Bertrand John Deacon – Brownlow Medal Winner
Bertrand John Deacon (8 November 1922 – 3 January 1974), known as Bert, won the Brownlow Medal in 1947. He started and finished with Preston in the Victorian Football Association, but it is the 10 seasons he spent with the Carlton Blues of the Victorian Football League that will be our concern.
Deacon’s career and his life were brief. He played in just 106 games betwixt when he made his VFL debut in 1942 at a few months shy of his 20th birthday and his retirement VFL in 1951. In fact, he played only eight games over his first three seasons. He was just 51 years of age at the time of his death in 1974.
Along with games played for the VFL and VFA, he was also a player and coach in the army, where the team he represented won all 10 games of a services competition that was held in Darwin, where he was filling a quartermaster role in the military.
Bert Deacon and many other young footballers had their careers shortened by World War II. Some, like Deacon, fortunately were able to resume after, something many would not be able to do. Deacon was also limited by a chronic thigh injury, yet he managed to be a star defender on two premiership teams and was the first of the Blues to earn the Brownlow Medal.
He was really on a part-time basis when he made his debut in 1942. The Blues played 14 games, producing a record of 10 wins, zero draws and four losses. Deacon took part in only three of those games, in rounds seven, eight and nine. Those were a loss to Footscray and wins against St. Kilda and Hawthorn.
He played in only two games in 1943, both wins, in round eight against Fitzroy and round nine against South Melbourne, whilst his team played 16 times for nine wins against seven losses. It was much the same thing in 1944, when he got on the ground for three games, one win and two losses. Some sense of normalcy was returning to Australian lives by this time as the clock wound down in Europe and the Japanese Imperial Empire had ceased to be capable of offensive warfare.
Carlton played a full 18 game home-and-away schedule, winning 12 and losing six.
Carlton was to raise the flag in 1945. They reached the Grand Final, which was played in Princes Park that year.
Almost 63,000 spectators saw the Blues outscore South Melbourne in all four quarters for a 28-point win in what was essentially a home game for the Blues. Carlton was the first team to reach the Grand Final following adoption of the Page-McIntyre system in 1931. They finished fourth on the ladder, but because of the “double chance,” they would have been able to lose a playoff game yet still issue a challenge.
In this case, it was not necessary. A narrow escape in the preliminary final against Collingwood did require a dramatic fourth quarter rally during which the Blues kicked seven goals in the final 18 minutes to end the Magpies’ season. When the Blues met South Melbourne the following week, no one could have predicted that South Melbourne would not reach the Grand Final for fifty years, by which time they were the Sydney Swans.
That 1945 Grand Final has historically been referred to as “The Bloodbath.” The war had just concluded and the Melbourne Cricket Ground was not available. To say the crowd was at capacity is a major understatement. Designed for half the number of spectators, the game set an attendance record. Wet and muddy conditions contributed to a general atmosphere of pandemonium.
Fights on the field and amongst the fans required intervention from team officials and the police. Ten players were charged with offences that resulted in suspensions of as many as 21 games in the case of South Melbourne centreman Ted Whitfield. He had tried to strike field umpire Frank Spokes, spoke derisively to goal umpire Les Whyte and attempted to hide his guernsey number from Whyte so that Whyte could not report him.
Those offences were apparently more serious that Whitfield’s six-beer-pregame-preparation-ritual. Even the league best and fairest from 1940, Herbie Matthews, was given a “severe reprimand.”
The players from the Blues, Bob Chitty and Ron “The Appropriately Named” Savage, received eight games suspensions. Fred Fitzgibbon received an additional four-match suspension for one count of “melee involvement,” when despite already serving a four game suspension for his king-hit of Collingwood’s Len Hustler the previous week, ran onto the field to participate in a fourth-quarter-bench-clearing brawl. It was necessary for the authorities to eject him from the stadium, lest he got involved in additional melees.
The war betwixt the Allies and the Axis might have been concluded, but hostilities and melees were alive and well on footy ovals.
Journos from Melbourne’s Truth tabloid called it, “The most repugnant spectacle League football has ever known.” On a scale of 1-10, with one being slightly repugnant and 10 being repugnant beyond comprehension, this Grand Final would have received no less than an 11, possibly even a 14 or 15.
Deacon managed to get on the ground for 17 of Carlton’s 19 games in 1946. He also received 17 Brownlow votes, putting him fourth, behind Don Cordner’s 20 and the 19 received by Jack Howell and Bill Morris. The Carlton side won 11 and lost eight games.
The 1947 season was to be by far Bert Deacons’ most memorable. He played in all 20 of his team’s games. The Blues were close to perfect, winning 17 times against only three defeats. A six game win streak ran from round three to round eight.
A round nine loss to Collingwood was followed by a seven game winning binge in rounds 10 to 18. The Blues lost a game to Geelong in round 19, but then beat Essendon in the semifinal and again in the 1947 Grand Final in a dramatic contest that saw Carton’s Fred Stafford kicking the winning goal in the final 40 seconds. The Blues had been trailing by five points when Stafford kicked his goal, providing the side with a one-point margin, for their eighth premiership, the second during Deacon’s time.
A Grand Final had not been so close since 1899. Bert Deacon earned 23 Brownlow votes, two clear of Harold Bray of St. Kilda. Deacon also shared his club’s best and fairest award, the John Nicholls Medal, with team captain Ern Henfry.
Deacon was to have two more productive seasons in the VFL, during which he appeared 36 times 1948-49. He made an appearance in the Grand Final, but it was Essendon that prevailed this time. He played only 15 times the final two seasons, 1950-51.
He then returned to Preston, the VFA team where he got his start and his father Jack had played years earlier. He took part in two seasons before calling it quits after 1953. He would go on to fill administrative roles and to serve on the committee. In 1970, he became club Secretary and was in that capacity when the Blues won flags in 1970 and 1972.
It was less than two years later, 3 January 1974, when he suffered a heart attack whilst holidaying with his family and died on the way to the hospital. He was recognised in 1997 as a member of Carlton’s Team of the Century.