AT HALF-TIME, Carlton was facing footy’s equivalent of climbing Mt Everest, a mountain that appeared too steep to overcome in a mere 60 minutes.
This was mission impossible for the Blues.
Champagne corks were being popped among the Collingwood faithful in a record crowd of 121,696, confident that the Magpies’ 14th premiership was a formality.
Heroes in navy blue and white were required and on this sun-soaked day, Carlton coach Ron Barassi assumed the role of Sir Edmund Hillary, leading a mission supported by his dedicated, determined and disciplined 20 Tenzing Norgays.
Brent Tasman Crosswell was one of those Norgays who in no small way changed the course of football history.
Fifty years on, the 1970 Grand Final remains a high watermark – arguably the game’s greatest premiership decider.
Early this century, Carlton key defender David McKay was adjudged by a panel of experts assembled by the AFL Record to be best-on-ground. But it would have been a close call.
While speedy blond forward pocket Ted Hopkins’ influence was undeniable with his four-goal contribution, Crosswell was most worthy of consideration.
When the Blues were struggling in the first half, the brilliant midfielder nicknamed ‘Tiger’ helped keep them afloat.
He kicked his first goal during Carlton’s incredible seven-goal blitz in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter and then came his shot at glory to put his team in front for the first time late in the final term.
Awarded a free kick after being taken in a high tackle by Collingwood star Des Tuddenham, Crosswell had a set shot from about 35m out at the city end.
“The wind was going slightly right to left and I remember thinking I needed to kick it towards the right goalpost,” he told the AFL Record.
“The kick was slightly right of the goalpost and the wind just took it through, thankfully.
“We’d come back from a nightmare first half when the game was completely beyond our grasp to winning an impossible Grand Final.
“Even today, 44 points behind at half-time is a lot to come back from.”
While all seemed lost at the major interval, Crosswell recalled how tired several Magpies, notably Len Thompson, looked and mentioned it to teammates in the dressing rooms.
Despite the miserable scoreline, Barassi remained composed and clear in his message about how the Blues could somehow revive their fortunes.
“He wasn’t screaming at us and that had a steadying effect,” Crosswell said. “You don’t want your leader to be in a state.
“It was a fantastic game ... a position game, a game of various colourful physical types.
“Think of the polarities between Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne and ‘Big Nick’ (John Nicholls), a feature that gave the game more meaning because it was more intrinsically dramatic than the homogenous forms and robotic predictability of contemporary football, yet its speed anticipated the modern game.
“It was certainly a great thing to be a part of – in a sense it was like being sentenced to be executed and then being given a reprieve.”
In the painful aftermath for the Magpies, there was insult to injury – Crosswell had almost been a Collingwood player.
“I was approached by Collingwood secretary Peter Lucas a week after signing with Carlton, so it was a close thing,” he said.
Crosswell was 20 and playing in his third consecutive Grand Final since arriving in Melbourne in 1968.
In his first Grand Final against Essendon two years earlier, the centreman from Campbell Town in Tasmania played an important role in Carlton’s drought-breaking premiership, quelling the influence of classy Bomber John Ellis.
Despite carrying a broken collarbone into the game which prevented him tackling, Crosswell outpointed Ellis and kicked one of the Blues’ seven goals.
In the premiership decider against Richmond the following season, the Blues faced a hurdle that ultimately proved insurmountable.
Trailing the Tigers by 22 points at the main interval, they mounted a courageous third-quarter comeback to lead by four points at the final change.
But it was in vain as the powerful Tigers stormed home to claim victory.
Was it about to happen again to the Blues?
Crosswell copped widespread criticism from inside and outside Carlton for his performance in 1969 and he was determined to turn that around.
“I felt the criticism was so unfair, so to come back in 1970 and play really well against St Kilda (in the preliminary final) and then Collingwood, that vindicated me,” he said.
“I redeemed myself and that was very important for me.”
The Blues trailed the Magpies by 17 points at the final change as Barassi moved among his troops imploring them for one last effort.
Nonetheless the coach said he was proud of them regardless of the result.
This was Barassi at the peak of his powers – a ruthless master tactician who knew how to elicit the best out of his men – and he achieved the desired result.
His players believed they could, and would, prevail and failing in a second successive Grand Final was not an option.
It is often said that opposites attract and that was the nature of the at-times tempestuous relationship between Crosswell and Barassi.
Barassi had lured Crosswell across Bass Strait after he was recommended to Carlton by former Blues wingman Berkley Cox and they enjoyed playing chess together when not in the heat of battle on the football field.
After falling out with Carlton over his rejected demands for a new contract worth $5600 a year, Crosswell joined forces with Barassi again at North Melbourne, where they combined in another two premierships, and later at Melbourne for another two seasons.
Crosswell was voted best-on-ground in the 1975 Grand Final, the Kangaroos’ first AFL/VFL premiership, in the AFL Record’s 2001 poll of pre-Norm Smith medallists (1965-78) and was a member of the Roos’ team that triumphed over Collingwood in 1977.
Crosswell said Barassi taught him not to complain too much and not to make excuses.
“Early on we got on pretty well, but after I turned 20 he was more critical of me because I was fully mature then,” Crosswell said.
“I didn’t like being attacked in the press by Barassi, especially when I couldn’t respond.”
Crosswell was an entertainer – flamboyant, spectacular in the air, quick-thinking and versatile.
In his early years at Carlton, he was in the centre, but as his body developed he was used as a key forward and defender.
Barassi often used him to plug gaps, much to his chagrin.
“I was in every position, but that used to annoy me. It upset my game,” he said.
“I might be playing centre half-back on an opponent and I was thinking how I was going to deal with this bloke. I was working on him psychologically, not just physically.”
An untold tale revealing the genius of Barassi in the famous 1970 Grand Final win.— Carlton FC (@CarltonFC) October 24, 2020
For the first time ever, Carlton's runner Rodney Wilkinson shares his story.
While he was forced to adhere to team rules as an elite footballer, that did not always sit well with him as an individual and he admitted there were times when he found the game to be boring and tedious.
To liven up proceedings, he developed a habit of throwing the ball up in the air after taking a big mark in front of goal.
Crosswell said he was heavily influenced by former star Richmond centreman Bill Barrot, who later briefly became a teammate at Carlton in 1971.
“He was a bit of a showman and I liked that,” Crosswell said. “It’s not easy to do that in Australian culture.
“There is a premium placed on team play and being unpretentious, not showing off.”
Crosswell fitted in well at Carlton with a cross-section of different characters coming together under Barassi.
The Tasmanian wasn’t your average footballer on or off the field.
“As a person he was a bit of an enigma – not unfriendly but he just marched to a different drum,” McKay said.
McKay was disappointed when Crosswell departed Carlton in his prime in early 1975 and went across town to join Barassi at Arden St.
“His relationship with Ron Barassi appeared to be quite strong in football terms and it was not surprising to see Brent follow Ron to both North Melbourne and Melbourne,” McKay said.
For much of his time with the Blues, Crosswell was an economics student at Monash University, who was outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War.
At one stage he would ride a motorcycle to and from games and it almost had deadly consequences after a match at Princes Park (now Ikon Park).
He was riding through Melbourne’s CBD late at night when his bike skidded in the prevailing cold, wet conditions and was almost hit by a truck at an intersection.
“I should’ve been dead,” he said. “It was such a dumb thing to do. Now I don’t like people riding motorbikes.
“I was tired, I put the foot on the brake and the back wheel locked.
“I missed the truck by no more than an inch.
“The truck driver remained at the intersection for a long time – he would’ve been surprised that a Carlton footballer had nearly killed himself.”
On another occasion in what he described as an act of stupidity, he smoked hash one day before playing at Glenferrie Oval.
After this was reported in a small publication in Carlton, it is reputed playwright David Williamson modelled the main character Geoff Hayward in his production The Club on Crosswell.
Crosswell generally reserved his best for finals, relishing playing in front of packed houses.
McKay ranks him alongside another former premiership teammate Wayne Johnston as Carlton’s greatest big-occasion players.
“As a footballer he (Crosswell) had enormous talent. He was very athletic and had great reflexes,” McKay said.
Surprisingly the MCG wasn’t Crosswell’s favourite ground – “I hated it because the surface was a mess with little grass and full of undulations that made the bounce unpredictable” – and preferred to play at the Blues’ spiritual home of Princes Park, where he made his debut against Geelong in round one, 1968.
“Princes Park was a most beautiful oval in the most beautiful spot – one of the great gems of Melbourne,” he said.
“It could hold 50,000 and it was just exquisite.”
For 30 years, Crosswell has lived in his home state, unable to return to the mainland as a long-term sufferer of Meniere’s Disease – an inner-ear disorder that causes severe vertigo, hearing loss and hallucinations in its worst form.
A retired schoolteacher, Crosswell keeps himself busy in South Hobart and takes care of his 95-year-old father Darrell, tucking him into bed every night.
He could not be at Marvel Stadium two years ago when he was inducted into Carlton’s Hall of Fame and, even if the 50-year celebrations of the 1970 triumph had not been cancelled because of COVID-19, he would have been forced to remain in Tasmania.
While acknowledging the game’s place in history, Crosswell remains unsure if it was a change for the better.
“I think there were people who recognised that handball had a more prominent part to play in the game,” he said.
“I liked the marking game, the variety of kicks.
“I liked the position game – players who played in different positions had a clear identity.
“It clarified the game and made it easier to follow.”
Any analysis of the reasons behind Carlton’s incredible comeback generally starts with Alex Jesaulenko’s iconic mark over Graeme ‘Jerker’ Jenkin, Barassi’s inspired decision to bring on reserve Hopkins to replace Bert Thornley and the Blues’ creative use of handball which proved to be a game-changer not only in this contest but for the future.
But there were other factors just as pivotal.
While ‘Jezza’s’ grab late in the second quarter lifted the Blues’ spirits, star full-forward Peter McKenna and Tuddenham collided heavily earlier in the term, leaving the Magpies spearhead severely concussed.
Contrary to a commonly-held belief, it wasn’t the first time Barassi’s Blues had used handball as an offensive weapon.
They had trialled the winning formula at Glenferrie Oval six weeks before as they overpowered Hawthorn.
“I didn’t pay too much attention to the handball thing because I had other things on my mind,” Crosswell said.
“I always handballed more than most other players in the team, usually five a game.”
Crosswell speaks with pride as he recalls his involvement in a “unique, extraordinary game”, describing his post-match emotions as “relief, amazement and exultation”.
“Every game of football at that level takes an enormous amount out of you,” he said.
“You go through the injuries, the tribulations of the whole year.
“When you go through the finals and win (the Grand Final), it’s a tremendous feeling of self-justification – a statement of your worth in a way.”
McKay said Crosswell’s Grand Final performance was integral
to the Blues’ triumph.
“I think he would agree it was one of his biggest games, if not his biggest, on one of the League’s biggest occasions,” McKay said.
The Blues had scaled the mountain many thought unthinkable and planted their 10th flag on the summit. Like Hillary and Norgay who were the first to climb the world’s highest peak, Barassi, Crosswell and his 19 teammates had created history and changed the game forever.
A PAINFUL WATCH
A year ago, Peter McKenna summoned the courage to watch the second half of the 1970 Grand Final for the first time.
McKenna had no recollection of the final two quarters – and admitted he felt sick watching.
“I don’t remember half-time, I don’t remember playing the second half of the game,” the former champion Collingwood full-forward said.
“I can’t remember the function on the Saturday night or how I got home. It’s weird.”
As it had done in its previous three encounters during the season, hot favourite Collingwood reigned supreme in a sublime first-half display.
The well-oiled Magpie machine was at full throttle and should have led by more than 44 points but for inaccuracy in front of goal.
Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne, whose father Frank had died five days before the game, was marking everything, Des Tuddenham was crashing through packs and the Richardson brothers, Wayne and Max, John Greening and Barry Price were setting up a plethora of opportunities for McKenna.
But the game took a turn when McKenna was flattened by Tuddenham in a marking contest during the second quarter.
McKenna, who had booted five goals in the first half, added only one after the major interval.
“Today I would never have been allowed back on the ground,” he said. “‘Tuddy’ had hit me very, very hard.
“In the third quarter, I got a handball from Max Richardson and wildly kicked at goal from 35m out.
“I scored a bloody point, Max can remember it, and I actually apologised to him on the phone recently.”
In an interesting twist, McKenna finished his distinguished AFL/VFL career with Carlton, playing 11 games with the Blues in 1977.
But the pain still lingers for McKenna and his Collingwood teammates from the memorable 1970 encounter.
“None of us have ever got over it,” he said. “You can make all of the excuses you like, but when you’re that far in front, you should win the game.”