Main content

Sensational Seventies: Con Britt

Con Britt during his playing days with Collingwood - Collingwood Magpies
Con Britt 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.

You could forgive Collingwood fans for almost doing a double take when the ball went forward during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Des Tuddenham stood out wherever he was.

He was hard, tough, had a ginger tone to his hair and he loved to crunch packs.

The only problem, at least in terms of player recognition goes, is that the Magpies had another player with similar physical likenesses and that same unmistakable appetite for the contest.

His name was Con Britt.

And while his 110 games and 72 goals in black and white never had the impact of a player of Tuddenham's ilk - few careers did - he was often mistaken for the Magpies skipper whenever he went for the ball.

As an Inside Football profile in the early 1970s detailed: "When Britt and Tuddenham played together on the Collingwood half forward line, it was often difficult picking who was who. Both have gingery hair, both are willing and both are under six foot (Tuddenham was 180cm, Britt 179cm), and, oddly enough, both are former Ballarat YCW players."

Britt's career never reached the same heights as Tuddenham, but he had made a strong impression on Magpies' fans, not just for his Tuddy likeness.

A tough half-forward, who had an uncanny knack of finding the goals in some of Collingwood's best teams, Britt would even transform late in his career as a back pocket.

He was described as "a good mark for his size, red hair, and (his) dashing style made him a conspicuous player", but frustratingly while he played in seven finals in his time at the club, he only got to celebrate a win on one of those occasions.

Brit had been born and bred in Ballarat, growing up with five brothers and a sister on the family's potato farm at Dunnstown.

Given the name 'Cornelius', it was turned into 'Con' from an early age, and football become one of his earliest passions, with his family barracking for Essendon.

He learnt his craft playing for Tuddenham's old team, Ballarat YCW, but also managed 10 games with Golden Point in the Ballarat Football League.

His local form began to attract the interest of league clubs.

As he later explained, "all the VFL clubs except Hawthorn and Footscray were on my doorstep ... they all came up within a week or so but finally I settled on Collingwood."

Tuddenham played a role in helping him make the decision to Victoria Park, as did a handful of other players, along with the club secretary of the time, Jack Burns.

Breaking into a strong Collingwood team was never going to be an easy proposition. But some good form in the seconds was enough for Britt to win a chance - as a reserve - in Round 16, 1966, even if the papers couldn't quite to get his name right.

Ahead of that game, the Age said of him: "Col (sic) Britt, a skilful forward flanker and wingman, was picked as the 20th man. The selection of Britt to sit on the reserves bench shows the former Golden Point player is very close to (on-field) senior selection."

Just three days after his 19th birthday, Britt sat on the bench through most of his VFL debut, before coming on in the last term for Gary Wallis, having four disposals.

He would say later: "I must say the tempo was a bit of a shock to the system."

His first full game came in the opening round of the following season, against Geelong, where he had 11 disposals, impressing in the No.27 jumper.

It was one of 16 games he played in that 1967 season, and he kicked 15.19, entrenching himself into a team that ended up playing in the finals.

In his fifth game, he kicked three goals and had 18 touches against Footscray, where he was said to be "the springboard of many Collingwood successful last quarter attacks. The Age detailed: "Britt's pace, accuracy and good disposal marked him as a player for the future."

He maintained his position in the side for the semi-final against the Cats, and in the five goal loss, he kicked a goal and had 12 possessions.

But he made his mark in other ways that day - and showed that even as a 20-year-old, he had a hard edge.

In the first term he was involved in a collision with John 'Sam' Newman. The Geelong big man was rushed to hospital where surgeons were forced to remove one of his kidneys. Fifty years later, Britt would apologise to Newman over the incident in a Channel Nine retrospective centred on the moment.

Then in the second quarter Britt bumped Geelong's Denis Marshall into the fence, leaving the defender requiring four stitches.

The Age said: "After the incident, Britt was hooted by Geelong supporters each time he touched the ball."

Britt's career-best performance in front of goal came in his 36th game, kicking four goals against South Melbourne in the final round of 1968. It was one of his 19 games that season for 15.18, and clearly his best, as he worked in tandem with teammate Peter McKenna, who kicked 11 goals.

The Age said: "Half forward Con Britt, a younger version of Des Tuddenham, kicked four goals himself and tore the South defence to pieces with his creative play."

Nineteen games and 17 goals followed in 1969, and he was held goalless only on six occasions, including the second semi-final loss to Carlton.

The Football Record said he was "a good kick and good mark" leading into that final, but he managed only six disposals before being replaced in the last term.

Norm Smith, in a column in The Age, said: "(Britt was) starved off opportunities around the packs" and the Magpie forward missed out the next week.

Britt was back in the side for the first round of 1970, and his 21-disposal, one goal effort against Footscray saw him use the "ball intelligently" in a strong display.

It was the start of a brilliant home-and-away season for the Magpies, and for Britt.

Collingwood finished the regular season on top, leaving them short-priced favourites for the flag, while their tough half forward/utility would play 20 games and kick 17.32.

He had 16 disposals and kicked two behinds in the second semi-final win over Carlton - it would turn out to be his only finals win.

But an injury suffered in the game threatened to cost him his spot in the 1970 Grand Final. He had his right thumb placed in plaster after the game.

"We don't think the thumb is broken, but we are taking no chances," Collingwood secretary Peter Lucas explained.

Britt proved his fitness, but even though it would be a career highlight, it would be the most frustrating day of his career.

He had been a key player early, with the Age saying he was able to "intersect gracefully", before being flattened later in a tough tackle by John Nicholls.

The Magpies would lead by 44 points at half-time, only to be overrun by the Blues in the second half, to lose by 10 points.

He would tell Inside Football: "I was very confident in 1970. But something happened. We still remember the Grand Final defeat at Collingwood."

"I can't get over it. You know I've never played in a premiership side in about 15 years of football."

Britt finished the game with 12 disposals and a goal, but missed out on a premiership medal.

The following year was a frustrating one for Britt. He managed only 10 games, having received a depressed fracture of the cheekbone as well as struggling at times for form.

But he won his way back into the team when it mattered, kicking three goals in each of the last two rounds, before adding one more in the semi-final loss to Richmond.

The Football Record noted his frustrating season, but said he could "be brilliant on a half forward flank ... (he) has deceptive speed and is an accurate right foot kick."

He emerged in 1972 with a new position, and a new challenge - in the back pocket.

But it almost never came to pass.

Asked to play in a new role, Britt wondered if it was too late for him to try the move, and asked for a clearance to VFA club Prahran.

He recalled: "I thought it was a little bit late in life trying to make it as a defender."

"I was dropped to the reserves and I was put in defence but really I could see no future for me at Collingwood on the backline.

"I was also very interested in going to Tasmanian team Latrobe, but I'd just bought a house in Bundoora and it influenced me to stay in Victoria."

Thankfully, Collingwood refused to let him leave.

He nestled in besides defender Jeff Clifton and turned himself into what Inside Football described as "one of the most accomplished back pocket players."

After missing the first four rounds, he reeled off 18 games in defence and would go on to win the club's most determined award – proof of his value and his commitment to the team.

"I've learnt the value of team co-operation since going to the backline," he said at the time. "The six of us must co-operate or goals can quickly be given away."

"On the forward line you can make a few mistakes and nobody gets too upset because you can have chances to atone."

However, the season had an all-too-familiar finish, with losses to Richmond in the qualifying final and St Kilda in the first semi-final.

Leading into the finals he would be described as "a former half forward flanker who has found a new leader of life since being transferred to defence. (He) uses forward experience to nullify opposing rovers.”

Britt would go on to play the first seven games of the 1973 season.

It was said of Britt around this time that his Collingwood game tally was “certain to swell", but it wasn’t to be.

But his 110th and final game with Collingwood came in Round 7, 1973 against Carlton, and his time at Victoria Park was over at the age of 26.