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On This Day: Lights out at Waverley

On this day in 1996, the one and only league match to be contested over two days was completed. Relive the anarchy of the night in 1996 when the lights went out at Waverley during a game between Essendon and St Kilda

As we look back on memorable moments, both St Kilda and the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation are reminding kids why they #LoveTheGameNotTheOdds.

On this day in 1996, St Kilda's clash with Essendon ended with no lights, no cameras and certainly no action.

It would go down in history as one of the most bizarre nights in football history.

I was working for the Sunday Herald-Sun that night as the “Number 2” reporter at the game.

Normally part of my role would be to interview a player after the game, but because of the tight deadlines that Saturday night, I was meant to write a story early about tactics and send it through at three quarter time.

It was a fairly humdrum game and I clearly recall saying to my Sunday Herald Sun colleague at half-time that I was struggling to come up with an angle for a story.

But that all changed at the 22 minute mark of the third quarter.

Suddenly Waverley was plunged into darkness as the lights failed. Television viewers were left baffled as the power outage cut off Channel Seven’s cameras.

What the hell happened? At first, people said that a car had run into a nearby power station. It turned out that there was no car accident and it had been a fault within a United Energy sub-station which caused the problem, and blacked out an area from Glen Waverley to Cranbourne.

In the press box, we went into overdrive. On the field the two teams formed huddles. Saints coach Stan Alves was addressing his players over the boundary fence. Fans had lit cigarette lighters to see what was going on around them

It was soon obvious that things weren’t going to be fixed quickly, and the clubs took their players into the rooms so they wouldn’t get cold and be unprepared for a resumption.

By the time we got to the rooms the football managers of both sides – Danny Corcoran (Essendon) and Gary Colling (St Kilda) were earnestly conferring in the hallway between the two changerooms. At least the emergency lighting had kicked in, but while the managers were discussing the outcome, the emergency power failed too.

At that moment it was clear that the chances of the game resuming had just about disappeared.

We returned to the press box and by now Scotty Palmer, the Sunday Herald Sun Sports Editor, was on the phone and desperately seeking details of what was happening.

“Well, the crowd has just snapped off a point post and they are carrying it down the ground” I said.

"And by the way, there is a fire in the seats in the forward pocket”.

“Write all that," barked an excited Scotty.

Many years later, then Essendon captain Gary O’Donnell reflected on the game and said that the aftermath on that night reminded him of the book Lord of the Flies, and that was a fair enough analogy of a situation where the wheels fell off and normal civilised behaviour went out the door.

There was anarchy as fires were lit on the ground and in the seating areas. Hundreds of fans jumped the fence and ran onto the oval. The point posts were ripped out and paraded in a ‘lap of dishonour’ around the ground.

Police reinforcements were called to help bring the situation under control. Police cars with flashing lights ringed the ground and when the announcement was made that the game had been abandoned, police urged people to leave the oval for their safety as officers occupied both ends of the ground to stop further vandalism.

Admittedly it would have been worse at many overseas venues where the damage may have been greater and the mood more violent.

The lights failed at 9.25 pm, four minutes and 48 seconds before three-quarter-time with Essendon leading by 20 points.

When an announcement over the public address system said that a car accident had caused the blackout, the crowd quietened momentarily as they pondered an incident somewhere in the local area. But the mood changed minutes later when the announcer trotted out lines like “The only information is that there is no information “, and “In this, the AFL’s darkest hour …”

Both clubs agreed that it was impossible to play once the delay went beyond half an hour. Newspaper reports told of the eerie and uncomfortable feeling in the crowd. One young fan said “It was a bit scary at first, then people started getting bored."

AFL Chief Commissioner Ross Oakley was at the game and faced a barrage of questions from the media. His initial reaction was that there were four options to the league:

1. The match could be replayed, which was unlikely
2. The two sides could be given two premiership points each
3. They could receive four points each
4. A winner could be declared.

An emergency meeting of the Commission was called for the following day.

Essendon President David Shaw and Saints chief Andrew Plympton both said they would accept nothing less than four points each. Shaw said the percentage should be calculated as to “when the game finished”. Plympton said his club was prepared to forgo the percentage from the match (a stance not all that surprising as the Saints’ overall percentage would have decreased as they were behind in the game).

Ross Oakley, a strong advocate for a night Grand Final was non-commital when asked if the blackout changed his mind and shrugged the question off by saying “these things can happen”.

The AFL decided that the match would be completed on the following Tuesday night over two 12-minute halves, with time-on and teams changing ends at half-time.

Clubs could change their line-ups for the Saturday teams and the AFL conceded that players unavailable on Saturday could win Brownlow votes through being included in Tuesday’s team.

The most dramatic inclusion was Bombers star James Hird, who had missed the Saturday game due to a broken finger. The refreshed Hird would pick up 10 possessions in the Tuesday part of the match, copping jeers from Saints fans who were aggrieved by his late inclusion.

He didn’t poll a Brownlow vote from his concentrated cameo performance, which caused debate when he ended up tieing for the medal with Michael Voss and the ineligible Corey McKernan.

With 17,590 diehards looking on, St Kilda started the Tuesday game well with Tony Brown scoring first goal of the night. However, Essendon maintained the upper hand and ran out winners by 22 points – two more points than their advantage when the lights had flickered out there days earlier.

St Kilda’s match with Richmond was rescheduled from Friday to Saturday and the Saints lost it by 34 points. Meanwhile, Essendon struggled home against Fremantle by a bare point.

In the aftermath of the game Essendon veteran Mark Harvey slammed the decision to play a second part of the game on Tuesday as yet another example of players paying the price for mistakes by the game’s administrators.

He also criticised the president of the AFL Players Association Justin Madden for not having consulted with the teams and giving the association’s blessing to the AFL’s solution.

The AFL indicated that in future if a game was abandoned during the second half the result would go to the team leading at the time.

No one would be left in the dark.