7 July 2020

Forty years on, our epic victory over the VFL deserves to be remembered

| Tim Gavel
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ACT team photo

The ACT beating the VFL 40 years ago at Manuka Oval should be celebrated as one of the ACT’s great sporting moment. Photo: Supplied.

Keith Miller was 27 years of age on 6 July 1980. He remembers it well. It was the day he was part of one of the most memorable moments in Canberra’s sporting history.

The ACT team, featuring a mix of players who plied their trade in the local competition and former Canberra players recruited by VFL teams, beat the might of the VFL.

The scoreboard at Manuka Oval on that day remains etched in the memories of the 10,000 plus crowd: ACT 13-17 (95); VFL 11-16 (82).

It is something I have written and spoken about from the time I joined the ABC in Canberra in the late 1980s.

I remember interviewing VFL officials about that day. As the years progressed it became obvious they were doing their best to downplay the importance of the win to the ACT.

Sure the VFL had three teams playing games on 6 July 1980, but each team was laden with talent.

One of the Victorian representative teams played against Western Australia at VFL Park, now known as Waverley Park in Mulgrave, Victoria. The second played against Queensland at the Gabba, and the third was against the ACT at Manuka Oval. The Victorian team won by 21 points against Western Australia and the VFL side playing at the Gabba convincingly beat Queensland by 80 points. But this was not the story at Manuka Oval.

Those pushing the agenda for the VFL claimed the Victorian team playing against the ACT was the VFL’s third-string side that lost that day.

Yet the VFL fielded the likes of Frances Bourke, Malcolm Blight, Rene Kink and the list goes on.

Keith Miller, who had been in Canberra for two years prior to the 1980 game, having relocated to coach Eastlake, says the ACT side were very much the underdogs.

But as a team, the ACT gelled cohesively against a side of stars.

“The best on ground was John McEwen, he played the match of his life,” says Miller, “and Cowboy Neale was a great leader. His performance was memorable, particularly in the final quarter. But you can’t win a game without everybody contributing.”

Mind you, the ACT had plenty of big names, including Neale. There was also the legendary Alex Jesaulenko.

But the highlight was the contribution of the lesser-known players: McEwen who played on Burke, Miller on Kink.

“Cowboy told us before the game the key was to be competitive. By the final quarter, we realised that we could win it.”

Miller says while he remembers many aspects of that day 40 years ago. His most vivid recollection is of the after-match reception where VFL President Allen Aylett criticised the performance of the VFL team.

Legend has it that Aylett suggested a rematch, only to be told that the ACT team’s schedule was full and it wouldn’t be happening.

The result, therefore, is etched in history.

It is up there with the most significant sporting moments in the ACT. The Raiders 1989 Grand Final victory remains the most iconic followed by the Brumbies premiership victory in 2001. Then there are the championship wins by the Cannons and the Capitals.

The ACT beating the VFL is very much up there and should be celebrated as such, no matter how much those south of the border try to erase it from history by downplaying the strength of the team sent to Canberra 40 years ago.

If nothing else, it adds to the significance of the 13 point victory.

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I was there that day as a 15-year old, the atmosphere was fantastic especially once the crowd realised the ACT could win it!

Great article Tim, it was a special day for AFL in Canberra. The ACT had only 3 VFL players – Jezza, Ian Low and Queanbeyan’s own Robert Anderson who was playing for Footscray at the time.

Great story Tim. Not being old enough to have been around for that game, I didn’t even know of this great part of Canberra sporting history 🙂

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