Essendon's Bill Hutchison runs through a guard of honour before the 1953 semi-final between Essendon and Footscray after winning the Brownlow Medal. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive
After this week’s latest inductions, the Australian Football Hall of Fame has 257 members. Of those, 25 are official Legends of the game. And of the elite of the elite, just one played fewer than 100 games at senior level.
That John Coleman achieved such status in just 98 games over six seasons with Essendon between 1949 and 1954 says plenty about a player still acknowledged by many of his peers as the greatest of all-time.
It’s one of football’s tragedies that the famous high-leaping full-forward, after whom the AFL’s goalkicking award is named, was finished by the age of 25 after a career-ending knee injury midway through the 1954 season.
Bomber great John Coleman in action. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive
But another is that it happened just two years before the arrival of television in this country, reducing the visual archive of Coleman in action to a grand total of less than two minutes. Until now.
In the realms of football discoveries, the National Film and Sound Archive’s acquisition of a five-minute colour film of the 1953 first semi-final between Essendon and Footscray is significant.
Last Thursday marked 60 years to the day since Coleman went down at Windy Hill in round eight against North Melbourne, carried from the field never to play again. The semi-final against the Bulldogs the previous season would end up being his last finals appearance.
In that context, the importance of the archive’s discovery can’t be overstated. Of the five minutes of action, much is devoted to close-ups of Coleman battling his opponent that day, Footscray Team of the Century full-back Herb Henderson.
And there are other previously hidden gems. Such as Essendon captain Bill Hutchison running onto the ground through a guard of honour, having just won the Brownlow Medal. Glimpses of a very youthful Ted Whitten and Footscray captain-coach Charlie Sutton in action for the Dogs. Or their teammate but better known later in life as the king of illegal ''two-up'', Lionel ''Nappy'' Ollington. All in beautiful, and surprisingly clear, colour.
Archivist Simon Smith has devoted much time to this project, a labour of love, and the results can be viewed on the archive’s YouTube channel from Saturday.
''All the previously known footage of Coleman comes to no more than two minutes, and dates from five matches played over his first two seasons in 1949 and 1950. So this makes it six, and obviously the last known moving images of him,'' Smith says.
The background to the historic footage and its discovery is a story in itself.
''Late last year, we acquired a collection of about 80 cans of 35mm and 16mm film via the deceased estate of a Melbourne film collector,'' Smith says.
''There were prints and negatives of a variety of titles, assorted Australian train footage, and a complete set of black-and-white newsreels from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. But we also found some unmarked cans of 16mm film with action from a handful of 1950s VFL games.''
Those games, currently being prepared for release, are shot between 1953 and 1959, with action involving Essendon, Footscray, Carlton, Melbourne, Fitzroy, Geelong and Collingwood. A couple are accompanied by commentary from 3UZ caller George Andrew. There’s a Fitzroy-Footscray clash from the Lions’ old Brunswick Street home.
The films are believed to have been shot by and screened exclusively at what was then the Star Newsreel Theatrette, on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane, a venue which for the last 30 years has been, and remains, the Crazy Horse X-Rated Cinema, a place catering to a far different form of sport and recreation.
Coleman went into the 1953 first semi-final needing only four more goals for his fourth century in only five seasons, and fresh off a 10-goal haul against Richmond. But he also went into the game with a severe dose of influenza that had him confined to bed in the week leading up to the game, and in doubt to play right up until the start.
Former Essendon player Hugh Mitchell, who hadn’t been picked in the side, confirms in Doug Ackerly’s recently released biography Coleman – The Untold Story of an AFL Legend just how ill the champion was that week.
''Jack Vosti, who was one of the selectors at the time, said to me: 'Son, I think you’ll be playing'. I said: 'What’s wrong?’ He said: 'Oh, John Coleman’s crook'. I said: 'How bad?' He said: 'He’s got a bad attack of the flu, real bad. Just stand by'.''
Coleman, however, managed to crawl from his sickbed to take his place. He’d be up against a champion full-back in Henderson, plus the added hurdle of a blustery north wind with gusts estimated at 95km/h, which made every skill, let alone high-marking, far more difficult than usual.
The result was a thorough disappointment both for Coleman and his team, the champion held to only 1.2 for a season tally of 97, and the Bombers to just 5.11, Footscray winning its first-ever final in seven attempts by eight points.
The footage shows Henderson playing Coleman very tightly in a number of goalsquare contests. The champion spearhead booted his side’s first goal of the game, but uncharacteristically missed another couple of chances. Debate would rage in the aftermath about whether he should have played at all.
Ackerly’s biography quotes long-time football scribe Alf Brown’s match report. ''Coleman was obviously a sick man. He rarely moved from the goal base, and often stood for minutes with his hands on his knees and his head hanging down. Once, a trainer came out to him with a glass of medicine.''
In The Argus, Hugh Buggy called it ''the most melancholy match of his [Coleman’s] career''. ''His arms were stiff from penicillin injections. His face had an ashen pallor … He was unable to summon the energy for his characteristic panther-like leads.''
But Henderson, now 83, rightly maintained that once a player decided to pull on the boots, excuses couldn’t be made. ''He shouldn’t have been playing if he was unfit,'' Henderson tells Ackerly in the Coleman tome. ''Anybody that gets a game is fit as far as I’m concerned. You don’t pamper them.''
Henderson certainly didn’t. Yet even on such a poor day by his lofty standards, Coleman shows the odd glimpse of what it was that made him so special.
In one sequence, he soars above a pack of three Footscray defenders, the ball still to come into shot. In another, he comes from behind his opponent, his natural spring giving him first claim on the ball coming towards the pair. And those moments alone, combined with the use of colour and more than one camera, make this short film an important part of football history.
An old copy of the VFL Football Record from the same season carries an advertisement for the Star Newsreel Theatrette’s screening of action from the round-15 match between Essendon and eventual runner-up Geelong at Windy Hill.
Coleman starred in the Bombers' win that afternoon, Ackerly noting in his book that Coleman’s high marking that day was some of the most spectacular of his career.
As yet, the film remains unaccounted for. But the archive’s recent discovery of this treasure trove has revived hope that it may one day be found, providing yet more first-hand evidence of why Coleman was and still is regarded by many as the greatest footballer who ever lived.