Part 2 – A war of attrition
Just as football scaled new heights the onset of World War 2 stopped the game in its tracks.
Footballers were lost to the war effort and crowds plummeted. By the depths of 1942 the average attendance dropped below 10,000 for the first and only time on record. There was some level of guilt shrouding players and supporters partaking in such a comparatively frivolous exercise, though an alternate point of view (supported by former PM Robert Menzies) was that footy served a valuable psychological and social purpose, in addition to contributing money for patriotic funds.
“The public will say so through the turnstiles; till they do footy should go on… As soon as the game interferes with the application of war needs then the game must go… after all, football is of small moment”.
Hec De Lacy, The Globe
League clubs also battled with their VFA counterparts who sought to woo talent. After five grand finals in a row Collingwood’s fortunes nose dived and losing champions Todd and Fothergill to Williamstown hardly helped. South’s bubble had already burst a couple years earlier with mass player defections, including Laurie Nash to VFA club Camberwell (which also offered big dollars for Regan and Dyer). The Bombers lost Freyer and Lahiff to Port Melbourne.
At least these clubs could still field teams. Having moved from Corio Oval to Kardinia Park in 1941, Geelong were forced to withdraw their troops the following year and 1943 due to travel restrictions and a lack of players.
Interstate games and the Brownlow Medal were also suspended between 1942-45. Meanwhile, the MCG, St Kilda, South Melbourne and Footscray grounds became service camps or depots. Prime Minister John Curtin (a former Brunswick player) was reported as saying big football was undesirable in the midst of world crisis.
Under Frank ‘Checker’ Hughes Melbourne enjoyed their first great run, winning three on the trot between 1939-41. Richmond and Fitzroy tasted brief success but for the rest of the 1940’s it would essentially be the Demons, Blues and Bombers jousting for the pennant.
Bizarrely, the onset of world peace brought about the onset of shameful local hostilities. The 1945 Preliminary and Grand Finals involving Collingwood, Carlton and South were two of the most violent games in League history. The ‘Bloodbath’ Grand Final saw 10 players reported and six suspended for periods ranging from 8 matches to 12 months. The following year another game at Princes Park required police to stop a potential melee when two North players jumped the fence to silence hecklers!
Just 1min 14sec of 1945 Bloodbath footage survives – perhaps a good thing…
Scoring atrophied during the 1940’s. Suddenly 60-80 goals a season was enough to top the goalkickers table and team score averages gradually declined from the low 90’s to the low 80’s per game. Fred Fanning was one of few spearheads to buck the trend, famously notching an unsurpassed 18 goals in his final VFL match, and a personal best season tally of 97. Like a number of stars during the 1940’s and 1950’s, Fanning’s priority was supporting himself and/or his family. Country club Hamilton paid Fanning three times his salary at Melbourne and at his peak he was gone.
On the positive side, when the war was over crowds quickly recovered. In fact by 1946 average attendances hit 20,000 for the first time in more than 20 years. The competition also benefited from a sense of uncertainty; five different clubs sharing the spoils between 1943 – 1948.
As the after effects of the war slowly dissipated, the period concluded with two nail biting finales. With 40 seconds remaining Fred Stafford’s goal snatched the flag for the Blues over the Bombers in 1947. Essendon’s one point loss was galling for the 9 extra scoring shots frittered away. Worse again, the Bombers had 15 more shots than the Demons in the following year’s decider yet only managed a draw. Demoralised, Essendon were no match for Melbourne in the replay with the game over at quarter time.
As for the general standard of war era footy, players the calibre of Reynolds, Norm Smith, Foote, Richards, Hughson Beames and Pannam no doubt shone like beacons amid the sub-standard footballers required to fill the breach. Not that the scant, average quality newsreel footage gives much away. Full backs predictably waited until the ruckman presented as the target, however kicking at least improved with Jack Dyer introducing the drop punt. The game was undoubtedly much slower. Given the lack of running capacity with brief pre-seasons and training that often entailed little more than kick-to-kick, positional play had to be the order of the day.
Yet, as unsophisticated as that all sounds, frantic rolling mauls and 36 players flooding one third of the ground isn’t exactly progress either. Perhaps the war era wasn’t so bad after all.
Part 3: Safe at home, and away (1949-1959)
The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)