1961 – Before it all started

1961 – Before it all started


It is 1961. It is 5.30pm on the day of the first round. The Demons, with five premierships in six years, have started well in their quest for another flag by overcoming the Lions at Brunswick Street, a venue where they have come to grief surprisingly often in recent times. 1960 grand finalist Collingwood was swamped by a third quarter deluge of goals at Kardinia Park where the Cats made an early claim for improver of the season. The Bombers were surprise losers at Arden Street where the Kangaroos proved too awkward for the visitors, suggesting a lean season may be in the offing for Essendon. But the prize for the most disappointing side of the day went to Hawthorn, who at home were no match for the fast finishing Swans. Meanwhile the Blues pipped the Saints, and Footscray comfortably accounted for Richmond.


The Hawks’ dismal effort left their fans gobsmacked. The team had won 11 of its last 13 matches in 1960 and in the second half of the season was a tough match for all the rest of the competition. Now it is time for teasing again. Hawthorn had reached the finals only once, in 1957, in its 36 seasons. By contrast, in the same period, the Magpies had been a finalist on 25 occasions, Carlton 18 and Essendon, Melbourne and Richmond 17. Even maligned St Kilda had been a finalist twice.


Thus far Collingwood had won 13 flags, Melbourne 11 and Essendon 10. Of the 1925 entrants, the Bulldogs had won one flag, leaving North and Hawthorn, in company with St Kilda as the only sides to be still waiting for the ultimate success. In his article in The Sporting Globe on 27 June 1953, Hec de Lacy asked, “Would the League be better to close Hawthorn and open a new branch in a growing suburb …”


If you had postulated that Hawthorn, let alone any of the flagless teams would be the unquestioned dominant club of the next half-century, you would have been declared an ignoramus or insane.


Roll on to the eve of the finals. The Hawks, after being an unconvincing 4-4, stormed to 10 consecutive victories and top place on the ladder, a game-and-a-half clear of Melbourne in second place, with the Saints and Bulldogs filling third and fourth spots. The last round was dramatic, with the last two places only decided by the sound of the siren at St Kilda where the home side barely outlasted wooden-spooner, North, by five points. At the Western Oval, the Bulldogs and Cats played for a place in the finals, but the result was a foregone conclusion well before the finish.


Carlton’s dependable defender John James was a surprise winner of the Brownlow Medal, finishing two votes ahead of diminutive North winger Laurie Dwyer, with Hawk rover Ian Law two votes further back. Hawthorn’s Brendan Edwards, and Bulldogs, Charlie Evans and Ted Whitten finished in the top 10. The Blues’ “Turkey Tom” Carroll, a recruit from Wagga Wagga, made it a double of sorts for his club by topping the goalkicking with a low total of 54, with the Cats’ Doug Wade next on 51, and the Hawks’ John Peck on 49.


In the first semi-final, a slightly steadier Footscray held on to defeat the Saints by nine points. Wily enforcer and captain Ted Whitten kept his Dogs on track, while the snappy Bob Spargo and Merv Hobbs led the Saints a merry dance. Dour height-challenged ruckman Alan Morrow was the Saints’ best, and his work in the packs should have been enough to get his team home. But lack of steadiness told, and St Kilda had to wait another few years to make an impact.


The second semi-final was seen as a watershed match in the opinion of many experts, as the long-dominant Melbourne was challenged and toppled by the new champ. This was a tense, bruising, encounter which had the imprint of both coaches all over it – the hard-nosed long time successful Norm Smith v the no-nonsense John Kennedy who valued a level of fitness way above that of any team that had gone before. The Hawks’ looked to have the pennant in their keeping after out-lasting the Demons by seven points. Astute skipper and follower Graham Arthur, hard-as-nails half-forward Gary Young and wiry ruckman John Winneke controlled traffic for the victors, while Demon centre half-back John Lord and ruck-rover Ron Barassi played their hearts out for the vanquished.


Melbourne was expected to account for the young, inexperienced Footscray in the preliminary final, but it had no counter for the exuberant Bulldogs who jumped the reigning premier at the start and built a huge seven goal lead by the final change. The Demons were flat after their enormous effort of the week before. Ruckman and 1960 Brownlow Medallist John Schultz controlled the aerial contests while key defender John Hoiles and winger Alex Gardiner were prominent. Up-and-coming ruck-rover Brian Kenneally did his best to create chances for his side, while defender Trevor Johnson never let up.


There was precious little grand final experience on offer come the big day. Hawthorn had not played a premiership decider, while Ted Whitten only survived from Footscray’s 1954 premiership team. And it was Whitten who tried to keep it together as his young team worked feverishly against the odds in the face of a more skilled and physically stronger opponent. The Bulldogs led by eight points at the half-way point, but when the teams returned, it was all Hawthorn, who added 10.7 to 2.4 to win in thoroughly convincing fashion. The mastermind of Hawthorn’s fitness regime, brilliant centreman Brendan Edwards, would have been the worthy recipient of the Norm Smith Medal had it been awarded back then. He controlled the game, particularly after half-time. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Hawks were all brawn and little brains or skill under John Kennedy. They had plenty of all those commodities. Edwards had all the skills and smarts, as well as being tough. And who would doubt the credentials of rover Law, or ruckman Winneke?


Taking a fairly long viewpoint, this result more or less opened the floodgates for Hawthorn, which is unquestionably the star club of the last 55 years. In that time it has won 13 flags, and currently stands in fourth place on the premiership table behind Essendon 16, Carlton 16 and Collingwood 15. But in those 55 years, the scorecard reads Hawthorn 13, Carlton 8, Essendon 6, Richmond 5, and Collingwood just 2.


Hawthorn’s dominance wasn’t immediate. It was runner-up to Geelong in 1963 but didn’t make the finals again till 1971 when it won a second flag. Footscray has not played off for the premiership since 1961. It’s next finals series after this season was 1974. St Kilda built its side during the next few seasons, and played in two grand finals, 1965 and 1966, landing its sole flag in the latter year. By contrast, Melbourne, albeit after a twelfth premiership in 1964, ran into a barren period with no finals from 1965-87, and in its two grand finals appearances after that, in 1988 and 2000, went down by 10 goals or more on each occasion.


So 1961, rather than being a watershed year, was the first year of a watershed few years which most definitely saw a changing of the guard.



  1. Thanks Bruce Kennedy for, well, a few reminders.

    The Hawks have not had the run of the comp (VFL or AFL) over the last 55 years. For example, from 1992 up until 2008 the Hawks saw some very lean years indeed and in 2009 almost spoilt things.

    But when they have got it together they have made the very most of it. How and why they settle at the top for longer periods than other clubs (in the mid 70s, mid to late 80s and currently) under different conditions, against different teams and with different internal management is a very interesting question. But they have and the results speak for themselves and are magnificent.

    By bringing us back to that fateful year of 1961 you remind us how fleeting opportunities can be. What did the Hawks get right and what missteps did Footscray take?


  2. Declan Fay says

    What a great read. I saw Brendan Edwards a few years ago at the 1961 premiership reunion and he looks like he could still get a run now. When John Kennedy was asked what made the 1961 team great, he said they played the game with a “Marvelous Brutality”.

  3. daniel flesch says

    Thanks Bruce , indeed a great read for this elated 1961 Hawthorn Junior Member. Too young then to take in the details then and glad to learn them now.

  4. Paul Young says

    Great work Bruce.
    “Bulldogs, Charlie Evans and Ted Whitten finished in the top 10.”

    Charlie Evans actually finished 4th in the Brownlow and played a very good finals series in 1961.

    He is a good friend of the family.

    I have it on good authority… that the starting blocks used by the winner of the 1985 Stawell Gift were 21st birthday gift from Charlie Evans. :)

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