FORMER CARLTON centreman Leon Berner, an 18-game player who completed his senior debut for the club almost 70 years ago, has died at the age of 88.

Originally recruited from Melbourne High School, Berner was just 13 when he broke into Essendon’s Under 17 outfit in 1949. Four years later, he joined Carlton, turning out for the Under 19s team under the watch of coach and former forward Harvey Dunn. The “unders”, which included fellow future senior players Brian Buckley and Vic Garra, and the Olympic and Commonwealth Games high jumper and Dallas Cowboys punter Colin Ridgway, reached the Grand Final in 1954 – only to  fall three points adrift of Footscray in controversial circumstances.

Leon Berner, Princes Park, circa 1955

Berner made the cut for the Percy Bentley-coached Carlton seniors as a 19 year-old the following season, completing his debut against Richmond at Punt Road Oval in Round 11, 1955 - on the same afternoon Keith Warburton and the late Dave Browning played their last.

Carlton’s 4th Round match of 1957, against Geelong at Princes Park, would double as Berner’s 18th and final senior game, although in five instances as 19th and 20th man (pre-interchange) he failed to get a run.

In 1958, Berner headed north along Sydney Road to Coburg, where he represented the VFA team under the watch of coach and former Essendon footballer Doug Bigelow. The following year he crossed the border, joining Deniliquin in the Murray League,  and was part of the Rams’ team which lost the ’59 Grand Final against Les Mogg’s Cobram. In the ensuing years he chased the leather for Richmond and Carlton Rovers in the Sunday League, and in 1962 Vermont then coached by a former Carlton teammate Doug Beasy.

In 1964, Berner accepted the role of captain-coach with Metropolitan League club Fairfield – a three-year tenure abruptly ended in 1966 when he broke down with a knee injury. Five years later, the Vermont-based Berner imparted his football knowledge with Heatherdale Juniors. Away from the game, Berner pursued his career as Chief Clerk for the Melbourne Harbor Trust.

Berner’s daughter Joanne Bloomer remembered her father with great affection, and acknowledged his loyalty to his old club.

“Dad was an amazing man. He was loveable, caring and thoughtful. Family was everything and Carlton was everything,” Bloomer said.

“He grew up in Brunswick and lived with his family at 63 Laura Street, so he was within walking distance of the ground. He was a senior player at Carlton for just three seasons – 1955, ’56 and ’57 – but he always supported Carlton, his children have always supported Carlton and so too have his grandkids.”

David Browning and Leon Berner, Ikon Park, Spirit of Carlton function, circa 2016

Bloomer recalled joining her father at IKON Park for a past players gathering a few years ago, during which time he was photographed at his old No.20 locker – a locker later used by Premiership players Wes Lofts, Geoff Southby and Fraser Brown, and now Elijah Hollands.

But that wasn’t Berner’s only cameo appearance, for as Bloomer explained “he loved coming back” - and a photograph dated 2016 shows Berner and Browning standing shoulder to shoulder on the hallowed turf during a Spirit of Carlton past players reunion.

Berner died at Rowville Manor after a short illness on Monday. His wife of 65 years, Dawn, died in 2020.

He is survived by husband daughters Julie and Joanne, son-in-law Glen, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

He was the 694th player to represent the Carlton Football Club at senior level since the formation of the VFL in 1897.