Submitted by Peter Blucher.
Saturday 2 April 1977. Melbourne played South Melbourne at the MCG to give birth to a connection between Queensland football and the oldest club in Australia.
Making his debut for the Demons was Barry Denny, a 23-year-old South Brisbane junior and Queensland representative who had made a name for himself with Morningside in the QAFL.
He’d won the Panthers best & fairest in 1972 and 1976 and been runner-up to Sandgate champion Don Smith in the 1973 Grogan Medal to earn a chance with Melbourne in the big time.
It is 44 years on and now 16 Queenslanders have played with the famous club, which dates back to 1858 and Tom Wills, who is regarded as the founder of Australian football. Then captain of the Victorian cricket team, Wills led a group which formed what later became a founding member of the VFA in 1877 and the VFL in 1896.
It was the start of a glorious history which has included 12 premierships spread over six decades in 1900-26-39-40-41-48-55-56-57-59-60-64. And a 57-year premiership drought.
As Melbourne look to end what is now the game’s longest premiership drought in Saturday’s AFL grand final against the Western Bulldogs in Perth we take a look back at a fascinating Queensland connection to the team that wears red and blue and the stories and people that go with it.
Denny, a hard-at-it no-frills defender later to coach Morningside and become an inaugural inductee to the Queensland Football Hall of Fame, had done enormously well to break into the Melbourne side for Round 1 of his first season.
Coached by ex-South Melbourne triple Brownlow Medallist Bob Skilton, the Demons had finished sixth in 1976, half a game outside the top five.
His debut was something of a Queensland football reunion in advance. Or a pre-union if there is such a thing. Except his later-to-be mates were all wearing red and white and playing against him.
In the South Melbourne side coached by dual Brownlow Medallist Ian Stewart were no less than five future AFLQ coaches and Queensland football stalwarts – Terry O’Neill and Peter Morrison in their 12th game, John Blair in his 14th game, Mark Browning in his 36th game and John Rantall in his 266th game.
South’s Barry Round, later to win a Brownlow Medal and now living on the Gold Coast, celebrated his 150th game in the Denny debut as a 19-year-old Terry Daniher played his 2nd game. Greg Wells also played his 150th for Melbourne.
Denny had nine possessions in his first game but of the Queensland connection the day belonged to Blair, who would later follow Denny as Morningside coach. Blair kicked a career-best four goals in South’s 69-point win.
It was a year in which a Scottish-born gentleman who would go on to have a massive career in the AFL and is still very much in the news, debuted for Melbourne. Brian Cook, current Geelong CEO who has been touted as the man to take over at Carlton, played four games mid-season.
Playing his first game in Cook’s second game was a youngster from Romsey, north of Melbourne, who was later to make a huge contribution to Queensland football.
Bob Walters, born the day after Cook, went on to play 25 games with Melbourne from 1977-81 before a knee injury ended his career. After time in the hotel game, he moved to the Gold Coast and dedicated himself for 17 years to the Broadbeach Football Club.
He was not just as a supporter but a Board member, President of the juniors and seniors, head of the Licensed Club and all-purpose volunteer. And later the club’s full-time Development Manager until his retirement in 2011.
Forty years after his last game for Melbourne Walters still has a place in the club record books, having kicked nine goals in his 13th game in 1979.
He was just the 10th player to kick nine or more for the club, and is now one of 16. There are only six who have kicked more than nine, including the great Fred Fanning, who holds the all-time AFL record of 18 goals in a game in 1947, and ex-captain Garry Lyon, who will present the Cup to the Demons if they win the grand final this week.
Denny, who went on to play 22 games with Melbourne from 1977-79 before returning home, wasn’t the first Queenslander to play with the Demons.
That distinction belonged to Ray Smith, a junior star at Sherwood and later Wests who, quite amazingly, made a stunning switch to play rugby league in Brisbane when his path to the then VFL was initially blocked.
At the time the rules of Australian National Football Council classified Queensland and New South Wales as development states and banned players from joining the VFL for fear of diminishing the local talent pool.
Playing with Valleys in the old Brisbane rugby league competition, Smith represented Brisbane and was touted as a future Australian representative when, in a move which shocked league ranks, he quit the code to sign with Essendon.
He played 77 games with the Bombers from 1971-75 before a mid-season switch to Melbourne, where he played 27 games in 1975-76. He played 91 games in a row from 1972-76 and in Round 13 of his last season became the first Queenslander to play 100 VFL/AFL games.
Smith was an Essendon player up to Round 12 in 1975 and a Melbourne player from Round 13. Because he made such a quick transition and wasn’t actually recruited from Queensland amid a blaze of publicity it wasn’t quite the same connection between Queensland fans and Melbourne that would follow with Denny in ’76.
Ironically, Denny inherited the #7 jumper at Melbourne from Smith. And 23 years later it was handed on to the Queenslander who would go on to play most games, kick most goals and poll most Brownlow Medal votes for Melbourne – Brad Miller.
Drafted from Mt Gravatt in 2001, Miller played 133 games, kicked 89 goals and polled eight medal votes with Melbourne from 2002-10 before 24 games with Richmond from 2011-12 and a coaching stint with the GWS Giants that ended only 12 months ago.
If Smith and Denny were the first two Queenslanders to play for Melbourne and Miller is the most decorated Queenslander to play for Melbourne then the most recent Queenslander to wear Melbourne colours and the Queenslander who will have an insider’s view of the grand final is Oskar Baker.
Son of ex-Windsor-Zillmere player Leigh Baker and drafted from Aspley after being a member of the Lions Academy, he is a member of the current Melbourne playing list and is in Perth for the first AFL grand final to be played in the WA capital. Drafted in 2017, Baker has played 15 games with Melbourne (2019-21) including three this year. He was the unused medical substitute in Rounds 2 and 12 and had 15 possessions in the Round 7 win over North Melbourne.
Another part of the Queensland connection to Melbourne is an historic one. Donald and David Cockatoo-Collins, brothers of 140-game Essendon and Port Adelaide star Che Cockatoo-Collins, joined Melbourne together from Cairns and are the only twins from Queensland to have played AFL football. The pair debuted together in Round 1 1996. David played two AFL games and Donald nine.
Two other Queensland brothers played at Melbourne – Josh and Corey Wagner. Grandsons of Sandgate champion Gary Wagner and sons of one-time Bears hopeful Scott Wagner, they finished their AFL careers together at Melbourne after Corey had started at North Melbourne. Josh played 42 games (2016-20) and Corey 11 games at Melbourne (2019) after eight at North (2016-17).
A proud family history at Wilston-Grange also led to Melbourne and later to the screens of a TV soap opera via Clint Bizzell, son of Grange 200-gamer Robin Bizzell. Drafted from Kedron-Grange in 1995, he played 88 games for Melbourne (2002-07) after 75 games with Geelong (1996-2000) and was first Queenslander to play in the finals for Melbourne in 2002 and 2004.
Involved in a mini documentary in 2004 in which he explained AFL intricacies to actor Matt Damon, Bizzell pursued an acting career post-football, doing a five-week guest role on ‘Neighbours’. He later joined Melbourne ex-Channel 7 news presenter turned wife Jennifer Adams in producing and hosting a TV travel series ‘Places We Go’ and writing a book “Australia’s Top 100 Places To Go – The Ultimate Bucket List”.
There is yet another Queensland football family story that involves Melbourne via Stephen Wearne and younger brother David. Junior products of Mt.Gravatt and later Coorparoo, they were opposed in the 1991 VFL Reserves grand final, when David’s Brisbane Bears beat Stephen’s Melbourne at Waverley.
Stephen, drafted by Melbourne from Sandringham in the 1991 Mid-Season Draft, played three AFL games with Melbourne in 1992. David played 18 games with the Bears (1990-92) before the pair finished playing together at Morningside. Stephen is now a Brisbane Lions Academy Regional Manager, responsible for the Brisbane South and Darling Downs regions.
The first two Queenslanders drafted from Townsville, both hulking ruckmen who started out as rookies, also played at Melbourne. Jake Spencer and Brayden Preuss.
Spencer, a basketball convert, was the first Townsville draftee, picked up by Melbourne from Redland in 2007. He played 38 AFL games in an injury-plagued career over 10 years (2008-17), spending much of his time as a back-up to Max Gawn, who will captain Melbourne in the grand final.
Preuss, a rugby league convert who was a product of the Gold Coast Suns, was the second Townsville draftee and played 10 games with Melbourne (2019-20) after eight games with North Melbourne (2017). He joined GWS for the 2021 season but is yet to play for his third club due to ongoing shoulder problems.
Like Miller, two other Queenslanders to play at Melbourne have links back to Mt.Gravatt. Rohan Bail and Joel Macdonald. Bail was drafted from Mt.Gravatt in 2008 after finishing fourth in the Grogan Medal and played 71 games with Melbourne (2009-15). And Macdonald, originally drafted by the Lions, played 80 games for Brisbane (2004-09) before 44 games with Melbourne (2010-13) after being thrown a second-chance lifeline by the Demons in the Pre-Season Draft.
There is another Queenslander who, like Ray Smith, had a mid-season switch of clubs that involved Melbourne. But while Smith went from Essendon to Melbourne in mid-1975 Trevor Spencer went from Melbourne to Geelong in mid-1991. Originally from Jindalee, Spencer played three games with Melbourne (1990-91) after 31 games at Essendon (1985-89) and before 10 games and three finals with Geelong (1991).
Completing the playing list is Ricky Petterd. Drafted from Broadbeach as a member of the star-studded 2006 Queensland U18 side coached by new Collingwood AFL coach Craig McRae, he played 54 games with Melbourne (2007-12) before 30 games with Richmond (2013-15).
There’s also a less direct connection to a Melbourne premiership via Dick Fenton-Smith. A burly 195cm ruckman who changed out of the back pocket, he was originally from the Ormond Amateurs in Melbourne but played in the 1954 Wests QAFL premiership side before heading back south. He played 50 games for the Demons from 1957-59, including the 1957-59 grand final wins over Essendon and the 1958 grand final loss to Collingwood. Curiously, Fenton-Smith played 49 games in #1 but in the ’58 grand final he wore #4. John Beckwith wore #1 despite playing his other 175 games for the club in #30.
As many as seven Melbourne players in the grand final this week are set to wear jumper numbers worn by Queensland predecessors, headed by ex-captain Jack Viney, who will wear the #7 of Ray Smith, Barry Denny and Brad Miller. Christian Salem will wear Clint Bizzell’s #3, Ed Langdon will wear Ricky Petterd’s #15 and James Jordan, the medical substitute in Melbourne’s last three games, will carry the #23 jumper of Trevor Spencer. Alex Neal-Bullen and Bayley Fritsch will wear jumpers #30 and #31 worn by David and Donald Cockatoo-Collins, and Joel Smith, who missed the preliminary final with injury, will be hoping to return to wear the #44 previously worn by Rohan Bail.
IMPORTS FROM MELBOURNE
Two ex-Melbourne players were members of the very first Brisbane side in 1987 – Dale Dickson and John Fidge. Daryl Cox, who son Nik Cox is now playing at Essendon, was also a member of the inaugural Bears playing list and played in the club’s second game in 1987. This trio was followed by 1988 club champion Mark Withers, Rod Owen, Fabian Francis, Martin Pike, Travis Johnstone, Brent Moloney and Stefan Martin, who ironically will play for the Bulldogs against Melbourne in the grand final. The Gold Coast Suns have recruited only one ex-Melbourne player – Matthew Warnock.
Peter Blucher is a Consultant with Vivid Sport.