Sunday, 28 September, 1986. Michael Cronin and Ray Price make their final bow in the rugby league arena.
The two Parramatta Eels legends ride off into the sunset, Winfield Cup in tow, getting the fairytale most players can only ever dream about.
Four premierships secured, their legacies enshrined and a club once again atop the summit.
Parramatta’s dominance through the 1980s was somewhat unprecedented.
The club had just two previous grand finals to its name in the preceding 34 years without a premiership to show for it.
Then, in a six year period, the Eels qualified for five grand finals, winning four of them.
They remain the only side to win three consecutive premierships in the limited tackle era.
But that story has long been told and re-told.
If you’re reading this, then you’ve heard of Jack Gibson arriving at the club. You’ve heard of Sterling and Kenny. Of Price, Cronin, Ella and Grothe Senior.
The fall from grace for the Eels though, was perhaps more dramatic.
After reaching six consecutive finals series, the club would enter the rugby league wilderness.
John Monie, the club’s last premiership winning coach, would leave in 1989, club legend Michael Cronin would do his best from 1990 to 1993 before being replaced by Ron Hilditch who wouldn’t fair much better.
It would take the arrival of Brian Smith combined with the Super League War for the Eels to once again become a premiership threat.
The 10 years between finals appearances from 1987 to 1997 was the second longest period since the club’s inception, when the Eels failed to qualify from 1947 to 1961.
So just how did Parramatta, the jewel in the west that conquered all and sundry from 1981 to 1986 fall so dramatically?
Well, you actually have to go back a decade to see the origins of Parramatta’s dynasty.
In 1976 the club qualified for its first grand final under head coach Terry Fearnley.
Graeme Atkins, Ray Price and Neville Glover, all future premiership winners with the club, featured that season.
In 1977, again under Terry Fearnley, those three with the addition of Michael Cronin fell to St George in the grand final replay.
Over the following three years the club would see the debuts of future greats Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe Senior while Bob O’Reilly would return and Steve Edge was recruited from the Dragons.
As Jack Gibson once said, “To win a championship, you’ve got to have a nucleus of five or six real tough, hard competitors.”
Gibson had that nucleus to work with, especially with two-time premiership winner Steve Edge joining in 1980.
Edge would captain the side from 1981 to 1984. The Eels would make the grand final every one of those seasons.
The tough, serial-winning hooker retired after the 1984 grand final.
In many ways, this is where the cracks began to open for Parramatta. The club had seen the likes of book-ends Bob O’Reilly and Kevin Stevens retire previously, but in many ways it lost part of its winning edge (pun intended) when their hooker and captain retired.
Like a thread being pulled, the blue and gold dynasty was beginning to unravel without anyone noticing.
In 1985 the Eels qualified for the preliminary final but were walloped 26-0 by the Bulldogs.
They weren’t the finals machine they once were.
You could draw similar parallels between the Eels of 1985 to Melbourne of 2021. Both lost their hooker, captain and leader the year before, and when the blow torch was applied in the finals, they didn’t have enough to get over the line.
But it wasn’t just that. Price was 32. Cronin was 34. In an era of virtually no sports science and day jobs they may as well have been in their 50s.
In saying that, Sterling was 25, Ella, 25, Kenny 24, Grothe 25.
Price and Cronin though were the beating hearts of the side.
In 1986 a severe eye injury to Cronin kept him to just seven matches all season.
That season is perhaps the best example of a team rising to send its two legends and captains off with the fairytale premiership.
Most around Parramatta knew it was the end of the road for Cronin and Price, they weren’t going to let them down.
In 1987, Parramatta’s two biggest names were no longer there. And the nucleus of Jack Gibson’s side was starting to age. Eric Grothe managed just eight games. Brett Kenny managed 14. The side missed the finals for the first time since 1980.
The thread wasn’t just being pulled, it was being yanked.
Perhaps the cruelest twist of fate is that Peter Sterling was in his prime. He was 27, a four time premiership winner and representative player.
He won the Dally M halfback of the year award in 1986 and 1987, Dally M player of the year in 1986 and 1987, Golden Boot in 1987, Rothmans Medal in 1987 and was RLW player of the year in 1986 and 1987.
Nowadays there’d probably be a massive bid for his services, a battle between the new heavyweights as they fight to lure the greatest halfback of the era to their club to bring glory.
1988 saw the Eels drop to 11th. Their worst finish since their 1974 wooden spoon.
Kenny managed just two games, Sterling 13, Grothe 13, Ella 17. Even club man Steve Sharp played only 9 games while Peter Wynn only managed six.
That strong nucleus Jack Gibson had spoken about was aging, quickly, and they weren’t being replaced. How could they be? They were generational players.
They used 35 players in 1988. That would be a lot of players in today’s era, let alone the 1980s.
In 1989 they rose to ninth, probably because Kenny managed 21 matches and Sterling 14.
It’s like watching a western, when the old timer who was once the fastest gun in the west has slowed down. He’s still accurate enough to hit the target, but you know he’s not lasting the entire movie.
1990 saw Michael Cronin return, this time as coach. Rugby league loves a good ol’ fashioned hero’s return.
This wasn’t that. This was a young, mostly inexperienced squad with a couple of old legends whose presence was lauded but no longer as powerful.
The average player age was 21. Peter Sterling was 30, Brett Kenny 29, Peter Wynn 32, Steve Sharp 32.
They finished 8th, but no finals.
I didn’t watch this decline. I wasn’t born. But those who did have told me that Sterling would still be ahead of the game, still had the wits to be Peter Sterling, but there was no one to take advantage of it.
By 1990 Ella and Grothe Senior had retired. Paul Taylor was gone. Even lesser known players such as David Liddiard and Neil Hunt were gone. Premiership winning hooker Michael Moseley was no longer there.
1991 well and truly buried Parramatta’s hopes and dreams. They finished 15th. But perhaps more damaging was Peter Sterling only managing one match all season.
Sterling was forced into retirement in 1992 due to a shoulder injury. Thus began the interminable search for his successor. Stu Galbraith and Tulsen Tollett were tried almost immediately. That didn’t help, they still finished 15th.
Many more have tried to fill the number seven since. Sterling played 221 games at halfback for Parramatta. Mitchell Moses is second on 104.
Last man standing was Brett Kenny. The Natural. The should-be Immortal. He spent most of 1991 and 1992 at lock and five-eighth.
1993 closed the book on Parramatta’s glory years with Brett Kenny heading into retirement himself.
1993. A decade since Parramatta’s third consecutive premiership. And instead of kicking goals at the SCG, Michael Cronin was resigning as coach after the club finished 11th.
No legends remained. The glory days were but memories. Ghosts merely whipped around the old Parramatta Stadium.
Kenny and Sterling became the basis of stories you told kids when they became interested in footy.
Cronin and Price shaking the hand of Bob Hawke became a moment caught in time, a relic of a bygone era.
The Eels wouldn’t surface again until 1997. Super League dropped four players in their laps while Brian Smith arrived to turn the club around and new legends rose from the juniors.
Nathan Cayless in 1997. He’d become Parramatta’s most experienced captain.
Nathan Hindmarsh in 1998. He’d become Parramatta’s most capped player.
Luke Burt in 1999. He’d become Parramatta’s greatest ever try scorer.
Unlike their forebears in the 1980s, they wouldn’t bring home the trophy. They’d get two cracks at it, but on one occasion they’d lose the unloseable and in the other they wouldn’t quite manage the fairytale.
And that perhaps makes the 1980s stand out even more. For a six year period they were the best. The very best.
And then, almost as if by magic, they vanished. Into the ether. A ghost story told by now aging men to their sons and grandsons about when the Eels ruled the roost.
Memories recounted from standing on the hill of Cumberland Oval, Belmore Sports Ground or the SCG. From a time when beer was brought into the ground by the Esky-full.
A story the younger generations could hardly believe after seeing the modern versions of the blue and gold fall so many times. Of looking around at the new Parramatta Stadium and trying to imagine the rickety wooden grandstand that was long-condemned by father time before it was razed to the ground.
One minute, the dynasty was here. The next. It was gone.
As Bruce Springsteen once sang, Glory days, well they’ll pass you by, glory days.
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