A Dick, but time to forgive

As published by The Sunday Age, 20 May 2012

MOSTLY I find reality TV as desirable as an expired egg flip Big M, but I must confess Celebrity Apprentice suckered me in. Good old Jason Akermanis provided the show’s wackiest moment, taking great exception to being fired on the basis he was, God forbid, ”a maverick”. Hilariously, his subsequent tantrum instantaneously demonstrated the reason why he was purged.

The episode had me wondering if – since Aka’s equally petulant departure from the Bulldogs – we’ve seen the last of the AFL’s high risk/high reward players.

Akermanis has a remarkable knack for grabbing headlines and his most recent cameo for the Murray Magpies was no exception. Aka in black and white stripes would have most Collingwood fans gagging, but it cast my mind to a kindred spirit, one of Australian rules’ original headline acts.

Born 100 years prior to Akermanis, Dick Condon was also a maverick – a complex enigma who likewise played in three premierships and won a Champion of the Colony (precursor to the Brownlow). And like Aka, Condon’s standing at the club where he delivered the goods appears irrevocably stained. Condon remains Collingwood’s only 10-year-player never to be made a life member.

The trademarks of the ”Collingwood six-footer” were high marking, twisting in the air and hitting the ground running towards goal, then unheard of ambidextrous disposal by hand and foot, and a cunning bag of tricks that would extricate Condon from the heaviest traffic. Precious few boasted such skill around the turn of the 20th century.

Condon was a leader and a teacher yet was also labelled a selfish individualist. Ironically, Condon was the architect of a fundamentally team-orientated initiative, the significance of which has been somewhat lost in the passage of time.

It’s said that Australian rules progressed little as a spectacle over the initial 40 years. In fact, it was so slow and pack bound that players occasionally sat down to rest when the ball was up the other end. At an exhibition game against Tasmania on a frigid Launceston afternoon in July 1902, the Collingwood innovator and provocateur’s playful experimentation induced a great leap forward that long predated Polly Farmer’s or Ron Barassi’s influence on the modern game.

So undermanned were the Tasmanian opposition that tricky Dicky began toying with them, chipping the new, blunter Sherrin Match II ball over their heads. After a rough return voyage across Bass Strait, followed by a long train journey to Geelong for their next encounter, the low mid-distance kick was employed to devastating effect by Condon and his teammates. The Magpies lost just one more game before taking the 1902 flag.

Condon’s dinky stab kicks revolutionised football, prompting running to create a loose man, positional play and deft kicking skills. With superior fitness to boot, Collingwood backed up with another premiership in 1903.

Had Condon not wrecked his knee in the first quarter of the 1905 grand final, the Magpies would probably have won another. Gradually, the better clubs adopted similar tactics. No longer did brute force alone win the day; Condon was said to have introduced ”science” to the game.

Volatility has long been a side-effect of sporting genius and this was Condon’s affliction. Two weeks after trying to lead his team off the field in a protest against the umpire in a round-robin final against Geelong in 1900, Condon equated the performance of Ivo Crapp, the league’s most experienced official, with his unfortunate surname. After repeated warnings, Condon earned a life ban for his response to a tripping free – the infamous “your girl’s a bloody whore!” tirade.

A newspaper article observed that Condon would now be able to “spend the rest of his days thinking about the joy and glory of his lost future in the game” and that “Collingwood has turned away from him”.

Indeed the Magpies waited 18 months before supporting a successful appeal. The league’s rare generosity not only reunited Collingwood with its star but enabled Condon to improve the sport and usher in a mini-era of success.

Condon’s penchant for trouble also included refusing to wear the customary lace up jumper, fighting with his ruckman at three-quarter-time and a club-imposed suspension (when playing coach) for causing player dissension.

A 1905 newspaper report, referring to “that fiery football genius Dick Condon”, described his coaching as a “combination of brimstone oratory and skilful tactics”. The next year his relationship with captain Alf ”Rosie” Dummett deteriorated and Condon’s days at Victoria Park were numbered.

Between leaving Collingwood and his final insult, joining Richmond without a clearance, Condon spent a year in Hobart umpiring.

Decades after the acrimony, Condon was still revered by legendary Magpies Jock McHale and Bill Strickland. Both rated him the greatest player they’d seen.

And so again to the matter of Collingwood life membership. Of the dozens of recipients there’s many fine (barely recognisable) servants interspersed with household names, plus flag fortunate players such as Leigh Brown with just a few years service. By comparison, Condon achieved more than most. He even changed the game.

Condon may have been abrasive but nothing on his rap sheet stacks up as a hanging offence. He hated losing and possibly lacked patience for teammates without his prodigious talent. Does all that sound familiar?

* Note: Dick Condon was awarded life membership at the Collingwood AGM in February 2013, inducted along with Phil Carman, Josh Fraser and Chris Tarrant. Condon’s posthumous recognition was accepted at the MCG by grandnephew Bob Condon.


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