The Bomber who flew above all
To mark AFL Grand Final day, celebrates a new book about one of the game’s greats
Coleman: The Untold Story of an AFL Legend By Doug Ackerly Doug Ackerly Publishing, 576pp, $49.95 (HB)
IT is 60 years since John Coleman, born in 1928, last played for Essendon at full forward, the most singular and dashing role in Australian rules football, and his brief, incandescent career has become more hazily mythic as the seasons marched away from him. Devotees of the game’s boisterous history, then, owe Doug Ackerly a debt of gratitude for recovering, cataloguing and stabilising in print the story of arguably its most brilliant spearhead and subsequently, but again too fleetingly, one of the finest coaches.
For this painstaking, plainly written account, Ackerly has mined the archives of city and suburban newspapers, most long gone, and interviewed more than 170 contemporaneous players and football staff, family, friends and media people to recover an authentic sense of Coleman, in his time.
Particularly the awed voices of teammates and opponents convey his physical genius and substantiate the book’s inherent contention — though Ackerly admits contrary opinions — that Coleman was the best there ever was.
Here’s Fitzroy’s Arnie Bench: “He took so many marks with no contact with me at all. He either went past me or over the top. Most of the time he went over the top. I can remember quite plainly that on two occasions I could see his feet above my head … I thought I had played one of my best games that I ever played and I couldn’t touch him.” Coleman had kicked 14 goals and five behinds.
That was Round 7 of 1954. Seven minutes into the final quarter of the following match he propped under a high ball and his troublesome right knee locked and dislocated. It was over, after five seasons and eight matches. He was 25.
Coleman’s greatness as a footballer, particularly as a goal-kicker, cannot be adequately conveyed by statistics; he just wasn’t around long enough. Of the AFL’s 25 designated “Legends” he played the fewest matches, 98.
He landed 537 goals for Essendon, at a game average of 5.48, just shaded by Hawthorn’s Peter Hudson; Melbourne’s Fred Fanning kicked 18.1 in a match; Tony Lockett finished in 2002 with 1360 goals for St Kilda and Sydney; South Melbourne’s Bob Pratt and Hudson had 150 goal seasons. In 1981, Coleman’s achievements were enshrined with the establishment of the Coleman medal, awarded each year to the season’s leading goal kicker.
Coleman’s effect on the football of his time — on tactics, on match outcomes, and not least on crowds and commentators — comes closest to clinching the argument.
The first golden era of full forwards — of Pratt, Gordon Coventry, Ron Todd, Jack Titus — ended with World War II. The second began in 1968, with Hudson’s debut, a remarkable three decades in which Lockett and Jason Dunstall kicked six seasonal tons, Hudson five and Gary Ablett Sr and Peter McKenna three each.
In the intervening quarter century, even dis-
September 27-28, 2014 counting the war years, only Coleman kicked 100 goals or more — three times within four seasons. His arrival in the VFL was cyclonic: everybody saw him coming but no preparations were adequate.
Essendon, led by triple Brownlow medallist Dick Reynolds, had won the first postwar premiership but a persistent forward line weakness cost them the ’47 and ’48 grand finals. Preparing for 1949, the Bombers were desperate for a goal kicker and they had Coleman’s signature.
He had trialled at 18 but walked away disappointed with himself and other players, intent on securing their own places, ignoring his leads. He went back to the Mornington Peninsula League, to kick almost 300 goals in 31 matches. By the close of 1948, Essendon was fending off nine clubs trying to break its contractual grip.
But he ran out at Windy Hill, the Essendon bastion, against Hawthorn in the opening round. He led to the first Bomber thrust from the centre, marked high above a pack — on his chest — and goaled with a flat punt. That was inside 60 seconds. At the 120th minute he had 12 goals. Sections of the crowd had fallen into a soon-to-be-customary migration when Coleman played on suburban grounds, following him down to the other goal after each quarter.
Inside three months, the Sporting Globe’s Hec de Lacy was describing Coleman as “Victoria’s personality footballer … he comes into the picture with a late run and a perfectly timed spring from either side, from in front or behind the pack. He has vice-like fingers. But he’s so perfectly poised and decisive in his work … all with hair-trigger suddenness.”
Coleman kicked his final, 100th goal of the season during Essendon’s premiership thrashing of Carlton. The following year he kicked 120, the last four in the Bombers’ grand final defeat of North Melbourne.
Not yet 22, Coleman seemed to have all of football’s rewards at hand and the best of his career in glorious prospect. He was a celebrity wherever the game was played, and an uncomfortable object of early teenybopper frenzy but already he’d met Monica Fernando, to whom he was devoted the rest of his life. He was also moderately wealthy, certainly by the standards of VFL players kept in peonage by the sub-basic wage 4 cap on match payments. Coleman earned more than that from his Melbourne Herald columns, and far more again in backhanders from supporters, which he usually shared with the team.
But Coleman’s singular effect on the game was already hurting him, literally. Kicking close to 40 per cent of Essendon’s goals in two premiership years (and 42 per cent across his career) he was, he had to be, any opposition’s primary physical target. He was not helped in this regard by insisting his pocket forwards cleared out to the half-forward flanks, making space for his leads. That often left him dealing with three backmen, who weren’t notably gentle people.
Football then was a brutal affair. One central umpire (now there are three) tried to control 36 mostly very hard men on a huge oval. Violence was both calculated and spontaneous, around the ball and frequently behind play, applied by fists, elbows, knees and even steel boot stops.
But far more than he blamed backmen, Coleman loathed the umpires and their supervisors for refusing to protect forwards from muggings that earned free kicks up the ground.
Even Harry Beitzel, the only umpire it appears Coleman could bear, was wilfully unhelpful. He saw the champion punched so hard while marking he ended up against the fence. “John’s eyes were glittering as he looked up at me and snarled ‘Can’t you see what that … is doing to me?’ I replied cheerily ‘How can I give you a free kick when you keep taking marks like that all the time?’ ”
Coleman kicked only 75 goals in 1951. He always had a temper and its fuse was shortening under incessant assaults. It all came together disastrously in Round 18 when he was reported for striking Carlton’s Harry Caspar. Coleman had been cited a fortnight earlier for disputing an umpire and walked away from the tribunal cleared and grinning widely. When he next fronted at Harrison House, Ackerly suggests, that had some bearing on the tribunal members’ collective state of mind, which turned out to be bloody.
Both reporting umpires said Caspar, a rugged journeyman, punched him twice in the face before Coleman retaliated. Said one: “If I had been in the same position, I would have done exactly as he did.” Caspar was outed for four weeks. On the rule-of-thumb then applying to retaliation, Essendon expected Coleman would get two weeks at worst and be available for the grand final if Essendon made it through.
The tribunal gave him four weeks, a vicious penalty that three Saturdays later against Geelong probably cost Essendon another title. Coleman, shattered and tearful that night, never doubted it.
A meaner man returned in 1952. Teammate Wally May noticed Coleman had taken to crashing his knees into opponents’ backs. “He hurt ’em. I said to him one day ‘You meant that’ and he said ‘ Blow ’ em, they’ve been doing it to me for that long, it pays to give a bit back.’ ”
He kicked 103 goals that season. But there were no more grand finals and criticism was mounting of both Essendon’s totally Coleman game plan and coach Reynolds’s refusal to organise protection for him.
Coleman also was showing more zeal for his new pursuit of running hotels — where umpires were persona non grata — and reporters freely speculated on retirement. But he ran out again in 1953 and by three-quarter time against North Melbourne he had kicked 42 goals in six matches. Then catastrophe.
A hush of dread fell over Windy Hill as its champion lay motionless, his right leg weirdly twisted. Coleman was invalided for the remainder of that season and 1954. He trained in the following pre-season, but tentatively, and announced his retirement before the first match.
Ackerly describes the treatment of Coleman’s injury as a “shambles” but that is, not very usefully, a judgment based on modern standards. More telling was Coleman’s own cool calculation, expressed after but also before the injury, of the balance between football, his burgeoning business interests and his future wellbeing. “If I’m sure my knee is all right, I’d like to play some more,” he told The Sun. “But if there is any doubt about it, there are more important things in life than playing football.”
The Bombers would not win another flag under the increasingly ineffectual Reynolds, who coached at Windy Hill for 22 years, until the board, stung by their recent unofficial nickname, “Gliders”, deposed him at the end of 1960.
Coleman, as coach, brought modern matchtraining, instilled a hard desperation in his team, encouraged his enforcers to instant retaliation for attacks on ballplayers and gave full vent to his umpire hatred.
Premierships in 1962 and ’65 did not quench his fire. He earned four more reports, three for misconduct towards umpires. But at the close of 1967, hobbled by a leg thrombosis, fretting after his businesses, gloomy about the game’s developing helter-skelter — even then! — to the detriment of classical long kicking and high marking, Coleman finished for good, with the best win-loss ratio of any coach.
He had fewer than six years to enjoy family, business, old footballing comrades and his farm He died in March 1973 in terribly lonely circumstances. There were only two overnight guests, strangers, in his Dromana Hotel when Coleman was felled by a massive coronary. No doctor could be found.
He was 44. Thousands lined the course of his funeral to see to his rest the greatest footballer of their time.
But earlier, laying the body out, funeral worker and former teammate Lance Mann had been shocked to see one price Coleman paid for being best.
“I’ve never seen so many boot stud scars on a person’s back and legs in all my life,” he told Ackerly. “I just couldn’t believe it because he’s never, ever complained about it.”
Coleman’s notorious clash with Carlton’s Harry Caspar in 1951, which cost him a four-week ban