Reflecting on one of SPC’s greatest sporting defeats 70 years on

May 7, 2024

Perhaps one of St Patrick’s greatest footballing arch-rivals was made welcome at the College recently.

Former Ballarat Clarendon College First XVIII football captain John Birt, now aged 87 years, visited the school and took a trip down memory lane, walking out on our new and improved Main Oval once again.

John Birt, captain of the 1954 Ballarat College First XVIII Football Team, visited SPC recently.

Some may well remember John as the “dashing” playing captain of the BCC First XVIII team, which snatched the 1954 grand final, stealing the title away from St Patrick’s College for the first time in 50 years.

“For 49 years the St Pat’s First XVIII had not suffered a single defeat in Ballarat Public Schools’ football,” it reads in the 1954 College Annual.

“This year that record, unique in Australian public schools, was broken when St Pat’s went down to Ballarat College.”

This year marks 70 years since BCC’s triumphant win – one that was shattering not only for the players of the 1954 SPC team, but also long-time coach Br O’Malley, who was guiding St Pat’s football fortunes for an impressive 21st consecutive year that year.

“Every player who had donned the SPC colours during the last half-century had dreaded the thought that he might be one of the first losing side. It was left to the 1954 team to feel acutely that disappointment.

“Glorious and modest had St Pat’s teams always been in victory; equally glorious in defeat were the members of this year’s team.”

The SPC team was made up of players of “splendid fighting spirit” like captain Ray Dignan and vice captain Michael Bourke, along with teammates John O’Shannassy, Charlie Castle, Marshall Younger, Kevin Shea and John Ilott.

Fine high-markers such as Bernard McKenna and Gerald Crough were also mentioned, while Brian Murphy and Ross Muller were also highlighted as “players with skill and dash”.

The Ballarat College team of 1954.

However, SPC’s football report goes on to say that the SPC team were up against excellent talent in the Ballarat College side, and that John Birt was a “footballer of great promise”.

“If St Pat’s had been able to nullify Birt’s effective efforts, results would have been different. Failure to do just that cost SPC the 1954 premiership.”

Well known to many footy fans, at least half a dozen of the players from both sides went onto play VFL, including John Birt, who became a double-premiership player for Essendon.

John Birt playing in Essendon’s 1962 grand final. Photo courtesy of the book, Coley’s Champs.

Despite this, it turns out John also has a family connection to SPC, with his late father responsible for polishing the pews in our College chapel.

Back to 1954, and it was a worrying start for the SPC team when Ballarat College issued the green, white and blue their first Ballarat Public Schools defeat in 50 years, going down by nine points in a hard-fought affair.

In their second match, SPC had to win this game to at least finish the season co-premiers with Ballarat College. However John Birt played a “dominating part” in this game, and despite the match seesawing in the last five minutes between the two forward lines, College manages two attacks which brought goals, taking them to a 10-point lead and their first premiership in 50 years.

A copy of the football report and reports on the individual matches are detailed in the 1954 SPC College Annual.

Page one of the Football report in the 1954 SPC College Annual describes the First XVIII’s shattering defeat – the first in 50 years.


Page two of the Football report in the 1954 College Annual.

Page three of the football report.

Despite this historic defeat, 1954 remained a testament of footballing skills with captain Ray Dignan awarded the best and fairest award for the season, while Bernard McKenna received the H. Morris Cup for Best Forward, John O’Shannassy for the Best Back Player and Marshall Younger and Kevin Shea recognised as the next best players.

It continued as a mixed bag of results for some of our SPC footballers, with Charlie Castle also losing to Ballarat College in the SPC Firsts crew in the Head of the Lake the same year. However this changed in 1955, with Charlie and his SPC crew mates bringing home the Head of the Lake title for the first time in 18 years!

While Ballarat College took out a resounding win in the first game of the First XI over the course of the cricket season, SPC managed to follow up with five more outright wins to claim the overall premiership, handing glory to the SPC team which also included cricket/footballers Kevin Arundell, Terence Fitzpatrick, Bernard McKenna, John O’Shannassy, Marshall Younger, Kevin Shea (cricket vice captain), Michael Bourke (cricket captain) and Ray Dignan.

Members of the winning SPC First XI Cricket team in 1954.

Terence Fitzpatrick was pipped at the post by Ballarat College in the Tennis competition of 1954, while Bernard McKenna set a new record at the BPS Athletics sports in the Open High Jump by clearing five feet 10 inches, breaking the record of five feet nine and three quarter inches set by Empire Games jumper John Vernon when he was at Grammar in 1947.

Bernard McKenna was part of the BPS SPC Athletic Champions team in 1954.