Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game




Few Australian organisations, sporting or otherwise, polarise opinion as sharply as the Collingwood Football Club. Former Richmond legend Jack Dyer's opinion - the 'case for the prosecution' - is pungently illustrative of what might be termed the majority view:

Whenever I have a nightmare it isn't in colour. It's always black and white, the colours of the meanest, toughest club ever to run on to a football field. Collingwood. I've laboured the point of my hatred of Collingwood and it isn't a friendly dislike - as a club they rankle me. You couldn't like them, they think they are God's gift to football, they shun all outsiders and the only time I like to think of Collingwood is when they lose, because it hurts them so much. I've always been a bad loser, but I'm a good sport compared to Collingwood. If they win they gloat, if they lose they hide themselves away and sulk. When they lose they never visit your rooms or congratulate you and they'll send you round hot beer to have a drink. I wouldn't drink anything they offered, you wouldn't know what they had done to it. [1]

Not that Collingwood supporters care a jot about such vitriol; indeed, they thrive on it. After all, any club capable of inspiring such loathing must have something special about it. According to Peter McKenna, one of many great full forwards to have pulled on a Collingwood jumper over the years:

I know now that more people who follow football in Melbourne hate Collingwood more than any other League club. And I now know why. It took me about thirty seconds to work it out on the day I first walked into the famous Victoria Park ground. That's about the time it takes to walk through the foyer of the Collingwood Football Club Social Club where every visitor, friend or foe gets a first glimpse of why Collingwood has, is, and always will be a great club in Victorian football. There is probably more tradition in that foyer than in any other football club in Australia, and that is the secret behind the great Collingwood success story, tradition. Those very early black and white colours take on a new dimension at Collingwood. They are not just the club colours. They are a way of life. You don't go out onto the field every Saturday just to win for the sake of premiership points, you go out to win for those colours, the club, the long tradition. [2]

Both Dyer's and McKenna's words were written many decades ago, at a time when, other than in terms of player recruitment, Collingwood's football universe barely extended beyond the Melbourne metropolitan zone. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the stage is now appreciably bigger, and the onset of professionalism has arguably provided players with more tangible inducements and motivations than the 'simple' need to maintain and enhance their clubs' traditions, Collingwood remains, in a sense, a club apart. The emotions generated at Victoria Park are somehow more intense, far-reaching and indeed life-shaping than almost anywhere else in the football universe. As staunch Collingwood supporter Michael Roberts observed, "In all ways, Collingwood is football writ large".[3]

in the beginning...

Such status was not achieved overnight, of course, but many of the ingredients of greatness were present right from the start, which in a perverse way might be viewed as occurring in 1883, the year in which not Collingwood, but the Fitzroy Football Club was formed. The Collingwood and Fitzroy municipalities lie adjacent to one another, and the rivalry between them was intense; if Fitzroy had a senior football club, Collingwood residents reasoned, why not Collingwood?

Football was already being played in Collingwood, of course, and the strongest of the municipality's several junior clubs was Britannia, which ironically boasted fairly strong links with Fitzroy. Despite the Fitzroy connection, however, Britannia was strongly involved in an application, submitted in 1889, for the admission of a senior Collingwood Club to the VFA, but the timing of the submission was poor. By the end of the 1880s the VFA was popularly perceived to have compromised its integrity and standing by failing to attach stringent quality criteria, both in terms of playing standard and financial credibility, to its conditions of membership, and in 1889 it responded by effectively closing the door to any new membership applications. Two years later, however, the VFA amended its rules, and a newly formed Collingwood Football Club, based at Victoria Park, was admitted in time for the 1892 season. Britannia officially disbanded at this time, with many of its members and players conferring their allegiance on the new club, although a few were disgruntled by the move, and instead transferred to Fitzroy.

Collingwood already had a ready-made home ground at Victoria Park, which had been used by Britannia since 1882, but because Britannia's colours of red, white and blue had already been claimed by Footscray it was necessary for the newcomers to come up with an alternative combination, which proved to be the now famous black and white.

Although superficially inauspicious (3 wins and a draw from 18 matches consigning the team to equal last place on the ladder) Collingwood's debut season in the VFA contained the seeds of future greatness. At a public meeting in the Collingwood Town Hall prior to the start of the season a local MP predicted that "The very name of Collingwood would strike terror into the hearts of opposing players",[4] and if this was scarcely the case in 1892 the club nevertheless earned respect for never surrendering the points without a fight. A late season victory over Carlton was the highlight of a year in which gradually improving performances made the Collingwood Football Club the talk, if not quite yet the pride, of the municipality.

The pattern of gradual improvement continued over the next few years. By 1895, Collingwood had risen to fourth place on the VFA ladder, and the following year it tied for first place with South Melbourne, both teams finishing with the identical record of 14 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw (between themselves), 86 goals for, 55 goals against. In order to decide the destiny of the premiership, the VFA arranged a play-off, which took place at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground on 3rd October 1896. Unknown to most of the 12,000 spectators at the ground, decisions which would comprehensively alter the face of Victorian football had been taken just the previous day, when representatives of several of the VFA's most prominent clubs had met at Buxton's Art Gallery, Swanston Street, and agreed to establish a breakaway competition, the Victorian Football League, to commence the following year. Both Collingwood and South Melbourne were members of the rebel group, but first they had to address the somewhat more immediate issue of what was effectively the VFA's first 'grand final'.

laying the foundations of success

Collingwood's main strength in 1896 was the remarkable fitness of its players, which was a testimony to the efforts of head trainer Wal Lee, a former Britannia player whose almost obsessive devotion to Collingwood provided a template that many others would later come to copy. Fortunately for Collingwood, grand final day turned out to be unseasonably hot, with a firm, dry ground all but ensuring that, all other things being as equal as the premiership ladder had suggested, it would be the fitter team which prevailed. In the end, predictably, that proved to be Collingwood, but not before the two teams had engaged in a vigorous, closely contested, crowd-pleasing affair that almost certainly made a marked impression on those protagonists of the VFL venture who were watching. Right from the outset, the VFL premiership would go to the winner of a finals series, with the intense drama that this format generated adding enormously to football's appeal, as well as reinforcing its uniqueness.

For much of the last quarter of the grand final, scores were deadlocked at five goals apiece before Collingwood's Danny Flaherty clinched the premiership for his club with a goal from a free kick just minutes before the end. The officially recorded line scores were Collingwood 6.9 to South Melbourne 5.10, but at this stage in the game's history, only goals actually counted.

Among the many sterling contributors to Collingwood's first flag were captain and ruckman Bill Strickland, "spry as a colt"[5] at the age of thirty-three, high-flying centre half back Jack Monohan, redoubtable full back William Proudfoot, clever full forward Archie 'Snapper' Smith, who would go on to top the VFL's goal kicking list in 1898 with 31 goals, "noted wet weather footballer" [6] Hugh 'Harry' Dowdell, dazzlingly skilful centreman Dick Condon, and the irrepressible wing pair of Charlie Pannam senior and Charlie 'Buffer' Sime.

With all of these players still wearing the Collingwood colours when the club took its bows in the eight team VFL in 1897 it is scarcely surprising that the next few seasons saw perennial flirtations with the flag, although it was not to be until 1902 that the side finally managed to break through for a premiership win, and by that time many of the old VFA brigade had been replaced. Indeed, after Collingwood lost the 1901 grand final to Essendon, wholesale changes were made, and the side which lined up against the same opponent on grand final day twelve months later contained no fewer than seven first year players. Part of the key to Collingwood's success over the years has been the way in which newcomers have become quickly infused with the club's spirit and raison d'être, and in 1902 a mid-season trip to Tasmania probably constituted a key element in the process. Whilst in Tasmania, the team engaged in two challenge matches, the first of which, against a northern Tasmanian combination in Launceston, has entered football folk lore. Allegedly, the standard of the opposition was so poor that Dick Condon began toying with them, passing to team mates close by - sometimes over the heads of encroaching opposition players - with an abbreviated version of the drop kick. By the end of the match he had thoroughly mastered the new kick, which was quickly christened the 'stab pass', and so had team mates Charlie Pannam and Ted Rowell. Paradoxically, although the stab pass would ultimately die out largely because the increasing speed of the game made it harder and harder for players to execute it correctly, when it first emerged it's primary impact on the game was to make it appreciably faster. With field umpires finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the play, in 1904 the VFL introduced boundary umpires to at least alleviate their lot in one respect.

Back in 1902, although a report in 'the Tasmanian Mail' on the second game of Collingwood's tour, against a southern Tasmanian combination, contains no mention of an embryonic stab pass, when the side resumed in the VFL against Geelong at Corio Oval the new kick was apparently implemented to good effect, and was a key reason for the still sea-sick Magpies' 40-point win.

Collingwood ultimately won the minor premiership with a 15-2 record, thereby securing the right of challenge should the side lose at any stage during the finals. As it happened, there was immediate need for this safety net, as the side performed dismally in losing to Fitzroy in a semi final, its first defeat since the Tasmanian interlude. With a week's respite to lick their wounds and focus their thoughts, the players returned for the challenge final meeting with an Essendon side that had narrowly overcome Fitzroy in the final, in no mood to capitulate. Such fortitude was necessary too as, watched by a record VFL crowd of 35,022,[7] most of the first half saw the 'Same Old' in the ascendancy. However, by using two men to stymie Albert Thurgood, arguably the greatest player in Australia at the time, the Magpies were able to minimise the damage, whilst their happy knack of making the most of every opportunity to come their way enabled them to sneak in front by a point at the long break, 3.2 (20) to 2.7 (19). After half time, Essendon seemed demoralised, and Collingwood was able to take full advantage, adding 6 goals to 1 to win in the end by the unexpectedly luxuriant margin of 33 points. Everywhere you looked in the Magpie line-up there were good players: from the first ruck combination of Fred 'Charger' Hailwood, Len 'Lardie' Tulloch (who skippered the side), and Dick Condon, through the centreline of Pannam, Allan and McCormack, defenders Fred Leach, Bob Rush and Matthew Fell, and forwards Rowell and Edward Lockwood, both of whom snared 3 goals to be the game's top scorers.

The Magpies were just as dominant in 1903, topping the ladder with a 15-2 record, and this time they did not require the fall back of a challenge final, although second semi final opponents Carlton did provide stern opposition before going down by 4 points. The final pitted Collingwood against Fitzroy, which had probably come closer than any other club to emulating the crisp, short passing style with which the Magpies had become associated. Earlier in the season these two sides had broken new ground by engaging in a match, for premiership points, at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Watched by a crowd of around 18,000, Fitzroy had triumphed on that occasion by 17 points, with Collingwood gaining revenge by 20 points when the sides next met at Victoria Park just over a month later. The Collingwood-Fitzroy rivalry which, largely for geographical reasons, had been intense right from the outset, probably reached its peak during the early 1900s when the two sides were repeatedly vying for supremacy.[8]  When the Maroons went into decline later, however, the focus of the Magpies' hostility shifted, with, at various times, Carlton, Richmond, Essendon and Melbourne all occupying the 'enviable' position of Collingwood's arch nemesis.

The 1903 final meeting was considerably closer than either of the minor round clashes. On a hot, dry day the two sides engaged in a veritable war of attrition, with seldom more than a few points difference in the scores. Collingwood led narrowly at every change, by 1, 5 and 4 points, but Fitzroy saved its best until last, and was the stronger side for most of the final quarter. The Magpie back line, however, in which key defenders Proudfoot and Monohan were outstanding, refused to buckle, and although the Maroons outscored the Magpies 1.3 to 1.1 it was not enough to bridge the gap, and Collingwood - to many people's disgust - had won a second consecutive VFL flag.

The source of the widespread public disgruntlement was the belief that some of the Collingwood players were actually being paid to play, but if the contention was almost certainly true, it could equally be applied to a number of clubs. Collingwood's triumphs in 1902 and 1903 were attributable to professionalism, not of a pecuniary kind, but of overall approach and method, as evidenced for example in the fact that, under the stringent supervision of Wal Lee, the team was almost universally acknowledged as being by some measure the fittest in the league.

the origins of the Carlton rivalry

Fitzroy gained its revenge over Collingwood in 1904 when it ousted the Magpies from premiership contention at the semi final stage, 9.7 (61) to 7.8 (50). In 1905, the Magpies won the minor premiership but had to resort to the right of challenge after being overwhelmed by Carlton in the semi final. The challenge final, against Fitzroy, was closer fought, but again the Maroons proved to have Collingwood's measure, winning 4.6 (30) to 2.5 (17) after just a solitary behind (to the Magpies) was registered in the final term.

Collingwood remained a force in VFL football for the next four seasons, but was unable to rise above third. In 1910, most pundits rated Carlton, which had contested every premiership play-off since 1906 for three flags, as a strong flag favourite, but the Magpies came good when it counted most. After qualifying for the finals in second spot, they annihilated semi final opponents Essendon 14.11 (95) to 5.7 (37) in one of the most consummate all round displays of intense finals football seen up to that point. Reigning premiers South Melbourne provided stiffer opposition in the final, but the Magpies managed to keep their noses - or beaks - in front for the majority of the game en route to an 11 point triumph.

The challenge final brought Collingwood up against the team which was rapidly emerging as its most detested foe, Carlton. Although the Blues had lost their semi final by 12 points to South there were mitigating circumstances that rendered the result almost meaningless.[9] A more telling statistic was felt to be the fact that Carlton's winning run against Collingwood extended back 12 games to 1905, and included two substantial victories earlier that same season.

A premiership decider is a game apart, however, and Collingwood defied both the odds and the sometimes over-vigorous approach of the opposition in leading from the start to win comfortably by 14 points, 9.7 (61) to 6.11 (47). Full forward supremo 'Dick' Lee was best afield, starring not only at the goal front, where he booted 4 goals, but also on occasion in the back lines where captain-coach George Angus habitually moved him when the need arose. The superlative form of the Magpies' half back line of Joe Scadden, James Shorten and D.McIvor was another key to their win, while centreman James 'Jock' McHale, full back Ted Rowell and half forward flanker Richard Vernon were among many other Collingwood players to stand out.

The 1910 season was still not quite over as Collingwood journeyed across the border to confront the challenge of SAFL premier Port Adelaide in the championship of Australia decider. In front of a crowd of about 8,000 at the Adelaide Oval, the Victorian Magpies were seldom in the game, and eventually lost by 61 points. The standard of South Australian football was at an all time high at this point in time, with the state side scoring a comprehensive triumph at the following year's interstate championships, and South Australian clubs winning six of the seven Australian club championship matches held between 1907 and 1914. Nevertheless, it is doubtful if anyone at Victoria Park really cared.

The 1911 season saw Collingwood qualify for the finals for the fifteenth consecutive season since the inception of the VFL, but the side had to be satisfied with second place after a 1 goal loss to minor premier Essendon in the final. Before the onset of the 1912 season, the club would entrust its on field destiny to a man for whom second place was never acceptable, and the proudest, most illustrious era in the history of the Collingwood Football Club would commence.

"...he loved the club, and devoted much of his life to it"...

In 1903, James Francis McHale was invited to join Collingwood by club secretary Ern Copeland, after McHale had starred for a combined junior team against the Magpies in a pre-season practice match. Over the course of the ensuing half century, McHale's name would come to be regarded as synonymous with the Collingwood Football Club, whose culture and tradition he not only enriched, but to a very large degree helped formulate.

Although he is best remembered for his achievements as a coach, McHale was also a highly proficient player for the Magpies in 261 VFL games over fifteen full seasons, initially as a half back flanker, but for the majority of his career in the pivot:

Although not the most brilliant player of his day, he was a good centreman and a player of extraordinary cunning and nouse. His reading of the game and his assessment of opposition players were legendary, even early in his career. He was quite speedy, regularly working on his running during the summer months, and strong. He was an excellent ball handler, a capable mark and a reasonable kick, though he was sometimes criticised for punting the ball high into the forward line rather than using low, direct passes. Overall, his skills, combined with his forceful play, helped make him one of the most competitive centremen in the League. [10]

In 1912, while still a player, McHale replaced George Angus as Collingwood coach, a position he retained until 1949, steering his beloved Magpies to seventeen grand finals and eight premierships in the process. He was not initially successful, however. In his debut season, Collingwood managed just 9 wins from 18 matches, and missed the VFL finals for the first time ever. Modest improvement followed in 1913 - a 13-5 record and fourth place on the ladder - but the side failed to reach the finals again the following year.

Despite this, the Collingwood committee persisted with McHale, clearly either perceiving that the young maestro needed a little time to blossom, or perhaps realising, with the war making inevitable inroads into the available talent pool, that there was nothing better on offer. Whatever the reason, the committee's loyalty appears inspired in hindsight. Collingwood won the 1915 minor premiership, but wilted disappointingly in the finals; clearly, however, McHale had the nucleus of a good side. In 1917, his last full season as a player, the Magpies, having again clinched the minor premiership, won their fourth league premiership, and their fifth in all, with a comprehensive 9.20 (74) to 5.9 (39) challenge final defeat of old rivals Fitzroy, which had scored an upset 6 point win a week earlier in the final. Best afield was Collingwood's sumptuously gifted centreman Percy Wilson, with half back flanker George Anderson, wingman Tom Drummond, half forward Len 'Gus' Dobrigh, and full back Harry Saunders among other Magpies to shine.

Relieved of the responsibility of playing,[11] Jock McHale could concentrate on developing the unique and legendary coaching style that many since have endeavoured, and failed, to emulate. Dissecting that style is not easy, but Michael Roberts' cogent evaluation almost certainly pinpointed many of the key ingredients:

McHale's real strength lay in his ability to prepare and inspire players, and instill discipline into the team's game. The discipline came largely from a strict game plan and training methods that drilled the plan home..... The preparation came from McHale's renowned capacity for judging a player's fitness. He could see which players needed more work in certain areas, and acted to overcome any weakness. To him, fitness was the key ingredient to success, and consistently good performances were not possible without it..... The inspiration came from the man himself. He was single-minded about football, and about Collingwood in particular. He loved the club, and devoted much of his life to it. As a player he would have run through any number of concrete structures for the Woods, and he expected his charges to display similar commitment and intensity.[12]

The fact that those charges did display the same kind and level of commitment and intensity as their mentor was perhaps the single main reason for Collingwood's success during the McHale years, as well as arguably representing the great man's most significant and enduring legacy. And why did the Collingwood players demonstrate these attributes? Chiefly because in McHale, the club had a figurehead who, for reasons that are almost impossible to fathom, inspired and engendered loyalty of the most intense and all-embracing kind. In a sense, Jock McHale the man was almost indistinguishable from Collingwood the club; he personified Collingwood, and when he died of a heart attack in 1953, shortly after the Magpies had overcome Geelong in the grand final, "part of Collingwood died"[13] along with him.

One champion 'goal-sneak' replaces another

Satisfying as the 1917 premiership had been, there was keen awareness within the club that it had been achieved under war time conditions, in a truncated VFL of just six clubs. With the restoration of normality in 1919, the incentive for Collingwood to prove itself as a power was considerable, but clubs like reigning premier South Melbourne, Carlton, Richmond and Fitzroy were equally determined, ensuring that fans starved of full scale, top level football since 1915 were treated to an enthralling season. After a shaky start which included an unexpected and indeed unprecedented loss at home to St Kilda - the Saints' first ever win at Victoria Park in the VFL - Collingwood finished the season in formidable form to claim the much valued double chance:

1919 VFL Premiership Ladder

(after Home and Away Rounds) (see footnote 14)

Won Lost For Ag. Pts %
Collingwood 13 3 1243 766 52 162.3
South Melbourne 12 4 1111 700 48 158.7
Carlton 10 6 1150 901 40 127.6
Richmond 10 6 1083 916 40 118.2
Fitzroy 9* 6 1074 857 38 125.3
Essendon 7 9 924 977 28 94.6
St Kilda 7 9 772 1093 28 70.6
Geelong 3* 12 794 1082 14 73.4
Melbourne 0 16 647 1506 4 43.0

A three-goal semi-final defeat of Carlton was the Magpies' ninth victory in succession, and everything seemed to be proceeding swimmingly. However, in the final Richmond, which was fast developing into a highly accomplished combination, won with ease by 29 points. McHale responded by exhorting his charges to raise both the tempo and the intensity for the following week's decisive play-off and the Tigers, who still lacked experience of finals football, "cracked under the strain and were a beaten side long before the final bell".[15]

Collingwood captain Con McCarthy, "a fitness fanatic who enjoyed training in an era when it was unusual to do so",[16] earned the plaudits for best afield after a classic demonstration of the supposedly lost art of ruck shepherding, while ruckman Les 'Flapper' Hughes, centreman Charlie Pannam junior, centre half forward Harry Curtis, and half forward flanker Ernie Wilson also stood out.

Richmond gained revenge over the Woods twelve months later with a 7.10 (52) to 5.5 (35) triumph in the challenge final, a result which effectively rubber-stamped the Tigers' elevation in status from derisory striplings to detested, if worthy, foes. Things would be very different next time the two sides contested a premiership play-off, however.

One of the reasons folk at Victoria Park despised Richmond so much was that the Tigers' rise to pre-eminence had been masterminded by a Collingwood defector, Dan Minogue. After returning from war service Minogue, a former Magpie skipper, stunned club officials by requesting a clearance to Punt Road for reasons which were never publicly disclosed, but are widely believed to have revolved around Minogue's dissatisfaction over Collingwood's treatment of his close friend Jim Sadler, who after a long and illustrious career had been struggling to get a senior game. Minogue eventually got his way, but he had to stand out of football for twelve months before doing so. Between 1920 and 1925 he coached the Tigers to their first era of success since entering the VFL in 1908, with much of that success coming at Collingwood's expense.

The Minogue defection was but the most distasteful - at least from a Collingwood perspective - of several notable departures from the club during the early 1920s, including Bill Twomey senior, who left to pursue a career in athletics, Charlie Pannam junior, who was appointed coach of South Melbourne, and Tom Drummond, under whose guidance VFA side Footscray would end up gaining admittance to the league in 1925.

The end of the 1922 season saw Collingwood weakened still further when Walter 'Dick' Lee, 'the prince of goalsneaks', retired after 230 VFL games and 707 goals in seventeen seasons. The last of those 707 goals came with Lee's final kick in league football, in the losing 1922 challenge final against Fitzroy. Small (175cm) and lightweight (70kg) by the standards of modern full forwards Lee was nevertheless a commanding figure on the ground, and "matched spectacular, high-flying aerobatics with superb ground-level skills and unerring accuracy in front of goal, whether by punt or place kick".[17]  Testimony to this accuracy is afforded by the tale that Lee was a frequent visitor to an amusement hall which had a game that required participants to kick at a target from various difficult angles; in the end, the proprietors allegedly had to bar Lee from participating owing to his near faultless proficiency.[18]

Fortunately for Collingwood, it had a perfect replacement for Lee in the shape of Gordon 'Nuts' Coventry, who would go on to become an equally feted, and even more prolific, goal kicker. Coventry made his debut for the club in 1920, and two years later he was joined by his older brother Syd, who supplemented his formidable playing prowess with an exceptional football brain and sterling qualities of leadership. Both Coventry brothers would play key roles in the rise and development of one of the greatest VFL combinations of all time, as would another pair of brothers, the Colliers - Albert, who debuted in 1925, and the smaller, nimbler Harry, both of whom were locally born and Collingwood 'through and through'.

the Machine starts to roll

Despite these acquisitions, it took some time for the Collingwood machine to reach top gear. In both 1925, against Geelong, and 1926, against Melbourne, the Magpies lost the premiership deciding match of the year. In 1927, however, with Gordon Coventry getting within 3 goals of the elusive 'ton' to establish a new league high, and brother Syd claiming the club's first Brownlow Medal, the Woods were unstoppable, losing just 3 home and away matches for the season to top the ladder before effortlessly dispatching Geelong from premiership contention with a 16.18 (114) to 7.6 (48) win in a semi final. Then, for the first time since the war (not including the 1924 season when the finals were contested on a round robin basis), the league was deprived of a bonus pay-out when Collingwood comprehensively outplayed Richmond in conditions better suited to water polo than football in the final. In 1923 the League had postponed the challenge final meeting of Essendon and Fitzroy because of heavy rain, and quite clearly it should have done likewise in 1927, with the MCG waterlogged, and one wing completely underwater.

Nevertheless, players of both teams, together with a meagre crowd of 34,551, braved the conditions, with Richmond starting well to lead 0.4 to 0.1 at the first change, before the Magpies began to utilise their superior power, and adapt their much vaunted game system, to good effect. By half time Collingwood led 2.6 (18) to 0.4 (4), the equivalent of a 10 goal lead in the conditions, and although the Tigers had slightly the better of the second half they never looked like making up the leeway. Collingwood won 2.13 (25) to 1.7 (13) - the lowest scoring premiership deciding match in VFL history.

The Coventry brothers again dominated, with Syd best afield, and Gordon booting both his team's goals, while team mates Bob Makeham at centre half forward, half forward flanker Frank Murphy, centreman 'Jack' Beveridge, and ruckman Percy Rowe handled the mud, slush and icy winds better than most.

Collingwood's team in 1928 was just as strong, but it had to endure a nervous moment in its semi final clash with Melbourne when, after leading 9.8 (62) to 4.8 (32) at the last change, it allowed the Redlegs to rattle on 5 unanswered last quarter goals to secure the first finals tie in league history. In the replay, the Magpies led from start to finish, but still had a tough time holding off a fast finishing Melbourne to win by just 4 points, 10.8 (68) to 9.10 (54).

The final once again pitted Collingwood against detested rivals Richmond, with the Magpies, as minor premiers, in the happy position of having the double chance to fall back on if they lost. However, with the Collier brothers in devastating form, an incredible 9 goals from full forward Gordon Coventry, and excellent performances from the likes of centre half forward Frank Murphy, back pocket Harold Rumney, rover William Libbis and Syd Coventry in the ruck, a loss by Collingwood never looked remotely likely. After the Magpies had led comfortably at every change, Richmond made a semblance of a comeback during the last quarter to get within 15 points, but the Collingwood machine simply cranked the gears up another couple of notches and eased away to a 33 point triumph, 13.18 (96) to 9.9 (63).

By common consent, the Collingwood side of 1929 was one of the most formidable in football history. Not only did it emerge victorious in all 18 home and away matches - the first VFL team to accomplish this feat - it also became the first VFL side to register 2,000 points in a season. Moreover, with Gordon Coventry topping the goal kicking list after becoming the first player to exceed a century of goals, and Albert Collier securing the Brownlow Medal, the Magpies repeated the elusive trifecta first achieved in 1927.

What mere statistics fail to reveal, however, is just how awesome and redoubtable this Magpie class of '29 appeared to contemporaries. Opposition teams were not merely beaten, they were crushed. So ingrained was the legendary 'McHale system' that players behaved exactly like cogs in a giant chain, making machine analogies, however facile, almost unavoidable:

Each Collingwood player was a link in a chain. Defenders cleared the ball, the centre-line and rovers delivered it and the forwards kicked the goals [19]  Magpies had used secret signs prior to World War 1 in order to let each other know where to pass the ball, but by the late 1920s Collingwood functioned so mechanistically that such measures were no longer necessary. Collingwood players were rugged individualists who integrated themselves into a machine knowing that it was greater than the sum of its individual parts. That machine played football with precision and purpose. Shepherding and chasing were as important as kicking goals. Each player had the specific task of beating his opponent and the general task of assisting his team mates.[20]

Analogies do not fully define the truth, of course, merely help make sense of it, and this was graphically demonstrated when the supposedly invincible Collingwood machine met Richmond in the 1929 second semi final. During the minor round the Magpies had scored two comfortable wins over their arch rivals, but on this occasion "they amazed the experts by playing like a jaded, weary and dispirited team. Their dash had gone, and the greatest surprise was that their system and discipline cracked under the Tigers' force'.[20]  Richmond won with embarrassing ease, 18.15 (123) to 8.13 (61), and when the same two teams lined up for the challenge final a fortnight later many of the 63,336 spectators who crammed into the MCG probably expected to see a repetition. The Magpies, however, had learned an invaluable lesson, and they were not about to be out-done twice:

Collingwood selectors increased the average weight of the side by 4lb (2kg) for the grand final. They brought in two strong players - Len Murphy and (Charles) Ahern - and Percy Bowyer, a fast flanker.

Collingwood's 'machine' rolled flat every obstacle in a smashing first quarter that yielded 6.3. Richmond, sluggish, and lacking much of the force they had shown against Carlton (in the previous week's final), was overpowered in the ruck, in the air, in pace, and in tactics.

All over the field the Magpies played with terrific zest and efficiency. They scouted cleverly, and their ball handling was masterly. They played to a plan, never lost a kick, backed up well, and had 'loose men' running all day. [22]

Part of the Magpies' 'plan' was to have players totally ignore the leads of Gordon Coventry, who was invariably attended by a harassing posse of Tigers, and pass instead to forward pocket Horace Edmonds. The stratagem worked to a tee: Edmonds helped himself to 5 goals, and by the time the Richmond brains trust cottoned on to what was happening it was too late. Collingwood eventually won by 29 points, 11.13 (79) to 7.8 (50), and in the process emulated Carlton's 1906-7-8 feat of winning three consecutive VFL premierships. The challenge now was to make it an unprecedented four in a row.

The 1930 season brought a new challenger to Collingwood in the shape of Geelong. The Cats not only won the only minor round clash between the sides - at Victoria Park at that - but were much too classy and quick when the teams next met in the final. In the end, the fact that Collingwood had been able to secure its fifth minor premiership in as many seasons probably proved decisive, although the challenge final of 1930 proved to be a much sterner test of the Magpies' mettle than the meeting with Richmond twelve months earlier.

The Cats made no secret of the fact that they had modelled their style on the patented formula which had been used to such telling effect by Collingwood since the mid-1920s. Moreover, whereas some of Collingwood's players were beginning to approach their sell by date, the majority of the Geelong side were young, fighting fit, and fanatically determined to restore their club's fortunes. During the 12.19 (91) to 9.11 (65) defeat of the Woods in the final, "Geelong played in form of which the mighty Collingwood in its best days might have been proud".[23]  Then, in the following week's challenge final, "Geelong, with faultless football, took complete charge in the first half, outgeneralling and outpacing Collingwood".[24]  At half time, the Cats led 6.10 (46) to 3.7 (25).

What Geelong lacked, though, was experience, and this the Magpies had in abundance. Within six minutes of the resumption, by means of the fanatical but controlled application of vigour, they had wiped off the deficit, and never looked back. Once Collingwood hit the front, it "fairly battered its way to victory",[25] winning in the end by 30 points, 14.16 (100) to 9.16 (70), a margin that had looked impossible at half time. Gordon Coventry, in another consummate demonstration of the art of full forward play, booted 7 goals to vie for best afield honours with often underrated half forward flanker Robert Makeham. Among others to earn the plaudits of the critics were centre half forward Frank Murphy, wingmen Bruce Andrew and Harold Chesswass, and half back flanker George 'Kitty' Clayden.

Between 1927 and 1930 Collingwood had dominated the Victorian football scene as no side before or since, not only winning four successive premierships, but finishing top of the ladder after the home and away rounds every year. The trademark tenacity, determination and 'win at all costs' mind-set which is today regarded as quintessentially 'Victorian' arguably derives more from the Collingwood sides of this particular era than any other single source. 'Jock' McHale and his cohorts had absolutely no time for 'pretty football' if it failed to achieve results, and the legacy of this attitude is there for all to read on the Victoria Park honour board.

depression football - The Machine Mark II

With a bit of luck, Collingwood's achievements during the 1930s might even have outstripped those of the preceding decade, which had yielded three flags from seven grand final appearances;[26] the 1930s brought a further six grand finals for three premierships, ensuring that McHale's Magpies remained firmly entrenched in most opposition supporters' eyes as public enemy number one.

As ever, Collingwood and its hordes of worshippers gloried in this role; it somehow made winning all that much more satisfying. After securing its record-breaking fourth premiership in a row in 1930, however, the club had to endure an almost unprecedented sequence of failure, finishing fourth, third, sixth and foufth over the next four seasons. In 1935, the Woods qualified for the finals in second place behind South Melbourne's famous 'foreign legion' combination, which had scored a thumping 18.16 (124) to 10.11 (71) victory in the teams' only minor round encounter. The 2nd semi final between the sides was somewhat harder fought, but with 6 goal Bob Pratt a decisive influence, South broke clear in the second half to win by 21 points.

The preliminary final pitted Collingwood against a warmly favoured Richmond, which had played some scintillating football in beating Carlton in the first semi final. Against McHale's fanatical, never-say-die Magpies, however, scintillating football was out of the question. Playing with a resolve and a vigour that recalled the halcyon four-in-a-row era, Collingwood blasted the Tigers off the MCG to the tune of 28 points, and players and supporters alike began to lick their lips at the prospect of a resumption of hostilities with South Melbourne.

They licked their lips even more assiduously when they learnt that South's second semi final match-winner Pratt had been knocked down by a truck on the eve of the grand final, sustaining injuries that would prevent him from fronting up. During the early stages of the big game, however, the Magpies were forcefully reminded that South also boasted numerous other fine players as they had to contend with an incessant tidal wave of white and red, with only some wayward kicking for goal preventing what might have been a match-winning break. Towards the end of the opening quarter, however, the Woods on-ballers and centre line players began to gain the ascendancy, and by the first change they had been instrumental in reducing the margin to just 15 points.

Collingwood opened the second term brightly, but initially at least found South's full back Ron Hillis an impenetrable barrier on the last line. Almost inevitably, it was Gordon Coventry who broke the deadlock with a spectacular snapshot over his head, but South went straight into attack from the ensuing centre bounce and restored the 15 point advantage. The longer the quarter went on, however, the more the Magpies seemed to be gaining control, with Jack Regan's increasingly majestic form at centre half back on South danger man Laurie Nash a decisive factor. Gradually, the Woods clawed their way back to within 4 points before adding 2.2 during time-on to take a 10-point advantage into the long break.

The third term was fiercely contested with tempers fraying, fists flying, and South skipper Jack Bissett suffering severe concussion which resulted in loss of memory, and forced him to leave the ground at three quarter time. On the scoreboard, however, neither team was able to achieve a decisive break, with Collingwood leading 8.10 (58) to 6.10 (46) at the final change.

South lifted the tempo at the start of the last quarter, but "Collingwood's defenders - Rumney, Regan and Froude - absorbed the shock of South's high-powered thrust without flinching".[27]  Despite attacking relentlessly, the Blood Stained Angels could manage only a single goal and a flurry of behinds, with the Magpies managing a breakaway goal themselves to stay out of danger. Almost inevitably, as the final siren loomed, and the South players realised that the game was beyond them, they relaxed, allowing Collingwood to add 2 further goals at the death to run out winners by 20 points. Unlike all the club's previous VFL premierships, this one had been achieved against the odds and, in some respects, against the balance of play, but it is doubtful if this did anything whatsoever to sour the victory champagne.

Besides the resolute form of the aforementioned defenders, Collingwood owed its win in large measure to the tireless efforts of the Collier brothers, both of whom were going at the same pace in the closing minutes as in early stages of the opening term. Centre half forward Alphonsus 'Phonse' Kyne, centreman Marcus Whelan, wingman Jack Carmody and half forward Vincent Doherty were other key contributors to the Collingwood win.

The Magpies entered the 1936 season anxious to prove a point after sceptics suggested that they owed their 1935 triumph to the absence of Bob Pratt from the South Melbourne line-up. When South triumphed at Victoria Park in round 10 of the 1936 season those same sceptics smirked knowingly, confident that they had proved their point.

The longer the 1936 season went on, the more it looked likely that South Melbourne and Collingwood would again be contesting the grand final. At the end of the minor round South (16 wins and 2 losses) led the Magpies by a single win, with Carlton and Melbourne, on 12 wins apiece, making up the 'four'. In the 2nd semi final, Collingwood gave its detractors ample food for thought after a hard fought 13 point win, with Jack Regan keeping potential match-winner Pratt tightly under wraps. South duly eased past Melbourne in the following week's preliminary final, and with Bob Pratt fit, in form - he booted 5 goals against the Redlegs - and raring to go, the Magpies had the perfect opportunity to respond to those sceptics.

Collingwood's first half performance against the Bloods had observers once again clutching for machine-related metaphors:

One of the greatest aerialists of all time and, unfortunately for Collingwood, one of 'the ones who got away'..... The Magpies were cool and deliberate. They co-operated perfectly in quick thinking, systematic football. And their speed against an admittedly fast side surprised everyone. Every Collingwood player blended into a football machine that hummed along with rare precision. Only in kicking for goal was there a breakdown, and because of this the Magpies went close to losing the game.[28]

The half-time scoreboard showed Collingwood, despite having had nearly twice as many scoring shots as the opposition, ahead by just 21 points, 7.16 (58) to 5.7 (37). Almost inevitably, South took advantage of this waywardness by playing their best football of the game in the 3rd term, and "only the sterling defence of Regan, Fraser and Ross saved the Magpies from having their lead cut to even less than the seven points by which they led at three quarter time".[29]

Moments after the resumption, South reduced the margin to a solitary point after Johnson goaled from point blank range. The momentum appeared to be all the southerners' way, but the Magpies, showing enormous character and resolve, seized back the initiative with three quick scores from Todd (a behind) and Pannam (two majors). Then it was South Melbourne's turn to exhibit waywardness in front of goal, with the great man Pratt the worst offender. With minutes to go, however, South finally managed a goal to move within 5 points, and the crowd of 74,091 was at fever pitch. Once again, however, Collingwood proved to have the answer, sweeping the ball forward after play resumed and goaling to put the match beyond South's reach.

Rover Alby Pannam - once trenchantly described by Alf Brown as "fast, clever, durable, tough, nasty and selfish" [30] - was Collingwood's best with an all action, 32 kick, 5 goal performance, while Ron Todd, who had taken Gordon Coventry's place at the goal front, made his vast potential obvious by marking virtually everything that came his way, and booting 4 goals 10. Jack Carmody, Marcus Whelan, 'Phonse' Kyne, Jack Regan and Vince Doherty also played well.

Full forward supreme Gordon 'Nuts' Coventry who, after incurring a controversial eight-match suspension in 1936 for striking Richmond's Joe Murdoch, had been replaced in the Collingwood side by Ron Todd, finally hung up his boots a year later, but not before returning to the team and topping the VFL goal kicking list one last time. In tandem with Todd, he gave the Magpies one of the most potent forward lines in football history, but it was quite not enough to secure a premiership. After finding themselves in the unusual position of having to play in the 1st semi final, the Magpies performed brilliantly in ousting first Richmond, and then Melbourne from premiership contention, with Coventry, determined to go out on a 'high', booting 6 goals against the Tigers, and 7 against the Redlegs. He added another 3 in the grand final meeting with Geelong, while centre half forward Todd contributed 4, but this was not enough to prevent the Cats winning comfortably in the end by 32 points, after scores had been tied at the final change. Many observers regarded this grand final as one of the greatest of them all.

Gordon Coventry's career tally of 1,299 goals in 306 games over 18 seasons represented an all time VFL record. Fifty-two seasons later, Tony Lockett would ostensibly supersede it, but the competition in which he would do so would bear only the most tenuous comparison with the suburban VFL of Coventry's day, making it well nigh impossible to reconcile the two achievements. In a sense, Gordon Coventry's record is one which will stand for all time.

Consecutive losing grand finals in 1938 and 1939 saw Collingwood maintaining its position among football's elite, but the loss of key players to war duty and other clubs precipitated the most ignominious spell in league football thus far, with five consecutive failures to contest the finals between 1940 and 1944. It was the defections to other clubs that undoubtedly hurt the most: brilliant centre half back Marcus Boyall went to Glenelg and won the 1941 Magarey Medal; champion full forward Ron Todd, having kicked 120 goals in 1938 and 121 in 1939, crossed to VFA side Williamstown without a clearance in 1940; and a year later supremely talented half forward Des Fothergill, winner of the 1940 Brownlow Medal, followed in Todd's footsteps.

battling the Demon juggernaut

It was probably no coincidence that Fothergill and Boyall were back in harness at Collingwood when the club re-emerged as a force in 1945. However, after qualifying for the second semi final with a 15-5 record the side showed its lack of experience in major round football by bowing out of premiership contention in straight sets against South Melbourne and Carlton. The 1945 VFL finals series is well remembered for the so called 'Bloodbath grand final' between Carlton and South, but in the view of many observers the preliminary final meeting of Carlton and Collingwood was an even more vicious affair.

Jock McHale oversaw another four seasons at Victoria Park before retiring. His achievements as a VFL coach remain unsurpassed, and although he failed to steer the Magpies to a premiership after 1936, he went close several times, and, when he departed, his principal bequest to the club in the shape of players like Lou and Ron Richards, Des Healey, Bob Rose, Bill and Patrick Twomey (with third brother Michael joining in 1951), and Neil Mann was the nucleus of its 1953 flag-winning combination. Former premiership player 'Phonse' Kyne took over the coaching reins from McHale.

That 1953 flag was as memorable as any in the club's illustrious history. Reigning premier Geelong was thought by many to be unstoppable, but the Magpies not only beat them, they did so twice, coming back from 4 points down in the second semi final to win by 5 goals, and then overrunning the hapless Cats in the grand final a fortnight later to have the game effectively over by three quarter time. During the final term, Geelong managed to outscore Collingwood and got to within a couple of kicks at the end, but it was all "sound and fury, signifying nothing". The Magpies' 11.11 (77) to 8.17 (65) triumph precipitated scenes of irrepressible joy among the club's faithful followers, for many of whom the seventeen year gap between premierships undoubtedly seemed like an eternity. The untimely death of Jock McHale a few days later dampened the celebrations somewhat, but this would be as nothing compared to the anguish to come.

The mid-1950s saw the emergence of arguably the most formidable force in Victorian football since the Magpies' mighty four-in-a-row team of three decades earlier. Norm Smith was the instigator of this threat to the Collingwood legend, and Melbourne, which conclusively won the premierships of 1955-56-57, was the team. On 20 September 1958, in a scenario that no Hollywood script writer could have wished to surpass, the only team standing between the Demons and the immortality of four successive VFL flags was - Collingwood. Regarded by most as an ordinary team fuelled more by old-fashioned 'G and D' than by any innate football talent, embarrassingly thrashed by Melbourne in the 2nd semi final, missing both their skipper Frank Tuck and arguably their most talented player in Bill Twomey, the Magpies entered the 1958 grand final as the longest odds outsiders for years. The Demons, thought the experts, would be too quick, too skilled and much too cohesive for Collingwood, whose only potential trump card lay in the almost fanatical determination of its players, who 'Phonse' Kyne had ensured were imbued to the brim with awareness of and heartfelt devotion to the club's unique tradition, as well as an understanding of the damage to that tradition which would result from Melbourne emulating - and hence, inevitably, de-valuing - one of its chief cornerstones, the winning of an unprecedented four VFL flags in succession.

Grand final day was cool and very wet, but this did not prevent a large crowd of 97,956[31] turning up to see Melbourne explode out of the blocks in typical, vibrant, assured fashion. With 'big guns' Barassi, Mithen, Beckwith and Johnson firing, the Demons totally dominated the opening term, and when they entered the first change with a 5.1 to 2.2 lead the only question on most observers' minds - Collingwood supporters excepted - was 'how far Melbourne?'

During the second term, however, a change came over the game. As the ground got heavier, so the pace slowed, and the normally elusive Melbourne players were at the wrong end of some fierce body clashes. Moreover, they reacted in such a way that Collingwood's 'enforcers', Murray Weideman and Barry 'Hooker' Harrison, sensing a weakness, "systematically roughed up the potential Melbourne match-winners, notably Barassi and Mithen, who seemed to be involved in almost every flare-up" .[32]  Slowly but surely, as Melbourne players concentrated on avoiding danger, or on 'evening up' with Harrison and Weideman, the Magpies began to make inroads into the deficit, adding 5.4 to 2.3 for the quarter to end up two points to the good at the long break.

The third quarter brought more fiery incidents, but in between it was the Magpies who were playing nearly all the football, rattling on 5.3 to the Demons' two solitary behinds to more or less seal the game. Although Melbourne attacked relentlessly for most of the final term, the Collingwood backline, notably full back Harry Sullivan and back pocket Ron Reeves, reigned supreme, and when the final siren sounded the scoreboard confirmed what was arguably the biggest grand final boil-over in the VFL since Melbourne's triumph over Essendon precisely a decade earlier: Collingwood 12.10 (82); Melbourne 9.10 (64).

The Magpies' victory had been achieved by means of a quintessential team performance in which every player carried his weight. Even so, some individuals inevitably stood out, notably diminutive rover Thorold Merrett, who was credited with 25 kicks, ruckmen Graeme Fellowes and Ray Gabelich, half forward Bill Serong, wingman Ken Turner (21 kicks and 11 marks) - plus, of course, the aforementioned 'strong man' duo of Weideman and Harrison and, particularly in the final term, the last line defenders Reeves and Sullivan.

Despite the intensely physical nature of the contest, the umpires made only two reports: Melbourne's Ron Barassi was charged with striking Murray Weideman, and Barry Harrison was alleged to have charged Barassi. Both players were exonerated at the tribunal.

the longest drought

After what was arguably the Collingwood Football Club's finest hour, few could have imagined that it would be thirty-two long years before the club again achieved premiership success. During that time, the Magpies contested no fewer than eight grand finals, with all bar two - the 1960 and 1980 thrashings at the hands of Melbourne and Richmond respectively - being lost from potentially winning positions. Almost inevitably, given the jealous loathing that the club had engendered over the years, this gave rise to talk of curses, jinxes and mental weakness ('collywobbles'), but more rational analyses suggest that the side was either simply unlucky (1964, 1966 and 1979), or not quite good enough (1970, 1977 and 1981).

The 32-year premiership drought at Collingwood coincided with a period of enormous change for football, most of it stemming from economic causes. Whereas Jock McHale would almost certainly have played for and coached the club he loved for nothing, in 1970 two of Collingwood's most talented players, Des Tuddenham and Len Thompson, effectively went on strike seeking better contracts. The catalyst for this veritable assault on the club's tradition was, ironically, a departure from that tradition by the club hierarchy: at the end of the 1969 season they had signed one of that year's joint Tassie Medallists, Peter Eakins of Subiaco, on what was reputed to be the most lucrative contract ever offered by the club. Prior to this Collingwood, alone of all the VFL's clubs, had fought shy of the practice of paying big money for 'boom' interstate recruits, many of whom ultimately failed to do justice to their reputations (as indeed, arguably, did Eakins).

Although Thompson and Tuddenham eventually returned to the fold, they were replaced as vice-captain and captain respectively by Wayne Richardson and Terry Waters. Perhaps even more significantly, the whole affair left a distinctly sour taste in the mouth, and altered many people's perceptions of exactly what Collingwood was, and stood for.

Because of the duration of the premiership drought, many fine Collingwood footballers never had the opportunity to play in a flag-winning side. Among the best were the club's two Brownlow Medallists of the period, the late Len Thompson (1972) and Peter Moore (1979), the Richardson brothers, Wayne and Max, arguably the Magpies best post-war full forward, Peter McKenna, Des Tuddenham, Terry Waters, Phil Carman, Bill Picken, Mark Williams and Ray Shaw. Among the coaches to fail at Collingwood were Bob Rose (1964-71 and 1985 plus part of 1986), Neil Mann (1972-74), Tom Hafey 1977-81) and John Cahill (1983-84).

the 'Lethal' winning formula

Leigh Matthews retired at the end of the 1985 season after an illustrious 332-game VFL career with Hawthorn. The 1986 season saw him at Collingwood as assistant to the club's veteran coach Bob Rose, with the intention being that Rose should groom Matthews to be his eventual replacement. That plan eventually had to be implemented much earlier than anticipated: the 'Pies suffered a horror start to the 1986 season, losing heavily to Essendon, Sydney and North Melbourne, whereupon Rose resigned, leaving an inexperienced Matthews in the unenviable position of having to learn the art of coaching more or less from scratch at the same time as restoring morale and purpose to a crestfallen, disgruntled and potentially volatile band of players. Moreover, the club was in severe financial strife, with rumours of bankruptcy and liquidation hovering in the air, making it hard at times for players and coach to concentrate on football matters.

That, though, is what Matthews had to do, and initially, at least, he performed an exemplary job: Collingwood won 12 of its remaining 19 fixtures in 1986 to miss the finals only on percentage. The following year, however, constituted a major reality check, with the 'Pies managing just 7 wins from 22 matches to finish above just Richmond and the fledgling Brisbane Bears. In 1988, Matthews' remedy to this decline was "a departure from modern football trends: an emphasis on defence rather than attack".[33]  Over the course of a 22 match minor round, Collingwood conceded only 1,728 points, the second lowest total in twelve years; it also managed 15 wins and a draw to qualify for the finals in second place.

Those finals were an unmitigated disaster, however, as the players' inexperience in such matches was cruelly exposed by Carlton and Melbourne, precipitating a "straight sets" exit. It was a similar story in 1989 as Melbourne ended Collingwood's season at the elimination final stage. On the plus side of the ledger, however, the club's financial woes were a thing of the past, and all concerned could concentrate on the one thing that, in the minds of the overwhelming majority at any rate, constitutes the fundamental raison d'être of a footy club - winning flags. in 1990, after more than three decades of trying, that is what the Collingwood Football Club would finally do.

The consensus of opinion concerning the Magpies' 1990 premiership combination appears to be that it was merely the best of an ordinary bunch of contenders. On objective examination, however, such an appraisal seems both facile and unfair. In the first place, the side was blessed with players of the highest calibre, including the mercurial Peter Daicos, the ostensibly pedestrian but supremely effective Tony Shaw, lion-hearted Gavin Brown, formidable ruckman Damian Monkhorst, fleet-footed runners like Scott Russell, Graham Wright and Tony Francis, an authoritative key position defender in Craig Kelly, versatile all-rounders such as Mick McGuane and Shane Morwood, and the player who, but for his untimely death at the age of just twenty-six in October 1991, might conceivably have developed into the greatest wingman in the history of the game, Darren Millane. Just as importantly, these players, who were expertly drilled and meshed together by their psychologically astute, immensely disciplined, and increasingly insightful coach, played the game with a passion, verve and intensity that seemed like the products of religious zeal. To further the analogy, they thoroughly eschewed the doctrine of free will in favour of firm belief in pre-destination, which paradoxically afforded them the freedom to play with almost maniacal fervour, and an apparent abandon that was nevertheless precisely controlled. In short, the Magpies of 1990 had all the characteristics traditionally associated with teams of premiership calibre, and a team of such calibre they undoubtedly were.

Collingwood's grand final opponents, Essendon, having narrowly beaten the 'Pies in both minor round encounters, had finished a game and a place clear at the top of the ladder after the home and away rounds. However, when the sides met in the second semi final, Collingwood made the Dons look tawdry and inept, especially in the second half, and won with ease by 63 points. Needless to say, this afforded the 'Pies weighty popular favouritism going into the re-match a fortnight later.

The early exchanges of the grand final were typical of a game of such importance - fierce, frequently unlawful, no prisoners taken. Essendon drew first and second blood with goals from Salmon, but overall it was the Magpies who seemed "more committed, desperate and keener to help each other",[34] and although they only led by 3 points at the first change you got the impression that the Bombers had been stretched almost to breaking point.

The second quarter confirmed this impression as Collingwood, with midfielders Millane, Russell, McGuane, Francis and Shaw seemingly gathering possessions at will, opened up a match-winning lead of 34 points.

Not that the Collingwood faithful, many of whom remembered previous occasions such as 1970 and 1977 when their heroes had let slip leads of similar magnitude, were even thinking of relaxing. Indeed, "Collingwood diehards were still biting their nails half way through the final quarter......even with their beloved team leading by six goals" .[35]  This Magpie team was made of sterner material than some of its predecessors, however, and in the end a margin of 48 points probably flattered Essendon.

Best afield was the quintessential 'captain courageous', Tony Shaw, whose match stats of 22 kicks, 10 handballs, 8 marks and 4 tackles do little but scratch the surface of the quality and impact of his performance. Other noteworthy displays came from Scott Russell, Darren Millane (who played despite a broken hand), Damien Monkhorst, Craig Starcevich, and Craig Kelly. Magpie president Alan McAllister summed up the feelings of many of the club's long suffering supporters when he declared, "It was like an impossible dream" [36] - words which, from the vantage point of more than a decade after the event, perhaps carry more painful connotations - to the Collingwood fraternity, at any rate.

The celebrations after the 1990 premiership win have entered club folk lore. According to Peter Daicos:

"They say it's great to win a flag, but it nearly killed me. I know what they mean when people talk about premiership hangovers."[37]

Unfortunately for Collingwood, there is a sense in which that hangover persists to this day, for despite consecutive grand final appearances in 2002-3 the club has added just one premiership to its cabinet since 1990.

the long road back to dominance

In 2004 the Magpies only rarely approached the form of the preceding two seasons, and ultimately finished well out of contention in 12th place, before plummeting even further the following season and only narrowly missing the wooden spoon. There was significant improvement in 2006 as the side qualified for the finals in 5th place, but the season ended disappointingly with a 41 point elimination final loss to the Western Bulldogs. The 2007 season proved rather more promising as the Magpies fought their way as far as the preliminary final in which they came within a single straight kick (and arguably a slice or two of luck) of overcoming a much-vaunted Geelong combination.

A less consistent 2008 campaign saw the side ultimately placed sixth after qualifying for the finals in eighth spot, comfortably accounting for the Crows in Adelaide in an elimination final, but then suffering defeat by 34 points against St Kilda at the semi-final stage, despite amassing 27 scoring shots to the Saints' 21.

A year later the 'Pies got as far as a preliminary final before bowing out of the flag race at the hands of a consummately superior Geelong side.

In hindsight, the Magpies' surge to the 2010 premiership appears to have had something of an inevitable air about it, although their initial inability to put St Kilda away in the grand final after dominating possession must, at the time, have caused a few doubts to creep in among the longer-serving members of football's largest fraternity. That initial grand final was drawn, after Collingwood had led at every change by 6, 24 and 8 points. A week later, however, the Magpies quickly put any doubts to rest when they kept the Saints goalless in the opening term in racing to a three-goal lead which was never remotely challenged, with Collingwood ultimately prevailing by 56 points, 16.12 (108) to 7.10 (52). Scott Pendlebury, Darren Jolly, Nathan Brown, Steele Sidebottom, Heath Shaw, Dale Thomas, Sharrod Wellingham and Jason Ball all did well for the premiers, with Pendlebury earning the Norm Smith Medal for best afield. The Magpies were back where their hordes of supporters believe they belong, at the very top of football's tallest tree.

The ‘Pies remained a force to be reckoned with in 2011, winning 20 out of 22 home and away matches to capture the minor premiership. They then downed West Coast by 20 points in a qualifying final, and Hawthorn by 3 points in a thrilling preliminary final which saw the Magpies overhaul a 17 point three quarter time deficit in a low scoring, pressure cooker type contest. The grand final proved inordinately disappointing, however, as opponents Geelong pulled away in the final term to score a deceptively comfortable 38 point victory., 18.11 (119) to 12.9 (81). In truth, the Magpies had been well in the game until very late on, but it would be equally fair to suggest that the loss had been predictable; it was, after all, Collingwood’s third reversal of the season - all of which had been at the hands of the Cats.

The 2012 season brought finals qualification again but Sydney proved to have the Magpies’ measure in a preliminary final, leading at every change by 20, 27, and 30 points before winning 13.18 (96) to 10.10 (70). It was the Swans’ first victory over Collingwood for seven years.

In 2013 the ‘Pies suffered a disappointingly downbeat ending to the season when they surprisingly lost an elimination final against Port Adelaide at the MCG. It was a foretaste of things to come, for in 2014 Collingwood failed to contest the finals for the first time since 2005. The 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons were similarly unrewarding, leading to speculation that coach Nathan Buckley was in serious danger of losing his job. He remained, however, and went on to mastermind a magnificent 2018 campaign for the Magpies, albeit one with an excruciating sting in the tail. That sting was administered by Dom Sheed of West Coast who, two minutes before the end of a rip roaring grand final classic in which the Magpies had led for virtually the whole match, was lining up a set shot from forty metres out hard up against the half forward right boundary. Sheed kicked truly, and the Eagles were in front, where they stayed until the end. Nathan Buckley felt "numb" at the outcome:

"I'm enormously proud of our club, I'm proud of the players, there's a lot of boys in there that are hurting as you would expect.

"I didn't picture this, we had a really clear picture of the way we play, and I suppose all of us in our own time would have pictured the best outcome, and for a long part of today [Saturday] we were there, but ultimately not.

"We just allowed [the Eagles] to play their game style for too long and ultimately that hurt us.

"We stopped shifting the ball, we lost our dare and we lost our aggression to shift the ball and you know, it looked pretty good early and then when that stopped and we started kicking long down the line you know … the aerial battles really hurt us.

"It was a true grand final, there were a lot of moments that could have gone either way, there was a lot of missed opportunities, there was pressure brought about from both sides."[38]

If anybody mouthed the word "collywobbles" it was probably sotto voce.

Subsequent seasons have yielded fourth (2019) and sixth (2020) place finishes.

As for the fabric of the Collingwood Football Club, alluded to intermittently throughout this profile, this has changed considerably since its formative days, and will inevitably continue to do so. Victoria Park was last used as a league venue in 1999, and in 2004 Olympic Park became the club's administration and training base. Since 2009 Victoria Park has been the home venue for Collingwood’s reserve grade team, which competes in the VFL. In a sense, the club has transcended its roots, but in another sense its growth merely reflects and endorses its tradition, for Collingwood has always been a club of big ambitions and, in the broader historical sense, remains a club of big achievement. It would be very surprising indeed - not to mention extremely disappointing - if those same words, or similar, could not be written with equal validity in a hundred years time. Love them or loathe them, football without Victoria's Magpies would be an infinitely less engaging, exciting and impassioned affair.


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

  1. Captain Blood by Jack Dyer and Brian Hansen, page 113.
  2. My World Of Football by Peter McKenna, pages 29-30.
  3. The Clubs by Garrie Hutchinson and John Ross, page 72.
  4. Cited in ibid, page 74, and numerous other sources.
  5. Kill For Collingwood by R.Stremski, page 19.
  6. The Encyclopedia of League Footballers by Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, page 103.
  7. This figure had, however, been exceeded in the old VFA, with the all time record standing at 37,200 for a clash between Essendon and South Melbourne in 1891.
  8. During its first fifteen seasons in the VFL competition, Collingwood enjoyed the best win-loss ratio of any club, and won more games than it lost against every one of its opponents - except Fitzroy.
  9. Carlton had entered the match with a weakened side after dropping three of its key players for alleged match-fixing. Despite this, the Blues had enjoyed the vast majority of the play, and only poor kicking for goal prevented them from winning.
  10. A Century of the Best: the Stories of Collingwood's Favourite Sons by Michael Roberts, page 178.
  11. McHale actually played one more full VFL game in 1918, while in the opening round of 1920 he came on as a last minute replacement for Alex Mutch, the last time he ever appeared in a Collingwood jumper.
  12. Roberts, op cit, pages 178-9.
  13. Ibid, page 180. The intimation that part of the club 'died' with McHale is especially persuasive in light of the club's comparatively modest fortunes since.
  14. VFL percentages at this time were calculated by multiplying 'points against' by 100, and dividing that total by 'points for'. This was the exact opposite to the system used in today's AFL, which meant that lower percentages were superior to higher percentages. Consequently Fitzroy, had it managed to win the drawn game against Geelong, would have qualified for the finals at Richmond's expense.
  15. Let's Look at Football by Hugh Buggy, page 15.
  16. The Encyclopedia of League Footballers by Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, page 276.
  17. The Clubs by Garrie Hutchinson and John Ross, page 80.
  18. Main and Holmesby, op cit, page 248.
  19. McHale always insisted on his players sticking to position. On one noted occasion, wingman Bruce Andrew twice raced into the forward lines to kick scintillating goals, only to find himself promptly benched. "We've got bloody forwards to do that!" was coach McHale's acerbic explanation.
  20. Stremski, op cit, pages 87-8.
  21. VFL Premiers by Hugh Buggy, page 8.
  22. Ibid, page 8.
  23. Ibid, page 10.
  24. Ibid, page 10.
  25. Ibid. page 10.
  26. The term 'grand final' is used for convenience, to denote a premiership deciding match, but is not strictly accurate. Prior to the inception of the Page-McIntyre finals system in 1931, premierships were mainly decided on the basis of the result of either the final or, if the minor premier had lost at any stage during the major round, a challenge final.
  27. Buggy, op cit, page 17.
  28. Ibid, page 18.
  29. The Complete Book of VFL Finals by Graeme Atkinson, page 114.
  30. Quoted in The Encyclopedia of League Footballers by Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, page 341.
  31. Large as the crowd was, it was not the biggest for the season. In round 10 an all time record home and away crowd of 99,256 had attended the Queen's Birthday clash between the same two clubs, with Melbourne edging home by 11 points.
  32. Atkinson, op cit, page 190.
  33. Every Game Ever Played by Stephen Rodgers, page 714.
  34. 'Inside Football', 10/10/90, page 10 - from a match report by Greg Healy.
  35. Ibid, page 10.
  36. Ibid, page 3.
  37. Collingwood And Me by Peter Daicos with Jake Niall, page 76.
  38., retrieved 15/10/18.


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