The second in our three-part series on how Collingwood has fared during three other global crises.
It's a sad irony, but some of Collingwood's finest hours came during some of the world's darkest.
We're talking the period in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the world was plunged into the Great Depression. That time, as tough as it was, coincided with the most successful period in our club's history.
But Collingwood's success during the Depression ran much deeper than simply winning games and Premierships – though they did that extraordinarily well. The Magpies also set the standard for how a football club can work with its local community and supporters to give them hope in a time of despair, helping to make a time of intense human suffering at least bearable for many.
The Great Depression is mostly listed as having technically run from 1929 to 1939. But the economic collapse that preceded the stock market crash of October 1929 had already hit industrial suburbs like Collingwood much earlier – and much harder. So the locals had been doing it tough for years before the rest of the world caught up: at one stage unemployment among adult males within the suburb soared to over 30 percent.
In this kind of environment, sport became more important than ever, as a brief respite from the steady stream of bad news both here and abroad. It is no coincidence that three of the greatest figures in Australian sport – Sir Donald Bradman, Phar Lap and Walter Lindrum – all came to prominence during the Depression years. For many, life's only illumination during these days came through sport, and the adoration of their sporting heroes. The sporting heroes of the Depression would become iconic figures.
To some people in Victoria, and especially those in Collingwood, Jock McHale's “Machine Team” was every bit as important and inspirational as the world’s greatest cricketer and the nation’s most revered racehorse.
The Magpies had been to grand finals in both 1925 and 1926 before their unparalleled period of domination began. Premierships in 1927, 1928, 1929 – including the only unbeaten home-and-away season in VFL/AFL history – and 1930. Then two more flags in 1935 and 1936, followed by three more grand finals. That's 11 grand finals in 15 years – extraordinary.
And it's no exaggeration to say that, to some locals, the Magpies were lifesavers. For many, footy was all they had. Collingwood's era of dominance come at exactly the right time, precisely as the devastating effects of the Depression hit hard – and deep – in the suburb. While the Magpies set about dominating the game and breaking countless records, the great bulk of the 38,000 residents in the municipality followed the fortunes of the team with an abiding passion. The Collingwood supporter base grew during those hard years, and extended deep into the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Many of those fans lived vicariously through the deeds of the team. Those who scrimped just to get in to the football each week, and those who could not afford the admittance, may have been near-destitute, but in following the team they were enriched by a different sort of currency.
The club was a saviour in other ways too. Throughout 1928 the club proceeded with plans to build a new grandstand on the northern side of the ground, a project made possible only because the local council could rely on money from the Government Unemployed Relief Fund. This meant that otherwise unemployed locals were gainfully employed for a decent period, and what would become known as the Ryder Stand was delivered on time, and under budget. Even better, the use of local workers meant that everyone who sat in the new stand, knew someone who had helped build it.
As the Depression continued, the club did more than any other in the VFL to help support those who were struggling, especially locally. In 1932, unemployed locals were admitted to Victoria Park free of charge (a move that was instigated by the League as a whole the following year). Although the fine details of the offer altered a little in the years that followed, ‘sussos’ continued to receive preferential treatment at Victoria Park for the rest of the 1930s.
Collingwood suffered itself during the Depression years, regularly losing players to country or interstate clubs who could offer better money or, sometimes, work. Club legend Albert Collier was the most high-profile departure, but there were others too.
But overall, this was a great time to be following the Collingwood Football Club. In addition to the Premierships and the wins and the records, there were all-time greats of the game to watch. Syd Coventry, Harry Collier and Albert Collier all won Brownlows. Gordon Coventry became the first player to kick 100 goals in a season and won the League goalkicking six times. Ron Todd won two more goalkicking crowns late in the 1930s, and he and Jack Regan thrilled crowds with their aerial exploits. Then there was Jack Beveridge, the Murphy brothers, Billy Libbis, and later Alby Pannam, Phonse Kyne and the brilliant Des Fothergill. Pie fans of the day were spoiled with the riches on offer at Victoria Park.
That was the cruel contradiction, of course. These people who were struggling to make ends meet in their everyday lives, were feasting in a football sense. And while one didn't make up for the other, it did at least provide hope and release and even happiness – light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Never, in the history of the game, has a football team been as important to its community as Collingwood was to its people during the Great Depression.