15/04/2024
Tony Lockett

As it turned out, this would not be the last time Tony Lockett would grace a football field. Picture sydneyswans.com.au

In 2002, Tony Lockett made one last memory on a footy field when he lined up for Port Melbourne in the VFL.

In 2002, Tony Lockett made one last memory on a footy field when he lined up for Port Melbourne in the VFL.

It was an Aussie Rules staple once upon a time: flocking to your local ground to see one man in action.

Traditional Port fans will remember flocking to North Port Oval to see ‘Fabulous’ Fred Cook in action during the 70s and 80s.

Dandenong fans will remember James ‘Frosty’ Miller’s exploits at the same time as ‘Smokin’ Joe Radojevic of Geelong West.

All up, the three of them would combine for 13 goal kicking awards across 16 years from 1968 to 1982.

It was in 2002 that old school Port fans were treated to a little throwback to those memorable afternoons, when the most prolific goal-kicker in VFL/AFL history, Tony ‘Plugger’ Lockett, suited up for their side.

A marriage made in heaven

Lockett’s 2002 comeback for the Sydney Swans included a stopover for Port Melbourne, and playing under the coach at the time, David Dunbar.

At the time, a relationship existed between Port and the Swans that saw several Swans players take to the field in Port colours – a relationship that saw many marriages of sorts between the VFL and AFL and meant that coaches like Dunbar were coaching AFL-listed players.

“The initial agreement is that there would be six Swans’ players in the year 2000, so we’d get a maximum of six, sometimes three, maybe four whatever it might be,” Dunbar recalled.

“And then at the end of 2000, we revamped the deal with Sydney, in a lot of ways. The style of play was a lot more engaging [with] the alignment between the two clubs. So, we went to a maximum of 12 players.

“Other clubs, Sandringham was with Melbourne at the time, and they were full alignments, Box Hill and Hawthorn were full alignments, so it was open slather.

“But we had it capped at 12 simply because we wanted to give an opportunity to Port Melbourne players, you know, didn’t want it enveloped by the Sydney players. So that was how it worked out.”

Dunbar had a promising young side, some AFL experience, and Tony Lockett at his disposal in 2002. Picture: LinkedIn

Young, promising and successful

The Port Melbourne side Dunbar had at his disposal in 2002 may have had plenty of current Swans, but it was a former Swan that was leading the way on-field that year.

“We went through a rebuild in a way in 2000, [and then in 2001] we missed out on the finals by I think it was a game in the end. And then in 2002, those kids fully matured, and we got good leadership from Peter Filandia who came in 2001 as captain,” he said.

“The teams I coached at Port Melbourne were terrific teams. We had some very good Port Melbourne players who we’d seen the basis of, with the Sydney players.”

This would culminate in Port Melbourne’s 2002 grand final appearance, with four players that would go on to play off in a premiership for Sydney lining up for Port; Luke Ablett, Ryan O’Keefe, Amon Buchanan, and Adam Schneider.

However, it was another group of future stars, Geelong, proving too strong that day, with the likes of Paul Chapman, James Kelly, Jimmy Bartel, Gary Ablett Jr, and Steve Johnson tasting premiership glory five years before doing it all again for the Cats in 2007.

But before all that, there was Plugger.

Ryan O’Keefe was one of a handful of Swans who got a shot at a flag with Port Melbourne in 2002. Picture: sydneyswans.com.au

Plugger pulls up to Port

Dunbar recalls getting the word before Port Melbourne’s round seven 2002 clash with Werribee at North Port Oval.

“Stephen Malaxos was the assistant coach [at the time] and at Sydney, he was the guy I would liaise with regarding what players I would get each week,” he said.

“So, I got the call from Steve on I think the Tuesday afternoon of that week, to say that Tony Lockett would play for Port Melbourne that particular week, which was against Werribee, and it was the TV game on the Saturday.”

The stage was set. Lockett would be a Port Melbourne player for at least a week.

Lockett’s comeback to that point had consisted of one game for one goal, against Brisbane at the start of the season, and a rather troubling injury as it turned out, as Dunbar recalled.

“At some particular stage he picked up a really bad corky, and something that not a lot of people may know is that Tony Lockett was a bleeder. So, he was bleeding heavily from his corky and missed a number of weeks,” he said.

Lockett would join up with Port Melbourne on Saturday, in stark contrast to the rest of the Swans players.

“The Swans would normally come down on Friday afternoon, they would train with Port Melbourne on the Friday night, then they’d go back to their hotel room, play on the Saturday, then fly back to Sydney on the Saturday night, and on Sunday, same sort of thing,” Dunbar said.

“In Tony Lockett’s case, he came down on the Saturday morning and went directly to the ground and played.”

By lining up for Port Melbourne, Lockett would be the latest legend to don the red and blue. Picture: portmelbournefc.com.au

Know your enemy

Werribee, Port’s rival on the day, was affiliated with the Western Bulldogs at the time, and it was a young Bulldog, who was yet to start his 251-game, premiership-winning career, who lined up on Lockett that day.

“It was (in those days) Brian Harris, but Brian Lake, Brian Lake lined up on Tony Lockett. And when you look back at history now, that’s a fairly big thing – two colourful characters, playing on each other in the goalsquare,” Dunbar recalled.

Lake’s performance had Lockett, and Port, on the ropes by half-time, with a seven-goal to two second quarter that saw Werribee leading by seven goals.

Before he even stepped out in a Bulldogs jumper, Brian Lake would mark up Tony Lockett playing for Werribee. Picture: westernbulldogsfc.com.au

A late goal by Lockett would give him a little confidence, one of, admittedly few, looks he’d had inside 50, Dunbar said.

“We hadn’t kicked the ball very well to him, but you know, this particular ball set up very well for him to take the grab, get a bit of confidence, and have your shot [and] kick the goal,” he said.

But a late goal wasn’t enough to save Lockett and the rest of Port Melbourne from a spray at half-time from Dunbar.

“I do remember giving them a spray at half time, I do remember that, to wake them up a bit,” he said.

The tide turns

Dunbar’s spray proved effective, with both Port Melbourne, and Lockett, coming to life in the third term.

Lockett kicked three of Port’s six unanswered goals for the quarter to reduce the margin to four points.

With the game on a knife-edge, Port dug deep once more in the last quarter and completed its comeback with three goals to one to record a 10-point win.

While Lockett’s rise was important, it was another current Swan, who was a regular in the Port Melbourne side, Gerrard Bennett, who was key to the revival.

“Probably the thing that helped turn the game in the last quarter was, we used Gerrard Bennett,” Dunbar said.

“The thing with Gerrard was he was a marking type player, he was about 6’2, and what he would do would be he’d go in the centre bounce, and then after the bounce, he’d just push forward, and I don’t think Werribee really realised what he was doing.”

“And then what a game he played for us in that last quarter, getting possessions out of the centre, and just being able to walk up forward.”

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Players such as O’Keefe, Schneider, Buchanan and Ablett would eventually become regulars in the Sydney side. But a handful of depth players did their chances of senior selection no harm with strong reserves performances, alongside ex-Swans suiting up at state league level.

“Troy Luff, when he come back, was always a good player, John Stevens was a very good player,” Dunbar said.

“Scotty Stevens was another player who played in that game, and you know, [he] played some games for the Swans but became a very good player for Adelaide eventually.

“And we had Gerrard Bennett on a fairly regular sort of basis as well. Gerrard was a terrific state league player and I think we might have even made him deputy vice-captain in 2002, that’s how much we thought of him.”

Gerrard Bennett (centre) would have a strong impact on Port Melbourne as well as being a cult figure in Sydney. Picture @sydneyswans.com.au

The siren went and Port had completed a 42-point comeback.

But where was Lockett when the final siren went? On the bench, as Dunbar revealed.

“The game was sort of poised going into three-quarter time, and we were kicking against probably a five-goal wind, and he’d nearly played three quarters,” he said.

“So, he came off at three-quarter time, much to the chagrin of the commentators at the time. But we ended up winning the game, and he was on the bench.”

The festival of Lockett

The festival of Lockett was in full swing long before the dramatic conclusion to the match, however, with Lockett the main attraction at every turn, as Dunbar recalled.

“One thing I do remember was that at the breaks, we basically had to tape the huddles off because there were that many people in the huddles to try and give the players some space because they all wanted a slice of Tony Lockett,” he said.

“Whatever end he was at, the crowd would go from one end to the other, one end of Port Melbourne to the other at the end of every break.

“And we’ve had this unbelievable victory, [we’ve] come from behind but we were just swamped. The media were everywhere in the rooms after the game, just to get a piece of Tony Lockett.

“I remember a story when he arrived at the ground against Werribee he was ushered into the change rooms quickly and it was half-time of the reserves, and I can remember the bloke that was coaching the reserves, and I came there, the coach was there, [and] he’s staring at the whiteboard.

“And Tony Lockett’s sitting down across from these young kids in the reserves, and there are 20 young kids not looking at the coach, they’re looking at Tony Lockett sitting in the corner.

“It’s a story you don’t forget.”

One last time

Lockett’s stint at VFL level wasn’t over there either, as he would take to the field for Port one more time the following week against Essendon.

In a bizarrely similar situation, Lockett struggled with a young opponent, Essendon’s Mark Bolton, kicked a couple of goals, and Port Melbourne fought its way back from a deficit.

Unfortunately, the sequel did not end the same way as the original, as Dunbar recalled.

“Talk about going from chocolates to boiled lollies, that was a game where we were in control and probably lost it in the dying minutes, the game turned on us, and we got beaten,” he said.

“Plugger, he kicked a couple of goals I think, they played young [Mark] Bolton, on him, played him pretty tight, once again our kicking to him wasn’t great, he got frustrated at one stage, I can remember him letting a big haymaker go at Bolton in a marking contest.

“This time he came off at three-quarter time of his own volition, there wasn’t any club instruction, he just came off and that was him, done for the day.”

Less than a month later, in June, Lockett retired once again, a decision that did not surprise Dunbar.

“It just, unfortunately, wasn’t quite to be,” he said.

“I don’t think he was as powerful as he was when he was playing and it makes sense, because he looked a lot longer, and people were saying ‘jeez he looks fitter and leaner,’ but I think that was a bit deceptive because as you get older, you tend to lose power out of the muscle.

“Coming back Lockett looked leaner and fitter, but it was a bit deceptive with the actual power, that he’d had previously at his best.”

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Another story begins

For Port Melbourne, however, the season was just heating up, and it would go on to make its first grand final since 1993 in 2002, losing to Geelong by 22 points.

As Dunbar recalled, the come from behind win was a real turning point.

“It’s funny what becomes turning points when you coach because after that we had a number of games where we come from behind,” he said.

“We played Box Hill Hawks later that year I think, and we were nine goals down at three-quarter time and got up and won, and that was probably the biggest win that I’d been associated with.

“It was just, once you end up doing it once, once a team can have one of those wins where they come from nowhere, it becomes an intangible thing, they just seem to be able to know how to do it again and we were able to do that a number of times.

“But that game [against Werribee] was very significant from that point of view- it was a big turning point.

Upon Reflection

By the time Port Melbourne played off in the grand final against Geelong, Lockett’s two-game stint was a memory. But what a memory it was.

For Dunbar, it helped highlight the VFL at its peak and brought back memories of years gone by.

“The VFL in those particular days was very good, was a very good competition, had very good teams all the way through, very good players all the way through, state league players, outside players. It was probably the best; no, I have no doubt it was the best competition in Australia outside the AFL,” he said.

“Lockett coming back and playing, in the goalsquare, brought back the days of Fred Cook, [Jim] ‘Frosty’ Miller or J [Joe] Radojevic playing for Geelong in the old VFA days. When we play a champion full-forward it’s pretty reminiscent of that.

From one icon to another: Lockett’s cameo brought back memories of Fred Cook’s exploits. Picture https://www.facebook.com/vfafootythehalcyondays/posts/2768704103172761

“And then obviously, the attraction of publicity, we just happened to be slapped on the TV game, cast across Victoria so people at home can see it as well.”

The days of the stay at home full-forward might be long gone now but across a fortnight twenty years ago, Tony Lockett took Port Melbourne back to a bygone era: a memory that will not be forgotten.

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