Gordon Coventry was such a phenomenon as a goalkicker – he spent nearly 70 years as the greatest VFL/AFL goalkicker of all-time – that it has almost obscured one other key aspect of his astonishing career. And that is the number of games he played.
Now, with Scott Pendlebury about to equal Gordon’s career tally of 306 games, there is no better time to revisit this under-appreciated part of the Coventry legacy.
For it is often forgotten that ‘Nuts’, as he was widely known, was the first player in VFL/AFL history to reach the 300-game mark. He had broken the old record of 263, set by Richmond’s Vic Thorp, in 1935. By the time he retired after the 1937 Grand Final he’d added a further 43 games to the old mark.
In 1929, Coventry had become the first player in League history to kick 100 goals in a season – a momentous milestone that passed with relatively little fanfare. In 1937, the 300-game barrier was passed with a few more celebrations (which the famously shy and self-effacing Coventry would probably have hated).
The Age newspaper produced a special poster which they gave away to readers who collected coupons for three successive days. The football club itself produced a special postcard which they sold at home games for a shilling each to raise money for Coventry's testimonial. And he was given a hero’s welcome when he entered the field that day against Footscray, the Dogs’ skipper Alby Morrison lining up his team in a guard of honour and calling for three hearty cheers.
By the time Coventry retired two months later, after being part of our losing Grand Final team against Geelong, his career tally sat at 306 games. The Herald newspaper said it was unlikely such a total would ever be surpassed.
But it could have been even more. His career extended across 18 seasons, starting when he squeezed in a handful of games late in the 1920 season, just after he’d played for his local Diamond Creek side in their losing Grand Final. But he was far from a Magpie regular for the next four years, often being dropped from the team.
At this stage of his career Coventry could mark and kick but not much else. He had good hands and was accurate in front of goal but he was slow, awkward and cumbersome. He lacked confidence and didn’t think he was good enough (many fans agreed). He was quiet, shy and easy-going, and his play lacked aggression. Some even thought he was lazy.
But the Magpies persisted anyway. Jock McHale kept working with him, and Coventry worked hard to improve his agility, his kicking and to reduce the size of his turning circle. The Magpies were convinced that there was something there.
How right they were. He was dropped again after the first game in 1925, and his career seemed to be at the crossroads. But from the time he returned against Geelong in Round 4, Coventry never missed a beat. He finished that season with 68 goals – and before long he would be breaking every goalkicking record in the game.
The very next season he broke the VFL record for goals in a season – which he then broke again and again. In 1929 he became the first player ever to kick 100 goals in a season, a feat he achieved three more times. He obliterated the league record by kicking 16 goals in a game in 1929, then bettered it with 17 the next year. He kicked 100 goals against every VFL team bar one. He kicked 50 or more goals in a record 13 consecutive seasons. He was the VFL’s leading goalkicker six times; Collingwood’s leading goalkicker 16 times. An interstate representative on 25 occasions, he kicked 100 goals in interstate games. He kicked a record 111 goals in finals games. His two highest individual match tallies of 17 and 16 were both records at the time. He kicked a record 111 goals in finals games. He won the Copeland Trophy in 1933. His 1299 career goals ended up being one of the game’s longest-lasting records, eventually falling to Tony Lockett in 1999. And his games tally of 306 stood as Collingwood’s record until Tony Shaw passed it in 1994.
These are a phenomenal set of records. Some journalists justifiably compared him to Don Bradman in the way he rewrote his game’s statistics. And those numbers were the product of a deceptively simple game style, combined with the way he fitted perfectly into the Magpie teams of the day.
He was almost unbeatable in one-on-one contests. had a strong physique, a vice-like pair of hands, superb judgement and a brilliant understanding of how to use his body to advantage. He was so strongly built – huge shoulders, a big rump, massive hands – that he was almost impossible to move when in front, and he was one of the first to perfect the technique of taking marks with his hands stretched out in front while pushing his ample posterior back into his trailing opponent. It made him almost impossible to spoil. And he had great midfielders and half-forwards ahead of him who knew how to deliver the ball into the right areas.
Opposition defenders double-teamed him but to little effect. They niggled and harassed him – and sometimes even belted the living daylights out of him – but the placid Coventry only once responded (costing him a ludicrous eight-week suspension that saw him miss the 1936 Premiership). No matter what his opponents threw at him – and he copped plenty in one of footy’s toughest eras – he just kept on kicking goals.
Renowned as one of the quietest, gentlest, most humble men in football, Gordon Coventry hung up his battered old boots with both the VFL games and goals records to his name. No other player in history has ever managed that. And while Pendles will soon pass that games mark of 306, on his way to catching Tony Shaw’s 313, it’s a fair bet he won’t be threatening Nuts’ 1299 career goals any time soon.