Almanac Footy History – 1958 Grand Final: Collingwood save their record

 

 

Melbourne. A city that is so passionate about its football. Despite us chiding certain aspects of the game, such as the rules, the players or the umpires, it’s in our blood. Without a Melburnian knowing it, the city can’t live without its glorious home grown game. This elixir of life has been pumping through our veins since the 19th century, as it has barely slowed for wars or the advancement of technology.

 

The modern game that is scrutinised is only possible because of its history. There would be no rivalry if it wasn’t for the abundance of passionate people who swarmed to the sport like a moth to light. From this, allegiances formed, and it matured into cornerstones that maintain the integrity of football.

 

For the old days of the VFL, Melbourne and Collingwood provided a rivalry that contrasted socio-economic classes and geographical locations. In fact, the two teams couldn’t be more different. Surrounded by the suburbs of Fitzroy and Carlton, Collingwood manufactured a kinship based upon a collective working class unifying to support a common team. This working class toiled throughout the week, before flocking to Victoria Park on the weekend to valiantly harass any visiting team that attempted to defeat their beloved Collingwood.

 

Contrasting these fanatical supporters, the Old Boys’ club of Melbourne – the Demons, and even earlier the Fuchsias – represented the gentleman of the city of Melbourne. Hailing from comfortable backgrounds and expressing it in their respect for football, Melbourne supported in a dignified manner while viewing their team in the popular setting of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

 

Therefore, there was always going to be a conflict between the classy Demons and the parochial Pies when both teams rose to football prominence. And so it occurred in the 1950s, when the Melbourne freight train picked up speed due to the engine of successful coach Norm Smith and legend Ron Barassi. By the middle of the decade, they were ready to go on a run of three successive premierships, culminating in the possibility of breaking a VFL record. Collingwood held the record for most successive premierships, four, between 1927 and 1930, a badge of honour for all proud Pies supporters. But, with Smith and Barassi rushing to three straight flags, 1958 shaped as the year that the mighty Melbourne side would equal that record, and perhaps go on to further break it.

 

This impending record added to the bitter rivalry between two clubs that had always been polar opposites. From the early days the passionate people who called Victoria Park home never mingled or approved of the posh MCG dwellers. This socio-economic and geographical division highlighted a footy feud that resulted in the 1958 Grand Final between the two teams. Gordon Melville of The Age discussed the idea on the morning of the 1958 Grand Final by highlighting how the clubs are “identified with the suburbs, whose names they bear and draw strength from the single-minded, patriotic loyalty of neighbourhood supporters. The 18 men on the field are the champions of a district, upholding its honour on the field of play.” On the 20th of September, these champions of a district met to defend the honour of their suburbs.

To put this into context, a rivalry so fierce existed in a time when players smoked and enjoyed a drink without a care in the world about their health. Comparing it to today, I can see it reflected in the persona of a local cricket club; confident yet so controversial that you ban your swear-jar loving parents from venturing to your Saturday game.

 

These teams were to meet after a season of passion, euphoria and heartbreak. The rollercoaster ride that the home and away fixture provides is enough to send the majority of teams home crying, weeding out the weaker teams in a Darwinian examination.

 

Prior to the season commencing, a three-point plan was devised by Collingwood officials in an attempt to rectify the unsuccessful campaigns of recent years. Linking this to the relaxed culture of the time, a plan was seen as a serious and professional term. It’s funny how time flies.

 

The plan consisted of two games during the home and away season and a rather vague finishing point, highlighting the superstition that comes in groups of threes. But, this was no fairytale, as the plan demanded that:

  1. They beat highly fancied Footscray in an away Round 1 clash
  2. They knock off all-conquering Melbourne in their Round 10 clash
  3. They plan games carefully so that they put themselves in a position to win a flag

According to the Collingwood officials, if this plan was executed then a Premiership was attainable. It was time to find out how effective the plan was.

 

Being the underdogs in Round 1, a win would be sufficient. But, no plan-devising official ever predicted what was to come. Under newly appointed captain Frank Tuck, a resounding 54 point victory rejuvenated the club after a hopeless 1957 campaign. A surprising comeback win in Round 2 meant that the Pies could kick-start their season successfully.

 

Point two took place on the Queen’s Birthday weekend. Melbourne. Collingwood. MCG. This is the infrastructure of a rivalry that these days includes fundraising for MND and controversial comments about drowning.

 

Going into the clash with a 7-2 record, Collingwood sat second on the ladder behind Melbourne. Only losing one match, the Dees were flying high. A home and away attendance record of 99,346 filed in, with the passionate Pies supporters in full voice against the smug Demons. A cracker of a game followed, as a spirited Magpies challenge was quelled by an 11 point victory to the classy Dees. The victory meant that Melbourne had been victorious in 9 of their last 10 clashes against Collingwood. The Pies were left to deal with the fact that they had failed to deliver their plan.

 

Ghosts of the loss appeared to cloud Collingwood’s confidence. With an inconsistent second half of the season, point three of the plan mustn’t have been followed carefully enough. This resulted in the Pies barely managing to hold onto second spot, as a loss to North Melbourne and other lucky results meant that they fell into second place due to percentage. Therefore, a rematch against Melbourne was to occur, with the winner going straight into the Grand Final.

 

Before the contest, the crowd was surprised by the news that a tall Magpie line up had been selected. This followed a despairing loss to North Melbourne at their fortress of Victoria Park. Unfortunately, this tall team failed to deliver. The reigning premiers ran rings around the lanky Pies, with a 45 point victory not reflecting the true hiding given. With a few positional changes not helping the poor tactics used by Collingwood, they were left with an ultimatum; a Preliminary Final against North Melbourne, with a recent record of four losses in their last six matches.

 

With the Semi Final all but securing a flag for the Demons (according to the media), the downtrodden Pies attempted to turn their fortune. This included major changes to the side for the Preliminary Final, as three players were brought in. Also, in a day when positional changes were extremely important, a change occurred in every line of the Collingwood team. This included promoting bench player Graeme Fellowes to first ruck. To compare this to a modern day sense, it would be like Jarrod Witts (sigh) being gifted a game in a cut throat final, you know, a couple of years down the track. With five 18 year olds playing, a dominant five goal to one quarter eventuated into a comfortable 20 point victory. Therefore, a Grand Final beckoned.

 

Despite looking impressive and a lot quicker with a rejuvenated line up, the odds were still firmly against them. The Age stated that Collingwood were “the greatest outsiders in a finals game for many years” and Lou Richards, a Pies player, believed that Melbourne were “the hottest favourites since Phar Lap” to win.

 

Grand Final fever hit the city of Melbourne. Controversy arose before the game even started, with The Sun posting player numbers against regulations; this was only something that the Football Record could do. Therefore, all players were required to change their jumpers, except for big Ray Gabelich, as he couldn’t fit into any other available Collingwood jumpers.

 

With Collingwood coach Phonse Kyne producing an emotional pre-game speech about defending the 1927-30 legacy, the youthful Pies side trotted out onto the packed MCG. The diehard Pies supporters roared – they had been waiting all year for this moment. Odds or probability meant nothing to these fanatical fans. A Grand Final is won on the day.

 

One aspect that the underdog Pies had going for them was youth; they had five 18 year olds while Melbourne had no one under 20. But, that was easily swept aside for hardened experience.

 

As expected, the same old Melbourne came out and started strongly. By the end of the first quarter, a three goal lead asserted the favourites’ dominance. If the Magpies hadn’t been written off already, then they were at quarter time. It was just going to be another one of those years for the pained Pies. But, the brains trust at Collingwood still had belief. Fill in captain Murray Weideman (handed the captaincy due to Tuck’s quad injury) recruited Barry Harrison to inform him of a tougher attitude. Although Harrison was effectively tagging Ron Barassi out of the game like he did in the Semi Final, he was called upon to join Weideman in upping the aggression. This harder attack ignited a Collingwood ferocity on the ball, as Bill Serong’s harsh bump on Ian Ridley highlighted a reformed Pies outfit. By focussing Melbourne’s aggression on the players, Collingwood began to peg back the deficit. Best and fairest winner Thorold Merrett joined the fiery pair in controlling the game, while a rejuvenated Fellowes, along with centre-half back Delanty, joined a rearguard action of Collingwood players that turned the most oppressive of tides.

 

By half time Collingwood had hit the front, much to Melbourne’s chagrin. Maligned midfielder Ken Bennett was proving his doubters wrong, as the “slow” 18 year old rover was using his wet weather skills effectively. Despite the harsh weather, Ken Turner was playing the match of his life. His superb effort on Melbourne legend Brian Dixon was more than just defensive; he was on his way to collecting 21 touches and ten marks. In a remarkable display of football, the vengeful Magpies had overturned years full of hurt in just one quarter of gritty football. They had the footy world shocked.

 

A defiant effort in the second half from Melbourne eventually boiled over. Nothing could stop these Pies on a historic day for not just Collingwood, but for football. If this wasn’t a representation of the unpredictable nature of our national game, then nothing could be. Ian Brewer finished off a superb season with two goals, as their defiance stayed resolute throughout the second half.

 

The second quarter rout was never overcome, as a famous Collingwood victory was ensured when they staved off the incensed Demons to win by 18 points.

 

With the match concluded and the cup given to the euphoric Pies, legendary Demons coach Norm Smith ventured into the Collingwood change rooms to congratulate them. By the following week, the media had their claims to Collingwood’s triumph. Percy Beames of the Age concluded that it occurred because of the Semi Final loss, which caused mass changes. This led to a “near evenness” that the Demons couldn’t replicate, as Collingwood’s tenacity in the second term was something that Melbourne “weren’t prepared to match”.

 

No matter what the media contemplated after the historic victory, the facts prove just how remarkable the win was. Breaking a dynasty that won five Premierships in seven years with five 18 year old players says enough. But, to do so when defending a personal club record is one of astonishment and pride. Also, the 1958 Premiership team still stands as the Collingwood Premiership team with the most amount of losses throughout the season. The last piece of history which will astonish most, especially on the eve of an election, is the fact that a plan came to fruition.

 

The 1958 Premiership team partied hard, as they rightly should have. Despite only winning a flag five years earlier, the magnitude of the win was lost on no one. Leading goal kicker Ian Brewer and best and fairest Thorold Merrett were congratulated appropriately.  The greatest comment on the flag was left to Collingwood legend Syd Coventry, who expressed that it was “the greatest performance in the history of the Collingwood Football Club”.

 

Once again, the same pressure sits on the record. No matter how much time has flown over the 58 years since 1958, the 1927-30 record is troubled. The implications of the 1958 flag were enormous, as the famous rivalry between Old Boys’ Club Melbourne and working class Collingwood has resulted in an annual Queen’s Birthday clash. Now Hawthorn has risen to supremacy, with a fourth flag beckoning in 2016. Unfortunately, Collingwood don’t appear to be preventing it anytime soon. Neither does any team, with the Hawks supremacy looking set to take them to a fourth successive flag. Fortunately for football, you never know whether it will happen until that final siren rings on Grand Final day.

 

 

MEL 5.1 7.4 7.6 9.10 (64)
COL 2.2 7.6 12.9 12.10 (82)

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Steve Fahey says:

    Great stuff Sean, I really enjoyed it. It was a few years too early for me to see/be alive but I know what that day meant to my dad, especially to maintain the club’s 1927-30 record four in a row. Unfortunately it is probably equally famous for marking the start of a very long drought and run of misses after that.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Brilliant work Sean,
    It’s ironic that Melbourne may have dealt a blow to Hawthorn’s aspirations of achieving four in a row after their fine win yesterday. It may well be up to Collingwood to knock Hawthorn out of the top 4 in the last round to maintain the record. Intriguing stuff.
    I’ve always believed that Collingwood’s 4 in a row, like Charlie Bannerman’s 165 on debut for Australia, is a protected record in VFL/AFL history. Let’s see if the footy gods agree.

  3. Earl O'Neill says:

    A timely reminder, Sean. Anything can happen.

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