Almanac (Footy) Memoir: Grossman – Remembering the Battle of Bushfield


by Ron Reed



WHEN I was a teenage footballer trying to get a kick in the bush and suburban leagues, it was often pretty tough going. Maybe that’s why my fledgling footy “career” didn’t last long, only about 80-odd games in open-age competition, exactly 50 for Dennington in the Warrnambool District League and a season each with Warrnambool in the Hampden League and Heidelberg in what was then the Diamond Valley League. It was all over by 21. Still, it was an eventful five years, involving an historic premiership, a couple of best and fairest awards, a couple of trips to the tribunal  — as both striker and strikee — and a few run-ins with guys with intimidating reputations acquired in the big-time of the VFL.


It helped, naturally, if those in the latter category were on your side – and fortunately in my first season playing with men and not boys, Don Grossman was. By the time I came into contact with him, Don was in his mid-forties and, as captain-coach of the Dennington Dogs (not Bulldogs, just Dogs – mongrels, mostly)  on the last  lingering legs of a career that included 93 games with South Melbourne between 1940 and 1947, the year that I was born.


Although he was originally from the mean streets of Port Melbourne, where he grew up, Don had long ago become one of those old-fashioned local footy legends by the time I moved to Warrnambool to live.


I found him fascinating for several reasons, one being that he knew so much about the game – he taught me how to actually “clunk” a mark rather than just  stick my hands out and hope, and also that when chasing a ball bouncing end over end along the ground in front of you, every third bounce would always spring up waist-high so you could grab it without bending over or slowing down. I once mentioned this during a speaking engagement at Carlton when David Parkin was coach, and even he was impressed.


But more to the point, Grossman was not a man you messed with  physically as every footballer in the district was well aware. They all knew he had not only been a handy ruckman and defender for the Swans but that he had been a central figure in the infamous 1945 “Bloodbath” Grand Final against Carlton, perhaps the dirtiest footy match ever played – then and still.


Seven players were suspended – and one non-player, with Carlton’s Len Fitzgibbon, a spectator because he was already suspended, jumping the fence and joining in – with Grossman one of four to get eight weeks, in his case for striking one Jim Mooring. Given that he was also an amateur boxer, Grossman arrived three years later to coach Warrnambool, and later their arch rivals South Warrnambool, with his reputation well and truly preceding him. He never left it behind, probably deliberately.


I was introduced to this dynamic, up close and personal, in eye-popping fashion in my second or third game under his mentorship at Dennington. For the first couple he had assigned me, as a raw rookie, to a back pocket and a half-back flank, where I couldn’t get into much trouble. So I was taken aback when this time, he informed me just before the warm-ups that I was to line up at centre half-forward, which I immediately realised would mean opposing the Bushfield team’s gun defender, whose name eludes me more than half a century later but he was one of the competition’s most experienced and toughest men and himself not to be messed with.


And then came the specific instruction: when the umpire was about to execute the first bounce, I was to whack this bloke in the head – king-hit him, to be honest – as hard as I could and then take a step backwards. Gulp!


“You’re fucking kidding, coach,” I said, or words to that effect. “He’ll kill me.”


Just do what you’re told.


So I did.


Not forgetting the step backwards!


Not surprisingly, my angry opponent immediately threw a flurry of punches aimed at knocking my block off, which fortunately all missed.


Next thing I know, Grossman had run from the centre bounce to centre half-forward and coolly decked him with another expertly-directed haymaker, which of course the umpire couldn’t help but see. Told he would be reported, Grossman had his spiel ready. He pointed to me and told the umpire that I was just a 16 year old kid starting out in footy and that his victim was a  ruthless old thug who deserved all he got for attacking me before the game had even started, and that if he wanted to fight he should pick on someone his own age.


Of course, the umpire hadn’t seen me start it, and agreed with Grossman that rough justice had been served and the report would not proceed. Infuriated, the injured party spent the rest of the afternoon fruitlessly chasing his cunning old nemesis around, ignoring me, and hardly got a touch.


Yes, yes … I know this wouldn’t be anything to brag about these days, but footy was a different game 50-odd years ago, both in the big League and the bush, so it never occurred to me to feel guilty about my part in it. And still hasn’t.


To my naïve young eyes, it just seemed like a coaching master-stroke, something to laugh about cheerfully in the bus back home and all the evidence I needed that the coach was a genius – and one tough customer.


Grossman’s influence on the development of our young team, average age of about 21, and perennial scrubbers around the lower reaches of the competition,  was profound, to the extent that when he finally called time on his long, long career after three years with us, we were ready to contend for the club’s first ever flag.


Sure enough, the next year, 1966, we won it – and thanks mainly to his tutorials – self-indulgence alert! — I won the competition (and Dennington’s) best and fairest award by four votes.


Annoyingly, a few people around the town believed the new coach, Bill Abbott, was getting too much of the credit that rightly belonged to his popular predecessor.


There was one important dissenter to that. Win or lose, I had been given the task of proposing the toast to the coach at the Grand Final night dinner. But that morning, I got a phone call from Grossman asking me if I would mind if he gate-crashed the function and made that speech instead of me. He wanted to make sure everybody appreciated the fact that Abbott had got the job done where he himself had not.


It was a gesture typical of a man I had come to admire greatly – and continued to do so for the rest of his life.


If any of the foregoing suggests that he was little more than cranky old thug himself, that would be entirely wrong . True, he didn’t take many prisoners but in many other ways he was an ornament to the game, as they say. A good enough player to win the Maskell Cup for the Hampden League’s best and fairest as well as a VFL Grand Finalist who moved on at 26 when he could almost have doubled his League games tally if he had stayed at South, he was an influential figure in Warrnambool for the rest of his life.


He was a great “teaching” coach of young footballers with a strong sense of discipline – an asset in a country town — and never lost his interest in the sport.


Highly intelligent, well-read and an engaging conversationalist, he was helping to edit a history of the Hampden League when he died in 2004, aged 83. He enjoyed writing and contributed to the local paper, the Standard, where I had begun a journey in journalism that soon enough led me to Melbourne and the wider world. Whenever I returned, I would seek him out – as a barman in a main street pub he wasn’t hard to find – and he was always interested in where I’d been and what I had been up to. And then he’d pull me a beer and we’d toast – with a wry smile —  the Battle of Bushfield.



Dennington Dogs 1966 premiership team (Warrnambool Districts League).



If you recognise anyone in the photo, let us know via the comments below.


Read about Ron Reed’s book War Games HERE



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  1. Hayden Kelly says

    Great story and a reflection of days gone by when very good players would leave the VFL in their prime to coach up the scrub for a better job and more money .

  2. Ray Broderick says

    Ron I also played that day at Bushfield. You forgot to mention that Don Grossman used the Percy Cerutty style of training particularly pre-season on the beach (not unlike racehorse beach workouts today.).

  3. Graeme Amoore says

    Ron, a great story. Don Grossman was a legend in Warrnambool. I played for West End and Warrnambool in the similar era to you and would have played against Don. He also used to fight in the Boxing Tents at the Warrnambool Show. Some of the players in the photo I think are Aub Lake, David Maloney, Robbie Haberfield, Ernie Gilmour, Bunny Wallace, Strawb Lane?? ?Kelson, ?? Fleming. ?? Dalton.

  4. ron reed says

    Yeah, you ring a bell, Graeme. We might have played against each other. You’re right about all those names — Malcolm Kelson, two Flemings, Kevin (“Lou”) and Anthony (“Crackers”), Anthony Dalton. The Flemings and Dalton are among at least seven of the team who are now dead — including Peter Robertson (to my right in the pic) whose hobby was catching and keeping snakes, usually while pissed, which eventually ended predictably when a king brown took him out. That story should appear in the Almanac in coming days. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t think David Maloney is in that pic – I suspect he was probably playing with Warrnambool that year.

  5. Thanks for that Ron. Growing up in Warrnambool in the 70’s I was good friends with Don’s son and spent a lot of time at their home on Raglan Parade. Don was incredibly fit for his age and would do sit-ups with weights and then jog to Dennington and back. I seem to recall he ended up as captain-coach of Tower Hill in his mid-40’s and was the last player in the district to use the place kick. He was either the Navy or Air Force boxing champ during the war, skills that came in handy in his job behind the bar of the Vic. There were a couple of brothers from out Killarney way who used to get into a bit of bother around the town and Don took them both on one night at the Vic and flattened them both spectacularly. He was a keen historian and spent a lot of time in the original offices of The Standard in Koroit St researching football history. He was co-author of a book with Fred Bond called ‘Evergreen Hampden’ which was a history of the Hampden League and I believe he was working on the history of the Warrnambool Football Club when he passed away. Also, was David Maloney’s nickname ‘Bart’? cheers!

  6. ron Reed says

    Cheers, Gerry. You’ve tidied up a couple of loose ends for me. Now that you mention it, I do recall him doing a place kick at Dennington one day. I knew he was — or had been — a boxer but not that he was a services champion. I have a copy of Evergreen Hampden but wasn’t aware that he was doing one on Warrnambool FC.
    It was all a very long time ago so I’m not surprised a couple of bits and pieces have eluded me at this stage and am grateful for your input, but I guarantee the gist of the story is accurate. In fact, I have now remembered the name of the unfortunate Bushfield CHB, who was Ivan Couzens, a much admired and respected leader and cultural worker with the Framlingham Aboriginal community for many years afterwards — who almost certainly did not deserve the indignities inflicted on him that memorable day. Those Killarney boys you mentioned must never have played footy against old Don or they would have known better than to try their luck. Oh, and David Maloney’s nickname was very similar to Bart, but I recall it as Bardy — but that might have been just my version. He was probably Dennington’s best player in my time and is in their best-ever team selected in 2005 but didn’t play in the 66 premiership, almost certainly because he would have been at Warrnambool.

  7. Ron

    Here’s a link to a story in The Standard about the history of Warrnambool FC and Don’s involvement:

    Couzens was a fairly common name around Framlingham, and Ivan passed away about 5 years ago at age 84. There are many references to him on the net but no mention of the Battle of Bushfield.

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