Footy: Denning’s death ends links to Roys’ last flag

By Adam Muyt

The 1944 Fitzroy premiership player Clen Denning died on 10 November.  He was 98.  One of Clen’s teammates in the Gorillas’ premiership, Laurie Bickerton, died just three months earlier, marking 2009 as the year the two final living links to Fitzroy’s eight VFL flags ended.

Denning was, by all accounts, a very good player.  He was known for his consistency and loved stepping up in big games, winning three awards for finals performances for the Roys, including one for Excellent Play in the ’44 Grand Final decider against Richmond.   Footy sure has changed – Denning’s 1944 trophy was a silver ashtray with a medallion attached on a spinning base.

Denning’s career began at Carlton where he played 18 games before crossing to the Roys in 1938.  His 1935 debut for Carlton against South Melbourne caused quite a stir: he finished with six kicks for six goals.  He was named as the emergency that day and stepped in at the last moment when Carlton’s George Dougherty couldn’t take the field.  Hardly anyone in the crowd or media knew who the mystery player with the golden boot was.  “I wasn’t even named in the Record,” he said.

Originally playing up forward (he led Fitzroy’s goalkicking in 1939), it was down back where he made his reputation.  Writing in The Sun, Essendon triple Brownlow medallist Dick Reynolds commented, “I have opposed many fine back pocket players and seen plenty of others in action but the one I admire most is Clen Denning of Fitzroy.  From bitter experience, I know just how hard it is to get a kick against this Fitzroy stalwart.”

Clen’s captain in the 1944 premiership team, Fred Hughson, observed he was “… a great last-ditch man” who usually overpowered his opponent.   In 1941 he played for Victoria against the Croweaters.

Richmond and Fitzroy had a fair rivalry running during the war. In 1943 the Tigers had, literally, bumped the Roys out of the premiership race in a physical Preliminary Final.  The two teams lined up for the 1944 decider – this time the Fitzroy players knew what they had to do to counter Dyer’s men.  Denning recounted, “We’d played them in the Preliminary Final in ’43 and they beat us.  So in ’44 we hit them before they hit us.  We learned a lesson.  They’d hit blokes.  We wouldn’t let them do that again.”

Denning couldn’t abide being made a fool of, telling me in an interview in 2004 of the day a Richmond supporter spat at him as he ran up the race at Punt Road.  “I got the lot right down my face.”

Despite the protests of Richmond officials, Denning jumped the fence and punched the bloke in the face, an uppercut finishing him off.  A soldier standing nearby rushed in and started to make a fuss but when Denning explained what had happened, the soldier began putting his boots into the prone Tiger fan.  Denning decided it was time to disappear up the race.  “Later there was a bit of a fuss made about the incident but no one said who it was,” Denning told me.

Denning retired in 1947 after 177 VFL matches, 18 for Carlton and 159 for Fitzroy.  He then went coaching in country Victoria, taking Ararat to their first premiership in 28 years (as captain-coach), as well as spells at Castlemaine, Glen Waverley and Dandenong, in their debut year in the VFA.   He also coached the Fitzroy Twos (1952-53), just missing out on the senior coaching role when it became vacant.  He later worked as talent scout for the Roys.   A Fitzroy Life Member, he was inducted into the Fitzroy-Brisbane Lions Players Hall of Fame in 2001, the same year he was nominated for the Roys Team of the Century.

Vale Clen Denning, Royboy legend.

About Adam Muyt

Born into rugby league, found aussie rules, fell for soccer, flirts a little with union. Author of 'Maroon & Blue - recollections and tales of the Fitzroy Football Club' (Vulgar Press, 2006). Presently working on a history of postwar Dutch migrants and soccer in Australia.


  1. Richard E. Jones says

    ADAM … fancy old Clen jumping the fence and belting a Tiges’ supporter.
    For the young blokes and girls posting on this site, they’d be amazed and even to hear about the later 1960s fracas at Kardinia Park.
    That was the Killer Killigrew – Geoff Rosenow stoush, which went on right up the Cats’ player race and almost into (if I recall correctly) the Geelong rooms.
    I reckon Killer was the North coach at that stage of his very colourful career.

  2. Peter Flynn says

    I reckon Killer, Aylett (and possibly one other player) may have been arrested and had to face Geelong Mago’s Court on the Monday.

  3. Adam. Great tribute to Clen. Obviously he was a Fitzroy champ.

    Ah the ‘Blue in the race’ at Geelong in 1964. As a young Cats fan I was there but like everyone else not in the immediate vicinity saw nothing but heard plenty. The Geelong members stand was alive! It was unfortunate that two much-respected footy identities such as ‘rozzer’ Rosenow and ‘hot gospeller’ Killigrew had a punch-up. One of those spur of the moment things they probably regretted later on. Sadly, both gone from us now.

    Wonder if the Tiger ‘fan’ who spat on Clen was related to the delightful person who had a similar go at Spud Frawley at the Dome a few years ago.

  4. Andrew Starkie says

    wouldn’t have been Killer’s fault

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