Barry Breen – Former Australian Rules Football Player
Many different possible scenarios exist to describe the career of a footballer. At one extreme, you might have the player who had a long, productive career, filled with personal and team accomplishments, an exemplary record with the public, and perhaps a second football related career as a coach or something along those lines.
The other end of the spectrum might apply to a promising young player, whose career was cut short by an injury or personal tragedy.
All manner of variations exist in between, including many peoples’ favourite, that of a player who eventually triumphed against the odds to achieve glory near the end of his career. Not uncommon is the scenario where a player seemingly has everything he could ever want, and then inexplicably chucked it all.
Our subject today falls in between the extremes. It is the story of a player who tasted victory of the ultimate kind very early on, and then spent the rest of his career trying to reach that level again, only to fall short.
This description is also somewhat apt for the team this footballer spent his career playing for, the Saint Kilda Saints, which has won only one premiership in its entire history of play in the VFL/AFL, that in 1966, when our subject, Barry Breen, managed to squeeze a wobbly punt through the outside posts for a behind that was to provide a one point margin of victory over the Collingwood Magpies.
Debut For The Saints In 1965
Breen was a lad of just 17 years of age when he made his debut for the Saints in a round six match against North Melbourne in the 1965 season. Notice that we did not say ‘mere’ lad, because at 91 cm. and 93 kg., the adjective ‘mere’ does not seem fitting.
He was on the ground for the Saints on only three other occasions in his inaugural season, rounds seven, 11, and 12, the only loss being his last appearance, a mild case of irony, as it was against the Magpies.
He did not get on the ground when the Saints extracted revenge for that loss in the semifinal round, nor did the coaches enlist his services in the Grand Final loss to the Essendon Bombers. Barry Breen did show more than a little promise, however, doing a little bit of everything in the three wins in which he participated, to the extent that his 1966 season was quite spectacular from any number of perspectives.
He played all 21 contests in 1966. No one could accuse him of being shy about putting his boot to the ball, perhaps the only blemish on his season, as he took 273 kicks, fourth most of his entire 18 career, tallying only two goals and seven behinds.
One of those behinds, however, and if you were to ask him he would agree, was definitely the most significant of his career, and the most significant in the history of the Saint Kilda Football Club, since coming when it did, late in the game and clinching the ultimate victory, was the stuff of the dreams of anyone who has ever set foot on the oval.
Saints 15 Wins – 5 Losses
The Saints had basically picked up where they had left off the previous season, when the side they fielded in 1965 won 15 times against five losses. They had won their first four, before Essendon rather handily dispatched them in round five. The Saints rebounded, and on three other occasions that year, strung three consecutive wins together three separate times. One such string found them winning six of seven, the interruption again coming against the Bombers in round 16, although the five-point deficit on the Bombers’ home turf served notice that the Saints were legitimate contenders for the flag.
They made the Grand Final after a dramatic one point victory against Collingwood, but the emotion of that win perhaps left them a little flat when two weeks later, the succumbed to the Bombers for the third time, coming up short in all four quarters and trailing by 35 points when all was said and done.
Nineteen sixty-six found the Saints out of the gate in fine fashion, winning their first eight, and it was not until round eight, on the road or at Moorabbin Oval, where a competitor, the Bombers once again, made a contest of it in front of the Saints faithful.
The Tigers, somewhat inexplicably, handed St. Kilda its first loss of the season in round nine, one of only four the Saints would drop that year, and a rather lop-sided 109 – 74 verdict at the MCG. The Magpies got the better on the Saints in round 10, and it was an even worse drubbing for Breen and his mates, the final tally being 117 -45.
The Saints did right the ship, losing only twice more in the home-and-away portion of the season, but Collingwood again got the better of them in the first semi-final, as they had in round 12. When the Saints returned to MCG the following week, they treated the Bombers quite shabbily, dominating from the first bounce to the final siren and posting a final margin of 42 points. The Saints thus earned their way into their second consecutive Grand Final.
Breen was not exactly a prodigious kicker in either of those two seasons, but he did perform admirably in many other statistical categories.
1966 Grand Final
The 1966 Grand Final would have to be described as one of the most entertaining of all time, if you consider the anxiety fans of both sides would have felt over the course of a match that was tight the entire time. Over 100,000 spectators watched St. Kilda to get out in front in the first quarter, only to see the Pies come on strong in the second. Momentum swung back to the Saints in the third quarter, but the outcome was still very much in doubt.
The scores were level well into the fourth quarter when the Pies Wayne Richardson kicked out of bounds. The Saints won the throw-in and half-forward Ian Cooper advanced the ball toward the centre. A scrum resulted in a bounce that was won by the Saints, but Saints follower Brian Mynott lost the ball to Pies half-back Ted Potter, who in the process of being tackled, managed a hand pass that found it way to Barry Breen, who snapped a kick that bounced in for a behind, his fourth of the day and one for the history books.
To describe the following 16 seasons of Barry Breen’s career as anticlimactic might be harsh, but after kicking the winner in the biggest game of the year and providing his side with its singular premiership, it is not a blatant exaggeration.
St. Kilda was strong again in 1967, but bowed out against Geelong in the semi-final after beating the Cats the previous week. Breen began to emerge as a goal kicker, notching 22 in 16 appearances. They remained relevant, making the Grand Final again in 1971, but Hawthorn edged them 82 – 75. Breen set personal bests for kicks with 370 and goals, with 53 and behinds, with 44.
Breen and the Saints were respectable in 1972, but their fortunes began to decline after that. They had a winning season in 1973, just barely, but they then lost twice in the playoffs. They won only seven times in 1974. Barry Breen appeared only nine times.
Breen’s Best Season – 1978
Breen’s best season from an individual standpoint might have been 1978, when he attracted his career-best eight Brownlow votes. The Saints, however, were mediocre, winning only 11 times out of 22 attempts. The 1979 season was decidedly dismal.
Breen soldiered on for three more seasons, including his final campaign in 1982, where he appeared just nine times in order to reach the significant 300 game milestone that moved him into fourth all-time for the Saints. He also resides in eighth for goals kicked for his side, more a tribute to his longevity than to his scoring abilities.
He retired as one of the Saints’ stalwarts, leading the Saints in goals in 1970 and serving as captain in 1979. He remained close to the game as the general manager for the Sydney Swans first, and then was president of the Tasmanian Football League from 1992 to 1995. He was declared a member of the St. Kilda Football Club Team of the Century at the interchange position.
His contributions to the club and to the game are beyond reproach and it would be more than fair to see that he would immensely enjoy seeing a Saints player duplicate his Grand Final feat many times over.