Geelong’s Record Run – Epilogue

 

 

 

 

Geelong’s Record Run

 

Epilogue

 

After Geelong was thrashed by Essendon in Round 8 1952, the feeling must have been quite surreal. The off-again-on-again game was played on the tiny Brisbane Exhibition Ground, two days after torrential rain, on a Monday night, under lights, with a white football, in what was dubbed the “propaganda round”. Stung into action by a disgusted coach, the Cats commenced a phenomenal run five days later that would last for over 13 months. Not a single defeat in 26 rounds of football. Three weeks into the run they faced Essendon again, with the result a draw. The draw was followed by a sequence of 23 wins in a row. Two of the greatest team records in VFL/AFL history were on the path to creation.

 

Geelong’s record run came to an end on Saturday 1st August 1953 at Kardinia Park. What was the reaction in the rooms after the Round 14 loss to Collingwood? Were the Cats shell-shocked, relieved, or did they simply shrug it off and look forward to the next game?

 

Russell ‘Hooker’ Renfrey1 said “it was a strange feeling” and that “the relief was so strong it felt like winning a premiership”. An eventual loss had obviously been a talking point among the players as the run of wins marched on. In anticipation of how they would feel, captain Fred Flanagan, Renfrey and John Hyde2 were not too concerned believing that a loss, when it inevitably happened, “would relieve the pressure”. Russell Middlemiss3 did not share the sentiment. He believed that “you play football to win” and “any thoughts of a loss being a blessing in disguise were wrong.”

 

No one at Geelong would have envisaged that their winning form would abandon them so quickly at the back end of the 1953 season. The Cats lost the next game, in Round 15 to Essendon, and then lost to South Melbourne in Round 17. Geelong’s form was slipping while Collingwood was steadily climbing the ladder in pursuit of the double chance. Although the Cats took out the minor premiership comfortably, their finals campaign did not approach the lofty standards of 1951 and ’52 and was a huge disappointment to their fans. Collingwood defeated them in both the second Semi Final (by 30 points) and then the Grand Final (by 12 points).

 

Why did the Cats fail in the ‘53 finals after displaying great winning form for three seasons? The answer lies in the fact that Collingwood, in particular, found a method to counter Geelong’s fast free flowing game style. But it should be recognised that the Magpies met a weakened Cats’ line-up on Grand Final day. There were injuries in the finals to several key Geelong players and there was a shock decision at the selection table down at Kardinia Park.

 

When Geelong defeated Essendon in the 1951 Grand Final, the Dons were without their match-winning spearhead John Coleman. He was out suspended. That took a career average of over five goals a match out of Essendon’s armoury. It was hard to replace that sort of scoreboard impact. Second to Coleman in the 1953 VFL goal kicking was George Goninon, with an average of 3.6 goals per game that season. Goninon did not play in the Grand Final. He was “sent to Coventry” for an off-field indiscretion entirely unrelated to football (an extramarital affair). His behaviour was judged to be against the moral code of the club, particularly by coach Reg Hickey.

 

While Goninon played in the second Semi Final loss to Collingwood, he was a shadow of his best and did not make it back into the team until Round 8 the following season. Goninon had kicked at least one goal in every match in 1953, bar one, Round 10 against Carlton. He kicked four goals in the ’51 Grand Final and five in the ’52 decider against Collingwood. Goninon had a proven big game record. His replacement at full forward was Russell “Hooker” Renfrey, a Cat that had played in every one of the club’s 26 games without defeat. But Renfrey had played those games predominantly as a ruck rover. “Hooker” kicked five behinds and failed to score a goal in the Grand Final. It would have haunted the Geelong selectors and coach. Did their decision to drop Goninon cost the club a flag? Of course, we can never know, but Collingwood were certainly handed a gift by the Geelong hierarchy before the first bounce of the ‘53 Grand Final.

 

Collingwood realised the way to win was to match Geelong’s pace from the outset and with a combined team effort, to nullify their prime movers. Geelong’s inaccuracy in kicking 8.17 also played into Collingwood’s hands. Wasted opportunities in the second quarter gave Collingwood a leg up and rushed misses in the final term, when the Magpies were tiring, cost Geelong any chance of bridging the gap.

 

Then there were injuries that compounded the absence of Goninon. Russell Middlemiss damaged his knee in the second semi final and was out of the Grand Final team. Middlemiss was a vital cog in Geelong’s dominant half back line and had the pace to match Magpie half forward Thorold Merrett. During the Grand Final two Geelong players suffered injuries – ruckman Harry Herbert played on after being concussed, while Bill McMaster left the field in the third quarter suffering concussion and a bruised kidney.

 

The Magpies were nine games into a sequence of 14 consecutive wins. In a touch of irony, it was Geelong who stopped Collingwood’s run, in Round 6, ’54. Geelong finished on top of the ladder again in 1954, while Collingwood slid to seventh place. But the Cats were bundled out in straight sets, losing the second Semi Final to eventual premiers Footscray and the Preliminary Final to Melbourne. Bob Wiltshire (recruited from Foster) was the only new player (from the contingent of 36 record run players) in Geelong’s line up for the ’54 finals.

 

Geelong won only one more finals match in the 1950s (the 1955 first Semi Final against Essendon) and did not play in a Grand Final again until 1963.

 

Many players from the record run were gone from the club in 1956, which was Geelong’s last finals appearance of the fifties. Eight Cats from the ‘53 campaign (Les Borrack, Bob Davis, Ron Hovey, Peter Pianto, Noel Rayson, Norm Sharp, Bernie Smith and Neil Trezise) played in the first Semi Final loss to Footscray in 1956. But that was the end of the section. Geelong took out the wooden spoon in both 1957 and ’58 and did not see the MCG in September again until 1962. In the early 60s the playing list was rebuilt under coach Bob Davis, with Fred Wooller as captain. Enter ‘Polly’ Farmer, Bill Goggin, Doug Wade, the Lord twins, Peter Walker, Roy West, John Devine, Paul Vinar, Tony Polinelli and John Sharrock. The wait was worth it for the Geelong fraternity as Bob Davis’ 1963 team defeated Hawthorn to win its sixth VFL premiership. A new era had begun down at Kardinia Park. Next was the one that got away, the classic ’67 grand final loss to the Tigers. History records that Geelong had to wait 44 years to claim the ultimate prize after winning the ’63 flag.

 

 

 

Finally, what was the legacy of the record making Geelong teams of the 1951-1953 era? Geelong’s record of 26 games without a loss and 23 wins in succession remains unbroken today, almost seventy years on. Standing as an honour to the club is the fact that not a single Geelong player was reported throughout the record run. Back-to-back premierships were won by Geelong in 1951-52, the only time the club has achieved the feat. For the players, strong bonds and friendships were made that endured and were celebrated with warmth, humour and camaraderie for the rest of their lives. Whether they came to Kardinia Park from the Geelong area or from further afield in country Victoria, their remarkable achievement adds to the colourful story of the Geelong Football Club. A solid core of the Record Run players went on to become coaches, committeemen and Past Players Association officials. As unwavering supporters, they provided not only leadership, but also experience and sterling service to the club they loved. For Geelong fans old enough to identify with the VFL football world at the time, there is lasting pride in the team’s achievements and memories of a band of footballers who, above all else, entertained. As the club’s song goes… “We play the game as it should be played, At home and far away, Our banners fly high, from dawn to dark, Down at Kardinia Park.”

 

This series is dedicated to each of the 36 players who participated in Geelong’s history making achievement across the 1952-53 VFL seasons. Most members of the contingent have passed away, with just a handful alive today, 68 years since the end of Geelong’s Record Run.

 

 

 

 

Country Football Connections

 

The 1953 premiers of Victorian and Riverina NSW country football leagues were:

Benalla (Ovens and Murray L), Tarrawingee (Ovens and King L), Koroit (Port Fairy L), Lucknow (Bairnsdale L), Irriwillipe (Colac L), Wonwondah (Horsham L), Beech Forest (Otway A), Benambra (Omeo District L), Sunbury (Riddell L), Red Cliffs (Sunraysia L), Bruthen (East Gippsland L), Warracknabeal (Wimmera L), Colac (Hampden L), Numurkah (Murray L), Bairnsdale Rovers (Bairnsdale L), Koondrook (Cohuna L), Macorna (Kerang and District L), Campbell’s Creek (Maryborough L), Lake Boga (Mid-Murray L), Watchem-Corak (North Central L), Coragulac (Polwarth L), Burramine (Tungamah L), Wallacedale (Wallacedale L), Catani (West Gippsland l), Sorrento (Mornington Pen L), Morwell (Central Gippsland L), Avoca (Lexton L), Inglewood (Loddon Valley L),  Nirranda (Purnim L), West End (Warrnambool and DL), Golden Point (Ballarat L), Heywood (Western Districts L), Cressy (Western Plains L), Eaglehawk (Bendigo L), Tatura (Goulburn Valley L), Waaia (Picola and District L), Walla Walla (Hume L), Ganmain (SWDFL),  Boree Creek (Central Riverina L), Culcairn (Albury and District L), Urana-Cullival (Coreen L), Ardlethan (Barellan and District L), Tullibigeal (Northern Riverina L)

 

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Footnotes

1 We are Geelong: The Story of the Geelong Football Club by John Murray p. 75

2 ibid p.74

3 ibid p.74

 

 

 

 

To read about the earlier games in Geelong’s run, click HERE.

 

Peter also wrote about St. Kilda’s premiership season in his 1966 and All That series. You can read that HERE.

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE.

 

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About Peter Clark

is a lifetime Geelong supporter. Hailing from the Riverina, he is now entrenched on the NSW South Coast. His passion for footy was ignited by attending Ovens and Murray League matches in the 1960's with his father. After years of watching, playing and coaching, now it is time for some serious writing about his favourite subjects… footy, especially country footy, and cricket.

Comments

  1. Thanks Peter for an enthralling series.
    Looked forward to it every Wednesday.
    Particularly enjoyed the country snippets.

    Really liked the list of country premiers at the end of the piece.
    Sadly, so many of those leagues are now gone,,,
    and some of the clubs, although quite a number survive in a merged form.
    And, of course, play in different competitions.

    Reckon 1953 was Boree Creek’s last ever premiership – beat the Gullie!
    Those were the days!

  2. Roger Lowrey says

    A marvellous effort Peter. Enjoyed every delicious bit of it.

    RDL

  3. Thanks Peter for a wonderful series. Footy in those days was a totally different world to 2021.

    The Geelong time of that time seems like the best in the club’s history. Would George Goninion’s inclusion in 1953 brought about the premiership hat trick?

    Some of those Country premiers ring a bell in my mind. Tarrawingee: the Plough Inn. Numurkah: my mum’s uncle Bill Conrick was probably living there then. Ardlethan: went to picnic races there twice.

    I look forward to your next series Peter. Stay safe.

    Glen!

  4. Peter Clark says

    Dr Rocket, Roger and Glen!

    While Geelong’s Record Run kept me at the grindstone for over 26 weeks, it was more than worth the effort to learn about the Cats’ great feats in 52-53. Researching the country footy connections each week gave me extra pleasure.

    I am glad each of you found something of interest in the series.
    Yes, those were the days!

    Peter.

  5. Peter Fuller says

    Can I add my voice to the appreciation of this wonderful series. Peter, you took me back to my earliest VFL memories, when I had reached a point of conscious interest in the game, fuelled by the Sun News-Pictorial, the Argus and the bi-weekly Sporting Globe. So many of these names were familiar, and some of those forgotten were dredged out of the memory bank.
    Like Rocket and Glen, I too enjoyed the country football allusions, as well as the references to the ill-fated Australian Ashes tour and the various news items. An enthralling series.
    Hearty thanks, Peter.

  6. Peter Clark says

    Thanks Peter.

    My earliest VFL memories were from the ‘60s, and likewise, the Herald Sun and the Sporting Globe were a big part of the weekly footy experience. World of Sport topped it off every Sunday afternoon.

    Peter

  7. Hi Peter,

    A bit late to this but I’m catching up on last week’s reading. Congratulations, and thank you for this massive undertaking which you have carried out without missing a beat. I enjoyed the series itself, and I agree with others who pay tribute to the other elements, especially the country footy stuff. Also, one of the first cricket books I read was my father’s copy of The Ashes Crown the Yaer, the story of the `53 Ashes Tour so it was interesting to be reminded of that.

    You have now completed two fine seasons – with the Saints of `66 and the Cats record run. What next? No doubt your historical imagination has already been engaged. But I’d be interested to hear what people would like to read. And what you’re thinking.

    What was the season of 1922 like?

    And again, thanks for your phenomenal efforts.

    Regards
    JTH

  8. Peter Clark says

    Thank you JTH for your generous comments.

    Throughout the two series I have appreciated the direction and feedback provided by Almanackers.
    Whether it was Dr Rocket asking how Rochy went, or Glen! wondering about Corowa, or you suggesting the ’53 Ashes tour as a sidelight, the input, feedback and shared interest was always engaging. It was also wonderful to hear from people who remember the 1952-53 seasons and personally knew some of the players of that era.

    What next? A good question and I’m open to suggestions … as long as I can indulge in some country footy.

    Go well
    Peter

  9. What about a season following a couple of country teams, and then an addendum of VFL footy for that year? In other words, reversing the balance?

    Just a suggestion.

  10. Peter Clark says

    That appeals to me JTH.

    Others might have suggestions on the country clubs and the year.

    Peter

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