The Bomber who flew above all

To mark AFL Grand Fi­nal day, cel­e­brates a new book about one of the game’s greats

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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