When next you drive under the Napier Street overpass on the Tullamarine Freeway in Melbourne’s north, look up. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the area above where the freeway now runs was once the early training ground for future VFL centurion goalkicker, Geoff Blethyn.
The family of four resided at 4 Roland Avenue, Strathmore, and the vacant paddock beyond the back gate of the Blethyn home was where the high-flying, sharp-shooting Essendon goal-scorer devised the three-step process which set him on the path to kicking 107 goals in 1972.
“My brother (Roger) and I decided, when we were kids, to put up some goal posts on the back fence. We were able to walk out through the back gate and go play in the paddock.
“So, I learnt out in the back paddock. I learnt by kicking in the spots in the paddock where I could get a smooth run, take two or three steps and kick it as far as I could one way. I’d go and fetch the ball, and then I’d try and kick it back the other way.
“Once my brother put the goal posts on the back fence, that was my aiming point. But it wasn’t until I looked back on my life and thought, ‘Okay, why was I able to kick so accurately?’.
“And it was because I had basically a three-step process. I look at the guys who are kicking goals in rugby and, yes, they have a stationary ball, but they have unbelievable accuracy. Their approach is very simple. They get ready, they get set, and then they kick it. And that’s what I did.”
Blethyn’s views on goalkicking are fascinating and remarkably simple. There are many AFL players today who should enquire of his services.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it. They all talk about a routine, but if your routine’s crap, you’re going to end up with crap (results),” he said.
“You’ve gotta’ have the right routine to bring the right result. With kicking for goal, you’ve still got to get it through the same sticks; they’re just as tall and just as wide as they used to be (in my day), but the routines haven’t got any better because everybody’s trying to develop something that doesn’t exist. Just keep it simple.
“If you break down everybody’s kicking style, there’s a kicking spot that they have to kick through. And if they don’t kick it in the right spot, they’ll kick it into the man on the mark, which everybody’s done in their life.
“There are basic components to it [that] you have to know. You have to get ready. Look at where you’re going to kick it and know what sort of kick you’re going to kick. Set, so that you’ve got your kicking spot. And then kick the goal.”
In 1972, Blethyn’s goalkicking technique - he preferred a torpedo punt over the flat punt style used to great success by Hawthorn’s Peter Hudson, or the drop punt that helped Carlton’s Alex Jesaulenko kick a century in 1970 - set Essendon’s hearts a flutter as he produced the best scoring season by a Bomber since John Coleman in the early 1950s.
“I think I kicked four or five lots of seven [goals] within the first few weeks,” he said.
“I had about 36 goals (37.22) in the first six games. It wasn’t until I kicked 11 out here (at Windy Hill in round 12) against Footscray, they were [suddenly] talking about one hundred—that’s when that started. But up until that time, nobody was saying anything other than, ‘How come Essendon are going so well?’ and how good a coach ‘Tuddy’ (Des Tuddenham) is.”
Like the best of Test batsmen - incidentally, cricket was another sport the Blethyn boys played in their now-removed back paddock - Blethyn’s pursuit of the magical century began to weigh on him as he entered the nervous 90s.
“I only really started to think about it when I got to 90,” he said.
And then, once I got to 96, we had a game at Fitzroy - the Junction Oval (in round 21) - and I knew I was playing on Harvey Merrigan. He was a great full-back and I knew I’d have my work cut-out for me to get there, and I started to get a little bit nervous about all that. We needed to win, which was more important - that was our focus.
The first goal I got was in the left forward pocket: drop-punt through. I got another one somewhere in that quarter, then I got moved out to centre half-forward because we were scratching around [as a team]. I had a couple (of goals_ at half-time and then, in the third quarter, I got a free kick (and goaled). I was up to 99.”
So, what goes through one’s mind when the 100th goal is imminent?
“I got a [free] kick at centre half-forward and nobody’s ever asked me what was going through my mind,” he said.
“What happens when you’re lining up for that kick? What goes through your mind? It’s not something, I don’t think, that you can plan for, because a lot of things come before that. I just remember at that time, if it was going to be, I just wanted it to be like I was in the backyard.
“Kicking my best kick, which was going to be a torp, and I just wanted it to be a beautiful kick. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t want to fluke it along the ground, I didn’t want to snap it over my shoulder. I just wanted to go back like I was in the back paddock.
“As it happened, there I was, about the right distance out, right on my maximum (of) about 65 metres. As a forward, you’ve got to know your maximum. It went through and Don McKenzie, being the team man he was, tried to shepherd the bloke through in the goal square.
“‘Shealesy’ (umpire Peter Sheales), being the umpire he was, paid the free kick. I thought, ‘Oh, what a letdown.’ But the crowd didn’t see that (umpiring decision) and they all ran onto the ground - they came from everywhere! The police horse was out and all the rest of it. Then the free kick, so they all had to run off.”
No sooner were the supporters safely back over the fence when the ball again landed in Blethyn’s hands.
“About five minutes later, similar thing happened: a free kick again - thank you, Peter,” he said.
“I’m not sure where ‘Macca’ was, but same thing, same thought process, virtually identical kick, (similar) distance (and) it went through. This time, I thought I’d get closer to the police horse, so I got closer to the police horse and turned around…and he slobbered all over me! The crowd ran out, everyone ran out, but when they get out there, they don’t know what to do because they can’t get to you. It’s just weird (as the player), you don’t know what to do. At least I had a re-run, I was able to have a rehearsal.”
Importantly, Essendon won their last two games to sneak into the finals in fifth place, in what was the first year of the top-five finals system. However, against St Kilda in the elimination final, Blethyn was held to just two goals and the Bombers lost by 53 points.
Having kicked 177 goals in 70 games (1968-72)—including 4.7 goals per game in ’72 alone, and four goals in the narrow 1968 Grand Final loss to Carlton - the 22-year-old stunned the Essendon faithful when he accepted a business offer and moved to Western Australia at season’s end, just as he was entering the prime years of his footy career.
Returning to Melbourne in 1976, Blethyn played a further 14 games in the red and black and kicked 39 goals, for an overall tally of 84 games and 216 goals at 2.57 goals per game.
Yet, while Blethyn remains one of just three Bombers to have kicked 100 goals in a season - Coleman achieved the feat in 1949-50 and again 1952, then Matthew Lloyd did the double in 2000-01 - it was his unique choice of on-field fashion that Essendon supporters remember most. Blethyn wore specially designed, black-rimmed spectacles to assist his short-sightedness.
“The bridge used to cushion it on the nose,” he said.
“The rest of the frame are nylon and designed to be flexible. You were supposed to soak them in water every week, which I never did, and the lenses would only come out the front; it [couldn’t] come out the back. So, from a wearing point of view, you knew that there was no way your eye could get injured.” There was one problem, however. “When it rained, they were useless!”
Night footy, played at the end of the season under poor lighting at South Melbourne’s Lake Oval, was another issue Blethyn had to deal with.
“It was hard at night, I found,” he said.
“We used a white ball at night, not yellow, and it was like a torpedo coming at you. I found it very hard, even at training at night. I would have struggled at night footy [on a weekly basis like it’s played today] wearing those.”
Fortunately, in 1972, the sun was shining, for the most part, each Saturday afternoon, which meant that Essendon supporters witnessed one of the most memorable seasons in the club’s rich history. And for that, we can thank the long-lost paddock at the back of 4 Roland Avenue in Strathmore.
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