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Sensational Seventies: Robert Dean

Robert Dean during his playing days with Collingwood - Collingwood Magpies
Robert Dean during his playing days 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.

The ability to play well in a final is an art form; the ability to consistently do it in a losing team - particularly at Collingwood during the 1970s - was even more precious.

Robert Dean was a case in point.

He played in a winning finals match in only his 22nd game for the Magpies.

But it was the only time he was able to sing the song from his nine finals appearances, with the most painful defeats including losing what appeared to be the unlosable 1970 Grand Final against Carlton and suffering a similar fate three years later against Richmond in the 1973 preliminary final.

The latter hurt Dean even more than the former, but the result wasn't his fault.

He had 24 disposals in that game and was rated by the Age's Ron Carter as the best player afield. But Collingwood couldn't stop Royce Hart from almost singlehandedly dragging his team over the line in the second half after trailing by six goals at half-time.

"The overall pain still lingers ... I was never as disappointed as I was that day," Dean would tell the AFL Record 40 years later

"The 1973 prelim hurt me more than what 1970 did. I was disappointed when it happened (in 1970) but to be even able to play in a Grand Final ... it was huge for the whole of Melbourne at the time. (In 1973) you take a bit more responsibility with the whole thing.

"The thing about 1970 is that I was such a kid, the impact wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was (in 1973).

"(1973) is still the most disappointing finals series that I played in ... we should have won it."

Cruelly, Dean's finals record of eight losses and only one win – one game was with South Melbourne - sits at odds with his own solid performances in finals.

He won Collingwood’s best finals player award in 1972 and 1973, with his attributes - speed, mobility, good marking overhead and a fine kick - suited to the bigger grounds of the MCG and Waverley.

Dean was "a Collingwood boy all his life", recruited from one of the club's most productive talent resources, Ivanhoe Amateurs.

He impressed Magpies coach Bob Rose enough to be selected for his first game against Carlton at Victoria Park in Round 16, 1969. The 18-year-old was named on the reserves bench, and that's where he remained for the duration of the match, which the Blues won by 10 points.

Dean's debut, even though he wouldn't step across the white line, came at a momentous time. The first of his 121 games for Collingwood came on July 19, 1969, and less than 48 hours afterwards, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

The young Magpie took his own big leap in 1970, playing 22 games for the season, sometimes as a centre half-forward, occasionally in defence when the need required it, but predominantly on the wing.

His versatility was on display when he took on - and "spectacularly" outmarked - Richmond star Royce Hart during a game in which Dean was thrust into a defensive role after Ted Potter was injured.

He told the Sun afterwards: "I did not worry when I was sent against Royce Hart, I knew it was my job to beat him. I have always liked playing at centre-half-forward and I hoped to work out what Hart might do."

His early form included a stand-in role at full-forward for the injured Peter McKenna in his seventh game, when he kicked six goals against North Melbourne.

The Age said of Dean's 18-disposal, six goals and five behinds effort: "He played the position like an experienced League spearhead and not at all like an 18-year-old newcomer to the Magpie team this season. His 6.5 was a good day's work."  He was judged as second best behind ruckman Len Thompson.

His work in attack prompted former Magpie Graeme Fellowes to suggest: "Robert reminds me of Murray Weideman ... perhaps we have another 'Weed'.

But as the 1970 progressed - and as Collingwood flourished - he locked down one of the wings and combined to form one of the most exciting centrelines in the game alongside centreman Barry Price, with the sublimely-skilled John Greening on the other wing.

Dean was a strong mark, who could drag the ball down even when trying to match it with taller players going for the grab.

"A tall., wiry type", as the Football Record called him, he was also an excellent kick, and a mobile player who joked at the time that his fitness came from the fact that he used the stairs to run to the ninth floor at the RACV Building (where he worked in Queen Street) as part of his training routine.

He told Lou Richards with a smile: "It's not so bad now, I used to work on the 11th floor."

His first final produced a win - against Carlton in the 1970 second semi-final - but he could hardly have believed that he wouldn't win another game in September.

Dean played on the wing in the 1970 Grand Final, where heartbreakingly the club squandered a 44-point half-time lead to the Blues to lose the game - and the premiership - by 10 points. His 14 disposals and five marks came before the biggest crowd to ever watch a VFL match - 121,696.

Still, Dean was still 14 days short of his 20th birthday, and must have believed his chance for glory would one day come.

He wasn't quite as consistent the following year, but still managed 19 games. In that season, he had a career-best 30 disposals in Round 11 clash with Carlton.

Collingwood's 1971 season ended in a first-semi-final loss to Richmond, with Dean having 11 disposals in the game.

He continued to play a variety of roles, often on a needs basis, filling in for McKenna (who was off kicking 10 goals for Victoria against Tasmania) in Round 12 against Richmond in 1972. This time he kicked 4.6 and took seven marks,

John Greening, in the Age, said of Dean's efforts that day: "Certainly a side misses a player like Peter McKenna, but I thought Robert Dean did a great job at full-forward. We had a player to look for, just as we do with Peter, and Robert substituted well. The only thing missing was McKenna-type accuracy."

Described as "one of the most versatile players in the Collingwood line-up, (he is a) a good overhead mark and excellent kick", he was solid in the 1972 losing finals to Richmond and St Kilda. 

His most consistent season came in 1973, when he played 22 games and had almost 400 disposals, which saw him finish third in the Copeland Trophy. But, as stated earlier, the top of the table Magpies crashed out of the finals in straight sets, with the Tigers causing the damage.

He had been Collingwood's best player in both finals that season - 19 disposals and 10 marks against Carlton and 24 disposals and seven marks against Richmond.

One report on him said: "At Collingwood, they call this fellow the finals specialist", which wasn't necessarily the case with a number of his teammates.

The Magpies missed the finals in 1974, but crashed out again to Richmond in the elimination final the following year - in what was his last game for the club.

An offer from South Melbourne - and some disquiet about his role at Collingwood - saw Dean depart Victoria Park heading into the 1975 season.

He would explain: "I had an opportunity to play in a key position - centre half forward - at South. At Collingwood, I played a few good games at centre half forward, but they thought I was better value on the wing."

"I was under instructions not to go for marks on the wing from kick-ins. They didn't want me to spoil the big ruckman's marks."

Then the Magpies stopped him from preseason summer running sessions with John Toleman at Caulfield racecourse, so he had no option to make the move.

"I was a bit unhappy ... I used to turn up to (Collingwood) summer training and most of the time I would be the only senior player there."

Initially, he was meant to be swapped for a young hopeful called Colin Hounsell, but that player rejected the move and later went on to play 122 games with the Swans.

Dean had an outstanding start to his time with the Swans. He kicked eight goals in his first game with the club, and then six more against Collingwood the following week. He even led the VFL goal kicking after two rounds and the Magpies were on the bottom.

He bore no grudges against his old club, though, and even dropped his kids off at the Collingwood players' crèche on the day he returned to Victoria Park.

"It was a terrific feeling to be playing against my mates, although they gave me a pretty hard time," he said at the time. "I couldn't shut Bill Picken up. He took a mark over me and said 'Did you see that beauty I took over your head ... no, you wouldn't have as you were underneath me'."

Dean went on to play 66 games with the Swans, kicking 81 goals, including 37 in 1976, which was South Melbourne's leading tally for the year. He also polled a career-best nine votes in the Brownlow Medal, too.

In all, Dean played 187 games, in an impressive VFL career, highlighted by some of his performances in losing finals which stick in the memory of Magpie fans. Some even wondered what might have been in 1977 had he still been there playing on the wing when North Melbourne duo Stan Alves and Wayne Schimmelbusch proved such a handful.