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Des Fothergill and Herbie Matthews – Brownlow Medal Winners

In 1930, we observed a three-way tie betwixt vote getters for the Brownlow Medal, although at the time, the medal was presented to Stan Judkins based on his having appeared in fewer games than the other two players with whom he tied in Brownlow votes, Allan Hopkins and Harry Collier.

These last two received their awards in 1989, fortunately whilst they were both still alive to witness sports justice served.

Des Fothergill and Herbie Matthews - Brownlow Medal WinnersThe awarding of the medal went smoothly for the next nine seasons, especially when viewed from the perspective that for six of those nine seasons, either Haydn Bunton or Dick Reynolds was the VFL’s Best and Fairest.

Controversy returned in 1940, however, when Des Fothergill and Herbie Matthews tied for the award with a then-record 32 votes each. Both men played in 18 games that season, so there was no countback rule on which to fall back. Lacking any provision for sharing the award, the VFL decided that neither would be recognized. It was again 1989 when this deficit was corrected. Again, both men were still of this earth, Matthews only barely so, as he died in mid-1990.

Here is an examination of their playing careers.

Des Fothergill

The story and events concerning Des Fothergill make for a rather interesting tale. Like another of our subjects for this website devoted to the Australian Football League, Sav Rocca, Fothergill, at the end of his days as a footy player, switched sports. Unlike Rocca, however, who switched to a role as a punter in the National Football League, where at least the job consisted of proficiently kicking another oddly shaped ball, Fothergill switched to cricket.

Not only did he make a radical switch in changing to cricket, he was quite accomplished on the green. He played in 27 cricket matches for Victoria at the first class level.

On one occasion, he made a hundred in a match against South Australia, so it would appear as though the skill of his hands was the equal of that of his feet. This was in 1947, even though he was still a member of the Collingwood Football Club.

He was in his late 20’s when he did something else that from a historical perspective seemed a little odd. He moved to England, where he played for the Enfield Cricket Club in 1949 and 1950. Playing for Enfield was not the odd thing, nor cricket, moving to England was. Perhaps he was attempting to lend truth to the adage about Mad Dogs and Englishmen, since it could safely be assumed that in England he no longer had much risk of exposure to the noonday sun.

Fothergill’s career with Collingwood lasted just seven seasons. As was the case with many of Australia’s young men of that era, he put his regular life on hold, abandoning the game from 1941-1944 to do a stint in the army. He had jumped from the VFL to the VFA without the blessing of the VFL in 1941, as was not uncommon during the time known as the Australian Rules Football Schism. Like others, Fothergill was attracted by the rules changes instituted by the VFA, primarily the one that legalized passing.

The VFA had also chosen to disregard the transfer agreement that had governed the exchange of players betwixt itself and the VFL, and began to aggressively recruit VFL players in order to field a product that would attract the interest of the general public.

The rift was essentially moot in Fothergill’s case, since the VFA and the Williamstown football club that had lured him from the VFL, suspended play from 1942 to 1944, during which time he joined the army.

Fothergill returned to Collingwood FC in 1945, playing in 39 matches before deciding that he had had enough of footy. He had played in 72 games from his debut in 1937 until 1940, the year he won his Brownlow. His total of 111 games with Collingwood placed him at 144th on the list of games played for the Magpies, yet almost 70 seasons later, he is 11th on the list of most goals kicked. His total production was 337, something of a rarity as regards Brownlow Medal winners up unto that point, when they rarely kicked in a career as many as Fothergill regularly kicked in a season. Even in 1947, when he appeared only four times, he kicked 12 goals, keeping his career average of 3.04 intact.

Desmond Hugh “Des” Fothergill was born 15 July 1920 in Northcote, Victoria, a bit to the north of Melbourne. He could claim to have made his debut as a 16-year-old, but only by 10 days. Still, he wasted no time gaining experience and proving that despite his smallish stature, his skill was nothing short of brilliant.

Keep in mind now, that he was playing for Collingwood, where excellence was part of a well-established tradition, and then consider that he led his team in scoring from his half-forward flank position in his very first season. He demonstrated clearly that this was no fluke when he backed that with his career high of 65 in 1938. He would kick four in a losing effort against Carlton in the 1938 Grand Final. In 1939, Fothergill contributed 51, including three in a Grand Final loss to Melbourne.

Collingwood had a rare off-season in 1940, winning only eight times whilst losing 10 and failing to qualify for post-season play. Fothergill kicked 56, including seven in a match that provided some measure of revenge against Carlton for the 1938 Grand Final loss. His record setting 32 Brownlow Medal votes was eight clear of Hugh Torney, which would have made him a runaway winner, if not for Herbie Matthews, who also earned 32 votes, or viewed from another angle, more than 10 times the number of goals Matthews kicked that season. In fact, by way of comparison, acknowledging that there is more to determining a great footy player that scoring alone, if you disregard Fothergill’s last season where he played only four matches, he contributed more goals every season than Matthews did in his entire career, and that by a not inconsiderable margin.

It would therefore have to be considered something of a message of retribution from the VFL, that he received only two votes in 1946 when he kicked 63 and only three votes in his four game final season in 1947. You might say Hell hath no fury like a VFL honcho scorned. As a side note, the dust-up betwixt the VFL and the VFL that commenced in 1938 was settled just two years after Fothergill left the game to become a cricketer.

During Fothergill’s tenure with Collingwood, the Magpies enjoyed 72 wins against 39 defeats. Unlike the VFA, the VFL did not suspend play on account of World War II, but since Fothergill jumped leagues, along with serving in the military, the years when he did not play for Collingwood do not receive consideration, as they will when we move on to the career of the player with whom Fothergill shared the 1940 Brownlow, Herbie Matthews.

Fothergill twice represented Victoria in interstate play. He received the Copeland Trophy as Collingwood’s best and fairest in 1937, 1938 and 1940. He led the team in goal kicking in 1937, 1945 and 1946. He is a member of the Collingwood Team of the Century and the Collingwood Football Club Hall of Fame. He received the equivalent honour of the Copeland Trophy, the Recorder Cup, for his 1941 stint with Williamstown of the VFA.

He was 75 years of age when he passed away in Melbourne on 16 March 1996, four years too soon to see himself inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

Herbie Matthews

Herbie Matthews was born 20 November 1913, seven years prior to the player with whom he tied for Brownlow Medal votes in 1940, Les Fothergill. He had five seasons under his belt by the time Fothergill made his debut in 1937. His dad, known as “Butcher” Matthews played for South Melbourne, and so Herbie was a product of the father-son rule. It would have made for some interesting copy if Matthews the elder had ever taken the ground against “Chicken” Smallhorn, but unfortunately, it is safe to say that this never transpired, due to the age difference.

Herbie Matthews almost ended up playing for Collingwood. His local VFA team, the Northcote Dragons, also lobbied heavily for his services, but unlike many of his contemporaries who chose to jump to the VFA during the time betwixt 1938 and 1949 that came to be known as the Australian Rules Football Schism, he remained loyal to South Melbourne until the conclusion of his playing career in the VFL, when he waited until he was nearly 32 years of age before moving over in 1946 to the VFL as player-coach of the Oakleigh Devils for two seasons.

Matthews played in the middle as a centreman and a wingman. Like Matthews, he was small by most standards, but he more than compensated by being a strong mark and making up for his lack of size with an obsessive desire to possess the football. He was also quite speedy and elusive, and he maintained a frenetic pace from the first bounce to the final siren.

He first got on the ground in round one of 1932, notching his first goal in a round three match against Footscray. He did not participate in rounds 7-10, but he returned in round 11 through 18, and then played in a semifinal loss to the Collingwood Football Club.

The South Melbourne side of his era was middling and had only had five winning seasons during Matthews’ 14-year tenure. One high water mark came in 1934, when the squad made it to the Grand Final against Richmond, which with the exception of the first quarter, was handily controlled by Richmond. Matthews and South Melbourne would make it to the Grand Final again in 1945, with a similar result, albeit by a lower margin than against Richmond.

South Melbourne, in what would objectively have to be called the best season by far of Matthews’ career, did win the Grand Final in 1933 over Richmond, beating the Tigers in the semifinals as well. They dominated all four quarters in the 1933 Grand Final to win by a margin of 42 points.

Matthews’ Brownlow season of 1940 was his second best from the scoring perspective. Never in any danger of being termed prolific, he kicked three, a total he matched in his debut season and surpassed only once when he kicked five in 1933. He was a constant fixture in the Brownlow picture from 1936 forward, until 1941, failing to get votes in only 1938, when he played in only rounds one, two, four and 16. He earned 20 votes in 1936, when he finished third behind Denis Ryan and Geelong’s Reg Hickey. He finished 1937 in second place with 23 votes, four behind Dick Reynolds’ 27, which gave Reynolds the second of his eventual three medals. He fell off slightly in 1939, receiving 13 votes, good for eighth position, but setting the stage for his 1940 tie at the top with Les Fothergill.

South Melbourne did not fare so well in 1940. They had improved over a 3 – 0 – 13 season in 1939, but still managed just seven wins against 11 defeats. Matthews coached the team that year.

Along with consistently attracting Brownlow votes, Matthews was highly thought of by his mates. He received best and fairest five times betwixt 1936 and 1943, and served as captain from 1938-1945.

South Melbourne made the post season for again in 1942. They got past Footscray in the semifinal before losing to Essendon in the preliminary final. Matthews played only round one of the 1944 season. He returned in 1945. A resurgent Matthews played in 19 of the South Melbourne side’s 20 games, missing only round 9. The side got the better of the Magpies in the semifinals before dropping the Grand Final to Carlton.

Subsequently, he spent two seasons with the VFA in 1946-47. He returned to South Melbourne in 1954 to spend four years as the coach, but the most wins in any season the team could muster was seven in 1957. His record as a coach concluded at 27 – 1 – 62.

He did appear four times as a Victorian representative in interstate competition. He did manage to survive to see his 1989 Brownlow Medal recognition. The league lacked a policy for what to do in the event of a tie at that time, somewhat surprising given the controversy that the three-way split in 1930 generated, but that, as they say, is how the footy ball bounces.

Herbie Matthews died 8 June 1990 at the age of 76. He entered the Australian Football Hall of Fame posthumously in 1997 and when Team of the Century recognition came about, he was named as wing on the South Melbourne side that was by then known as the Sydney Swans.

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