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History: The 'Peace Premiership'

The MCG stands are packed prior to the start of the 1919 Grand Final - Collingwood Magpies,Richmond Tigers
The MCG stands are packed prior to the start of the 1919 Grand Final

It's 100 years since the Magpie grabbed the first post-War flag with a win over Richmond. Club Historian Michael Roberts tells us how the Pies triumphed in 'the Peace Premiership'.

The 1919 VFL season was played in an almost celebratory atmosphere: the First World War was over, all teams bar the disbanded University were back in the competition and Victorians could once again enjoy their footy without having to worry about what was happening on the other side of the world. 

There was renewed interest in the game, bigger crowds and more excitement. Footy was back. That season’s contest became known colloquially as the 'Peace Premiership'. And it somehow carried more significance because of the backdrop in which it was played.

At Collingwood, there was an odd mixture of anticipation, sadness and resolve. The anticipation was centred not just on the season to come, but also on the expected return of war heroes Malcolm ‘Doc’ Seddon and former skipper Dan Minogue. There was sadness for former player Percy Rowe, who never made it back from the war, and also for coach Jock McHale, whose six-year-old son died from pneumonia just before the start of the season. And the resolve came from the Magpies’ determination to atone for what had been a heartbreaking grand final loss the previous year, overrun by South Melbourne in the dying seconds.

The bulk of the Magpies line-up was the same as it had been through 1917 (which had brought a Premiership in a six-team competition) and 1918, when they'd just missed out. Star players included legendary full-forward Dick Lee, beanpole ruckman Les Hughes, rover Percy Wilson, newly elected captain Con McCarthy and the brilliant centre line trio of Charlie Pannam Jnr, Tom Drummond and Bill Twomey Snr. And of course, the great Dan Minogue was to come back.

But then he didn't. And all hell broke loose. 

Dan Minogue had left Collingwood as an inspiration who was carried from the field by adoring fans after his farewell match in 1916, and the whole club could not wait for his return. There were even plans afoot to honour him with an official ‘welcome home’ function. But those ideas were dropped immediately after Minogue sensationally revealed that he wanted to transfer to Richmond. Collingwood opposed the move, of course, which forced him out of football for the rest of 1919. 

At Collingwood, those who had idolised their former skipper felt angry, let down and betrayed. Officials famously turned his photo to the wall in response. Nobody could understand what had happened. Minogue’s reasons were never fully explained, though years later he wrote that he had been upset over Collingwood’s treatment of former player Jim Sadler, a close friend, and felt he had to leave on principle.

So Collingwood felt betrayed, and Richmond were angry that the Pies had stopped Minogue from joining them that year. Minogue’s shock defection certainly fuelled an emerging rivalry between the two inner-city neighbours.

Still, Minogue's absence didn't derail the Magpies' season. Despite the occasional hurdle (like losing to St Kilda at Victoria Park for the first time in the VFL) they finished on top of the ladder with 52 points, one game clear of second-placed South Melbourne. Carlton and Richmond filled the last two spots, distantly back on 40 points.

The Pies came into September on the back of an eight-game winning streak and made short work of Carlton in their first final, during which Dick Lee notched his 50th goal of the season. Richmond stunned South Melbourne in the other final. Under the finals system of the time, Richmond had to beat the Magpies twice to win their first VFL flag. No one gave them much hope of doing it. In fact, the Pies were so confident of success in their first crack at Richmond that they had already booked an end-of-season trip to the Gippsland Lakes beginning the following Saturday.

But The Herald sagely noted that ‘there is such a condition as over confidence’, and the newspaper was right: Collingwood played like a team already on holidays. Richmond led from the outset and ran out winners by 29 points. A grand final would be needed, and Collingwood had to postpone its trip.

The build-up to the contest was huge, as the whole town once again embraced football. The Argus said: "For the past week excitement has been at fever pitch. The affairs of Commonwealth and State have been forgotten. Mr Hughes (Prime Minister) has been pushed off the map; the supermen of today are Con McCarthy, captain of the ‘Woods, and Percy Maybury, who leads the Tigers. The whole metropolis is possessed, and talks and argues nothing but the prospects of the rival teams."

Collingwood's 1919 premiership captain Con McCarthy

Part of Richmond’s success in the first final came from the way it used big man Dave Moffatt to negate the influence of ruckman Les Hughes. Jock McHale was not about to let it happen again, so employed McCarthy to come between Moffatt and Hughes at almost every opportunity, giving the Collingwood player the extra space he needed. It was, as the Australasian concluded, ‘the most telling move of the match’. Hughes and McCarthy would be two of the most effective players on the field. 

More than 45,000 fans, including plenty of men in khaki, saw the match – the biggest Grand Final crowd since 1913 – and more than a few of them were perched on the grandstand roof. The Magpies had their noses in front by just four points at the long break, and stretched that to 16 by the final break. McHale exhorted his men to keep playing attacking football, and they responded with three early goals, taking the final margin to a comfortable 25 points. "Decisively as Richmond on the merits won the first game, just as meritoriously Collingwood won this time," wrote the Argus. "While they never spared themselves or their opponents, it was still the triumph of skill over strength."

The Peace premiership was Collingwood’s. To make things even better, Collingwood Districts, the club’s seconds side, also won their flag, with Ernie ‘Tich’ Utting kicking more than 90 goals.

It had been a tough season, physically and mentally, but the Magpies had triumphed. And now it was time to celebrate. Football had resumed its place in Melbourne’s sporting and social landscape, and Collingwood had returned to the top of the VFL. The war was over, and the natural order was being restored.

1919 Grand Final

Collingwood   1.5      5.5      8.8      11.12 (78)
Richmond       1.2      4.7    5.10       7.11 (53)

Goals - Collingwood: Lee 3, Seddon 2, Curtis, Hughes, Laxton, Lumsden, Twomey, Walton

Best - Collingwood: McCarthy, Twomey, Hughes, Colechin, Curtis, Pannam

Umpire: Elder

Attendance: 45,413 at the MCG 

Grand Final Team
B: W. Haysom, H. Saunders, M. Sheehy
HB: A. Mutch, W. Walton, A. Colechin
C: T. Drummond, C.E. Pannam, W.P. Twomey
HF: E. Wilson, H. Curtis, M. Seddon
F: P. Reynolds, R. Lee, E. Lumsden
R: L. Hughes, C. McCarthy (c), C. Laxton

A small display honouring the 1919 flag has been set up in one of the cabinets in the foyer at the Holden Centre. Check it out next time you're in.