Almanac (Footy) History: A season under the great Herb Matthews

It’s the type of chance meeting teenagers often fall into without forethought.

 

Two brothers, driven by a thirst to quench their sports fix, headed down to the old Ringwood Recreation Reserve (which would later make way for Eastland Shopping Centre). Charlie and Jim Johnson had both featured for the Mooroolbark Cricket Club, but in 1949 the pair sought to train with rivals Ringwood.

 

“We presented ourselves without invite,” Jim remembered. “A Ringwood guy saw us and told us to piss off.”

 

Luckily, another club member told the brothers to keep training. After a year playing in the top team for Ringwood, Jim decided to train with the footy club during the winter of 1950. It was there that he first met the great Herb Matthews.

 

‘Herbie’ had just wrapped up a 14-year playing career at South Melbourne in the VFL, where he had climbed the summit in both individual and collective terms. Matthews, originally a winger before evolving into a hard-nosed rover, tied the 1940 Brownlow Medal and finished as runner-up on two other occasions. He was known for his marking ability; at just five foot nine inches tall, ‘Herbie’ was named as one of the five greatest marks by sportswriter Hector ‘Hec’ de Lacy. In de Lacy’s extract from a 1949 article from The Sporting Globe titled ‘Football’s Greatest Mark’, the writer said, “for his inches there was no greater player than Matthews”.

 

A footy card of Herb Matthews in his prime at South Melbourne

 

But Herb Matthews wasn’t just an individual; the Fairfield rover was one of the only Victorian members of South Melbourne’s 1933 VFL Premiership that became known as the ‘Foreign Legion’. Made up of mainly interstate recruits, the heavy Western Australian presence led South Melbourne to the moniker of the Swans in honour of Perth’s Swan River. Lining up alongside star goalkicker Bob Pratt, Matthews joined the champion full-forward in travelling through Richmond by charabanc in the hours following the Grand Final victory.

 

Johnson walked into Ringwood Football Club, unaware he was about to meet the famous captain coach. “I knew nothing about Matthews,” he recalled, “other than the fact that he played League football”.

 

In the coming months, Jim would make an impression on the South Melbourne great.

 

“I was so fortunate to have played in a team with the great Herb Matthews,” Jim said. “He was one of the greatest ever VFL players and I got to play with him when I was 16.”

 

Coming off a season on the wing at Mount Evelyn, Jim’s improvement at Melbourne High School resulted in him being chosen as first rover after just a handful of matches in the reserves. Matthews had a great eye for talent, as would later be seen when as coach of South he moved Fred Goldsmith to full-back, a move that would see him win the 1955 Brownlow Medal. His instinct with Jim was spot on.

 

“It was the first time I had played as a rover in open age football,” Jim remembered. “I ended up winning the most improved player award in that 1950 season.”

 

Jim may have been under the tutelage of an AFL Hall of Famer, but ‘Herbie’ wasn’t the only League footballer at Ringwood. While Jim played school footy with future Hawthorn stalwarts, he also ran out on Saturdays with four other players who played VFL football before or after the 1950 season.

 

Herb Matthews’ role as Ringwood’s captain coach was something the champion rover was used to. His extensive VFL career included winning five best and fairests for South Melbourne over his 191-game career that included four consecutive Grand Finals from 1933-1936. He went on to captain the club from 1938 to his final game in 1945, and took on the captain coach position in 1939. After finishing his career after the infamous 1945 ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final loss to Carlton, where he was one of 10 players reported due to throwing the ball away when a free kick was given against him, he moved on to VFA club Oakleigh in 1946. Two seasons there resulted in no more success, so ‘Herbie’ upped and moved to Ringwood.

 

 

A team photo of Ringwood’s 1949 Premiership side, a year before a 16-year-old Jim Johnson joined their ranks

 

 

Jim doesn’t hold too many memories of his season under Matthews. Other than the initial selection, ‘Herbie’ didn’t need to say much more to his junior rover. But one lesson on Jim’s roving tendencies stuck with the 16-year-old. During years of kick-to-kick at Lilydale High School, Jim constantly waited out the back of the scrimmage to rove – a tactic that was effective in the schoolyard. Upon noticing Jim’s habit, ‘Herbie’ gave him a single piece of advice.

 

“One time after roving,” Jim explains, “Herbie asked me ‘why didn’t you kick a goal Jim?’ I said it was because I had to turn to kick the goal. He told me I should never be roving from behind, that I should be facing the goals and running towards them so that I never had to turn to kick a goal.”

 

Combined with his stab punt passing that he developed as a youngster, Jim went from strength to strength at Ringwood. Herb Matthews seemed to enjoy the way Johnson played, until a missed pass brought out his angry side.

 

“Herb’s knees weren’t that good; he could run straight but he couldn’t turn very well,” Jim reminisced. “We played our last game of the season against Box Hill in a semi-final, and I missed him with a pass. He abused the hell out of me for it, I remember that game very well because he abused me.”

 

Despite drawing the ire of Herbie, Jim’s performance was enough to receive an invitation to train with Box Hill for the 1951 season. They were heading into the VFA the next season, and wanted a player of Jim’s skill in their line-up.

 

Jim refused to take up the offer, choosing to stay at Ringwood where he was comfortable and willing to wear the black and white jumper – the colours of his beloved Collingwood.

 

But Herb Matthews would not return to Ringwood. After just one season he was gone, starting a journey that would end with him returning to South Melbourne as coach in 1954. Without the Brownlow Medallist calling the shots, Jim demanded to be played in his natural position on the wing.

 

“I told them I would only play if it wasn’t as rover,” Jim said. “I was greedy, I just played.”

 

Many years later, Jim bumped into an old Ringwood spectator in a hardware shop. It was an inconspicuous meeting, and one as coincidental as Jim turning up to Ringwood Recreation Reserve and finding himself under the wing of Herb Matthews. The viewer recalled a chat with the South Melbourne legend after leaving Ringwood at the end of 1950.

 

“Matthews told this guy that he wouldn’t play me anywhere but on the ball,” Jim chuckled.

 

It summed up Herb Matthews’ knowledge. In modern terms, Herbie would be referred to as having a ton of ‘football IQ’. In 1950, it came under the bracket of coaching smarts. It’s little wonder that Herb went on to shift Fred Goldsmith into a position that made him the league’s best player.

 

In the years following Herb Matthews’ retirement as South Melbourne coach, he slowly faded into Swans’ folklore. He was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 1997, and then named on the wing in the South Melbourne/Sydney Swans Team of the Century.

 

While Matthews continued his VFL life, Jim played at Ringwood for two more seasons. His stab punt passing continued to attract the keen eye of sports reporters who noticed his slightly different kicking technique. So did rival clubs; Box Hill came knocking at Jim’s door once again in 1956 alongside Prahran, but Jim chose to split paths with the top league. He took a year off to play baseball, before finishing his football career as vice-captain at South Belgrave.

 

Jim achieved plenty in his football life. He invented and perfected the stab punt pass when drop kicks were the norm. He went to Melbourne High School and played with future VFL legends there. But upon reflection, he says playing under Herb Matthews was an important memory.

 

“When I was playing with him I didn’t know how good he was,” Jim recalled. “Upon reading up on him, he was a very good footballer.”

 

When comparing the two, they share similarities. Both started on the wing and moved into the rover position, where they played taller than their short height. Both were skilful in terms of distributing the footy to teammates. But Jim chose to stay at Ringwood and South Belgrave while Herb forged his way back into the VFL. It was a key difference, but the chance meeting at Ringwood connected two people who held varying claims to Australian Football fame.

 

After his football career, Jim turned his eyes to antique collecting. Alongside his wife Helen, Jim started a 50-year run in the antique business that included roughly 40 trips to the UK and Paris and immense success. Not everything in life is about footy – Jim just happened to be good at it.

 

 

Sean Mortell is the Almanac’s Hayden Kelly Scholar. He is a second-year journalism student at RMIT. Read more of Sean’s pieces HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Sean

    Thanks for this piece.

    Sounds like you had a terrific chat with Jim. I love these links to the past – and I reckon sometimes Herb Matthews is a bit forgotten.

    Really enjoyed hearing more of Jim’s footy too, and getting some of the story behind a respected Almanac contributor.

  2. Dr Rocket says

    Terrific piece. Well-written.
    Nice inter-woven links.

    So where did Herbie Matthews go after Ringwood, before going back to South in 1954?

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Thanks for this link to the past Sean. I often wonder what it would be like to blink your eyes or click your fingers and go back to these times to see what they were like. I had to look up charabanc so there is another learning for the day.

  4. Thank you all for the kind words – it was a pleasure to speak to and learn about Jim’s sporting life.

    Dr Rocket – when I asked Jim this he was unsure as to where Herbie Matthews went to next. I did plenty of research but couldn’t find where he went to, so there is a possibility he may have stopped playing (which correlates with Jim’s recollection that Herb had bad knees throughout 1950) before returning to South to coach.

  5. Thanks Sean. Always nice to read about my team’s sporting stars, and to learn more about Jim. Herbie’s playing days were just a bit before my time, but I certainly fondly remember Herb Matthews Jnr. I still have his autograph from the sixties.

  6. Stab Punt Jim says

    Dr Rocket says
    August 7, 2020 at 3:36 pm
    Terrific piece. Well-written.
    Nice inter-woven links.
    So where did Herbie Matthews go after Ringwood, before going back to South in 1954?
    Herb coached the South Seconds for two years 1952/53 before coaching the Firsts. Bobby Skilton was his famous first rover at South. Herb played his last game Box Hill V Ringwood where we played them at their Home ground, a semi that we lost in 1950. I played in his last game.
    Thanks for your comment.
    RegardsStab Punt Jim

  7. Geoff Matthews says

    Lovely read about my Grandfather Herb. He was a much loved and admired tough old bugger. It’s interesting to hear different stories and connections that were part of your families life before you knew them, thank you for sharing.

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