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Thirty years on, an anniversary they’d rather not remember

North Melbourne’s Alastair Clarkson (far right) belts Carlton defender Ian Aitken during the infamous “Battle of Britain” in 1987. Picture: CHANNEL 7

Thirty years on, an anniversary they’d rather not remember

Rohan Connolly    

Some football anniversaries are days when those who run the game can puff their chests out full of pride. Others they’d prefer might just slip past unnoticed. And it’s fair to say October 11 is one of the latter, particularly this year.

Wednesday marks 30 years to the day Carlton and North Melbourne played a supposed “friendly” at the Oval in London so spiteful and loaded with unsavoury incident that it became known as the “Battle of Britain”.

And it’s still the cause of much rueful head-shaking from those involved three decades on.

In an age without video reviews, and umpires and a tribunal system far more lenient, the game nevertheless resulted in 16 charges, six of the seven players reported suspended for a total of 11 matches.

It featured a Carlton side that had just won the premiership and was interested in little more than a leisurely stroll on a holiday, up against a North Melbourne team humiliated by its 118-point thrashing in an elimination final weeks earlier, and, goaded ever since by its fiercely competitive coach John Kennedy, determined to hit back hard, no matter the occasion.

The fireworks started early after Kangaroos’ big man Donald McDonald struck Carlton’s David Rhys-Jones. McDonald then clashed with young Blue defender Ian Aitken, who promptly had his jaw broken after being king-hit by a swinging round-arm right from a 19-year-old North player, now Hawthorn coach, Alastair Clarkson.

The young Blue key defender, rookie of the year and a premiership player in his debut season, was carted off semi-conscious on a stretcher, blood trickling from his mouth.

McDonald could still recall it vividly when I spoke to him about it 10 years ago.

“Rhys and I had been reported for hitting each other in the past. He took this really good mark, and I don’t know what got into my head, but I just gave him one, and he gave me one back, and it was on for young and old,” he said.

The battle begins with a box-on between North Melbourne’s Donald McDonald and Carlton’s David Rhys-Jones. Picture: CHANNEL 7

“I was actually playing on Ian Aitken, and when play resumed, he ran off to receive the ball from Rhys. I was too tired from all the wrestling to chase him, so I tackled him to stop him running, so he starts throwing punches at me, and the next moment, Al Clarkson’s come in and just bloody belted him.”

From there, things got decidedly ugly. Carlton was incensed. Adrian Gleeson and Wayne Johnston lay into Clarkson as fights broke out everywhere, even in the coaches’ boxes, where Blues’ boss Robert Walls had hurled his walkie-talkie at Kennedy.

A furious Walls at half-time instructed that Clarkson not be allowed to walk from the ground. Amazingly, he did, despite being chased for most of the second half, at one stage, comically, around a goal umpire, by Carlton’s Rhys-Jones and Jim Buckley.

North strongman John Law had a huge cut opened up by Carlton’s Mark Edwards. “He got him a beauty, split him open like a pineapple,” Buckley told me two decades on. Young Blues skipper Stephen Kernahan was pushed backwards over a boundary fence by Law and Steve McCann, his head slamming against a rubbish bin.

“Wallsy was off his head,” Buckley recalled of the half-time break. “He said: ‘I don’t want Clarkson to walk off the ground’ and said he wanted me to do it. I’ve got no idea why.

“So just before they bounced the ball for the second half, I went up to Clarkson and we were into it, punching on for three or four minutes. I was knackered. I said to Rhys: ‘You take over, I’m stuffed’, so then Rhys was hammering the shit out of him, and the last thing I remember was him hiding behind the goal umpire down the other end.

“He copped a hell of a belting, and to his credit, he stuck it out. I went and saw him after the game and more or less apologised and took him up for a drink, because I think he was pretty shocked by it all, too.”

Carlton’s Adrian Gleeson lines North Melbourne’s Alastair Clarkson up after the North little man had broken Ian Aitken’s jaw. Picture: CHANNEL 7

Buckley, even more so than his teammates, hadn’t exactly had the ideal preparation. A veteran by then, his bigger responsibility, as an employee of club president John Elliott’s CUB, which was sponsoring the game, was to arrive in London early to look after promotion.

“I wasn’t even supposed to play. I didn’t even have any boots,” he said. “We’d done all these lunches and promotions, and the night before, I’d been to this exclusive Arab club and got home about 6am. The next thing I know there’s a knock on the door at 9am, saying you’ve got to come to the team meeting, someone’s pulled out and they need you to play.”

How did he go? “Well, I had to go out and buy these soccer boots, which were heavy as buggery, let alone the gutful of piss I had in me … how do you reckon?” he laughed.

Not surprisingly, given the respective motivation levels, it was North Melbourne that ended up winning by 13 points. But, said, McDonald, even the victors were a little embarrassed.

“After the game we had to go up to the committee room where both sides were presented with medals, and everyone’s got cuts all over their faces,” he said.

“I don’t think the Carlton boys were too happy. We were staying in the same hotel, and at one stage ‘Clarko’ and I were in the elevator going up, and Ian Aitken gets in with his jaw all swollen. It was a pretty quiet ride.”

A team in party mode had been jolted out of its lethargy and into white-hot anger by an opponent that had been brooding far too long. In hindsight, it was an accident waiting to happen. But there’d already been plenty even before game day. On two continents.

North Melbourne’ testy mood hadn’t been improved any, McDonald recalled, by a promotional dinner beforehand. “There was £5000 up for grabs, and Elliott got up and said: ‘We’ll just give it to our boys for the end-of-season trip, but I suppose North will need it to pay their players’.

“That was the arrogance of Carlton at the time. Our officials were just filthy, and got up and walked out, and I remember sitting there thinking: ‘How about these blokes?’ It didn’t help matters. There was a lot of animosity from us towards them.

Carlton’s Ian Aitken is carried off with a broken jaw. The Blues’ best first-year player wasn’t the same player after the incident. Picture: CHANNEL 7

While North Melbourne worked itself into a frenzy, in Canada, Sydney was preparing to take on Melbourne in Vancouver. And the US promoters had gone a little overboard trying to sell their product. Newspaper ads for the game promoted the clash thus: “Balls. Brawls, Bloody Right”. “In Oz, it’s been legal for years. Aussie Rules football it’s organised mayhem. The roughest, toughest sport alive”.

Anyone who hadn’t got the idea by then had it driven home when Sydney ruckman John Ironmonger was photographed sitting on a footpath, tearing at a large piece of raw steak with his teeth.

In London, meanwhile, Carlton veteran Buckley was doing his best to make sure the “Fosterisation” of the normally staid cricketing venue was complete, down to the massive logo to be painted on the sacred turf.

“That was my main mission, because no signage had ever been put on the turf there before,” he recalled. “I’d sent the template, told them how to do it, with flat water-based paint, and given them plenty of time.

“But I went down there to see how they were going, and here they are trying to get it on with these little spray cans. It would have bloody taken them three years! I thought: ‘I’m going to get my arse kicked here’, so I rushed down to the nearest paint shop, matched up all the colours, got big brooms and brushes to put it on, and bought miners’ hats so they could work through the night so it would be ready.

“It looked magnificent, but the game starts, and by half-time, it’s all stuck to our boots, and all over everyone’s shorts and jumpers . No-one could get it off. The bloke in the shop had given me full gloss! They had this beautiful carpet in the rooms, and it was completely knackered, they ended up having to pull it all up.”

The turf, however, was a different story. “I reckon more than six months later, England was playing India in a Test match over there, and you could still see the logo,” Buckley chuckled. “I said to Elliott: ‘Well, you got your money’s worth’.”

The teams headed their separate ways, North Melbourne off to Vancouver to play Melbourne in the exhibition series “grand final”.

But the Roos, desperate to rejoin the rest of their list on the end-of-season trip in Los Angeles, had by now well and truly lost their fire. McDonald remembered at least four or five teammates mysteriously straining hamstrings during a pre-match training session.

Carlton’s Stephen Kernahan is pushed over a fence by Roos Steve McCann and John Law, his head slamming into a rubbish bin. Picture: CHANNEL 7

Finally, the trip complete, North headed home, with no mobile phones or internet, still largely blissfully unaware of the furore unleashed in their absence. They’d soon find out. The VFL was flooded with complaints. Editorials had thundered about the disgraceful example conveyed of our game overseas. And McDonald had another battle on his hands.

“My mother-in-law was a mad Carlton supporter. She and her friends used go and sit in the Heatley Stand every week, and they were all ringing saying: ‘Your son-in-law is a disgrace, and we’re not talking to you anymore’. She rang my wife and said: ‘Your husband’s an animal’.”

By the time the tribunal finally sat to hear the litany of reports, more than a month had passed. The resultant penalties were by today’s standards, soft. Clarkson got four games for his hit on Aitken. Buckley and Edwards were rubbed out for two, Rhys-Jones, Johnston and McDonald one each, while Carlton’s Brad Shine was reprimanded.

For most of the players, any lingering animosity had well and truly evaporated. To the point that the players’ waiting room during the marathon hearings became a de facto social club. “They took about four hours to work out how to handle it,” said Buckley. “We were starving, mate. A mate of mine owned ‘Donnini’s’, so I gave him a ring and he sent in a massive serve of pasta and two boxes of Crown Lager.”

The Blues and Roos were friends again. Sort of. The legacy for some has lingered. Clarkson has apologised publicly several times for his part in the “Battle of Britain”, but has also claimed the experience was the making of him as a footballer, because, after surviving a team full of opponents determined to beat him to a pulp, “I’d never have to endure the same sort of horror”.

Aitken, who never again reached the heights of his debut season in his 66-game career, was succinct in his recollection more than a decade later of his injury.

“It was a pretty low act. Hitting someone from behind is as low as you can get. I’m sure he (Clarkson) regrets it, but I’m not interested in any apology. I don’t know him as a person and I don’t care to know him.”

The AFL learnt some hard lessons, too. To keep closer tabs on the promotion of its image, for one. That, sadly, the sublime skills and pace, strength and endurance required in our native game, aren’t necessarily as big an attraction for the punters outside Australia as the promise of some “biffo”.

And that, in the ongoing quest for long-lasting recognition of a brand overseas, you can’t go past some full gloss paint and a bit of famous turf.

  1. Going to do one on rd 14 1972.
    Most collingwood fans my age will never forget or forgive.

    Culprit got 10 wks victim was in coma for 3 wks.

    ended what most of us thought was a brilliant career.
    robbed greening of 72 brownlow and copeland and a future in footy.

    he was only 21 at the time.

    still the worst moment in football history for me.

  2. Ed… I remember that. I heard that Greening had died on the field and was brought back which was why he was in a coma for 14 days. Top player for our great rivals.

    I’ve also got a couple… when Stan Magro ironed out Jezza… and when that dog Milburn laid out Silvagni.

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