How Russell Ebert became Port’s greatest player

The Ebert name is synonymous with Port Adelaide, with Russell Ebert arguably the club’s greatest ever player.

But just how did a kid from the Riverland become the ‘God’ of Alberton?

Jack Hudson: Take us back to the start, you were one of six kids growing up in Berri, what was your childhood like?

Russell Ebert: Fantastic childhood, it was a typical country family, my parents were on the land either a fruit block or a farm.

I never had a lot but had everything as far as family, brothers and a sister to grow up with.

I did country schooling and then I was fortunate enough to get a job in the country, and play all sorts of sports.

I lived on the river, so we had the water sports, basketball, tennis, footy, cricket, every sport you could play.

Just what I would consider the perfect childhood with great parents who were hardworking, and taught us a lot of terrific life skills lessons.

JH: When was the first time you encountered footy – through your dad?

RE: Yeah, dad coached the local team and mum coached the netball, so it was a real sporting family.

I loved the community, and if you didn’t get involved with the community then you missed out on the connection…but you sometimes couldn’t fill a team.

You often fielded out of your age group, whether it was tennis, netball, cricket, basketball or footy.

We tended to fill the teams as often as we could, that was the first association (with footy) was going along to watch dad play and coach, and mum play and coach netball.

I also watched my brothers, two were older and two were younger, and my sister, and watch them play their sport and have fun and make lots of friends doing it.

JH: You mentioned those sports, how many of those did you play?

RE: All of them.

I like cricket, I played country cricket, but everything.

Then coming to Adelaide, I threw in squash and a few other sports, so very active.

JH: You played your juniors with Loxton Football Club, what was it like?

RE: It was a very successful club, all the local heroes played there.

Some of them had played league football, so they had a real status in the town.

They all had businesses or were on the land, so I knew they were hardworking and then to go down and watch them play, they were our idols and heroes.

To play junior colts and senior colts was just a huge thrill to be at such a family based, well-run, well-supported successful club.

JH: In 1968 you walked through the doors at Port Adelaide for the first time, what was it like?

RE: Once again, I had the benefit of living in the country, but driving down one night a week to train and then to play.

The transition was fantastic, my parents had moved down to the city because my father was ill, so they moved off the land and came down to the city.

I was just, once again, really blessed, because we had a couple of players in Waikerie at the time, who were playing for Port Adelaide and North Adelaide.

To be able to play other sports with them and knock around with them, made the transition to Adelaide and Port Adelaide just so comfortable.

The club was really accommodating, they were already successful, they’d won premierships and played in grand finals.

The players were very similar to the ones back in a country town, they all had jobs, they all worked hard, a lot of them had young families as it was a pretty experienced team that I was fortunate enough to come into in 1968.

They had children, businesses and lifestyles that we were very comfortable with.

JH: You were the leading goal-kicker in that first season, did you ever think that would happen?

RE: No, I hadn’t played full forward too often in my junior grades.

From memory I was reasonably small, I played wing and rover.

I came down here and there was an opening, Eric Freeman had been selected in the Australian Test side to play cricket and to tour England, so he’d been the full forward.

Fos (Williams) asked me if I’d ever played up there, and I thought, gee if I say yes, I might have a chance.

I said “yeah, I’ve been around the goals in a few games.”

I went there, and as I said I was fortunate to play in a really good team which only had a couple of youngsters in there.

To have 10 or 11 premiership players, and then good experienced players around you, they sort of nurtured you and helped you on the ground, and almost told you where to run and gave you the ball.

That was just a wonderful transition to country football to league to come into a successful, strong, disciplined, hard club with good people, and we were all very, very comfortable here.

JH: What was it like playing under Fos?

RE: He was tough, he was hard, but he was very fair.

He was an educated man, I think he probably suffered white line fever from watching vision of when he played.

When he coached, when he addressed you and when he got involved in training, you could still see, even though he was way past his best playing days, just what sort of a player and what sort of a man he was, and we had the benefit of all those things wrapped up in one.

With Bob McLean off the field, it was just a wonderfully professional club in probably a semi-amateur environment.

JH: You won your first Magarey Medal a few years later, did you have a favourite year in which you won the Magarey?

RE: No, not really.

I started off in the forward line, and then I was fortunate enough to move up to the midfield, which I really enjoyed because you had a bit more freedom and you didn’t have like Ron Ellaway, Tracy Braidwood or Adrian Sutter punching the back of your head at full forward, so it was good to get away from that in a nice way.

Moved into the centre and I had some fantastic players around me that helped the transition into that position, like John Cahill, Jeff Potter, Keith Spencer, Kevin Salmon, and a little bit later on Brian Cunningham and Darrell Cahill.

Along with rucks like Paul Marrett, Leon Milde, I grew up and they both came from the country, so we were good mates and they were part of the midfield too.

To play in the centre at this club was certainly a privilege.

Russell Ebert (centre) with son Brett and nephew Brad. Picture: portadelaidefc.com.au.

JH: You were named captain not too long after that, how did that feel to you?

RE: Everyone says it’s a great honour, and it is a privilege to be recognised as a leader.

I think I was vice-captain quite young, I don’t remember which year, I think it was either 1972 or 1973.

I don’t know if I deserved that, but they saw some leadership I suppose, and I grew into that.

When John Cahill took over and retired at the end of 1973, then I was privileged to be given the captain’s role.

JH: Did becoming captain change you on the field?

RE: I didn’t have to change the way (I played), I had already done that six months earlier.

I became more disciplined with the pre-season, which we had to do.

I always enjoyed training, but when you’re captain, but not only do you have to lead on gameday when you pull on that number one jumper, but you’ve got to set the example around the place.

If there’s a bit of fun to be had, well then you’re a part of that, but if there’s tough training sessions or some tough words to say to people or to accept, then you had to do it.

I enjoyed the captaincy and the leadership and probably the responsibility the club gave to me because they don’t just hand that out lightly.

To be given that privilege was certainly one of the highlights of my career.

JH: You won your first flag in 1977, how did it feel to finally get that one?

RE: The record shows it was 12 years since our last flag in 1965, to make the grand final in 1968, 1971, 1972 and 1976, I was starting to think I was a bit of a jinx.

Because we’d made the grand final, but we hadn’t had the ultimate success.

To win that in 1977 was the result of years of work and fitness adjustment, personnel adjustment.

To win that and to see the faces of those people who had enjoyed a lot of success before but had been starved of it for 12 years, their excitement, their joy, their relief, was exactly the way we felt.

Because we’d been a long time without that success, and when you do something, you want to do it well, you want to be successful.

If there’s something to win, you want to bloody win it, and we hadn’t.

It was just a super day for the whole club and the way we did it through the year, and then often on grand final day things can happen that are a little bit out of your control, and that did, that happened with injuries.

We had gotten over that too which made it even more special.

The Russell Ebert statue outside of Adelaide Oval. Picture: Wikipedia.

JH: You played a season in 1979 with North Melbourne in the VFL. What was that like and was that something you pursued?

RE: I had thought about it before, but I hadn’t really “thought about it.”

Like a lot of the lads, I had a fair few approaches saying come over, try yourself out, they threw everything and every reason at you.

We had the best of everything here, we could run a business, we could play, we were with a club that made the finals most years, we had a lot of state representation.

It was just a great place to be, and you could do it in Adelaide and play state football against the other states two or three times a year, we thought that was the best of the best.

But then in 1979, I thought if I didn’t do it this year, as I was turning 30 in June, if I don’t do it this year, one: they won’t come back and ask you, and two: you won’t be capable of what you really think you should be able to do.

That was the last chance and I took it.

They were very accommodating, I flew over on a Tuesday to train and flew back after training, I ran the business here on Monday and Wednesday.

Thursday lunch-time I packed up two young children at that stage and my wife, and flew over on Thursday night, worked in Melbourne on Friday as I was in the sports industry.

I played Saturday, flew back Saturday night.

It was an incredible experience and it almost felt like you were starting again, because you were playing with the best players assembled around Australia, and you were playing with a club that had been starved of success and then had it in 1975 and 1977.

There were super players, well credentialled state players, state captains, just a wonderful environment.

It was a bit exciting because suddenly you were a bit nervous about being selected, we had such a good side.

That was sort of motivating, because I hadn’t had that for a number of years of being selected and sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for (Ron) Barassi to call your name out.

You felt like you were starting your career again as a 17 or 18-year-old.

JH: What was it like under Ron Barassi?

RE: He was really, really tough.

I don’t think I saw the best of Barassi as he had some other issues through business and that.

He was trying to satisfy that and trying to coach, and talking to him afterwards, I think he thought he had the side that could go through, and he had so many leaders in the team.

But he still coached it, and coordinated it, and did a super job.

We were first or second through the year, and then unfortunately got some injuries towards the end of the season and prior to the last game, took a couple of personnel away, and ended up third.

But it was just an exciting year to have at that age and to be asked to come across and play with one of the best assembled teams, was just, once again, just a privilege to be involved.

JH: Did you ever consider a second season?

RE: No, I lost a lot of weight through the routine.

The family were growing, the business was growing, so no, I was more than satisfied with one year.

Probably in a perfect world you’d go earlier, because you’re younger and ready to go, but then again, you would’ve missed out on the success with Port Adelaide and the state throughout the 1970s, which was a great era for our club and the state.

JH: What was it like for you to represent South Australia? Was it as important as putting on a ‘Prison Bar’ jumper to you?

RE: Yeah, I’d say it was.

You’re then representing the whole state.

We knew when we pulled on the Port jumper, we were representing the Port Adelaide people, and we were also playing against those who didn’t like Port Adelaide, which was a greater percentage, so both situations were motivating.

But when you played and pulled on that red jumper for the state, you were playing for everyone.

And suddenly, Sturt, Glenelg, Centrals, Norwood and West Adelaide supporters were all barracking for you.

I was thinking “whoa, how good is that” …the next week they hated you, but for seven or eight days, they watched you and watched you with a lot of pride, which some of them may not of got 100 percent with their local clubs.

I think everyone embraced that state campaign wherever we played and whoever we played against, you just felt that the whole state was behind you, pushing you, admiring you for what you could do, reminding you if you couldn’t do it, and that you were representing them, and they weren’t Port people.

JH: You won two more flags when you returned to Port, do you feel that 1977 premiership took some pressure off you?

RE: Yeah, I suppose.

Pulling on the Port jumper, there’s pressure anyway with the expectation, the history, the success.

But in 1980, I’d come back from the season in 1979 that was just incredible, even though it didn’t finish off with the ultimate success.

To be able to do that, virtually on my terms and didn’t disrupt a lot of family or business, was just the absolute greatest.

To have 1977 already in my pocket, 1980 was as good a side here in South Australia that I had ever played with, and helped assemble.

1980 and 1981, they were just great years to sort of top off what we had started in the late 1970s, and set the club up I think for a lot of success afterwards with some super people in the 1980-81 era.

Russell Ebert won four Magarey Medals with Port Adelaide. Picture: portadelaidefc.com.au.

JH: A few years later you become captain-coach, how much responsibility did you have to take on?

RE: You couldn’t do it at senior level.

It’s just too much to think about.

Coaching just consumes you, you can do it in the country with some support from someone on the boundary, I had fantastic support, but it’s still not them coaching.

It was almost like taking a shower with your raincoat on…you were sort of under the shower but you weren’t getting wet.

They were helping coach but they weren’t actually coaching, but I was playing and trying to coach.

No, it doesn’t work, and that was relieved in 1986 and 1987 when I was finished playing and could concentrate on coaching and helping the team.

JH: What was it like coaching without the responsibility of playing?

RE: It was a relief not to have to physically play, and also play to a level that you’re asking your players to play at, and that was probably the most difficult, because when you’re playing-coach, you’re almost at the end of your career, you can’t have the impact on games that you could’ve when you were younger and didn’t have the responsibility and you could play.

That was a problem or a detraction.

The fact of coaching players you’ve played with, that was also difficult because there was some discipline you had to enforce, there were some rules you had to place.

Some went down okay, some didn’t, so that was also difficult.

I’ve often said I would like to coach a team of ex-coaches, and be about 25, 26 and 27 years of age, then it would be super exciting.

Because you see these playing-coaches that do one or two or three things a game, and they just do it at the right time.

When you’re a bit older and your brain is telling you be somewhere and your brain is saying no, we’re not going to get there…that’s difficult.

And then to have to tell players about their game, that was probably the most difficult.

JH: A few years down the track you coached Woodville. What was that experience like, and in the lead up to the merger with West Torrens, what was the atmosphere at the club like?

RE: It was fantastic. Woodville were just a wonderful, wonderful club.

They were well run, rose from the amateur league, had wonderful people.

Bill Sanders, Geoff Hosking, Trevor Ryan, Kevin Angel, Les Stevens – I still see them around the place, and while I was there for three years, I really would’ve loved to be there a bit earlier, and in a perfect world, that would’ve been great.

But then we wouldn’t have had the Port Adelaide successes, so you can’t have everything.

But Woodville were just a wonderful club, they looked after us, they looked after their players, they welcomed lots of recruits in there to try and get the best result.

It was a wonderful three years, I still see the personnel there, as I do the Port people, but the Woodville Footy Club holds a really place in our lives.

JH: Much further down the track, how did it feel seeing your son Brett win a Magarey Medal and drafted to the Power?

RE: I was super proud, even prouder of when we played, because he’d done it reasonably tough.

He had the surname, my eldest son had it tougher because I was still trying to run around and play, and the kids and the parents were sometimes ordinary towards him because of his surname, which is just bloody disgraceful.

Brett came through to play in the SANFL, and to do so well under the pressure of everything, of what myself and my brothers had done, and for him to come through and show the people in the SANFL what he could do, and then to be drafted and play over 160 games at AFL level, and do what he did and present himself as he does, I’m really proud of him.

It hasn’t changed him, he’s still a people person, and just extremely proud of his achievements, as with my other children, I’m proud of them too.

JH: Back on a personal level, you were immortalised with a statue at Adelaide Oval, what was that like for you?

RE: A bit embarrassing.

It was really was, but when Basil and Rex Sellers said that they wanted to do it, you get all sorts of mixed emotions; you’re embarrassed by it, it’s somewhere the pigeons can sit and do their business, you’re recognised with other sporting people in South Australia which have a rich heritage.

To be even considered with those people and their achievements, was sensational.

I guess in years to come, and I know already with the family, they say “oh we went and had a photo with the statue”, as have other people.

It’s connects a whole heap of people rather than just a statue of a particular person.

I’ve always admired the statue of the horse and the soldier on the corner of King William Street and North Terrace.

Loving horses and riding horses and seeing soldiers, and to see that, and we used to see that when we came down from the country to come to Adelaide once or twice a year.

Now to think a couple of hundred metres down the road, in front of one of the greatest sporting stadiums in the world, there’s another bit of bronze that looks a bit like you, it’s a bit embarrassing, but I guess it’s recognising, along with all the other people that have contributed, it’s a statue of individuals, but it’s a reflection of the contribution of all those people at sporting organisations and non-sporting organisations have achieved.

I guess if that motivates someone to try and do their best, then so be it.

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