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How Shane Ellen became a ‘surprise’ Grand Final hero

There’s one conversation Shane Ellen had with Adelaide coach Malcolm Blight leading into the 1997 Grand Final that he’ll never forget.

It was the Monday of Grand Final week when Blight approached Allen as he was warming up for training with his Adelaide teammates.

“We were kicking the footy around and Malcolm causally walked up to me and said I’m going to play you at full forward for the Grand Final this week’,” Ellen told almost 20 years later to the day

“I was pretty rapt but was still taking it all in so I mustn’t have reacted the way he was expecting. As he walked away, he turned and said ‘so you’ve got a game this week’.

Given the Crows had won their Preliminary Final bout and Blight rarely changed a winning side, Ellen had assumed his spot was safe. However, he was left slightly rattled by Blight’s words.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have been so confident,” he recalls.

Stoked and surprised, Ellen would be replacing Tony Modra, who had gone down with a knee injury in the Preliminary Final, as the Crows main target.

It would be the first experience at full forward in the then 24-year-old’s AFL career and there was no bigger stage to make his goal-square debut.

Oddly, the traditional half-back wasn’t nervous in the lead up and it was only during the warm-up on the day itself when he became anxious, but not for the reasons one might expect.

You see, Ellen hadn’t needed a reason to develop a goal-kicking routine, simply because the odds of him using it were slim. But things had changed, so he headed to the club on their day off to practice some set shots with trainer Vince Del Bono – who is now the Crows Head Trainer.

With Blight’s advice about natural kicking arcs ringing in his ears, Ellen constructed his routine that day. But he was keen to try it out pre-game.

“We were having a few shots at goal in the warm-up and back then we only had a handful of balls so it was hard to get a kick sometimes.

“I wanted to get a feel for what the wind was doing and try out my new technique but I just couldn’t get the ball until Mark Bickley threw me a footy for a shot.

“I took the kick from the exact spot I would eventually kick the first goal for us in the actual game. When I kicked it in the warm-up, Mark said to me ‘see how easy it is’.

“We had a bit of a laugh and when I kicked that first goal, he was one of the first blokes to run up to me.”

The first goal was only the beginning for Ellen in the 1997 Grand Final.

He kicked another one, the Crows’ third, in the first term before a leaner second quarter resulted in Blight sending Allen to his more comfortable position at half-back.

It was part of the bigger Blight plan, which saw Andrew McLeod play a little further afield and Darren Jarman start in the centre and drift to full forward in the second half. The move allowed Jarman to become the match-winner, kicking six goals to sink the Saints.

But a shift to defence didn’t stop Ellen from attacking the contest at every opportunity as the former Bulldog galloped down the field to kick two goals in the third term – the last of which gave the Crows an 11-point lead.

“The way the game opened up allowed me to keep running forward. I just kept running down the ground,” Ellen added.

“In the last quarter, I played back-pocket and Andrew Thompson started tagging me so I thought ‘you beauty’ because that took the pressure off me – I didn’t have to do a lot of defending. So I kept running forward to get him away from the goals.”

After trailing by 13 points at half-time, Adelaide split the game open in the second half and Ellen’s day was capped off with his fifth major after receiving a handball over the top and steaming into an open goal. The goal gave the Crows a 27-point lead with less than eight minutes remaining, putting the result just about beyond doubt.

“I didn’t dare think we were going to win from that point but I knew we were on our way,” Ellen said.

Ellen featured as one of the more influential players on the ground behind the likes of Norm Smith Medal winner McLeod and Jarman – who kicked five goals in the last term.

The self-described “low-possession defender” became part of Adelaide legend in one of the more inspired moves in Grand Final history and should be considered alongside the likes of David Rhys-Jones ten years earlier.

Ellen would go onto play in the Crows’ back-to-back triumph in 1998 before finishing his injury-riddled career in 2000 with 65 games to his name.

Despite living in Brisbane nowadays, Ellen’s a Crow through and through and will be hoping they can keep their 100 per cent Grand Final record in tact on Saturday.

“My boy loves the Crows and I’ll never forget my time there. There was such a good culture at the club and I’m so glad I got to experience it.”