By Richard Jones
The impact of the Second World War had a drastic effect on footy not only in Bendigo, but in just about every other sports organization around Australia.
Amazingly, the VFL competition continued with only some slight hitches. The MCG was taken over as a United States military establishment after the Pearl Harbour bombing in December 1941, yet the VFL competition continued on.
In the BFL Golden Square had won the 1939 BFL flag with the Maryborough players arriving slightly late on their special train.
Then as the Forties dawned it was clear the war was going to have a major impact.
As 1940 began, player shortages and petrol rationing were important issues for clubs to consider.
Nonetheless eight clubs started the 1940 BFL season with Echuca East joining the league. That meant there was no bye scheduled.
Reigning premiers Square downed Sandhurst in the opening round. After three rounds perennial powerhouses Hurst and Eaglehawk had not registered a win and even Square was out of the four with just the opening day win to their credit.
As winter came closer clubs started to lose players with men enlisting in the various armed services. A carnival was held in June (hosted by the Bendigo Football Club) with proceeds headed for the war effort.
Echuca East didn’t last much longer. Difficulties in funding travel costs and a severe shortage of young men claimed East and then by the end of June Kyneton, Rochester and Maryborough had also withdrawn from the league.
LEAGUE legend Bob McCaskill had launched his plan for Sandhurst by this time with the BFL down to just four clubs.
Each coach knew now that finals footy was a certainty, but the finishing order wouldn’t be known until season’s end.
From the cellar position the Maroons accounted for top-of-the-ladder South Bendigo and McCaskill had his revenge over Reg Ford when the Hurst knocked the Square out of the finals with victory in the first semi-final.
Sandhurst needed to beat Eaglehawk in the 1940 preliminary final to take on South in the grand final. It took the last kick of the day for the Maroons to win through.
They’d kicked badly all match but Bill Pardon saved the day with a kick off the ground for a six-pointer in the dying seconds.
South controlled the game up to half-time in the 1940 grand final. Then super-coach and centreman McCaskill, in his last full season in the BFL, intervened.
He kicked two goals himself in the opening minutes of the third quarter. South fought on and it wasn’t until Theo Hellwege snapped a goal over his head from 45 yards out that Sandhurst sealed a one-kick victory.
It was a fitting tribute to McCaskill. He was to move to Melbourne where he coached North Melbourne and Hawthorn in the VFL.
In his 15 seasons in charge at Sandhurst McCaskill had led the Maroons to nine premierships from 12 grand finals – including six-in-a-row from 1929 to 1934, inclusive.
South Bendigo faltered again in the 1941 season as the Bloods went down to Eaglehawk. And although some other football was being played around Bendigo through the remainder of the war years, the end of 1941 saw the BFL head into recess for the next three years.
FINALLY footy was back as 1945 arrived. Germany was on it last legs and Japan could survive only another few, short months until VP day in August.
Many young men had still not been officially de-mobbed and many were posted to other districts, and even to other states.
Every Saturday morning, Golden Square had to send a car up to Murchison where Reg Ford was garrisoned. Square coach Bonnie Hargreaves arranged for a driver to head up to Murchison on a weekly basis to collect his star player.
The tactic worked out. Square thumped Eaglehawk in the 1945 grand final by 101 points – a big margin in those days when huge scores weren’t usual.
Eaglehawk under coach “Wicky” Toma had their revenge in 1946. Despite trailing by close to eight goals late in the grand final, the Two Blues powered home to take out the premiership cup over Square by four points.
There were two other important sidelights to the 1946 season. Not only did Rochester re-enter the BFL but current Heathcote District Football League club Elmore also played in the BFL.
Elmore lasted just the one season. While Kyneton was re-admitted for the 1947 season, Elmore was not.
And after his many drives back and forth from Murchison to Bendigo in 1945, Ford had left Square by the end of 1946. He’d decided to return to Sandhurst where he finished out his footy career.
FORD was the inspiration for Sandhurst’s triple successes as the Forties came to a close.
The Maroons won flags in 1947, 1948 and 1949 with Ford following the fitness regimes of his former mentor McCaskill.
Sandhurst players were extremely fit and they accounted for Square, Eaglehawk and South (in that order) in the concluding three grand finals of the 1940s.
In a one-off as far as fairest and best voting in the BFL is concerned, four players tied for the 1947 award: Doug Wilson and Ron McHardy (GS), Bill White (Sandhurst) and Rochester centreman Herb Zegelin.
Golden Square ruckman Heinz Tonn (later to coach Castlemaine) won the 1948 league best and fairest award. Eaglehawk’s Harry Morgan took out the goal-kicking award with 66 majors.
He was to win the BFL goal-kicking three more times, topping the ‘ton’ in 1953.
South Bendigo was on the cusp of its golden decade. Alan “The Fox” McDonald had arrived from Richmond as playing coach in 1947. Although the Bloods went down to Ford’s Hurst in the decider of 1949 McDonald was to lead South to five flags in seven seasons in the early to mid-1950s.
Ford retired at the end of the ’49 season. He was 37 and had coached or played in a staggering 13 BFL premierships with Square and Sandhurst.
Golden Square people can look back after their five consecutive flags in the 2000s (2009-13) and say: “Perhaps Reg laid down a path for us to follow.”
1940s BFL grand final scores
1940: Sandhurst 13.18 (96) def. South Bendigo 13.13 (91)
1941: Eaglehawk 17.16 (118) def. South Bendigo 11.14 (80)
1942-44: BFL in recess.
1945: G. Square 23.20 (158) def. Eaglehawk 8.9 (57)
1946: Eaglehawk 14.10 (94) def. G. Square 13.12 (90)
1947: Sandhurst 18.19 (127) def. G. Square 11.8 (74)
1948: Sandhurst 16.24 (120) def. Eaglehawk 8.9 (57)
1949: Sandhurst 11.22 (88) def. South Bendigo 9.19 (73)
VFL grand final scores from the World War 2 era
1939: Melbourne 21.22 (148) def. Collingwood 14.11 (95)
1940: Melbourne 15.17 (107) def. Richmond 10.8 (68)
1941: Melbourne 19.13 (127) def. Essendon 13.20 (98)
1942: Essendon 19.18 (132) def. Richmond 11.13 (79)
1943: Richmond 12.14 (86) def. Essendon 11.15 (81)
1944: Fitzroy 9.12 (66) def. Richmond 7.9 (51)
1945: Carlton 15.13 (103) def. South Melbourne 10.15 (75)
During the war years VFL grand finals were played at Princes Park (1942, 1943 and 1945) and at the Junction Oval in 1944.
Biggest crowd during this period turned out at Princes Park for the 1945 decider: the ‘bloodbath”. The crowd was 62,986.
With Geelong in recess during 1942 and 1943, rejoining the VFL for the 1944 season, temporary player transfers to other clubs were allowed.
Most successful was full-forward Lindsay White. He’d joined South Melbourne and topped the 1942 goal-kicking table with 80 majors as the Bloods made it to the preliminary final.
The Brownlow Medal was suspended during the years 1942-45 before being resurrected in 1946.
When Brownlow voting was reinstated in ‘46 Melbourne ruckman Don Cordner won with 20 votes from equal second-placed players Jack Howell (Carlton) and Bill Morris (Richmond).