Brian Gleeson – Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
Most footballers, with complete sincerity, would say that the team doing well, as in winning a premiership, coming close often, or positing winning records was more important than individual accolades, even if the at accolade was the Brownlow Medal.
In the absence of team success, however, most would admit that individual honours, especially the Brownlow Medal, would be at least sufficient consolation for a failure to take the top prize, the Grand Final Premiership Flag.
Our last subject, Peter Box, the 1956 Brownlow Medal winner, did partake of the ultimate success when the Fitzroy Football Club won the 1954 VFL Premiership.
Brownlow Medal Award
Moving forward in time, 1957 is the start of an occurrence where the Brownlow is concerned that has happened only three times in the history of the medal, that being the award going to a member of the same team three times consecutively.
Of those three occasions, the first time involved the Fitzroy Football Club, when the Brownlow Medal went to Haydn Bunton in 1931 and 1932, followed by Wilfred Smallhorn in 1933.
The next three-year span was 1957 – 1959, and the first of those St. Kilda players to win the Brownlow is our present subject, Brian Gleeson, the 1957 winner (The Saints would match this feat once more from 1965 – 1967, tying them with the Western Bulldogs for second-highest Brownlow Medal tally, with 10, behind South Melbourne/Sydney with 14). During the three year run of Brownlow Medals for the Saints from 1957 – 1959, the club compiled a record of 24 victories against 30 defeats. These results put them eighth or ninth on the ladder for those three seasons.
Brian Gleeson (3 November 1934), attended St. Patrick’s College in Ballarat and played for a time for Berrigan Football Club, also nicknamed the Saints, in the Southern Riverina Football Association.
He made his VFL debut in 1953 in a round one match against North Melbourne, where he promptly kicked his first VFL goal. He made his start as a centre half-forward, but made the switch to ruckman, where he enjoyed his greatest success. He played on a part-time basis that first season. After round one, he next appeared in round four, then six and seven. He then was idle until round 11, where he kicked two goals against Melbourne. He had another two-goal showing against Richmond in round 15, and then played twice more, ending his debut season with eight goals. The Saints posted a dismal 5 – 13 record.
Gleeson was on the ground 15 times during 1954, kicked six goals, but with the exception of replacing one of the five wins from 1953 with a draw, the Saints again were mired. If possible to imagine, they were even worse in 1955, winning only one game. Gleeson received his first two Brownlow votes for his contributions in 14 appearances.
The Saints improved, if that is an appropriate adjective to use to describe a side that went from one win in the previous season to four, as the Saints did in 1956. Gleeson upped his goals to 12, yet only attracted one Brownlow vote.
Attention By The Judges
Given the kind of attention he had received from the judges to this point, it was unexpected that he accomplished what he did in 1957, kicking 15 goals and receiving 24 Brownlow votes for just 15 games. He was four clear of Richmond’s Roy Wright, the South Melbourne footballer who won the Brownlow in 1952 and 1954. Gleeson’s teammate Harold Davies finished fifth at 14 votes. Difficult to conceive then, why the Saints could manage only 10 wins. Along with his Brownlow, Gleeson’s teammates declared him Saints Best and Fairest, bestowing on him what is now known as the Trevor Barker Award.
His was not a long career, lasting only five seasons. After being declared club captain in 1958, he was injured in a practice match and never again played football in the VFL. As dreary as were the Saints’ results during the three-year span where they supplied the three Brownlow Medal recipients, those results were even more discouraging during Gleeson’s career. From 1953 – 1957 the team won only 22 matches, drew two, and lost 66.
As centre half-forward, he was admired for his marking ability. When he made the switch to ruckman, it was his accurate hit-outs combined with his ability to rove the ground that is chiefly responsible for his runaway Brownlow Medal vote tally in 1957.
He was only 23 at the start of the 1958 season when his teammates made his club captain. Of course, as is true with any athletic career cut short by injury, it is a source of speculation concerning Gleeson of what might have been. He seemed to possess all skills in equal abundance, with the ability to excel anywhere on the ground. The practice incident that ended his career obviously took only scant seconds to occur, yet had life-long consequences for Brian Gleeson.
Four years after, in 1962, having moved from Victoria to Queensland, Gleeson attempted a comeback with the now-defunct Coorparoo Football Club of the QAFL. Twelve minutes into his first game, an injury to his other knee effectively ended his Australian Rules Football career.
His VFL career lasted only 71 games, during which time he kicked 47 goals and received 27 Brownlow votes.
The story of Brian Gleeson clearly illustrates the ephemeral nature of the notoriety that leaves as quickly as it comes, serving as a cautionary tale for athletes to live every moment in the arena as though it were their last. And perhaps, to skip practice whenever possible. For we fans, it hopefully serves to put a damper on the occasional resentment we express at the lavish compensation the top notch athletes receive, because the end to the riches and adulation is sometimes lightning quick.