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​Dons Blitz 'Roys - VFL Challenge Final, Saturday 20th October 1923: Essendon versus Fitzroy at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

Essendon's record breaking full forward Gordon Stockdale

By finishing at the head of the ladder at the conclusion of the minor round Essendon earned the double chance. This was fortunate, because the Same Old lost their semi final clash with South Melbourne by 17 points. Fitzroy meanwhile had comprehensively ousted Geelong from premiership contention with a 14.13 (97) to 8.14 (62) semi final triumph. The ‘Roys then went on to defeat South Melbourne by three straight kicks in the final, setting up a challenge final encounter with Essendon.

It may surprise modern readers to learn that Essendon went into the match as a warm sentimental favourite, as a footballing David to Fitzroy’s Goliath. The Maroons after all were not only the reigning VFL premiers, but with a total of seven flags to their name were the most successful club in the history of the league. 

Originally scheduled for Saturday 13th December the challenge final was controversially postponed for a week because the MCG was deemed too waterlogged for play. The postponement had a dramatic impact on the match attendance, with just 46,566 spectators - easily the smallest crowd of the finals series - turning up. According to John Worrall, “If the grand final had been played on the previous Saturday, as should have been the case, all records would have been broken, for the crowd would have numbered fully 70,000. How they would have been accommodated is another matter; yet the error was dearly paid for.”[1]

In terms of physique, Fitzroy was much the bulkier side, and indeed Essendon’s success in 1923 had been largely attributable to the consistently brilliant form of their smaller players - the “mosquito fleet”, as they became known. Having played just one match in a month the Same Old players might have been expected to have lost their edge, but in actual fact they appeared invigorated. Fitzroy on the other hand discernibly lacked the vim which had characterised their premiership triumph ofthe previous season.

It was a fine, warm day, with a light south easterly having replaced the strong north wind which had been blowing earlier. The ground was in excellent condition, showing no signs of having been partially submerged in water a week earlier. “Of the game itself, it can be classed as a good, hard one, with occasional flashes of beautiful concerted play, and many fierce scrambles. On the whole, it was not a pretty match, being intensely strong, though played at a clipping pace.”[2] And it was chiefly the Essendon small men who were responsible for the pace of the game, although it has to be admitted that many of the Fitzroy players rose to the occasion and fought determinedly right to the end. The ‘Roys were also not afraid to use their weight, and indeed it was on the basis of an physical superiority that they had won both their encounters with Essendon in the 1923 minor round. This time, however, Essendon made an obvious - and predominantly successful - attempt to match fire with fire, leaving the mosquito fleet with greater scope to impose themselves.

The opening fifteen minutes of the match saw Essendon’s small brigade in sparkling form, while their bigger players were at least managing to hold their own.[3] The first goal of the encounter went to Greg Stockdale via a smart snapshot, prompting large sections of the crowd to roar appreciatively, it being the Dons spearhead’s 67th major of the season, which constituted a new record. Unusually for the period, several of Stockdale’s team mates acknowledged his achievement by hugging him.

As the term wore on Fitzroy began to make an impression with their own full forward Jimmy Freake - the second most prolific goal kicker of the season - especially conspicuous. At the first change it was the Maroons by a point, 3.3 (21) to Essendon’s 3.2 (20).

Play in the second term was vigorous in the extreme but seldom unfair. Essendon were much the more impressive side in general terms, but their kicking for goal let them down. They added 1.8 for the quarter compared to 2.2 for Fitzroy who thereby retained their 1 point advantage heading into the main break. The best player afield was “Goldie” Collins of the ‘Roys who was frequently first to the ball, and alsmost invariably used it well. Collins would end up winning Fitzroy’s 1923 club champion award.

When play resumed in the third term it soon became clear that Fitzroy ruckman Gordon McCracken was struggling with an injury as he was limping badly. Instead of continuing on the ball he was stationed in the forward lines where his impact was negligible. Indeed, the whole Fitzroy team - with the conspicuous exception of Collins, who continued to do the work of two men - appeared disjointed and lacking in coordination, with the result that Essendon outscored them by 11 points for the term. At the last change the scoreboard showed the Dons on 6.13 (49) compared to the Maroons’ 5.9 (39).

To their credit Fitzroy, despite being effectively short-handed, began the final quarter well, and six minutes in Harold Carter kicked truly to reduce the deficit to less than a single straight kick. The minority of people in the crowd who were barracking for Fitzroy gave loud vent to their approval but though their heroes attacked determinedly the combined efforts of the Essendon backline, notablyTom Fitzmaurice, Joe Harrison and Roy Laing kept them at bay. The closing minutes of the term saw the Dons re-asserting themselves, and it was they who registered the final 2 goals of the match.. Final scores were Essendon 8.15 (63) defeated Fitzroy 6.10 (46).

Almost every Essendon man could justifiably have been included in the best player list, whilst collectively the side was superior in pace, ground play and aerially. Their one real weakness was in kicking for goal, but the persistence of their attacks meant that this was not the disadvantage it might have been. Arguably the best of Essendon’s many fine performers was Justin McCarthy, whose marking and general play were consistently impressive. George Shorten and Jack Garden were not far behind McCarthy in effectiveness.

Best for Fitzroy, and indeed arguably the most influential and impressive player afield, was “Goldie” Collins, while others to shine included Jimmy Freake, the game’s top goal kicker with 4, and talented defender Jim Tarbotten.

Fitzroy’s days as the acknowledged principal force in Victorian football were numbered. By the time the club procured its eighth league premiership in 1944 that particular mantle had been assumed by Collingwood, which had won the flag on eleven occasions.

Essendon, with their smaller players again to the fore, would go on to claim a second successive premiership in 1924, but after that the club would endure close to two decades in the doldrums before securing their seventh VFL lag in 1942.


[1] John Worrall in “The Australasian”, 23/10/23, page 26.

[2] Ibid, page 26.

[3] According to “Old Boy” writing in “The Argus” of 22/10/23, Essendon actually boasted six players over six foot compared to Fitzroy’s four. The Dons also had both the game’s heaviest player in the shape of ruckman Norm Beckton who weighed 15 stone/95 kg, and the shortest and lightest player in Charlie Hardy (54 kg and 155 cm). The tallest player on view was Fitzroy’s Gordon McCracken at just under 191 cm.

Gordon McCracken (Fitzroy)

Jimmy Freake of Fitzroy

Essendon's Norm Beckton