Collingwood: a youthful obsession

by Brian Nankervis

 

It’s the twenty-eight minute mark of the final quarter in the 1970 Grand Final. Alex Jesaulenko gathers the ball and snaps an amazing goal. All around us, cocky Carlton fans erupt in a nauseating display of pathetic barracking. The dazed Collingwood army turns even whiter with shock, horror and disbelief. Something so good has somehow, suddenly, turned so bad.

 

I was fourteen, sitting high in the Northern Stand with Deanna, my cousin from Brisbane, and my heart was breaking. Deanna had taken me to the second semi- final two weeks earlier and she’d enjoyed the victory over Carlton without understanding its importance. This Collingwood team was ready to break the terrible drought of the 60’s. In that decade, when I’d fallen head over heels in love with the black and white jumper and the magic it represented, we’d lost three Grand Finals. The confident second semi win was surely but a final stop on the road to Grand Final glory.

 

Two weeks later, the dream had soured. A forty four point lead at half time had been squandered in the face of Ron Barassi’s desperate hand ball manifesto and a blonde, mop top kid called Ted Hopkins, who came out of nowhere and hung around long enough to kick four goals and set up this sickening victory. The siren sounded, booming in my brain. Amidst the mayhem, a smug Carlton supporter behind us jumped up and bellowed above the hullabaloo, “Up yours Tuddy!” This was the final straw. I turned around and spluttered a feeble “Get stuffed” before I dissolved into floods of hot tears and was led away by Deanna and her speech therapist friend Leslie, cruel Carlton laughter ringing in my ears.

 

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I’d been Collingwood since the cot. I didn’t have any choice. My dad barracked for Collingwood. He was taken to Victoria Park at the age of ten and watched “Nuts” Coventry run rings around Richmond. He was instantly smitten, a Magpie for life. Dad spoke about his Collingwood heroes with earnest reverence. They were “decent men, a credit to their families and the club”. One night over crumbed cutlets and soft peas, he proudly told us about a new business associate, the great Collingwood wingman from the 50’s, Thorold Merrett. Dad said Thorold was a thorough gentleman. A well-groomed, courteous man who used to stab kick the ball like a rocket. Dad set up a target in the backyard and I pulled up my sox, combed my hair and practiced my stab kicks, keen to master this mysterious art and determined to please my dad.

 

My bedtime stories were divided between New Guinea and Victoria Park. Dad had seen active service in the Second World War and had a rich repertoire of jungle combat stories. Treatment for malaria, prisoner-of-war tortures and my favourite … eye contact with a smiling Japanese sniper who wasn’t fast enough for my dad. But I had to work really hard to get him to tell this one and the awkward silence that invariably followed its telling was usually filled with Collingwood tall tales and true … a half time address from coach Phonse Kyne, Murray Weideman kicking a winning goal after the siren with a broken ankle, or Lou Richards putting mercurochrome on his boots when he was feeling kind to the opposition. Fuelled by these romantic tales of valor and heroism from Collingwood’s rich history, I drifted off to sleep, often in the midst of my own heroic and complicated footy fantasies from deep within the 60’s …

 

… I’m selected to play for Collingwood in the Grand Final against Richmond. Peter McKenna has done a hammie and club talent scouts remember me from a junior game when I slammed on six goals in the final quarter. On Grand Final morning there’s a photo of me polishing my boots on the front page of The Sun under the headline, “Magpie Magic: Teenage Tearaway Takes On Tigers”.

I’m in the changing rooms early, stretching and signing autographs for the bald boot studder’s grandchildren. Coach Bob Rose insists I lead the team onto the MCG and I crash through the banner wearing McKenna’s number 6 jumper. Freddie Swift welcomes me with backhanders and cracks about my mother’s personal hygiene, but by half time I’ve kicked five goals, shut Royce Hart out of the game and given Len Thompson a hand in the ruck. But Richmond come back strongly after the break. Billy Barrot and Dick Clay are unstoppable and at three quarter time the scores are level. We eat orange quarters handed out by grim faced, short angry men who pace nervously around our huddle. Bob Rose speaks calmly, and then Des Tuddenham takes over. Tuddy is bleeding from every orifice but there’s fire in his eyes and magic in his tongue. The siren sounds and for the next thirty-one minutes the lead seesaws madly.

Collingwood are fabulous. Graeme “Jerker” Jenkin runs the length of the ground, before goaling from the half forward flank. Colin Tully sharks the ball from a centre bounce and goals with a towering drop kick. But Richmond is determined and somehow, at the twenty-eight minute mark, they are only five points down. Suddenly Roger Dean is paid a free kick in the Richmond goal square. Oh no! He’s been niggling Tuddy all day and finally Des has had enough and flattens him with a bone crunching shirt front. Dean kicks truly and with time running out, it’s Richmond by a point!

Umpire Crouch bounces the ball and the Collingwood fans are stunned as it races back towards the Richmond goals! But our defense steadies. Laurie Hill bursts through a pack and sends a wobbly punt towards John Greening who side steps Kevin Bartlett, blind turns and shoots a long hand pass to Barry Price. Price looks towards goals and sees my lightening lead. His stab kick is a bullet and I take it on the chest, high in the air. The siren blows and 120,000 people explode, then fall silent. I’m 50 yards from goal, on the boundary, alongside the Collingwood bench. Rose is flanked by various club legends … Tommy Sherrin, Thorold Merrett, Jock McHale … all tight lipped, ashen faced and frozen with expectation. Peter McKenna hobbles up to join them! Shaggy mop of hair, big eyes, crooked smile. He gives me a nod and motions for me to use a drop punt. I walk back slowly, pull up my socks and unleash a beautiful drop punt which sails between the big sticks and into the grandstand! We’ve won the Grand Final! I’m carried triumphantly around the ground, a hero, a legend, a kid from North Balwyn proud to be wearing the mighty black and white.

 

That was the fantasy, pieced together and inspired by a deep devotion that took many forms throughout the 60’s. I was surrounded by Collingwood supporters. The best footballers at school all barracked for Collingwood. They wore Collingwood jumpers in our lunch time matches and protected me from the bullies who barracked for Essendon and teased me for wearing a jumper that mum had knitted. I proudly wore number seven for laconic Ian Graham, number five for the elegant Barry Price and finally, number six for Peter McKenna.

 

My dad’s brother and his family were fanatical Collingwood supporters. After roast chicken in front of World Of Sport, I spent most Sunday afternoons with my cousins in their den, listening to Rolling Stones albums and studying footy records. Yesterday’s match was dissected and votes given before we took a mini footy into the backyard and kicked it back and forwards over the roof of the house. They had a cubby that was a shrine to Collingwood, its walls covered in club tea towels, Scanlon’s footy cards, posters and newspaper articles. By the mid 60’s certain players were starting to grow their hair and wear pointed boots and I remember thinking that if The Stones lived in Melbourne they’d barrack for Collingwood.

 

I read everything I could find on Collingwood. I pored over The Sun, The Herald, The Sporting Globe (pink on a Saturday night and delivered with The Woman’s Weekly on a Tuesday morning.) “Boots and All” by Lou Richards was all but memorized. But nothing matched the potency of going to the games. By the end of the decade I’d been to matches at most of the grounds. Drenched at Windy Hill, squashed at Moorabin and frozen at Kardinia Park. At Glenferrie Road I made the mistake of admitting I barracked for Collingwood to a Hawthorn fan with a Scotch College blazer and a powerful right hook.

 

But none of the grounds could match the atmosphere of Victoria Park. There were many trips over the years but the first visit is indelible. Dad parked near Dights Falls and we walked around the ground. Past the railway station and the Social Club with the massive magpie on the wall and fleeting glimpses of ancient portraits, honor boards and wooden doors into hidden boardrooms. Round and round and finally in to the ground in the outer. Through rusty turnstiles and up crowded concrete paths, past huge men buying beer and raucous kids kicking footies in the dirt. Pies, pretty girls squealing, crumbling toilets overflowing. Up some stairs and onto the terraced hill behind the goals and whoosh!  There’s a powerful, primitive roar, a vast sea of heads and the Collingwood reserves kick another goal and it’s sunny and dad finds a couple of cans for me to stand on. Cigarette smoke rises in clouds and finally our team runs out and dad and I cheer and he lifts me high and we roar as our black and white heroes do a lap of the emerald green grass before handing out a wonderful thrashing. Go Pies!

 

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The night of the 1970 Grand Final debacle, Deanna and Leslie were meeting boys at Poppa’s Pizza Parlour and invited me to tag along. I nibbled morosely at my medium “Plain Jane” and sullenly gulped down Fanta. Triumphant Carlton supporters filled the dance floor. As they grooved to “Venus” and “Mama Told Me Not To Come”, I wondered how I could forget this crushing defeat and simply front up again next year. When Deanna and Leslie and most of the restaurant began chanting “Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Kiss a Premiership Goodbye” I didn’t think I’d have the strength to give myself for another season.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. haiku bob says:

    wonderful.

    if only we could turn the tables on them one day…

  2. johnharms says:

    A yarn even a Geelong supporter enjoyed RJB. Love the weaving of family in to it. And the writer’s call-to-putrify insofar as the Carlton Football Club is concerned. Thanks.

  3. Andrew Fithall says:

    As someone just a bit younger, and similarly aligned (courtesy of family), I feel it all deeply. We await vengeance.

    By the way, after your fine umpiring performance on Sunday, in my head, I can hear you calling your Brisbanian cousin’s name.

  4. Dave Nadel says:

    Excellent piece. As someone just a bit older (I was 23 in 1970) I still remember that Grand Final as if it was yesterday. I lived in a share house with three other Monash students who were not football followers. They had expected me to come home and bore them to death with footy replays and footy talk. Instead I walked back into the house and said. “No-one is to mention football near me for the next three weeks unless you want to see a grown man cry!’ Then I went into my room with some loud rock and a cheap novel and sulked until Monday morning.

  5. Rick Eldridge says:

    You took me back to Vic Park, I could actually smell the Burgers (and onions) cooking up in the hot food stalls under The Rush Stand as Dad and I head around to our usual spot. I see heaps of the game during the reserves but I need to rely on Dad to empty a few beer cans for me to stand on so I can get a half decent view during the seniors – no problem there. Mum spent the night sewing my number 28 for young Len Thomspon onto my jumper – I think I can even can smell the number – it was one of those one piece white background plastic jobs which I think we must have got from Uncle Thorold’s Sports Shop. Now I’m having a kick on the ground with Dad after the game … the best of times. Think I’ll give Dad a call. Thanks.

  6. Frank Gleeson says:

    As a 12 year old kid from the country this was my first ever VFL game, standing on cans in the old Southern Stand, squashed in and surrounded by a seathing mass. I remember Jezza’s mark across the ground in front of the members, I remember Sid Jackson’s sublime drop kicks on the run, I remember Tuddy knocking out McKenna and I remember Hopkins and his goals. And I remember the pain and the horror as the day disolved. But most of all I remember the Scum – those Carlton pricks and their mocking laughs at a crying kid aseeft the ground. I remember this each time we play them, I feed on the hate and it makes me, and the Pies, stronger.

  7. Mulcaster says:

    You heard it first from FNQ…Geelong are doomed!!
    Black Jack Evans was heard to brag about the invincible Cats in Woolworths today….
    Thats it, Jack has given them the kiss of death.’
    The Cats are pie mix.
    Now all Collingwood need is for John Harms to dis the magpies publicly like he did last year and the season will belong to Collingwood.

  8. Rick Kane says:

    Wonderful story Mr Nankervis. Whoever you barrack for, as a kid, every one of us dreamed the dreams of premiership glory. You have brought my childhood memories rushing back to me in technicolour and vistavision.

    By the way, not all Mighty Hawks supporters wear Scotch uniforms. And another thing, I trust Buddy and all make your afternoon tomorrow as miserable as can be.

    Cheers

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