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Denis Ryan – Retired Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner

We recently examined the footy career of Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn, who potentially had the greatest nickname of any player of any sport in any era.

Today, we turn our attention to the other player who prevented Haydn Bunton and Dick Reynolds from sweeping the Brownlow Medal for the bulk of the 30s, Denis “Denis with one N” Ryan.

Actually, Ryan was known as Dinny, which has two n’s in order to prevent it from rhyming with tiny. Not that there is anything wrong with spelling Dennis with one n; it falls well below the offense of spelling John without the h.

Denis Ryan - Retired Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner

If, as Woody Allen said, “80 percent of life is showing up,” then the other 20 percent must be the timing and the place, and it would appear that Ryan was the unfortunate victim of time and location.

He made his debut in 1935, lacking his 19th birthday by just a bit over two months. Those were ominous times. The economic crisis known as the Great Depression, typically said to have begun on “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929 when the U.S. stock market crashed amidst panic selling, had as a precursor an eerily similar day on September 20th when it was the London stock exchange that collapsed.

That slide in the value of stocks actually continued into mid-July of 1932. Australia had been in serious economic straits as early as 1928. By 1935, rampant unemployment and shuttered businesses made the prospect of a secure position with the Fitzroy Football Club of the Victorian Football League seem like a form of miraculous intervention. At the same time, it appeared that all of Europe, especially in Germany where the punitive measures of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles had created intense political instability, was headed for a repeat of World War I.

Try to imagine the mixture of relief and dread a young man such as Denis Ryan must have felt on a daily basis. On the one hand, even though VFL players of that era were by no means extravagantly paid, a position in the VFL meant at least a roof over one’s head, food in one’s belly and decent shoes, maybe even a little loose cash in one’s pocket. On the other hand, however, Ryan and millions more Australian young men, were faced with the prospect of becoming machine gun fodder when they were called to support the Empire.

So much for the timing aspect of success.

As to the location, Fitzroy was not the most desirable place to engage in Australian Rules Football. The team that would eventually become the Brisbane Bears was in a bit of a rough patch, if that is not too much of an understatement. Following a 1923 Grand Final loss to Essendon, Fitzroy failed to make the playoffs in 1924 and 1925. In 1926, they won only six games and had losing seasons from 1927-1932. Things improved mildly in 1933, when the side posted 11 wins, before returning to hard times in 1934.

In his first season of 1935, Ryan offered a rare glimpse of hope to Fitzroy fans. The team did not fare much better, going 8 – 1 – 9, but Ryan burst onto the scene, scoring 46 goals whilst playing centre half forward. He apparently lost his scoring touch, however, for the next year saw him being moved to centre half back.

It turned out to be a fortuitous change when he was awarded the Brownlow Medal for his efforts, marking the fifth time in six seasons that the Brownlow went to a Fitzroy player, three of the four going to Haydn Bunton with the remaining one going to Chicken Smallhorn. Unfortunately, the Maroons lost 16 games that season, something that would have made the Brownlow something of a minor compensation. Ryan would score only four goals in 18 games that season.

He made amends, somewhat, in 1937, with 10 goals. Fitzroy’s fortunes, however, were only slightly improved, to six wins. Essendon’s Dick Reynolds attracted 27 Brownlow votes to Ryan’s 12, giving Ryan the first of his three Brownlows.

Denis Ryan got on the ground only 13 times in 1938, another dismal campaign for Fitzroy, which wound up at 5 – 0 – 13. Since this piece is focused on Ryan, we feel compelled to mention that four of the side’s five wins that season were games in which he participated.

A knee injury in 1939 made him miss the first 10 rounds, not that it much mattered as the Maroons won only six times.

The injury led to Ryan’s decision to abandon football for military service. He found himself fighting the Germans in Africa early in World War II, at a period during the war when fighting the Germans mainly meant death or disability. Ryan was wounded at Tobruk in Libya. He would have been around 23 years of age at the time. The wound meant that he would never play football again, although, by the time the VFL resumed, he would have been near or just beyond the age of 30.

For his career, he played just 70 games over the course of five seasons. The side would post a 22 – 1 – 47 record during that time. Denis Ryan would produce 65 goals, 46 of those coming in his debut season. It would seem almost as though Fitzroy players were given the Brownlow Medal as a consolation.

So, it would appear that Denis Ryan’s story was one of burning brightly but briefly. It is impossible to speculate what might have transpired had injury and history not intervened, but for one boy from Albury and the Ovens and Murray Football Netball League, the 1936 season of the VFL must have been heady times indeed.

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