Part 5 – Rocking the suburbs
Robbie McGhee was only doing what came naturally to many a footballer after the 1973 Grand Final when he sucked on a tinnie and lit up a smoke, resplendent in his lace-up guernsey and old school tatts. The Tiger hard man wouldn’t have dreamed he’d be immortalised by the late, great Rennie Ellis as a poster boy for a time renowned for political incorrectness.
Out in the far eastern wilderness the futuristic VFL Park was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1970 but the competition was more vice than regal. Biffo, booze filled eskies, cheer squad fires, plastic numbers, plastic boots, standing room only and a Carlton / Richmond / North / Hawthorn hegemony epitomised a game that, like society, finally broke the shackles of conservatism.
Bigger, better, fitter players coached to engage their brains as well as brawn improved the spectacle, as did the long awaited Second Coming of the full forward. Aided by a liberal interpretation of what constituted a mark and fed by skilful onballers, Jezza, Huddo, Macca and Wade regularly booted individual tallies that would have won games in the early ‘Sixties. Even a rover (Leigh Matthews) kicked 11 in a game in 1973 – incomprehensible today. Meanwhile, lesser lights Geoff Blethyn and Larry Donohue topped the magical ton.
Blight’s after the siren winning torp in ’76 will never be topped…
The overall escalation in goals from 1967 onwards was actually era defining. Come ’69 teams had never scored so freely. Average totals skyrocketed from 82 to 97 points per team per game in direct correlation to the out on the full rule removing the backmen’s get out of jail free card. Scores remained in the low to mid 90’s region with the game’s openness reinforced by the introduction of the centre diamond in 1973 (which became a square in 1975).
Country zoning, introduced in 1967, would impart severe ramifications through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Had the disparate zones been rotated, as per the original intention, more than five of the twelve clubs would surely have flagged between its introduction and the end of its impact in 1989. By comparison nine clubs contested Grand Finals between 1961 and 1967 with six different winners.
“No coach has won a premiership with poor players. Hawthorn was very fortunate, they had a very good county zone and I got the benefit out of it.”
– Allan Jeans
Clubs became more adventurous and aggressive in recruiting players from near and afar. At the same time footballers began to realise their worth, and it was considerably more than 15% of the average wage. Collingwood’s Len Thompson and Des Tuddenham, in addition to five Essendon players went on strike over pay conditions in the 1970 preseason. Having meekly abandoned an attempt to form a representative body back in 1955 (under pressure from the League), the VFL Players Association was formed in late 1973.
Attendances between 1967-76 hovered around the 23-25,000 per game mark. Aided by Collingwood, Richmond and Carlton regularly crossing paths in finals, the MCG’s new Ponsford Stand and questionable public safety standards, the five largest crowds in League history (and 14 of the top 20) occurred in this period. Interestingly, the advent of VFL Park failed to have an impact on overall numbers, perhaps owing to the location and lack of fixturing intent.
“There’s no denying the fact that the commercial side of football has now developed into a big business”
– Football Life, 1971
Despite television’s exposure of the game and influx of corporate dollars, essentially the competition remained a glorified suburban league. Players enjoyed their privacy, trained twice a week, held down jobs and drank and smoked pretty much as they pleased. Instructively there was less evidence of players losing the plot in end of season drug or alcohol binges. If they did, well it wasn’t perceived as being in the public interest to report. Players were idolised, none more so than Peter McKenna who managed to score a few hits in between a mountain of goals.
Where players did lose the plot was on the field.
Games may have been televised for replay purposes however the quality of coverage and inability to sanction behind play thuggery led to some truly shocking acts by today’s standards. White line fever had Carlton and Collingwood players in its thrall at Princes Park in 1968. Tragically, a star of that game and many others, John Greening, almost lost his life four years later at Moorabbin owing to a cowardly king hit by Jim O’Dea. Nor was it the Age of Aquarius according to Leigh Matthews, if his near-lethal hit on AFL Legend Barry Cable in a 1971 state game was a guide. The Hawks-Saints Grand Final the same year was no place for the feint hearted either, nor was the 1973 decider between the Tigers and the Blues when Neil Balme and Laurie Fowler ran amok. Then there was the infamous Windy Hill brawl of 1974.
The weekly brawls got to the stage where Ron Barassi called a meeting of coaches in 1975 to discuss the game’s violent image. It was decided the game was too fast to be as rough as it used to be. As an extension of that contention, two field umpires were used for the first time in 1976.
Other lowlights of the period included John Coleman’s sudden death at 44, Robert Rose and Neil Sachse‘s life changing, career ending accidents and the loss of Hawthorn champion Peter Crimmins to cancer, who hung on just long enough to see his teammates win the flag for him in 1976.
In ’75 the volatile Phil Carman dominated his first year as few players ever have.
Besides the drama of Carlton’s famous 1970 comeback triumph over Collingwood in front of over 120,000 stunned fans, the most emotional flag of the era was North’s breakthrough after 52 years of trying. Wooden spooners in 1972, a startling ascension was powered by super coach Ron Barassi and a star studded line-up assembled with the aid of the short-lived 10 Year Rule. North played the other clubs on a break. Knowing the likely outcome and having already spoken to players, it was the only club to vote against the rule (to throw other clubs off the scent).
The same year ‘Seventies fashionista Ron Barassi claimed the Kangas’ first cup, the advent of colour TV in 1975 spawned another beautiful thing when Richmond and Fitzroy stunned sensitive retinas with bright yellow shorts. Meanwhile Footscray and Essendon took the field resplendent in red knicks. How could something so wrong seem so right?
That was this (mostly) wonderful era in a nutshell.
1967 Richmond v Geelong Grand Final
1968 Carlton v Essendon Grand Final
1969 Richmond v Carlton Grand Final
1970 Carlton v Collingwood Grand Final 1970 season highlights
1971 Hawthorn v St Kilda Grand Final 1971 season highlights
1972 Carlton v Richmond Grand Final 1972 season highlights
1973 Richmond v Carlton Grand Final 1973 season highlights
1974 Richmond v North Melb. Grand Final 1974 season highlights
1975 North Melb. v Hawthorn Grand Final 1975 season highlights
1976 Hawthorn v North Melb. Grand Final 1976 season highlights
Part 6: Castles made of sand (1977-1986)