Main content

Sensational Seventies: Russell Ohlsen

Russell Ohlsen - Collingwood Magpies
Russell Ohlsen

It was the decade where football took its first faint steps towards professionalism.

Players chased a greater financial return, Waverley rose from the paddocks, colour television beamed into our living rooms for the first time and the game endured through a turbulent decade.

The ‘Sensational Seventies, as they would become known, proved a tantalising, yet ultimately unfulfilled period for Collingwood.

It was bookended by heartbreaking Grand Final losses to Carlton. The first came when the Magpies lost from what had previously been considered an unlosable situation; the second when Collingwood almost pinched the premiership in the dying moments of a dour struggle.

Through it all, the goings on at Collingwood – and at Victoria Park - was like a soap opera you couldn’t switch off, and the audience was spellbound.

For those who lived through it, it was a period they will never forget and it produced heroes and characters alike forever etched into our consciousness.

For those who didn’t,Collingwood Forever will transport you back in time each week this season for a blast from the ‘70s past, profiling a player who made an impact for one reason or another.

If it hadn't been for a wayward forearm which came into contact with his head, Russell Ohlsen might have ended up a Collingwood premiership hero.

Instead, Ohlsen sits alongside a host of other Magpies of the late 1970s and early 1980s who came agonising close to winning a flag, only to miss out.

It's no exaggeration to suggest the one-time Maryborough player and former Carlton utility was one of the most influential players in the early stages of the 1979 Grand Final. He might even have been on his way to the first Norm Smith Medal had it not been for what happened next.

To that stage, he had compiled 11 disposals, kicked a brilliant left-foot snap goal (in the first term) and was a dominant force for the Magpies.

Then, during the second quarter, things went blurry.

A forceful knock to his head from former teammate Trevor Keogh at a crucial stage left Ohlsen reeling and with his jaw aching.

It could hardly have come at a more inopportune time.

Keogh was reported, with umpire Bill Deller calling it "unduly rough play in that he allegedly knocked (Ohlsen) in the head causing him to go to the ground."

A shaken Ohlsen spent the entire third quarter receiving treatment on the bench, as Carlton swiftly took control of the match.

He did return for the frantic final term - where he courageously won four more disposals - but his influence had been curbed, and the Magpies would go down by five points.

Ohlsen had originally come from the football stronghold of Maryborough, with Lou Richards once calling him "a bow-legged boy from the bush".

He had been recruited to Carlton - and Princes Park - in 1975, and went onto play 14 games for the Blues that year, including in the qualifying loss to North Melbourne. The hard-working utility won the club's best first year player.

He played 17 matches the following year before opportunities began to dry up a little as he struggled to compete with Keogh and Barry Armstrong in terms of locking down a ruck rover's role.

Injuries also began to bite. While he played 13 games in 1977, a knee injury suffered in a night game at VFL Park hindered him, and in time that required surgery.

As a result of injuries and lack of opportunity, he managed only three games in 1978, even if he did win the reserves' second best and fairest as well as the reserves’ best clubman.

He would later tell the Sun: "At Carlton most of the team had played together for years and the younger newcomers tended to feel left out of things. I was doing reasonably well in the reserves. I couldn't see myself getting a senior game ahead of Trevor Keogh or Barry Armstrong."

In all, he played 47 games for the Blues, kicking 25 goals from 1975 to 1978.

Several rival VFL clubs sought his services, but Ohlsen only had eyes for Collingwood - and its coach Tom Hafey.

He would say: "Tommy was the main reason I joined the Magpies. I had offers from a couple of other clubs, but decided to see what Tommy could do."

"I have always been impressed with is style. He has a closely knit team at Collingwood; they're all goers and never frightened to go in."

While he left the Blues in 1979 for Collingwood - a rarity given the enmity between the old foes - he had no desire to tee off at his old club, explaining: "I don't have a bad thing to say about Carlton. They were good to me when I had a bad run with injuries and I certainly haven't any enemies there."

But he later noted differences between the two clubs: "When I went there (Collingwood) they were more of a tight unit, all in together. At Carlton at that time there was a defined group of senior players and you had to prove yourself to them. At Collingwood we were treated the same, from the captain right down."

He told Lou Richards that he came to love the Friday night phone calls he and his teammates would receive from Hafey on the eve of each game.

"It was a little bit funny at first," he said. "But now I look forward to our little chats and I would be disappointed if we didn't have it."

Even then, mid-season in 1979, he dared to dream of getting one up on his old side, potentially in a Grand Final, when talking about his black and white ambitions.

"First, I want to play at least 100 games with Collingwood, including the Grand Final against Carlton," he said.

Sadly, he wouldn't reach that tally, but he would get to play against his old side in a premiership playoff in his first season with the Magpies.

Having missed the first two games of 1979, Ohlsen found his niche through the midfield, and occasionally off half-back, playing 22 matches, including four finals.

Fittingly, he was awarded the club's most determined player in his debut season.

It was well earned, too, given he had carries stress fractures throughout much of the year, often having pain killing injections to play.

The fact that his early dominance in that 1979 Grand Final was curtailed still riles some of his teammates, even if he was one of the first to congratulate Keogh on the final siren.

The Blue would plead not guilty, but admitted the incident didn't looked "pretty bad". Keogh would receive a severe reprimand, though respected journalist Mike Sheahan would say: "Collingwood players still believe it was a defining moment in the game, given Ohlsen's inspirational performance against his original club.

Sheahan would add: "Under the current system, in which the base points are doubled for an offence in a Grand Final, Keogh would have been suspended for seven, even eight, matches, and that's with an early plea."

Ohlsen was always "capable of winning the ball and opening avenues for teammates", according to the Football Record. Another report described him as "a determined type ... who could play ruck rover, but also capable of tagging opposition players."

The Magpies’ No.34 was popular amongst his teammates, and unmistakable to fans given his tattoos, and his capacity to find the ball.

He went on to play 20 games in 1980, again in four finals, as Hafey's Magpies pushed their way through to another Grand Final, this time against Richmond. Sadly, that game was a whitewash.

The Magpies lost by 80 points, and Ohlsen had 15 disposals and kicked a goal.

Injuries and form began to bite in 1981. As the Magpies worked towards another Grand Final - against Carlton - Ohlsen could manage only eight games.

His 50th, and last, for Collingwood came in the semi-final win over Fitzroy, though he only had nine disposals. He was only 25.

He never reached that desired tally of 100 games for the Magpies, and narrowly missed that overall figure of a century (97 games and 47 goals with the Blues and Magpies).

Ohlsen went on to join Preston in the VFA in 1982, joining teammate Ray Shaw, who was appointed coach of the Bullants. At least there, he went on to taste premiership success, being a part of the club’s 1983 flag side, though injury would cost him the chance for back-to-back flags.

In time, he would go back to play for and coach Maryborough.

He didn’t play as much VFL football as his talent suggested, but to this day, his teammates still talk about what might have been if he hadn’t copped that forearm to the jaw in the ’79 Grand Final.