground Trust, and bunch of the trust members were there with (VFL boss) Jack Hamilton and they asked what the crowd figures were," he says.

"I'd been doing all the checks so I had the crowd figure, which was a bit over 15,000, which I duly delivered."

However this didn't seem to satisfy Hamilton.

"He said 'that can't be right, you've just had a cricket match here and you had 20,000 people, and we've got a full house here' - so he asked me to go for a walk with him'."

Sturgess then had to take Hamilton around the ground to personally validate his counting methods.

"I had to point out to Jack that there was nobody seated on the football field like they were at the cricket with the roped off area, and then at the McDonalds Cup game the dog track was full of people, the hill was more full," he says.

"He then asked what the cricket figure was, and you could see what he was after."

Nevertheless the next day in Melbourne's 'Age', Ron Carter wrote under the headline 'Brisbane Bonanza' that "Football VFL-style burst on sunny Brisbane yesterday with a record crowd ... the packed Brisbane Cricket Ground crowd of 20,351 - 311 more than the previous attendance record at the Gabba for a cricket match."

While the margin of crowd 'victory' may have been out by a couple of spectators, Hamilton's team had achieved a dubious sleight-of-hand victory that still sits today on statistical bible website AFL Tables.

"He didn't accept it, and that was where the figure came from. In the history of Queensland Cricket it is still recorded as a crowd of 15,000," Sturgess laughs.

In comparison to what the Gabba has seen in 2020, the 42 goals that were kicked in the 1981 game was pure gluttony. The 15 goals alone that were kicked in the second quarter, were not bettered in 11 of the full games at the same venue in 2020.

"The concept of defensive flooding wasn't really involved in footy back then," Madden roars.

Essendon finished ahead by 18 points, but for the two coaches in their first year with each club, Kevin Sheedy and Allan Jeans, it represented the first shots in a war that would rage a decade between the two clubs.

Essendon and Hawthorn would share six premierships and play off in three straight Grand Finals from that point on. There'd also be huddles run through, accusations about a 'hitman', allegations of performance-enhancing drug use and a public and lasting fallout between the coaches.

The bad blood may have started this day - Robert Dipierdomenico was felled by Ron Andrews and enemies were made. Dipierdomenico would exact revenge on more than one occasion over the ensuing years, pouring petrol on the fire.

"The 80s rivalry between the two clubs was just sensational. Ronnie was never backward in coming forward, and Dipper was a good target - but he also had a long memory," Maddens says.

The action of goals and hits seemed to spark the crowd as Carter compared the Gabba favourably with similar expansion SCG games played to that point: "It was so different from crowds at the Sydney games. Here there was as much noise as in Melbourne."

It foretold a rivalry but also foretold an attitude of travel that Sheedy would pioneer with his Essendon team for the next few decades, 'The Age' reporting Sheedy's post game comments: "clubs have to be prepared to go away like this and supporters must be willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of the game."

Madden says Sheedy was quick to put the enthusiasm into action.

"Sheeds became big on pushing Essendon everywhere, he developed supporter groups in each capital city. We ended up playing practice matches in Cairns, up in Darwin, rural Western Australia, county Victoria. He always said we can't wait for people to come to us, we need to go to them. He embraced that first game in Brisbane."

The 'VFL Record' the following week trumpeted the game's success, Aylett saying it had a "Melbourne feeling" and that "the crowd was knowledgeable and vocal."

It also said they'd be back next year for another 'inter-club match'. But, strangely, they didn't.

A state game between Victoria B and Queensland was scheduled for Gabba the following month, and the next year an exhibition game was played after the Grand Final to coincide with the 1982 Commonwealth Games. But that was it.

When the Brisbane Bears entered the VFL in 1987, the Gabba still had a greyhound track around it that made it unsuitable for permanent major football. And besides, the Bears' so co-called financier Christopher Skase had insisted the team instead play on the Gold Coast where his business interests were, in one of the craziest decisions in football.

Myriad obstacles kept the Bears on the Gold Coast and meant the Gabba did not see game No. 2 until nearly 10 years later in April 1991 when the Bears trialled four games for the season.

By 1993 the greyhound club had accepted a relocation to Albion Park, the dog track was ripped up and the pear-shaped ground became the conventional shape we know today.

AFL football would find its Brisbane home from 1993 onwards, though not even the most enthusiastic supporters of footy in Queensland could have dreamt of the code's biggest day occurring on Vulture Street.

While Richmond and Geelong go at it on Saturday, it's worth a thought back 40 years to the way it started.

"I just remember thinking with the shape and the dog track that this can't be a long-term football venue," Madden laughs.

An Essendon Board member today, he never played at the Gabba again, and at a ground known for cricket, the 1985 Norm Smith medallist owns a unique record with his seven goals that will never be bettered.

"Perhaps I can now ask players, what's your average at the Gabba?!"