Colin Austen – Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
There exists more than one instance where patience was an asset for a footballer, during a game, during a season or during a career.
One player, who benefited from patience, perhaps without realizing it, was Colin Austen (2 December 1920 – 3 October 1995), the Hawthorn and Richmond player from the 1940s and early 1950s who waited 40 years to collect his due in claiming a retrospectively awarded Brownlow Medal for his contributions to Hawthorn in 1949. Today’s record books show him as being Hawthron’s first Brownlow Medal recipient.
At the time, Ron Clegg of South Melbourne received the medal, even though he had appeared in one more game than Austen. More than a little criticism has been aimed at the process of awarding the game’s best and fairest, and the methodology has been tinkered with over the course of time, but no solution, proposed or enacted, is capable of satisfying everyone, especially when they perceive that their favourite has been slighted. That debate is better left to others more qualified than we are, so we will instead focus on the career of Austen.
Prior to joining Hawthorn, Col Austen spent some formative time as a player for Yew. He made his VFL debut with Hawthorn on 6 July 1940 in a round 11 match against Collingwood at Hawthorn’s Glenferrie Oval. His side lost, as they did on two more occasions on which Austen appeared. He took part for two wins as well.
The Hawthorn side that year won only seven that year, finishing ninth on the ladder, one spot ahead of South Melbourne, although Austen’s 1949 Brownlow Medal counterpart Ron Clegg’s debut with that side was still five years and one World War in the future. Besides their shared position on the halfback line, dismal club results were another thing the two men shared. Austen attracted one Brownlow vote that season.
He got on the ground for all 18 of the Hawthorn Football Club’s games in 1941, but the Hawks were even more dismal than they had been the previous season, winning only three times, finishing on that rung on the ladder where the other 11 teams of the VFL stepped during the climb to their respective positions for the season. Small consolation was the fact that the Hawks tied won-lost records with St. Kilda and Geelong, but were relegated to the absolute bottom of the ladder by dint of scoring so little whilst giving up more than 225 points more than the Saints. Austen received six Brownlow votes.
Col Austen did not play in 1942. He would have been 21 years of age when that season started, but whether his absence was due to injury or military service, we cannot say. Given his decent performance in 1941, it is unlikely that his performance alone would have accounted for his absence.
Hawthorn finished at the bottom once again, at 11th however, due to the effect World War II exerted, where Geelong did not field a team, Hawthorn suspended play by their seconds, and many teams filled their sides only with players that happened to be available for one reason or another from the military services.
He appeared just twice in 1943, in a round nine win over Footscray and a round 10 loss to Carlton. Hawthorn finished fifth in an abbreviated 15 game schedule, tied fourth in win-loss and points with Carlton, which got into the finals ahead of the Hawks based on percentage. In terms of the finals, it was the closest Austen would ever come to making it in whilst a member of the Hawks.
Austen was missing during 1944 and 1945. When he returned in 1946, the Hawks were bottom rung dwellers once again. Brownlow voting, suspended during the war, resumed, with Austen receiving nine votes.
Nineteen forty-seven and forty-eight were no better or only slightly improved from recent seasons. Austen received eight votes each season, but his side remained on the bottom rungs.
In the 1949 season, Austen again endured ignominy as his side again occupied the bottom rung after winning only three times from 19 opportunities. He finished tied with Ron Clegg in Brownlow votes, even though he played in 17 games compared to Clegg’s 18.
Fewer games would have resulted in the award going to Austen prior to 1930, but that year featured a three-way tie, with the medal going to Stan Judkins, igniting a controversy as the result of the appearance of Judkins having been deliberately demoted to the juniors. In the case of Clegg and Austen, Clegg, even though he had played one more game than Austen, won on the basis of having had more three-vote games. Austen felt some measure of vindication from having been declared best and fairest by his Hawthorn teammates.
The following season found the Hawks in a state of complete disarray. After having served many seasons in the role of launching many attacks for his side, along with playing brilliantly in his role as a defender, quit the Hawks when his mate Alec Albiston was sacked as coach.
Colin Austen sought and received an open clearance, and then joined Richmond for the final three seasons of his career, playing 51 games for the Tigers. The most he had to show for that switch was during the 1951 season, when the side had a winning record of 10 – 8, and Austen scored the one goal of his career.
He took up a role as captain/coach of Richmond’s seconds in 1953, serving for three seasons.
He won the seconds premiership in 1954 and 1955, which must have felt refreshing to him after all the years of struggle on losing sides as a player. He experienced additional success with Box Hill of the VFA.
Disputes were put aside eventually, but Austen was not around to enjoy being named to Hawthron’s Team of the Century. He did live to see wrongs righted when retrospective Brownlow medals were awarded to he and eight other players, who for one of several reasons, were denied during the years they played where they had tied votes.