Neil Kerley

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Neil Kerley
Personal information
Full name Donald Neil Kerley
Nickname(s) Knuckles
King Kerley
Kerls
The King of South Australian Football
Date of birth (1934-02-20) 20 February 1934 (age 80)
Place of birth Barmera, South Australia
Original team Barmera
Height/Weight 182 cm / 90 kg
Position(s) Ruckman, Utility
Playing career1
Years Club Games (Goals)
1952-63
1964-66
1967-69
Total -
West Adelaide
South Adelaide
Glenelg
155 (87)
56 (0)
55 (36)
265 (123)
Coaching career
Years Club Games (W–L–D)
1961-62, 1981-84, 1992-93
1964-66
1967-76
1977-80
1988-90
Total -
West Adelaide
South Adelaide
Glenelg
West Torrens
Central District
182 (97-84-1)
66 (48-18-0)
223 (142-81-0)
89 (42-46-1)
68 (36-31-1)
628 (365-260-3)
1 Playing statistics correct to end of 1969 season.
Career highlights

Donald Neil Kerley OAM (born 20 February 1934 in Barmera, South Australia) is a former Australian rules football player and coach. Known to his mates as either Neil or Knuckles and to South Australian football fans as King Kerley or simply "Kerls", he is best known for taking three clubs to four South Australian National Football League (SANFL) premierships over three decades as both a player and coach and for playing 32 state games for South Australia. Despite his first name being Donald, it was his mother Lillian's strong dislike of shortening Christian names that led everyone calling him Neil and not Don or Donald from an early age.

Playing career[edit]

Kerley, who started his senior footballing career with Barmera in the Riverland Football League in 1948 at the age of 14, played mostly in the SANFL between 1952-1969. A Norwood supporter as a young boy growing up on a fruit block in Barmera in South Australia's Riverland, Kerley left home less than a year later and headed north on his motorbike for two years, working as a Jackeroo on cattle stations.

When he turned 18 in 1952 Kerley was called up for National Service where he was based at the Woodside Barracks in the Adelaide Hills. While there he was invited by a friend to attend a Norwood game. The Redlegs, as Norwood has been known since 1878, had heard of Kerley's football skills but Neil was not impressed with the reception he received from the club and when West Adelaide approached him a week later he agreed to play for the club.

Kerley played in an era when players usually only played one position on the ground yet he was a rare breed of player who could play any position on the ground including being successful in the ruck despite his lack of height for a ruckman (Kerley only stands at 182 cm or just over 6 foot tall compared to most ruckmen of the time who stood at least 190 cm or 6'3" tall). His strong, early leap and the ability to do so all game as well as his physical strength made him one of the league's top knock ruckmen. He made his SANFL league debut for West Adelaide in 1952 as a reserve for a game against West Torrens at Thebarton Oval (his only game of the season). West Captain-Coach Brian Faehse was injured early in the game and Kerley went on to play Centre half-back, standing a young Lindsay Head, a future three time Magarey Medal winner (1955, '58 and '63). Kerley got what he believes was his first touch when he took a contested mark against Head but, in what would be a pattern in his career (not agreeing with officials), the umpire awarded the mark to Head.

In 1953 Kerley headed north again and worked as a truck driver at a tent camp near the rocket testing range at Koolymilka, close to Woomera. Although just 19 years old he was appointed Captain-Coach of the local scratch side. He won the association's Mail Medal and led the team to the premiership. In 1954 Kerley was persuaded by former West Adelaide player Bill Sutherland to take over from him as coach of North Whyalla in the Whyalla Football League. Kerley led North Whyalla to the premiership in both 1954 and 1955 and in 1955 he played his second SANFL league game with West Adelaide which allowed the club to retain him as a registered player.

In early 1956 Kerley was on his way to take up a position of playing coach at South Gambier in the South-East & Border Football League when West Adelaide intervened. West persuaded Kerley to start a serious league career in the SANFL and also found a replacement coach for South Gambier.

In his first full season with Wests Kerley helped the team to the Grand Final against Port Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval. It would be the first of four losing Grand Finals for Kerley as a West Adelaide player or coach (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1962) - all defeats to the Fos Williams coached Port Adelaide. Ironically, Williams was a West Adelaide junior who had played 54 games for the club from 1946-1949 (kicking 112 goals) and had played in the club's Grand Final win over Norwood in 1947 before moving to Port in 1950. Kerley's coach in 1956 was Laurie Cahill while from 1957-60 the club was coached by the legendary Jack Oatey. Kerley won the first of four Best & Fairest awards for the club in 1958 and was appointed West captain in 1959.

Kerley took over as coach from Jack Oatey in 1961 when Oatey moved on to coach Sturt (whom he would coach until 1982, taking the Double Blues to 7 premierships). Neil led Westies to its first premiership since 1947 with a 16.13 (109) to 11.7 (73) win over Norwood. In what became known as "The Turkish Bath Grand Final" due to being played in 35 °C heat. The oppressive heat helped The Bloods as they had won their 2nd Semi-Final clash with Port Adelaide and had earned a weeks rest while Norwood had to defeat Port in the previous weeks Preliminary Final to make the big game. The heat was also blamed for the crowd of just 40,909, the smallest since West Adelaide's last premiership in 1947. Kerley was at his dynamic best on the day leading the 1st Ruck. He collected 23 kicks, 3 handballs and took 6 marks in a best on ground performance.[1]

1962 produced much the same for West Adelaide. Kerley won the club's Best & Fairest award in 1961 and '62 (to add to his 1958 and '59 wins). He led the Bloods to the 1962 SANFL Grand Final where they faced their nemesis Port Adelaide but couldn't repeat their 1961 win and lost to the Magpies. Following the season Kerley, who was always his own man and rarely bowed to officialdom, was sensationally sacked as West Adelaide's coach despite taking them to one premiership and two Grand Finals in his two seasons in charge. He was replaced as Captain-Coach by long time team mate Doug Thomas for 1963 but agreed to play out his contract with the club (Thomas was against Kerley's sacking and was initially reluctant to take up the position, only doing so when assured by Kerley that he had his support). West Adelaide's form dropped in 1963 and they finished the season fourth, losing the Elimination Final. As a player and playing-coach for West Adelaide Kerley played 165 games and kicked 87 goals between 1952 and 1963 and led the club to its seventh permiership in 1961.

After his contract with West Adelaide ended following 1963, Kerley signed on as Captain-Coach of South Adelaide in 1964. The South Adelaide Panthers had finished last in 1963 and Kerley cemented his place among the greats of South Australian Football when he took the Panthers from bottom in 1963 to the SANFL Premiership in 1964 with a 27 point win over his long-time Grand Final nemesis Port Adelaide. As of 2014 this is the last time South Adelaide has won the SANFL premiership. Kerles went on to play 56 games for the Panthers until the end of 1966.

Kerley signed with his third league club when he agreed to join Glenelg as player-coach from 1967. He played 55 games for the Tigers, won the club's Best and Fairest award in 1967 and led the club to the 1969 Grand Final against Sturt. Following the loss to Sturt (coached by Jack Oatey), Kerley retired from league football having played 276 SANFL games and kicking 123 goals in a career spanning 16 seasons beginning in 1952.

Coaching career[edit]

Following his retirement from playing at the end of 1969, Kerley moved full-time into coaching from 1970, continuing on with Glenelg. He took the Tigers to the 1970 Grand Final where again they lost to Sturt who won their 5th premiership in a row under the coaching of Kerley's former West Adelaide mentor Jack Oatey.

The Tigers finished sixth and missed the finals in both 1971 and 1972 but bounced back with a vengeance in 1973, finishing the 21-game minor round with a club best ever 20-1 record, their only loss to reigning premier (and 1972 Champions of Australia) North Adelaide in Round 8 at the Roosters home ground, Prospect Oval. Kerley coached the club to just its second premiership (and first since 1934) when they defeated North Adelaide by 7 points in front of 56,525 fans in what would be the last Grand Final played at the Adelaide Oval, as the league’s new headquarters, Football Park in the western Adelaide suburb of West Lakes opened in 1974.

Kerley coached Glenelg to both the 1974 and 1975 SANFL Grand Finals where they lost both times to Sturt in '74 and Norwood in '75. His last season as coach of Glenelg in 1976 saw The Bays finish in 3rd place. To this day, despite four separate stints at West Adelaide, Kerley says he felt more at home at Glenelg citing the lack of fighting with the club's board, his success there as a player and coach as well as the general atmosphere at the club as reasons.

Kerley signed on as coach of perrenial under-performers West Torrens in 1977 and fans of the club were called upon to “Join the Kings Eagle Revival in 1977” with T-shirts printed up stating just that. He took them from bottom (10th) in 1976 to 6th in 1977 and 5th in 1978. The club slumped to 8th in 1979 before Kerley again lifted them and took the Eagles to their last ever finals series by finishing fifth in 1980.

In 1981 Kerley was enticed back to West Adelaide by their President Bob Lee and his 1961 premiership winning teammate, General Manager Doug Thomas, who had replaced Kerley as Captain-Coach of the Bloods in 1963. Kerley and Thomas had remained friends as Kerley’s beef from 1962 was with the then board of the club and not Thomas who only agreed to the coaching role in a bid to bring stability to the club. His impact at Richmond was immediate, steering the Bloods to fifth place and their first finals series since 1977. With strong recruiting and a game plan that was virtually all attacking football, Kerley had begun to steer West back up the SANFL ladder after being easy beats for most of the late 1960s and 1970s. They finished sixth in 1982, only needing to beat Norwood (the eventual 1982 premiers) in the final round at Norwood Oval to be assured of 5th spot. However, a fully focus Norwood took The Bloods apart with an 80 point win. The Bloods continued to improve and in 1983 Kerley won his fourth premiership as a coach when West Adelaide defeated Sturt in the Grand Final at Football Park, with Kerley stating that the 1983 team was the best side he had ever coached. As of 2014, the 1983 premiership was the last won by West Adelaide.

West Adelaide couldn’t repeat their stunning 1983 form due to injuries and finished the 1984 season in sixth place. Following the 1984 season Kerley, seeking a new challenge after more than 30 years of league football, accepted the position of Fitness Director and Tender Captain for South Australia's America's Cup campaign.

Following SA’s unsuccessful America's Cup challenge, Kerley was ready to come back to football and after negotiations with both Woodville and Central District he became the seventh coach of Centrals in 1988, leading them to fourth in both 1988 and 1989 before ending his three-year term at Elizabeth by finishing seven in 1990.

In 1991 Kerley was appointed Football Manager for the newly formed Adelaide Crows in the Australian Football League (AFL) and spent the 1991 AFL season with the Crows before making his third run as coach of West Adelaide in 1992, taking over from Kevin Morris who like Kerley in 1962 was sacked after taking Wests to the Grand Final in 1991. Unfortunately West Adelaide couldn’t recapture their previous season's form due to injuries and the loss of key players to the Crows and the Bloods finished sixth in 1992 and only avoided the wooden spoon by percentage in 1993. Kerley was sacked for the second time as coach of West Adelaide, bringing an end to his SANFL coaching career after 28 seasons that began with a premiership at West Adelaide in 1961.

Neil Kerley is the only SANFL coach to win premierships at multiple clubs over three decades.

Representative Football[edit]

Neil Kerley represented South Australia 32 times during his league career including captaining SA to a famous win over Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1963. Kerley also gained All Australian selection in 1961. He also spent 10 years as state coach over a span of 30 years with his last year being 1984 when South Australia lost to Victoria by just 4 points at Football Park and to Western Australia by a single point at Footy Park.

Kerley was also coach of the Australian team for the 1987 International rules series played in Ireland. The Aussies defeated the Irish 3 games to 2.

Post Football[edit]

Following his last season as a senior coach in 1993, Kerley was a boundary rider for Channel 7 telecasts of the AFL during the 1990s and currently serves as a selector for the AFL's All-Australian team.

Recording History[edit]

Kerley recorded a single of "I was Born Under a Wandering Star" whilst still coaching Glenelg in the early 1970s. It received considerable air play on Australian radio.

Personal life[edit]

Neil Kerley is the son of Laurie and Lillian (née O'Brien) Kerley and is the second of the couple's 6 children (brothers Michael, Ronald, James and Brian as well as his sister Jennifer. His father died at the Daw Park Repatriation General Hospital in Adelaide on 21 February 1945, the day after Neil's 11th birthday. Laurie had fought in the AIF in World War I and also in Egypt and Crete in World War II. His mother Lillian, after struggling for years as a single mother, finally moved to Adelaide later in life and died in 1992.

While coaching North Whyalla in 1955, Neil Kerley met a local girl Barbara Gordon. The pair were married on 25 February 1955 at the St Teresa's Catholic Church in Whyalla and have three children (Donald Jr, Robyn and Gail). In a story told by Kerley in the book Knuckles by Jim Rosevear (2003), at one of his first training sessions in charge of Central District during 1988, Kerles told his players during a break that sitting in the grandstand watching them was a woman who knew as much about the game of football as he did and that he would be informed in his way home (a 45 km drive from Elizabeth to the couple's home in Bellevue Heights) who had trained well and who hadn't. Kerls was referring to wife Barbara who had learned a thing or two about Aussie rules football in her 30+ years sitting on the sidelines watching her husband's teams play. Over the years Barbara was often able to inform Neil of things that happened during training or games that he had missed, something he greatly valued during his coaching career.

Awards[edit]

References[edit]

Books
  • Agars, Merv (1987). Bloods Sweat & Tears. West Adelaide Football Club. pp. 18–168. ISBN 0-85904-029-1. 
Books
  • Rosevear, Jim (2003). Knuckles the Neil Kerley Story. Jim Rosevear. ISBN 0-9580504-3-0. 

External links[edit]