Dermott's year in Black and White
By: Glenn McFarlane
It is hard to think of a bigger transformation than the one Dermott Brereton underwent in his association with Collingwood and its army of fans.
Or anyone who provided as good a value for money – in terms of publicity and presence – than what Brereton gave the Magpies in his 15 games in 1995.
When he played for Hawthorn, Brereton was the sort of footballer that Magpies fans loved to hate.
By 1995, he had become the player Collingwood barrackers learned to love for the way in which he embraced the footy club and the role he played as tutor/protector of 21-year-old Saverio Rocca.
As champion Magpie forward Peter McKenna said during that season: “Dermie takes a bit of attention off Sav. He’s strong, gutsy and experienced…just having someone alongside you, giving you the encouragement, helps you sometimes.”
Rocca would kick a career-high 93 goals in the one season when Brereton stood beside him. And Brereton would end up kicking more goals for Collingwood – 30 from 15 games – than he kicked against them – 19 from 12 games.
Even Brereton marvelled at the change in the attitude of Collingwood fans. He said: “For someone who has dedicated his life to belting up the opposition, yeah it’s a bit surprising. But I think most of the people who follow Collingwood and know a little bit about footy, know I’m not insincere when I say I used to be a rabid Collingwood supporter.”
He had been a cheeky red-headed kid from Frankston who barracked for the Magpies because his mother had chosen them to support when she came out from Dublin. And he was a frequent visitor to Victoria Park, complete with duffle coat.
But those feelings had evaporated by the time Brereton became one of the footy gods of the 1980s in Hawthorn colours.
He was an explosive centre half-forward who thrived on big occasions and the big stage, playing in five premierships. He matched his talent with a penchant for controversy, for run-ins with the tribunal, and for his ability to upset opposition fans.
Rarely, very rarely was he vulnerable.
Yet when Collingwood considered making a play for a club-less Brereton in the early months of 1995, he was as vulnerable in a football sense as he had ever been.
The reason was his body – once his greatest asset – had worn him down. A messy end to his career at Hawthorn – he later lamented a lack of loyalty on their part – had seen him finish up with two unfulfilled, injury-riddled seasons with Sydney.
Magpies coach Leigh Matthews, Brereton’s first captain at Hawthorn, admitted later that he was sceptical about whether the star forward could maintain a level of fitness.
But a private running session at an oval in Malvern convinced him that Brereton was worth the punt.
Matthews said: “It became apparent to us that Dermott had indeed been true to his word. The Brereton athleticism was well gone, but at least he looked to have turned the clock back a few years.”
What was certain was that as soon as Brereton, 30, was selected with Collingwood’s first pick (10th overall) in the 1995 pre-season draft – the same draft that saw Paul Roos go to Sydney – he was going to throw everything into it.
Not long before his first Magpies game, Brereton said: “If…I find my way through to that senior team, well I suppose because I’ve been so disappointed in myself for the last couple of years, I’ll try and move heaven and earth to do well.”
His first efforts at making a seismic shift in a black and white jumper came 18 years ago to this corresponding round – Round 3, 1995. It wasn’t against Hawthorn, but against a team that Brereton had long monstered, Geelong, at Kardinia Park.
Wearing the No.3 jumper, he was brought straight into the game against the Cats after recovering from a calf injury. The Magpies had lost the first two games of the season, and they needed a spark.
The Magpies couldn’t win the Cats’ game, but Brereton did make a difference.
Having covered the game for the Sunday Herald Sun, I was lucky enough to be there for Brereton’s first game in black and white, and he provided plenty of news angles in his 197th career game.
It was summed up this way in the paper: “(Brereton) blasted back to football, kicking four goals on debut for the Magpies, (as well as) taking a short-cut through an opposition three-quarter-time huddle.”
It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the time in 1988 when Brereton stormed his way through Essendon’s huddle at Waverley, but it was the next best thing. The Magpies trailed by 31 points at the time.
Brereton explained: “I just wandered that way because he (Bill Brownless) was pretty pumped up and I thought he was playing poorly. I just thought if I could say something to him and get his mind off being focused on the game, he mightn’t turn it around and start playing well.”
But instead of upsetting Brownless, he upset the AFL. On his pathway through he inadvertently ran into then Cats assistant coach and now AFL umpires coach Jeff Gieschen, and the pair bumped.
Brereton explained later: “I had no idea I was about to walk into ‘Ayresy’ (Geelong coach Gary Ayres) and Jeff Gieschen. As I turned around, he (Gieschen) basically walked in my path. He pushed me and I just pushed him away, it was harmless.”
Gieschen said: “I guess it was nothing more than I didn’t see him and he didn’t see me. And we just bumped.”
The bump cost Brereton $5000 as the AFL slapped him with a fine for “threatening conduct.”
He was incredulous: “I believe I have been wronged…I would hate to think that they were fining me for something that happened seven years ago.”
A week later Brereton played in the first Collingwood-Essendon Anzac Day match before 94,825 fans, kicking a goal as the player beside him in attack, Rocca, booted nine goals.
As The Age detailed: “(Rocca) received handy help from Dermott Brereton, who while not bothering the statisticians very often did most of the bullocking work in the packs to make a clear path for Rocca.”
He wouldn’t receive the same reviews a week later when he failed to kick a goal in the match against his old side, Hawthorn, or a week later in his 200th game against Richmond when a hamstring injury saw him finish the game on the bench.
Collingwood’s season at that time sat at five losses and a draw – from the club’s first six matches of 1995.
Brereton knew time was running out. He wrote in The Age: “I treasure every opportunity to play now and with some minor adjustments to the script of Breaker Morant, often refer to a wonderful quip I have adopted, ‘Play every game as though it will be your last. For one day it will be true.'”
After missing three games with the hamstring injury, he would play five straight games – from Round 10 versus Fitzroy until Round 14 against North Melbourne – before his final visit to the AFL tribunal.
He had clashed with North Melbourne’s Ross Smith, with the Herald Sun’s Mike Sheahan saying that Brereton had been “indiscrete…what possessed him to clench his fist and swing his arm back in the direction of an opponent.”
Brereton pleaded with the tribunal members: “Every game I play is golden to me. If you, being football men, could find a bit of compassion and understanding about where I’m coming from, and if at all consider the possibility of a suspended sentence, I would be eternally grateful.”
It didn’t work. He received a two-week penalty, taking his record to nine times found guilty for a total of 39 weeks outed.
Brereton would play in Collingwood’s last six games of 1995, with two providing memorable wins although the club’s push for the finals failed.
The first came against Geelong when he kicked five goals – for the first time since 1991 – helped to turn the game and polled his final two votes in the Brownlow Medal.
Matthews said: “Maybe he just likes playing against Geelong.”
The Herald Sun recorded: “In the end, this contest was defined by two acts of pure, vintage Brereton. After mysteriously spending six minutes on the bench, he returned to take a fine diving mark, with Rocca and one or two big Cats bearing down face on. The goal that followed was crucially important, but the courage that made it possible was inspiring.”
“Then at the 22-minute-mark Brereton plucked an old fashioned screamer from the front of the pack, out marking Rocca, among others, and converting for what turned out to be the winning goal.”
Collingwood won the game by four points.
Then, fittingly, Brereton played a key role in the win over Hawthorn in Round 20. He kicked three goals as the Magpies held on gamely for a three-point win.
Losing matches against Richmond and Sydney would end his AFL career, but the better way to remember him in black and white was his performance against his old side, the Hawks.
And when he decided to retire – Gary Pert, Shane Kerrison and Michael Christian did the same – Brereton knew that his body would have struggled to push for another year.
That realisation came when he struggled to get back up off the floor without duress when picking up his young daughter.
For a bloke who had had surgeries on his ankles (twice), knees (three times), hip (twice), elbow (reconstruction), shoulder (reconstruction) and broken bones in his hands and fingers, it was clearly time to call it a day.
Brereton said: “If you were a 15-year-old kid, hanging out in the suburbs, and were asked what you wanted to do, you’d say you wanted to be a sports star, making lots of money, driving a fast car and going out with a lot of pretty girls. I did all of those things.”
He described his one season with Collingwood as “the most enjoyable year of football I’ve had since the mid ’80s.”
“I know it is a cliche, but I feel quite at home at Collingwood. They’ve shown me quite a lot of loyalty in the short time I was there, and I just wish I could have shown more.”
Brereton was never a man of regrets, but he had two from his time at Collingwood – that he never got the chance to play in a Collingwood-Carlton match, and that he never pushed through the 500-goal barrier.
He finished with a career total of 211 games and 464 goals.
Matthews’ only regret concerning Brereton was that he didn’t have him in black and white when he was in his prime.
So, too, did the Magpie supporters who did a backflip on their affection for the footballer who they came to love.