Almanac Childhood Heroes: Brian Gleeson – Brownlow medallist, member of the Saints Hall of Fame

 

 

In well over one hundred and fifty years that Australian football has been played, there have been many stories of euphoria followed by injury and heartbreak. This is just one of those stories.

 

In 1953 an 18-year-old boy from near Berrigan in country NSW commenced his career at the Saints. At 188cms, Brian Gleeson was destined to play in the ruck for St Kilda but, in today’s football, he would have been small in that position. He was 5cms shorter than Nick Riewoldt at the same age but, in that era, if Brian developed as all expected he was destined to be the leading Saints ruckman for years to come.

 

I was four years old when he joined the Saints and I remember him so very clearly.

 

Brian Gleeson was educated at St Patrick’s Ballarat.  Those who attended St Pat’s in the fifties would know how tough the boarding house could be. As a country boy, he was used to the rough and tumble of junior football in the bush. His brother Terry had been signed by the Demons but Saints coach Les Foote used his legendary status and influence to convince young Brian to make the Junction Oval his home.

 

His early career saw him holding down the key centre half-forward position. He was a great mark, quick and agile over the ground. There is absolutely no doubt he would be a star today.

 

As he became more seasoned and confident, his status grew and it wasn’t surprising to see opposition clubs double team him to prevent his influence on the game. In that era such a tactic was almost unheard of, but Brian had arrived big time. We should never forget he was just 19.

 

In 1956, Alan Killigrew turned the club upside down and only a handful of players remained at the club from the previous year. Some key players in an emerging St Kilda line up were Brian Gleeson, Neil Roberts, Keith Drinan (still going strong) and Bill Young, a new recruit.

 

Alan Killigrew decided to give Brian plenty of room and played him in the ruck. He had tremendous spring and his fine palming to his rovers made him the most dangerous ruckman in the VFL.

 

A few years ago, I spoke to Brian and he recalled a moment with Killigrew in the 1956 night series which was somewhat prophetic.

 

What many did not realise, is that Alan Killigrew also had a great skill in making his point with an individual player at moments when they were most receptive. As an example, I recall a conversation after the first night game at South Melbourne in 1956. Under low quality lights I had been brutally treated throughout the game. This crescendoed (sic) when I was KO’d, and culminated into a brawl involving 30 players.

 

After the game I was sitting alone, contemplating whether I ever wanted to play football again, when Alan Killigrew approached me. He knew how I felt. He praised my courage and perseverance in the adverse circumstances and encouraged me to hang in. He said, “You’ve got enough of what it takes to win a Brownlow Medal.”

 

At age 21 Brian Gleeson commenced the 1957 season as a great ruckman and finished the season as the standout player in the League. Week after week he dominated. He received umpires votes in 10 matches and, in my estimation, was in the best six at least for the club in the rest of the games. But when you are 8 years old and he was my hero, what else would I think, but I’m right.

 

On the night of the Brownlow Medal count, I sat expectantly beside the radio. In 1956 I had expected Brian to win or, if not Brian, Neil Roberts my other all-time hero or, if not Neil, some other Saint like Harold Davies. But Peter Box from Footscray won that year. So, in 1957, my heart was in my mouth as the winner was announced.

 

“Brian Gleeson St Kilda is the winner of the 1957 Brownlow medal.”

 

The joy in the totally Saints household at 45 Camden St, Balaclava was infectious.

 

It spread out into the street and then down to the Balaclava Hotel the next day where Bill Grant, a local brickie, Jackie Mac, a local good bloke, Grandpa Col (Kelly) Mansell, honorary Saint supporter, the Cafarrella brothers from the best fruit shop in Carlisle St, the Boase boys, Len Stephenson, the local copper, and the two very little boys drinking raspberry lemonade were several hours celebrating this great win. The Balaclava Hotel was alive that day and Mrs Clifford, the very wonderful ‘barlady’, let us stay as long as we kept out of the drinkers’ way.

 

The Saints didn’t make the finals in 1957. What was new, it was our heritage in the fifties, perhaps it still is, but things were getting better, or were they?

 

We all ventured down to the Lakeside Oval for the night premiership games. It was thought the Saints would go close to the night premiership. This was a night competition for sides not competing in the finals and we were a real chance.

 

I was in the rooms prior to the first game. Len Stephenson, who was on the committee and a great neighbour, introduced me to Brian Gleeson who suggested that I lead the side out as the club mascot. This was a regular thing in the fifties with lots of boys lining up for the honour. I was so happy running out beside the reigning Brownlow Medallist that I ran lap after lap before falling over. But the Saints joy was to be short-lived.

 

In March 1958, aged 22 years, Brian Gleeson was appointed Captain of St Kilda but, in a pre-season practice match, he seriously damaged his knee and never played senior football again.

 

This devastating moment in St Kilda’s history and absolute tragedy for Brian Gleeson occurred in a second of football.

 

Brian Gleeson would have gone on to win more Brownlows, he was simply that good. I suppose the irony is that his talent may have outshone Neil Robert’s great win in 1958 and even Verdun Howell’s Brownlow in 1959. Something good has to come from something so bad!

 

Brian Gleeson attempted a comeback of sorts in 1962 in Queensland where he had moved for business. He damaged his other knee in the first moments of the game and, to some, slipped into football obscurity. Brian didn’t leave it at that though. He came back to Victoria and, despite the devastation of his injury, he involved himself in the club he loved. In 1966 when the Saints won their only Premiership, Brian Gleeson was there, a mentor to Alan Morrow and Brian Mynott.

 

Brian Gleeson should be a name that every AFL fan is aware of. All players and supporters should be aware of the great players of the past and Brian Gleeson is a must, right up there near the top of the list.

 

I originally wrote a version of this article titled ‘The Boy from Berrigan’ quite a few years ago. It was published on the Saints website. A few days after it was published, I received a phone call from the St Kilda football club asking me to contact Brian Gleeson. After some thought as to what I had written and whether I might have got some facts wrong, I nervously rang Brian.

 

His response to the article astounded me, not because he was thrilled with the article but because, as he explained, his fame in football came when he was only 21. His family came later and, as the very modest man that he is, he didn’t really talk much about football to his growing family. When the article was published his family with at least one child overseas read the article and were quick to contact him. Things contained in the article had never really been discussed within the family and Brian’s children were reading things that had never been fully explored. My article had in some way reunited the family in looking at Brian’s story in football.

 

I felt very humbled that my early attempt at writing my version of sports history had such a positive result and had brought me in contact with Brian Gleeson, an amazingly humble man.

 

I have met Brian a couple of times now. He is a gracious human being who is generous with his time. I have sought out his advice on many articles over the years and he has always been forthcoming. He loves the St Kilda football club still and I hope he has been able to enjoy some Saints games this year.

 

Thank you, Brian Gleeson – what a wonderful example you have been to so many over so many years.

 

 

Photo hobbywarehouse.com.au

 

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Comments

  1. Good piece Allan.

    Also like your personal connection, further insight into what a good fella Brian Gleeson was.
    What a tragedy his loss was for the Saints.
    Ditto Bill Stephenson, Jim Wallis and Jimmy Guyatt.

    What an abundance of ruck riches Allan Jeans could have had in the 1960s…

    I’d be interested to know which club in Queensland he tried to make a comeback in 1962?

  2. Allan, I enjoyed reading your acclamation of Brian Gleeson’s life in footy.

    St. Kilda certainly had some champions in that era, including Brownlow medallists in ’57, ’58, 59 and then ’65, ’66 and ’67.

    Great to read of the success of another boy from the Riverina.

  3. Thanks for this, Allan.

    We can only speculate, but I wonder if St Kilda would have won more than the one flag had Brian Gleeson stayed fit?

  4. Good article Allan. Brian Gleeson was a bit before my time, however i’ve got those Berrigan links.

    Here are some examples of me trying to get creative re Berrigan, also its footballers.

    Last time we were in Berrigan was March when my horse ran.

    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/berrigan-boys/

    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/a-team-from-berrigan-and-surrounding-areas/

    Glen!

  5. Dr Rocket, In reply to your question Re Qld club. Brian’s career in Qld at Cooparoo club lasted 8 games In total. He was originally a non playing coach but was persuaded to play. His knee limited him greatly, he also damaged his shoulder in the first game. He managed to kick 7 goals in one game standing in the goal square and was on the bench for the Grand Final. Sorry Perhaps I could have added that to the story but it was more focused on the VFL so I skipped over it . AG

  6. Warwick Nolan says

    Thank you Allan.
    Really enjoyed this article. Brian Gleeson was little before my time but has always been in my memory base because of his Brownlow and the “never played again” anecdote. Your article provide a fuller conversation on your very worthy childhood hero.
    Best wishes

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