In 1996, Gary O’Donnell decided he had to call Ian Collins directly. The Essendon skipper and AFL Players Association vice-president wasn’t going to allow his side and St Kilda to be forced back to Waverley Park without a fight.
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He was hopeful he could twist the arm of the league’s football operations manager. But Collins was having none of it. “I rang Ian Collins direct and said: ‘This can’t happen’,” O’Donnell recalled. “He said: ‘It’s happening’.”

June 8 will mark 20 years since one of the strangest nights in VFL/AFL history. It was the night a fault at a nearby United Energy substation caused darkness to descend over the Saints and Bombers’ round 10 encounter.

Lights out: Peter Everitt and the Saints head to the boundary line. Picture: Ian Kenins

By 1996, night football at Waverley was nothing new. It was 19 years since the first night series match at the venue – a Fitzroy-North Melbourne match delayed after the lights failed shortly before the game’s scheduled start.

But home and away fixtures under lights were relatively infrequent when the Saints and Bombers arrived for their Saturday night clash – one of the first matches to be broadcast exclusively on Optus Vision.

Two-and-a-half months earlier the Saints had celebrated one of their finest hours – thumping reigning premiers Carlton in the Ansett Cup grand final. But Stan Alves’ men hadn’t been able to live up to their pre-season promise. They had lost their first three matches before winning four straight. However, consecutive losses to Adelaide and the Blues had them on the back foot again.

The Bombers’ campaign had started sluggishly, but the premiers of three seasons earlier entered the clash against the Saints unbeaten in four games. They were however, without James Hird, unavailable because of a fractured finger.

Essendon led by 11 points at half-time, and had extended their lead to 20 at the 22-minute mark of the third quarter.

St Kilda stopper Matthew Young was tasked with nullifying Dons livewire Mark Mercuri. They were standing in the Bombers goalsquare, ready for a pocket throw-in, when things suddenly went black. “I looked at Mark and we thought, ‘what do we do here’?,” Young remembered.

“We stood around for a couple of minutes, and the runner came out and brought us into a huddle.

Dark times: Stan Alves talks to his players.

“Obviously we all sort of moved over to the bench where the race was, and Stan came down and spoke to the group.

“No one knew what was going on.”

Alves’ admittedly scratchy memories of the night mirror those of his charge. “I think the bottom line is it was pandemonium and confusion,” Alves said.

“We didn’t know what to do. I can remember, we tried to go in the rooms and then we came out again. I can remember talking to the guys virtually down the end of the race because that’s where we had some light.”

O’Donnell was expecting the match to be re-started soon. “You just sort of think they’ll come back on again,” he said. “They don’t.”

With no hint of the light returning, the teams headed into their respective rooms.

Up in the stands, then-AFL chief executive Ross Oakley was entertaining people in one of the ground’s corporate suites when the lights went off. “It was quite a shock,” Oakley said.

“I immediately went down to the ground management office and asked them to investigate what had happened and also to contact the various authorities, and see if there was any explanation.

“Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be fixed up quickly, we called the game off.”

Meanwhile, fans were becoming restless. A sizeable group ventured onto the field, dislodging goalposts and lighting fires. It was akin to a looting spree.

Fans light a fire on the oval after the lights went out Photo: Vince Caligiuri

“It was Lord of the Flies,” says O’Donnell.

“There was anarchy. It was amazing what people do when they’re in a mob mentality. Ripping goalposts, lighting them up, lighting fires, destroying things. It was a poor night in the AFL’s support base.”

O’Donnell’s coach Kevin Sheedy wasn’t too concerned though.

“They’ve still got to get home with a goalpost over their shoulder. That’d be difficult,” Sheedy quipped.

“Obviously it would have been all those St Kilda fans.”

Not that things were ideal down the race. “There was no power in the rooms,” Young said.

“There was only emergency lighting. It was a matter of ‘grab your gear, grab what you can and get out’.”

The match was abandoned at around 10:15pm, 50 minutes after the power failure. “I still had my playing gear on. I went home, had a shower and that was it,” Young said.

What next? Discussion in the Essendon rooms: Photo: Ian Kenins

Minds then turned to what would happen next. O’Donnell was one of many who wanted both teams to be awarded four points.

But Oakley and the AFL had other ideas. “I rang [the commissioners] that were around just to tell them what the administration’s views were about it,” Oakley said.

It was eventually decided that the match would be completed on the Tuesday night over two 12-minute halves.

“It wasn’t perfect, but what do you do? Do you declare the game finished at that point in time and then one team gets really upset because they think they could have come back and won the game. It was probably the best outcome.”

Some of the players had strongly disagreed. O’Donnell’s teammate Mark Harvey had criticised AFLPA president Justin Madden for agreeing to the Tuesday night finish without consulting O’Donnell, who describes the arrangement as “ridiculous”.

But while O’Donnell was angry to be coming back, the Saints were infuriated by an allowance for fresh legs.

The AFL had granted both teams permission to change their teams. An extra three days was all Hird needed to prove his fitness, and as such the soon-to-be Brownlow medallist was one of five Dons inclusions, named alongside Justin Blumfield, who made arguably the most peculiar debut in the history of the league.

The Saints were riled by Hird’s presence. “We thought that was a little bit ridiculous,” Alves said.

Young – who ran with Hird on the Tuesday night – agreed with his coach. “They were able to make some changes which I suppose from our perspective wasn’t in the spirit of the game. But it is what it is.”

There was a silver lining though. “It was a bit weird, but I think from a player’s point of view – myself and a few others – we didn’t mind it because we didn’t have to train that week!”

Sheedy – a man well qualified to discuss bizarre ideas – thought the right call was made. “We just felt that you couldn’t run out there with the same side,” Sheedy said.

“We reached a common sense solution for once in our lives. It’s like anything. If it rains, it rains for both teams. If the lights went out, they’re out for both teams.”

More than 17,000 turned out on the Tuesday night to watch 45 minutes of football. The Saints never really challenged, and the Dons prevailed by 22 points.

Gavin Wanganeen and Stewart Loewe after a collision: Pic: Jack Atley

A subsequent rule change means a repeat of the sequel is now impossible. Games called off before half-time are now deemed to be draws. When the abandonment takes place after the break, the team in front gets the points. As Oakley noted, so long as there are clear rules for what happens when things go awry, then there are few grounds for complaint. “As long as there’s a rule, and that everyone understands what the outcome’s going to be, then that’s fine.”

Two decades on, the occurrence can be viewed as one of the quirkiest chapters in football’s rich history.

Yet for all their TV rights money, the AFL can’t guarantee it won’t happen again, given that blackouts have halted stages far grander than a run-of-the-mill home and away match. The Super Bowl power outage of 2013 shows that regardless of the magnitude of an event, best laid plans can be thwarted when no one can see what’s going on.

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