July 15, 2024

The Longest Winning Streak in VFL/AFL History

In 1953, Geelong set an Australian football record that still stands today: the longest winning streak in VFL/AFL history.

Geelong Cats, 1950s logo
Geelong Cats, 1950s logo

At the start of the 1950s, Geelong were a team on the rise.

This was a rebound from the war years, where the club endured a difficult period.  With strict petrol rationing in place, clubs were unable to travel to and from Geelong; the Cats sat out two seasons and their players were distributed among other clubs.

Their home base, Corio Oval, was taken over as a military base.

Restrictions were eased in 1944 and Geelong returned to the competition, but finished last. They continued to struggle through the remainder of the decade.

Reg Hickey in his playing days
Reg Hickey in his playing days

In 1949, Geelong appointed Reg Hickey as coach; it was to be the catalyst for one of their most successful periods.

Hickey was already a club legend. Debuting in 1926 as a dashing half back flanker, he played in the Premiership winning team of 1931, and was captain-coach in another Premiership in 1937.

Known for his on-field toughness, and tactical nous, when he retired in 1940 Hickey had played a club record 245 games.

Bobby Davis
Bobby Davis

Hickey’s approach to coaching reflected his playing career. He used repeated drills to hone his player’s skills, and favoured a direct style; the Cats would play hard, simple, football.

The team was rebuilt from the ground up; a number of new players were brought in, many of whom developed into all-time greats.

Among these were nuggety back pocket Bernie Smith, a future Brownlow medallist, full forward Fred Flanagan, who would become captain, and half forward flanker Bobby Davis, whose larrikan persona made him a crowd favourite. All three would eventually be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame.

In Hickey’s first season, Geelong improved to 8th. In 1950 they did even better, making the finals for the first time in a decade.

John Coleman takes a hanger
John Coleman takes a hanger

The dominant side at the time was Essendon.

Under captain Dick Reynolds, a three-time Brownlow Medal winner, the Bombers were known for their attacking approach. In a less free-flowing era this brought great success:  from 1946 – 1950 the Bombers made five consecutive grand finals, and won three Premierships.

One key element was their champion full forward, John Coleman.

Debuting in 1949, Coleman was renowned for his spring-heeled leap; pictures from the era are full of his spectacular marking. Coleman kicked 100 goals in his first season, a unique achievement, and also reached the ton on two other occasions.

Despite his success, his career was short: Coleman would play only 98 games in six seasons, before a knee injury ended his career. But his impact was such that the annual award for the highest goal kicker, the Coleman Medal, was named after him.

Footy Record: 1950
Footy Record: 1950

Football in the 1950s was very different to today. The sport was already hugely popular, with large crowds and heavy media coverage cementing it in the life of Melbourne.

But many aspects of the game would appear unfamiliar.

The league was still overtly Victorian; this was decades before a nation-wide competition, and interstate players featured only rarely. It was also largely amateur: the minimum player payment was only five pounds per game, and all but the game’s biggest stars worked a full-time job in addition to football.

The rules were different too.

There was no interchange bench (introduced in 1978); teams had 18 players on field, and two substitutes. Like soccer, once a sub had been made, the player coming off was out of the game.

There was also no centre square, no restrictions on player numbers at the centre bounce, no fifty metre arcs painted on the ground, no fifty metre penalties, and no free kicks for out-on-the full (the ball was thrown in every time). There was also only one field umpire, and the boundary umpires waived a white handkerchief instead of blowing a whistle.

Even coaching was different: coaches were not allowed on field at quarter and three-quarter time, so could only address their teams during the half time break.

Every game started on Saturday afternoon, at 2pm.

Crowd invades the MCG at the end of the 1951 Grand Final
Crowd invades the MCG at the end of the 1951 Grand Final

In the 1951 season, Essendon and Geelong were the favourites for the Premiership, and would eventually meet in the Grand Final.

But the Bombers were dealt a serious blow before the finals had even started: in the last home-and-away game, John Coleman had been reported for striking and suspended for four matches. He would miss the entire finals campaign.

Playing Carlton in the final round, Coleman had been heavily checked by fullback Harry Caspar. Coleman had a boil on his neck, Caspar kept deliberately hitting it; he also used bumps, taps, light punches and even hair pulling to put the gun forward off his game.

Coleman finally retaliated, and punched Caspar; the defender responded, and the two fell into a brawl.

Both players were reported, and sent to the VFL Tribunal. A crowd of several thousand gathered outside VFL House on Spring Street, to hear the outcome.

While the umpires from the game confirmed Coleman had been provoked, both players received the same penalty.

With Coleman missing, Essendon were suddenly vulnerable. They still reached the Grand Final, but were beaten in a tight, exciting game: Geelong ran out winners by 11 points.

Dick Reynolds retired after the match, to confirm the end of an era. Reg Hickey’s Cats were the new team to beat.

Geelong's 1952 team
Geelong’s 1952 team

The 1952 season would be marked by terrible weather, with torrential rain turning Melbourne’s football grounds into muddy bogs.

‘Week after dreary week, games have begun with umpires picking their way delicately through seas of mud and water. They throw the ball up and watch a slithering, sliding contest, where a chest mark is a major feat, and an overheard mark a minor miracle.’

 

– ‘100 Years of Australian Football’

Scores were low, and attendances at the less sheltered suburban grounds, small.

Conditions were so consistently bad that the league trialled the use of white footballs, to help try and improve their visibility. A motorised ‘mopping roller’ was also deployed at several grounds, to dry the field before play (the bad weather seemingly had no impact on a returning John Coleman, who again kicked 100 goals).

The season would see other innovations as well.

Ten Tall Men movie poster
Ten Tall Men movie poster

In June, in a move that feels very modern, the VFL participated in a promotional tie-in for a Hollywood movie.

‘Ten Tall Men’ was an action-adventure film set in the Foreign Legion, starring Burt Lancaster. To promote the film its Australian distributor organised a competition: the public were asked to guess the ten tallest players in the VFL.

The winner would receive a year’s worth of free movies.

On the third of June, a gala presentation was held at the State Theatre (present day, The Forum). Hosted by radio personality Dick Cranbourne, the league’s ten tallest were on hand to be presented with a new kit bag, with best wishes from Lancaster.

Unfortunately, none of the received public entries had guessed the tall ten correctly. But this anticlimactic result had a positive outcome: the film’s producers donated the years’ worth of free movies to the Melbourne Children’s Hospital, instead.

Local press reports the game at the SCG
Local press reports the game at the SCG

Later in June saw an even more significant innovation: ‘National Round’, where games were held in regional centres and interstate, with the aim of growing the sport outside Victoria.

This was a controversial idea, and several clubs objected to the proposal. The VFL was forced to cover transport costs and offer extra payments to get the round endorsed.

Held on the weekend of Saturday, June 14, National Round saw Melbourne and Fitzroy face off in Hobart, Richmond and Collingwood play at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and Geelong and Essendon play in Brisbane; the bad weather followed this game to Queensland, and torrential rain forced it to be played on the Monday instead.

As an additional novelty, the match was played at night, under floodlights.

The fixture was rounded out with matches in rural Victoria; North Melbourne v. Souths at Albury, St Kilda and Footscray in Yallourn, and Hawthorn against Carlton in Euroa.

The experiment had mixed results. Good crowds turned up in Hobart and regional Victoria, there were smaller attendances at the other games; some players complained about having to travel, and the lower standard of facilities outside of Melbourne.

The VFL and the Australian Council of Football, the official sponsor, declared it a success. Both promised to explore more opportunities for expansion outside Victoria.

Kardinia Park 1950s
Kardinia Park 1950s

The longest winning streak in VFL/AFL history began in Round 12, on July 12, 1952. This saw Geelong play Collingwood at Kardinia Park, a low scoring game they won by 29 points.

The Cats would then sweep through the rest of the season, winning their remaining seven home-and-away games to top the table. Only one of these was close: a nine point win over Footscray in Round 14.

Essendon, their great rival, finished eighth, and missed the finals.

Geelong’s new challenger was Collingwood, who finished second. But the Cats’ great side had their number; following the round 12 win, they met in both the Semi Final and the Grand Final, and won both games comfortably.

Geelong had secured back-to-back Premierships, and confirmed their status as the top team in the competition. Their winning streak would continue the following season.

1953 VFL Football Annual
Football Annual, 1953

1953 saw new football issue arise, that have a familiar feel.

Games were not yet broadcast on TV, so live coverage was available only via the radio; before the season began, there was a protracted negotiation over the rights. The merits of night football were also debated: Collingwood and Fitzroy played an exhibition game at the Showgrounds under lights, that drew a large crowd and rave reviews.

The league said they would consider further night football, in the future.

Premiership favourites, Geelong started the season in hot form. They won each of their opening games by more than 40 points, then saw off Collingwood at Victoria Park in Round 3, by 25.

Collingwood in 1929: record setters and Premiers
Collingwood in 1929: record setters and Premiers

The standing VFL record for a winning streak was 20 games, set by Collingwood in 1929.

The Cats broke this record in Round 11, when they won their 21st consecutive game. But their momentum was slowing: playing North Melbourne, a mid-table side, they trailed all day, and were still behind by 7 points with 3 minutes remaining.

They then kicked a goal and a brace of behinds to win by a single point, going ahead only in the last 30 seconds.

The Cats extended their winning streak to 23 games, with tight wins over Hawthorn and Footscray. But defeat was approaching: in both games they had trailed at half time, and had only won with a late surge.

In the neat way that sport sometimes organises things, the streak came to an end exactly as it had begun.

In Round 14, Geelong again hosted Collingwood at Kardinia Park. This time, Geelong were up early: they led by 6 points at quarter time, and 12 at the half. Their lead could have been even greater, as they missed a number of easy shots at goal.

Motivated by their stretch of recent defeats to the Cats, Collingwood rallied. The margin was trimmed to two points at three quarter time, and a final quarter blitz saw Collingwood kick 4 goals to 1, to win by 20 points.

Reg Hickey would later comment that the lengthy run of success had left his players ‘exhausted’.

Action shot form the 1953 Grand Final
Action shot from the 1953 Grand Final

Geelong and Collingwood would again end the season first and second on the league ladder.

But the dynamic between the teams had shifted. Collingwood now beat Geelong in the Semi Final, winning comfortably by 30 points, and did them again in a Grand Final rematch, winning a tighter game by two goals.

They had exactly reversed the results of the previous season.

As Geelong had supplanted Essendon, so they now had been deposed. Missing the Grand Final the following season, Collingwood would make 3 of the next 4, and win another Premiership in 1958 (their last, until 1990).

The Cats would not make another Grand Final until 1963.

Melissa Hickey, Geelong AFLW captain, in the Reg Hickey stand
Melissa Hickey, Geelong AFLW Captain, in the Reg Hickey stand

Geelong’s great team of the early 1950s is still remembered as one of the best ever assembled. Reg Hickey was later named Captain/Coach of their ‘Team of the Century’, three other players from the side were also named.

A stand at Kardinia Park is named after him.

Their record of 23 consecutive wins remains the VFL/AFL record. In more recent times, both Essendon (2000) and Brisbane (2001) won 20 games in a row.

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