Port Adelaide Magpie John Abley. Picture: Supplied

A KEY part of the John Abley story has faded into the mists of time. 

It is not known who from the Hawthorn Football Club rang the newly installed club secretary at Port Adelaide in late 1949 and told him a good young teen prospect was moving to South Australia, and that the Magpies should have a chat to him when he got off the train.

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Ex-player Bob McLean, less than 12 months into his role at the Magpies that he would hold until the dawn of the 1980s, took himself to the station to meet the youngster and his family.

He met a lad, John Abley by name, and found his club a seven-time premiership player, the full back of their Greatest Ever team and a newly inducted member of the Australian Football Hall of Fame.


The Abley family had done it pretty hard during the depression, and when a job with good money and good prospects for his father was available in Adelaide, Abley found his dreams of being a Hawthorn star needed to be re-adjusted to finding a club in SA.

McLean, just a year into retirement as a player, impressed upon the teenager the club had just hired an excellent new young coach in Fos Williams, and thoughts of playing for Glenelg where the family was living, should be put from his mind.

Port Adelaide Magpies 1954 premiership team with John Abley (back row) and coach Fos Williams (second row) circled. Picture: Supplied

A clearance wrangle between Glenelg and the Magpies cost Abley half of his first season in 1950 as he stood out of senior football. His late season matches as a wannabe forward were solid, without causing any great ripples across the eight-team competition.

In a post-season game, on a hunch that great coaches seem to have, Williams assessed his young man's key on-field qualities of fierce determination and top-level concentration, excellent long drop-kicking, steady feet, reliable sure hands and out-of-the-box closing speed, and reckoned he had a full back.

Down to defence it was to be. 

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Within a year, Abley had his first flag in the 1951 decider, and within 24 months was an automatic selection for South Australia until his retirement, 212 club games, 23 state games and seven premierships later. He is one of six men to have played in each of the six Port Adelaide 1954-59 flags.

John Cahill, who would break into the 1959 premiership side as a teenager and played alongside Abley in his closing years, said he was a nightmare for forwards. 

John Abley (front row and circled) with his 1959 teammates, including John Cahill (back row, second). Picture: Supplied

"He took it as an offence against him if a player got a kick, let alone a goal, and he marshalled that Port Adelaide defence," Cahill remembers of his elder teammate.

"With his speed, he was always able to get a fist on the ball, and he never lost his feet, the basic requirement for any great player. 

"If everyone else was on the ground, John would be the player on his feet who would win the ball." 

Whatever the reason that changes some men from outside the field to inside the white line, Abley the quiet, reserved man was a fierce opponent who gave nothing to forwards.

Opposition forwards hated the match-up with him. The Abley family says their father conceded the one bloke, and the only bloke, who ever towelled him up good and proper was John Coleman in a 1953 state game. Abley was looking to even the score the next year, but sadly the great forward's career-ending knee injury ruled against a re-match.

John Abley in the famous Port Adelaide Magpies 'prison bar' stripes. Picture: Supplied

At training every week, back in the days when players brought their own gear and boots to the club, he never once wore the Port Adelaide guernsey for a practice session. The jumper was only for match days, so that he knew he was switched on, and competing to the last breath in every contest.

Once he got a first Victorian jumper in a post-game swap in 1952, it was a Big V at training sessions at Alberton, which was also a useful reminder to the young lads of the pecking order. 

It's hard to imagine the greatness of a player whose time is largely before television, with only limited minutes of highlights on cinema reel. 

So consider this – just six men in the history of the game have been selected in an All Australian side at three successive carnivals, when state football between the VFL/WAFL/SANFL and TFL was the game's pinnacle from the early 20th century up to the 1980s.

Remember that a carnival was played every three or four years, and usually consisted of three to four heavy duty contests in under two weeks. 

You had to be the best in your state just to get picked to play, and everyone wanted to play because interstate travel was a rarity for most at that time. 

You then needed to be the best of the great players to make that carnival side. 

John Abley and the South Australian team getting on a plane for a state carnival. Picture: Supplied

Finally, only a durable star over a long period could do it repeatedly. 

In the carnivals of 1956, '58 and '61, Ron Barassi, Ted Whitten and Polly Farmer made their names with consecutive selections and are inaugural Legends of the Game. 

Victoria's Jack E. Clarke and his WA counterpart Jack K. Clarke were also named in three consecutive teams and were inaugural inductees to the Australian Football Hall of Fame on its establishment in 1996. 

Abley was the sixth man in that group, quiet and reserved off the field, in contrast to his fierce competitiveness inside the white line. 

Upon retirement, he headed quietly into business life. Perhaps those decades out of the game and his natural modesty counted against him, enabling other cases for induction to be pushed forward ahead of him. 

No matter to wife Libby, daughter Anne and son-in-law Michael, as they are celebrating regardless.

The John Abley badge. Picture: Supplied

"John didn't talk a lot about his football, and you had to push him a bit to get him to speak on his times in the game," Michael says of his father-in-law, who passed away in 2011 at age 80.

"In the year or two before he died, we were watching a Hall of Fame presentation together and I said, 'you'll be in there one day', and he looked at me, 'you think so, it would be a great honour'.

"As a family, we could not be more delighted and we will be shouting it from the rooftops," he says, even if Libby doubted the call from the AFL Commission was real, when it came earlier this year.

Michael invested himself into slowly winkling out his quiet father-in-law's history at the top level, through the decades of his retirement.

Best player – Geof Motley

"Head and shoulders above every other Port player, in John's words. He could do it all on the field, coupled with being a great leader, and Geof and John were great friends for all of John's life."

Toughest opponent – John Coleman

"A complete freak who could jump like no one else. Coleman kicked three majors very early on his way to eight goals in the 1953 state game and John always said it was the only time he could ever remember being moved so early off an opponent for being so badly thrashed. He never got the chance to square the ledger the next year, which was a terrible loss for football."

Favourite Port memory – The 1958 Premiership

"It was the fifth of the six in a row and Fos' last league game. They had to come the hard way from the knock-out semi-final and squeaked past West Adelaide in the Grand Final by a couple of points, having lost to them three times previously during the season, after a late Westies' shot hit the post." (That game is famous in SA for the fact that Neil Kerley and some teammates broke back into Adelaide Oval late that night and chopped down the offending post.) 

Favourite game – South Australia's 1960 win over Victoria at Adelaide Oval

"It was the only winning side he ever played in against Victoria, after 10 successive losses." 

John Abley by the numbers

  • Played 212 games and scored 1 goal for Port Adelaide: 1950-1961 
  • Seven-time SANFL Premiership player: 1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959 
  • All Australian: 1956, 1958, 1961 
  • Played 23 State games for SA 
  • Inducted into Port Adelaide's 'Greatest Team' (1870 – 2000) (Full Back)
  • Inducted into the SANFL Hall of Fame in 2002