Thorold Merrett is now 79, but he retains the energy of the 16-year-old Collingwood first-gamer he once was.
From the backline, he reads through the 1953 premiership team, marking off mates lost.
“Jack Finck died last year. Jack Parker’s dead. Neville Waller’s dead. Ron Kingston’s dead. Des Healey died. Bill Twomey died. Pat Twomey, Keith Batchelor, Neil Mann, Bill Rose, Bob Rose — gone.”
His tone is matter-of-fact rather than sombre and he finishes as he generally does — with a laugh.
“Me? I think I’m alive, last time I checked.”
When the nine who remain gather, as they did on Wednesday night for the 1953 premiership team’s induction into Collingwood’s hall of fame, Merrett tells them the same thing.
“Thank God we belonged to a strong club,” he said.
It means more to him now than ever.
The Twomeys, Richards and Roses littered that line-up with famous Magpie names, yet he finds fond memories in every position. Like Finck, the full-back who commuted from Portland — a 720-kilometre round trip. He worked as a school teacher, clocking off at lunchtime on Thursday to get to training and driving back each Sunday morning.
Next to Finck in a back pocket was Lerrel Sharp, a name even more of the time than his own.
“(He was) a great mate of mine, a real Tasmanian,” Merrett said.
Healey and Bill Twomey were his great confidants, the other two-thirds of an all-left-footers centre line that Merrett completed on a wing — except in the grand final, when he played on a forward flank, because chairman of selectors Jock McHale became irritated with coach Phonse Kyne and the other selectors on the Thursday night after training.
“He wrote out his team, put it in an envelope, gave it to (club secretary) Gordon Carlyon and said, ‘I’m sick of waiting for these blokes, there’s my team, I’m goin’ home’. No one was game to change it,” Merrett said.
The switch had tactical merit. In Peter Pianto and Neil Trezise, Geelong had onballers too quick for Bob Rose or Lou Richards to go with, so Merrett followed Pianto when he went into the middle.
Opponents were comrades then, too. When Pianto was ailing a few years ago, Merrett went to see him at St Vincent’s hospital.
Merrett remembers a lovely man with a sense of humour that prevailed to the very end.
“‘G’day Titch!’ he said. ‘They’ve cut off me bloody right leg! I wouldn’t get a kick now’,” Merrett recalled of the greeting he received.
Terry Waites was Collingwood’s centre half-forward, the grand final his seventh of only 12 career games.
Geelong’s half-back line was its springboard, but John Hyde stood Waites with a heavily bandaged leg. Merrett recalls Waites running Hyde off his legs.
“He proved a matchwinner in that game,” he said.
In the ruck was Neil Mann with his huge hands. Jack Dyer would say Merrett “could stab kick a footy right up a chook’s a*** from 50 yards” and Mann could hold a dozen eggs in each hand and palm the ball to his men at will.
After Mann died last month, Nathan Buckley asked Merrett to address the players.
He relayed the story of breaking his leg for a second time, which ended his career at 26, and how Mann sat with him in the rooms for a quarter-and-a-half until the ambulance arrived.
“I told them that displayed to me what a loyal friend I had in Neil Mann,” he said.
Merrett emphasised the importance of friendship.
“Build it now, because in a flash it’s gone,” he told the current crop of Magpies. Around the room, every eye locked on his.
“It was something special to me,” he said of the moment.
Afterwards, he shook hands with Jarrod Witts, all 208 centimetres of him.
“You can imagine little old me, and he’s way up there,” Merrett said.
His grandson later asked how many blokes in his day were his size (168cm).
“Half the team was my size!”
Merrett praised Eddie McGuire for acknowledging those who had gone before in black and white.
“Eddie gets it. Emotionally he gets it, and the supporters love that,” he said.
The great thing about 1953 was that most of the team had started together three or four years earlier, Merrett said.
“That’s where your premierships come from — it takes you three years to know what’s happening, to consolidate your movements with one another. Then bingo! You’ve got it,” he said.
In today’s Magpies, he senses a familiar coming together.THE AGE