Almanac (Country) Football: The incredible story of the 1952 South Gippsland Football League Grand Final

The incredible story of the 1952 South Gippsland Football League Grand Final

 

 

Across South Gippsland in September of 1952, everyone was talking about one thing… the sensational ending to the grand final in the South Gippsland Football League. Controversy would forever surround the result of this game, with both sides laying claim to the premiership trophy.
In 1952 the South Gippsland Football League consisted of six teams: Leongatha Rovers, Dumbalk, Stony Creek, Fish Creek, Lower Tarwin and Meeniyan.

 

Qualifying for the grand final was Fish Creek, a club that had formed in 1891. Their opponent on the day, Meeniyan was a town just over 14km away. Meeniyan Football Club had been playing competitive football since 1905. The match took place at the neutral ground in Leongatha, a further 57km further north. The 1952 grand final was the first for some time that had not actually been played in Meeniyan, the league’s usual location for the yearly decider.

 

 

These two teams had met the previous year in the first semi-final, and in somewhat similar circumstances (as we will learn) their result was a draw. It took a replay of the game the following week for Fish Creek to secure the win by ten points. Fish Creek ultimately lost the preliminary final to Dumbalk by five goals.

 

Fish Creek had a young list with only four players over the age of 25. Ex-Fitzroy player, 37-year-old Terry Mackin was their captain, while Meeniyan was led by Rod Nicholson.

 

Fish Creek finished the season in fourth place, with eight wins from 14 games. They battled with (third placed) Stony Creek in the first semi-final. In a tight encounter, Fish Creek prevailed by five points, Captain Terry Mackin leading from the front with two goals, while Bill Tibballs was also prominent.

 

This set up a match with Dumbalk (the premiers from the previous year) at the Meeniyan ground. The result went in Fish Creek’s favor, winning 8.10.58 to 6.12.48, and they went through to the grand final

 

 

So on an overcast day with scattered showers, and a wind sweeping across the ground, the temperature hovered around 12°C. The two best teams in the South Gippsland Football League met to decide the 1952 premiership.

 

 

Meeniyan made two changes to their semi-final team, bringing in McDonald and Millart, for two injured players, while Fish Creek made just the one change, with Larkin omitted for Eric Smith.

 

 

 

THE BIG GAME

 

 

Meeniyan won the toss with their captain Rod Nicholson choosing to kick with the wind towards the Korumburra end. The beginning of play saw both teams battling their own nerves and taking their time to settle down. It was Meeniyan who scored first, a goal from R. McKenzie. All the play was with Meeniyan to begin with, as they attacked again and again, and it was only the brilliant defensive play of Don Jackson and the Farrell brothers (Ashton and Graham) that held the tide back for Fish Creek. Finally Fish Creek got the ball forward, where they pushed their case for their opening goal, but Frank McKenzie failed to make the distance. Stan Bath was prominent, but couldn’t stop Meeniyan from kicking two more goals (Durant and Millard) to take a 17 point lead at the first change of ends.

 

As the second quarter got underway, Jack Vagg worked his way into the game and was able to send the ball into attack for Fish Creek, where Russell Byrnes finally secured their first major of the game. This got their game going and quick shots by Les Watkins and Frank McKenzie finally put Fish Creek in front (by a point). This was just the beginning of the avalanche of goals, as Vagg played on after a mark and his long-shot at goal went through. Les Watkins hit the post before a brilliant dash by Peter Edey ended in Frank McKenzie’s second. Then Plummer and Bath added more for Fish Creek, who now had command of the game. A Fish Creek mistake allowed Meeniyan’s McKenzie to score a much-needed goal, before Durrant added another, to bring them back into the match.

 

Not to be outdone, Fish Creek captain Terry Mackin had a running shot and hit the post, and as the half ran out, Jack Vagg marked a kick in, passed to Irving Park, who kicked his sides eighth goal for the quarter. Fish Creek had made the most of their quarter with the wind, blowing the margin out to 25 points at half time.

 

At the break, Meeniyan made some tactical changes, noticeably moving Steel to full forward.

 

To start the second half, Fish Creek appeared to pick up where they left off, attacking hard through Lindsay Hunt, but Hanily (Meeniyan) saved the day, as they launched their own attack, finding Steele, who hit the post. He soon had time to rectify this, kicking his first major of the day. Jim McDonald (Meeniyan) picked up his play and helped Durrant to his third goal of the day. The next passage of play saw Fish Creek attacking, and when the Meeniyan defenders overran the ball, Eric Smith (Fish Creek) was able to take the ball and pop it through the big sticks.

 

 

It wasn’t long before Smith kicked his second after a clever piece of play by Jack Vagg. Suddenly it was Fish Creek who had wrestled back the momentum in the game. Jack Vagg (Fish Creek) sent the ball forward time and again. He helped Frank McKenzie to another and after Les Watkins converted from a free-kick, Fish Creek was back in charge of the game again, despite kicking against the wind.

 

Sensing the game slipping away from them, Meeniyan ‘flung’ themselves into the play, Davies and McKenzie set Durrant up for a clever goal. Steele kicked his second, then soon after had a shot from point-blank range that was smothered by George Hansen, and Bill Tibballs and Lindsay Hunt ran the ball out of defense, passing to Stan Bath, who took a shot seconds after the siren. This was a lucky goal, as the umpire had not heard the siren until the goal was through. The score at the last change saw Fish Creek with a 27 point lead, both the umpires and the crowd agreeing on the score.

 

 

By this stage of the game, the wind had completely died away. Sensing this would aid them, Meeniyan went flat out from the bounce, attacking with all their might. After a McKenzie behind (for Meeniyan), Steele then made sure he didn’t miss. The margin was 20. When Eric Smith kicked a goal soon after, Fish Creek thought they were home. Around this stage of the game, captain Terry Mackin was injured, but played on. Meeniyan, desperate now with time running out, wouldn’t give up. Goals to McDonald and McKenzie saw the margin was reduced to two goals. The play was ferocious, but Meeniyan wouldn’t give up. Durant and McDonald kicked two more for them, and inconceivably, the scores were level.

 

 

Sixty seconds remained and Fish Creek sent the ball into attack, great work by Cliff McGannon and Ian Plummer, allowed Frank McKenzie a shot on goal, but he could score only a point. From the kick in, Fish Creek was able to gather the ball again, and Eric Smith sent the ball through to give Fish Creek a 7 point lead. As the ball was bounced to restart play, the siren sounded and the game was over. The final score was recorded as the following:

 

 

Fish Creek 0.2 8.9 13.11 15.15.105
Meeniyan   3.1  5.2   9.8  14.14.98

 

Goals
Fish Creek: Smith 4, F.McKenzie 3, Bath 2, Watkins 2, Plummer, Park, Byrnes, Vagg
Meeniyan: Durrant 5, Steel 3, R.McKenzie 3, McDonald 2, Millard

 

Best
Fish Creek: Hunt, Byrnes, Bath, Vagg, Mackin
Meeniyan: Nicholson, Hanily, Davies, Durrant, Steele

 

 

 

 

THE BOMBSHELL

 

 

What followed was a celebration by the winners, their supporters chairing them off the ground. The opposition captain, Rod Nicholson, came and gave his congratulations, along with the league president, Mr. Ernie Thorson.

 

By this stage, most of the crowd had dispersed, players were wrapping things up, heading back to town to celebrate the win.

 

As they do after every game the goal umpires conferred, (in the Meeniyan rooms), comparing their scorecards, and they found that the scorecards differed. After a lengthy discussion, they finally agreed that the game ended in a draw. The score being 15.14.104 each. The general consensus was that the three-quarter time score was correct at 13.11 to 9.8. However, the mistake was made in the final quarter but went unnoticed as the crowd was going along with the scoreboard.

 

The goal umpires this day, supplied by the Leongatha club, were Pat Anderson and Frank Tilley. They had deliberated with each other following the game, with Pat contradicting what was reported later saying “I checked with the goal umpire Frank Tilley when the game ended and both our cards were the same. That’s official!”

 

Frank Tilley was a baker in Leongatha, and according to several reports he had a large sum of money on the result of the game, and needed Meeniyan to win to collect. It was his card that was hard to read, it had been dropped in the mud, as well as being indecipherable. There is also some speculation that policeman (and part-time bookmaker) Ernie Collins, was the one who declared the game a draw!

 

At this point the Fish Creek players were none-the-wiser, until they overheard an argument break out and someone shouting “It’s a draw!” When questioned the umpires both said, “Yes, a draw,” declaring they would be prepared to sign a statement to that effect if asked, and give evidence at a league meeting. One of the time-keepers was also asked, and his unofficial score also showed a draw.

 

 

 

Former player Cliff McGannon, a half-forward for the big game recalled how it all went down, remembering a big policeman, Ernie Collins, making his way into the Fish Creek rooms, yelling at Don Jackson, saying he wanted his money back, declaring the game a draw. All the players looked at each other puzzled. Don Jackson grabbed the cash from his bag and dumped it on the floor, which the angry cop grabbed from off the ground, on hands and knees. “That was the first thing we knew about it when he (the policeman) came into the room and of course everyone (had gone) home to milk the cows and they didn’t know Fish Creek hadn’t won until afterward,” McGannon said.

 

 

Upon being informed, league president Earnie Thorson, backed up by league secretary Mr. A Herrald, immediately declared that under the circumstances the game must be replayed the following Saturday.

 

 

It is also interesting to note here that the 16-year-old Leongatha scoreboard official at the grand final (Allan Mackintosh) declared “I have been looking after the board at Leongatha for five years and there has not been one dispute. I am finished with the Leongatha Club. I checked the scores with the goal umpires each quarter and those scores on the board were right.”

 

Likewise, Fish Creek’s best player on the day, Lindsay Hunt, can’t remember any corruption being in their games, until that day. Hunt being absolutely certain that they won: “We did win the game, I know we did!”

 

 

THE REFUSAL

 

 

Fish Creek immediately refused and resolved to discuss the situation the following Monday evening at a public meeting. On the following Monday night, 150 (of the town’s 200 total population) turned up at the Fish Creek Memorial Hall to discuss the situation.

 

 

Captain Terry Mackin stood up and, amongst much cheering stated: “Whether we lose the pennant and the shield is just by the way. The game is greater than the league and if the league is going to stand for this sort of thing, then the sooner it breaks up and the sooner we leave, the better for football and the district. It is hard enough to get a team of lads together, without having the premiership Ned Kellied off you. I will definitely not play in a replay. I would pull my togs out of the South Gippsland League and seek laurels further afield.”

 

 

 

The club resolved not to take part in any replay, with legal costs, if needed, to be covered by supporters. It would also lodge a formal protest with the league, with a subcommittee consisting of players and club officials.

 

 

Their defiance was a matter of principle, and plans were made to hold a premiership ball the following Tuesday (September 9th), and some clever supporters found an old pennant, in the team’s colours (of red and white) and sewed on the year 1952; hanging it in the public hall.

 

In response to the situation the secretary of Meeniyan, Mr. Milton Tobias stated: “Fish Creek must be squibs. They may be compelled to forfeit the pennant to us if they do not reply.”

 

 

Saturday, September 6th came and went, and no rematch was played, yet the league still had hopes of forcing another game. On the Monday night (now nine days since the game) the South Gippsland League met in Meeniyan and proclaimed that the game definitely needed to be replayed on September 20th (the Leongatha ground was being used until this date). If Fish Creek chose to ignore this decree then they would have no choice but to award the premiership without a playoff.

 

 

Of this Milton Tobias proclaimed “We will have to accept the pennant under these unfortunate circumstances if that is decreed. Our last flag win was in 1936.”

 

 

In defiance of the order, Fish Creek pushed ahead with their Premiership Ball. Held the next night, Tuesday, September 9th, all was going well, as most of the town showed up to celebrate. However, as The Age reported the following day, there was a moment when the three-piece band stopped the music and the ladies ‘stood like wallflowers’ as all the men ceased their dancing and adjourned to a back room, for an impromptu meeting. There and then in the middle of their celebration dance with their makeshift pennant over their heads, they made the final decision; there was to be no rematch. The men rejoined the dance, the band struck up and the premiership revelry continued.

 

All this time Meeniyan had continued to train, fully expecting a rematch on September 20th. So much so they even asked the league to cover the £12 cost of the extra coaching needed to keep the players in red hot form. The league refused this bluntly. Furthermore, the league fined Fish Creek £15 for its actions in ignoring the league’s edict (some people had called for up to a £50 fine).

 

 

At a special league meeting the premiership flag, the Thorson Shield (for highest aggregate over 5 years) and the J.Howard Shield were awarded to Meeniyan. Fish Creek declared they would be unable to replay the game due to ‘injuries and other factors beyond control had now prevented fielding of a representative side’.

 

 

 

On Monday 24th of September, Fish Creek held their presentation dinner. This dinner was attended by South Gippsland League president Thorson and representatives from Stony Creek and Dumbalk Football Clubs. Fish Creek President Mick Griffin congratulated Meeniyan, somewhat sarcastically perhaps, on winning a wonderful game.

 

Following this captain Terry Mackin gave his thoughts, saying that he hoped the public didn’t think Fish Creek footballers had cold feet about playing a rematch, but the fact was that due to injuries they would be unable to uphold the standard of football expected of them. “Jack Vagg has a broken ankle, I will not be fit for six weeks, others have lesser injuries and some are away. It would not have been a representative side and would not have been worthy of the league”.

 

The Central Gippsland League secretary stated, following the decision being handed down, that the decision to make Meeniyan premiers was valid and would stand. “We all want to forget about the mix-up now,” he added.

 

Neither Meeniyan or Fish Creek were satisfied with the result and would stew over it all summer.

 

 

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

 

 

Fast forward to the eve of the 1953 season, nothing had been forgotten. With the words of their captain, Terry Mackin still ringing in their ears, the Fish Creek football club ‘pulled it’s togs out of the South Gippsland League to seek laurels further afield.’

 

Their dissatisfaction with the South Gippsland League led to them asking for a clearance to the Alberton League. Consequently there was room in the league due to the withdrawal of Currujung Football Club. This was rejected by the South Gippsland League, which then saw Fish Creek lodge an appeal over the decision as Fish Creek officials were determined not to let the matter rest.

 

With dissatisfaction league-wide, the Southern Gippsland League had no choice but to dissolve. This cleared the path for Fish Creek to join the Alberton League, although they had already made the move to disband themselves and reform as the Fish Creek Imperials, changing their colours, ever so slightly, from red and white, to white and red.

 

 

They would go on to have a successful first season in the Alberton league, beating Welshpool in their first game (however no pennant was raised pre-game). They qualified for the grand final in their first season, against Welshpool, but this grand final they definitely lost.

 

Leongatha Rovers, whose officials were blamed for the blunder and copped some abuse, also decided to withdraw from the South Gippsland League, they would eventually join the Alberton League in 1955.

 

Dumbalk, Stony Creek, and Meeniyan all joined the Wonthaggi league. In a rare occurrence at Meeniyan’s first game they played Inverloch, the premiers of that league in 1952, the president of the league Mr. A Carmichael unfurled both team’s premiership pennants pre game.
And Tarwin, making no attempt to move away, remained the only team in the South Gippsland League, and therefore had to fold, its players to be haggled over by teams in nearby leagues.

 

 

 

So as of Thursday 2nd of April 1953, the South Gippsland Football League was officially dissolved.

 

In 1974 Earnie Thorson, the last President of the South Gippsland League passed away and his son came across the scorecard from the fateful game. Which according to eyewitnesses was just a mess and very hard to make any sense out of.

 

 

Fish Creek went on to have enormous success in the preceding years playing in the Alberton League. Former player, selector and President Ashton Farell believes it was the best thing that happened for Fish Creek Football Club and for football in South Gippsland.

 

 

 

 

 

This poem from The Age in 1952 sums up the situation.

 

The local football side
which had at stake its pride,
decided this was just the thing to do
They took a flag once won,
sewed ’52 thereon
and claimed that they were winners of the show.
They are sure of what they scored
(goal umpires they ignored)
and none dare take it from them now!

 

 

References
The Age, 1952, 1953
The Sunday Age, Cameron Noakes, June 26, 2005
The Herald, 1952
Gippsland Times, 1952
The Mirror News 1952
The Fighting Kangaroos 1891-1991. A Diary of 100 years od Fish Creek Football, Heather Gibson & Yvonne Byrne
And thank you to Cliff McGannon, Ashton Farrell, Dawn Farrell, Lindsay Hunt, Gavin Westaway
And the biggest thank you to Brenda Jordan!

 

 

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About Tim

A host of the Kick to Kick Podcast educator fan

Comments

  1. Chris Rees says

    Thanks Tim, this is a fascinating story which seems like a great Australian film waiting to made.

  2. Dan Hansen says

    Great read.

  3. These old country footy stories are great. Country town rivalries. Going home to milk the cows after a GF win! The classic (unspoiled jumpers). Superb story. Thanks.

  4. Shane Reid says

    What a tale. Love the Fitzroy connection with Terry Mackin. Thanks for the research and the ripping yarn

  5. Daryl Schramm says

    From a long way away in SA, this is a fascinating story. The history and area are foreign to me but I can just imagine the passion this situation would have evoked.

  6. Amazing story Tim. The rural, regional footy clubs were such a sense of their community. To win a flag, to play in a premiership side was truly something to aspire to.

    I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Paul Daffy’s, ‘The totem poles of Ouyen United’: superb read. Like your story about footy in the south of Victoria Paul’s work verifies the sense of community imbued in these teams. However heading into the 2021 season you wonder about the future of these leagues, the clubs in the leagues. 2020 was a wipe out for many, a pandemic, changing demographics, you wonder about where grass roots footy is going.

    With the AFL being one of the major players in the entertainment industry, where $$$ are the priority, how does grassroots footy survive? Not just out in the ‘sticks’, but also the ‘big smoke’.It’s great to read this history, of momentous events in local footy. Let’s celebrate the memories and keep it going for us,and those on the way, to enjoy for many more years.

  7. This was an enthralling read Tim! I’m admittedly quite biased due to South Gippsland being my neighbourhood whilst growing up, but echoing Daryl’s comments, I’m sure this story would grab the attention of people from far and wide.

  8. Tom Gilliland says

    I grew up in the Yarram district centre of the Alberton league and played in the Devon thirds in the 60s.
    I often wondered why we had to travel so far to play Fish Creek!
    Now I know.!
    Laurie Rippon (Footscray) was a schoolmate of mine.
    Although he played for Welshpool at that time, he went on to coach Devon after I left the district.
    Playing at Fish Creek was always a challenge as one side of the ground was boggy and kicking too far over the boundary meant the ball had to be retrieved from the creek!!!
    If you were relegated to the fourths they played on a ground that was on the side of a hill !!!
    So one quarter you would be winning and the next quarter it would literally be all uphill !!!

  9. roger lowrey says

    Great yarn Tim. Well done. RDL

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