1931 Grand Final – Geelong v Richmond: Cats shine in hard times

 

1931 Grand Final

 

GEELONG 9.14 (68) d

RICHMOND 7.6 (48)

 

The town of Geelong was behind its footballers as they revived memories
of the strong and skilful teams of yesteryear. By JOHN HARMS

 

 

In the late 1920s, a time of prosperity and promise, much seemed right with world. Even in the mean streets of Collingwood where life hardened the faces, people were happy enough. They took comfort in the mighty Collingwood football team. Their boys. With ‘Jock’ McHale as coach, Syd Coventry as skipper and his brother Gordon kicking goals, with the Colliers roaming Victoria Park like henchmen in a Dickens novel, with John Wren helping in whatever way he could, the loyal folk of the flat believed their footy team would dominate the League forever.

 

But things changed. In late 1929, shortly after the Pies had won their third successive premiership, the crash of the stock market in New York threatened to unravel the tightly woven thread of the capitalist economies, with the grimmest of social consequences. Almost immediately, jobs were lost, mortgages and rents weren’t paid. As the crisis deepened many people across Australia experienced tremendous hardship, and deprivation.

 

Thousands were footy fans; some were footy players.

 

The Depression was insidious. In Geelong, which was typical of most industrial communities, 30 per cent of working people lost their jobs, and signed up for assistance through Trades Hall.

 

Many businesses shut their doors. Banks foreclosed on properties. Landlords evicted families who couldn’t pay their rent. It had sinister consequences: often the unemployed were blamed for their lot, and welfare payments were often stigmatised.

 

The people of Collingwood had to battle more than ever. They worked where they could, and if they could, or left Melbourne and tried their luck ‘on the wallaby’, picking up work ‘on the fruit’ or ‘on the wheat’ and jumping the rattlers to Queensland. Old-timers remember John Wren’s people bringing boxes of vegetables to the cobbled laneways of Carringbush.

 

While life was cruel for some, the mighty Magpies were premiers again in 1930.

 

But only just. Geelong had taken it right up to them. The Cats snuck in to the final four in the last round of the 1930 home and away season when they thrashed Fitzroy, and lowly Hawthorn upset Melbourne. Geelong  went on to beat Collingwood convincingly in the final. But under the Argus system Collingwood, as minor premiers, exercised its right to challenge and overpowered Geelong the following week.

 

The officials at Geelong believed they needed only a new player or two to add to their list to take it up to the Magpies. The scouts went recruiting, and not just in western Victoria. They had found a couple for the 1930 season: burly Len Metherell from Subiaco and Bob Troughton from West Torrens.

 

The first move was to appoint a new coach for 1931. The committee gave the responsibility to Charlie Clymo, who remains a mysterious figure in the history of football. Originally from Eaglehawk, he had been brought up by an aunt and uncle who sold hay, chaff, poultry and firewood. He was recruited by St Kilda in 1907. In three seasons he played 43 games, despite spending weekdays in Bendigo where he worked as a miner.

 

He moved to Ballarat, coaching sides to premierships over the years. He was successful at Golden Point, the home club of gun forward Jack Collins.

 

To the squad of the 1930 season Geelong added the West Australian George Moloney, and Tommy Quinn from Port Adelaide. Moloney was only 175cm but he was a star for Claremont and he looked like he would hold down a key forward’s position. Quinn, a strong rover from Port Adelaide, had impressed other Geelong players at the interstate carnival in 1930.

 

Collingwood, despised by the other clubs and their supporters, remained the team to beat. Through gritted teeth people asked: could ‘the Machine’ extend its period of dominance to five in a row? Neighbouring suburb Richmond, where the Depression had had a major impact on the tight-knit working-class community, had lost the 1927, ’28 and ’29 finals to Collingwood but had a strong side, and the Tigers had also recruited well, picking up the Strang brothers, Gordon and Doug, from Albury.

 

Football was always going to be extremely competitive during these tough times. Wally ‘Jumbo’ Sharland played for Geelong in the early ’20s before becoming a respected football writer, and later a radio commentator. He recognised the difficulties facing the community generally. In The Sporting Globe just before the start of the 1931 season he wrote: “Unfortunately the only money many players will get this winter is their football cash. Many are out of work with no prospect of securing a job.”

 

And that was the footballers who managed to get on the park. They weren’t well-remunerated—the Coulter Law meant payments were limited to three quid a game.

 

But at least that was something.

 

As the new season opened League officials were confident football, which remained cheap for fans by comparison with other pursuits, would remain popular. And they were right. Football offered at least some hope to supporters.

 

In Geelong, not all citizens were happy. Some were critical that the Geelong recruits, who had been found work at Ford and other Geelong businesses, were taking the jobs of local men whose families were suffering. Critics also claimed that in travelling to Melbourne to the football, fans were spending money outside the economy of Geelong.

 

There was also criticism of the worldly footy fraternity. Despite the hardship, radios (still a novelty) remained popular, and there was an ongoing debate in Geelong as to whether football or live community hymn singing (which attracted around 800 people each Saturday) should be broadcast on 3GL. Eventually a plebiscite was held in 1931. Football proved more popular and a compromise was reached. Hymn-singing was broadcast on Tuesday nights.

 

In some cases the authorities tried to make provisions for the prevailing circumstances. In the lead-up to the season the railways reduced the cost of travelling to Melbourne from 5/- to 4/6 although, as people looked forward to the opening game against Collingwood, it was going to cost another sixpence to get to Victoria Park.

 

That match was a crackerjack affair. In hostile territory, Geelong went down by less than a kick. Moloney kicked seven of the Cats’ 12 goals in an impressive debut. Not far away at Punt Road, Richmond beat Carlton in another close match.

 

Geelong accounted for easybeats St Kilda the next week. Moloney kicked 12 and was the talk of the town. And in round four the Cats beat another contender, Carlton, by a kick.

 

Although attendances were slightly down, the game was well and truly back.

 

It seemed there was more public interest in the football than in the meeting of the Australian state premiers who had come together to discuss approaches to dealing with the economic crisis. Those trying to put bread on the table were already suspicious of their leaders, whom they believed were more likely to pursue policies that kept the British bond-holders happy than look after their own. At that meeting it was made clear that Australia would not be able to raise more overseas funds until it could show it was living within its means. That message was sent to the people, many of whom just wanted to know where their next meal was coming from.

 

Footy at least could lift the soul, however fleetingly, and offered hope.

 

Clubs found ways of supporting their own. At Geelong, the beautiful and much-loved Corio Oval came to symbolise the community’s attempt to help. The blanket went around at half-time, and the boys who sold the Football Record donated their earnings to the cause.

 

Yet across communities the mood was often sombre. Apart from the economic hardships, the sadnesses of the Great War never left the hearts of many grieving families. This was the Victoria as captured in George Johnson’s famous novel My Brother Jack, but made worse by the economic circumstances. Suffering diggers were visible, some still wearing the last of their army clobber, some unable to cope with the atrocities they had seen. Limbless soldiers enjoyed free entry to the football, a tiny consolation. Apart from the soup kitchens and the organisations formed to help those out of work, Geelong also had an Unemployed Soldiers’ Depot.

 

Tensions surfaced. A significant divide between those who had retained their jobs and those on some sort of sustenance. In Geelong the community tried to help: it established the Mother Hubbard Appeal, which attempted to centralise support for those in need.

 

But these were complex social issues.

 

That their footballers were doing well was important to Geelong people—it had been that way since Geelong became known as that town with the football team in the glory days of the 1880s. After a couple of close losses in the opening rounds of the 1931 season they strung together some impressive wins. Although it was a very wet winter, the Cats were at their best when they opened up the play, making full use of their strength, pace and skill. This fitted nicely with the tradition of Geelong sides.

 

But they could also mix it in close with the best of them. Their tough old ruckman Arthur ‘Bull’ Coghlan led the way. He was a natural leader, in a team which boasted a number of outstanding leaders. Balding, and looking like he’d copped his fair share on the footy field (he was suspended for the latter part of the 1925 season and all of 1926 for striking North Melbourne’s Harold Johnston), Coghlan made his presence felt, blocking and shepherding, and generally looking after his rovers, the nuggetty Tommy Quinn and the left-footed skipper Ted Baker, and his quick lightweights.

 

One of the speedsters was Jack Carney from Colac, perhaps the smallest player of all time. Just 160cm, and 58kg, the wingman was known as ‘Mickey the Mouse’. He worked beautifully with Edward ‘Carji’ Greeves the champion centreman. Greeves was the archetypal amateur, the lad from Geelong College. He was named after Carjillo, the Rajah of Bong, a character in a popular musical in the mid-’20s. He won the inaugural Brownlow Medal in 1924 and played in the ’25 premiership. Greeves was a star. He had missed the latter part of 1930 with a knee injury and his return lifted Geelong. Breaking out of the centre, he projected long drop kicks which gave his forwards every chance.

 

He had plenty to kick to. Jack Collins was just 21 and had it all: he was one of those gifted athletes who could leap and run and when he was on no one could get near him. He is still regarded as one of the great centre half-forwards of all time. Collins had some talent around him. Les Hardiman, who could play back or forward, was even more famous for his ability to soar. And then there was George Moloney, who could find the goals. Jack Evans, with hands as big as frying pans, often played as the second ruckman.

 

The defence was built on the two key backmen, George ‘Jocka’ Todd at full-back, and the great Reg Hickey at centre half back. Todd was not far off 30, old for a footballer in those days. His battles with Gordon Coventry were memorable and the champion Collingwood full-forward regarded him highly. Todd had a tremendous understanding with his young back pocket player, another lad from Geelong College, Milton Lamb, who, though small, was regarded as extremely brave.

 

Hickey was a stalwart figure at centre half-back. A leader on and off the field, he represented the best of the Catholic and sporting traditions, and there was a sense for more than a decade that if Reg Hickey were in the Geelong team the town had little to worry about.

 

The flankers included the dasher Rupe McDonald and Jack Williams who ran in straight lines. Williams was often sent out with a job to do. He had the pace to play on the Richmond champion Jack Titus, a lightly framed forward, who was a fine lead and good mark, and could get away from the bigger defenders.

 

Geelong had a lot of talent.

 

Through the long winter the team gave its fans something to admire. The Cats beat each of the contenders. They thrashed Richmond at Corio, the Advertiser suggesting this was “the first knot in the Tiger’s tail”. They kicked 4.19 to Collingwood’s 4.6 at home as well. Having lost just three matches, they finished top on percentage, ahead of Richmond.

 

It was an even year, especially for those in the middle of the table trying to secure a place in the finals. Footscray emerged as a contender, beating the Tigers in round 14, but it had no forwards. Melbourne won its share of games. St Kilda beat Collingwood in a classic at the Junction Oval when the full-forwards, Bill Mohr and Gordon Coventry, kicked 11 goals each. Haydn Bunton had arrived at Fitzroy and despite winning the 1931 Brownlow Medal, he could not lift the side beyond four wins.

 

The Blues won the games they needed to, and finished third, and surprisingly Collingwood, who had slipped somewhat, needed to win its last fixture to ensure fourth position. It thrashed Melbourne.

 

A new finals system was implemented. League delegate Percy Page and young Ken McIntyre, a Geelong lad who was in his final year of an arts degree at Melbourne University, proposed the format.

 

In the first week of the finals, Carlton, led by Harry ‘Soapy’ Vallence who booted 11 goals, thrashed the Pies to move to the preliminary final. The Collingwood machine had finally ground to a halt.

 

Geelong seemed to have the Tigers’ measure. Yet, in the second semi-final, the Cats were outclassed by Richmond, who had winners all over the ground. Geelong fumbled its way through the match to lose by 33 points.

 

It got worse for Geelong. By quarter-time in the preliminary final all looked lost. Kicking against the wind the Cats failed to score, while the Blues piled on 7.5. But Geelong rallied and by half-time led by three points. In the second half, the match was in the balance for a long time, with the Cats playing what the Geelong Advertiser called “inspired football”. Metherell and Coghlan led the way, with Greeves playing “rattling good football”. The Cats managed to hold Carlton who had the strong breeze in the third quarter, and were confident coming home. Despite dominating play, they registered a series of points, before sealing victory with Rayson’s goal.

 

In the week of the Grand Final, Geelong was buzzing. Some employers let their charges work late each day so they could have Saturday morning off. The woollen mills announced they would close for Grand Final day. The annual schoolgirls athletics carnival had been scheduled that afternoon and many of the girls and their parents wanted to go to the football. Local businessman  Julius Solomon set up a PA system so the radio broadcast could be heard across the oval.

 

That Saturday more than 3000 Geelong folk travelled by special trains to Melbourne. Many who stayed home listened to the radio broadcast across Geelong and the Western District.

 

Richmond was determined to make up for the Grand Final losses of previous years. It had a strong side: Titus, O’Neill and Bolger (who would go no to be part of one of the great full-back lines of all time), Judkins, Zschech and Geddes across the centre, and Jack Dyer, just 17 years old, named as the first ruckman. The Strang brothers were picked in the two key forward positions. They had arrived at the club in 1931, having enjoyed brilliant careers in Albury. Doug was a brilliant mark. The Tigers could play fast, free-flowing footy, although their tendency was to engage their opponents in a tight, brutal contest.

 

As the crowd roared and the game got under way, a gusty wind blew towards the Punt Road pocket, making conditions tricky; it was hard to judge the ball in flight. Many mistakes led to scrimmage after scrimmage. The Argus described the opening quarter as “strong, vigorous and desperate”.

 

Geelong, kicking with the breeze, started brilliantly. Les Hardiman took a big mark, went back for his kick, and punted truly to settle the Geelong nerves. Richmond closed things up and the “rough and tumble” contest became rather willing with “players bowled over like nine pins”. Richmond’s Bolger (“in his anxiety”) threw Troughton to the ground “by the neck”. Umpire Bob Scott, whom all agreed had a stellar game with the whistle, warned the Richmond defender. Soon after, Titus crunched Lamb with a late tackle which raised the ire of the Geelong crowd. Lamb had been his reliable self, saving a goal on the line, and backing up Todd as he always did.

 

Bill Morrow, older brother of Geelong ruckman and club stalwart Tom Morrow (who played in the ’51 premiership side), had travelled to the match with his father. He was nine years old. “I remember the Richmond blokes, and their bare arms. They had huge, shiny arms,” he said in 1995. “And they wouldn’t leave George Moloney alone. Moloney went down a couple of times.” It was a tough contest.

 

At the first break Geelong led by a goal.

 

The second term opened with another Hardiman mark and left-foot snap which sailed through. Both sides continued to make handling errors, but Richmond barged their way forward, resulting in quick goals to Gordon Strang, after a mark where he was head and shoulders above the pack, and Jack Twyford. Richmond led by eight points.

 

Then, reported The Argus, Geelong “rose to the occasion”.

 

‘Mickey the Mouse’ Carney was instrumental. He brought the crowd to its feet when he received a pass from Hickey and took off, running 80 yards with his pursuer unable to make any ground on him. It was, said ‘Stab Kick’ of the Advertiser, “one of the most thrilling incidents seen on any ground this season”. Once Geelong created space even independent observers said it looked the goods. Troughton ran on to a pass from Greeves and goaled. And it was Carney, yet again, setting up Moloney who snapped over his shoulder. Carney continued to open up the Richmond defence and provided Collins (who was playing with “reckless abandon”) with opportunities. ‘Mickey the Mouse’ had turned the game. At half-time the Cats led and looked the better side.

 

Geelong dominated the third quarter. Goals to Metherell and Baker allowed the Cats to draw clear, but they were wasteful, and the Tigers remained in the game. Geddes battled hard on one wing, but Carney continued to make the play on the other, leading Judkins a merry dance. The Geelong defence was too strong. The half-back line was resolute, with Hickey clearing on many occasions, and when the ball did go deep into Richmond’s forward line old Jocka Todd outmanoeuvred his high-marking opponents.

 

By the final quarter the Richmond spirit had been broken and The Argus correspondent was a little critical of its “failure to see the fight out”. Carney remained on the same wing so ended up playing on the dangerous Geddes who had kept Richmond’s fortunes alive. The Cats, who seemed to run the game out better, were in control and it finished ‘tamely’ with the margin at 20 points.

 

Carney was clearly the best man on the ground. The Argus lauded the “little wingman” for his “dash, his persistence and his pluck… His play was spectacular and compelling.” The Advertiser was understandably a little more effusive, describing Carney’s game as “amazing”. But all reporters praised Geelong’s team effort, especially the ruckmen, and the key defenders who held it all together.

 

Geelong was the premier.

 

And Charlie Clymo was the premiership coach. Yet within months he had left the club to take up a secure job in the Ballarat railway yards. His belief in physical fitness had served the 1931 team very well.

 

Later that night the players were greeted by 3000 people at the Geelong station. The St Augustine’s Band played as the crowd made its way up the hill to the City Hall where the mayor tried to make himself heard. He was drowned out by the constant demand: “Three Cheers for Carney.” The voices demanded Carney be hoisted high, and the tide of joy carried him along.

 

In a time of great hardship, it was one of the most memorable nights in the history of Geelong—the town and the footy club.

 

To find out more, and to purchase a copy of Grand Finals Volume I CLICK HERE

 

Read more of John Harms HERE.

 

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au He has written many columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted j.t.h@footyalmanac.com.au He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo10, Anna8, Evie7. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. How do you know all this?
    Lovely, portentous, piece. I read it in the voice of one of those wartime newscasts.
    Now get on and write a review of the Cats Giants match you lazy sod.

  2. Warren Tapner says:

    Jack Carney was revered at Carlton as much as he was at Geelong, largely because after joining the Blues in 1936, he was directly and indirectly influential in our 1938 Grand Final victory over Collingwood.
    In May 1938, Carlton rattled home to beat the Pies by 10 points at Victoria Park. As the teams were leaving the field, Carney exchanged pleasantries with a number of opposition players. Their captain, Harry Collier intervened, and the situation exploded when Carney was punched to the ground. Collier was reported, found guilty and suspended for 14 matches. When the same teams met in the Grand Final, Collier was still missing, and Carney starred for the Blues.
    Jack played the last of his 163 VFL games in 1941, before heading off to serve in the RAAF for the duration of World War II. Happily, he survived, and returned to Princes Park five years later. From then on, he spent the rest of his life with the club in a myriad of roles, including reserves coach and player welfare.

  3. What a ripping yarn.

    Even in 1931 the Cats were wasteful. Some things never change.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    That is an absolute beauty JTH. Reading about what footy meant during the depression years I was always intrigued by the paradox of the people doing it hard, while on the field it was arguably the most glorious era for attacking footy, champion goal kickers and the precursor to midfield Brownlow Medalists.
    It was the Cats who ended a bona fide Collingwood dynasty in 1931 and 80 years later they ended one before it even began.
    What odds for a Geelong v Richmond GF in 2017? Also 50 years after what I believe is the greatest game of footy ever played – the 1967 Grand Final.
    Great read.

  5. Wonderful read John, of a bygone era that we can only imagine as there’d be very few still gping who would have been there on the day.

    I’m unsure if the 1920’s was a period of prosperity and promise. Unemployment through the decade fluctuated between 6% & 11%.,There were also some particularly vicious industrial disputes where the employers held the whip hand and were happy to use it. Many families, like mine, were still struggling with the loss of family members and loved ones during ‘The Great Trade War’. Sure it didn’t reach the nadir of the 1930’s but it was a hard time for many

    John was the Coulter Law impacted by the Premiers Plan of 1931 which saw widespread wage cuts unleashed on working people ?

    Good seeing Geelong making history , of a positive kind, being the first premiers under the page, McIntyre system.

    Glen!

  6. Thanks All

    Glen, you’re absolutely right re prosperity. That was too general a statement. The workers (and unemployed) always battled.

    And yes the presence of returned soldiers, and their own lot, and the grief of families and of the community generally is somethign that is central to 1920s and 30s life. I have written about it elsewhere including in Confessions of a Thirteenth Man. Indeed the passage I wrote about shared grief was picked up by Chris Bracher and the community development team at the new suburb of Woodlea (near Melton) where the planners wanted to pay the appropriate tribute to those from the region/suburb who served in all conflicts. I think that awful grief had a profound effect on Australian life. The scope of the grief, and the nature of the grief, led to ANZAC Day rituals – individual and family suffering was so great it required communal response.

    On more mundane matters, I reckon the Coulter Law came in around that time – maybe a bit before that. Would need to check it out in one of the histories. That can be my homework – for later tonight. or someone else? John Butler is across early professionalisation – which is a good story in itself.

  7. As a lover of footy history, especially enjoyed this. Can just imagine that scenes at Geelong Station that night. I wonder if extra ‘special’ trains are scheduled for this Friday night.
    On a sidenote, Collingwood beating Melbourne in the final round – some things never change.

  8. G’day John, i was partially tongue in cheek discussing the Coulter Law in line with the draconian prescriptions enacted by the 1931 premiers plan. The Coulter Law came in prior to the first bounce of the 1930 season.

    My limited understanding of the implementation of the Coulter Law is that there is very little evidence of clubs breaching it. As we’d be cognisant, VFL players had ‘real jobs’, like garbos, teachers, sales reps, etc, so the payment under the Coulter Law was a top up, not their primary income. I’d like to know more about it because it’s an area i have a sparse knowledge of.

    Re the unemployed i’ve oft heard that Jock McHales Collingwood provided free admission for the unemployed. if true it’s a great recognition of why Collingwood maintained such a loyal, strong supporter base.

    John Butler, can you please update my knowledge here ?

    Glen!

  9. Luke Reynolds says:

    Cracking piece John. Love reading stories about the 1920’s & 1930’s. So many of my heroes I never saw. Coventry’s, Collier’s. Ponsford, Bradman, Ryder, Grimmett. Phar Lap. What a time. For all sorts of reasons. No doubt a tough time. But glorious in many ways.

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