Main content

Burgess' impact beyond Collingwood

Top 5: Round 12 Watch the best five moments from Collingwood's round 11 encounter with Fremantle, presented by Collingwood Media and premier partner CGU Insurance.

It was the era of mullets and moustaches; a time when tight shorts and lace-up jumpers were the trends; and when footy expansion meant national, not international as it does today.

Remember the ‘80s?

If you can, you will recall it as one of the most volatile periods in Australian football history. It was a time of seismic change which dragged a near-broke Victorian Football League – with its 12 parochial clubs who played predominantly on suburban grounds each Saturday afternoon (often on muddy grounds) – towards the Australian Football League of today – when 18 clubs play in every state and territory at an assortment of times during the day and night (often under a roof).

If can’t recall them, you missed a remarkable decade for the game, and for Collingwood.

But don’t fret; Collingwood Forever plans to transport you back in time each week for a blast from the 1980s past, profiling a player who made an impact for one reason or another during that decade. They might not have all been stars, but each contributed to one of the club’s most tumultuous periods.

Tony Burgess

Collingwood seemingly had an endless supply of South Australian hopefuls willing to try their luck in Black and White throughout the 1980s.

Some came with big reputations on lucrative deals as well as huge transfer fees; others preferred a more low-profile approach and didn’t chase a small fortune across the border.

Some succeeded; others were less than enduring.

A few stuck around for a period before returning home, as was the case with close-checking, moustachioed defender Tony Burgess, who played 21 games across two seasons in the No. 20 jumper.

Burgess is remembered more as a dependable, dour defender, rather than a dynamic one, but he was very much a player of his time.

He had trained at stages at Victoria Park before officially joining the club, given he worked for a time in Melbourne, yet still played for West Adelaide (a team that wouldn’t clear him) in the SANFL. They ultimately relented, and the already established back-man got the chance to play in the big league, even though his time in black and white was only fleeting.

He had returned home before he turned 26.

Burgess had grown up in the small Flinders Ranges township of Quorn, in South Australia, which was birthplace of legendary SANFL football identity ‘Fos’ Williams, father of Mark Williams. His own father was a publican in one of the town’s four pubs in the town of 3000 residents.

As a teenager, he was a boarder in Adelaide at Sacred Heart College. On one of the school’s tours to Victoria, Sacred Heart took on Kilmore’s Assumption College, with Burgess opposed to a promising young Assumption footballer. His name was Neale Daniher, and the future Essendon star “didn’t have it all his own way.”

Burgess was residentially zoned to North Adelaide, but wanted to join West Adelaide. He would explain: “Fos’ sister still lived in Quorn and I had become good friends with (Fos’ son) Mark and the family, who often came up there (Quorn) for holidays. Fos was coaching West at the time (in 1978) and naturally I wanted to play for them, because I was in a North Adelaide-zoned area. I had to wait for a clearance and didn’t join the club until 1980.”

It didn’t take the defender long to find his niche with West Adelaide, making his debut in 1980, as a 19-year-old. He would play five seasons in his first stint with the club, though he didn’t always train with the club, mostly notably in a successful 1983 season.

In that year, and in the season after, Burgess actually worked in Melbourne – he was a sales representative with Unifood Services - and trained with a few different VFL clubs at times, before flying back to Adelaide on the weekend to play for his SANFL team. West Adelaide wouldn’t allow him to play in Melbourne, so he became a fly-in, fly-out player for the best part of two seasons.

He trained at times with Sydney’s Melbourne-based players, but also for a time from August 1983, with Collingwood at Victoria Park.

He played a key role in West Adelaide’s 1983 premiership side, even if he almost missed the Grand Final. He had a hamstring injury leading into the game – and he struggled to get through the final training session on the Thursday night.

He would recall: “I did the warm up at training and I said to ‘Kerls’ (coach Neil Kerley) that I didn’t think I was too good. He told me to go back inside and strap it (hamstring) and come back out. When I came back out he said: ‘Righto son, now try and tear it (hamstring) as you have got nothing to lose’.”

When he got through another fitness test on the Friday night, Kerley said to him: ‘Well mate, you will be playing at full back’.’’

He was pitted against star Sturt player Rick Davies, who had almost kicked 150 goals for the season, and Burgess restricted him to only two goals in a telling duel in West Adelaide’s 1983 Grand Final victory. “He had a bad day and I had a good day,” he modestly recalled.

By the following Monday, Burgess was back at work in Melbourne, while his West Adelaide teammates partied hard.

He was eager to try his luck in the VFL – and at Collingwood – but again West Adelaide wouldn’t provide him with a clearance. He was “forced to cool his heels” for a year in 1984 before being cleared.

“I was really disappointed when I did not get a clearance, and I wasn’t going to play for West Adelaide,” he said of a frustrating wait through the 1984 season. “I’d asked for certain things in writing and had not received a replay, then on the Friday before the first game, they contacted me and a few problems were ironed out. One of the conditions that I stayed (in 1984) was that there would be no hiccups in 1985 when I applied for a clearance (to Collingwood).”

Unlike many other transfers during Collingwood’s often reckless recruiting drives in the early to mid-1980s, Burgess didn’t excessively cost the club. In fact, they made a reasonable profit on the deal. Part of the transfer meant that Dale Woodhall and Ron Andrews moved to West Adelaide, while Derek Shaw was also leased to the SANFL club.

Collingwood’s In Black and White magazine said when the defender was recruited for the 1985 season that the club had been granted a “sizeable amount of cash, as well as Burgess.”

Fortunately, given he had trained with the Magpies beforehand, Burgess knew what to expect. He said: “I already knew a few of the guys at Collingwood … Mark Weideman, Mark Williams and Andrew Smith, I knew him quite well, and others like Greg Phillips and Mark Taylor, who were also at Collingwood.”

He chose Collingwood over Fitzroy and Hawthorn because he had “a gut feeling” about the Magpies: “I thought it as good as any to try and break into VFL football.”

Tony Burgess (far right) joins Clay Sampson, Brad Gotch (a current Collingwood Academy Coach) and Barry Pilmore at a coaching session in 2014. Photo: Victor Harbor Times.

Burgess’ first of his 21 VFL games in black and white came in a noteworthy game – the first Friday night match in Melbourne – when Collingwood took on North Melbourne at the MCG on an evening when ground officials underestimated the crowd that quite literally burst through one of the gates. More than 65,000 fans attended, and he had 14 disposals, kicking a behind in the Magpies’ 38-point win.

The “easy-going, good natured chap” played nine of the first 10 games that season, playing mainly as “a quick defender with the ability to kick with both feet.”

1986 was a challenging year for Collingwood on many fronts. Bob Rose quit as coach and handed over the reins to Leigh Matthews, while the club went to the brink of bankruptcy, asking the players to accept a 20 per cent pay cut. A few players refused, but Burgess accepted the reduction.

He ended up playing 12 games in his second (and final) season at Victoria Park, kicking the first of his two goals in Black and White in the opening game of 1986. He played the first eight games that season – his longest streak at the club – but injury stopped his run. Three more games came in the middle of the season but he spent much of the rest of the year in the reserves.

His final game came in the last round of 1986, but he did not record a possession.

All the VFL clubs had to nominate three players to the fledgling Brisbane Bears, with Collingwood offering up Burgess’ name. But he had no intention of going north, and was happy to return home to his home state, where he joined West Adelaide again.

His time with Collingwood was over – at 25 - but not his time in football. He went on to play seven more seasons in the SANFL, finishing up with 185 games with West Adelaide to go with his 21 for the Magpies.

He made an impact as a coach, too, though not in the way he would have anticipated.

He coached West Adelaide under 19s to a flag in 2002 in the most trying of circumstances. During that year, Jake Watson, the son of Burgess’s 1983 premiership-winning teammate Larry Watson (and the nephew of Tim and cousin of Jobe) collapsed and died on the field during a match.

The one-time Magpie was credited with unifying the shattered group of young men, with one of the players that year, now Fox Sports’ Tom Chadwick, recalling years later: “Our coach, former Collingwood hard man Tony Burgess, immediately turned into a father figure.”

What Burgess did in uniting that grieving young playing group – in many ways - might have been every bit as important as the many achievements he made on the football field.

The Electrifying Eighties
Written by Glenn McFarlane and Michael Roberts

A lasting impact: Greg Phillips

A loved rover's big year: Matthew Ryan

A comet in the Magpie sky: Phil Walsh

Sweet sixteen and a senior debut: Terry Keays

Quiet, no fuss and got the job done: Ron McKeown

A man for all seasons: Jamie Turner

Almost ahead of his time: Bruce Abernethy

Hawke's rise and fall: Paul Hawke

Our first Indigenous Magpie: Wally Lovett

Mr Reliable: Michael Taylor