Dennis Carroll was a six-game VFL rookie from country New South Wales who was just settling into the ‘big smoke' of Melbourne when his life, and many others involved at South Melbourne, was turned upside down.

It was mid-1981 and Carroll, then just 20, had just settled into life in Melbourne after moving from the small town of Ganmain, just north of Wagga, the previous year.

But behind the scenes, the South Melbourne Swans - a VFL foundation club - were in serious financial peril and facing the very real possibility of extinction.

At the same time, the VFL was keen to establish a club in Australia's biggest city, despite Sydney being a hard-and-fast rugby league and union city.

In late 1980, the VFL had commissioned a report - titled ‘The Sydney Solution! VFL at the crossroads' - exploring the possibility of a club being based in Sydney.

It seemed the only possible survival solution for the cash-strapped South Melbourne Swans, and the club and the VFL pushed ahead with the bold adventure.

Despite a July 5 protest at Lakeside Oval to drum up support to ‘Keep South at South' and threats of legal action, on July 29, the VFL board of directors approved an amended South Melbourne proposal to play 11 home games at the SCG in 1982. It was a colossal change to the VFL landscape.

South Melbourne football club fans hold up a "Keep South At South" banner in 1981 (Image via Herald and Weekly Times)

Initially, the VFL agreed that the Swans' players and coaches could remain living in Melbourne but play their home games at the SCG on a fly-in, fly-out basis before a permanent relocation in 1983.

Significantly, though, the club would adopt the name ‘Sydney,' with South Melbourne ceasing to exist.

Carroll viewed the 1982 transition with mixed emotions – sadness of South Melbourne's plight, fearful of the Swans' future, daunted at the uncertainties ahead, but excited by the challenge of growing the game in his home state.

“So, 1981 was my first season, coming down from the Riverina region, trying to fulfil a boyhood dream,” he told Zero Hanger's AFL Team Builders podcast.

“It was very exciting to come down from the country and be in the city and playing at the highest level. About halfway, or three-quarters of the way through that year, we had some understanding that the VFL were looking to start a national competition.

“And when those discussions [about South Melbourne moving to Sydney] started happening, it was quite unsettling. In fact, it split our team in two … it caused a great fracture in the club where half the people wanted to go, and half didn't want to go.

“Looking back, it was very, very traumatic.

“But there was another part of me, being a young lad from country NSW, there was a pioneering aspect that appealed to me – here was an opportunity to go to Sydney and start something new, and still [retain] the rich history of South Melbourne, keep the colours etc.”

South Melbourne's eventual relocation to Sydney was supposed to give the club a fighting chance of survival, but the fallout almost broke it apart completely.

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Swans coach Ricky Quade - who took on the coaching role for the 1982 season after playing 164 games with South Melbourne - had the unenviable task of trying to get the best out of a fractured playing group, while also dealing with the club's off-field decision-makers and hostile fans.

He recalls copping some serious abuse from fans viewing those who backed the Sydney move as traitors.

“Two groups [those backing the move and those against it] really tore each other apart, to be honest. It was bloody sad,” he said.

“People I had been friends with, and played footy with, all of a sudden you're a traitor [to them] – and that was one of the better things I was called.”

Quade said he saw no other option but to back the move to Sydney, such was South Melbourne's perilous financial situation.

“We were insolvent, no question about that.”

“The Lakeside Oval [South Melbourne's home ground] was in terrible disrepair … we only had about 3000 members. There was just no way the club could have kept going in Melbourne, because the VFL wasn't going to support us, and what members we did have left were tearing up their memberships!

“I was firm in my belief that I would only coach the club if it moved to Sydney, but I did feel very sorry for the supporters and members of South Melbourne, to have their club uprooted. It'd never happened before in the history of the VFL.”

It was official – South was officially moving North.

It seems remarkable now – perhaps it was remarkable at the time, too - but for the 1982 season, the Swans players would live and train in Victoria but play their 'home' games at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Many of the South Melbourne squad voted with their feet against the move though, preferring to stay in Victoria, with many lured to rival clubs who could smell blood in the water, as Quade recalls.

“We had a really good list but what happened was, other clubs like Essendon and Carlton and Collingwood were really hopping into our players and simply saying to them ‘look, you've got no future at South Melbourne, they're gone',” he added. “And not only that, we had to try and retain the players but they were offered big money and we didn't have any money!”

But a strong core committed to the audacious experiment, including Barry Round, Mark Browning, Steve Taubert, Steve Wright, Rod Carter and Carroll. Somehow these Sydney Swans won three of their four first games, starting with an emotional first-up victory at the SCG against Melbourne that Victorian newspaper The Age reported “was reminiscent of a team winning the premiership at the MCG.”

And while the Round 1 crowd of 15,764 may sound pitiful nowadays, it was still more than the highest National Rugby League attendance of the round, which was 14,186 at the Parramatta-Manly match.

Unsurprisingly though, the fly-in, fly-out arrangement took a toll on the players, coming at a time when interstate travel was a novelty, let alone flying on a fortnightly basis. Sports psychology and modern recovery methods were still at least a decade away from emerging.

“We had to fly up on the day, play, and them come back that night, and we did that all throughout the year. That was a real issue, the flying part, because it usually took an hour or so to get to the airport, then the flight, then an hour in the car again … it was a four or five-hour turnaround,” Quade says.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - DATE UNKNOWN: Barry Round of the Swans during a VFL match between the Carlton Blues and South Melbourne Swans played in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Getty Images)

“The players didn't complain too much about it, but it was certainly a handicap.”

Handicap it was, but some players made life even more difficult for themselves. Even Carroll, a true professional before his time, got in a world of strife when he slept in and missed his flight to Sydney for a game against Footscray.

Incredibly, he ended up sharing a later plane with that day's opponents.

“I was living with two teammates – Brett Scott and my cousin Wayne, and neither of those lads were in the team to travel to Sydney the next day,” Carroll recalls.

“I'm not going to say one of them did something to my alarm clock, but … I did wake up to a phone call from a teammate, and he's out at the airport with the rest of the team and administrators and basically said ‘get your ass out to the airport and on the next plane'! So I get to the airport in my red and white tracksuit, and we're playing the Bulldogs, and the plane I'm on is with the Footscray team.

“We get to Sydney and I meet the team – it was customary back then to have brunch as a team at Sydney Airport, so we all catch a bus to the ground, and I hear nothing from [Ricky] Quade. It wasn't until we got to the pre-game meeting at the SCG where Rick vented his particular thoughts on my professionalism, which was thoroughly deserved.”

As the 1982 season progressed, the Swans were erratic. They played some outstanding football at times but found it difficult to achieve any sort of consistency. Incredibly, they were still in the finals race late in the season but lost their last three games to miss out on September action, finishing seventh. A first season to be proud of in many respects.

But that was only half the story in terms of South's move to Sydney. The following summer, things got really serious: the club permanently traded its 3205 postcode at South Melbourne for the SCG's 2021.

The logistics were mind-boggling, with young administrator Dean Moore being tasked with helping players, coaches and staff find not only new houses to live in, but also, in the pre-professional era, outside employment.

Moore didn't know a single person in Sydney, but took up residence at a hotel in Kings Cross and tried his best to make the move north as smooth as possible for those taking the leap of faith. His timeframe to get things organised? About three months.

“We'd played in Sydney for 12 months but the decision to relocate [permanently] happened pretty quickly,” Moore recalls.

“I can remember being called into the office of the-then CEO Brian Dixon, and he said basically ‘the board is determined we're going to relocate [permanently] to Sydney, and we need to be there for the start of the new season' – this was in October.

“[He said] ‘I want you to be in Sydney by the end of the month and you're going to oversee the relocation of players and staff' – we're talking 40-odd players, and staff, and we had to do that by the New Year.

“When you look back on it, it was quite remarkable that we even embarked on that, let alone were able to make it work.”

Difficult as these early days were, all who were involved in the Swans' move to Sydney believe it helped set the foundations of the club's famous ‘Bloods' culture, which has allowed the club to thrive on and off the field, and help establish Australian football as a truly national sport.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 26: A Swans supporter sits at a cafe with a 'Go Swans. South Melbourne Home of the True Bloods'` sign out the front on Clarendon Street in South Melbourne during AFL Grand Final Week in Melbourne, on September 26, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

For the full story of how the Swans came to be in Sydney, watch or listen to the AFL Team Builders podcast - on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts - which goes into further detail in areas such as:

  • Some of the South Melbourne players getting legal advice once it became apparent the Swans were moving to Sydney
  • The VFL's lack of support for the Swans in their early days in the Harbour City
  • Struggling to find suitable places to train as the Swans lived a nomadic existence
  • The humble hotel options the club had to use on occasion, some of which were far from water-tight, as a wet and angry Quade once discovered
  • Trying to overcome the dire Australian rules football landscape in Sydney
  • The intense financial pressure needing to win the $100,000 prize for the 1982 Escort Cup