The days of grim grand finals

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PLAYING footy during the Depression was a way of getting food for the family. GEOFF POULTER recalls when times were so tough that losing a semi-final could be a bonus:

IT’S fascinating to read and learn of the rare and quirky circumstances that affected VFL Grand Finals in the Great Depression and the years that followed leading to the Second World War.

Money and jobs were so scarce in those times that the regulated standard three to four-pound league-imposed match payment was a life-saver for many otherwise unemployed senior players.

So much so that Melbourne football legend Dr Don Cordner once explained how Collingwood had not been concerned at losing the 1929 semi-final to Richmond by 72 points after winning all its 18 home-and-away games. The Tigers had won 12 and drawn one.

Cordner related how he was told by Collingwood full-forward Gordon Coventry, whose family he treated as a GP, that the Magpies felt they could beat Richmond at any time.

And, under the VFL challenge rule that applied at that time, as they had finished top of the ladder, they could play the Tigers again in the Grand Final. That meant getting two weeks’ pay. Everything went according to plan and Collingwood won the GF by 29 points.

Desperate measures for desperate times. It was the third leg of the Magpies’ record four straight flags. In a remarkable period, in which they had lost two GFs (1925,1926) then won four, they also won in 1935 and 1936 before losing the following three GFs.

The 1933 Grand Final was unusual because of the composition of the winning South Melbourne team, then referred to as the Foreign Legion.

Seven of the Bloods’ premiership 20 were recruited from interstate, a number unheard of in those days. Two other interstate recruits missed the GF with injuries.

Laurie Nash, recruited from Tasmania, was best on the ground at centre half-back in the 9.17 to 4.5 win. Nine months later Nash kicked 18 goals for Victoria against South Australia at the MCG after being switched from half-forward to full-forward at quarter time.

South’s GF win was its 11th straight in a surge that began mid-season. The Bloods survived a semi-final scare when they trailed by 25 points at three-quarter time against GF opponent Richmond before eventually winning by 18 points.

Bob Pratt reached 109 goals for the season in the GF – one more than Gordon Coventry who played one fewer game. Pratt was off target with 3.9 and four out of bounds.

The MCG crowd of 75,754 (receipts 4,200 pounds) was the first time a GF had topped 70,000 – remarkable as Australia’s population at the time was only four million.

The 1944 GF was played at the Junction Oval with the MCG being used as a war camp. The war impacted on prospective GF players with Fitzroy’s Leo Monaghan interstate on army service and Richmond full-back George Smeaton missing the final training session through military duty.

Players had to apply for permission to be released for games throughout the season, even though it was less than a year before WW2 was to end.

The ’44 GF was played in sweltering 30-degree heat. Spectators fainted in crowd crushes.  A tram and train strike did not stop 43,100 attending Fitzroy’s eighth and last premiership – beating Richmond 9.12 to 7.9.

The 165 cm (5ft 5in) Keith Stackpole senior kicked two goals for Fitzroy and Richmond teenager Max Oppy was reported for hacking Ken Sier. Payments were so tight that even players who managed every game collected just 69 pounds.

The following year 17-year-old Ron Clegg, in his first season with South Melbourne, was knocked out in the “Bloodbath” GF against Carlton.

Asked much later to name the culprit, Clegg replied: “No names, no pack drill, mum’s the word, but his initials were Bob Chitty.”

This was almost as amusing as the answer man-mountain Ray Gabelich gave, after his four-bounce goal on the run late in the 1964 GF in Collingwood’s narrow loss to Melbourne.

Asked what was going through his mind during the long run, Gabbo responded: “I was just hoping that I was going the right way.”


Author: Geoff Poulter

GEOFF POULTER, 69, has spent 51 years in sports media. He was the last Melbourne Herald chief football writer. CV: Sports oracle, author, historian, impersonator, raconteur, poet, quiz whiz, philosopher, song-writer, intellectual scholar – and still employable!



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