John Coleman was the poster boy for the VFL during the late 40s and early 50s. If Essendon legend Dick Reynolds was the ‘King’, Coleman was the ‘Prince’.
Boyish looks, a deadly accurate kick and a charismatic playing style brought thousands through the gate just to watch this one man play football. Crowds would move from end to end each quarter to have the best vantage point of watching Coleman in action.
So it’s a shame that a tight grand final decided by less than two goals can be overshadowed by the absence of one of the game’s greatest players, Coleman, in a controversial decision by the VFL Tribunal. The decision was a harsh one – four weeks, missing that last day in September – and one that old Bombers faithful will never forget.
The fateful incident all came about from the final home and away game in the 1951 season. Essendon were up against the old foe Carlton and in a fiery contest, a spat between Coleman and Blues’ back pocket player Harry Caspar broke out late in the second quarter.
As the story goes, Caspar had been niggling the star forward all day and when the ball was down the other end, with both players out of the field umpire’s view, Caspar threw two unprovoked punches to Coleman. Coleman retaliated in a forceful manner and copped the full brunt of the Blues supporters, who were happy to taunt and spit on Coleman as he made his way off the ground at half time.
The Tribunal decided on Caspar’s decision first, and he received a four-week suspension. It was then Coleman’s turn to hear his punishment. Despite many football experts believing the star Bomber had a strong case, the Tribunal thought otherwise.
Coleman was also handed four weeks, missing the Grand Final in a massive blow to the Essendon side, which was dependent on him for the majority of their scoring. Coleman was in tears as he walked out of the league headquarters, flanked by his friends and colleagues. The loss of such a threatening presence was always going to hurt the Bombers’ premiership chances.
Going into the Grand Final, the Cats had had a slightly better lead-up throughout the finals series. After finishing top of the ladder with 14 wins and four losses, Geelong easily accounted for Collingwood in the Second Semi-Final, and by doing so, advanced directly into the Grand Final.
Essendon, on the other hand, didn’t have as easy a run. The Bombers finished third at the end of the home and away season, and it had to take a last quarter fight back to defeat Footscray by eight points in the First Semi-Final after trailing at three quarter time. It was another big last quarter effort by the Dons that catapulted them into the deciding game.
After being four goals down at the last break in their Preliminary Final against Collingwood, it was the experience of star captain Bill Hutchison that led the Bombers to a stirring two-point win against the Pies to progress into the Grand Final.
Geelong had a well-established team for the final and had been the standout side of the year. While Essendon had lost their key forward, the Cats had theirs in 24-year-old Tasmanian George Goninon. The explosive forward was in career-best form, having already kicked 82 goals for the year, including 11 the previous match in Geelong’s mauling of Collingwood.
Players like Peter Pianto and Bobby Davis were starting to become household names. They also had the 1951 Brownlow Medallist in Bernie Smith, later to be named back pocket in the VFL/AFL Team of the Century. The Cats were led by the experience of Fred Flanagan, a talented centre half-forward who had accumulated 29 Brownlow votes in his past two home and away seasons.
Essendon were looking for answers in who to replace their star forward in Coleman, deciding on young Keith McDonald to aim to fill the void at full-forward. It was the 22-year-old’s debut season and having only kicked 12 goals, it would take a big effort from the youngster to step into the boots of a true legend in Coleman. The ever-reliable Bill Brittingham lined up at full-back, with the role of nullifying Goninon.
The big news to come out of the team selection was the inclusion of Dick Reynolds as 19th man, coming out of retirement at 36 years of age to try and guide the Bombers to their 11th premiership. The 320-game veteran certainly had the skills to match it with the best – he was, of course, a triple Brownlow Medallist – but there was a definite cloud hanging over his match fitness.
Geelong started the match with a bang, having 11 scoring shots to Essendon’s one in the first quarter alone. After starting with a Goninon goal straight after the bounce, Geelong then kicked six successive behinds before Hutchison kicked the Dons’ first.
Despite dominating in front of goals early, the Cats couldn’t convert and at quarter time, had three goals and eight behinds to the Bombers’ one goal straight. However, Essendon weren’t going to lie down, hitting back in the second quarter through the form of midfielders Bob Syme and Doug Bigelow. Their momentum turnaround in the second quarter resulted in a four-point lead to the Dons at the long break.
The famous “premiership quarter” was the deciding factor for Geelong’s success. Their five goals and three behinds to Essendon’s mere two behinds extended the margin to 27 points at the final break.
Being a Grand Final, the margin would have felt like double for the Bombers, such a task it would be to overrun a team in the last quarter of a game of this importance. Knowing this, Essendon unleashed their secret weapon in Reynolds, 22 points down and 20 minutes into the last quarter. His presence was felt immediately and goals to Greg Tate and Wally May followed.
Hutchison soon found Ron McEwin on the wing, who accelerated and spotted up Keith McDonald on his own near the goals. A goal to the Dons here would have made the margin just five points and with the momentum they had at the time, it could have carried them to the flag. But it was the pressure that got to the youngster.
Reynolds, in all his excitement, collided with McDonald after rushing from the pocket and the ball was cleared for Geelong by Bruce Morrison. It was the Cats’ time to run down the clock and they did so with great success.
The last few minutes were tense, but Geelong held on to take out their fourth premiership. The final margin was 11 points, and to this day, Essendon supporters blame Coleman’s absence as the reason behind their Grand Final loss.
Many questions arose out of the game and the decision surrounding it, the most prominent being whether Coleman’s penalty was too harsh. The general consensus was yes, however there must be sympathy felt for the Tribunal, who didn’t have the video evidence and multiple umpires that we have today to help make the decision easier.
Who was marking John Hyde? The 21-year-old Geelong centre half-back was the best on the ground and was key to the Cats’ success.
Was Dick Reynolds substituted on too late? Yes, his impact was extremely influential and resulted in a momentum boost and a couple of goals to the Bombers, who looked to be dead and buried at the time. But, perhaps if Reynolds made his way on to the MCG just five minutes earlier, things might have been different.
Geelong rode their premiership success into the following season and won the 1952 premiership under the coaching of club legend Reg Hickey.
Almost at the other end of the scale, Essendon slumped to eighth with Coleman their only true standout, who kicked another 102 goals for the season.
Forever, the Essendon Football Club will rue the ‘one that got away’.