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The biggest home and away crowd in history

THE Sporting Globe newspaper issued Collingwood and Melbourne supporters with a challenge a few days out from their Queen's Birthday clash in 1958.
 
In the centenary year of Australian football and two years on from the MCG redevelopment for the spectacularly successful 1956 Olympics, it was suggested that the Magpies and the Demons could challenge - perhaps even surpass - the previous record for the biggest home-and-away crowd of 58,543, achieved by the same teams in 1952.
 
Sports journalist Peter Bye wrote: "Clashes between the Demons and the Magpies are traditionally hard and given good weather a record crowd for the home-and-away series is expected to see the game" as the Sporting Globe forecast the contest could be history in the making.
 
It would be all that, and more. Fifty-four years on, what happened at the MCG on that public holiday afternoon remains in the history books - and probably will forever.
 
On June 16, 1958, the two clubs that now play an annual Queen’s Birthday fixture (and have done exclusively since 2001) drew a remarkable 99,346 fans through the MCG gates. Not only did it smash the previous record by a tick over 40,000, the match has stood the test of time as the biggest home-and-away crowd in VFL-AFL history, and has been able to maintain even in the light of the immensely popular modern Anzac Day clashes between Collingwood and Essendon.
 
Just to document how extraordinary this attendance was - and how unprepared officials were for the swelling numbers who accessed every vantage point around the MCG that day - it was to that stage the third biggest VFL match in history, with only the two previous Grand Finals drawing more (115,803 in 1956 and 100,324 in 1957).
 
Better still, the clash between Collingwood and Melbourne - a team that was chasing its fourth successful premiership that season to try and equal the Magpies' 1927-30 record - would prove to be a classic in every person's definition. And the result would only be determined in the final few minutes.
 
The Sun newspaper's Barrie Bretland wrote: "Battle of the Giants ... Premiership preview ... Match of the Century. Name your own superlative and probably you still will be understating the magnificence of the Melbourne-Collingwood ‘dream game’. Even if 10,000 people had seen it, it would have been one for the history books.”
 
There was evidence nice and early on that cool winter’s day that something special was going to happen. Traffic snarls broke out in the arterials heading towards the MCG long before the game, Jolimont railway station platform swelled and the mass of people heading to the ground from the city reached almost unprecedented levels.
 
Perhaps the biggest winners in all the ensuing chaos surrounding the MCG were the parking inspectors who booked up to 600 cars parked illegally near the ground.
 
Perhaps the biggest losers were the furious Collingwood committee, who had to do what almost half of the people inside the ground that day - stand. When the Magpie officials left the rooms after wishing the players good luck, they discovered that their seats had been “given away” to a visiting country football team who were the guests of the Melbourne Football Club. Of all those standing inside the MCG, it was said that “few were as angry early as the Collingwood committee.”
 
It wasn’t the only discomfort on this day like few others. The VFL Record sold out in near record time, “refreshment rooms in many parts of the ground sold out before half-time and the drink boys did a booming business.”
 
On the football side of things, Collingwood and Melbourne possessed some of the biggest names in the game. The Magpies still had more than a few of its stars from the 1953 premiership side, as well as some young guns in the making.
 
And the respective coaches - Collingwood’s Phonse Kyne and Melbourne’s Norm Smith (a former Magpie supporter) - were greats of the code.
 
Frank Tuck, who had missed that ’53 flag due to suspension, was Collingwood’s captain in 1958, though his wretched run with Grand Finals was about to get worse. Murray Weideman was the club’s vice-captain and star centre half-forward. Full-forward Ian Brewer was leading the VFL goalkicking tally at the time; Thorold Merrett was a star wingman, and a 22-year-old hard-nut Barry ‘Hooker’ Harrison was playing only his 10th game but would play a big part for the club later in September.
 
The Demons had the great Ron Barassi in its side. He was 22, already a three-time premiership player and one of the best footballers in the game. By the end of this game, he would be the acknowledged best afield. By the end of the season, he would have cause for hating Collingwood more than he already did.
 
Melbourne was the overwhelming favourite going into the Queen’s Birthday game. There was little wonder, given Collingwood had not beaten them in three years, and that’s the way it look again in the opening term.
 
The home side pushed out to a 13-point quarter-time lead, with Barassi being the dominant force on the ground almost from the outset. Melbourne’s first three goals came from his efforts and “whenever his side showed signs of flagging, it was Barassi who whipped them back into action.”
 
Things looked a little messy for Collingwood at stages of the second term. The Demons’ lead had stretched to four goals just before half-time before the Magpies mustered some strength and kicked two late goals to make the difference 11 points at the main break.
 
That margin stretched out to 20 points at three-quarter-time as Kyne urged his players to show some fight in the last quarter, his words almost drowned out by the roar of the crowd. But somehow the message got through to them, and Collingwood staged a remarkable fight back.
 
Sadly, the strain was too much for one of Collingwood’s great names of the past, Bob Nash. The club’s captain from 1908-09 and the father of legendary South Melbourne player Laurie Nash was a spectator at the match. He collapsed and died just before three-quarter-time. He was 74.
 
The last term was frantic as the Sun newspaper encapsulated: “Words cannot describe the drama of this remarkable game. It always had the crowd yelling for more as men hurled themselves into packs regardless of injury … in an exhibition of the grand Aussie game that was a delight, an inspiration and a never-to-be-forgotten experience for all those privileged to see it.”
 
Ian Brewer stepped forward to seemingly resurrect a beaten Collingwood, taking his goals tally to six. It was “rather fitting that he, more than any other man, ultimately brought victory so close. He kicked three goals in the last quarter, (and) two in the final few minutes of play.
 
Brewer’s sixth goal, brought up with two minutes remaining, put the Magpies in front. But just when it looked like an upset was about to be achieved, Melbourne’s Geoff Tunbridge slotted through a wobbly left-foot punt to regain the lead for his side. Then Ian Ridley finished the Magpies off with a goal - his fifth - just before the final siren to see the final margin pushed out to 11 points.
 
It was a thrilling end to a thrilling day, prompting Bretland to suggest that “there should be a consolation prize for a team like Collingwood, which hates to be beaten and never admits it is.”
 
Those words would be prescient. There would be a prize coming Collingwood’s way in the months ahead, and it would be infinitely more important than the four premiership points that Melbourne won on that famous Queen’s Birthday. It would be the 1958 premiership.
 
The Magpies would bring about one of Australian football’s greatest upsets by beating the Demons on a wet, muddy September day at the MCG before 97,956 fans - almost 2000 fewer than the Queen’s Birthday game - to claim the flag.
 
Sadly, Collingwood’s skipper Frank Tuck suffered an injury late in the season and hurt it again in the final training session before the Grand Final. Weideman was the stand-in skipper and he would do a great job.
 
Lou Richards gave his old club no chance before the game, saying: “Melbourne - the hottest favourite since Phar Lap - looks a certainty to win a fourth successive premiership” and that’s the way it appeared in the early stage of the 1958 Grand Final as the Demons went out to a solid early lead.
 
Then, as the teams resumed their positions for the start of the second quarter, Weideman turned to ‘Hooker’ Harrison, who was shadowing Barassi, and said: “Let’s see who we can collect.” Soon after Weideman collided with a few Melbourne players, Harrison upended Barassi and the Demons spent the rest of the game trying to retaliate.
 
In the meantime Collingwood played its way back into the match and carried a two-point lead into half-time. Kyne desperately wanted to preserve the club’s 1927-30 four-in-a-row and urged his players at the long interval to “Just do whatever it is you are doing.”
 
They did. Collingwood kicked five goals to nil in the third term, stunning the crowd to silence. The underdogs led at the last change by 33 points. Melbourne got to within three goals with 10 minutes to play, but the Magpies withstood the challenge.
 
Given the memorable clashes the two teams played that season, and the fact that the Magpies were able to preserve their four-in-a-row record, it was little wonder that president Syd Coventry described the 1958 Grand Final win as “the greatest performance in the history of the Collingwood Football Club.”