The wild night Sydney embraced the Swans

·4-min read

Across Sydney on the night of September 21, 1996 the unthinkable happened.

As St George were beating North Sydney 29-12 in an ARL preliminary final, the channel was flicked on pub TVs.

And finally, Sydney embraced the Swans.

Saturday's Sydney-Collingwood clash will be the first AFL preliminary final at the SCG since that wild night, when the Swans beat Essendon by a point in a ferocious match.

One of the greatest games in club history is remembered for many reasons - Plugger's point, Sheeds' spray, the Swans making their first grand final since 1945, the Dunkley court injunction, and Lloyd's ruptured spleen.

But Rodney Eade, then enjoying a remarkable senior coaching debut season at Sydney, points to a much greater significance.

"It was probably the night, or the game, that got the Swans acceptance in Sydney, as one of their own," Eade told AAP.

"Sydney is very much a town where they'll watch the footy in the pub.

"The rugby league was on, but they turned it over to the Swans and every pub was bouncing and jumping and really rocking with the game, and then the result."

Fourteen years earlier, the moribund Swans had moved from South Melbourne and it had been a tumultuous relocation.

Sydney nearly went under and finished last in 1992-94. They were on the nose in a city that loved its league and dismissed the transplanted "Mexicans" with their odd footy.

Players and administrators had put their livelihoods on the line - for what?

But thanks to Swans immortals such as Dennis Carroll and Paul Kelly, Sydney stuck it out and after finishing 12th in 1995, they rocketed up the ladder.

With Tony "Plugger" Lockett kicking 121 goals, suddenly the ugly Swans nobody had loved were one game away from the grand final in the AFL's centenary season.

Here was the start of Sydney's famous "Bloods" culture that now has them within touching distance of another grand final appearance.

Off the field, too, the Swans were kicking goals.

Ron Barassi's term as coach and Lockett's signing were marketing masterstrokes.

The SCG had become a rendezvous for Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth expats. Suddenly, it was cool to go to a Swans home game.

And so to that night, when Essendon broke out to a four-goal lead in front of a heaving, capacity SCG crowd.

"It was an extraordinary night ... it was a typical SCG coliseum when it's a full house," said Gary O'Donnell, then in his first season as Essendon captain.

The teams scored only 10 goals apiece as the game ebbed and flowed in a brutal contest - at least four Essendon players would have been unavailable through injury had they made the grand final.

Matthew Lloyd went to hospital with a ruptured spleen.

"He looked as green as one of Sheeds' Martians," O'Donnell remembered.

Sydney's Stuart Maxfield and Jason Mooney also took broken ribs into their grand final loss to North Melbourne.

Swans defender Andrew Dunkley was booked for striking James Hird and it took a Supreme Court injunction from the Swans for him to play in the grand final.

With two minutes left, Essendon led by two goals.

"We were a very good team for winding down the clock - we were well-versed in it," O'Donnell said.

"To not be able to save a game like that was disappointing.

"But we didn't get a stop play, as in an uncontested mark, in that last two minutes.

"The rest is history."

Sydney levelled the scores and then Lockett took a mark about 50m out, with seconds left.

His booming kick after the final siren went wide, but it was straight enough.

"My father and two of his mates had driven up from Melbourne that day. I think they hopped straight back in the car and drove home - that would have been a sorry trip," O'Donnell lamented.

A famous photo shows a group of Sydney players piled on top of Lockett immediately after the final siren.

There in the foreground is O'Donnell, lying face-down on the SCG turf.

His hands are clasped across the back of his head like he was a prisoner of war - and feeling about as bleak.

"It was devastation," he said.

The 1993 premiership player puts it down with the 1990 grand final loss to Collingwood as the two worst moments of his 243-game career.

As Sydney celebrated - past players were nursing beers on the SCG turf at 4am - Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy gave a post-game "spray" that has also gone down in folklore.

It was so fierce, he later regretted it.

"He gave one of his best - that was up there. But I didn't have a problem with it," O'Donnell said.

"In those days, it was nothing out of the ordinary."

It would be O'Donnell's last preliminary final - and the only season when Eade would coach an AFL team to a grand final.

But just as that loss left O'Donnell heartbroken, Eade takes great pride in the night when the Swans finally made Sydney their home.