DOUG Cox enjoyed only a fleeting League career but his place in footy folklore is assured, given he was the subject of a spiteful clearance dispute that scorched the player movement landscape.
Cox died suddenly, aged 62, on November 30 and was farewelled in his hometown of Mildura on December 13.
The Sunraysia town was central to 'The Doug Cox Affair', which ignited hostilities between St Kilda and Richmond in 1981 and was the biggest controversy of the season.
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As a teenager Cox was a local star for South Mildura before enjoying a bright stint with SANFL club West Torrens.
A lance-corporal in the army, the 23-year-old was transferred to Melbourne and joined the Saints without a clearance, as the rules permitted in such occupations. That didn't stop West Torrens appealing, unsuccessfully, but there was a bigger threat to Cox's passage to St Kilda in the form of reigning premier Richmond.
The League reportedly discussed Cox's permit seven times over a three-month period, the bone of contention being the length of his residence in Mildura, which was then in Richmond's country zone.
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Under the rules of the time, a player was no longer tied to a League club if he spent three successive years outside the zoned area. On his playing permit application, Cox had stated he'd lived away from Mildura for three of his teenage years – 1973, 1974 and 1975, part of which he spent in New South Wales on a working holiday before joining the army in January 1976.
It wasn't until the night before the opening round that the League ruled Cox was free to play for St Kilda.
The next day at Footscray, finally unencumbered by off-field wrangling (for the time being at least), the speedy 187cm fullback performed "creditably" on debut in keeping 196cm Bulldogs sharpshooter Shane Loveless to two goals in an easy win.
Cox, whose army career earned him the nickname 'Gomer' after 1960s TV character Gomer Pyle, had been a solid contributor in a struggling team in the opening eight rounds before Richmond dramatically intervened.
The Tigers had remained suspicious about the Cox situation and sent an official to Mildura to investigate whether they had claims on him. Their fact-finding mission was rewarded when they learned Cox hadn't simply visited his hometown during 1975 as he'd claimed but he'd in fact lived there for eight months, worked for a local retailer and played about 10 games for South Mildura, including the reserves grand final in which he earned a mention in the Sunraysia Daily for his "solid" defensive efforts in a loss to Robinvale.
According to the Saints, Richmond told them it wouldn't pursue the case if they handed over runners Michael Nettlefold and Ian Sartori. St Kilda's curt reply was: "Get stuffed!" (Sartori switched to the Tigers the next season anyway.)
Richmond lodged a protest with the League which, in a special Wednesday night hearing, made the unprecedented decision to strip St Kilda of their two wins, fine them $4000 ($500 for each game Cox was deemed to have played illegally) and revoke Cox's permit to play with the Saints.
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Cox told The Age he was "shocked" and "deeply upset" by the ruling.
"I want to play with St Kilda. I'm not here to play with Richmond. St Kilda has done a lot for me, and I want to be part of the St Kilda force which will hit the VFL in this decade. We are going to hit it hard," he said.
Public sentiment was overwhelmingly with the Saints. Richmond was even subjected to abuse from its own fans, who flooded Punt Road with irate phone calls in which they expressed disgust that their club was kicking the Saints when they were down, with some threatening to burn their membership tickets.
Pimping and extortion
Tigers powerbroker Graeme Richmond said that before they formally approached the League they had alerted St Kilda to the new evidence but had been ignored.
"We have come out of it stinking like a skunk, when our (intention was) to come out smelling like a rose. It's mortifying that Richmond is put into such a position," Richmond said.
Richmond coach Tony Jewell would also lament: "Even old ladies try to run you down if they know you have anything to do with Richmond."
The incensed Saints took their case to the Supreme Court and engaged the services of John Winneke QC, the ruckman in Hawthorn's first premiership team in 1961. At 7.15pm on the Friday night they won an injunction that allowed a "delighted" Cox to play the next day.
That night St Kilda president Lindsay Fox, the trucking magnate, skewered the Tigers in an interview with Channel Seven.
"It's one of those situations (where) Richmond adopt an attitude of becoming what you could classify as becoming a pimp. I thought the people at Richmond were beyond that," Fox seethed.
"To be the premiers of our great game last year (and) to resort to extortion approaches to try and take individuals out of a club that had a deficiency of just on $1 million, I think it's as low as you can stoop."
As fate would have it, the two clubs met the next day in a grudge match at Waverley that attracted more than 40,000 spectators – the biggest crowd for a Richmond/St Kilda game since they faced each other in a final eight years earlier.
The Saints' defiance was summed up by a fan's sign that warned the Tigers: "Hands Off Our Cox".
St Kilda captain-coach Alex Jesaulenko was sidelined through injury but made a powerful statement by insisting Cox lead the Saints onto the field. To widespread applause, Cox burst 20 metres clear of his teammates as he ran through a banner that declared: "Pointless yes – Gutless never."
In a counter-statement, Richmond captain Bryan Wood led his team out with his fists raised high.
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The Tigers then pounded the Saints with 11 goals to three in the first term to lead by 50 points. St Kilda staged a remarkable fightback that slashed the margin to just three points at the last change before Richmond steadied to win by 31 points.
Cox had been assigned the job on Tigers champion Kevin Bartlett, whom he "shadowed inexpertly", conceding four goals. The Age's scribe, Geoff Slattery, observed that Cox "played as though the stuffing had been knocked out of him before he took the ground".
The afternoon became decidedly dim for Cox in the dying stages when, as he shepherded a teammate, he was knocked out in a legal bump from Peter Welsh. Cox left the field in the hands of trainers and spent the next two nights in hospital with a severe bout of concussion, which ruled him out of the next game.
A costly resolution
On the Sunday at Moorabbin the Saints launched their 'Save a Saint' rally, which raised "a large collection" to assist Cox's legal battle. More than 2000 people also signed a petition protesting the League's actions and demanding a review of its rules.
The following Friday the parties came to an out-of-court settlement in which Richmond agreed to clear Cox to St Kilda for a transfer fee reported variously as $60,000 and $75,000.
To complete a calamitous saga, the League later reinstated the Saints' eight premiership points and amended its player permit rules.
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Cox won St Kilda's best first-year player award in 1981 but was there for just one more season, tallying 36 games before falling out with the Saints after they prohibited him from continuing his running career.
Traded to Essendon for big man Max Crow, Cox dislocated a wrist in his first practice match with the Bombers and failed to make a senior appearance in 1983 but was a member of the club's reserves premiership team.
Cox's poor fortune continued in 1984 when he managed just three games after suffering an early thigh injury and later requiring stitches to a leg after his motorbike collided with a truck. However, he still won the 1984 Grand Final sprint, before returning to West Torrens where he played until 1988.