It’s 50 years this month since two of Collingwood's biggest stars went on strike for better pay, changing the footballing landscape forever. Club historian Michael Roberts recalls the seismic events that shook the game to its core.

It's February, 1970, and the Collingwood players are back for pre-season training. The previous year's straight-sets finals exit, after finishing on top of the ladder, is still burning, and the players are working hard under coach Bobby Rose. 

But by the third week of the month, it is clear that there is something missing. Or, more correctly, someone.

Magpie skipper Des Tuddenham, one of the best and most inspirational players in the competition, isn't there. Neither is champion ruckman Len Thompson, then only 22 but already with two Copeland Trophies under his belt.

It soon emerges that the two high profile Magpies – two of the biggest names in football – have 'gone on strike', seeking a better pay deal from the club. Football as fans have come to know it is turned on its head, and the game will never be the same.

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The seeds for The Strike had been sown the previous year, when the Magpies broke with years of torpor (or tradition, if you're being kinder) and finally busted the bank for a big name interstate recruit.

In this case it was Peter Eakins, a blonde, long-striding defender from Subiaco who had won the Tassie Medal for best player at the national carnival in 1969. He was paid a $5000 bonus just for signing on, and more than twice that amount again in bonuses over the next three seasons.

Tuddy had already sought an improved contract (of $5000 a year) before the 1969 season but it had been rejected out of hand. Once Eakins' payments became known, however, all bets were off. So in the middle of February, 1970, Tuddy's solicitor asked for a three-year contract at $8000 a year. He was also acting for Thommo, who wanted $30,000 over five years.

The club's response was a mixture of outrage and belligerence. President Tom Sherrin and the committee could not believe that players would try to hold the club to ransom like this. In one meeting with Thompson, the ruckman recalled Sherrin saying: "We own you!"

That sort of attitude didn't go down well. The club's more formal response included a canny mix of pay rises across the board for players depending on games played and honours achieved. The two recalcitrant stars would have benefitted more than most from the changes, but it wasn't enough.

So the day after the new pay structure had been announced, Des and Len withdrew their services. They refused to turn up to training (although, ironically, Len did go to VP one night for cricket training!), and insisted they would not return until their demands were met.

The newspapers had a field day with what was a huge story, and other clubs in the VFL and beyond quickly began circling, sensing an opportunity to snap up a couple of prized assets at knock-down prices. But Collingwood wasn't budging, and neither were its stars.

"It was never about Peter Eakins," Tuddenham recalls today. "He was a good fella – a gentleman. He was a good player who was putting in for the team and I had nothing against him. He had every right to try to earn what he could from football. 

"For me it was Tom Sherrin and the committee: I think their attitudes and responses put the club back 50 years."

Centreman Barry Price agrees. "I was very disappointed in the club's reaction and the attitude of a number of key people. I think the committee overreacted. It was quite unsettling (for the rest of the players) at the time."

After nearly three weeks on the sidelines, the two 'strikers' suddenly returned to work without having gained the extras they were seeking, although all players benefitted from the new pay structure. The club crowed that the return was "entirely on our terms", while Des and Len said all the right things about being happy to be back in the fold.

But the fallout was swift, and the ramifications huge. Tuddy was stripped of the captaincy and replaced by Terry Waters, while Thommo was dumped from the vice-captaincy. In 1971, Bob Rose wanted Tuddy returned to the top job, but the committee overruled him. Tuddy ended up captaining Victoria that year and left for Essendon at the end of the season. Rose quit and took up a job with Footscray. Waters lost form and was eventually dropped, unloading on the committee in the process. And Thompson later admitted it took him years to get over the rift.

Len Thompson (No. 28) competes for the ball while Des Tuddenham (right) waits for a crumb during a big game against Carlton at the MCG

On the field it initially looked like everything had been forgotten as the Magpies embarked on one of the great home-and-away seasons in the club's history. But the dramatic second half fadeout in the Grand Final, and the internal dramas of 1971, ensured the impact of the strike was never far from the surface.

Outside of Victoria Park, the impact was arguably even more significant, at least in the longer term. Just a few weeks later, five Essendon players sat out the first game of the season in their own fight over better pay. Riding this first wave of footballing militancy, the Players' Association would be formed a few years later and today is one of the most powerful bodies in football.

"This was really the beginning of a new era in football," says Price, "and Collingwood hadn't quite caught onto that before this happened." 

Tuddy and Thommo always said they didn't regret taking the action, but wished they hadn't been forced into a situation where they felt they had to.

Today, however, Tuddy says he does have regrets.

"I regret that this cost me the chance to coach Collingwood, because I would have got us fit and I reckon I would have won us flags. But most of all I regret that I didn’t get to stay at Collingwood and spend my whole career there, because that’s what I really wanted."

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