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John Douglas Coleman (1928–1973)

by Graeme Davison

This article was published:

John Douglas Coleman (1928-1973), Australian Rules footballer and publican, was born on 23 November 1928 at Port Fairy, Victoria, fourth child of Victorian-born parents Albert Ernest Coleman, manager, and his wife Ella Elizabeth, née Matthews. John first began to kick a football at the Port Fairy Higher Elementary School; after his family moved to Melbourne in the early years of World War II, he attended Ascot Vale West State and Moonee Ponds Central schools. At the age of 12, he was already playing in a local under-18 team. In 1943 Ella and her children moved to Hastings while her husband remained in Melbourne to look after his business. Coleman divided his time between Melbourne, where he attended University High School, and Hastings, where he played in the Mornington Peninsula League. In 1946 he was invited to train with the Essendon Football Club, but was unable to force his way into the first-grade side. He returned to Hastings and in 1947-48 kicked a total of 296 goals. By the beginning of the 1949 season, word of his prowess had spread to several clubs in the Victorian Football League and Essendon immediately rushed him into its senior team.

From his first game, when he kicked twelve goals against Hawthorn, Coleman was a star. Six ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall, pale and slightly built, he appeared almost listless as he stood in the goal square, a yard or so behind the full-back, his guernsey (number 10) rolled to the elbows. Then, with explosive speed, he would slip the guard of his opponent and soar, sometimes waist-high above the pack, to mark the ball. His uncanny ability to make position and his prodigious leap immediately caught the public imagination. Although his leads often left him with difficult shots for goal, he converted a high proportion of his opportunities with long, flat punts.

The first postwar V.F.L. player to kick a hundred goals in a season, and the only one to do so in his first, Coleman kicked his hundredth goal in the last quarter of Essendon's victory over Carlton in the 1949 grand final. Next year he recorded his best seasonal total (120) to help Essendon win the premiership against North Melbourne.

Opposing coaches and full-backs were hard put to curb Coleman's brilliance. Close-checking, spoiling players fared best; but few could outrun, and none outmark, him. He often faced two, or even three, opponents and was constantly needled, jostled and punched behind the play. In the last home-and-away round of the 1951 season, Coleman exchanged blows with the Carlton backman Harry Caspar. Both were reported. Despite a boundary umpire's evidence that Coleman had retaliated only after two unprovoked punches from Caspar, each was suspended for four weeks. Coleman was distraught. Disconsolate supporters blamed his suspension for Essendon's failure to win its third successive premiership.

In the next few years Essendon dropped down the ladder, yet Coleman continued to head the V.F.L. goal-kicking table, scoring 103 goals in 1952 and 97 in 1953. In the seventh game of the 1954 season he kicked his biggest ever tally, 14 goals, but in a match a week later fell heavily and dislocated his knee. Despite surgery, he was forced to retire, aged 25, having kicked an average of almost 5½ goals a game in his 98 V.F.L. appearances.

Coleman was a capable businessman who understood the commercial potential of his fame. His studies for a degree in commerce at the University of Melbourne were curtailed in 1949 by the greater attractions of football and business. While his match-winning feats brought no increase in his Saturday pay-packet (all Essendon players received £4 per game), Coleman was given management of the Auburn Hotel by one of the club's vice-presidents, Ted Rippon. Their association continued when Coleman became licensee of the Essendon Hotel, but he subsequently went into business on his own account at the West Brunswick Hotel. From 1954 he also wrote for the Herald newspaper. On 3 March 1955 at St Thomas's Anglican Church, Essendon, he married Reine Monica Fernando.

In 1961, following the retirement of Dick Reynolds, Coleman returned to Essendon as coach. A clever tactician, he eschewed the histrionics of rival coaches, concentrating his efforts instead upon quietly harnessing the individual talents of his players. In 1962 he coached 'the Bombers' to their first premiership for twelve years and they won the flag again in 1965. During his playing days Coleman had developed a special loathing for umpires and they were often the target of his venomous tongue as a coach.

By 1966 Coleman's health had begun to cause him concern. His knee injury now prevented him from actively participating in training and he suffered from thrombosis. He agreed to return for the 1967 season; at its end, he retired to concentrate on his hotel business at Dromana. There, on 5 April 1973, he died suddenly of coronary atheroma; survived by his wife and two daughters, he was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $280,270. Coleman's reputation is commemorated by the annual award of the John Coleman medal to the highest goal-kicker in the Australian Football League.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Whitington, The Champions (Melb, 1976)
  • M. Maplestone, Those Magnificent Men, 1897-1987 (Melb, 1988)
  • W. Brittingham, Essendon Football Club Premiership Documentary, 1949 and 1950 (Melb, 1991)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 Sept 1949, 5 Apr 1973, 23 Mar 1979
  • Age (Melbourne), 3, 7 Sept 1951
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Davison, 'Coleman, John Douglas (1928–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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