AustralianFootball.com Celebrating the history of the great Australian game
If its future is something about which it is impossible to be assertively optimistic his only serves to make the past of Australia's oldest football club all the more worthy of celebration and pride, and few clubs in football have a history more conducive to such a reaction than Melbourne. The amateur ideal may, in the strictest sense, be a thing of the past, but there is a sense in which it continues to be embodied and perpetuated by every footballer who takes the field in a Demons jumper. Long may it be so.
Australian football is often described as having commenced in 1858, the same year that allegedly saw the formation of the Melbourne Football Club; indeed, an inference is often drawn to the effect that the two events were more or less simultaneous. Certainly, 1858 witnessed the famous 'grand football match' between teams of forty a side from Scotch College and Melbourne's Church of England Grammar School, traditionally regarded as the fledgling code's first manifestation. Later in the year, a number of other matches were played, some of which featured members of the Melbourne Cricket Club (although there would appear to be no evidence whatsoever that these members saw themselves as in any way representing that club, let alone a discrete, formally constituted football club). In truth, Melbourne Cricket Club secretary Thomas Wentworth Wills' suggestion that a football club should be formed as it "would help those (cricketers) who are inclined to become stout and having their joints encased in useless superabundant flesh" (^1) appears to have gone completely unheeded. Not until the beginning of the following winter would a Melbourne Football Club come substantively into being, announcing its existence by the promulgation of what has come to be regarded as Australian football's first set of rules. However, whereas the publication of these rules was a definite event which can be precisely located chronologically, the earmarking of 1858 as the year in which Australian football was 'born' is a mere convenience, with nothing substantive to back it up. Football of various sorts had been played in Melbourne for at least twenty years (^2), and the sport would continue to manifest itself in many different ways for quite a few years to come.
Those historic first rules read as follows:
RULES OF THE MELBOURNE FOOTBALL CLUB
T.W.Wills Esq. T.Butterworth Esq.
W.Hammersley Esq. - Smith Esq.
Alex Bruce Esq.
The distance between the Goals and the Goal Posts shall be decided upon by the Captains of the sides playing.
The Captains on each side shall toss for choice of Goal; the side losing the toss has the Kick Off from the centre point between the Goals.
A Goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player of either side.
The game shall be played in a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two Goals; and two posts to be called the 'Kick Off' posts shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the Goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line between them.
In case the Ball is kicked behind goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the 'Kick Off' posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in a line with the opposite Goal.
Any player catching the Ball directly from the foot may call 'mark'. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come inside the spot marked.
Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the Ball, except in the case provided for in Rule VI.
The Ball shall be taken in hand only when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In no case shall it be lifted from the ground.
When the Ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
The Ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown. (^3)
However, it is important to stress that, although these rules have come to be regarded as representing a kind of blueprint for the modern game of Australian football, they were originally designed for use only within the Melbourne Football Club itself. When the Melbourne club engaged in a fixture against another, external club, the rules of play to be used would normally be agreed by the respective captains beforehand, and would therefore tend to constitute a kind of compromise containing elements of both clubs' often idiosyncratic practices. Moreover, there was an element of inherent flexibility in that, during the course of the game, if the two captains could not agree between them on whether or not a transgression of the rules had occurred, the matter was put to the players to be resolved on a 'show of hands'. Players who believed themselves entitled to a free kick would appeal loudly, much as in cricket, and their complaints were not restricted to issues of physical indiscretion; in one match during the 1860s, a South Yarra player appealed, and was duly awarded a free kick, after his Melbourne opponent called him 'a lump of blubber'.
Other matters not addressed by the early rules included the shape of the ball, the precise dimensions and shape of the playing area, and the duration of play. Nevertheless, by 1866 a measure of conformity was being arrived at, in Victoria at least, with most clubs agreeing to play according to an updated version of the Melbourne Football Club's rules, as drawn up by delegates of the Carlton, Melbourne, Royal Park and South Yarra clubs.
The centrality of the Melbourne Football Club in football's early evolution also included the direct involvement of some of the embryonic game's key figures. Thomas Wills, an important contributor to the shaping of the sport's rules has already been mentioned, while arguably of even greater significance was Wills' cousin, Henry Harrison, who attracted the honorific title 'father of the game' because of his all round contribution over many years as both player and administrator. When Wills took on the inaugural captaincy of Melbourne, Harrison occupied the same position at a club known as Richmond (not the same club as today's Tigers) before replacing his cousin at Melbourne when Wills left for Geelong. Harrison later spent a year himself at the 'Pivot', but it was primarily for his prolonged association with Melbourne that he is remembered. He also played leading roles in the VFA, the VFL (which named its headquarters, Harrison House, after him) and the Australasian Football Council, and so if he can not truly be said to have 'fathered' the game in the sense of actually inventing it, he was nevertheless an adoptive father of the highest calibre. The fact that, like Wills, he was born in New South Wales is an intriguing anomaly perhaps best not focused on, at any rate not in Victoria.
The transformation of football from pastime to passionate preoccupation was swift. By 1870 it was possible to talk in terms of a 'Victorian premiership', with Melbourne, which played a total of 12 matches for the year, winning 7 and drawing 5, as the inaugural winners (^5). For most of the 1870s Melbourne, whose players began wearing their trademark red hose in 1872, becoming known as the Red Legs in the process (^6), vied with Carlton for supremacy, with the contests between them invariably attracting the greatest interest, and the largest crowds, of each season. As the decade wore on, however, other clubs, notably Geelong, South Melbourne and Essendon, gradually began to provide stiffer opposition. In 1877 an Association was formed in order to provide a formal structure for what by that time had probably become, after horse racing, the colony's principal sporting interest. The Victorian Football Association included teams from all over Victoria, but it tended to be the city clubs, plus Geelong, which dominated.
After finishing runner-up in its first two VFA seasons Melbourne's on field performances gradually deteriorated, with the result that it also began to struggle financially. In 1889 the club committee approached its cricketing counterpart with a request that the two organisations be 'merged', with the cricket club discharging the football club's debts in return for control of its assets - in other words, a take over. Distasteful as the new arrangements may have been to many football club members, they appeared to have had an immediate and beneficial impact as the team rose steadily up the ladder over the following few seasons. Despite one or two hiccups, by the mid 1890s the club was among the most powerful in the game, finishing in the top four every year between 1892 and 1896, including consecutive second place finishes in 1893-94.
The 1894 season saw the debut of one of the club's greatest ever players in the shape of Fred McGinis, a Tasmanian whose "splendid drop kicking, pertinacity in redeeming a mistake, determination in getting the ball, and coolness and quickness in passing it on to a team mate placed him in a class above his contemporaries" (^7).
The factors leading to the formation of the VFL are discussed in detail elsewhere, notably in the entries on Geelong and Carlton. Melbourne, as one of the stronger inner city clubs which was dissatisfied with the status quo, was an important and influential member of the breakaway group, and after a slow start to its league career in 1897, began to show signs of improving the following year. After treading water in 1899 the Red Legs broke through for an improbable premiership in 1900, aided by arguably the most bewildering (some would say farcical) finals system ever utilised in the code's history.
Melbourne's play-off, or preliminary final, opponent was Essendon, which was widely considered to be a much stronger all round combination than the Red Legs. However, after enjoying consummate supremacy early in the game, Melbourne held on desperately as the Same Old fought back, ultimately emerging triumphant by a margin of just 2 points to earn a crack at reigning premier Fitzroy in the grand final.
The Maroons, aiming for a hat trick of premierships, were supremely confident, having arranged for a set of carriages, gaily bedecked in maroon and blue, and bearing the inscription 'Fitzroy - Premiers 1900', to be ready outside the ground to ferry players and officials to the post-match victory dance. In the event, it must have been a somewhat embarrassing journey, because Melbourne, with the ruck combination of Harry Cumberland, George Moodie and Fred McGinis in magnificent form, played probably its best football of the year to win by 4 points, 4.10 (34) to 3.12 (30). A VFL record crowd of 20,181 turned up to watch the match at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground, with most of them leaving well satisfied after seeing 'glamour club' Fitzroy undone - how times change!
Unfortunately, Melbourne failed to build on its success, contesting the finals just twice over the next decade and a half, and bowing out at the first hurdle on both occasions. Football during this period was becoming more and more overtly professional, with payment to players, which had been going on 'under the lap', so to speak, for many years, finally being accorded official sanction by the VFL in 1911. Melbourne, which after all was controlled by that bastion of amateurism, the MCC, was strongly opposed to the payment of players, as was University. Indeed, it would be many years yet before a player took to the field in the colours of the Melbourne Football Club in return for tangible remuneration. Adherence to the 'amateur ideal' was also a principle reason for Melbourne's withdrawal from the VFL competition for the duration of the first world war.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when Melbourne resumed in the VFL after the war, it found the going tough. Indeed, in its first season of post-war competition, 1919, it failed to win a single match, and although the next five seasons brought marginal improvement, it was not until 1925 that the side again qualified for the major round. Once there, it quickly demonstrated that it was not content merely to make up the numbers. Indeed, after scoring a surprise 15 point win over minor premiers and premiership favourites Geelong in a semi final, there were some who began to think that 1925 might just be the Redlegs' year. However, in the final against Collingwood, "the team failed completely to reproduce its previous fine form, and although holding a weight advantage of almost two pounds a man too many players allowed themselves to be 'bulldozed' right out of the game".
Having learned the vital lesson that finals football did not allow for even the most miniscule or fleeting lapses in concentration and effort, Melbourne's players fronted up for the 1926 season in determined frame of mind. Among those players were some of the game's all time greats, notably the prodigiously talented centreline player Ivor Warne-Smith, and formidable centre half back cum ruckman Albert Chadwick, who was arguably one of the toughest men ever to play the game. Other fine players such as hard-as-nails ruckman Hugh Dunbar, beanpole aerialist Bob Johnston, forceful centreman Bob Corbett, long kicking Tasmanian rover Colin Deane, tricky wingman or centreman Richard Taylor, and rugged defenders Jim Abernethy and Edward Thomas helped make the Fuchsias (^10) a powerful force in 1926. After qualifying for the finals in third place with a 14-4 record, the side scored a strong second semi final win over minor premiers Collingwood, after trailing by 22 points at half time. A hard fought 3 point defeat of Essendon in the final, which was achieved in spite of centreman Bob Corbett being effectively unavailable in the second half after being king hit by an opponent while leaving the ground at half time (^11), meant that all Melbourne had to do was repeat its win over Collingwood - which, as minor premier, enjoyed the right of challenge - in order to secure its first flag in 26 years.
With Corbett still unfit, Melbourne 'blooded' a first gamer in the shape of 'Pop' Vine from Old Melburnians for the challenge final (^12). Vine lined up in a forward pocket, with Warne-Smith replacing Corbett in the pivot. After winning the toss, Melbourne was quickly into attack, and big Bob Johnson had the first goal of the game on the board within a minute. Thereafter, the Redlegs continued to dominate most of the opening term exchanges, and at quarter time they had opened up a handy lead of 22 points. In the second quarter, inevitably, the Magpies fought back strongly, but at the long break it was still Melbourne by 9 points. The third term, as so often seems to be the case, proved decisive, with the Redlegs achieving ascendancy all over the ground to add 7 goals to 1 and effectively seal the match. By the final siren Melbourne's forward line, which had been statistically the most potent in the VFL all year, had accumulated a record tally for a VFL premiership decider of 17.17 (119), 57 points ahead of Collingwood on 9.8 (62). Watching proudly in the stands was ninety year old Henry Harrison who, prior to Melbourne's opening fixture of the 1927 season, would have the honour of unfurling the team's 1926 premiership pennant. Ivor Warne-Smith's first Brownlow Medal win in 1926 was icing on the cake.
Melbourne's failure to build on its 1926 success is difficult to explain. In 1927, with basically the same list as in the premiership year, the club slipped down the ladder to fifth, before recovering somewhat in 1928 to finish third, after holding Jock McHale's indomitable Collingwood side to a draw in the second semi final. (The replay was lost by 4 points.) Ivor Warne-Smith won his second Brownlow that year.
The ensuing ten season period brought mixed fortunes, but no further premierships. Between 1929 and 1935 the team failed to contest the major round, but it was normally competitive, and with players like Alan La Fontaine, Jack Mueller, Norm Smith and Maurice Gibb in the side there was always plenty of entertainment on view for the club's many supporters. In 1936, it finally reached the finals again, but after a good first semi final win over Carlton in which straight kicking for goal was a feature, it bowed out to South Melbourne's 'foreign legion' a fortnight later in the preliminary final. The 1937 season also came to an end at the preliminary final stage, this time at the hands of Collingwood, while in 1938 the Redlegs missed the finals by a game.
Despite this setback, Melbourne, under the astute guidance of former Richmond premiership coach Frank 'Checker' Hughes, who had transferred to the Fuchsias in 1933, was slowly but surely setting out its stall for greatness. In 1939, to mix metaphors, the pieces of the jig-saw all finally came together as the side, known this year as 'the Red Demons', secured both its first ever VFL minor premiership and, with a minimum of fuss, the premiership that really counted a month later. The opposition in both the second semi final and the grand final was provided by Collingwood, which kept in touch on the scoreboard until three quarter time of the former, and half time of the latter, but overall simply could not cope with the devastating attacking system concocted by Hughes, which had yielded century-plus point totals in a record 15 (out of 18) matches during the minor round, and which in the grand final enabled the Red Demons to tally 21.22 (148), thereby establishing a new benchmark. After half time of the 'big one', Melbourne booted 11.12 to Collingwood's 4.5, with rovers Percy Beames and Alby Rodda, half back flanker Frank Roberts, and wingmen Sid Anderson and Ray Wartman particularly conspicuous.
Melbourne's dominance continued in 1940, although the side did have to overcome the setback of a second semi final loss to Richmond before ultimately reclaiming its crown. The preliminary final against Essendon was no walkover either, especially as the Demons, as Melbourne were now known, finished the game with only sixteen men on the field. However, in the end they did just enough to hold on and win by 5 points. On grand final day though, Melbourne bounced back to its very best form, leading at every change by 14, 45, and 59 points before easing off slightly in the last term to win by 39 points, with 7 goal full forward Norm Smith, rover Percy Beames, centre half forward Ron Baggott, centreman Alan La Fontaine and ruckman Jack Mueller all heavily instrumental in the victory.
With the demands of war increasingly undermining clubs' abilities to field their strongest teams, Melbourne's list in 1941 was also diminished by injury. Nevertheless, the side carried on more or less as though nothing had changed, winning 14 out of 18 home and away matches to finish second on the ladder heading into the finals, blasting Carlton off the MCG in the second semi final with a 7 goal opening term from which the hapless Blues never recovered, and doing more or less the same to Essendon on grand final day. Just as in 1940, the Demons led at every change, this time by 35, 57 and 47 points, before coasting to a 19.13 (127) to 13.20 (98) victory. The win made Melbourne only the third club, after Carlton (1906-7-8) and Collingwood (1927-8-9-30), to secure three successive VFL pennants. Watched by a surprisingly substantial crowd of 79,687, this would be the last grand final played at the MCG until 1946. Almost inevitably, livewire rover Percy Beames (who booted 6 goals) was best afield, while wingman Stan 'Pops' Heal, ruckman Jack Mueller, half back flanker Wally Lock, and ruckman-forward Adrian Dullard were also prominent. A week later, Heal, a Western Australian who had only been available to play for the Demons because he was stationed in Melbourne on military service, made history when he returned home to take part in West Perth's grand final win over East Fremantle, thereby participating in two top grade premiership triumphs in different states during the same season.
Years later, when asked pinpoint the reasons for Melbourne's dominance during this period, coach 'Checker' Hughes highlighted the novel attacking system which he developed, and which Norm Smith, "the complete forward engineer" (^13), orchestrated to such potent effect:
When Smithy led out, Ron Baggott, centre half forward, one of those loosely put together players who was always hard to beat, ran in. Smithy sometimes took a pass, but a quick hand pass to the running Baggott created more trouble for the defenders. Then we played a trump card by keeping Jack Mueller hanging around the goal square. One of the best marks in the game, he was a problem child in himself. No defender could leave him for a second. Two brilliant rovers in Beames and Rodda were always on the move, and if that was not enough we had that amazing fellow Maurie Gibb doing the cleverest things on the half forward flank. On the other half forward wing was that red-headed bullet, 'Bluey' Truscott. Smith, who was football brains from his thatch to his toes, was in clover. La Fontaine, our centre, diverted play to Gibb's flank or to Truscott, or maybe he drove direct to the fast moving Smith, or again he might ignore the Smith lead and pass to Baggott, who would have doubled around just behind centre half forward. Smith became a genius at handball. He flipped the ball like a flash to a man running in, and then never forgot to block. The things that fellow did amazed me. He was different from the others; he made a team work around him. Others made the team work for them. He was a real master at creating play. (^14)
The war effectively ruined what might have become a Melbourne dynasty of unrivalled proportions. Of all the clubs in the league, it is arguable that the Demons lost the greatest number of regular players to military demands. For a time, it was even rumoured that the club would forge a temporary alliance with Collingwood, which had also been hard hit. This never eventuated, but the club's on field performances deteriorated appreciably, with finals participation never remotely in prospect between 1942 and 1945. Added to the club's woes was the need to relocate to Punt Road during those years as the US military had taken over the MCG (and renamed it Camp Murphy!).
In 1946 there was a restoration of normality of a sort as most teams returned to full strength, the MCG was made available for football once again, and - most importantly of all in the eyes of Melbourne supporters - the Demons re-emerged as a power. 'Checker' Hughes, who had taken a break from football between 1942 and 1944, had returned as coach in 1945, and by the following year, with access to a full list of players, had begun to weave his magic once more. After qualifying for the finals in fourth place with a 13-6 record, Melbourne, despite a shaky spell in the third term, ultimately proved too strong for Footscray in the first semi final, winning 17.18 (120) to 15.12 (102). The preliminary final opposition was provided by old rivals Collingwood, and for three and a half quarters the only uncertainty seemed to revolve around the eventual extent of the Magpies' victory margin. During the last fifteen minutes, however, the Melbourne forward line suddenly sprang into life: Jack Mueller added 4 goals to take his tally for the match to 8, and the Demons finished with 7.1 for the term to end up winning with deceptive comfort by 13 points, 16.17 (113) to 14.16 (100).
That the team was not yet the finished article was vividly demonstrated on grand final day as Essendon, with 13 second half goals to 3, won emphatically by 63 points. Jack Mueller continued his excellent finals series, booting 6 goals to take his total for the finals to 18, but after half time he had little assistance.
With full-forward Fred Fanning annexing a club record 97 goals for the season, including 18 against St Kilda in round nineteen, Melbourne might reasonably have been expected to mount a serious challenge for the premiership in 1947. In fact, the team went backwards, finishing out of the finals altogether in sixth place.
For a time in 1948 it looked likely that the side would again fail to contest the major round, but over the second half of the season performances improved to such an extent that, not only did the Demons qualify for the finals, they claimed the double chance as well. That said, there were few among the alleged experts who gave them much chance of overturning the all powerful Essendon combination when it counted, and when the Dons eased to an emphatic 13.16 (94) to 8.10 (58) second semi final win the writing appeared to be on the wall as far as the destiny of the 1948 premiership was concerned.
For the following week's preliminary final against Collingwood, however, 'Checker' Hughes pulled a master stroke by recalling Jack Mueller, who had spent the season as playing coach of the seconds, to the senior team. In tandem once more with Norm Smith, Mueller put in a superb performance, as indeed did the entire Melbourne team. Final scores were Melbourne 25.16 (166) to Collingwood 15.11 (101). Still, Collingwood in a preliminary final was one thing, but what could the Demons come up with against the might of Essendon in the grand final that would enable them to reverse the comprehensive reversal of a fortnight earlier?
The answer, it emerged, was simple - rely on Lady Luck. Admittedly, the Demons did manage to lift their overall intensity level compared with the second semi final, and this may in some measure have contributed to the Dons' lamentable inaccuracy which saw them fritter away opportunity after opportunity, ending the match with 7 goals and 27 behinds, one of the most inaccurate returns in VFL history. However, much of the blame for Essendon's atrocious kicking had to rest with the Essendon players themselves; bad kicking, as the saying goes, is bad football. Melbourne meanwhile, with Mueller and Smith continuing their good form of the preliminary final, and a dominant rover in Rodda, managed 10 goals 9 from significantly fewer scoring opportunities to tie the match. For the first time in VFL history a grand final had been drawn. Moreover, for only the second time in league history a team scoring 3 fewer goals than its opponent had come out of the match on level terms.
As far as most observers were concerned, the true indication of Essendon's superiority over Melbourne was the fact that it had troubled the scorers on nearly twice as many occasions. All that was needed in the replay was a little more steadiness in front of goal and a comprehensive victory would ensue.
In a sense, the observers got it right - but it was Melbourne, not Essendon, which displayed increased steadiness. In front of just 52,226 spectators, the lowest none-wartime grand final crowd since 1930, the Demons blitzed the Dons with a 6.2 to 0.3 opening term burst, and thereafter were never troubled. Norm Smith, in his last game for Melbourne, gave a performance of consummate mastery that would surely have won him the award that would later bear his name had it existed at the time, while not far behind him was Jack Mueller, who booted 6 goals to take his total to 20 in 3 finals matches. On the defensive side, Colin McLean made a major contribution by keeping Essendon danger man Dick Reynolds quiet, while 'Shane' McGrath, one of the finest full backs in the history of the game, restricted Dons full forward Bill Brittingham to 2 goals and very little impact. If there was a sense in which Essendon might legitimately feel that it had thrown away the 1948 pennant, then from the Melbourne perspective it's victory represented one of those quintessential building blocks of tradition that no amount of money, planning or wishful thinking can procure.
The seeds of the Melbourne Football Club's greatest ever era began to be sown the following season when favourite son Norm Smith returned from Fitzroy to take over from Alan La Fontaine as senior coach. After displaying immediate improvement in 1952 (9 wins and a draw, and sixth place on the ladder), the retirement of a number of experienced players in 1953 precipitated a temporary decline eleventh place with just 3 wins). Nevertheless, the 1953 season also saw the debuts of several players who would go on to play significant roles in the club's impending period of greatness, notably Ron Barassi, Brian Dixon, Ian Ridley, Laurie Mithen and Colin Wilson. With a season under their belts, in 1954 these players combined well with their more experienced team mates to make Melbourne once more a force to be reckoned with. Needing to win their last 3 home and away games of the season to qualify for the finals the Demons did this with something to spare before overcoming North Melbourne in the 1st semi final by 30 points, and the highly fancied Geelong in the preliminary final by 17 points to qualify for a grand final meeting with Footscray.
The Bulldogs were playing in their first ever VFL grand final, and needless to say attracted considerable sentimental support. They had also beaten Melbourne with some comfort in the teams' only minor round meeting of the year, attracting favouritism of a more objective kind as well. In the event, both the tipsters and the neutrals had plenty of reason to feel satisfied as Footscray jumped the Demons from the start, kicking 6 opening term goals to 1 before cruising to a 15.12 (102) to 7.9 (51) victory. As the disappointed Melbourne players trooped from the field and headed for the showers they might well have been more than a little consoled if someone had been able to tell them of the bright future that lay just around the corner.
Since world war two, the speed at which top level football was played had increased dramatically. Melbourne under 'Checker' Hughes had played a part in this development, as had the Essendon 'mosquito fleet' under Dick Reynolds, and Reg Hickey's early 1950s Geelong combination. Nor was the trend limited to Victoria, with teams like North Adelaide, coached by Ken Farmer, Jack Oatey's Norwood, Stan Heal's West Perth, and South Fremantle under first Ross Hutchinson, and later Clive Lewington, all adopting a similar predisposition toward energetic, non-stop, all-action football.
The game was also evolving tactically, with some coaches eschewing tradition in the form of standardised team placings, the unwritten 'law' that handball should only be used as a last resort when a player was in trouble, and so forth. As football took on more and more of the characteristics of 'big business', so winning - at whatever cost - became more and more important. This overriding imperative to succeed inevitably spawned greater professionalism in terms of the game's surrounding mechanics - team preparation, medical care, recruitment, and so on - and it also gave rise to more sophisticated ways of looking at and analysing the game, both statistically and strategically. Among VFL coaches, no one took these developments further than Norm Smith.
One of Smith's most famous utterances was "Football is seventy per cent guts; split the other thirty per cent any way you like" (^16), but his own approach to coaching belied the simplicity of this assessment. His utlilisation of Ron Barassi as a ruck-rover, which, while probably not quite the innovation it has since come to be regarded as, was a case in point:
The role of ruck-rover was not known in football in the early 1950s (^17). Some football historians suggest that Richmond's Jack Dyer was the model for this now common position. But the majority opinion seems to be that Norm Smith created the position specifically for Barassi. At the time, Melbourne had a tireless ruckman in Denis Cordner and superlative rovers in Stuart Spencer and, soon after him, Ian Ridley. Barassi, at 176cm and, at his prime playing weight, 85kg, was betwixt and between...... too small for a knock ruckman or a key position player, too big for a rover. But he had pace for a man of his size and enormous strength with which to burst packs open. He could leap for marks and was above all so thoroughly determined to succeed that no physical accident of build was going to deter him. (^18)
The relationship between Barassi and his mentor Norm Smith was a close and highly convoluted one, detailed analysis of which would require more space than is available here. Suffice to say that, after Barassi's father, Ron Barassi senior, himself a former Melbourne footballer and team mate of Norm Smith's, died during World War Two, Smith took it upon himself to provide a fatherly hand to the youngster. When Barassi's mother re-married for the second time and relocated to Tasmania in 1953, Ron stayed behind and lodged with Norm and Marj Smith, where, although Barassi was later adamant that there were no "special favours" (^19), it is hard not to imagine the 'fatherly hand' being exercised to significantly greater effect, an intimation that draws credence from the fact that Barassi achieved his first ever selection in the Melbourne senior team that very year.
Not the most naturally gifted of players, Barassi had few peers when it game to determination, courage and mental strength. He also provided a quintessential example to youngsters of how to use aggression systematically and effectively without going overboard. In the view of some, the credit for Melbourne's decade of success under Norm Smith belongs as much to Barassi as it does to the coach himself.
The Demons arrival as a power was graphically demonstrated when they won the opening 10 games of the 1955 season before clinching the minor premiership with a 15-3 record. Second semi final opponents Collingwood provided stern opposition in a dour, low scoring tussle, but Melbourne always seemed to have access to that extra gear when needed, and won through by 11 points. The grand final, against the same opposition, was similarly tense and low scoring, but the Demons appeared to utilise that additional gear more frequently, particularly after half time, and won comfortably, 8.16 (64) to 5.6 (36). The game has tended to be best remembered for a sickening collision moments before the final bell involving Melbourne's nineteenth man 'Bluey' Adams, who was just entering the fray, and Magpie wingman Des Healey, in which the latter suffered a fractured skull and had his nose broken in five places, and never played again. Adams meanwhile, whose involvement in the match had lasted an estimated fifteen seconds, was unconscious for approximately three quarters of an hour, but suffered no lasting injuries; he went on to represent the Demons with distinction for a further 10 seasons.
Best for the victors were the Denis Cordner-Ron Barassi combination in the ruck, centreman Ken Melville, full back Peter 'Trunk' Marquis, and half back flanker Noel McMahen.
After the grand final Melbourne embarked on an official team trip to Adelaide, where the team engaged in an official challenge match against SANFL premier Port Adelaide, under lights, at the Norwood Oval. A crowd estimated at some 23,000 managed to gain admission and was treated to a rousing spectacle, "played at full pressure, with Melbourne eventually winning by one point after a splendid exhibition by both sides" (^20).
The team made an even more brilliant start to the 1956 season, winning its first 13 games in superb fashion en route to another minor premiership, this time with only 2 defeats, before again qualifying for the grand final at Collingwood's expense. With the MCG having undergone expansion in preparation for the Olympic Games later in the year, and with the Demons' scintillating football popularly considered to have taken the game to a new level, the grand final attracted a record crowd of 115,802. For just over a quarter, the vast assemblage was entertained by a typically tense, tight Demons-Magpies encounter, but from early in the 2nd term Melbourne, which was on top in the ruck, and had a winning centreline, began to take control. After trailing by 5 points at the 1st change, the Demons, despite having kicked atrociously for goal at times, were 20 points to the good at half time. By the final change, that margin had been doubled, and during the last term it was exhibition time as the Melbourne players effectively did as they liked, adding 7.3 to 1.6 to win 'running away' by 73 points. The 1st ruck of Cordner, Barassi and Spencer (5 goals) was indefatigable, as were Brian Dixon, 'Bluey' Adams and Ken Melville across centre. A post-season tour of Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia only served to emphasise the Demons' supremacy at this time, as the side thrashed a North West Football Union combined team 21.21 (147) to 8.13 (61), before procuring harder fought wins over SANFL premier Port Adelaide (by 10 points) and WANFL premier East Perth (by 11 points). (^21) The question most observers were asking now was, who could possibly stop this irrepressible combination in 1957?
The answer, it ultimately emerged, was no one, although unlike in 1955 and 1956 the Demons did not have things all their own way. After an extraordinarily evenly contested home and away series, Melbourne duly secured a 3rd successive minor premiership, but it did so with just 12 wins and a draw from 18 matches, the poorest record by a minor premier since 1943. Then, in the 2nd semi final against Essendon, the unthinkable happened, as the Bombers, after kicking 10 1st half goals to 2, won by 16 points to progress straight into the grand final.
The preliminary final saw Melbourne opposed by first time finalist, and sentimental favourite, Hawthorn, which had caused something of a shock by overcoming Carlton in the 1st semi final. The Demons, however, were in no mood to play vanquished villain, and bounced back to form with a resounding 22.12 (144) to 11.10 (76) win.
If ever a team was determined to make amends it was Melbourne against the Dons in the 1957 grand final. Within thirteen seconds of the opening bounce, Ron Barassi had a goal on the board, and thereafter it was virtually all one way traffic as Melbourne won by 61 points, 17.14 (116) to 7.13 (55). Barassi, Bob Johnson, Richard Fenton-Smith, Don Williams and John Lord junior were best for the victors in what was a consummate all round team display. However, over and above the quality of its football, a single incident during the final term, described by E.C.H. Taylor in his centenary history of the club, perhaps epitomised what the Melbourne Football Club, in contrast with many of its opponents, was about during this, and indeed many other, eras:
".... Burgess, the Essendon wingman, was forced to leave the field in the last quarter. His opposite number, Brian Dixon, who had had a great tussle with him all day, walked over and warmly shook him by the hand." (^22)
Such a gesture perfectly reflected the attitude of the coach who, according to 'Bluey' Adams, "wanted us to be modest winners, gracious losers".
Melbourne's desire to retain its title in 1958 could scarcely have been more intense. Not only would such an achievement match Collingwood's all time record of four consecutive VFL pennants between 1927 and 1930, it would, if anything, be amplified almost beyond measure by virtue of coinciding with the centenaries of both the Melbourne Football Club and - by popular consent, at any rate - the code of Australian football itself. Alas, although the Demons did everything that could possibly be expected of them right up until the day of the grand final itself, winning the minor premiership yet again, and thrashing Collingwood by 45 points in a low scoring 2nd semi final, ultimately it was not to be. In the grand final, Collingwood comprehensively outplayed Melbourne in the 2nd and 3rd quarters to win a torrid, feisty encounter by 18 points. Sometimes, when the stakes are perceived as being particularly high, it is possible to try just that bit too hard, and perhaps that was the Demons' problem in 1958.
Thankfully, the 1959 season brought a restoration of normality, as Melbourne comprehensively resumed its mantle as the arguably the greatest combination seen in football up to that point. Another minor premiership - the club's fifth in succession - was followed by an emphatic 11.15 (81) to 4.13 (37) 2nd semi final demolition of Carlton. The grand final, against Essendon, was considerably harder fought, at least for the first three quarters, but after leading by only a goal at the final change the Demons assumed complete control in the ruck to add 6.3 to 1.2 in the last term and win with deceptive ease. Ron Barassi partially erased the memory of a poor, by his standards, performance against Collingwood in the previous year's grand final with a best on ground performance, while Bob Johnson, Brian Dixon, Ian McLean and Dennis Jones were others to shine.
Melbourne's dominance seemed more consummate than ever in 1960. The side yet again topped the ladder after the home and away rounds, and for much of the 2nd semi final encounter with Fitzroy it was a quintessential case of 'men against boys' as the Demons won virtually every position en route to a 14.18 (102) to 4.16 (40) triumph. The grand final brought a long awaited opportunity for revenge of sorts over Collingwood, and this was achieved in the most resounding way imaginable. Melbourne won 8.14 (62) to 2.2 (14), with the Magpies' tally the lowest in a grand final since the inception of the Page-McIntyre finals system in 1930. Indeed, the result could have been even more embarrassing for Collingwood, as both of its goals had a touch of luck about them: the first came after Melbourne full back 'Tassie' Johnson dropped a mark in the goal square, and Ray Gabelich was able to snatch up the ball and score easily from point blank range; the second was the result of a long shot from John Henderson which only just eluded the goal line pack. Best for Melbourne - and, needless to say, best afield - was centre half back John Lord, who was ably assisted by highly skilled but combative centreman Laurie Mithen, ruckmen Len Mann and 'big Bob' Johnson, and dynamic, flame-haired wingman Brian Dixon.
Given the extent of its supremacy in 1960, Melbourne's comparative decline over the course of the next three seasons is superficially surprising. However, the truth of the matter is that teams like Hawthorn under John Kennedy, Essendon under John Coleman and Bob Davis' Geelong were taking the game to a new level, particularly in terms of fitness and team preparation. Furthermore, the VFL competition itself was entering a much more competitive phase: whereas the 1950s had seen just six different teams contest grand finals, with five of them emerging victorious, during the 1960s every VFL team except North Melbourne, South Melbourne and Fitzroy would reach at least one grand final, with a total of seven different sides securing the honours.
The 1964 season would bring the Demons their twelfth and, to date, last VFL flag, and whereas the previous five had each been the culmination of an entire season's pre-eminence, on this occasion the victory arguably owed more to luck than talent. In the final home and away game of the season against Hawthorn, an improbable goal from the boundary line by Hassa Mann during the dying moments gave Melbourne a 4 point win and secured a berth in the four; had the Demons lost, they would have missed the finals. That said, the 19.20 (134) to 6.9 (45) 2nd semi final annihilation of Collingwood was vintage Melbourne, and it could certainly not be denied that the team was still capable of exceptional football on occasion. It was simply that such occasions occurred less frequently than before.
Collingwood produced an immeasurably improved performance on grand final day, but Melbourne, aided once more by the intervention of Lady Luck, ultimately triumphed. With the lead changing hands on numerous occasions throughout the match, Collingwood's hordes of supporters began celebrating victory when, with four minutes to go, bullocking ruckman Ray Gabelich embarked on one of the most famous runs in football history, galloping 60 metres from half forward left to the goal square, bouncing - and very nearly losing - the ball four times, before goaling to put the Magpies 3 points in front. When, a couple of minutes later, the normally ultra reliable 'Hassa' Mann registered only a minor score for the Demons from an easy set shot, the game appeared over, but with seconds to go Melbourne back pocket Neil Crompton snapped his first goal of the season to steel back the lead, and that proved to be the final score of the match. Melbourne won 8.16 (64) to 8.12 (60), with wingmen 'Bluey' Adams and Brian Dixon, back pocket 'Tassie' Johnson, rover 'Hassa' Mann - despite his glaring miss - and ruckman Graeme Wise all performing capably.
When, in 1965, the Demons failed to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1953 there were few football barrackers who expected it to be anything more than a temporary fall from grace, perhaps precipitated in part by Ron Barassi's stunning 'desertion' to Carlton, and the mid-season drama that saw supercoach Norm Smith sacked by the board, only to be reinstated one week later. Instead, it was to be more than two decades before Melbourne again tasted action at the business end of the season. During that time, two entire generations of footballers - some of whom were bona fide champions - had donned the famous red and blue without enjoying the merest whiff of finals football. Not even Ron Barassi's messianic return as club coach in 1981 succeeded in arresting the decline, although in retrospect it is possible to discern how the many of the foundations of the club's subsequent improvement were laid during the great man's five season stint at the tiller.
Melbourne's eventual return to the September action in 1987 could hardly have come about in more dramatic circumstances. In what was all time great Robbie Flower's last ever season, the Demons seemed completely out of contention as late as mid-year, before the 'Let's Do It For Robbie' campaign suddenly entered full swing. Needing to win 6 of its last 7 games to reach the finals that is precisely what Melbourne did, attracting wave upon wave of public sympathy and support in the process. In the elimination final meeting with North Melbourne things went better than even the most optimistic of the club's supporters dared hope as Melbourne surged home by the almost unbelievable margin of 118 points. This scintillating form was carried over into the following week's encounter with Sydney, which the Demons won 21.23 (149) to 10.13 (73), and suddenly the team was on the threshold of a grand final appearance.
If Lady Luck had been on Melbourne's side in 1964, she more than made up for it twenty-three years on when, on preliminary final day, she undertook the most callous and unseemly act of desertion. With Melbourne, having outplayed Hawthorn for most of the day, still in front by four points as the final siren loomed, Hawk half forward Gary Buckenara was awarded a free kick at just about the limit of his kicking range. Then, in a nightmare sequence that was to rewind and replay in slow motion in the minds of every Dees supporter for years to come, Melbourne's gangly and inexperienced but highly talented Irish recruit, Jim Stynes, transgressed Buckenara's mark in endeavouring to keep tabs on an opponent. Umpire Howlett blew his whistle to award a fifteen metre penalty. The siren sounded. Buckenara goaled. A dream ended. The demons went one better the next year but were dealt a fearful mauling by an all-powerful Hawthorn line-up, 96 points the final margin.
It is hard to imagine any player doing more to erase the memory of such a cataclysmic blunder than Jim Stynes did over the ensuing decade. Despite never having played Australian football until he was nearly eighteen years of age, Stynes not only won the 1991 Brownlow Medal and four club champion awards and represented Victoria several times, he was also a significant source of inspiration and encouragement o those around him, as well contributing enormously in indefinable, incalculable ways to the culture and ethos of the club he grew to love and, to a certain extent, personify. Nevertheless, in common with other noteworthy Demons players like Stan Alves, Gary Hardeman, Robbie Flower, Laurie Fowler, and Greg Wells from the 1970s, and Brian Wilson, Steven Stretch, Greg Healy, Garry Lyon and Todd Viney from the 80s and 90s, he never once experienced the ultimate - participation in a premiership victory - as a footballer.
Stynes did at least taste some finals success, with Melbourne being a regular September participant in the years 1987 to 1994, under successive coaches John Northey and Neil Balme, but it still was not enough to stave off threats to the club's very existence. In 1996 Melbourne came close to a merger with Hawthorn, and although this dire - for both parties - fate was ultimately averted at the eleventh hour (although the Demons members did, in fact, vote 'yes' to the proposed move), the threat of amalgamation or extinction remains very real for almost every Victorian AFL club. Not even consistent success on the field affords immunity, as North Melbourne have comparatively recently discovered.
A finals appearance in 1998 under the guidance of Neale Daniher followed, but it was a powerful late season surge to the 2000 grand final that most fostered the hopes of long suffering Demon fans. Though their team fell short that day to a rampaging Essendon outfit, most Demon fans believed that a new era of success was just around the corner. However, despite finals appearances in 2002 and again between 2004 and 2006, the performance of the club fell short of expectations. Frustrations were further exacerbated over ensuing seasons as the club struggled on and off the field to achieve the degree of stability required to play finals football, let alone hold the premiership cup aloft, although it is worth noting that in 2017 finals football was only narrowly missed. Then, in 2018 the side finally gave indications that the corner had been turned, as finals qualification was procured, and although the Demons ultimately fell at the penultimate hurdle there could be no denying that the team bore many of the hallmarks of potential premiers. Whether or not they prove capable of justifying this assessment is of course uncertain, but it seems inordinately probable that Demons fans are in for a much more engaging and rewarding few years than they have experienced for nigh on two decades.
Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from australianfootball.com writers.