1958 VFL Grand Final
|1958 VFL Grand Final|
|Date||20 September 1958|
|Stadium||Melbourne Cricket Ground|
The 1958 VFL Grand Final was an Australian rules football game contested between the Melbourne Football Club and Collingwood Football Club, held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 20 September 1958. It was the 62nd annual Grand Final of the Victorian Football League, staged to determine the premiers for the 1958 VFL season. The match, attended by 97,956 spectators, was won by Collingwood by 18 points, marking that club's 13th premiership victory.
This was Melbourne's fifth successive Grand Final appearance. The Demons had won the previous three premierships and were looking to equal Collingwood's 1927–1930 Premiership record. Collingwood's victory would deny the Demons that record and keep it in black-and-white hands, a record which still stands today.
- Umpire: Allan Nash
- MCG crowd – 97,956
A "Great Comeback": Implications and Tactics
The Collingwood Magpies’ unexpected victory did not end the Melbourne Demons’ long domination of the VFL finals, but it did preserve the Magpies cherished record of four consecutive premierships. It has been remembered, and studied, as a notable case of an underdog team overcoming multiple disadvantages, while ignoring much of the strategic advice it was offered by sports journalists and others.
The Melbourne Age described the Magpies’ victory as a "Great Comeback" which "must go down not only as one of the most important in the illustrious history of their great club, but also as one of the best on record."  The Collingwood Football Club’s website claims that, "while Melbourne was regarded as the near-perfect football team, Collingwood was regarded merely as a modest team of hard-workers".
The Collingwood Club’s "AFL BIO" remarks:
Regarded by most as an ordinary team fuelled more by old-fashioned 'G and D' than by any innate football talent, embarrassingly thrashed by Melbourne in the 2nd semi final, missing both their skipper Frank Tuck and arguably their most talented player in Bill Twomey, the Magpies entered the 1958 grand final as the longest odds outsiders for years.
The 1958 finals contest between Melbourne and the Magpies in fact commenced a fortnight before the grand final, when these two teams met in the 1958 Second Semi-Final. The winner would move straight into the grand final. The loser would need to win a further "preliminary final" (against North Melbourne, the remaining team in contention) if it was to win its way back into the grand final.
The Magpies were already outsiders prior to the Second Semi-Final. Although Melbourne and Collingwood had been the two most successful teams for most of that year, and had set a crowd-size record for a home-and-away game, which still stands, when they clashed in a close contest in June, yet by the end of the season Collingwood's form had slumped drastically. Melbourne also had an established history of dominance. In the words of the DemonWiki website
Melbourne had beaten Collingwood nine times in a row in finals games, and before the 'Pies beat North Melbourne in the preliminary final, they'd won just two of their last six matches. Melbourne hadn't lost to the 'Pies for more than three years, and that had been at Victoria Park. They had also won the last nine matches against them on the MCG. Melbourne also started with an almost full-strength line-up.
The odds against Collingwood lengthened after Melbourne won the Second Semi-Final by a crushing 45 points. The Magpies were subsequently much criticised, and ridiculed, for being uncompetitive. Collingwood’s pacey first rover Thorold Merrett had relished the big ground, but the team as a whole had not. The Melbourne Herald’s chief football writer Alf Brown joked that by half-time Collingwood’s only hope was “to phone up the old Merrett homestead and ask for seventeen more, just like little Thorold”. The Melbourne Age in its report on the Semi-Final said that Collingwood "thoroughly deserved to lose", and described how "a strong united Melbourne defence simply smothered a pathetically weak Collingwood attack", which "lacked pace on the big ground". It said the Magpies were short on "skill and ability", and that, while Collingwood’s defenders were not disgraced, the "lumbering top-heavy Collingwood attack took a thrashing". Summing up the game’s lessons, it stated, "It was obvious that pace and cleverness, at the expense of marking power, must be introduced if Collingwood is going to play better. . . . Rover Ken Bennett is slow."
The next week a re-organised Magpies team, playing to what seemed a different game-plan, swept aside North Melbourne. However the football writers still gave the Magpies almost no chance of winning the grand final against Melbourne.
The Magpies were handicapped by the loss through injuries of Frank Tuck, centre-half-back Ron Kingston, half-forward Brian Dorman, and centre-man Bill Twomey. Hence they were forced to take several unseasoned players, including four teenagers, into the often-gladiatorial world of a VFL grand final. The newcomers included the 19 year-old future Collingwood hall-of-fame member Kevin Rose, and the 20 year-old future interstate centre-man, John Henderson, playing their fifth and seventh games respectively. However more effective on the day were the somewhat more experienced tyros: Brian Beers, Graeme Fellowes, Ken Bennett, and also Ron Reeves, whose pace and anticipation in the back pocket made it difficult in the last quarter for Melbourne to chase down Collingwood's lead.
One of Collingwood’s main assets had been what the historian (and passionate Carlton supporter) Manning Clark later called “that great half-back line of Lucas, Kingston and Tuck”; but, as mentioned, both Kingston and Tuck missed the grand final.
Home Ground Advantage
The Melbourne Cricket Ground was the most suitable venue in Victoria for accommodating finals crowds, which could exceed 100,000 persons. Hence the Melbourne Demons enjoyed home-ground advantage throughout the finals. The playing area was an exceptionally broad oval, and visiting teams needed to adjust their style of play and their team balance to its wider spaces. The playing surface was variable in wet weather. The cricket pitches in the center sometimes became a "glue-pot", whereas elsewhere the ground might be firm enough for skilled players to baulk and maneuver almost as if on a dry ground. Match-practice on this ground was limited, since a team would play only one or two finals matches before reaching the grand final.
The Melbourne forwards were skilled at positioning themselves so as to leave open spaces into which one or other of them could "lead" to mark the ball unopposed; and they were skilled at choosing the right moment to do this when the ball was being kicked towards them. Other teams that tried to do the same might find that their skills and timing, which they had honed on much smaller grounds, were not right for the Melbourne Cricket Ground; and they might be left looking slow and unskilled. However, Melbourne's home-ground advantage might be expected to diminish as the finals went on.
Magpies’ Coaching Strategy and Defiance of Media Analysis
Much of the media criticism centred on the Magpies’ supposed lack of leg-speed, and particularly on their diminutive 18-year-old second rover Ken Bennett. Thus the Melbourne Age’s football writer Percy Beames, in a preview article in the Age on the morning of the grand final titled "Brilliant Demons look set for title", anticipated that, "The slow roving of Ken Bennett could show up badly against the speed of [Melbourne’s] Frank Adams."
The Magpies’ coach and selectors did not follow this advice. They stuck with Bennett, a skilled wet-weather player, throughout the finals; and in the grand final, played on a wet and in parts muddy ground, he proved a match winner. They also brought in, for the Preliminary Final and the grand final, a slow-moving but extremely tall ruckman Graeme Fellowes, who helped neutralise the height-advantage of Melbourne’s very tall ruckman Bob Johnson, and put great pressure upon Melbourne’s unusual tactic of playing only two tall ruckmen (plus two "ruck rovers"). This in turn put pressure on Melbourne's forward line. Their full-forward Athol Webb was fast but only 180 cm tall. To compete for high marks near goal Melbourne relied heavily on their hard-worked 198 cm ruckman Bob Johnson, who "rested" from the ruck in the forward pocket. In the grandfinal Johnson while "resting" was opposed by another famous ruckman, Collingwood's Ray Gabelich, and he scored only one goal.
There was also debate about the tactics the Magpies used to curb the creativity and strength of Melbourne’s great play-maker Ron Barassi. Barassi was classed as a ruck rover, meaning that he was significantly taller and heavier than (though almost as agile as) the smallish rovers whose task it was to collect the ball from the ground after the ruckmen knocked it down. Barassi, according to his entry in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, was "revered as one of the most feared enforcers in the VFL"; and the Collingwood rovers Bennett and Thorold Merrett, both very lightly-built, seemed vulnerable against him.
The Magpies’ coach Phonse Kyne had Barassi closely followed (and confronted) by Barry Harrison, a player who was, in turn, significantly taller than Barassi (188 cm tall, versus 179 cm). Percy Beames, in the same preview of the grand final, remarked that this tactic had proved quite effective in the Second Semi-Final but warned it would not succeed a second time: "Barassi can do a lot better than in the last game, more so, now that he has had the experience and knows what to expect from the ‘shadowing’ tactics of Harrison." In fact the Magpies stuck with this tactic, which proved even more effective in the grand final.
Collingwood came closer to following Beames’s advice in their choice of wingmen. These were important on the broad Melbourne Cricket Ground. They tended to be small, agile players who excelled in foot-speed, not in high marking. But Melbourne had a champion wingman Brian Dixon who was quite tall. Hence Melbourne sometimes found an avenue to goal by kicking the ball high towards Dixon, who would out-mark a smaller opponent. Collingwood, however, also had a tall champion wingman in Ken Turner (who, like Dixon, represented Victoria several times at interstate level). In the Second Semi-Final Collingwood had sought a comprehensive height advantage by playing the tall defender Mike Delanty (185 cm) on one wing; but in the grand final they played Delanty at Centre-Half-Back, improving team balance. Turner played on the same wing as Dixon, and prevailed, collecting 21 kicks and (despite the wet ground) 10 marks.
Contrary to several warnings that Collingwood would be exposed for lack of pace on the big ground, by the third quarter of the grand final the Ampol commentator noted that their players, "were gaining the upper hand. They were faster, and playing in front of their men." 
Criticism of Magpies’ Tactics
Football writers Percy Beames in the Age and Alf Brown in the Herald agreed that the Magpies’ "vigor", although expected, disconcerted some of the Melbourne players, either by intimidating them or by sucking them into retaliating rather than concentrating on football. (Both Harrison and Barassi were reported by the umpire on one count each of rough conduct; though neither was subsequently penalised by the VFL tribunal.)
Many Melbourne supporters were galled by the unexpected defeat, and blamed either the umpire or unfair tactics by the Magpies. However the Melbourne coach Norm Smith, though privately distraught, was magnanimous in defeat. He entered the Collingwood rooms after the match and congratulated them, his speech beginning: "I hate you bastards! But, by God, I admire you." According to the Melbourne Age, Smith told the Magpies "We have no regrets. On the day you were by far the better side"; and he also told Melbourne supporters not to blame the umpire who "had nothing to do with it".
Media Analysis, Post-Match
The Age football writer Percy Beames, in a post-match article titled "Magpies End Long Melbourne Reign", wrote that the Magpies prevailed in "a tough, torrid, and typical grand final clash" which they won "by playing football almost perfectly suited to the conditions".
The deciding factor . . . was something that Melbourne simply could not match on the day—the fierce desire of Collingwood’s players to win Saturday’s honor for their club. . . Regardless of danger, they hurled themselves recklessly into packs; fiercely blocked or met any Melbourne player attempting to break away, shepherded, backed up, lifted each other with encouragement . . . The lesson from the match is that it is what a team gives all over the field that counts—not just brilliance in a few positions. Collingwood had evenness, and received near maximum value from almost all players.
Beames praised the maligned Ken Bennett for restoring Collingwood's self-belief, after Melbourne had raced to a three-goal lead by quarter time. "Two clever goals in as many minutes by Bennett, who battled his way courageously through the Melbourne defence, were the spark that set the Magpies aflame."
Beames also suggested that Collingwood’s heavy defeat in the 1958 Second Semi-Final had been a blessing in disguise:
Victory would have lifted them straight into the grand final, and would have deluded selectors into believing in, and sticking to, that badly arranged semi-final side . . . Match-winning moves that followed that semi-final defeat would not have been made. . . . Out of that semi-final loss Collingwood gained the strength, both in team composition and in tactical application, to rise from a very ordinary side to a premiership combination.
The Age listed the best players as, for COLLINGWOOD: Merrett, Fellowes, K. Turner, Delanty, Reeves, Bennett; and for MELBOURNE: Mithen, Williams, Thorogood, R. Johnson, Marquis, Brenchley.
Footage of highlights of the 1958 grand final survives in two ten-minute compilations, one by Channel 7 in black and white (being parts of the final quarter with commentary by Tony Charlton), and another in color that was distributed by the publicity department of Ampol. The latter’s commentator remarks that, “Per head of population the Australian Rules game in Melbourne draws greater crowds than any other game in the world.”
- "Magpies end long Melbourne reign" - The Age 22/09/1958.
- http://www.collingwoodfc.com.au/club/history/premierships/1958 , accessed 2 March 2016.
- See 1958 VFL Season: Notable Events
- Melbourne Herald, "Match Review", 9 September 1958.
- "Negative tactics went against Magpies" by the Age’s football writer Percy Beames - The Age 08/09/1958
- "Brilliant Demons look set for title" - The Age 20/09/1958.
- See the list of players earlier in this article, with hyperlinks to players' details. Melbourne’s ruck rovers were Barassi and Wilson.
- Quotation checked from Sport Australia Hall of Fame website, 17 March 2016.
- "Brilliant Demons look set for title" - The Age 20/09/1958.
- See Brian Dixon page; also "The Red Fox" p. 462.
- See Nick's Collingwood Bulletin Board: 1958.
- Comment made 7 minutes 30 seconds into the footage.
- See "Magpies end long Melbourne reign" - The Age 22/09/1958.
- "Collingwood AFL "Bio"
- See Ben Collins, The Red Fox: The Biography of Norm Smith : Legendary Melbourne Coach, Slattery Media Group, Docklands, Vic 2008, p. 461 https://books.google.com.au/books?isbn=0980346622 .
- Age front page 22 September 1958
- "Magpies end long Melbourne reign" - The Age 22/09/1958
- 1958 VFL Grand Final statistics
- The Official statistical history of the AFL 2004
- Ross, J. (ed), 100 Years of Australian Football 1897–1996: The Complete Story of the AFL, All the Big Stories, All the Great Pictures, All the Champions, Every AFL Season Reported, Viking, (Ringwood), 1996. ISBN 0-670-86814-0