The final instalment in the three-part series on how Collingwood has fared during other global crises.
Collingwood was one of only four clubs that kept playing all the way through the First World War. And we were kings of the football world during the Great Depression. But when the Second World War hit soon after, the club came as close as it ever has to oblivion.
As the 1930s ended, so did Collingwood's extended and unprecedented era of domination. The 1939 grand final loss to Melbourne – coming just weeks after the start of the Second World War – was very much our last hurrah. It would be 13 years before our next appearance in a decider.
In 1940 we lost the game's best full-forward, Ron Todd, to a Williamstown team flush with cash. The following year he was joined by the most brilliant player in the game, Des Fothergill, who had won three Copelands and a Brownlow by the age of 20.
The Magpies never recovered from losing their two best players within 12 months of each other, finishing eighth in 1940 and fifth in 1941. But that was nothing compared to what came next.
Collingwood was one of the two teams to have been hit hardest by enlistments. Just a few weeks before the start of the 1942 season, the number of players available to Collingwood selectors was so thin that the club seriously considered pulling out of the competition. Only four established senior players and a handful from the reserves had turned up for early practice matches, and the Argus reported that "so few players are left that the club is in dire trouble."
The next day's reports were even more alarming in some ways, with the idea floated that Collingwood might amalgamate with the other badly-affected team, Melbourne. Luckily that didn't happen, and both clubs determined to continue as independent entities. The Pies eventually scraped together enough fit and able bodies to form a senior team, but had to withdraw from the reserves competition for the year.
In those circumstances it's hardly surprising that the Magpies fared so badly on the field. By the time the siren sounded on a wretched season, Collingwood sat in 10th place. And that was even worse than it sounded, because there were only 11 teams in the competition that year, with Geelong not involved due to wartime travel restrictions. It was the worst finish in the club's first 50 years.
Everyone hoped 1943 would be easier. But in some ways it was worse. There was no amalgamation talk, at least, and the seconds were back up and running. But up to 43 senior players found themselves in some kind of war service, the Copeland Trophy was suspended for the year and the club's spending on equipment and clothing was rationed to the point where the club used as many footballs in the whole season as it would normally have used in a month. Players came and went with such frequency that regular training was nigh on impossible. Another second-last finish eventuated.
But in between those two dire seasons, something remarkable happened. Everyone expected Magpie fans to drop off after 1942: instead – incredibly – membership more than doubled. Season ticket sales, which had been above 5000 in 1939, had dropped to just 942 in 1942. In 1943, however, they bounced back to 2126. Revenue increased from £393 to £878. It was the start of a trend that did not stop.
This was a staggering result in the circumstances. It reinforced the notion that this club, more than most, would stick together during tough times. The club said the increased membership was "convincing evidence that the old Collingwood spirit still lives among committee and supporters alike, all pulling together to achieve the best for Collingwood."
The team continued to struggle in 1944, but on-field woes were put into perspective when news filtered through that two men to have worn the Collingwood jumper had been killed in New Guinea.
The first was Norman Oliver, who had been a defender of considerable promise. He had played 13 games in 1940-41 before enlisting in the Army and later transferring to the RAAF to become a Flight Officer. Oliver, 21, was killed when the Kittyhawk he was flying crashed onto a beach near Madang, in New Guinea on June 27. Almost five months later, the Magpies lost another former player, 36-year-old Norm Le Brun, in fierce fighting in New Guinea.
But by 1945, fresh shoots were emerging on all fronts. Des Fothergill returned. The opening game of the season saw debuts for Bill Twomey Jnr, Neil Mann and Len Fitzgerald, two men who would later captain the club and a third who may well have done so had he not flown the coop to South Australia. The Pies unexpectedly soared from 10th to second, before blowing a 34-point last quarter lead in the preliminary final against Carlton.
It was a heartbreaking end to an unexpectedly joyous season. But even the agony of the loss was tempered by the knowledge that it had come just days after the end of the War. Brighter days now surely lay ahead. The War was over, and Collingwood was back.