Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game



In common with a considerable number of other Australian football clubs of long standing Carlton owes its origins to the local cricket club. Its first president, Robert McFarland, and its first secretary, Ben James, for example, both had strong cricket connections. The early players tended to be predominantly middle class and Protestant in spite of which, almost from the start, Carlton teams acquired a reputation for being wild and tempestuous, traits which clearly distinguished them from other clubs of ostensibly similar orientation such as Melbourne and Geelong. By the early 1870s matches between Carlton (the Blues) and Melbourne (the Reds) were the undisputed highlights of each football season, regularly attracting five figure crowds, and providing arguably the clearest available yardstick of the game's progress.

From powerhouse to also rans

The 1870 season saw Victoria's first 'official' premiership competition in which Carlton performed creditably to finish third. The following year brought the club's first premiership and in the remaining five seasons before the formation of the Victorian Football Association the club continued to shine, winning three consecutive premierships from 1873-75.

Carlton was a thriving club off the field as well. When the VFA was established in 1877 the club had no fewer than 215 fully paid up members and was one of the most prominent early voices in the Association. On the field, it swept all before it in the VFA's inaugural year, scoring 56 goals and conceding just 11 to clinch the premiership with ease. However, this early halcyon phase in the club's history was coming to an end. In 1878, the first chinks in the armour appeared when Carlton suddenly found itself without a home after being evicted from its ground at the University of Melbourne. Without the advantage of a home base the side slumped to third behind premiers Geelong, and Melbourne.

The 1879 season saw Carlton playing its home matches at the southern end of Princes Park but it was not permitted either to charge admission or to enclose the land. The side improved slightly to finish as runner up to Geelong, which along with South Melbourne would dominate Victorian football for most of the next decade.

The only break in Geelong's and South's dominance came in 1887, courtesy of a Carlton side boasting some of the finest players of the time, notably Billy Strickland, Jack Baker, 'Dolly' Batters, Sam Bloomfield, Tommy Leydin and Mick Whelan. Of the 18 matches counted as being towards the Association premiership the Blues won 15 and drew 2, tasting defeat only in the away fixture against Geelong. It was thus as 'Champions of the Colony' that Carlton took part, a year later, in an historic match. The opposition was provided by a touring British rugby team which engaged in a total of 18 games of Australian football during the Victorian and South Australian legs of its tour, winning 5 and losing 13.

One of the losses came in the encounter with Carlton, which was watched by a crowd of 25,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Carlton won by 14 goals to 3, but:

....the visitors....played spiritedly, and their forwards had....numerous opportunities which, through their inability to mark, had been useless to them. They appeared to think of nothing but dribbling the ball through, and the smartness of their opponents invariably upset their calculations in this direction. [^1]

The 1890s was a period of decline in the Australian economy and this was mirrored at Carlton which by the middle of the decade had become little better than a chopping block for the likes of Essendon and Collingwood. Uncertainty regarding security of tenure of its facilities at Princes Park was also a source of concern.

Despite all this, at the end of the 1896 season Carlton was invited by the VFA's strongest and richest half a dozen clubs to join a breakaway competition to be known as the Victorian Football League. The only condition was that it secure a permanent home base where an admission charge could be levied, and after protracted negotiations with Carlton Cricket Club permission was obtained to use the enclosed cricket oval on Princes Park.

When the VFL got underway in 1897 it consisted of eight clubs, St Kilda having also been asked to join - a fortuitous circumstance as far as the Blues were concerned as their only two wins for the year came at the expense of the team from the Junction Oval.

...the pre-eminent force in VFL football

This pattern of failure was repeated in each of Carlton's first five seasons in the VFL. Clearly a fresh approach was needed, and this came in 1902 with the appointment as secretary and manager of former Fitzroy champion Jack Worrall, who had also represented both Victoria and Australia at cricket. Worrall was an extremely determined, energetic and imaginative character who in retrospect can be seen to have revolutionised Australian football.

Referring to himself as 'coach' [^2] Jack Worrall had an immediate impact at Carlton as the side won 7 out of 17 matches in 1902 to finish sixth, its highest placing in the VFL up to that point. Included in this tally of victories were notable triumphs over eventual runners up Essendon and third placed Fitzroy.

In 1903 Carlton reached the VFL finals series for the first ever time only to bow out at the first hurdle to eventual premiers Collingwood by 4 points. [^3] Worrall had his charges improving in stages, however, a process which continued in 1904 as the side won a final for the first time (6.7 (43) to 6.4 (40) against Essendon) only to succumb, perhaps predictably, to Fitzroy's superior experience in the final.

A temporary hiccup followed as Carlton ran third in 1905 but the Worrall regime, which survived a pre-season rebellion from certain players who considered it 'too Spartan', achieved full fruition in 1906 as the side finally broke through for a flag. A tally of 14 wins from 17 minor round matches brought pole position going into the finals where Carlton overcame Collingwood 9.10 (64) to 8.6 (54) after trailing by 3 points at three quarter time before annihilating frequent nemesis Fitzroy 15.4 (94) to 6.9 (45) in the final in front of a then record crowd of 44,437 at the MCG. The Blues' resolute defence was the key to their triumph, with half back flanker William Payne the widespread choice as best afield, ably abetted by full back Doug Gillespie and back pockets Les Beck and Norman 'Hackenschmidt' Clark. Wingman George Bruce and centreman Rod McGregor were among the others to shine, while forward Mick Grace kicked 3 goals to become the first VFL player to amass 50 League goals in a season.

The 1907 season saw Worrall continue to train his charges hard giving rise to continued resentment but also, paradoxically, ensuring that the team's edge was maintained. The Blues again topped the ladder going into the finals and again did not need to execute their right of challenge after a comfortable 56 point demolition of St Kilda and a hard fought 5 point win over South Melbourne in the final. A new record crowd of 45,477 saw Carlton lead at every change by 1, 7 and 15 points before withstanding a desperate last quarter challenge from the southerners who on four separate occasions narrowed the margin to just a couple of points. Final scores were Carlton 6.14 (50) to South Melbourne 6.9 (45) with the victors best served by ruckman George 'Mallee' Johnson, centre half back and captain Jim Flynn, half back flanker Martin Gotz, centre half forward Harvey Kelly, wingman George Bruce, and three-goal full forward George Topping.

Carlton were now very much the pre-eminent force in VFL football and with 1908 being regarded as Australian football's official jubilee year Worrall had an additional incentive - if one were needed - to maintain the momentum.

As it happened, 1908 saw Carlton put in one of the most dominant all round seasons in VFL history, losing just once, to Essendon in round twelve. In the semi final encounter with St Kilda, played in atrociously wet conditions, the Blues did virtually as they liked all day and indeed it was not until the final term that St Kilda managed to kick a goal. The final against Essendon attracted a record crowd for the third successive year as 50,261 spectators packed the MCG hoping to see a classic. However, Jack Worrall effectively spoiled the game as a spectacle when he instructed his team to go on the defensive after they had established a 5.4 (34) to 2.4 (16) half time lead:

On the whole it was a decidedly disappointing game, Essendon all through the 1st half failing to play up to their best form, and from the interval to the finish Carlton directed their efforts solely to kicking across the ground in order to prevent Essendon making up their leeway, in consequence of which Carlton only added 1 behind to their record of 5.4 put up before half time. In the early stages of the game Essendon seemed to be over impressed by the importance of the occasion, lacked system, fumbled the ball, failed to watch their men and left their places, while Carlton played a fine, cool, systematic game with judgement and skill. In the last two quarters Essendon showed to much greater advantage, adding 1.4 to 0.1, and might have pulled the game out of the fire but for the lamentable failure of their forwards, who missed several easy chances; but....Carlton were....satisfied not to attempt the aggressive as long as they were able to keep Essendon from scoring. The better team on the day won the match. [^4]

The Blues' best included ruckman Charlie Hammond, half forward flanker Alex Long, centre half back William Payne, back pocket Norm Clark, rover Fred Elliott, and ruckman George Johnson.


"...most of their ire was directed at Jack Worrall"

Success does not always breed contentment, however. In addition to the dissatisfaction over Worrall's coaching methods, an increasingly large number of players were annoyed at what they perceived as the club hierarchy's reluctance to share with them the financial spoils of success. Rightly or wrongly most of their ire was directed at Jack Worrall, whose front line position as club coach perhaps made him a more accessible target. Late in the 1909 season, with Carlton still very much an on field force to be reckoned with, Worrall resigned as coach, although for the time being retaining his position as club secretary.

With skipper Fred Elliott taking over the coaching reins the side went within an ace of capturing a fourth successive pennant. A 14.8 (92) to 9.2 (56) semi final trouncing of Essendon booked the Blues a place in the final against minor premier South Melbourne, and once again Carlton surged their way to a comfortable win, 10.9 (69) to 7.5 (47). South Melbourne had the right of challenge, but few thought them capable of improving sufficiently to reverse the result of the final. The South brains trust had learned their lesson from the previous week, however, when their attempt to confront the stern physical challenge afforded by the Blues head on had failed lamentably. This time "they decided to head for the open spaces. With their pace they avoided becoming bogged down in the crushes." [^5] The new tactics worked superbly, and South won a thriller by 2 points.

The off season saw a 'reform group', consisting largely of players and their supporters, sweeping to power after a series of controversial ballots, and Jack Worrall immediately severed his last link with the club by resigning as secretary, with Arthur Ford taking over. Worrall went on to coach Essendon with some success but meanwhile the press branded Carlton's treatment of him as smacking "of both folly and ingratitude". [^6] No fewer than eight senior players obviously concurred with this view as they left the club but despite this the Blues continued to prosper, finishing the 1910 home and away season at the top of the ladder.

The finals were a different story, however. The semi final saw the Blues kick themselves out of contention against South Melbourne, going down by 12 points, 6.17 (53) to 10.5 (65). However, intrigue centred not on the match itself but on Carlton's decision to drop three selected players from its line-up shortly before the start; this, it later emerged, was because club officials had apparently got wind of the players having accepted bribes to 'play dead', claims which, in the case of two of the three individuals involved, were later ratified by a VFL inquiry, which suspended the culprits for five seasons each.

The finals saw Carlton's conquerors South Melbourne go down to Collingwood and the Blues, as minor premiers, immediately exercised their right of challenge. However, the bribes controversy still hung heavily over the club [^7] and Collingwood never looked in trouble, eventually winning by 14 points, 9.7 (61) to 6.11 (47).

Carlton dropped to fourth in 1911, improving slightly to third a year later, but then plummeted down the list to sixth in 1913 in Jack Wells' only season as coach. Under Norman 'Hackenschmidt' Clark, re-appointed coach in 1914 after a single season in charge two years earlier, there was a sudden quite dramatic turn around. Despite blooding numerous first year players during the course of the season Carlton headed the ladder after the home and away rounds and went on to win the premiership via the challenge final with a side containing no fewer than nine 'rookies', easily a record. The Blues ended up in the challenge final after South Melbourne had surprisingly bested them by 19 points in the final but their form a week later was greatly improved. In the first half indeed it looked to be merely a question of 'how much' as Carlton raced to a 5.8 (38) to 2.5 (17) lead, but thereafter the match followed a similar pattern to 1908 as the Blues concentrated almost exclusively on defence while South Melbourne attacked relentlessly, but ultimately with minimal success. Carlton won 6.9 (45) to 4.15 (39) with backmen William Dick, Paddy O'Brien, Harry Houghton and Steve Leehane particularly conspicuous. Wingman Ted Brown and half forward flanker Alex 'Bongo' Lang also did well. The recent onset of war in Europe restricted the crowd to just 30.427, many of whom may have wondered if they were watching the last VFL match to be played for some time.

As it was, however, the league controversially elected to continue in 1915, a decision for which Carlton ultimately had much cause to be thankful. After finishing the home and away rounds in second place on the ladder the Blues enjoyed wins over Melbourne by 11 points in a semi final and Fitzroy by 16 points in the final before comfortably downing minor premiers Collingwood 11.12 (78) to 6.9 (45) in the challenge final in front of a surprisingly large crowd of close to 40,000 spectators. Back pocket Andy McDonald, wingman George Challis, who less than a year later was to die in the war, half back flanker Ted Brown, half forward flanker Herb Burleigh, centre half forward Perce Daykin, and centreman Rod McGregor were Carlton's best. Perhaps the unluckiest player afield was Collingwood wingman Tom Clancy who had occupied the same position for Carlton five years previously when the Blues and Collingwood had last met in a challenge final - with the opposite result.

The 1916 and 1917 seasons saw the VFL limping along on a reduced scale but Carlton maintained involvement both years, finishing second and third.

The end of the longest drought

The immediate post world war one period saw football booming as a spectator sport and on 28th August 1920 an unparalleled crowd estimated at 51,000 crammed into Princes Park to witness Carlton's 16.13 (109) to 7.15 (57) demolition of Collingwood. Premierships proved elusive, however. Even after the Blues topped the ladder in 1921 consecutive finals defeats by Richmond consigned them to the role of also-rans, incidentally bringing to life a bogey that was to endure for more than half a century. Many observers at the time considered Carlton's 1921 combination to be the greatest in VFL history up to that point not to have managed to claim the premiership.

The mid 1920s were particularly inauspicious with Carlton missing the finals for four consecutive years from 1923-6 but as the decade drew to a close there were signs that the team was on the verge of returning to the winners' podium. However, despite contesting the finals nine times in eleven seasons between 1927 and 1937 the side repeatedly froze when it mattered (more often than not with Richmond providing the opposition).

The appointment as coach of Brighton Diggins, a Sandgroper who had been a prominent member of South Melbourne's renowned 'foreign legion' for five seasons, was the catalyst which finally produced the breakthrough Carlton sought. After topping the ladder in the minor round in 1938 Carlton qualified for the grand final with a comfortable 32 point victory over Geelong and once there Diggins' tactical acumen came fully to the fore as the Blues outplayed, outfought, but most significantly of all perhaps, outthought their much more experienced opponents Collingwood to record a stirring 15-point triumph.

An Australian record crowd for a football game of any code of 96,834 saw, among other things, Carlton ruckman Jim Park successfully commissioned by Diggins to blanket Collingwood's illustrious spearhead Ron Todd, Magpie rovers Fothergill and Pannam having their effectiveness considerably curtailed by Jack Hale and Mick Price, and Blues full-forward Ken Baxter remaining in the goal square all day so as to stymie the counter-attacking threat posed by Collingwood full back Jack Regan, who had little option but to remain close to Baxter. Diggins was also aware that veteran Collingwood skipper Albert Collier was carrying an injury and instructed the Carlton players to 'go easy' on him in order that he would not be replaced by a fit teammate.

Carlton trailed early but recovered to lead at every change by 1, 20 and 22 points before winning 15.10 (100) to 13.7 (85). There were particularly commendable performances from rover Jack Hale, centre half forward Jack Wrout (4 goals), centreman Cresswell 'Mick' Crisp, ruckman Brighton Diggins, wingman Bob Green, and makeshift full back Jim Park who restricted the aerobatic Todd to just three goals for the game after the Magpie champion had booted 11 against Geelong in the previous week's preliminary final.

"...many people left the ground disgusted with what they saw"

Jim Park, who played in a total of 128 senior games for Carlton, was one of two players from the club to die in action during world war two. The other was Jim Knight (15 games). Overall, however, despite the proximity of some of the fighting to Australian shores, the impact of the war on sport, including football, was less pronounced than during the 1914-18 conflict. Prime Minister Robert Menzies (a Carlton supporter, as it happened) was a staunch advocate of sport as a morale booster, as much to those in action, who avidly followed the fortunes of their favourite teams and players from afar, as to those at home.

Carlton remained competitive throughout the war years, finishing fifth in both 1939 and 1940, third (after heading the ladder after the home and away rounds) in 1941, fifth of eleven clubs in 1942 after Geelong dropped out, fourth of eleven in 1943, and fifth of twelve (Geelong resumed) in 1944.

Carlton finished the 1945 minor round in fourth spot with 13 wins and 7 losses, and few observers gave them much chance of troubling either South Melbourne (16-4) or Collingwood (15-5) in the finals. A solid but unspectacular 14.10 (94) to 8.20 (68) first semi final win over North Melbourne was hardly enough to change anyone's mind, and when Collingwood led the Blues 11.7 (73) to 6.9 (45) at three quarter time of a fiery preliminary final things appeared to be proceeding pretty much as anticipated. When Hustler goaled for the Magpies early in the final term the only remaining uncertainty seemed to centre on the eventual extent of Collingwood's victory, but then came one of those sudden, unexpected shifts of impetus which makes football the world's most exhilarating game. A fierce brawl interrupted play for several minutes and in retrospect can probably be said to have proved decisive in disrupting the Magpies' concentration. Shortly after play resumed Collins, who had been well beaten all day, goaled for Carlton whose players suddenly found hidden reserves of energy and inspiration to lift all over the ground and come steaming home with a further 6.3 to 0.1 over the final quarter of an hour to win by 10 points, 13.12 (90) to 12.8 (80).

The following Saturday Carlton faced South Melbourne at Princes Park as rank underdogs but once again defied the odds to win comfortably by 28 points, 15.13 (103) to 10.15 (75). However, the bare statistics reveal nothing of the drama, excitement and fury of one of the most tumultuous grand finals of them all.

From the start play was scrappy and tough. Kicking with the aid of a moderate breeze in the first term Carlton battled their way to a 2.4 to 0.5 quarter time lead which South managed to eradicate within minutes of the re-start. Shortly after this the fights began. Carlton skipper Bob Chitty flattened South champion Ron Clegg and moments later Carlton's Ron McLean did likewise to Jack Danckert. Arguments began which umpire Spokes attempted to defuse by holding onto the ball until things calmed down. The lull was only temporary, however, as when play resumed a succession of violent incidents arose, culminating in Blues' centre half forward Ken Hands being knocked unconscious while the ball was being relayed back to the centre after a Carlton goal. An all-in brawl developed which was only stopped by the half time siren.

The atmosphere at the packed ground by this stage was electric with the Carlton majority baying loudly for South Melbourne blood as the comatose Hands was stretchered off the field. The fact that the Blues went into the long break still two points to the good went almost unnoticed.

Despite suffering from heavy concussion, however, Hands was forced to return to the fray in the third term because Carlton's nineteenth man, Charlie McInnes, had already been used. With rain having fallen during the interval the ground was now heavy and, as often happens in such circumstances, fierce body clashes became more frequent. On a purely footballing front South's pace advantage and their slick short-passing style were both undermined. Carlton quickly extended their lead when Hands, miraculously, took a fine mark and then goaled. Three more goals to Carlton quickly followed and the game appeared over. Indeed, in terms of determining the destiny of the 1945 VFL premiership pennant it probably was but, increasingly, a majority of the players seemed more interested in 'evening the score' in other respects. Early in the final term retribution was finally exacted on Chitty and a wholesale melee broke out involving players, trainers, club officials and even ambulance men. Police eventually moved in to break things up and Chitty staggered to a forward pocket from where, as luck would have it, he shortly afterwards kicked a goal. Further heavy body clashes followed as heavy rain fell but in between the fights Carlton continued to kick goals. During one particularly spiteful brawl in the final term Carlton winger Fred Fitzgibbon ended up getting reported - not so unusual you might think except that he had been sitting behind the fence in the club officials' enclosure having been suspended after the preliminary final. At the Tribunal on the Tuesday following the grand final his 3 match suspension was not surprisingly extended to 7, while team mates Chitty and Savage also incurred penalties. A charge against Ken Hands was dismissed. Of six South players reported four were given suspensions and one received a reprimand. Not surprisingly, the press had a field day:

Punching, kicking and deliberate assaults made the League grand final at Carlton on Saturday one of the worst in history...... Many people left the ground disgusted with what they saw...... Officials of the two clubs expressed disgust at the unsavoury end of an excellent season. Each blamed the other for starting the brawls.

Then, after the tribunal had passed sentence:

Supporters will not be satisfied with what has been done to clear up the disgraceful scenes in the grand final. The suspensions were not severe enough to be a deterrent. [^8]

Carlton's win gave it its ninth senior premiership, and its seventh in the VFL, and there can have been few if any in the history of the game so hard earned and thoroughly controversial. Moreover, with the war in Europe having ended just a few weeks earlier it seemed a peculiarly inappropriate way to celebrate.

It seems almost irrelevant to bring up the subject of best players, but a premiership is still a premiership, and history records that the Blues in 1945 were best served by full back 'Vin' Brown, back pocket Arthur Sanger, full forward Ken Baxter, half back flanker cum forward pocket Bob Chitty, centreman Clinton Wines, and ruckman/forward pocket Ron McLean.

Both protagonists in the 'Bloodbath Grand Final' suffered hangovers: in the case of South Melbourne the hangover could be argued to have raged for more than half a century, given that it was 1996 before the club again contested a grand final; in Carlton's case, the effects were thankfully less severe. The Blues plummeted to sixth in 1946 but they were back as good as new the following year when a 14.15 (99) to 11.17 (83) second semi final win over Essendon saw them qualify for their fourteenth VFL grand final. The Same Old provided much sterner opposition the second time round but the Blues treated an 85,793 crowd to a performance of astonishing accuracy in front of goal (8 goals straight to half time) to win by the barest of margins, 13.8 (86) to 11.19 (85). Half forward flanker Fred Stafford kicked the winning goal with less than a minute remaining. Carlton had a winning ruck courtesy of the likes of Jack 'Chooka' Howell, Fred Davies and Jack Bennett, clearly won the centre through Ern Henfry, and had a solid back division exemplified by the zest and determination of half back flanker Jim Clark and the close-checking vigour and aerial brilliance of full back Ollie Grieve.

Sadly for Carlton supporters it was a vastly different story the next time their heroes fronted up to Essendon on grand final day two years later. After a close fought first half the Bombers took control all over the ground, adding 11 goals to 4 to win easily by 73 points. This remains easily Carlton's heaviest ever grand final loss, and signalled the onset of the most depressing era in the history of the club.

"...Carlton were being left behind"

Between 1950 and 1961 the Blues contested the VFL major round on just three occasions without winning a single final. Perhaps most ignominiously of all, in the 1957 first semi final Carlton provided Hawthorn with a victory in that club's first ever VFL finals appearance. Two years later Carlton could not even manage a finals win with the aid of the double chance, losing the second semi final to Melbourne by 44 points and the preliminary final to Essendon by seven points.

Things at last appeared to be set to improve in 1962, however, when Carlton negotiated one of the most precarious ever routes to a grand final involving a win over Melbourne by 2 points in the first semi final followed by a draw and then a controversial 5 point victory over Geelong in the preliminary final. On grand final day though Essendon proved much too good for the Blues and won by 32 points.

Defeated grand final teams frequently use the experience of losing to heighten their resolve to go one step further the following year and there are numerous instances of teams going from runners up to premiers within the space of a single season. In Carlton's case, however, 1962 proved to be a false dawn: the side dropped to 6th the following year, and in 1964 nose-dived to tenth, the Blues' lowest position in the league up to that point.

The simple truth was that, by the mid 1960s, Carlton were being left behind. Elsewhere there was a revolution taking place in the way football was thought about and played, but the Blues "were old-fashioned; the football revolution theorised by Len Smith and brilliantly executed by his brother Norm, who (in 1964) took Melbourne to his 6th coaching premiership, had not penetrated either their beliefs or their teachings". [^9]

"...shock waves reverberating through the entire world of Australian football..."

All this was shortly to change, however. On 7th December 1964 a new club committee, headed by former dentist George Harris, was elected, and immediately began an Australia wide search for a new coach capable of resurrecting the side's on field fortunes. The appointment, when it came, sent shock waves reverberating through the entire world of Australian football; to some it seemed as if the very foundations on which the game itself was built had been torn asunder - indeed, some maintain that the game has never been the same since. Because the coach chosen by Harris to mastermind the Blues' long-awaited revival was none other than one Ronald Dale Barassi, a man who "was to Melbourne what the orb and sceptre are to the queen, what soda is to whisky". [^10]

However, the 28-year-old Barassi had a burning ambition to test his mettle as a coach, something which it was difficult to imagine him being able to do at Melbourne in the foreseeable future, where Norm Smith's position seemed as secure as that of the members' grandstand. His decision to move to Princes Park in order to pursue his ambition was therefore, in hindsight, perfectly understandable. At the time, however, it caused a quite unprecedented furore. [^11] As Keith Dunstan succinctly put it:

"How can I sustain a worthy loathing for the opposition if my idols start romping around from team to team?" [^12]

After all the hype and high expectation, however, Carlton's improvement under Barassi was only very gradual. In both 1965 and 1966 the side won 10 matches and lost 8, finishing sixth on each occasion, with champion ruckman John Nicholls later reflecting that:

"... he (Barassi) was still serving his coaching apprenticeship. He was very volatile, fiery and impatient and did not know how to handle men. But it all started to click in 1967." [^13]

Carlton qualified for the finals in second place that year but lacked the big match know-how needed to capitalise. Richmond in the second semi final (by 40 points) and preliminary final opponents Geelong (by 29 points) gave Ron Barassi plenty to think about during the summer months but, as the 1968 season was to show, he was nothing if not a quick learner.

The longer the 1968 season wore on the clearer it became that the main obstacle in the way of Barassi's achieving his aim was Essendon. During the minor round the Bombers defeated Carlton in both meetings and went on to top the ladder a game and a half clear of the Blues, and as a consequence they were firm favourites to take out their third flag of the decade.

Throughout his coaching career Barassi loved occupying the role of underdog and in the 1968 second semi final he and his players did so to perfection to overwhelm the favourites by 6 goals. For the re-match a fortnight later, played in a tricky cross wind in front of a grand final record attendance of 116,828, the Blues expected Essendon to provide a much tougher challenge, and so it proved. With both sides fumbling badly and kicking haphazardly in the difficult conditions goals were at a premium and the difference in scores seldom extended beyond a couple of kicks. Overall, however, Carlton always seemed to be in control, as a total of 21 scoring shots to 13 confirms. The Blues got considerable drive all day from wingmen Gary Crane and Ian Robertson, won the ruck contests through John Nicholls, and received positive contributions from half forward flanker Alex Jesaulenko, rover Adrian Gallagher, and 4 goal full forward Brian Kekovich, at only twenty-two playing what was to prove the last of just 34 VFL games before a serious back injury forced his retirement. Carlton eventually won the match by just 3 points, 7.14 (56) to 8.5 (53), in what remains the only occasion to date of a V/AFL grand final being won by a side scoring fewer goals than the runners up.

A week later Carlton scored an easy 13.15 (93) to 6.20 (56) win over Sturt in Adelaide in a match confusingly billed as being for the 'Unofficial Championship of Australia'.

The old Richmond bogey re-surfaced in 1969 as Carlton, as favourites, lost the grand final to the Tigers by 25 points after leading by four points at the last change. [^14] The Blues were arguably the most consistent side in the VFL in 1969 but succumbed to a Richmond combination which peaked at just the right time.

If 1969 ended with a disappointing fade out, the following year was just the reverse as the Blues recovered from a 44-point half-time deficit in the grand final against Collingwood to win one of the most dramatic and famous matches of all time by 10 points.

"...handball, handball, handball..."

Watched by what remains (and is likely to remain) an Australian record crowd for any football match of 121,696 Carlton looked dead and buried at the long break inducing Barassi to unleash his now famous instruction to his players to "handball, handball, handball". The players' compliance with this command, coupled with the inspirational impact of nineteenth man Ted Hopkins, saw the pattern of the game alter completely. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the half time interval of the 1970 VFL grand final was when the 'prop and kick' style of football finally died and was replaced by the modern, run-on game. From a strictly historical standpoint this is clearly as nonsensical as maintaining, as many persist in doing, that the sport of Australian football was 'born' in 1858 when Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar engaged in their famous match on the future site of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The claim is also hard to endorse on purely statistical grounds, as I have explained elsewhere. However, what the claim lacks in historical or statistical veracity it makes up for in poetic, indeed almost mythic, potency. Moreover, it is undeniably the case that in the second half of the 1970 VFL grand final Carlton, by judicious and inventive use of handball and short passing, coupled with enhanced aggressiveness and desperation, made Collingwood appear both unimaginative and uncoordinated and as such provided a basic template for almost every V/AFL premier since.


Carlton's best players included half forward flankers Brent Crosswell and Syd Jackson, centre half back David McKay, ruck rover Sergio Silvagni, centreman Ian Robertson, and ruckman John Nicholls.

A comfortable win over Sturt in the so called 'Champions of Australia' clash rounded off a season which for excitement, drama and quality of achievement would be hard to improve on.

Under the surface, however, dissent was brewing. Notwithstanding the ingenuity of his coaching in the 1970 grand final, Barassi's impact was on the wane. When Ian Collins, who had missed the entire 1970 season through injury, returned to the Carlton fold the following year he observed "In 1969, when he barked, everyone jumped; in 1971, no one took too much notice". [^15]

Carlton's on-field displays in 1971 reflected this undercurrent of unease as the side dropped to fifth place, missing the finals for the first time since 1966. At the end of the season, Barassi left.

Under Barassi's replacement as coach, John Nicholls, Carlton enjoyed a much more relaxed regime in 1972, and the players responded positively to clinch the minor premiership with 18 wins, 3 losses and a draw. However, the old nemesis Richmond was waiting in the wings, and although the Blues managed a draw in the teams' first encounter in the second semi final, in the following week's replay the Tigers were much too strong and swept straight through to the grand final on the back of a 41-point win.

Carlton survived a tenacious challenge from St Kilda in the preliminary final to win by 16 points, 16.13 (109) to 13.15 (93), but entered the grand final as distinct underdogs. Something of Barassi's legacy must still have remained at Princes Park, however, for much to most people's surprise the Blues, adopting what Nicholls later described as a "long kicking attack at all costs style", [16] overran the Tigers to win a high scoring spectacular by 27 points. Carlton's final tally of 28.9 (177) remains a record for a VFL grand final, while Richmond's total of 22.18 (150) itself equalled the previous record. [^17]

In the Championship of Australia series, which was expanded in 1972 to include the premier teams of Western Australia and Tasmania, Carlton won a fiery semi final against East Perth with relative ease but then lost a thrilling final to a Barrie Robran-inspired North Adelaide by a solitary point.

The 1972 season was still not quite finished, however, as Carlton, accompanied by an 'Australian All Stars' side comprised of top players from throughout Australia, embarked on a 'world' tour aimed at raising the international profile of Australian Rules football. Unfortunately, however, the tour was extremely poorly publicised, and aroused little interest.

"...alarm bells at Princes Park"

Carlton's 1973 side was rated by John Nicholls among others as superior to the premiership winning combination of the previous year, but it faltered when it counted on grand final day, going down to Richmond by 30 points, 12.14 (86) to 16.20 (116).

Playing coach Nicholls made the last of his then club record 328 VFL appearances in 1974 as Carlton plummeted to seventh. Improvement was shown the following year as the Blues won 16 of 22 home and away games to qualify for the finals with ease in second place, but there then followed demoralising capitulations to North Melbourne in the qualifying final and Richmond in the first semi which meant that in the final wash up the Blues finished fourth. 'Big Nick's' impact as coach was diminishing, as Perce Jones recalls:

He was very quiet. He would take the players aside and talk to them rather than confront them. We all admired him tremendously as a player and he was a magnificent on field example. That sort of leadership works for a while, but then the players start to get slack. [^18]

When the 1976 season got underway Carlton had a new coach in the shape of former Melbourne player Ian Thorogood who had held the assistant coaching position under Nicholls. The team remained capable of defeating any other, and indeed went on to capture the minor premiership, but finals brittleness again showed and, mirroring the previous season, it lost in successive weeks to Hawthorn and North Melbourne.

The 1976 season had brought a further faltering step toward the game's 'nationalisation' as leading clubs from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia contested the NFL Championships. Most matches were played mid-week under floodlights at Norwood Oval where Carlton scored an effortless 22.16 (148) to 3.5 (23) win over South Fremantle only to suffer the heaviest senior defeat in its history up to that point against Norwood a few weeks later. The Redlegs' 22.14 (146) to 5.10 (40) triumph was arrogantly dismissed as a fluke in the Melbourne media, but ought perhaps to have raised alarm bells at Princes Park as the Blues prepared to contest the VFL finals.

Thorogood, who "did his best but did not have the respect of the players" [19] departed after a 1977 campaign which saw the Blues miss the finals by half a game. His replacement was triple Brownlow Medallist Ian Stewart who had just steered South Melbourne to the finals for only the second time since world war two. Just 3 games into the 1978 season, however, Stewart stood down in mysterious circumstances, having allegedly suffered a minor heart attack. By the time a permanent replacement had been found in the shape of skipper Alex Jesaulenko the Blues were dead set last with only 1 win from the opening 6 rounds. Miraculously, Jezza managed to get his charges into the finals where they convincingly defeated Geelong but then bowed out after a hard fought loss to Collingwood.

Jesaulenko remained at the helm in 1979 and the Blues enjoyed an outstanding year, losing only three times during the home and away rounds before jumping straight into the grand final with a 15.21 (111) to 11.7 (73) demolition of North Melbourne. To everyone at Princes Park's delight, Carlton's grand final opponents proved to be arch rivals Collingwood, still without a premiership since 1958. Despite a strong last quarter from the Magpies which saw them add 4 goals to Carlton's 1 the Blues held firm to win a thriller (something which was to become all too rare in VFL grand finals over the next couple of decades) by 5 points, 11.16 (82) to 11.11 (77). Half forward flanker Wayne Johnston and back pocket Wayne Harmes vied for best afield but it was Harmes who was the recipient of the newly instituted award bestowed on the best player in a VFL grand final, the Norm Smith Medal. (Incredibly, in one of those unfathomable quirks which enliven football from time to time, Norm Smith happened to be Wayne Harmes' grandfather.) Other prominent performers for the Blues included centre half back Bruce Doull, wingman Peter Francis, ruckman Mike Fitzpatrick and rover Jim Buckley. The 113,545 crowd paid record receipts of $849,316.

Alex Jesaulenko had no opportunity to build on his achievement as before the start of the 1980 season he had departed the club in dramatic fashion, a victim of the political in-fighting which has blighted Carlton intermittently throughout its history.

Jesaulenko's replacement as coach, Perce Jones, lasted only a single season as the Blues reverted to their mid-1970s finals brittleness, losing heavily to both Richmond and Collingwood to finish fourth.

"...a coach of proven pedigree"

The Carlton committee decided that they needed a coach of proven pedigree to bring out the best in what was undoubtedly a highly talented squad. The man chosen was David Parkin who had piloted Hawthorn to a flag in 1978 after representing the club with distinction in 211 senior games. Parkin was viewed as a "cerebral coach" with strong motivational qualities, and his impact on the Blues was immediate and pronounced. In the opening round of the 1981 season Carlton thrashed reigning premiers Richmond by 10 goals at VFL Park and thereafter never looked back. After securing the minor premiership Carlton comfortably accounted for Geelong in the second semi final to the tune of 40 points and then scored an exhilarating come from behind victory over Collingwood in the 'big one'. With almost half an hour of the third quarter having elapsed Collingwood led by 21 points but then the renowned 'Collywobbles' struck with full force: the Blues kicked 6.7 to 0.2 over the remainder of the match to win with comparative comfort by 20 points. Ever reliable defender Bruce Doull was a popular winner of the Norm Smith Medal for best on ground, with fellow backmen Ken Hunter and Des English, wingman Phil Maylin, and ruckman and skipper Mike Fitzpatrick also prominent.

Parkin immediately turned his thoughts to the problem which had beset Carlton sides for three quarters of a century: how to remain on top after getting there.

"We can win another flag in 1982," he insisted, "but the application of everyone in Carlton, on and off the field, must surpass that of yesterday because the challenge of tomorrow will demand it". [^20]

The coach's words proved prophetic. In an evenly contested season the Blues finished the home and away rounds in third place before negotiating a tortuous route to the grand final which included a worryingly mediocre performance against Richmond in the second semi final. (Richmond won by 23 points.) A comfortable 13.16 (94) to 8.15 (63) preliminary final defeat of Hawthorn went some way toward restoring the players' confidence but Carlton still went into the grand final re-match with the Tigers as underdogs. Clearly thriving on the challenge, however, the Blues played inspirational football, and despite trailing briefly in both the second and third quarters managed to establish a 17 point break by the last change. Richmond then rallied to get within 5 points early in the final stanza and Carlton were forced to defend desperately for a period before Bosustow goaled to provide a bit of breathing space. Still Richmond would not give in, but the Blues' defence somehow managed to withstand everything that was hurled at it. When Alex Marcou kicked truly just before time-on the game was effectively won, while a further goal to McConville shortly afterwards made final the margin a trifle flattering. Norm Smith Medallist Maurice Rioli's last minute goal did nothing to alter the result but did at least make the final scoreline a truer reflection of the closeness of the game. Carlton won 14.19 (103) to 12.13 (85) with 107,537 people in attendance. Back pocket Val Perovic, half forward flanker Wayne Johnston - a perennially outstanding finals performer - ruckman Mike Fitzpatrick, rover Alex Marcou, wingman Wayne Harmes, and half back flanker Ken Hunter were among the Blues' best in an even team performance.

The next three seasons were extremely frustrating for Carlton supporters as the team proved capable of overturning any opposition on its day but consistently failed to perform in the finals. After seeing his charges uncharacteristically squander a winning position against North Melbourne in the 1985 elimination final Parkin made way as coach for Robert Walls who had played with the Blues with distinction from 1967-78 and had more recently achieved a measure of success as coach of unfashionable Fitzroy.

...spreading the recruiting net far and wide...

Prior to the start of the 1986 season Carlton spread the recruiting net far and wide bringing in players of the calibre of Stephen Kernahan from Glenelg, Jon Dorotich from South Fremantle, Port Adelaide's Craig Bradley and Sturt's Peter Motley. This injection of fresh blood seemed to be just what the Blues needed and, after finishing the minor round in third position, the team careered into the grand final in straight sets with convincing wins over the Sydney Swans and Hawthorn. The scenario leading up to grand final day was thus the opposite of four years earlier, with the Blues this time entering the game heavily favoured to win. Disastrously, however, they were given a lesson in controlled aggression by the Hawks and, as a contest, the match was a travesty, with Hawthorn winning comfortably by 7 goals. Only Motley of the four big name recruits did himself any justice, but tragically this was to be his last ever game in a Carlton jumper as his career was prematurely brought to an end the following year after a serious road accident. Veteran Blues defender Bruce Doull retired after the 1986 grand final having played a club record 356 senior games, a mark subsequently overtaken by Craig Bradley. [^21]

In 1987, the VFL continued the expansionist developments commenced back in 1982 when South Melbourne had re-located to Sydney; it welcomed Brisbane (who Carlton thrashed by 103 points at Princes Park in the sides' only meeting in round ten) and the Perth-based club West Coast (similarly trounced by 87 points in round four before turning the tables in a 3 point thriller at the WACA in round 17). The West Coast loss was 1 of only 4 sustained by Carlton in the 22 match home and away season but, disturbingly, 2 of the others were inflicted by Hawthorn. However, in the second semi final a crowd of 64,333 at VFL Park saw the Blues conclusively remove the Hawk bogey from their back with an 11.14 (80) to 10.5 (65) win after Hawthorn had led at every change by 12, 15 and 9 point margins.

Two weeks later in the grand final Carlton again met Hawthorn, but this time they were in no mood to be intimidated. With Norm Smith Medallist David Rhys-Jones in irrepressible form at centre half back, and on ballers Mark Naley and Wayne Johnston repeatedly cutting loose out of the centre square, the only question being asked after half time was how much the Blues would end up winning by. The answer, academic though it was, proved to be 33 points, while a much more significant statistic was that this was Carlton's fifteenth VFL flag - a new record.

For the second year in succession, Carlton travelled to London after the grand final where they played an exhibition match against North Melbourne at the Oval. Norm Smith Medallist David Rhys-Jones was at the centre of the controversy which erupted there in a match, later dubbed 'the Battle of Britain', where fisticuffs proved more prevalent than football.

The Blues remained a prominent force in 1988, finishing third, but between 1989 and 1992 they were in the doldrums, missing the finals each year, albeit only on percentage in 1992. Premiership coach Robert Walls departed in controversial circumstances in 1989 to be replaced by former favourite Alex Jesaulenko. However, unlike a decade earlier Jesaulenko failed to wave a magic wand over the Blues and his tenure lasted less than two full seasons. The 1991 season saw David Parkin back at the helm and an apparently more tolerant club hierarchy seemed to be prepared to give him a reasonable amount of time to turn things 'round.

Revenge is sweet

In 1993 Carlton scored a 1 point win over Sydney in the final home and away match of the season to secure the double chance in the finals. The qualifying final against Essendon was the first ever AFL/VFL finals match to be played at night and saw the Blues establish themselves as favourites for the flag with a hard fought 2 point win. This favouritism was reinforced with a 13.8 (86) to 8.20 (68) second semi final defeat of first time finalists Adelaide.

The 1993 grand final against Essendon was a major disappointment, however, as Carlton were comprehensively outplayed. The Bombers won 20.13 (133) to 13.11 (89) in front of 96,862 fans, and only skipper Steve Kernahan's 7 goals helped accord some respectability to the scoreline.

For much of the 1994 season Carlton appeared on course for a repeat grand final appearance at the very least. However, after finishing second on the ladder following the home and away matches the Blues suffered an embarrassing fade out in the finals, going out in straight sets to Melbourne (by 27 points) and Geelong (by 33 points). Coach Parkin, speaking in the wake of the Geelong defeat, felt constrained to question his own abilities:

"The hardest thing to know is whether you're still coaching well or have the players on tap .... The way we played today, with the lack of discipline in our play, you'd have to question yourself in that regard." [^22]

Despite these misgivings Parkin was back at the helm in 1995 as the Blues swept all before them, winning 20 out of 22 home and away matches in arguably the greatest single season performance in league history up to that point. Wins over Brisbane and North Melbourne in the finals followed, setting Carlton up for a revenge tilt at their 1994 conquerors, Geelong, in the 'big one'. Most observers expected the Cats to throw out a strong challenge but the Blues were in irrepressible form winning by 61 points, 21.15 (141) to 11.14 (80). Greg Williams (5 goals) won the Norm Smith Medal to add to his two Brownlows, while other notable contributors to an effervescent team performance included full back Steve Silvagni, who kept his renowned opponent Gary Ablett goalless, defenders Ang Christou, Andrew McKay, Peter Dean and Michael Sexton, and full forward and skipper Stephen Kernahan, who like Williams booted 5 goals.

Success in any sphere of life is ephemeral, however, as Carlton swiftly discovered in 1996. Although the Blues were always going to make the finals there was something vital missing from their make-up which suggested that back to back flags was not a realistic proposition. And so it proved, West Coast (by 55 points) and Brisbane (by an acutely embarrassing 97 points) ending Carlton's season in emphatic fashion.

...the knives were suddenly out

A year later the Blues fared even worse, failing to make the finals at all, [23] while in the early months of the 1998 season there appeared to be a genuine prospect of the unthinkable happening, as the Blues mounted a legitimate and quite concerted challenge for the wooden spoon. Thus, less than four years after arguably the club's finest hour, the knives were suddenly out, sharpened and poised. 'Too old and too slow' was the all too familiar, if in truth somewhat hackneyed, accusation being levelled by the media; significantly, it was also levelled at the club after both its 1993 grand final loss to Essendon and its humiliating 'straight sets' departure from the '94 finals, but few could argue that the recovery - if such it was - after those occasions was spectacular.

Carlton's recovery in 1998 was less spectacular, but it was at least sufficient to enable them to avoid the ultimate ignominy. Indeed, in round seventeen they were good enough to amass the season's highest AFL score of 29.11 (185) against strong flag contender the Western Bulldogs. An ultimate position of eleventh on the ladder may have been little to get excited about in itself, but overall there were enough positive signs to have Blues' fans quietly confident, if not quite drooling at the mouth, at the prospect of season 1999.

Sure enough, Carlton enjoyed its best season since its flag year of '95, reaching the grand final after a heart-stopping, arguably somewhat fortunate single point victory over premiership favourites Essendon in the preliminary final. The Blues' good fortune came to an end against the Kangaroos the following Saturday, but overall the consensus was that Carlton was a club very much on the upward trail. On the whole the side's performances during the 2000 season re-affirmed this view but an ultimate premiership position of third will not have satisfied most Blues fans who are only ever truly content with premierships. A drop to sixth place in 2001 constituted a "wasted season" according to Carlton coach Wayne Blackwell but to the objective observer it merely emphasised how difficult it is to remain consistently at the top in the cut-throat climate of the modern day AFL.

The decade and a half from hell

As if to reinforce this point the Blues endured their worst ever league season in 2002, plummeting to last place on the list for the first ever time. Moreover, internal difficulties at the club, precipitated by poor financial decisions, including salary cap breaches, suggested that, in the short term at least, things might well get worse - or at least remain pretty dire - before they ultimately got better. The recruitment of North Melbourne premiership coach Dennis Pagan, who arrived just in time to see the house of cards created by the previous administration unravel, failed to stem the tide, In the five seasons of Pagan's reign, the Blues finished fifteenth, eleventh, sixteenth, sixteenth and fifteenth - the worst sustained period of failure in the club's almost uniquely illustrious history.

However, given that pedigree, it was perhaps only a matter of time before such a historically powerful club returned to the winners fold - the recruitment of West Coast champion Chris Judd, and the appointment to the coaching position of club stalwart Brett Ratten being two key moves in that direction. In 2009, 2010, and 2011 the club returned to the September fray, although their only finals win came in the last of these years. In 2012 the Blues missed the finals, and Ratten was sacked.

Ratten’s replacement as coach was Michael Malthouse but in two and a half seasons at the helm he failed to instigate any long term improvement, although the Blues did make the finals in 2013. The following year saw them slump to thirteenth, and after a disastrous start to their 2015 campaign Malthouse publicly criticised the club board resulting in his sacking. Carlton went on to finish the 2015 season in last place. In 2016, under new coach Brendon Bolton, a former assistant to Alistair Clarkson at Hawthorn, the Blues showed modest improvement, winning seven games - three more than in 2015 - to finish14th. After that, the 2017 season, which produced one win fewer than in 2016 and saw the team finish 16th, was immensely disappointing, but much greater disappointment followed in 2018 when the Blues only managed a couple of wins in slumping to another wooden spoon.

In 2019 the AFL operated on a reduced scale basis owing to the global coronavirus pandemic, and the Blues showed glimmers of promise at times but overall failed once again to deliver in winning just seven of their 17 fixtures to end up in 11th place, two and a half wins plus percentage shy of finals qualification.


Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from writers and, more recently, John Devaney once more.

  1. From 'The Australasian', 23rd June 1888, and cited in Great Australian Football Stories by Garrie Hutchinson (ed.), pages 53-4.
  2. This was a novel description. Hitherto the duties which would later tend to be associated with the coach had fallen on the club captain.
  3. Behinds, which had been recorded since 1870, were actually included in each team's score from the inception of the VFL in 1897.
  4. From 'The Age', October 1908, and cited in Hutchinson, op cit, page 101.
  5. From The Complete Book of VFL Finals by Graeme Atkinson, page 36.
  6. From 'The Australian', and cited in The Blues: a History of Carlton Football Club by Tim Hewat, page 40.
  7. "It was nothing more than a stand up fight." (Hewat, op cit., pages 40-41.)
  8. Percy Taylor in 'The Argus', cited in The Blues, page 51.
  9. Hewat, op cit., page 65.
  10. Ibid., page 69.
  11. Rendering the furore which surrounding his defection rather farcical was the fact that Ron Barassi was by no means the first VFL captain to switch clubs. In 1919 former Collingwood skipper Dan Minogue returned from the war and took up a position as captain coach of Richmond. One year later Minogue steered the gold and blacks to their first ever VFL grand final win - against Collingwood, of all clubs. The Magpie hierarchy reacted bitterly to their ex hero's defection, turning his portrait in the Victoria Park clubrooms to the wall.
  12. From 'The Perfidy of Ron Barassi' in Hutchinson, op cit., page 127.
  13. Big Nick by John Nicholls (with Ian Macdonald), page 34.
  14. This brought the Blues' losing run in finals against Richmond to 10 games, stretching back to 1921.
  15. Hewat, op cit., page 88.
  16. Nicholls, op cit., page 132.
  17. This was Carlton's first defeat of Richmond in a major round game for fifty-one years.
  18. Hewat, op cit, page 93.
  19. Perce Jones, quoted in Hewat, op cit, page 96.
  20. Ibid, page 119.
  21. Doull actually appeared for Carlton on one further occasion - in an end of season exhibition match against North Melbourne at the Oval in London.
  22. Football Year '94, page 22.
  23. Early in 1997 the Blues flattered to deceive when they won the Ansett-Australia Cup, but once the home and away season started their form swiftly plummeted.


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.