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Sensational Seventies: Peter Eakins

Peter Eakins during his time with Collingwood - Collingwood Magpies
Peter Eakins during his time with Collingwood

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.

For a footballer who played only 32 games for Collingwood across three injury-interrupted seasons, Peter Eakins undoubtedly left his mark on the Magpies.

It wasn't necessarily the one that he or the club had planned.

For while he played in a Grand Final in his debut season of 1970, and won the club's best first-year player, the headlines that came with his recruitment as well as his lucrative contract deal sadly overshadowed his playing career.

Collingwood's decision to chase the young defender "at all costs" alienated several established Magpies, most notably captain Des Tuddenham and star ruckman Len Thompson, who were earning less than the first-year recruit.

Tuddenham and Thompson went "on strike" for three weeks during the 1970 preseason. They returned to the club for the start of the season, but it wasn’t without recriminations.

Divisions fuelled by the incident impacted on the club at the worst possible time.

None of that was Eakins' fault, and his teammates came to warm to his bright, engaging personality, even if the circumstances surrounding recruitment "unwittingly changed the (club's) entire player payment structure", according to historian Michael Roberts.

Eakins’ shock of blond hair made an immediate impression when he launched himself as a teenager onto the Western Australian football scene in the mid-1960s.

He was only 19 when selected for Subiaco's senior side in the opening round of 1966. His debut match came against a young, yet still formidable Mal Brown, who was playing his second season with East Perth.

It was the arrival of Haydn Bunton Jr. as coach in 1968 which helped take Eakins' game to a new level. He played for Western Australia for the first time that season, and went on the following year - as a 21-year-old - to dominate in the 1969 Australian National Football Carnival in Adelaide.

He was joint winner of the Tassie Medal – awarded to the best player of the carnival - with South Australian Graham Molloy, sparking a frenzy of interest from Melbourne clubs. Molloy would end up with the Demons; Eakins initially knocked back $3000 plus room and board by a rival VFL club.

But Collingwood set aside its usual thrifty manner towards recruits by offering him a $5000 signing on fee, as well as the promise of $5000 a year for three seasons - considerably more than what Magpie captain Des Tuddenham was seeking

The timing was great for Eakins; but not so great for the club who bucked a tradition of making its recruits earn their black and white stripes.

The Magpies were desperate for a defender, with Richard Stremski's book, Kill For Collingwood saying: "The (Tom) Sherrin administration was determined to secure him (Eakins) at any cost."

Tuddenham and Thompson were so incensed by the club's inability to meet their financial requests - and by the money Eakins was rumoured to be getting - that they briefly withdrew their services.

While they had no personal resentment against Eakins - Tuddenham later called him "a terrific bloke" - the wedge between some of the players and the Sherrin administration would be an on-going issue.

Eakins arrived at Victoria Park around the time of his 23rd birthday, armed with a big reputation, a job as a police roundsman with The Herald newspaper, and an infectious personality.

A picture of his first session at Victoria Park in February 1970 accompanied a report on Tuddenham (who had sought a pay increase but been denied the previous year) and Thompson failing to front.

A back page story in The Herald detailed: "High pay for players from WA is believed to be one reason why Des Tuddenham and Len Thompson are demanding contracts and a better financial deal from Collingwood."

"It is strange that it should burst at Collingwood where for years officials have boasted that players come to the club for the guernsey only."

The two Magpie mainstays returned to the club for the start of the season, but Tuddenham lost the captaincy, which caused a serious ruckus that had a lasting impact.

Years later, Eakins would joke: "I was getting $1000 every three months whether I played or not, free accommodation and trips home. And my match payments were based on the fact I was a 100-game player back home.

"Tuddenham and Thompson were probably the best players in the league at the time. And here was this silly young bloke earning more than them."

Eakins took a while to break into the Magpies' senior team, due to injury.

He played two "solid but not brilliant games in the Reserves" before the suspension of defender Lee Adamson presented an opening for the Round 9 1970 clash with Essendon at Windy Hill.

He was pictured calling his mother back in Perth to tell her "the good news".

The Sun declared: "Eakins … will be the biggest half-back flanker on the field tomorrow ... the Magpies spent time and money recruiting him because it was thought that the team was in dire need of a key defender."

He had 17 disposals on debut, dragging down 10 marks.

The following week, against St Kilda, he was listed as second best for his team, having 10 marks, as well as 20 disposals as the Magpies stormed home to win after being 52 points down at half-time. The defender kicked his one and only goal for the club that day.

Eakins would play 16 consecutive matches that season, locking himself into a back pocket role in the best team of the home-and-away season and winning the best first-year trophy.

He was popular amongst the fans, with Graeme Jenkin saying years later: "At training (Peter McKenna) never got out of the shadows of the social club where the girls were lined up screaming for the glamour boys like him and Peter Eakins."

At half-time of the 1970 Grand Final, it seemed certain that Eakins would also be a premiership player in his first year. The Magpies were 44 points in front.

Heartbreakingly, Collingwood faltered in the second half, going down to a fast-finishing Carlton by 10 points.

One of Eakins’ kicks late in the game was smothered by Syd Jackson, who helped to set up Ted Hopkins' fourth goal. Then, "the despairing defender" couldn't manage to run down a left foot kick from Alex Jesaulenko which went through for another last quarter goal.

But Eakins' opponent, 'Percy' Jones, was held goal-less for the game, as he had been in the second semi-final.

He resolved to never watch the game again.

Incredibly, Eakins gained a sobering perspective only a fortnight after the Grand Final loss.

He was working in the Herald's police rounds office around lunchtime on Thursday October 15, 1970, when he heard reports of the West Gate Bridge collapse.

The first eyewitness calls to the newspaper started at 11.57am, seven minutes after the collapse killed 35 construction workers.

By 12.15pm Eakins "began phoning what information there was on the account from police sources ... (and) this story formed the trunk of the Herald's coverage to which on-scene reports, eyewitness accounts and interviews were added.”

It was the biggest story of his journalistic career, just weeks after the biggest moment of his football career.

One of his media contemporaries, Geoff 'Chook' McClure, described how "(this) blond footballer with Hollywood looks would take young bucks under his wing and show them how to get a good story and later, how to have a good time, mostly using techniques that were not in the journalism manual."

He was a good-natured teammate, who used to joke with teammates on bus trips going home after matches that he was always good for a loan. And in late night poker games, he "lamented that he had lost $200, but would try to make it up the following weekend by picking up four extra handballs."

Eakins' 1971 season got off to a frustrating start. He suffered a bad hamstring injury in the club's first practice match and didn't resume in the seniors until Round 9.

Although he played 13 games for the season, which ended in a semi-final loss to Richmond, the Football Record said of Eakins: "Has not had a good season but (his) form in the last two games (Rounds 21 and 22) has shown improvement on the half back flank.”

“(His) snowy hair makes him prominent and (he) likes the rough going."

He was also described as "a strong, dashing, straight-ahead player who has been dogged by injuries".

Injuries again as well as inconsistent form hindered him in 1972, as he played only three senior games in the last of his three-year arrangement with Collingwood.

Two came in the finals, both off the bench.

His last game - his 32nd overall - came in the loss to St Kilda in the 1972 first semi-final.

Eakins' career at Collingwood was over, long before anyone thought it would be.

Workmate and friend, sports reporter Ron Reed, said later: "'Eako' wasn’t the greatest footballer ever to wear the black and white. He could play alright, but his striking appearance and mop of blond hair may have had something to do with him winning the Tassie medal, which theoretically made him the best in the land for a week or so."

Collingwood historian Michael Roberts said In Black & White: "Collingwood’s first foray into high-priced interstate recruiting had been a costly, and failed, experiment."

It wouldn’t be the last, even if Collingwood’s pay scale for players changed significantly as a result of his recruitment.

Eakins returned to Perth, but in a familiar refrain, injuries took a toll in 1973. He played only one senior WAFL game - and some reserves football - before retiring at 26.

His career flashed brightly and briefly like a comet. Sadly, so too did his life.

Having become a successful businessman and hotelier (notably at Cottesloe) and president of the WA Hotels Association, Eakins was struck down by cancer. He died on July 4, 1999, aged only 52.

Just a few years before his death, Eakins did something he swore he wouldn’t – he watched that 1970 Grand Final.

His son presented him with a video of his 'almost moment'.

"It wasn't until I'd had a good drink that I turned it one night and I ended up watching the whole thing," Eakins recalled.

He added: "And you can tell my opponent 'Percy' Jones that I was satisfied with my game" - even if he wasn't satisfied with the result.