From a humble start, a giant rises
In 1895, a handful of Victoria's leading football clubs began plotting to split from the Victorian Football Association and set up their own elite competition. The rebel clubs included the two oldest, Melbourne and Geelong, who had both been around since the 1850s, and the two most recently successful, in South Melbourne and Essendon. These were the biggest names in the game.
That was not a tag the Collingwood Football Club could claim. At the time the club was just three years old. It had little history to fall back on, and no success, having finished last, ninth and eighth in its three completed VFA seasons. The Magpies were in no position to think of themselves as big players. Yet those clubs planning the breakaway 'super league' had seen something far beyond the team's early results, and they knew they needed Collingwood on board if their new League was to succeed. They made a beeline for Magpie officials, and actively courted them for more than a year.
What they had seen in the VFA's newest club was what continues to set the club part from its rivals today – the size and passion of the Magpie supporter base. It is the breadth and depth and ferocity of that support, much more than any onfield success, which secured Collingwood a place in the VFL's first ever season in 1897. It is those same qualities that soon afterwards helped establish Collingwood as the biggest and most powerful club – as well as the most loved and most hated – in the game.
That is a status the club still holds today. And even though these days it's a multi-million dollar business in the highly corporatised multi-billion dollar world of the Australian Football League, the heart of the club's strength and power still lies with its fan base, just as it did back when the Magpies' story began in the 1890s.
When the Collingwood Football Club sent a team onto Victoria Park for the first time, against Carlton in May of 1892, a massive crowd of 16,000 turned out – one of the biggest attendances the VFA had ever seen. The club's membership in that first season topped 400 – larger than any of its more established rivals. Despite winning only three games, the club could already make legitimate claims to being the best supported in the competition after just one season.
That was a shock to those who had expected little of the new club when it was born in 1892. At that time, Collingwood the suburb was not a place where many people wanted to live. It might not have been slum territory, but it was not far off. The suburb was lampooned, its residents derided – so much so that the football team was briefly nicknamed ‘The Purloiners’ by rival fans and even the media during the 1890s.
A team originating from such a suburb was hardly to be feared. To make matters worse, the club was born in the early stages of a major depression; other sporting clubs were folding, and members and fans for a new club would surely be impossible to attract. But the Collingwood residents did not have much in their lives to cheer about in those days, and the formation of their own football club was a matter of great civic pride. So, too, was its progress, and survival. The club's creation was driven largely by the desire to raise the standing and dignity of the suburb and its residents, and they weren't about to let it go.
Despite the Depression, locals joined up in big numbers. Those numbers dropped in the mid-1890s as the Depression hit harder, but fell less than other clubs and remained the highest in the competition. As Richard Stremski noted in Kill for Collingwood: “A senior football club formed in any other suburb at this inauspicious moment might not have survived.”
Against all the odds, Collingwood not only survived – it prospered. Those fans who joined early and stuck through the Depression were rewarded more quickly than they could have imagined: the team finished second in 1895, and grabbed a VFA Premiership the following year – just its fifth as a recognised football club. That Premiership was final confirmation that the club had added on-field might to its undoubted pulling power.
During that triumphant 1896 season, the Magpies had finally succumbed to the approaches from the game's biggest clubs and agreed to become part of the Victorian Football League, which in an exquisite piece of timing was formally set up the night before the 1896 VFA Grand Final. The club soon made its mark in the new competition too, snaring back-to-back VFL flags in 1902-03. By that stage it was official: the Collingwood Football Club was an irresistible powerhouse – both on and off the field.
The Collingwood locals revelled first in the team’s existence, then in its success. The suburb took the team to its collective heart – and formed with it an intimate, passionate bond that was further strengthened by its phenomenal run during the next depression in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a period that hit the suburb particularly hard, and the club went out of its way to look after its fans, many of whom were struggling. This was a club that was uniquely close to its supporters.
The early success of the team – 11 VFL flags in 40 years – made it easy for supporters to stay. Its local fans, finally given something to boast about, did so freely, and they came to be despised by other supporters. Victoria Park was soon a nightmare to visit; the supporters were hell, the visitors’ facilities poor and the home team rarely lost. Collingwood was soon renowned not just for its successes, but also for what some perceived to be its arrogance. That combination must have made Collingwood easy to hate.
That hatred was further fuelled by the intense suburban rivalries that Collingwood ‘enjoyed’ with many of its inner-city neighbours. The enmity was initially at its fiercest with immediate neighbour Fitzroy, but over time shifted to Carlton (who were initially allies, rather than opponents). Richmond, too, provided its fair share of bloody battles, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, as did Melbourne (briefly) in the 1950s.
It was also fuelled by the team's ongoing, and seemingly unending, successes. As well as those 11 early flags, its players topped the competition goalkicking in 22 of the VFL's first 43 seasons. Five Magpies won Brownlows in the first 16 years of the award. The club set records that looked unlikely to be broken, such as the four-in-a-row premierships of 1927-30, and Gordon Coventry’s mountainous 1299 goals. It produced the only unbeaten home-and-away season in football history. It not only won more flags than anyone else (a position of pre-eminence it held for more than 50 years) but also had the better of the win-loss ratios against all clubs.
But the more people hated Collingwood, the more Collingwood people stuck together, and the tighter the bond that was formed between them. They relished the us-against-the-world position. This unity stood them, and the club, in good stead in the second half of the 20th century, when successes dried up and fate seemed to conspire against the black-and-whites at every turn.
This was the 'second half' of the Collingwood story. And in many ways, it's more remarkable than the first. It's easy for a club to be powerful, and popular, when it's as dominant as the Magpies were until the end of the 1950s. But Collingwood has continued to lay claim to the title of being the biggest club in football despite winning only two flags in more than 50 years. And that, in a sport that is notoriously unforgiving of losers, is an extraordinary achievement.
The Magpies' slump began after the 'Miracle of '58', when an unfancied Collingwood line-up somehow defeated an apparently unbeatable Melbourne side that was poised to match the club's treasured four-in-a-row record.
It was almost as if the Pies used up 30 years of good fortune on that one September Saturday in 1958. After a thumping in 1960, heart-breaking losses followed in 1964 (4 points), 1966 (1 point) and, infamously, 1970 (10 points, after leading by 44 at half-time). There were also 'should-have-been' seasons in 1969, 1971 and 1973, before another burst of heartbreak in 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1981. The curse of the Colliwobbles had taken hold, and it looked as if we were fated never to win another flag: almost all of the losses contained at least one key moment of misfortune where the football Gods were not kind to the black-and-whites. A Premiership in 1990 finally – finally – broke the drought, but the expected floodgates never opened: instead, that triumph presaged the bleakest period in the club's history.
But this is where the club and its fans stood taller than ever. Even at its lowest ebb, Collingwood has always been one of the power clubs. Throughout the 1990s, Collingwood trailed only the more successful and (then) much more professional Essendon in terms of memberships among Victorian clubs, and regularly still drew the biggest crowds each season. Even in its worst-ever season of 1999, Collingwood achieved what was then a record number of members. And today, of course, it has set AFL-wide membership records that seemed unimaginable even a few years ago.
That mass appeal is the key to Collingwood’s strength, and its ability to ride out football’s dips and troughs in better shape than any other club. For while it has the fans in such numbers – and so ‘rusted on’ – Collingwood will remain big news. While the club remains in the news it seems exciting, and people want to be part of it. So the fans keep coming. Which means it stays in the news … and so on. In this way, Collingwood’s level of support has become almost self-perpetuating.
Of course, it helps that everything about Collingwood seems so much larger-than-life. The club has packed more drama and headlines into its history than any of its rivals. Its stories have seemed larger, its controversies more controversial, its implosions more devastating, its boardroom battles more bloody, its successes more celebrated and its failures more improbable, more ill-fated. Even when we win a flag, as in 2010, it creates a story-beyond-the-story, with the messy Malthouse-Buckley handover that swamped the club in 2011. It's no surprise that when David Williamson wrote his play (and later film), The Club, he wrote it about Collingwood. As every canny newspaper editor knows, the Pies have always been big news.
The characters that have dotted our history are similarly large-scale: Jock McHale (pictured above), who coached for an improbable 38 years; The moneyed and mysterious John Wren, a continual background presence in the club’s first 50 years, intriguing enough to spark his own book and TV series, Power Without Glory; Lou Richards, for many years the biggest name and face in footy; Allan McAlister, who led the club to the 1990 flag but drew even more attention with his controversial statements; Eddie McGuire, probably the biggest personality in Australia, and not just within football.
Today, Collingwood retains its mantle as the biggest, most famous, sporting club in Australia. This doesn’t mean it’s always the best, or the most successful. It doesn’t even mean it’s the best-run club. It just means it’s the biggest – with more supporters, more ‘brand awareness’, more power, more pull, than any other club in the land. And while it's easier to make that claim in the wake of a relatively recent Premiership, Collingwood's true greatness lies in knowing that, even without more flags, the fans will still come, the members will still join. And they will stay. Perhaps, despite everything else this club has achieved in its rich and remarkable history, that is Collingwood’s finest achievement of all.