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Sunday Age

IN TIMES OF TREBLE

Author: Linda Pearce
Date: 25/05/2003
Words: 2415
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: Sport
Page: 14
When Melbourne plays the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba on Saturday night, the last club to win three flags in a row meets a team looking to complete the premiership treble. Linda Pearce reports.

In 1955, footballers in the best team in the land were paid about #8 a game in cash and provident fund money. Their bonus came when the hat was passed around the MCG Members' bars and dining rooms on the last Saturday night in September, collecting enough to present each of Melbourne's 20 premiership players with close to #100 extra.

The next year, after a second consecutive grand final win over Collingwood, defender Trevor Johnson estimates the bonus was about #60. And when the Demons of 1957 became just the fourth group in VFL history to claim three successive flags, the reward had shrunk by a further third.

"They certainly weren't reaching as deep into their pockets," recalled Johnson, now a successful Perth mushroom farmer and explosives manufacturer, with a chuckle. "We'd worn out our welcome!"

As more recent premiers, Brisbane, Essendon and the Kangaroos can attest that modern success has had a rather more inflationary effect, and that new-fangled device, the salary cap, has compounded the difficulty of keeping flag-winning squads together. No longer, though, is there a reliance on supporters to augment the part-timers' wages symbolic of a time well past.

And yet, in the 45 completed seasons since what would now be called a three-peat, no team has replicated what Melbourne last achieved with a team of bank tellers, teachers, tyre salesmen and milk bar owners, one of whom, Geoff Tunbridge, asked only for the petrol money to cover his drive from Ballarat, and would arrive 20 minutes before the first bounce munching on a meat pie.

Back then, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after the retirements of captain Noel McMahen, his deputy Ken Melville, Denis Cordner, Stuart Spencer, Ralph Lane and Geoff McGivern from the 1956 team generally acknowledged as the best of a golden era, the peerless Norm Smith managed to galvanise his less experienced troops for what would be the third of five premierships in six years.

The only blot was the famous grand final upset against loathed rival Collingwood in 1958, but that's a story for another day. "Going into '57 we didn't think that we'd have a team good enough to win the premiership, so that's really what made '57 so special, the fact that Norm Smith was able to get us up for three in a row," said former rover Ian Ridley. "We were more worried about four in a row; we thought we'd get four. And that's when we came unstuck."

But not before the hat-trick was completed. In 1957, Melbourne finished the 18 home-and-away rounds six points clear on top of the ladder, but was upset by Essendon in the second semi-final after trailing by 48 at half-time, at which time captain John Beckwith had climbed on to the locker-room bench to lead a rallying rendition of the Grand Old Flag.

His team fell 16 points short that day, but the recovery was in motion, and, after a 68-point preliminary final towelling of Hawthorn, a 10-goal revenge beating was inflicted on the Bombers before 100,324 grand final spectators. While Beckwith could barely jog around the Albert Ground during a secret 10am "fitness test" on match day, best-afield was his 21-year-old deputy, Ron Barassi junior, who had kicked four goals by half-time.

Gathering first in the clubrooms under the members' stand, the players and their partners celebrated at a low-key dinner at the MCG where, two years earlier, the most outrageous event was the serving of red and blue ice-cream.

"It went on until one or two in the morning, and, by and large, that was it," recalled Dick Fenton-Smith, a first-year player from the amateurs with the appropriately cliched hyphenated name. "A few of us went back to the ground the next day for a Pleasant Sunday Morning, but that was the extent of it, because we all had jobs to go to. We were getting #8 a week, so you had to have a job beside it."

Football-wise, Melbourne's was a job very well done. The injection of youth and unfulfilled ambition helped to spark the older players facing the challenges of such a long stay at the top, challenges that were more mental than physical. "It does affect your mind quite a bit," said Beckwith. "When you get close to it, you know that one slip and you're gone."

Five-time premiership midfielder Laurie Mithen adds: "The other teams try harder. We used to say to ourselves in the middle of the season to expect them to throw everything at us because they have everything to gain if they can beat the premiers, and it got a little bit harder for us to keep turning them back.

"When you're on the rise, for the first year or two, it's all still fairly exhilarating and you don't have to talk yourself into getting motivated; it's late in the second year and the third year and into the fourth where you've got to force yourself to keep up the high standard. You know you've got to hold the rest of them off. It would make an interesting psychological study."

The Lions would probably acknowledge as much privately, although defender Chris Johnson said at the Gabba last week that it is only the media and, occasionally, supporters, who talk about the possibility of a historic treble that may be as few as 17 games away. Having lost only Des Headland from last year's premiership 22, the players will admit only to more immediate goals, such as Saturday night's fixture against Melbourne.

"Brisbane are the chopping block now, aren't they? Every game is going to be really hard for them," said dual premiership half-back Keith Carroll. "It's a great challenge, isn't it?" agreed Ian Thorogood, a first-year player in '57 who played in the 1959-60 flags and later coached Carlton. "They've got the task in front of them. Anything can happen and the real key is injuries."

Last Monday at the Gabba, Brisbane coach Leigh Matthews said that part of his team's problem this season had been that each week about six players from his chosen 22 had "struggled to be reasonable contributors". Interestingly, Beckwith had some weeks earlier admitted that the signs of Melbourne's occasional complacency had manifested similarly.

"You don't approach the game with the same fierceness that you should every week," he said. "We found it was six players would play well, and six players would play average, and six players would play ordinary, but it wouldn't be the same six every week, and I think that does apply to Brisbane. There's a pretty fine line. It doesn't take much for your ability or your attitude to drop. It is hard to keep up for the whole year."

Even so, no member of the 1957 team would have imagined that their achievement would still be awaiting repetition in mid-2003. After all, it had last been done just 16 years earlier, and by the all-conquering Magpies little more than a decade before that. "If you'd asked me, I would have said it would have been done again in the next 20 years or something, but it's been a while, hasn't it?" Barassi said. "Nearly half a century."

Should Brisbane achieve such a feat this year, Matthews' men would rightly be hailed as immortals, yet, at at the time, less was made of what Barassi calls the "triple" than the fact that it was yet another flag for the power club of the decade.

"In those days the other 11 clubs weren't that keen on Melbourne, because we kept on winning," said Johnson. "We were not that popular."

Mithen believes the Demons' reaction to their success reflected a more relaxed, but no less popular, football age. "We enjoyed the moment, but then when it was over we got on with the rest of our lives, and waited until the next season rolled round in February-March, so we had this different perspective on what we were doing," he said. "It was a relief to get the third one done, and an attitude of 'let's go and enjoy it like we did the others'."

Yet the club's darkest grand final day was just a year away, with Collingwood destined to upset the raging favourites and protect its record as the only team to win four successive pennants. It was a truly bitter pill, for even though the Demons dominated again in 1959-60, and won five of the seven successive grand finals they played in from 1954 to 1960, too much success, it seems, is never enough.

"There were a few players there like (Brian) Dixon, (Frank) Adams and myself, just to name a couple, who were greedy, greedy, greedy," admitted Barassi, an immortal himself all these years later. "We wouldn't have cared if we'd won 10 in a row, we'd still want the 11th."

Melbourne's 1955-77 treble may come into sharper focus in grand final week, should the Brisbane Lions make it through for another tilt at the flag. On the Wednesday before the grand final, the 1950s Demons players will gather for a reunion in the club rooms under the members' stand - the last such gathering before the building is demolished to make way for a new stand.

PREMIERSHIP HAT-TRICKS

Carlton

1906: Carlton 15.4 (94) d Fitzroy 6.9 (45)

1907: Carlton 6.14 (50) d South Melbourne 6.9 (45)

1908: Carlton 5.5 (35) d Essendon 3.8 (26)

Melbourne

1939: Melbourne 21.22 (148) d Collingwood 14.11 (95)

1940: Melbourne 15.17 (107) d Richmond 10.8 (68)

1941: Melbourne 19.13 (127) d Essendon 13.20 (98)

Melbourne

1955: Melbourne 8.16 (64) d Collingwood 5.6 (36)

1956: Melbourne 17.19 (121) d Collingwood 6.12 (48)

1957: Melbourne 17. 14 (116) d Essendon 7.13 (55)

AWESOME FOURSOME

Collingwood

1927: Collingwood 2.13 (25) d Richmond 1.7 (13)

1928: Collingwood 13.18 (96) d Richmond 9.9 (63)

1929: Collingwood 11.13 (79) d Richmond 7.8 (50)

1930: Collingwood 14.16 (100) d Geelong 9.16 (70)

THE PLAYERS

Melbourne 1955-57

Even though these were the days of 18 players and two reserves, the Demons had only nine players - Frank Adams, Ron Barassi, John Beckwith, Bob Johnson, Trevor Johnson, Peter Marquis, Laurie Mithen, Ian Ridley and Don Williams - who completed the hat-trick of flags.

Brisbane Lions 2001-03

There are 20 players in with a chance of completing the hat-trick this season. They are: Jason Akermanis, Marcus Ashcroft, Simon Black, Jonathan Brown, Shaun Hart, Chris Johnson, Clark Keating, Nigel Lappin, Justin Leppitsch, Alastair Lynch, Beau McDonald, Craig McRae, Mal Michael, Tim Notting, Martin Pike, Luke Power, Brad Scott, Chris Scott, Michael Voss and Darryl White.

Other Lions premiership players were Robert Copeland and Daniel Bradshaw in 2001, and Des Headland and Aaron Shattock in 2002.

THE COACHES

Norm Smith

The Melbourne icon played in four premierships (1939-41, 1948) and coached the Demons to six flags (1955-57, 1959-60, 1964) from eight grand finals.

Leigh Matthews

The Hawthorn great played in seven grand finals, winning four of them (1971, 1974, 1976, 1983). He has never lost a grand final as a coach (Collingwood 1990, BL 2002-03).

THE HEROES OF 1957

JOHN BECKWITH (captain, back pocket)

"I'm very proud of playing in an era like that. If Brisbane do it, good luck to 'em, because it's a very difficult achievement."

PETER MARQUIS (full-back)

"It was a defensive game of football back then. I'd kick it to Johnny Beckwith and he'd kick it out of bounds, and we did that for 100 minutes."

DICK FENTON-SMITH (back pocket)

"It just personifies the excellence of Norm Smith that he was able to take 13 brand new players into a side in 1957 and in one year mould them into a premiership side."

KEITH CARROLL (half-back)

"I think we expected to do it, that was the trouble. I think we just thought we'd win each week. Being defeated was always a shock."

JOHN LORD (centre half-back)

Unavailable

DON WILLIAMS (half-back)

Deceased

IAN McLEAN (wing)

Deceased

LAURIE MITHEN (centre)

"It wasn't as thrilling in '57; it was just sort of a relief that we'd held them all off again for another year, so let's go celebrate."

BRIAN DIXON (wing)

"I was conscious of at least equalling what had been achieved in '39-40-41 and I think most of my teammates were."

GEOFF CASE (half-forward)

Unavailable

TREVOR JOHNSON (centre half-forward)

"I'm sure people didn't appreciate how hard it was to win three in a row. And I don't think we would have if we hadn't had Norm Smith."

GEOFF TUNBRIDGE (half-forward)

"There was a good feeling about winning three in a row; there was a terrible feeling about losing the next one."

IAN RIDLEY (forward pocket)

"When you look back at it now, it's incredible that it hasn't been done again in almost 50 years. It just shows you how hard it is."

ATHOL WEBB (full-forward)

Unavailable

RON BARASSI JNR (forward pocket)

"Quite a few senior players retired, so the youngsters were pretty chuffed to come up with the goodies. We took a lot of pride in that particular win."

BOB JOHNSON (ruck)

Deceased

COLIN WILSON (ruck-rover)

Unavailable

FRANK ADAMS (rover)

"There's so much more scrutiny on the club, the team and the individual player now. In our day in '57, television had only been in a year."

IAN THOROGOOD (reserve)

"It was the first premiership for me, and that in itself was special; whether it was two in a row or three in a row really didn't matter."

PETER BRENCHLEY (reserve)

Deceased

NORM SMITH (coach)

Deceased

HEAD TO HEAD

BRISBANE LIONS 2001

MELBOURNE 1955

B: White Leppitsch Johnson

F: R. Johnson Clarke Ridley

HB: Ashcroft C. Scott B.Scott

HF: Mithen Laidlaw McKenzie

C: Akermanis Lappin Black

C: McLean Melville Case

HF: Power Brown Copeland.

HB: Williams McGivern McMahen (c)

F: Bradshaw Lynch Pike.

B: Beckwith Marquis T. Johnson

FOLL: Keating, Voss (c), Hart.

FOLL: Denis Cordner, Barassi, Spencer.

INTER: McRae, Notting, Michael, McDonald.

RESERVES: Gleeson, Adams.

BRISBANE LIONS 2002

MELBOURNE 1956

B: Power Michael Johnson

F: R. Johnson Webb Ridley

HB: Ashcroft Leppitsch C. Scott

HF: Mithen Laidlaw Sandral

C: Lappin Voss (c) Headland

C: Adams Melville Dixon

HF: Akermanis Brown White

HB: Williams McMahen (c) Carroll

F: B. Scott Lynch Pike

B: Beckwith Marquis T. Johnson

FOLL: Keating, Black, Hart.

FOLL: Denis Cordner, Barassi, Spencer.

INTER: McRae, Notting, Shattock, McDonald.

RESERVES: Gleeson, Lane.

 
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