Most of football’s greats are forgotten, the passage of time being the primary culprit. If most current fans have never seen Bob Pratt leap shoulder high over a pack, or Leigh Matthews rove a loose ball at lightening pace, then it is understandable their names will inevitably disappear from debates about ‘the best ever’. All glory is fleeting, after all.
But there was a legendary player that football deliberately and systematically attempted to obliterate from the game and its collective memory. This was not because of any gross act of immoral or criminal behaviour. Rather, it was because he thumbed their noses at the iron fisted rulers of Australian rules football. That player was Ronald Walford Todd.
Born in the impoverished heart of Collingwood during the Great War, Todd had black and white running through his veins. At age four he was regularly seen scurrying around the outer at Victoria Park, wearing a Magpie jumper with Dick Lee’s number 13 embroidered on his back.
By the time he turned 18, Todd’s speed, height and exceptional vertical leap gained him selection in the Collingwood seniors, where he soon exploded. In a two-year stretch, Todd slammed through 120 and 121 goals respectively to become the Victorian Football League’s (VFL) biggest attraction at its biggest club. “The play revolves around him,” wrote Ivor Warne-Smith, “you would not miss seeing him again for anything”.
Todd was cut from a different cloth than his contemporaries, and not just because of his incomparable talent. While he loved the Magpies, he detested the game’s treatment of its players as indentured servants under the guise of ‘club loyalty’. Worse still, he was not afraid to say it publicly: “After a few seasons of football you find it is no longer just a game but a big business. Scores of officials and clubs profit indirectly by the game. But not the players”.
In 1938 an opportunity to cast off the chains presented itself when the Victorian Football Association (VFA) broke its transfer agreement with the VFL and started waving large cheques around. While several big names defected, it was Todd’s acceptance of Williamstown’s £500 offer (almost triple what he was earning at Collingwood) that sent shockwaves throughout the football world.
The VFL threatened to sue Todd, before slapping him with a three-year ban. Collingwood coach Jock McHale, meanwhile, turned Todd’s photo in the clubrooms against the wall, screaming to the rest of the players: “That’s what we do to traitors!”
An embittered VFL, unable to touch Todd while he was playing in the VFA, soon found an opportunity for revenge when he enlisted in 1942. Lining up to play for the RAAF against a NSW representative team, the VFL successfully pressured local authorities to have Todd omitted from the team.
A final chance for reconciliation was lost in 1945. Having served his ban, Todd arrived at Collingwood to inquire about returning to the club. Asked to wait outside the committee room while officials discussed his application, Todd overheard a torrent of personal abuse directed against him, including being denounced as a ‘traitor’ and ‘deserter’.
He left in disgust and immediately signed another deal with Williamstown. For this, the Magpies publicly declared Todd would be forever ‘expelled from the club and be deprived of all privileges of an ex-player.’
Todd would go on to have a long and fruitful career with Williamstown, winning two premierships and kicking 674 goals, including a remarkable 188 in a season, before retiring in 1949. Buying the Hotel Pacific in the coastal town of Lorne with the money earnt through his football career, he was asked to coach the local football team in 1952.
Yet Todd could not escape his past. Upon hearing of his application, the VFL informed Lorne that their new coach remained barred from all football under its jurisdiction, including their own. ‘You cannot forgive a player for walking out on you,’ spat VFL secretary Like McBrien.
Treason had its price even in death. When the Collingwood team of the century was chosen in 1997, the selection committee initially placed the now deceased Todd at centre half-forward. However, at the conclusion of the meeting, John McHale jnr., son of Jock, approached selection chair Kevin Rose in private, demanding the traitor Todd be removed from the team in favour of the vastly inferior Murray Weidman. Fellow panel member Trevor Grant, horrified at the injustice of the decision, regretfully conceded defeat: “A man carrying the name McHale was always going to have his way”.
Scouring the record books today, Todd’s footballing CV easily ranks him among the greats. 327 VFL goals from just 76 games, at an average of 4.3 goals a game, the 7th highest in the competition’s history. His tally of 23 goals in the 1939 finals was only bettered by Gary Ablett Snr’s 27 in 1989, though Ablett needed an additional game to topple him. Yet Todd should also be celebrated for his martyrdom at the altar of player empowerment that current players relish today.
Eddie McGuire attempts to heal old wounds, by having Todd inducted into Collingwood Hall of Fame in 2011 and the AFL Hall of Fame in 2017, are a belated acknowledgement of his greatness. Still, when gazing at the portrait of the Collingwood team of the century one cannot feel a sense of sadness, and injustice, at the absence of Todd’s smiling face.