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WANFL: Redlegs End Long Premiership Drought

If you were to open up the average Perth supporter surgically you would almost certainly find the year '1955' inscribed indelibly on the heart. In what was champion ruckman Merv McIntosh's last league season the Redlegs treated a record grand final crowd to one of the most stirring comebacks in football history when they defeated East Fremantle by 2 points after trailing 2.2 (14) to 8.5 (53) at half time. Ruckman Tom Davis, who was resting in the forward pocket at the time, got the goal which gave Perth the lead with seven minutes left to play. Amazingly, this proved to be the last score of the game.  With Merv McIntosh continuing to dominate in the air, and all bar half a dozen of the Perth players “flooding defensive fifty” (to appropriate modern parlance), East Fremantle, despite monopolising possession, proved incapable of getting close to goal. During the final minute of the game the Redlegs played classic defensive football, with man of the moment McIntosh thumping the ball over the members' stand boundary line on no fewer than seven occasions. The siren sounded and, miraculously, Perth had outscored East Fremantle for the quarter by 4 points kicking against a breeze which, prior to the last term, had permitted only 2 goals to be kicked into it. More to the point, the archetypal “gentle giant” of Western Australian football has, at long last, been rewarded with the pinnacle of achievement for an Australian footballer, a premiership. Members of the crowd surge onto Subiaco Oval, but Merv McIntosh's distinctive grey head is clearly visible amidst the swaying sea of bodies. It is an image which will endure long in the minds of many of the spectators fortunate enough to have attended one of the most dramatic matches in Australian football history. 

East Fremantle finished the minor round in second place with 16 wins and 4 defeats, behind minor premiers South Fremantle on percentage. They then accounted for South in the second semi final by 19 points, 14.10 (94) to 11.9 (75). This put them in pole position to claim their first flag since 1946 but Big Merv’s Perth had other ideas.

After topping the ladder South Fremantle were many people’s favourites to take home the premiership. However, they underperformed badly in the finals and bowed out of contention in straight sets. The second semi final loss to East Fremantle is alluded to above. South then went into the preliminary final clash with Perth in confident frame of mind given that they had thrashed the Redlegs by 7 goals in round nineteen. However, thanks largely to their dominance in the ruck Perth ran rings around South for the first three quarters by which time they had established a lead of 44 points. To their credit, South did not throw in the towel, and a rousing last quarter performance got them within a couple of goals at the end. 

Few players have exploded onto the football scene as sensationally as did John Todd in 1955 when, as a seventeen year old, he not only represented the state and won South Fremantle's fairest and best award, he became the youngest ever winner of the Sandover Medal. South Australian legend Bob Quinn, after witnessing Todd's debut at interstate level against South Australia, ventured the opinion that the youngster "was the most complete footballer for his age that he had seen”.[6]

Todd sustained a serious knee injury against East Perth in round 7 1956.  The road to recovery was long and hard, but after several aborted comeback attempts he finally returned to something approaching his best late in the 1958 season, a year which saw him again receive the red and whites' premier individual award.  The following year, aged just twenty-one, he took over as South Fremantle coach, but stood down after just one year.  He would later eke out a reputation for himself as one of West Australian football's finest ever coaches.

Injuries continued to beset Todd for most of the remaining half a dozen seasons of his career (he stood out of football completely in 1965).  In 1961, however, he enjoyed a comparatively injury free run, and 3 of his 13 interstate appearances for WA were at that year's Brisbane carnival, from which the sandgropers emerged victorious. Todd's excellent form during the carnival, in which he played mostly on the wing, was rewarded with All Australian selection. He rounded the season off in gratifying fashion by winning his third South Fremantle best and fairest award.  

But for injury, John Todd would surely have achieved much more as a player, and indeed might even have managed to fulfill his childhood ambition of becoming "the greatest footballer ever". Nevertheless, he accomplished more in 132 league games than many players do in twice that number, and his accomplishments did not end when he retired as a player.  As a coach he enjoyed premiership success with East Fremantle in 1974 as well as with a superb Swan Districts combination every year between 1982 and 1984.  A regular and highly successful West Australian interstate and state of origin coach, he also coached Australian international rules sides in the mid-1980s.  In 1988, fittingly for someone so publicly proud of his West Australian heritage, he became the first West Coast coach to get the Eagles into the VFL finals.

When John Todd finally retired as a coach in 2002 he had overseen a West Australian league record 721 games, and masterminded half a dozen premierships, besides becoming a veritable legend of the game at two clubs.  He also held the unique distinction of having been both the youngest (twenty-one) and oldest (sixty-two) senior coach in WAFL history.

The WAFL competition in 1955 was extremely lop-sided. Fourth placed West Perth won 13 and lost 7 matches, while fifth placed East Perth won half a dozen games fewer. The Cardinals were no match for Perth in the first semi final, losing by 22 points. Full forward Ray Scott booted 83 goals to top the league list for the second time, the first having been in 1951. He is profiled in the review of that year.

East Perth were on the cusp of their greatest era since the 1920s but you would be hard pressed to infer this from their form in 1955. The Royals lost the opening 5 games of the season before breaking through in round six with a win over Subiaco. Their best performance of the season came in round ten when they defeated Perth at the WACA by 18 points. 

Sixth placed Swan Districts and seventh placed Claremont both won 5 games. Swans managed to beat West Perth in round six as well as win all 3 clashes for the season against East Perth. However, both sides also suffered a proliferation of heavy defeats.

The same could be said of wooden spooners Subiaco, who won just 4 matches. The Maroons endured a particularly hard time when faced by South Fremantle who won by 83 points in round five and 95 points in round twelve.

A Review of the 1955 Football Season

VFL: A Game of Guts

Since world war two, the speed at which top level football was played had increased appreciably. 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”,[1] 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.[2]  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.  [3]

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,[4] 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 ten 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”.[5]

Collingwood won 14 of their 18 home and away matches to qualify for the finals in second place, 4 points behind ladder leaders Melbourne, and ahead of third placed Geelong on percentage. The Magpies’ second semi final clash with the Demons was an archetypal war of attrition, with the latter just holding on in a last quarter that produced only one goal and two behinds. A week later Colliongwood accounted for Geelong in the preliminary final by 12 points, having led all the way. Final scores were Collingwood 14.12 (96) to Geelong 13.6 (84). The grand final re-match with Melbourne was inordinately disappointing from a Collingwood perspective as for much of the match they looked eminently capable of winning before falling in a hole during a final term which saw the Demons add 4 goals to 1 to win “pulling away”.

Geelong’s golden era of the early 1950s was over but the Cats remained arguably the most eye catching team in the VFL, as well as, on their day, a force to be reckoned with. They proved this by accounting for Melbourne at Kardinia Park in round thirteen in what was the two clubs’ only clash of the season. The one team which repeatedly proved to have Geelong’s measure, however, was Collingwood, and perhaps predictably it was the Magpies who ended the Cats’ premiership challenge at the preliminary final stage. Two weeks earlier Geelong had held off a fast finishing Essendon side to win the first semi final by 8 points, 9.7 (61) to 7.11 (53). Full forward Noel Rayson was the league’s top goal kicker in 1955 with 80 goals. Recruited locally in 1950, Rayson found it hard at first to break into the powerful Cats line-up. He first became a regular in 1953 and went on to play a total of 95 VFL games, kicking 210 goals, before crossing to South Melbourne in 1958. He played 12 games and kicked 18 goals in just under two seasons with South. During his time with Geelong he twice topped the club’s goal kicking list and was also twice selected to represent the VFL.

The Bombers qualified for the finals in fourth place, ahead of Footscray on percentage. Both sides won 12 games. Essendon made some people sit up and take notice when they thrashed Collingwood by 73 points in the second to last minor round match of the season. Another big win, this time against Hawthorn, in round eighteen prompted some to nominate the Bombers as realistic premiership hopefuls. However, in the first semi final clash with Geelong they underperformed badly in the first three quarters leaving them with too much to do in the final stanza. Essendon were definitely a team on an upward trajectory though.

Reigning premiers Footscray on the other hand were in decline, although for the time being they remained competitive. In hindsight, the result which arguably cost the Bulldogs a berth in the finals was their round fifteen loss to Essendon, the team which ultimately edged them out of the four.

Richmond finished the minor round as the competition’s form team, winning their last 6 matches. However, their form earlier in the season had been execrable, and their overall tally of 9 wins was only good enough for sixth place on the premiership ladder. 

Carlton also won 9 matches to finish seventh. The Blues normally managed to win their matches against lower ranking teams but tended to look out of their depth when facing the top four.

Eighth placed Hawthorn had a mediocre season which yielded just 8 wins. The Hawks were fairly strong at their home ground of Glenferrie but managed only 2 wins on their travels. At their best they were a match for the top sides as they proved with victories during the season against Collingwood and Essendon. However, they also succumbed to some hefty defeats.

Fitzroy won half a dozen matches to finish ninth. They produced sporadic bursts of good football but lacked the strength in depth of the top sides.

The highlight of tenth placed South Melbourne’s season was full back Fred Goldsmith’s feat in winning the Brownlow Medal. After struggling to make the grade as a half forward flanker, Goldsmith, who hailed from Spotswood, found an unexpected niche at full back midway through his second VFL season (1952).  From that point on, he never looked back, and his status among the greats of the game was emphasised with that 1955 Brownlow. He was the first full back to win the award.  Spectacular overhead and difficult to beat on the ground, Goldsmith also boasted the trademark full back's penchant for prodigious, accurate kicking. Later in his VFL career, he returned to the forward lines to good effect.  After 119 VFL games and 107 goals for South from 1951 to 1959 Goldsmith joined Ovens and Murray Football League side Albury as captain-coach, remaining there for seven seasons.  He returned to the city with Port Melbourne in 1966 - the very season, ironically, that Albury managed to secure its first flag in a decade - but added just 9 VFA games to his tally. 

North Melbourne and St Kilda, who managed 3 and 1 wins respectively, were little more than cannon fodder for the other ten clubs in the league. The Saints were particularly woeful, scoring just 861 points for the season and finishing with the miserly percentage of 45.4.

SANFL: Magpies Show Their Might

With the exception of South Adelaide, who managed just 2 wins for the season to finish a distant last, the 1955 SANFL competition was fairly evenly contested. Port Adelaide, with a 13-4 record, headed the ladder going into the finals, but they were not always particularly convincing. The second semi final reinforced the notion that the Magpies could be vulnerable as they were overrun in the final term by Norwood who transformed a 4 point three quarter time deficit into victory by 4 goals. In the preliminary final Port faced Sturt and managed to do just enough to win without appearing at all impressive. Scores were Port Adelaide 12.10 (82); Sturt 9.8 (62).

Watched by a grand final crowd of 44,826 the Magpies turned on the style in the final term to overwhelm the Redlegs. At three quarter time the margin in Port’s favour was just 17 points but they made light of the soggy ground conditions to add 8 last quarter goals to 1 to win convincingly. Final scores were Port 15.11 (101) to Norwood 5.8 (38), a margin of 63 points. Magpie captain coach Fos Williams was best afield.

Norwood had entered the grand final as favourites but they wilted under the intensity of the pressure applied by Port. The Redlegs had qualified for the finals with 11 wins and a draw from their 17 minor round matches. They were particularly impressive during the middle of the season and at one stage put together a sequence of 6 successive victories. They tuned up for the finals with wins over Glenelg and Sturt and continued their good form in the second semi final. It is premierships that people remember, however, and on grand final day the Redlegs simply failed to do themselves justice.

Sturt qualified for the finals in fourth place, having edged out North Adelaide on percentage. They then accounted for favourites West Torrens in the second semi final, winning in the end by 19 points after scores were tied at the last change. In the preliminary final against Port they battled hard but trailed at every change en route to an eventual 20 point loss. Sturt’s revival this year might be argued to have been good for the SANFL as the Double Blues, when doing well, always attracted large crowds to their matches. Sturt full forward Paul Caust booted 57 goals for the year to top the SANFL’s goal kicking list.

West Torrens had a typically solid season before falling by the wayside in the first week of the finals. Centreman Lindsay Head was a shining light for the Eagles, winning the Magarey Medal with 20 votes, 1 more than Sturt’s John Halbert. Head was arguably one of the Australian code's most skilful and intelligent players.  Not that he lacked either courage or competitiveness - players simply do not rack up the number of decisive, clean possessions Head did without such qualities; it was just that he seemed to  perform almost every action on the football field with such smooth panache and effortless artistry that at times it was as though he was on a different plane from everyone else. That said, he could never truly be called a two-sided player, preferring to resort to a variation of the check side kick when caught on the wrong foot; however, such was Head's artistry and dedication to practice that he was able to perform this kick with exquisite accuracy time and time again.

An ardent traditionalist, Head refused numerous offers to move to Victoria to play.  His loyalty to West Torrens is all the more remarkable when you consider that, after playing in a premiership side in only his second ever season, Head never again even went remotely close to a flag. On the personal front, however, he did win the club best and fairest award on a remarkable eight occasions, kicked more than 500 career goals, and represented South Australia no fewer than 37 times. He also won the Advertiser Trophy on three occasions, the News-Ampol Trophy twice, and was voted ADS7 Footballer of the Year in 1962.

North Adelaide were a trifle unfortunate to miss out on finals participation. Going into their final minor round match they needed to defeat West Torrens by a hefty margin whilst hoping that their rivals for fourth place, Sturt, lost to Norwood. In the event the Redlegs obliged by downing the Double Blues but the Roosters’ 3 point victory margin over Torrens was insufficient for them to overtake Sturt on percentage.

Glenelg and West Adelaide both won 7 games to finish sixth and seventh repectively. The Bays included victories over Port Adelaide and Sturt among their successes while West defeated Norwood twice, Sturt and Port.

For cellar dwellers South Adelaide it was another bleak season with their only wins coming at the expense of North Adelaide in round eight and Glenelg in round nine.


Other Highlights

The VFL continued to dominate the interstate scene thanks to wins over Western Australia in Perth (6.18 to 3.7) and South Australia in Adelaide (15.11 to 9.10). 

The South Australians had marginally the better of things in their three encounters with Western Australia, winning by 9 points in Adelaide, losing the first of two matches in Perth by 10 points, and emerging victorious by 3 points from the second Perth encounter.

Tasmania travelled to both Canberra and Sydney in 1955. They downed Canberra by 78 points and New South Wales by 90 points, emphatically reaffirming their status as a section one state.

The only other interstate match in 1955 was played in Brisbane between Queensland and New South Wales. It was a high scoring affair, with victory eventually going to the visitors by 13 points, 21.15 (141) to 19.14 (128).

The TANFL provided an absorbing tussle for the premiership which attracted near record crowds. In the grand final New Town overcame Hobart by 35 points, 15.11 (101) to 8.18 (66). Sandy Bay finished third and North Hobart fourth. The state premiership went to Ulverstone who overcame both Sandy Bay and Longford to become the first NWFU team to claim the title.

In the VFA grand final Williamstown scored a highly impressive come from behind win over Port Melbourne. At quarter time the Seagulls trailed by 36 points and shortly after the resumption the Borough increased the margin to 43 points. Port still held a 25 point advantage at the last change but Williamstown came surging back in the final term, adding 6.6 to 1.2 to emerge victorious by 9 points. The grand final attracted a crowd estimated to be in the region of 30,000 to the Junction Oval. Preston were the beaten preliminary finalists while Moorabbin finished fourth for the second consecutive season.

In the NSWANFL Eastern Suburbs won their third successive premiership with a 38 point grand final defeat of North Shore. Newtown and Western Suburbs were the other finalists.

Wilston Grange claimed the QANFL flag thanks to a 28 point grand final defeat of Kedron.

Premiers in the CANFL were Manuka who downed Queanbeyan-Acton in the grand final. The combine were endeavouring to win their third straight flag. Third place went to Eastlake with RMC fourth.

In Darwin, St Marys won the NTFL premiership in only their third season in the competition. Opposed by Buffaloes in the grand final they won convincingly by 5 goals straight. Waratahs were third and Works and Housing fourth.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Quoted in, among other sources, Up Where Cazaly? The Great Australian Game by Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner, pages 222-3.

[2] This is at best an over-simplification, but more likely than not it is simply untrue.  At Port Adelaide, for example, Alan "Bull" Reval played essentially the same role as Barassi some twenty years earlier.  See, for example, 100 Years With The Magpies: The History Of The Port Adelaide Football Club 1870-1970 by Bob McLean, pages 25-6.  The automatic assumption made by many football historians that major innovations in playing style could only feasibly be expected to occur in the VFL is tantamount to revisionism, and is to their, and the game's, enormous discredit.

[3] Barassi: The Life Behind The Legend by Ron Barassi and Peter McFarline, page 32.

[4] Ibid, page 27.

[5] 100 Years Of Football: The Story Of The Melbourne Football Club 1858-1958  by E.C.H.Taylor, page 87.

[6] Football Greats of Western Australia Volume One by Anthony James, page 62.


Grand final results - VFL: Melbourne 8.16 (64) d. Collingwood 5.6 (36); SANFL: Port Adelaide 15.11 (101) d. Norwood 5.8 (38); WANFL: Perth 11.11 (77) d. East Fremantle 11.9 (75); VFA: Williamstown 13.19 (97) d. Port Melbourne 13.10 (88); TANFL: New Town 15.11 (101) d. Hobart 8.18 (66); NTFA: Longford 13.7 (85) d. City 10.13 (73); NSWANFL: Eastern Suburbs 13.12 (90) d. North Shore 7.10 (52); NTFL: St Marys 10.12 (72) d. Buffaloes 5.12 (42); QANFL: Wilston Grange 15.10 (100) d. Kedron 10.12 (72); NWFU: Ulverstone 11.14 (80) d. Burnie 10.15 (75); CANFL: Manuka 12.11 (83) d. Queanbeyan-Acton 8.6 (54).

Lindsay Head (West Torrens)

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South Fremantle's John Todd