The first in a three-part series on how Collingwood has fared during three other global crises.
Until now, no world event has ever had as dramatic an impact on football as the First World War.
The game continued between 1914-18 – though only just. But one club was lost, more than 100 VFL players and former players died, and the majority of clubs sat out for at least one season.
Collingwood was one of only four clubs that kept playing right through the conflict – but even that was the source of bitter and fiercely contested community debate. And the club's relative success in the period, which delivered one flag and two other Grand Final appearances, always felt slightly hollow.
There were 10 teams playing in the VFL when the War broke out late in the 1914 season. One of them, University, would finish with a winless season, and an unenviable record of having lost its past 51 games.
Several Collingwood players were quick to enlist, including Bryan Rush (brother of the more famous Bob), Alan Cordner and Harry Matheson. All were on some of the first boats out of Australia.
By the time 1915 rolled around, University had disbanded, unable to cope with the continuing drift of its largely young list to the armed services. By the end of April the first footballers had died – including Cordner – and by July the VFL was considering whether to end the season. But the leading clubs wanted to keep going.
This was a taste of what was to come in 1916. There was bitter debate on the home front as to whether sporting events such as football should continue while young Australians were being killed and wounded on the other side of the world.
Collingwood was one of the clubs that led the charge to retain the sport – for “the working man’s pleasure.”
Magpies President Jim Sharp said the club believed that the men and women on the home front needed something to distract them from the bad news overseas. He said he did not see why football – the poor man’s pastime – should be singled out while horse racing – the Sport of Kings – took place as usual.
Others were vehemently opposed to footy continuing. One of the game’s leading footy writers, Old Boy, from the Argus, was fierce in his criticism of the League's decision to proceed with the season. “Whenever sportsmen congregated yesterday, there were expressions of disgust at the action of the League," he wrote. "The general opinion was that the premiership competition should have been abandoned and that no encouragement should have been offered to either players or spectators to set the pleasures of football before the responsibilities of war.”
The VFA went into hiatus, as did the league in South Australia. Five VFL clubs – St Kilda, Essendon, Melbourne, Geelong and South Melbourne – decided against being a part of the competition in 1916.
That left a bizarre, four-team VFL competition for 1916, in which Collingwood, Carlton, Fitzroy and Richmond would play each other four times – and all were guaranteed a spot in the finals! This rather strange decision produced a 'shadow season', and made possible the eventual situation where Fitzroy finished bottom of the ladder but ended up winning the Premiership.
Players received no payments during this time and clubs put significant resources into raising funds for the War effort. But that didn't stop the critics.
This was a tough season is so many ways: our membership dropped from 3837 to 735 as scarce consumer dollars were devoted to the War. Captain Dan Minogue left for the Front, as did an increasing number of current and former players. Three more would be dead before the year was out.
Geelong and South Melbourne rejoined the VFL in 1917, but even a six-team competition couldn't make our eventual Premiership feel as special as our others had been. Essendon and St Kilda returned in 1918, when we finished runners-up, but it wasn't until 1919 that Melbourne also rejoined and footy felt 'whole' again.
In the end, 59 current and former Magpies served in the First World War. Eight of those died: Sam Campbell, Alan Cordner, Fred Fielding, Charles Langtree, Peter Martin, Percy Rowe, Tom Worle and Tommy Wright.
On-field it was a reasonably successful period, being Premiers in 1917 and runners-up in 1915 and 1918. Dick Lee topped the League goalkicking in 1914, 1917 and 1918.
But given all the turmoil and disruption, and angst towards those who kept playing, it was really only when the competition returned to normal in 1919 that Premierships felt the same again. And that it why it mattered so much when we won the 'Peace Premiership', as it was dubbed, that year.