Parramatta in the 1980s

Published in Thirteen in 2005

by Jason Emery & Bryce Euelnstein

Prestige, Glamour and Might

….by Jason Emery who played for the Eels in under 23s Grand Finals in 1984 and 1985 and then in the 1986 reserve grade Grand Final against Penrith Panthers, who he later represented.

All three of the above words can describe what it was really like at Parramatta back in the 1980’s. From the battlers of the sixties and early seventies it all came together for the Western Sydney club when they appointed Jack Gibson as coach in 1981. Big Jack, as he was known, had a unique way of communication which was legendary in itself and he managed to strike a chord with the incredible new wave of young talent which was about to take the rugby league world by storm.

Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe went on to become superstars of the game and they, along with the experienced Ray Price and Mick Cronin, formed a combination which revolutionised the game. They played an attacking style of rugby league which had never been seen before. With sublime skills and a desire to attack from deep, Parramatta became the team that everyone wanted to watch and be a part of.

Parramatta had always had a very large and fanatical fan base but with the success and the style of football which they were playing in the eighties, that support continued to go from strength to strength and massive crowds turned up every week.

As the momentum built from the success and with superheroes at their peak, the Eels were rewarded with a magnificent stadium in 1986. Parramatta was the place to be. In fact, Parramatta in the eighties was the biggest success story of any sporting club in Australia.

Players would take less money to stay at the club; sometimes a lot less than they were being offered elsewhere such was the feeling of just being at the club and accepting the adulation of the adoring fans.

After home games the players would head back to the Parramatta Leagues Club for dinner and awards from the days games. The fans would get up close to the players who were treated like gods. It was non-stop autograph signings and picture taking for the fans.

Big crowds even turned up for training and the Eels were always in the media. If Sterling had a haircut then you could bet it would be on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the next day. A player once told me as we were jogging onto the playing field for a pre-match warm up that even just walking past the fans in the Blue and Gold shirt was the greatest feeling he ever had and it was what he lived for.

Back in the ‘eighties, Parramatta used to get over 10,000 crowds for the third-grade (under-23) games which were the lead up games to reserve-grade and first-grade so the supporters had immense knowledge of each and every individual throughout the club. It wasn’t unusual for fans to have players’ names on their shirts from the lower grades.

With four Premiership victories and a host of star players who have gone on to be legends, the 1980s will always be remembered as the era of one of the greatest sporting teams ever; the mighty Parramatta Eels.


The Cumberland Oval Fire

…by Bryce Eulenstein, a lifelong supporter.

When a club wins its first premiership, it usually sparks scenes of wild celebration, fuelled by euphoria, relief and sometimes alcohol. Rarely, however, do they reach the heights that the celebrations in Parramatta did on the night of 27th September 1981; the night they burned down Cumberland Oval.

Originally designed for suburban cricket in the late 1800’s, Cumberland’s grassed hill, wooden plank seating and small, antiquated grandstand could never cope with the 20,000 crowds that would cram in to see the Eels in the late 1970’s. Since 1975 they had been on the verge of that elusive premiership, and crowds had swelled accordingly. On matchday, patrons seeking a seat would need to arrive mid-morning, hours before the 3pm kick off. While facilities at other suburban grounds, such as Brookvale, Belmore and Leichhardt ovals improved with the times, Cumberland didn’t.

So, when the people of Parramatta finally got their champion team in the 1981 Grand Final, it didn’t take long for them to decide that they deserved a champion’s home ground as well. Some minor discussion in the press about the possibility of upgrading Cumberland was the only seed that was needed.

I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the Grand Final – a day I’ll never forget – with some mates from school. As the SCG erupted in a massive cheer at fulltime, we decided to hightail it back to Parramatta. So we piled into my mate Wazza’s blue-and-gold decorated Austin, and off we went. Arriving at the Leagues Club, we noticed some commotion at the Oval, and a small plume of smoke developing above the grandstand. Leaving the Austin, we wandered over and walked into history.

There were groups of people in various parts of the ground who were quite simply going berserk. The old seats around the oval were being ripped up. The fences were pushed down, the fittings removed from the dressing rooms and the walls smashed. Water sprayed out from broken pipes, and whatever could be found was either looted or destroyed. People were using the timber from the seats and fences to start fires, some of which ignited parts of the grandstand. Amidst these scenes, people simply sat quietly in the grandstand and reflected upon the moment.

My most vivid memory was the destruction of the scoreboard. Set on a ten-foot brick base, the scoreboard was of fibro construction. A group of youths were plundering the scoreboard like a gang of Mongol hoards in a fit of rage. Beneath them another enraged gang decided to pile timber up against the brick pedestal and set fire to it. The gang on the top continued their raging destruction. Then, one by one, they stopped, looked at each other, and said “Oh shit!” as the flames started licking at their shoes. Suddenly the shouts of fury turned into meek cries for help. They eventually escaped harm, which is more than can be said for the scoreboard.

The destruction of Cumberland Oval was complete and much to the joy of Eels fans everywhere, it had to be completely rebuilt. However, instead of a quick start to the new stadium, a legal wrangle broke out between the pro stadium lobby and the ‘Friends of Parramatta Park’, who claimed that the size of the stadium would impinge upon the aesthetics of the park. While the dispute dragged on, the Eels trained at Granville Park, and played at Belmore Sports Ground. Eventually, after four long seasons away, the Eels returned home to the new Parramatta Stadium in 1986.

In the long lean seasons since those days, we have seen other clubs, such as Penrith, Canberra, Brisbane, Newcastle and Melbourne break their premiership ducks. Each clubs’ fans have celebrated in their own way I guess, but it has to be said, that no club celebrates a premiership win quite like Parramatta!

Cronin’s Final Year
1986 was a year of frustration for Mick Cronin. It all started in a pre-season trial and a tackle involving teammate Mark Laurie. In the tackle, Laurie’s finger accidentally poked Cronin in the eye and the champion goal kicker suffered a detached retina which consigned him to the sideline for four months!

Coach John Monie decided against rushing ‘The Crow’ back, giving him plenty of time to test his vision. He came back in Round 10 (making his reserve grade debut after 10 seasons at the club!). In that match, however, he broke his ribs and was out of action until the Major Semi final. That game became the first full first grade game that he played in a year, and with great relief, it seemed that the year when everything went wrong was behind him. But a bizarre incident was just around the corner that would almost end in disaster.


Cronin hailed from the small south coast town of Gerringong, where his family owned the local pub. When he signed with Parramatta in 1977, he decided against moving so he could stay and help run the business. That meant a two hour one-way trip to Parramatta for every training session, team meeting or game. In ten seasons, he was never late and never missed a session. So the Eels’ dressing room was certainly in a panic half an hour before kick off for the 1986 Grand Final when their star goal kicker hadn’t arrived!

Mick Cronin was stuck in traffic. A six car pile up on the notoriously foggy F6 freeway had brought traffic to a standstill and ‘The Crow’ was stuck in the middle of it. Cronin was never one for melodrama, however, and he did the only thing he could do. He pulled his car off the road, walked to the crash site, and politely asked a policeman if there was any way he could get to Sydney in a hurry. The policeman freaked when he saw Australian Rugby League’s greatest ever point scorer standing there on grand final day no less! With some urgency, he organised a police car to get him to the Sydney Cricket Ground. Bypassing the crash scene, and tearing up the F6 with sirens wailing, was how Cronin prepared for the match. He arrived half an hour before kick off!

And the rest is history. It was Cronin’s two penalty goals that won the final and the last was one of the most memorable in living memory. Not only did it provide the match winning points but it set the record for the most points ever scored in first grade (1971), and was the first time anyone had broken the 2000 points barrier in all grades. He finished his career that afternoon with 2001 points in all grades for the Eels, as a Premiership winner and a club legend.

He did eventually return to the F6 to collect his abandoned car!

Peter Sterling Profile
Legend has it that at the birth of Peter Sterling in Toowoomba, the doctor made comment about the large lump of new born baby. “Mrs Sterling”, he started, “one day he’ll play for Australia!” The first big step towards fulfilling this destiny was the day in 1978 Parramatta coach Terry Fernley drove to Wagga Wagga in southern NSW to lure him into the Eels juniors.

It was a big year for the blond halfback who became the player of the series for Fairfield Patrician Brothers in the Commonwealth Bank Cup. He also made his first grade debut in the semi final against Many, at fullback, which the Eels lost under controversial circumstances. The following year, he made his debut at halfback, and stayed there for 15 seasons.

Despite a big step (off both feet) and speed off the mark, his greatest satisfaction was putting players through gaps. In his formative years with the Eels, he developed the unique ability to know where every player on the field was by only looking one side of the ruck. Coupled with a magical kicking game, it was only natural that he made his State of Origin debut in 1981. That year, he was instrumental in the club’s brilliant grand final win, setting up four tries in the 20-11 win over Newtown.

He usurped Steve Mortimer as the code’s top halfback in 1982, and was the mastermind behind the 21-8 belting of Manly in the 1982 decider. He made his test debut on the Kangaroo Tour, and his partnership with Brett Kenny kept the incumbent Mortimer and Wally Lewis out of the side. Another premiership in 1983 followed, and he was lured to Hull to spend the 1984 and 1985 off seasons.

Sterling was a noted big match player and his efforts in the loss to Wigan in the magical Challenge Cup Final of 1985 led many people to believe that he should have beaten his great friend Brett Kenny to the coveted Lance Todd Trophy. With the game seemingly over, Sterling led a superb Hull comeback but the Humbersiders narrowly lost 26-22.

This was followed by the first ever Clive Churchill Medal in the Eels’ grinding 4-2 win over arch rivals Canterbury in the 1986 grand final. In that game, Sterling was masterful, pumping out majestic kicks from right in the teeth of the brutal Canterbury forwards, giving deft passes and producing timely defence.

He captained New South Wales in the Los Angeles State of Origin in 1987, and was vice captain on the 1986 Kangaroo Tour. Later in his career, with a nagging shoulder injury and a decline in the Eels competitiveness, Sterling took over the Parramatta captaincy. He scored three perfect ‘10’ ratings from Rugby League Week, one against Easts at Parramatta Staduim in 1987, one against Brisbane in 1989 but probably his best ever display was his first ’10’ score. This came in the round one match of the 1986 season, in the sold out opening of Parramatta Stadium, when the Eels belted previous season’s grand finalists St George 38-6.

His list of awards is impressive:
Rothmans Medal (the best and fairest player in the Sydney Premiership): 1987 & 1990
Dally M Player of the Year: 1986-7
Clive Churchill Medal: 1986
Adidas Golden Boots award (best player in the world, shared with Hugh McGahan): 1987

His career ended sadly in 1992, when his shoulder gave way for the last time in a big tackle by Wests’ prop David Gillespie.

After 229 brilliant performances for Parramatta he announced his retirement. Today he has a successful media career with Channel 9 as a commentator and as a co-host of The Footy Show.


The Premierships:

PARRAMATTA 20 (Kenny 2, Atkins & Ella tries. Cronin 4 goals)
NEWTOWN 11 (Hetherington, Raudonikis & O’Grady tries. Morris goal.)

Team: Steve McKenzie; Graeme Atkins, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Bob O’Reilly, Steve Edge, Ron Hilditch, Kevin Stevens, John Muggleton, Ray Price. Subs: Steve Sharp & Paul Taylor.

PARRAMATTA 21 (Kenny 2, Grothe, Ella & Hunt tries. Cronin 3 goals)
MANLY 8 (Blake & Boyd tries. Eadie goal)
Team: Paul Taylor; Neil Hunt, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Geoff Budgen, Steve Edge, Chris Phelan, Steve Sharp, John Muggleton, Ray Price. Subs: Peter Wynn & Mark Laurie.

PARRAMATTA 18 (Kenny 2 & Grothe tries. Cronin 3 goals)
MANLY 6 (Sigsworth try. Eadie goal.)
Team: Paul Taylor; David Liddiard, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Stan Jurd, Steve Edge, Paul Mares, Peter Wynn, Steve Sharp, Ray Price. Subs: Mark Laurie & Gary Martine.

PARRAMATTA 4 (Cronin 2 goals)
CANTERBURY 2 (Lamb goal)
Team: Paul Taylor; Mick Delroy, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Terry Leabeater, Michael Moseley, Geoff Budgen, John Muggleton, Mark Laurie, Ray Price. Subs: Tony Chalmers & Peter Wynn.

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1 Response to Parramatta in the 1980s

  1. Olwyn Jones says:

    I am researching a story on the Cumberland Oval Fire in 1981 for a documentary series and am trying to locate images of the fire and its aftermath. Any information on the whereabouts of original photos would be great, cheers Olwyn

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