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
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
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
"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
"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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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.
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,
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
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)
DON WILLIAMS (half-back)
IAN McLEAN (wing)
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)
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)
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)
COLIN WILSON (ruck-rover)
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)
NORM SMITH (coach)
HEAD TO HEAD
BRISBANE LIONS 2001
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
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.