Marcus Whelan – Brownlow Medal Winner
The final winner of the Brownlow Medal in the compelling decade of the 30s was 1939’s Marcus Whelan.
His team, the Collingwood Football Club, was on a remarkable run of premiership victories and Grand Final appearances that practically denies comprehension. They could almost be accused of removing all suspense from the VFL and almost making it a tedious exercise. Collingwood had returned to raise the flag in 1935 and 1936. Just several years prior, they had won four consecutive from 1927 to 1930. Only in 1933 were they eliminated by the end of the home-and-away season’s end. This was the season when Whelan made his debut. The Magpies were 11 – 0 – 7 for the season, good results by any standards other than those of Collingwood. Three consecutive Grand Final appearances and losses in 1937, 1938 and 1939 might have induced feelings of ennui for Collingwood supporters.
Elsewhere in sports, thoroughbred racing specifically, the first mare to win the Cups double, Rivette, became only the third horse of either sex to accomplish the feat.
She won only 11 times, with 7 seconds and 7 thirds from 49 jumps, but she did her distant ancestor Carbine proud and supplied the Australian punters with a “riveting” tale.
Elsewhere in the world, things certainly could not be described as boring in 1939. The economies of most of the world’s countries were reeling and had been for 10 years or more. Many people were more concerned with food and shelter than with who was the Best and Fairest of the VFL. Still, many turned their attention to the goings on in sports as a way to gain respite from day-to-day survival struggles.
When 78,000 spectators descended on the Melbourne Cricket Ground to see Whelan and former Brownlow Medal winners the Collier brothers, Albert and Harry, put up a rather dismal performance against Melbourne, it had been under a fortnight since Poland had capitulated to Germany. Great Britain and France had declared war on 3 September and many footballers, Whelan amongst them, faced the prospect of either serving in Europe or defending against the imperialistic intentions of Japan in the Pacific Region.
It might have seemed that Japan had bitten off more than it could chew in taking on China in 1937. The Chinese army of that time, however, probably represented less of a threat militarily than the horse-mounted Polish cavalry presented to the German tanks, making resource-rich Australia an inviting target for invasion, or at the very least, generating a great degree of anxious uncertainty amongst the Australian population.
Marcus had six VFL seasons behind him when all this came about. He was a participant in 96 games to that point and had two Grand Final victories on his resume. He was approaching his 19th birthday when he made his debut in a round four loss to Richmond. He did not play in round five nor rounds 8-13, though we do not know if it was injury or demotion that kept him off the ground.
It is said that he gave up the game for a while because of homesickness. He and his mates would avenge that loss in Round 15 and Whelan would kick his first two career goals. He would close the season with a total of six goals.
Whelan, a centre-man, achieved his zenith as a goal scorer in 1934. He produced 10, including a remarkable five-goal performance against Hawthorn in round 14. What made it remarkable was that in the entirety of his career, another 10 seasons, he never again kicked five goals in an entire season, let alone in one single game. Then again, it may have been an absent Hawthorn defence taking the day off, because Collingwood’s Gordon Coventry posted 14 goals, only just shy of half of Whelan’s career total of 31.
Whelan received nine Brownlow votes that season, trailing teammate Jack Regan’s 17, which placed Regan tied third with Carlton’s Keith Shea, with second going to Haydn Bunton’s 18 (already having two of his eventual three Brownlows) and the top spot belonging to Dick Reynolds of Essendon (his first of an eventual three).
Marcus Whelan did play, no pun intended, a central role in Collingwood’s return to Grand Final dominance in 1935-36. In 1935’s Grand Final, South Melbourne gave Colllingwood all they could handle in the first quarter, but SMFC had to play without the services of Bob Pratt, their champion full-forward who could not get on the ground due to being hit by a truck on the evening before the match. Contrary to rumour, the truck was not driven by the same bloke who had served as wheel-man in the 1930 attempt to prevent Phar Lap from running in the Cup.
The rematch in 1936 was closer still in terms of final score. Bob Pratt was back for South Melbourne and contributed three goals, but Collingwood outscored their opponents in all four quarters.
Since we have already made mention of Collingwood returning to the Grand Final in 1937 and 1938, we will forward to 1939 and the year Marcus Whelan earned his Brownlow.
The team had continued their good play throughout the home-and-away season. They won their first three before a fourth round loss to, of all clubs, St. Kilda. Whelan kicked his only two goals of the season in a match that saw the Saints slay the Magpies by 37 points. Collingwood then won five consecutive, before a loss to Melbourne in round 10 that would prove ominous.
Another string of five wins commenced in round 13 and concluded with a semi-final loss to Melbourne. That set up a meeting between Collingwood and St. Kilda in the preliminary final. This time, it was Collingwood ahead by 29 when the clock expired, with Ron Todd kicking 11 for the Magpies. Mr. Todd would kick 121 that season, after having posted 120 in 1938. He would play only five seasons for Collingwood, kicking only six goals in his debut season of 1935, yet still managing to wind up 12th on Collingwood’s all-time scoring list.
Collingwood managed to get into the Grand Final, playing Melbourne for the third time that season. Ron Todd kicked six goals, but Melbourne used goals from 10 different players to outdistance Collingwood by 53 points.
Whelan would take the Brownlow clearly with 23 votes, three better than Harry Hickey and four beyond Dick Reynolds. Beyond scoring, statistics from that era are not exactly abundant, but to earn a Brownlow Medal considering the calibre of players on the Collingwood club alone would give credence to the idea that Whelan contributed to a remarkable extent.
His club would also confer the Copeland Trophy on him. He also served as spokesman for Bonox beef extract and got married to Majorie Dummett.
Whelan’s 1940 season was an abbreviated one. He played in 12 games only, and although Collingwood had a winning season, they did not advance beyond the home-and-away series. He played more in 1941, but the side again did not advance. The 1942 season must have been an injury-plagued one. It is hard to imagine that his level of play would have caused him to be demoted.
He did not play for the next three years, for obvious reasons. When the VFL resumed in 1946, he was still proficient, although he had moved to defence. Collingwood returned to the playoffs, but a draw and two losses was all they had to show for the year. Whelan played out his career in 1947, playing in the first six rounds.
It would have to be said that the life and times of Marcus Whelan were remarkable.
Biographical information on him, however, beyond his birth in 1914 in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, his death in 1973 at the age of 59, his start with Noorat and his three times as a Victorian representative, is scant.
His son Shane played for the Magpies for three seasons between 1967 and 1969, so Marcus Whelan would have experienced that pride. Whelan himself once considered leaving the game when he missed the rural life in which he had grown up, but he was persuaded to return, to the benefit of himself, his club and all the loyal Magpie fans who had the privilege of following his exploits.