General Footy Writing: Wayward kicking provides just one of several twists in dramatic 1948 Grand Final

Most footy fans are familiar with the epic VFL drawn grand final of 1977. It was televised live into millions of loungerooms and has been replayed constantly since. Television has allowed us to relive the drama of that sun-drenched afternoon at the MCG, and fans too young to remember can still experience the historic moments caught for posterity such as Baker’s six goals, Twiggy Dunne’s flat punts, and Barassi sporting the best in ’70s fashion.

But many might be unaware that in VFL/AFL history, there has been one other drawn grand final. In 1948 television was still a few short years away. The events of that dramatic day live only in the memories of the remaining participants and observers, and in written accounts.

Judging by the scoreline, this grand final must be one of the most notable ever, if not the most polished. Firm favourites Essendon kicked a staggeringly inaccurate 7.27 (69) to tie with Melbourne’s 10.9 (69). To rub salt into the wound, Essendon went on to lose the rematch.

It’s easy to imagine the game in grainy black and white. Given the score, one might have the impression of a muddy slog. But life wasn’t lived in grainy black and white, and although there was rain in the days leading up to grand final day, the game was played in excellent conditions. A heavy centre wicket area was the only blemish on the manicured turf of the ‘G.

Just like finals matches today, thousands of excited fans streamed through the parklands around the MCG and through the turnstiles. With the old Southern Stand stretching around the outer, a crowd of just under 86,000 filled the stadium. The gates were closed just before the game, leaving an unlucky few locked out.

Melbourne sports fans would have been in a particularly buoyant mood in September 1948. Talk in the stands before the game may have turned to Bradman’s Invincibles, who had recently completed their undefeated tour of England. The first Olympics in 12 years had just been staged in London with Australia coming away with two gold and 13 medals in total. And in a sign of Melbourne’s growing self-confidence, the city’s bid to host the 1956 Olympics was under way.

On this day, the passions of supporters were focussed on whether a powerful Essendon would claim its ninth flag, and its third of the decade, or whether the underdog Demons could capture their sixth after winning three in a row between 1939 and 1941.

The two sides had met in the grand final of 1946, when a dominant Essendon thrashed Melbourne by 63 points and kicked a record grand final score at the time of 22.18 (150). In 1947 the Dons again reached the last day of the season, only to kick inaccurately and lose to Carlton by a point; an eerily similar anguish to the one felt after the preliminary final 52 years later, in 1999.

On grand final day 1948, a distinct air of confidence would have pervaded the Essendon rooms. They had finished the year on top after suffering only two losses and had gone through the finals without a scare, having defeated Melbourne comfortably two weeks earlier in the semi final. In a comment made for The Sun on the eve of the clash, Dick Reynolds stated:

Every man in the side is fit . . . We have beaten Melbourne three times already this season and I am certain we will win.

Melbourne’s three losses to Essendon forced their legendary coach Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes to roll the dice with a risky strategy designed to unsettle the star-studded Essendon unit. Jack Mueller was a 200-game, 33-year-old key forward who had retired at the end of 1947 to take on the role of playing coach of Melbourne’s seconds. In a stunning move, the Demons brought him in to the side to play the preliminary final against Collingwood, estimating that he may yet have two games of top level football left in him. Collingwood were privately pleased, believing the veteran to be too slow and more of a liability than a threat. He kicked eight goals in a 65-point preliminary final thumping.

The other focal point for Melbourne was Norm Smith, who was also at the end of a great playing career. Almost 33, Smith was in his final season and spending increasingly regular spells on the sidelines as the rigours of the game took their toll. The efforts of Smith and Mueller to inspire an unlikely Demon premiership have become legend at Melbourne.

Although a strong majority of opinion favoured Essendon, Alf Brown struck a prophetically cautionary note in Friday’s Herald:

Essendon’s toughest ‘opponent’ tomorrow may be themselves. They have excellent grand final temperament except in the all important business of scoring goals. They lost the grand final last year because of wretched kicking and if they fall down in front of goal again tomorrow they could repeat the performance.

An overcast morning greeted supporters and players. The teams were led on to the ground by respective captains Dick Reynolds and Don Cordner. Cordner has told of his brief exchange with Reynolds as they met for the toss:

Well Dick, this is our last shot at you.”

Unless it’s a draw, Don.”

With Essendon’s Bob ‘Bluey’ McClure starring in the ruck, the Dons had much of the possession early but squandered opportunities with atrocious kicking. Their play was described as “laboured and unimpressive”. Their first goal didn’t come until almost halfway through the second quarter through Bill Hutchinson.

By half-time, a score of 2.15 (27) was all they had to show for their toil. Yet they were still only two points down; Melbourne had kicked 4.4 (29). Essendon’s forward line was hopelessly congested, while Melbourne opened theirs up to give Mueller as much space as possible. And Mueller was proving too tall and too good for the Bombers defenders.

The Bombers finally got their game into gear in the third quarter, kicking four goals to two to finally hit the lead. Mueller kicked both of Melbourne’s goals in this quarter, but he couldn’t prevent Essendon from taking a 13-point lead into the last, 6.21 (57) to 6.8 (44). The game should have been well beyond Melbourne’s reach.

Essendon dominated general play again in the last quarter, but a courageous Melbourne kept challenging. Despite continued misses, Essendon maintained a twelve-point advantage going into time-on, with scores at 7.27 (69) to 8.9 (57).

But an often scrappy game had an extraordinary sting in the tail, with Melbourne surging in the final minutes. First, Norm Smith marks 35 yards out on a 45-degree angle. He walks back and calmly drop-kicks the ball through for a goal. Six points in it, with time-on ticking away.

The Demons win the ball out of the centre and a kick finds Adrian Dullard at centre half-forward. Thinking he is too far out to score, he launches into a torpedo punt to get the ball as deep into the Melbourne forward line as possible. His foot makes the sweetest possible contact with the footy. The ball launches long and straight and sails through for another goal. Scores are level. Seconds are dying. The crowd noise is at fever pitch.

Players desperately try to win the ball out of the middle. But once again it’s Melbourne who go forward. Smith marks fifty out. Concerned with both time and distance, he plays on immediately and shoots, only to see the ball fade across the face of goals and go out of bounds. The Demons are a chance to force the ball through for a match-winning behind from the throw in.

Melbourne ruckman Don Cordner and Smith spoil each other at the throw-in and the ball spills free. Smith has an opportunity to kick it off the ground. He slips and misses. Essendon full back Cec Ruddell grabs the footy and kicks it away from danger.

The bell rings. It’s over. The crowd falls to a stunned and confused silence. The VFL’s 50th Grand Final has ended in the first draw in a decider. After squandering their ascendancy for most of the day, Essendon have been lucky to hang on.

Forlorn Dons full-forward Bill Brittingham walked away with 2.12. But according to Alf Brown:

In addition to their bad kicking, Essendon’s near defeat could be attributed to their smug confidence. The Dons were so certain of winning that they had ice-cream cakes made for a dinner held on Saturday night with the word PREMIERS written across the top of them.

With Melbourne’s confidence growing, they went on to overcome Essendon in the rematch a week later. It was the two sides’ fifth meeting of the year.

Redemption was to come in ’49 for the Dons. In the opening round John Coleman kicked a remarkable 12 goals on debut against Hawthorn. Coleman kicked the ton in his first two season and played in premierships both years – all before playing his 50th game.

In those years Melbourne saw the retirement of coach Checker Hughes, Norm Smith and Jack Mueller. The club appointed Allan La Fontaine as coach. Smith bided his time with Fitzroy for three seasons before returning to Melbourne to coach the Demons to another six premierships.


  1. Great stuff Adrian

    Mr Brittingham must have been haunted by that tally for many a day.

    Interesting to think of all the talk of innacuracy nowadays.

    It looks trivial compared to these efforts.

  2. Adrian Vitez says

    Thanks John.

    I don’t think Bill Brittingham ever quite lived it down. In his defence though, the rest of the side still only managed 5.15!

  3. Great read Adrian. I hate to sound like a Methuselah, but i can remember the bell and I remember Bill Brittingham – as the the Justin Fletcher of one of The Bombers’ great eras. Coleman’s arrival had a duel benefit.

  4. Adrian Vitez says

    Thanks for the comments John.

    Yes, I should have mentioned that Brittingham became a very good full back in a great Essendon side.

    My account of the final moments of the game came from the recollection of Don Cordner as told to Ben Collins for his biography of Norm Smith – The Red Fox. But if you were there, I’d love to hear as many perspectives as possible.

    I understand Essendon played in 6 GF’s in a row in this period, winning three, losing one by a point, drawing in ’48, and losing the last when Coleman was suspended. A bit of luck and it could have been six in a row!

    I’m interested in finding out more about this era and to hear people’s accounts of Coleman in particular. If you’ve got stories to share, I’d love to hear them.

Leave a Comment