Footy flashback: The day Port Elliot broke the drought
“THERE was great jubilation when, with 20 seconds to go, Tom Sullivan, down from the half back line, kicked the winning goal.”
That was how the Southern Argus reported Port Elliot finally breaking its infamous four year Great Southern Football League losing streak that had earned the Bloods notoriety across the state.
The Adelaide media reported on the club’s progress as a running joke and football fans across SA smirked as each new humiliating result was recorded.
The streak even resulted in Port Elliot travelling to the tiny river town of Cadell to play in a match, sponsored by a brewing company, to see which was the best worst club in SA.
But to those on the inside, each defeat was a source of pride as the struggling club fought to stay alive.
Apart from a brief renaissance in 1993 and 1994, when the Bloods, with the help of some paid players, made the finals, the final decade of the club’s existence was bleak.
The last of the club’s 10 premierships was in 1977 and now it was being belted from pillar to post with 72-straight losses on the board.
The first taste of notoriety came in 1995 with some massive beltings from Victor Harbor, which had former Glenelg star Ross Gibbs, father of Crows player Bryce, as the spearhead.
In seasons 1995 and 1996 the Bloods leaked between 46 and 72 goals on 16 occasions.
The majority of those scores occurred in the ‘96 season with Victor Harbor, Strathalbyn, Willunga, Encounter Bay, Mt Compass and Goolwa all feasting on the Bloods’ carcass.
Club games record holder Dave Whitbourne (235) said the players had become used to losing and weren’t all that flustered when it happened.
“It was just good to go out there and have a kick with my mates and have fun,” Whitbourne recalled.
It got to the point where it seemed, in 1998, that the team had forgotten how to win, being within contact at three-quarter time in several matches, only to go down.
Between 1986 and 2001, Port Elliot’s final season before merging with fellow struggler Goolwa, the Bloods won nine wooden spoons.
All of this set the scene for that fateful last minor round match of 1998, when the spirit of the Bloods had one last chance to pull through for a win.
Earlier in the season, Port Elliot had come agonisingly close to defeating neighbours Goolwa. This was to be a last shot at redemption.
In tough conditions, the Bloods battled against a strong breeze in the first term but at the long break only trailed by a slender two points.
A goal each in the third quarter left the match in the balance.
When Goolwa coach Peter Rea gave the slip to ‘Skull’ McPhee and scored a major early in the fourth, the Magpies had some breathing space.
However, into the game came Sullivan.
A journalist at the Victor Harbor Times, Sullivan had been recruited by a work colleague at the start of that season and was unburdened by the club’s ever expanding string of defeats.
An ankle injury had kept him out of much of the last half of the season, only returning in time for the final match.
As far as candidates to kick the match-winning goal went, he was probably amongst the most unlikely.
“It was my first game back from injury and I didn’t spend much time on the field that day,” Sullivan recalled.
The ball squirted forward and into the hands of Sullivan, who remembers feeling desperate to secure Port Elliot a win.
“I was calling for the ball as it rolled along the ground,” Sullivan said.
“I got it and turned on to my left side and gave it all I had.”
The ball sailed through and Sullivan was embroiled in a ruckus as his victory starved team-mates celebrated.
With just 20 seconds left on the clock, the Bloods valiantly defended their territory and secured the long awaited drought-breaking win, their first since the end of 1994 and handing Goolwa the wooden spoon.
The Argus had 18 year old centre-half back Matt Williams as the Bloods’ best, with midfielder Robert Gregory next.
Also gaining mentions were Whitbourne, Allan Ellis and Nigel Mack.
The best for the vanquished were Grant Mills, Rick Davis, Darren Drake, Bernard Kustermann and Josh Vick.
According to both Whitbourne and Sullivan, the party that night was pretty good. Although, understandably, memories are fuzzy.
Whitbourne, who clearly lives by the adage that winning isn’t everything, said the long awaited victory was much more important to the hard working committee than for someone like him.
What Whitbourne won’t tell you is that it was his 200th game and his team carried him off the field.
In the following days a media frenzy followed, again, but this time football’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Bad News Bears were celebrating.
Channel Seven’s Today Tonight was among the media teams to venture to Port Elliot to cover the story.
Throughout their visit match-winning goal kicker Sullivan modestly stayed in the background, giving his team-mates their chance at glory.
While he could understand the interest, the equally modest Whitbourne said it was weird being interviewed for a news story.
Whitbourne, who began his senior career in 1988, was born and bred Bloods and gave the club further reason for celebration the following week – winning the GSFL Mail Medal.
In a close count, two votes in the final game, against Goolwa, gave him the medal.
“It was a pretty good week,” Whitbourne said.
“It meant more for the club, (due to) not winning too many games.
“It didn’t go down too well with the other clubs. I wasn’t going to say ‘no’ to it, though.”
From there, there was precious little else for Port Elliot to celebrate in coming years as the club continued to struggle.
In 1999, the Bloods picked up only one win for the season, again the victim was Goolwa (round 10), and in 2000 drifted up as high as sixth on the premiership ladder.
With both clubs struggling, 2001 saw the merger of Port Elliot and Goolwa.
The merged entity took on the black, red and white colours but since then, Goolwa Port Elliot has failed to make a grand final and has reverted back to the black and white colours of the Goolwa Football Club.
Whitbourne attended the first few training sessions of the merged entity, before moving to the Riverland town of Barmera where he occasionally still plays today, running around for the Barmera-Monash B grade in his Asics sneakers.
Sullivan played the start of the 1999 season before taking off on an overseas holiday, his only senior matches of football being with the Bloods.
He certainly left his mark.
More stories: The Victor Harbor Times’ report on the 1998 win; The Victor Harbor Times reports on 2019’s drought-breaking win.
A version of this story first appeared in countryfooty.com.au in May 2011.