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Grand Final Moments: Drought Breaker

Dick Reynolds (seated, third from left) led Essendon to the premiership in 1942 - the Club's first flag in almost 20 years. - Essendon,Essendon Bombers
Dick Reynolds (seated, third from left) led Essendon to the premiership in 1942 - the Club's first flag in almost 20 years.

In the lead up to Saturday's Grand Final, author Dan Eddy will reflect on some of Essendon's greatest September triumphs.  The extracts are from Eddy's book 'Always Striving', which is available for purchase from the Bomber Shop.

Click here to secure your copy.

Always Striving covers the good, the bad and the controversial—mainly the good—and, in many cases, with detailed and entertaining first-person recollections aided by painstaking, meticulous research. There is a modern emphasis that starts with the Baby Bombers of 1993 and finishes succinctly with great expectations of the current crop of ‘Babes’, Always Striving celebrates the past while looking to the future. In ’93, it was James Hird, Mark Mercuri and Joe Misiti; today, it’s Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett and Joe Daniher making Bombers’ fans excited for the future. 

This extract reflects on Essendon's drought breaker in 1942.

By the time Dick Reynolds was named interim playing-coach, in 1939 (he shared coaching duties with former player, Harry Hunter, during the ’39 season), replacing Jack Baggott, he had already accumulated an unapparelled list of honours: three Brownlow Medals, four Essendon best and fairest awards, as well as being a regular State representative. The only thing missing from his resume was a premiership. During ’39, Reynolds showed that the added responsibility of leadership would not hinder him in any way, having, arguably, his finest season and captaining the Victorian side for the first time. The following year, the 24-year-old was offered the coaching role on his own. It was a wise choice.

In the years following the 1924 bribery scandal, Essendon had failed to challenge for another premiership; the 1930s the only decade since the forming of the VFL that the club had not played in a final. But, with Reynolds in charge, and an emerging playing list, the 1940s would become its finest era. In 1940—Reynolds’ first full season as captain-coach—they fell five points short of eventual premier, Melbourne, in the preliminary final; then, in ’41, they went a step further, losing the Grand Final, again to the Demons. Entering 1942, with a number of clubs feeling the effects of losing their players to the war effort—something Essendon was largely immune to, thanks in part to the fact many, including Reynolds, were employed in essential services throughout Melbourne—the Bombers (their now-famous nickname first appearing in 1940) were primed to, finally, break their longest premiership drought since joining the VFL in 1897.

The Bombers won 12 of their 15 matches to finish the season in top place for the first time since 1924. But their premiership charge hit a roadblock in the second semi-final, Jack Dyer’s Richmond recording a 22-point victory. Reynolds refused to concede the dream was over, however, stating after the game: “Congratulations to the Tigers. They won it as they planned and we weren’t good enough to counter their moves. But I am warning them we’ll win the Grand Final … We’ll win it well too.”

By half-time of the preliminary final, Essendon trailed South Melbourne by five points. During the interval, Reynolds gave one of his most memorable and inspiring speeches. Ted Leehane was a young forward in just his 11th game that day, but 68 years later he could still recall his coach’s enthusiasm. “At half-time, Dick gave us a real rousing up. He really told us what he expected in very direct terms,” Leehane explained. “That message really got through because we were a different team in the third quarter.” Indeed, the Bombers came out and kicked seven goals to one in the third term, eventually winning by 28 points.

Owing to the ongoing war, the Melbourne Cricket Ground—the regular home for the Grand Final—had been inhabited by the armed services, meaning the VFL decider was to be played at Princes Park: Carlton’s home ground, and a ground Reynolds had frequented as a child when first dreaming of playing football at the highest level. It seemed fitting that his finest hour would be played out on the same field of turf that his Carlton heroes had once strode upon.

If the AFL ever awards retrospective Norm Smith Medals, the 1942 version will be posthumously presented to the Reynolds family, for Dick had played a match-winning hand from start to finish. The Bombers only led by two points at quarter-time, Dyer’s men crowding the play to not allow their speedy opponents the opportunity to showcase their free-flowing brand of football. Richmond led early in the second term, the game precariously balanced, when Reynolds swung into action and, almost single-handedly, turned the tide Essendon’s way. Dyer would later state, “If we had managed to quell Reynolds … we would have won that flag.”

On the back of Reynolds’ dominance around the ground, Essendon kicked six goals to two in the second quarter, then six goals to one in the third, essentially having the game sewn up by the final change. The margin by day’s end was 53 points: 19.18 (132) to 11.13 (79). It was the club’s greatest Grand Final-winning margin to that point. Forward Gordon Lane had kicked six goals, follower Jack Cassin three, but it was the four from Reynolds’ boot that proved the most damaging. “He dominated,” said Charlie Herridge, one of many ecstatic Bomber fans in attendance that day. “If something [went] wrong he’d go up and fix it. There’s only one word: absolutely brilliant.”

In The Herald after the game, P. J. Millard wrote that Essendon’s inspiring leader “played the game of his career." While the Sporting Globe’s Hec de Lacy was equally as glowing:

"Essendon won the 1942 League premiership as easily as ever a Grand Final has been won … In his triumph, greatest credit for his leadership and example on the field goes to Dick Reynolds. On Saturday, whatever the capabilities of his teammates, nothing excelled the educated boots of Reynolds. No matter what his predicament, he still kicked the ball, and kicked it to a teammate in the best position to use it … Then again he set the glowing example of winning a football match by concentrating on the ball … Their rucks handled every situation, and it was usually Dick Reynolds who scooted off with the ball and delivered it safely."

But it was the people of the Essendon district who were proudest of all: their local product, and his band of merry men, had returned the Holy Grail to Windy Hill. In the country’s darkest hour, where air-raid sirens and blackouts were the ‘norm’ in Melbourne, and news of more and more deceased Australian soldiers was becoming a regular occurrence, the joy of celebrating a Grand Final victory helped ease the fear and suffering of the locals, if only for a little while. The Essendon Gazette encapsulated the pride felt by the district, stating: “Dick Reynolds roving was an inspiration … He achieved his ambition of leading the Dons to the premiership … We are pleased indeed that the young Essendon footballer … has in this way brought fame to Essendon.”

Secure your copy of 'Always Striving' here.