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Sensational Seventies: Leigh Carlson

Leigh Carlson - Collingwood Magpies
Leigh Carlson

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.

Leigh Carlson had an unusual week in late May 1981.

In the space of seven days, the highly-skilled wingman, who possessed a raking left-foot kick and an uncanny goal sense, played three games - two against the same opponent; and one for a different club entirely.

Sounds strange? It wasn't for the time, given the VFL's mid-year transfer window was still open, but Carlson's predicament was a little more bizarre than most.

He had played his 42nd VFL game for Collingwood in Round 9, 1981, against North Melbourne, then turned three days later for the Magpies against the Kangaroos again, as part of the Escort Cup night series at Waverley.

But on the following Saturday, in Round 10, he played his first game for his new club Fitzroy against Footscray, frustrated by the decision to trade him as part of a deal to get Warwick Irwin to Collingwood, but determined to give as much value as he could to the Lions.

Carlson never complained - he got on with the job, in a VFL career that lasted for 117 games and 80 goals.

Importantly, he would play in 14 finals - in all but one of his seven seasons with the Magpies and the Lions - and would be admired by teammates at two clubs for his work ethic, his adaptability, his good skills and his personality.

He had been an exceptionally talented junior football star who once captained the All-Australian school-boys team. At 15, he was considered "the best (young) prospect in Australia", according to the Herald newspaper.

But he was slight and his size counted against him in his initial dealings with Collingwood, the club he was zoned to.

He would recount in an interview with Frank McGuire (brother of future Magpie president Eddie) in the Herald: "Collingwood asked me to train with the under 19s, but then they said they weren't prepared to play me because I was so small."

Considered too light to break into the Magpie thirds, he instead opted to head to Preston in the VFA.

It gave him a perfect grounding, and he "got his first senior game in the VFA club when he was still only 15."

"I learnt so much in playing senior football at that age ... I probably improved faster than if I had played under 19s (at Collingwood)," he said. "If you can play VFA standards, it's a fair chance you can make it in the VFL."

Carlson came to Collingwood's attention in the middle of the 1978 season, having kicked 44 goals as a half forward in the VFA the year before.

He joined the Magpies midway through the year, and after only three reserves games, was thrust into a game against North Melbourne at Victoria Park in Round 16. His inclusion for his debut game was overshadowed by the re-emergence of Phil Carman after his brief standoff with coach Tom Hafey.

Carlson, described as a "former Preston star", was named in attack, with the Age describing him as "a short, stylish half forward (who) has earned what promises to be a tough initiation with a big impact at Collingwood." He would go in to have nine disposals and slot through one goal.

The 20-year-old would play six games in his first season with the Magpies, wearing No.29 (in customary long sleeves), kicking nine goals, with his best performance coming with three goals and 23 disposals in the final round of the season in his maiden game at the MCG.

It's likely he secured Brownlow votes in that game.

He played either half-forward or the wing in that first season, but won his position in the 1978 qualifying final against Hawthorn, kicking a goal in the loss.

The Football Record said of the smooth-moving Magpie: "Adjusted to playing the wing and displayed cleverness in his senior games ... a quick mover, he has settled into the Magpies' pattern of breaking away with the run-on style."

He missed out on the Magpies' other finals that year and found it hard to break into the starting 18 early into the next season. He managed only three games in the first half of the 1979 season, but off the back of some fine performances in the midweek "night competition", he found himself back in the side.

He regained his spot by Round 20, and held it for the rest of the season, playing in all four of the Magpies finals.

Having played off the interchange bench in most of his games that season, and used in short bursts with his "speed and accuracy around goals", he would dearly loved to have had more game time, but was pleased to be in the side.

He told the Herald: "I wasn't really disappointed about being used that way, it was pretty easy really. It was better being on the bench than not being part of the game at all. You learn a lot of things by sitting and watching what's expected of you.

"I probably didn't chase hard enough, my defensive game wasn't up to it."

He kicked one of Collingwood's 11 goals in the 1979 Grand Final loss to Carlton, which came in the last term as the Magpies fought desperately to come back. Heartbreakingly, Tom Hafey's team would lose by only five points in a classic game.

Carlson was "a far more consistent player" in 1980, where he was overcame a slow start to push himself into the senior team by Round 5. He wouldn't look back, playing 22 games for the season (winning 16), and kicking 21 goals, with his best coming in the elimination final win over North Melbourne.

Hafey moved Carlson to the forward pocket against the Kangaroos and he delivered for the coach with four goals.

He was on the wing in the preliminary final, where he was beaten by Michael Turner, but won his way through to a second straight Grand Final, this time against an ominous Richmond. The Magpies ran out of steam and went by 81 points.

He was once described as "more efficient than spectacular ... he certainly can be exciting when he storms forward with surprisingly long strides, bouncing the ball left-handed at top pace and then spearing it through the goals with remarkable consistency for a left-footer."

Carlson would manage only four games in the first nine rounds of the 1981 season, as he struggled to hold down a consistent spot within the team.

His 42nd - and last - VFL game for Collingwood came in Round 9, when he had seven disposals and kicked a behind against North Melbourne, then fronted up to take on the Kangaroos in the "night competition" game on the Tuesday night.

Remarkably, he would play his third game in seven days in a very different jumper, for Fitzroy.

Collingwood's pursuit of Fitzroy rover Warwick Irwin had hit a hurdle, when young defender Mark Dreher was reluctant to accept a deal that would see him, and fellow Magpie Des Herbert, plus a substantial sum of money, cross to the Lions.

Carlson ended up being the circuit breaker to the trade.

Trevor Grant revealed in The Age that the Magpie wingman had "emerged as the solution to the deadlock". To his shock, the Magpies gave Carlson 24 hours to make up his mind, but he had little alternative but to accept the move.

He, Herbert and schoolboy footballer Matthew McClelland transferred to the Lions, along with $45,000, while Irwin got the chance to switch to Collingwood.

The following weekend Carlson turned out for Fitzroy - the team he supported as kid - in the Round 10 clash with Footscray.

Initially he wasn't happy with how it all transpired, but he came to accept it, and thrive in his role with the Lions. According to Mike Sheahan, in the Herald, "the clever left footer was horrified and hurt by the Collingwood decision to discard him in the Irwin deal."

Carlson never missed a beat in his switch, playing 15 games for the Lions in the second half of the season, which sadly ended in a first semi-final loss to Collingwood - of all clubs.

Sheahan would go on to say of the trade transaction: "A deal done two years ago still haunts the Magpies, and promises to do so for years to come."

Irwin would never reach great heights in his 16 games with Collingwood, and he ended up back at Fitzroy as a teammate of Carlson in 1983.

Carlson would go on to play 75 games with Fitzroy from mid-1981 to the end of 1984, with his most consistent season coming in in 1983 when he played 24 games and kick 25 goals, accumulating 463 disposals.

His last game for Fitzroy came against his old side in the 1984 elimination final.

In all, Carlson would play 117 games and kick 80 goals for the two sides.

"I really liked Collingwood ... the size of the place tended to push the players closer together; (but) it's more of a family at Fitzroy," he would say.

Carlson never wanted to leave Victoria Park, but circumstances were against him, albeit he made the best of the situation by adopting his new home at the Lions as he had earlier down at the Magpies.