John James – Australian Rules Brownlow Medal Winner
Individual awards in team sports often appear to be consolation awards. Even the most ego-centric players are aware that in order to be considered great, it is generally how well their teams did that determine a player’s legacy.
The Brownlow Medal is considered the greatest individual accolade in footy, yet looking at the list in detail from the first time the medal was awarded in 1924, seldom do you find players who experienced equivalent success from a team perspective.
The Sydney Swans, including their earlier iteration as South Melbourne, has had 14 players win the Brownlow, but never in any of those fourteen seasons did the side win the premiership. The same can be said of the Western Bulldogs, or Footscray if you prefer, with 10 Brownlow winners and zero premierships during those seasons. The St. Kilda Saints, winning their one and only premiership in 1966, also saw Ian Stewart carting off one of the 10 Brownlow Medals that have gone to Saints players.
The other element that become obvious fairly quickly is that Brownlow Medal winners were seldom prodigious goal kickers and high scoring players seldom fared all that well in Brownlow voting.
There are rare exceptions. Tony Lockett, the all-time leading goal kicker, tied for the Brownlow Medal in 1987 with 20 votes, but he was seldom in the mix during any one of the other 16 seasons during which he played.
Some observers of the game point out the tendency for the medal to be won by midfield players, and from a scoring perspective, many Brownlow winners had almost embarrassing scoring statistics, and this is certainly the case of the 1961 Brownlow Medal recipient, Carlton’s John James (18 January 1934 – 8 December 2010).
In the course of his 11-year career with the Blues, he tallied 31 goals, a number Lockett exceeded in all but two seasons of the 17 in which he played.
Obviously, for a high-scoring player, it is always the case that other players contribute to his having the opportunity to score, and it is no fault of any player that his particular position attracts more Brownlow attention, so here is a look at the career and contributions of 1961 winner John James.
James was the second player from the Carlton Football Club to earn a Charlie. The illustrious Bert Deacon in 1947 was the first. Three years following James was Gordon Collis in 1964, followed thirty years later by Greg Williams in 1994 and most recently by Chris Judd in 2010, giving the Blues a total of five over the course of the years since the medal was inaugurated in 1924. Of those five, only Deacon can lay claim to winning the Brownlow and seeing the Blues raise a premiership flag in the same season.
John James played at the university level for St. Patrick’s College, some 105 kilometres to the west and north of Melbourne. That is where the Blues found and recruited him.
He made his debut in 1953 at the age of 19. He was tried at half-forward flank, where he tallied eight goals, the high water mark of his career, but his percentage of goals and behinds to kicks taken was such that he was moved to various positions throughout his career, including the backline and it was as half-back that he was recognized as a part of Carlton’s Team of the Century.
The Blues were no better than average in 1953, winning eight times and losing eight times over the course of the 16 games in which James was on the ground.
The Blues declined further in 1954, finishing in eighth position on what was at the time a 12-team ladder. John James kicked just four goals, but he did attract his first Brownlow votes, twelve of them, good for eighth on the list in the season that found Roy Wright of Richmond leaving his nearest Brownlow competitor 10 votes in arrears of his 29 total.
The 1955 and 1956 VFL seasons were also rather dismal for James and his side, although he was a consistent attractor of Brownlow votes, with 12 and 15 respectively, and 1955 saw James earn the respect of his teammates with his first John Nicholls Medal (known at the time as the Robert Reynolds Trophy) as the team’s Best and Fairest.
James was a legitimate Brownlow Medal contender in 1957. He accumulated 19 votes, leaving him one behind Roy Wright’s 20 and five shy of the winner, St. Kilda’s Brian Gleeson, who managed to bag 24 votes despite being on the ground for just 15 of the Saint’s matches. The Blues actually made it to the finals round by way of losing only seven times during the home-and-away season, good for fourth on the ladder in a season that saw the premiers, Melbourne, win only 12 games, with The Bombers, Hawks and Blues tied with 11 wins. Carlton lost its semifinal against Hawthorn.
James was not as popular with the officials in 1958, 1959 and 1960, although the last of these three seasons found him receiving his second award as Blues Best and Fairest. The side did best in 1960, playing in the finals round in two losing efforts against Melbourne and Essendon.
The 1961 season, when James won the Brownlow and his third and final team best and fairest must have been an emotional roller coaster for he, his teammates and Blues fans. By the time the sixth round had concluded, the Blues had won five while losing only once. A disastrous five-game losing streak dashed many hopes and not even a three-game winning spurt at the end could salvage a season that started off with such high potential. James was a no-controversy Brownlow winner, receiving 21 votes from 17 games, two better than North Melbourne’s Laurie Dwyer’s 19 votes from 18 games.
The Blues did not stay down for long. They progressed to the finals, where they beat Melbourne, experienced a draw with Geelong, and then winning the rematch to earn a match against Essendon in the Grand Final, the Blues first appearance in the Grand Final since 1949. Unfortunately, the only quarter of the game that was not clearly in favour of the Bombers was the second and the final score of 90 – 58 was an easy win for Essendon.
The concluding season of his career, 1963, found John James and the Carlton side finished at the end of the home-and-away season. James kicked seven goals, second highest of his 11 season career. He had played in 195 games. Statistically interesting is that his per-game Brownlow average of 0.51 votes/game exceeded his 0.16 goals/game average. He was closing in on 30 years of age when he retired at the end of the season.
Along with his Brownlow and team best and fairest awards, he played representative for the Big Vee on 15 occasions. He is best remembered for his spectacular marking and ball-getting, which more than compensated for the fact that he was not a great kick.
He would follow his playing career as the coach at Robinvale, where he remained for six years, helping the club to ascend from also-ran status to premiers in 1965 and 1967. He left the game for good in 1970. He passed away in Robinvale in December of 2010 at the age of 76.