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Headliners No. 13: The defections

By Glenn McFarlane of the Herald Sun  June 14, 2017 1:00 PM

125 in 125: Melbourne Collingwood Media presents a history between Collingwood and Melbourne.

Collingwood fans had every reason to think the 1940s might prove as fruitful as the previous decade, given its impressive playing list and the fact the club had played in the previous five Grand Finals.

Sure, the winds of war had taken hold of the world with the threat that the theatres might move closer to Australia. But it seemed as if football would continue on regardless.

Coach Jock McHale was content in the belief he still had access to some of the best players in the competition with Jack Regan, Phonse Kyne and Alby Pannam still champions of the game. He also had two of the most brilliant young footballers in the land in his midst and they seemed capable of dominating the VFL scene for a decade or more to come.

Ron Todd, at 23, was coming off successive hauls of 120 goals in 1938 and 121 the following year. He had kicked 11 goals in the previous two preliminary finals, and his goal-kicking gluttony had many predicting he would re-write the record books in the coming years.

The other young star was 20-year-old Des Fothergill. He had won three Copeland Trophies within his first four seasons along with the 1940 Brownlow Medal, tying with South Melbourne's Herbie Matthews. No Magpie had become so decorated in such a short period of time as Fothergill. More laurels seemed certain for him.

Just imagine the seismic shock when Collingwood lost both of its young superstars within the space of 12 months. Their departures – a year apart – shook the foundations at Victoria Park and sent Magpie fans young and old into a despair they were unaccustomed to. The talk of premierships dwindled with the departures.

Their loss – to the VFL and to a cashed-up Williamstown – impacted significantly to the club’s on-field fortunes just as the war’s threatening tentacles began to impact on the competition and on the club itself.

The 1940s would be the only decade in the club’s history where it failed to play off in a Grand Final.


An iconic image of Ron Todd.

Todd was the first to leave. His departure created one of the biggest football sensations in the game’s history. He had worked on the railways and Collingwood’s egalitarian pay structure – where everyone was paid the same – meant he knew he was never going to get rich out of the game. But no one expected what happened.

Williamstown had a wealthy benefactor which gave the VFA club the chance to entice players across to the VFL’s rival competition. The offer was almost too good to refuse. He received a three-year offer worth 500 pounds along with extra match payments, which was about two or three times what he could have expected to receive at Collingwood.

Todd signed on the bottom line, even though he didn’t particularly want to leave Collingwood. The Magpies said they wouldn’t clear him, but the forward resolved to leave anyway.

Then, at the eleventh hour, Todd had a change of heart, and to the enormous relief of Magpie fans he turned up to a practice match before the start of the 1940 season, saying he wanted to stay.

He said at the time: “My football was learned in Collingwood and the lure of the black and white uniform is too great for me, After all, there are other things in life besides money. My past association with the Magpies - Jock McHale, my teammates, the committee and supporters - in fact all that Collingwood stands for - is too much for me to sever. I'm sorry I've disappointed Williamstown whose generous offers I appreciate.”

But Williamstown intended to hold Todd to the agreement he had made, and he had choice but to leave Collingwood – forever, as it turned out. An attempt was made to lure him back to Victoria Park a few years later – when the VFA was in recess – but it came and when after Todd was made to wait too long outside the committee room as they debated his possible return.

Todd would go onto kick 672 goals from his 141 games for Williamstown in two stints during and after the war, interrupted by his service in the air force. He kicked an incredible 188 goals in the VFA in 1945; his final VFL-VFA tally at the end of his career in late 1949 was 999 goals from 217 games.

Todd's loss was painful enough, but when Des Fothergill left the following year, the supporters’ pain was almost too cruel. Fothergill was the reigning Brownlow Medallist, having tied with South Melbourne’s Herb Matthews. He, too, had found it impossible to pass up the offer that came from Williamstown in 1941.

Collingwood was powerless to stop Fothergill from leaving. It was never going to change its principle of paying its players equally. But to lose a footballer who had only just turned 21, and was one of the most freakishly talented players the club had seen (as a midfielder or a forward), was a devastating blow to the club’s hopes for the 1940s.

But unlike Todd, who never returned, Fothergill reconciled his differences with the Magpies. He returned to the club for the 1945 season and while he wasn’t the dynamic type of player he had been in his youth, due to a knee injury suffered in the services, he was still a very good addition to the team.

His return to the club coincided with Collingwood’s best season of the decade as the Magpies made it through to the preliminary final. Fothergill was the competition’s leading goal-kicker in the home-and-away season before being passed in the finals. Injuries brought a premature end to his career in 1947, but at least Collingwood fans had him back for three years.

Headliners - Collingwood's Top 25 News Stories since 1925

No. 25 - McKenna snubbed

No. 24 - Leaving Victoria Park

No. 23 - A pre-season shock

No. 22 - The arrival of a new star

No. 21 - The Grand Final furore

No. 20 - A life ban

No. 19 - Headliners No. 19: Somerville Incident

No. 18 - The Healy-Adams clash

No. 17 - The defection

No. 16 - The Tyson sacking

No. 15 - A bitter election

No. 14 - Eddie arrives