Era, era on the wall; 1949 – 1959

Part 3 – Safe at home, and away

Just when the spectacle needed a lift, along came the high flying John Coleman, aided and abetted by the Bombers’ game changing mosquito fleet.  Awe-struck spectators would move up and down the ground to the end Essendon was kicking.  Even my father, a one-eyed ‘Pie, marked in his school diary how many goals Coleman kicked each week.

Supported by the likes of Dick Reynolds and Percy Bentley, the Sporting Globe‘s Hec De Lacy wrote in 1951 that football was ‘in its cleverest, its greatest era’.  He added ‘this is the day of the mobile opportunist’.  It was said the League had the VFA to thank for pioneering rules adopted to encourage a free-flowing, quicker tempo.  Allowing throws masquerading as handpasses was one of them.

After a long and direct kicking Geelong overtook Essendon for pace and began initiating their attacks from half back, Melbourne perfected the bold new style by adding more vigour to the mix (according to 1953 premiership captain Lou Richards).

The ‘Fifties was largely a one-horse race though. After Essendon, Geelong and Footscray’s one-and-only, Melbourne’s domination was only ever threatened by Collingwood.

“A car in every garage, a Victa mower for every lawn, and the house and garden on the quarter acre block – the great Australian dream began to be the statistical reality.”
– Sandercock & Turner, 1980

Whilst European migrants began flowing through Essendon Airport in great numbers, it was some time before they were made to feel as welcome at or on the suburban battlefields.  And battlefields is an apt summation; the press regularly reported scenes of crowds mobbing umpires and spectators invading the field to have a crack at players.

Not all fans came to see a blue.  Footballers the caliber of Hutchison, Barassi, Bob Davis, Merrett, and Bob Rose emerged out of the suburban quagmires as stars of the day, coming into their own when the grounds dried and their teams needed their skill and dash most in September.  They had to keep their wits about them though, lest their wings were clipped by ‘knucklemen’ deployed to curtail them.  Roy Wright, Whitten, Weideman and ‘Mopsy’ Fraser were feared footballers of their generation.

Interestingly, there was hand wringing over the game’s failure to make headway in Sydney and Brisbane as far back as the mid 1950’s.  In a time cherished by political conservatives, football’s similar reluctance to embrace any change was lamented by pre-eminent writers such as Hec De Lacy who said the game was ‘run like a penny dip’ without the slightest regard for the comfort of patrons.  He also lamented the League’s non-efforts to sell the game and their lack of flair for promotion.

‘The desires of the public are not being studied.”
Hec de Lacy, Sporting Globe, 1951 

According to John Ross (100 Years of Australian Football) ‘it was in the shoulder to shoulder crush of the terraces that trouble could occur, on those slippery mud and blue metal slopes. Here the beer was consumed in unfettered quantities and the language was lewd, profane and scatological.’

And ‘down the back were the ‘amenities’, dark and evil structures which were positive sink holes of humanity on match days, when the distended bladders of the masses sought relief.’

“The bars were a nightmare of congestion; glasses were dipped in a bucket of dirty water and retained the froth on the sides from the previous drinker.”

In fact a Sporting Globe investigation called for action before the squalid and unhygienic conditions caused an outbreak of illness.

Yet the punters still came in droves. Average crowds in the low 20,000’s stand up well considering Melbourne’s population at the time of the 1956 Olympic Games was just 1.5 million (a third of today).  A Queen’s Birthday crowd of 99,348 for Collingwood and Melbourne in 1958 was nothing short of extraordinary.  Come finals time the MCG would burst at the seams.  Huge numbers regularly sat on the field between the boundary line and the old picket fence that otherwise threatened to impale players and over exuberant spectators (OH&S in the ‘Fifties? Pfffft!).

The League needed its own ground for only a small percentage of the revenue generated come finals time made it into the VFL’s coffers.  Similarly, most clubs were on a sticky wicket in their dealings with their cricketing co-tenants and local councils.

For all its quaint familiarities and popularity, football had issues to resolve.  But League 2IC Kenneth Luke was an energetic mover and shaker who began espousing a grand plan as early as 1954 (more on that later).

Video links
1949 Essendon v Carlton Grand Final
1950 Essendon v North Melbourne Grand Final
1951 Geelong v Essendon Grand Final
1953 Collingwood v Geelong Grand Final
1954 Footscray v Melbourne Grand Final
1956 VAFA v VFL/VFA Olympic exhibition match
1958 Collingwood v Melbourne Grand Final

In pictures

3 balls

Part 4: A popular routine (1960-1966)

The story so far
Part 1: Well oiled machines (1925-1938)
Part 2: A war of attrition (1939-1948)



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