Australians struggling through the Depression famously gained succour from two legends of Australian sport, Bradman and Phar Lap. But for working class supporters of the country’s most rabidly followed football team, there was a third leg of the trifecta: Syd Coventry. Coventry captained Collingwood from 1927 to 1934, and during that time, the Magpies won four flags straight, from ‘27 to ‘30.
Coventry, born in 1899, was not tall, at just 180cm; he was what was colloquially known as a “Collingwood six footer.” But his rugged style of play was suited to the ruck. The Encyclopedia of League Footballers describes him as a natural leader and “a fearless protector of smaller teammates.” Coventry’s explanation for his vigorous play, according to Richard Stremski in Kill For Collingwood, was that it was occasionally necessary “to revitalise the side.” Indeed, wrote Stremski, “One of the hallmarks of his play was the ability to lift the Magpies when they were in trouble.”
Not that the doughty warrior always came out on top when the fists and boots were flying. In an infamous match against Carlton at Victoria Park in 1934, Coventry was left lying on the turf with a fractured skull. His players stormed to the aid of their revered fallen leader, with the result noted Stremski, that “Police were required to break up the ensuing melee. However, Collingwood emerged with the victory.” Coventry would no doubt have considered his broken head well worth it.
Coventry’s leadership extended to Collingwood’s always tumultuous off-field political intrigue, including heading off a threatened players’ strike (pay was slashed from £3 to £2 10s) during the 1928 season.
Collingwood were lucky to snare Coventry. When officials first visited his home in 1920, they discovered that the young miner had gone to play in Queenstown, Tasmania, for the season. On his return, he signed for St Kilda, but Collingwood blocked his transfer and he sat out the 1921 season before joining his younger brother, Gordon “Nuts” Coventry, at Victoria Park. He went on to play 227 games for the club, winning the 1927 Brownlow Medal, two club best and fairest awards and playing 27 games for Victoria.
In 1935, Coventry was cleared to coach Footscray, but only after signing an agreement that he would not don the boots for the Bulldogs, testimony to his talent for by then he was 36 years old. He later returned to his Collingwood heartland as an official and was president of the club from 1950-62. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography he was regarded more for his warm and genial nature than his chairmanship. Two of his four sons played for Collingwood. He died in 1976.
Syd Coventry was an integral part of a glorious era at Victoria Park. He, along with his brother “Nuts,” who was the leading Collingwood goal kicker for 16 years straight, the Collier brothers Albert and Harry, and the legendary Jock McHale, who coached the Magpies to eight premierships. Together, they gave Collingwood supporters plenty to cheer about in otherwise lean and hungry years.