Twice in the Carlton Football Club’s illustrious history, the Blues have been well-placed for a chance of winning four flags in a row - and both times, the dream has been shattered by events off the field. The most recent, and most famous of these occasions occurred in 1980, when, following tumultuous scenes at Melbourne’s Festival Hall, one of Carlton’s greatest-ever players, as well as our most successful President, left the club amid controversy and anguish.

The player concerned was Alex Jesaulenko, whose glittering 256-game career at Carlton had included captaincy of the Blues, four Premierships, a century of goals in 1970, and just about every possible honour the game could bestow. Universally respected, and all but worshipped by the Navy Blue masses, he had capped his career just months beforehand, when as captain-coach, he had led Carlton to a sensational 1979 Grand Final victory over Collingwood. Jesaulenko’s mentor, and Carlton’s President for almost all of ‘Jezza’s’ time at Princes Park, was the rambunctious George Harris - whose notable life story included three years in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, a stint as the official dentist at Pentridge Prison, and four VFL flags at the helm of the Blues.

Seventy-one years earlier, Carlton’s quest for an unprecedented fourth VFL Premiership in 1909 had floundered after a player revolt over ‘expenses’ (read match payments) and the discipline imposed on his team by Carlton’s first three-time Premiership coach, Jack Worrall. Worrall resigned mid-season, and in his absence, the Blues missed out on flag number four when they fell to South Melbourne by four points in a cracking Grand Final. Sadly, the events that culminated in an emotion-charged meeting of Carlton members on the hot and humid Tuesday evening of 19 February, 1980 produced a similar outcome – a promising finals campaign was wrecked before it even started.
The saga of 1980 began even as Jesaulenko’s dominant Blues surged toward the 1979 flag. On Saturday, July 21, ladder-leaders Carlton slaughtered Melbourne by 79 points at the MCG – before the celebrations were soured by a story splashed across the back page of The Age newspaper on the morning of the match. The Age alleged that four companies controlled by the Carlton Football Club Ltd were in financial difficulty, and that the club’s ‘ambitious program of business diversification’ was in danger of collapse. The architect of the Blues’ corporate structure was President George Harris – who immediately slapped an injunction on the Age to prevent any more damaging revelations. But within a week the ban was lifted, and more detailed information on the club’s situation came to light.

If Carlton’s membership was alarmed by the newspaper’s revelations, those concerns were put aside when the finals rolled around, and Alex Jesaulenko led his Blueboys to a slogging Grand Final win over arch-rivals Collingwood. In a match that will be forever remembered for Wayne Harmes’ late heroics, the Navy Blues claimed yet another flag by five points. However, the euphoria that engulfed Princes Park – made so much sweeter because the hated Magpies had been vanquished again – was to endure only until Carlton’s Annual General Meeting at the Brunswick Town Hall on Monday night, December 7, 1979.

In the club’s Annual Report, Harris wrote; ‘We have strong indications that only two football clubs – Carlton and Hawthorn – will show profits this year. All others, it is anticipated, will show losses, some quite large. Your committee believes that in order for this club to succeed financially in the 1980’s, traditional sources of fund-raising will be inadequate. It will be necessary to proceed as has been done in 1978 and 1979, and to become involved in business ventures. Our approach to business will continue to be as has always been the case; that there is a full investigation of each proposal, then unanimous approval by the whole committee before proceeding, or involving any club monies.’

Harris made no mention of The Age’s allegations, or of the disquiet that had appeared in their wake among various Carlton committee members. What he did do was to shock those present by denouncing the existing committee for disloyalty, and to submit his immediate resignation. Later, he gave the following explanation for his bombshell announcement; ‘Committee meetings were becoming an enormous pain,’ he said; ‘they had started to play numbers games, and I knew I had total opposition from some of them. The enjoyment had gone out of it, and I said to myself; ‘why do I need this?’
Harris relaxing after quitting as Carlton president.jpg
But there was also another reason behind the move. Harris fully intended to stand for re-election, and if he was successful, wanted to replace Carlton’s committee (which he saw as cumbersome and time-wasting) with a six or seven-man board appointed by himself, and approved by a majority of members. It was a risky proposition to ask the club to abandon the traditional committee elections, but Harris was prepared to gamble that Carlton’s extraordinary success under his leadership (bringing Premierships in 1968, 1970, 1972 and ’79) would sway a majority of members to overlook the club’s parlous financial state, and back him to return.

On the other side, Harris’s tactic caught his detractors totally unaware. The AGM was thrown into disarray, and ended with all other committee positions retained by the incumbents, pending new elections to be scheduled at the earliest possible date. The biggest problem for Carlton’s establishment was that they did not have a viable candidate to stand against Big George. While there was no shortage of business or administrative talent among the club’s committee or supporter base, time was of the essence. Someone with ability and dedication had to be found immediately.

The solution came with a chance meeting 48 hours later at Sydney airport. Carlton vice-President Wes Lofts was making his way through the terminal when he encountered Ian Rice, a former Melbourne City Councillor and patron of the club.

Rice was a skilled entrepreneur and a canny businessman, who had turned tragedy into triumph by using the insurance payout from a near-fatal car crash to establish the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Australia. He had married Elizabeth, the daughter of Carlton powerbroker Sir Leo Curtis, and was a familiar figure in business, football and horse racing circles. Rice agreed to attend a meeting of the Carlton committee the next day, and just hours after that was appointed as the twenty-third President of the Carlton Football Club. Joining Rice on the committee was another new face; John Elliott; Managing Director of emerging business powerhouse, Henry Jones IXL. Recently-retired Premiership ruckman Peter ‘Percy’ Jones was installed as caretaker coach of the team.

Meanwhile, Harris and his supporters were busy organising a petition of Carlton members, aimed at forcing an extraordinary General Meeting and a vote of no confidence in the existing committee. Harris’ campaign was given great impetus when Alex Jesaulenko stepped into the spotlight and declared verbally, and in writing to the club; ‘If George Harris is not returned as President, I will not coach, or play, or captain the Carlton football team.’ Horrified at the prospect of losing their champion, hundreds signed on. Even so, observers noted that no other Carlton players publicly supported their captain.

Early in the New Year, Harris’s team went to the Supreme Court with the petition signed by 1200 members, only to be rebuffed when the court ruled that most of the signatures were invalid. Why? Because Carlton’s Articles of Association then stated that a person was a member from the time of buying his or her season ticket, until September 30 each year. The AGM had already been held, and 1980 season tickets had not gone on sale until January 1. This meant that only life members, players, staff and the original signatories to the Articles were entitled to vote at that time.

Even before that decision was handed down, the Harris camp had sent every Carlton member notice of an extraordinary General Meeting to be held at the ‘House of Stoush,’ Festival Hall, on Tuesday night, February 19 at 7.30 pm. Although the court had also ruled that this too was invalid, the 1980 VFL season was fast approaching. The two sides conferred, and eventually agreed that the matter should be thrashed out in an open forum. The meeting would go ahead, and the members’ judgement would be final.

While both sides were busy preparing their case, the Rice camp organised a public rally of supporters at Princes Park on the Sunday prior to the fateful night. Around 3000 people turned up, to be courted by a carefully-managed presentation with one aim – to secure as many proxy votes as possible from members who would not be at Festival Hall. Somewhat ironically standing in front of a packed George Harris stand, Ian Rice confirmed that Percy Jones would coach the Blues in 1980, with Mike Fitzpatrick as captain, and Mark Maclure his deputy.

To loud applause, he told the crowd; ‘I regard Alex Jesaulenko as a fantastic footballer and a great man, and everyone wants Jezza back on the field. Jezza did something which I’m sure he regrets. He walked out on all of us. But we are prepared to let bygones be bygones. We want Jezza back.’ Jones was warmly received when he spoke, and Colin Foley from of the Carltonians told the crowd that a phone poll of his 56 members the day before revealed that only eight supported Harris.

While the success of that venture boosted the confidence of Rice’s team, he surely was daunted by the even bigger turnout at Festival Hall on the following Tuesday night. On one of those hot, humid and breezeless Melbourne summer nights, ten uniformed police, a squad of detectives and security personnel hired by the club shepherded a sweating crowd of 3,500 into the huge barn-like hall.

The meeting was chaired by Bill Gillard QC, who caused the first friction when he ruled that the only people entitled to vote on the night were those who had been financial members of the Carlton Football Club in 1979. Rolls were checked, while Rice supporters were asked to move to the left side of the hall, and Harris supporters to the right, in a measure to keep the two sides from close contact.

When the meeting eventually began (more than an hour late) Rice told his audience that he had been appointed for three reasons. ’One, to eliminate the politics brought about by the walkout of George Harris and Alex Jesaulenko. Two, to go into the financial affairs of the club – and three, to provide financial and moral support to the most important people at Carlton, the players. We can win a Premiership with these players, but not with these shenanigans.’

All speakers were greeted with their share of cheers, boos and heated interjections. George Harris ended his speech with these words; ‘If you tell me I am not wanted at Carlton, that I will accept. There will be no after-the-balls, no legal action, no appeals.’

But the biggest reaction came when Alex Jesaulenko took the stage to almost complete acclaim. When the clapping and cheering at last subsided, he began by saying; ‘Dear members – members of the football club – not supporters.’ There was a shocked silence for a moment, then a swelling chorus of jeers and boos. He had touched a nerve, and in a moment, swung the crowd against him in a regrettable moment for a great football club. He went on to attack the committee on several fronts, and claimed that Wes Lofts, behind his back, had offered South Melbourne’s 1977 Brownlow Medallist Graeme Teasdale $200,000 while trying to lure him to Princes Park.

Eventually, approaching midnight, chairman Gillard ended the debate by ruling that the matter would be decided by a ballot on just one of the eleven motions proposed – that Rice be removed from the committee. The result was an overwhelming victory for Rice; 1,241 votes to 480 for Harris, including proxies. Even so, many supporters were still emotional and angry when the crowd spilled out into the warm fresh air, and the aftermath of the affair took weeks to settle.
George Harris
True to his word, George Harris left Princes Park and rarely returned, although his undoubted love of the club was still very much a focus of his life. His long and truly remarkable journey ended with his passing in November 2007.

Alex Jesaulenko was cleared to St Kilda in 1980, where he rounded off his stellar career with 23 games as captain-coach of the Saints. The wounds from his departure from Carlton took a long time to heal, but he eventually returned to coach the Blues again in 1989-’90.

There can be no doubt however, that the biggest casualty of the whole affair was the team itself. The addition of recruits like Greg Wells, Val Perovic and Des English added polish to a team of stars in 1980, yet it must be said that the Blues never hit their straps under Percy Jones. Although well-placed as runners-up after the home and away rounds, finals pressure told, and they were well beaten in straight sets by Richmond and Collingwood.

In hindsight, the only positive to come from those galling failures was the arrival of former Hawthorn Premiership coach David Parkin to replace Jones in 1981. Like Jack Worrall, Parkin was a fierce disciplinarian who steered the Old Dark Navy Blues to consecutive Premierships in 1981-’82. Three flags in four years entitles the Carlton list of that era to a place among the greatest teams of all time – but how much better it just might have been, had the great split of 1980 never happened.

Blueseum: Season 1979 | Jezza's Blueseum Bio | Harris' Blueseum Bio | Harris's Image Gallery