Defender Darryl Gerlach was a key member of Essendon’s 1965 premiership side. He also played in the three-point Grand Final defeat by Carlton in 1968, won the 1970 Crichton Medal and represented Victoria. He then served Essendon in numerous roles post-football, including as a recruiter, chairman of selectors and vice-president.

Indeed, red and black runs through Gerlach’s veins, but perhaps his most significant contribution came in the early 1970s, when he helped lead the movement for better renumeration and conditions for VFL players.

Speaking from Windy Hill for the ninth episode of historical podcast Fabric of the Essendon Football ClubGerlach explained how Essendon was at the forefront of significant change during that period - namely the establishment of the VFL Players’ Association, which helped welcome in a new, more professional era for League players.

In 1970, with demands on a player’s time increasing each year, Gerlach, along with teammates Geoff Pryor, Geoff Gosper, Barry Davis and captain Don McKenzie, made the bold decision to stand out of the club’s final practice match, against South Adelaide at Windy Hill, to make a statement on behalf of the players that they deserved greater remuneration than the restrictive Coulter Law - which had been in place since 1930 and, as of 1970, capped a player’s earnings at just $25 per game - permitted a club to pay its players.

“There were becoming more and more demands on players, in terms of: ‘You’ve gotta be there every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday for the game and then Sunday morning to recover,’” Gerlach recalled.

“A long, long time ago, people used to make more from footy than they did their job. When it got to the stage we’re now talking about (the early 1970s), the Coulter Law had squeezed player payments right down, and it became a realisation that, ‘Hang on, if I want to get to [the] footy and play footy, I’ve got to sacrifice some of my job, which is my future'. There were a few players at Essendon experiencing that problem, including myself, and so our attitudes, [whilst] they didn’t necessarily change, we wanted a little bit more out of this than what we were currently being rewarded with.”

Enter Geoff Pryor.

“Geoff was at Uni and was very conscious politically; he was a died-in-the-wool unionist. He started to make investigations about various things and he said, ‘Look, we should be able to do better than this'. All the team on the list discussed it and, because it affected the more senior players [more so than the new players], we grouped together and said, ‘What can we do about it?’”

A letter was sent to the Essendon committee a few weeks before the season.

“They didn’t respond to it with any emotion or any support, and so we got a little bit concerned about that. It’s fair to say that the committee were bound by the Coulter Law, which said you can’t pay players more than $25. The VFL were in the middle of this, so, in some respects, they (the club) had their hands tied. Collingwood was starting to have the same difficulties, because Geoff was talking to all the players at all the clubs. It got to a situation where, in the last practice match before the start of the season - for which we got nothing for playing, because it wasn’t a VFL-fixtured game - we decided: ‘Look, to make the point, we’ll just let them sit on the issue that we’re not happy'. We met with a majority of the players and they said, ‘Yeah, we’re happy if you want to do that to protect all our interests into the future', and so we did that.”

What Pryor had learned was, with television revenue on the increase, meaning greater income for the League, the players stood to earn around 15 per cent of all revenue.

“It was predicted that, unless things changed, we would only get less than 10 per cent of the total income [in the years ahead],” Gerlach explained.

“Geoff had made inquiries and most professional presentations of sport, or acting, used to get about 40 to 50 per cent.”

With that in mind, and with little feedback from the Essendon committee, Gerlach, Pryor, Gosper, Davis and McKenzie watched from the grandstand as their teammates defeated South Adelaide by 28 points.

“Most of the faithful, distant from the club, supported us. There was a few closer to the club, which [meant] being closer to the committee issues as well, [who] supported the committee a little bit. It wasn’t 100 per cent, but certainly it would have been about 95 per cent [support in favour of] us. I think, in retrospect, people could see why and it eventually came out that way. It wasn’t us trying to be right, it was just us trying to be fair for the future; not only for ourselves, but our current teammates and those into the future.”

The various newspapers had a field day with the ‘striking’ players and their apparent war with head office, meaning the start of 1970 was overshadowed by the rarely-seen demonstration of a player uprise. The Herald’s Alf Brown accused Essendon’s hierarchy, including president Allan Hird and secretary Bill Cookson, of treating their players “like little school boys," with Cookson telling Brown: “We are only too happy to pay extra payments. But until the League agrees we cannot do anything about it.”

Davis, as spokesman for the playing group, stood firm, telling the media: “Until we get the extra pay we’re entitled to, we won’t be pulling on a boot for Essendon.” It was little wonder, then, that The Sporting Globe’s Ian McDonald described the drama as “one of the most sensational incidents in the history of the VFL."

The following week, in round one against Carlton, the Essendon selectors left the names of Gerlach, Pryor, Gosper, Davis and McKenzie off the team sheet, with John Williams installed as replacement skipper. The “rebel five” stood together in the crowd at Princes Park as the Blues won by 49 points, then, after more meetings and plenty more headlines, all five were reinstated for the round two clash with Footscray. But McKenzie, a warrior for the club over 181 games to that point, was stripped of the captaincy in a show of defiance from Essendon’s committee. Big Don remained at the club and played in 81 more games for a total of 266 matches (1960-74). As of 2022, he ranks 10th for most games played in red and black.

Gerlach, who played 168 games for the Bombers (1963-72) - the same number as Gosper - concedes, “In retrospect, we could have approached it differently. But I think, in respect to the committee at that time, and certainly Allan Hird, he was later much happier with what developed [out of that period] than what happened beforehand. He took a strong stand [at the time] and I think, in retrospect, in a letter he wrote to me [one year later], he sort of regretted it. The circumstances required things to be quite clearly resolved and, fortunately, the VFL went on [and made changes]. The Coulter Law was thrown out, [while] Geoff, in consultation with clubs, got representatives and started the Players’ Association. Geoff was the coordinator of it all, and he was very motivated by the fairness of the circumstances. He’s a fine person, Geoff, and we felt like supporting him. We did, and this (the AFLPA) is all the result of it now. It’s a different world.”

Today, Pryor’s critical role in helping to establish the VFL/AFLPA, of which he was its first president, is honoured through the $5000 Geoff Pryor Hardship Fund. While for Gerlach, for his part in helping to change attitudes towards League players, which resulted in the game becoming fully professional in the 1990s leading to what is today a billion-dollar industry, he remains particularly proud of not only his, but also Essendon’s pioneering role of some five decades ago.

“When someone looks at me and says, ‘Oh, you must have made a bit out of footy,’ I made less than $12,000 over my total of 12 years playing at this level - 10 years here and two years somewhere else,” he explained. “So, that’s not much when you devalue what they get today - you don’t get anywhere near it. [But] I don’t regret it. We could have backed down easily, but we had sufficient support, including feedback through Geoff that other players at other clubs were right behind us. Whenever the five of us are together now, it’s hardly ever talked about, but I know that all of us feel very comfortable about the stand that we at Essendon took back in 1970.”

Fabric of the Essendon Football Club is a weekly 20-episode series powered by Liberty, featuring in-depth chats between club historian Dan Eddy and 20 of the club’s most adored names across multiple decades. You can listen via SpotifyApple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.