Footy History: Dees and Dons take twists and turns in first drawn Grand Final

1948 Grand Final

Essendon 0.6 2.15 6.21 7.27 (69)

Melbourne 3.0 4.5 6.8 10.9 (69)

1948 Grand Final rematch

Essendon 0.3 5.5 6.6 7.8 (50)

Melbourne 6.2 9.3 11.6 13.11 (89)

With the first drawn grand final and grand final rematch in VFL history, the end of the 1948 season marks one of the great stories in footy. The fact that Essendon players kicked like drunken ponies in the first game, finishing with 7.27, lends an edge to a tale that’s proved fertile ground for myth and legend.

As with any great story, there are subplots. The first in this instance was Melbourne’s decision to bring in an eight-fingered veteran who ended up kicking a bucket of goals. Melbourne also called up two players from the amateurs who had not played in Demons colours for several years. Then there’s the legend of Bill Brittingham, the Essendon full-forward who was said to kick a dozen behinds in the Bombers’ raggedy grand-final performance.

Melbourne sprung the first of its selection doozies in the 1948 finals series by selecting Jack Mueller to play in the preliminary final against Collingwood. Mueller was a renowned marking forward whose aura was enhanced by the fact that he played with a glove on one hand to protect the gnarled stubs of two middle fingers. He had lost the tops of both fingers in a machinery accident at the box factory in Carlton where he worked.

In 1948, when he was 34, Mueller stepped back to be the playing coach of the Demons’ reserves team. The decision to elevate him back to the seniors for the preliminary final was out of the blue. Mueller responded by kicking eight goals against Collingwood and then six goals in both the grand final and the rematch. He benefited from Norm Smith’s decoy leads, which exposed the  Essendon defenders to his marking strength, but even so Mueller’s 20 goals in three of the most storied games in footy history is worthy of legend.

To understand the next element, it’s best to know that were four Cordner brothers who were playing at different levels in 1948: Ted, Don, Denis and John. Ted, considered by some to be the most talented of the famous football family, was the captain of Old Melburnians in the Victorian Amateur Football Association. He had played with Melbourne but preferred to play in the amateurs so he could concentrate on his medical career. Don, the 1946 Brownlow medallist, was the captain of Melbourne in the VFL. He combined work as a doctor with his league career.

Denis was captain of University Blacks, who played against Old Melburnians in A-section of the amateurs. A big man for the times, at 193 centimetres and 89 kilograms, he won the Woodrow Medal that season for the best and fairest in A-section. John, the youngest, also played for the Blacks. Denis and John swapped between the ruck and back pocket. At university, they were both science students, with Denis studying metallurgy and John doing chemistry.

At the end of the amateurs’ season in 1948, Old Melburnians and Uni Blacks both won their semi-finals and advanced to the final. Old Melburnians won, but under the amateurs’ antiquated finals system the Blacks had the right to challenge because they had finished minor premier by two or more games. The Blacks won the rematch and were declared premiers.

The next week, Melbourne centre half-back Alan McGowan was reported during the preliminary final against Collingwood and later suspended. It seems the Demons were unsatisfied with potential replacements from the reserves. It’s believed that the Demons asked Ted to come into the team at centre half-back. John, at 81 the only one of the four brothers who’s still alive, was unable this week to confirm this part of the tale.

It’s indisputable, however, that Melbourne asked Denis, who was then 24, to replace McGowan. “Denis had never played at centre half-back in his life,” John Cordner said. “He’d always played as a ruckman. But he accepted the request.”

Denis had played one game for Melbourne, in 1943, before joining the armed forces as a naval officer and then electing to play for Uni Blacks while he was studying. A Blacks teammate called Doug Heywood mirrored Denis Cordner’s course. Heywood had played a handful of games as a half-forward for Melbourne in 1943 and ’44 before joining the RAAF. He, too, played for the Blacks while studying at university, in his case commerce.

Heywood, who was then 23, was also called up from the Blacks with Denis Cordner to play for Melbourne in the 1948 grand final. Heywood replaced the injured Bob McKenzie. McKenzie returned for the rematch and Heywood was dropped.

Denis Cordner was among Melbourne’s best in the grand final and retained his spot in the team for the rematch. In effect, he played in four grand finals in a month, two with Melbourne and two with Uni Blacks. Heywood played in three.

Bill Brittingham confirmed his talent as a full-forward when he kicked 66 goals to win the VFL’s goalkicking award in 1946. Col Hutchinson, the AFL statistician and historian, has always believed it was wrong that Brittingham was damned with a tally of 2.12 in the 1948 grand final. The extraordinary thing is that Brittingham had the chance to set the record straight but never did. He wrote four books, each of them called Essendon Football Club Premiership Documentary, which described in detail the Bombers’ premiership years of 1942, ’46, ’49 and ’50. The detail includes how many goals and behinds every player kicked. Brittingham never wrote a book about 1948 because the Bombers were runners-up.

As it happened, Brittingham grew tired of disputing the story that he had kicked 2.12. People believed it was a plausible story because the big Bomber was an erratic kick. Brittingham let them believe.

Midway through this year, football historian Stephen Rodgers was listening to Kevin Bartlett’s show on SEN. Collingwood had had another game in which it kicked too many behinds. Bartlett called for listeners to call in with examples of poor kicking and of course Brittingham’s 1948 grand-final effort came up.

Rodgers went into the Victorian State Library and found detailed reports on the grand final in the Essendon Gazette. The paper said that Brittingham had kicked 2.4 while five players had kicked three behinds. That’s 19 behinds. Throw in a handful of behinds to other players and a few rushed behinds and you get 27. Rodgers took the information to Col Hutchinson, who will officially correct the myth in next year’s AFL media guide.

While Essendon is renowned for kicking away the 1948 grand final, Melbourne also fluffed its chances. Essendon was 12 points ahead late in the last quarter when Melbourne’s Mueller and Adrian Dullard kicked a goal each to level the scores. In the dying moments, Norm Smith took a mark about 45 metres out and played on. His kick sailed across the goals.

Soon afterwards, the ball was on Melbourne’s goal-line when Smith seized on it at the same time as Don Cordner tried to force the ball through, knowing that any score would do. Cordner knocked the ball from Smith’s grasp and Essendon full-back Cec Ruddell swept the ball away.

John Cordner said his brother occasionally talked about the incident. “Donald blamed Smithy,” John said. “Norm tried to grab it and Donald tried to punch it.”

Essendon’s routine was blown out during the week of the rematch when it was ruled that it could not train at Windy Hill because the oval was being top-soiled for the cricket season. Instead, the Bombers trained on the one-third of the North Melbourne ground that was available.

It teemed with rain on the day of the rematch. Melbourne kicked six unanswered goals in the first quarter and held their lead from there. Smith kicked one goal and was named best on ground, while Brittingham kicked two at the other end. After three failed attempts to defeat Essendon during the season, as well as the drawn grand final, the resourceful Melbourne scored a win for the ages.

For details and teams:


  1. Peter Flynn says


    I will never talk of Brittingham in such tones again.

    Thanks for the debunk.


  2. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says

    Splendid story Daff – well told.

    What a remarkable family the Cordners are – great set of values.

  3. John Butler says

    Superb Paul (thought I’d borrow Flynny’s favourite adjective for the occasion). :)

  4. pauldaffey says

    Thanks men,

    I reckon the 1948 finale is one of the best in footy. Every year during the so-called rivalry round, I thought Essendon should have been playing Melbourne.

    Very intrigued by the Brittingham caper. One day I hope to follow up with his family.

  5. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says

    Daff – the Mick Grambeau coaching Ganmain first cab off the rank please!

    75 quid a week plus house and milking cow in 1955 made him the highest paid player in Australia, didn’t it?

  6. Tony Roberts says

    Didn’t Bill Brittingham play the remainder of his career as a full-back?

    There must be something about Double-Bs bombing out (so to speak) in the big one. In the the 6th game of baseball’s 1986 World Series, the Boston Red Sox took a 5-3 lead in the extra 10th innings, and looked set to win (4 games to 2) their first WS title since 1918. NBC-TV flashed up a graphic listing the price of standard household items in 1918 to illustrate the length of their wait.

    When the New York Mets rallied, Boston’s first baseman Bill Buckner committed a legendary error (misfield) that allowed then to win the game, tie the series 3-3 and go on to win it in the following decider.

  7. Rocket,

    I’m yet to write about Mick Grambeau but I still intend to. It was eighty pounds a week (plus a cow, which he sold because he was a city bloke) in 1956. Yes, my understanding is that he was the highest-paid player in Australia at the time.

    Wool prices were flying!


    John Coleman arrived in 1949, so Brittingham was pushed back to full-back, where he stayed. Old Bill was apparently a larger-than-life character. There’s plenty of scope for a follow-up.

  8. Richard Jones says

    DAFF, Rocket and other Knackers: I started following Geelong the following year — 1949.

    From the finals series of 1948 (after Geelong and South Melb. finished 9th and 10th, respectively, on 7 wins and 12 losses apiece, Rod): Ess 13.16 def. Melb. 8.10 [2nd semi, crowd: 72,394) and Melb 25.16 def. C’wood 15.11 (prelim, final, crowd 63,500]

    Richmond’s Bill Morris won the Brownlow from Ollie Grieve (Carlton, later to coach Eaglehawk in Bendigo F.L.) and Essendon’s Bill Hutchison.
    Lindsay White (Geelong) won the goalkicking with 86 sausage rolls from Jack Dyer (Rich) 64 and Eddie Hart (Fitzroy) with 61. Geelong won the reserves flag in ’48 and Carlton the under-19s.

    Hawthorn and St Kilda 2nd last and stone motherless last at season’s end on 5-14 and 2-17 respectively. Nobody ever took Hawthorn and St Kilda seriously back then. It was a raffle which outfit would win The Spoon, although the Sainters have set a world record for the total claimed overall.

    My first match at Kardinia Park came in Round 13, 1949. Pivotonians 13.15 (93) def. the F’scray Scraggers 4.10 (34).
    Can’t recall why it was so far into the season that I was taken to the footy by my Granddad who was great mates with legendary Geelong prez., Jack Jennings.

  9. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says

    Bliss was just around the corner for the Pivotonians, Richard – when did they become Cats?

    Reg Hickey was great on World of Sport – so highly respected by his fellow panellists – Lou & Jack never sky-larked with him. Neither did the Geelong players it seems.

    Daff – how many premierships for Norm Smith?
    As a player – 1939-40 & 1948?
    As a coach – 1955-56-57-59-60-64?

    One less than Ron Barassi…

  10. Pamela Sherpa says

    Enjoyed reading this Daff. Very interesting. Will look forward to reading more about Brittingham.

  11. I’ve got both those footy records from 1948 :cool:

  12. What happened to Fitzroy in 1948? They were 9-2 after 11 and finished 9-10.

    And why did the season have 19 rounds?

  13. Paul Daffey says


    I looked up a couple of sources and they don’t give much apart from the fact that it’s the most precipitous fall in League history. The only reasons given are injuries to Bert Clay and Robert (Roger?) Miller and a series of poor umpiring decisions that prompted the Roys to blow their tops.

    As has happened before and since, they took their eyes off the ball — and paid the price!

    No idea why the season went to 19 rounds.

  14. Stainless says


    It was 19 rounds because the League made up for the shorter seasons during wartime by adding rounds for a few years after the war. I think 1945 was 20 rounds and the next few were 19.

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