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Collingwood and a magical charm hammered out of war’s hell

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Prussian Prince Friedrich Karl’s luck ran out on the war-wracked Western Front of 1917.

His ghastly lack of fortune, curiously, would lead to the best of luck for the Collingwood Football Club later that year. The unlikely evidence of it still rests in Collingwood’s archives.

Best mates and Collingwood footballers Malcolm “Doc” Seddon and Paddy Rowan.

Anyone with a sense of history mixed with a yearning for something approaching the supernatural to see the Pies through to the AFL premiership this year could have done worse than to have given it a rub.

It happens I am writing this before Collingwood faces Greater Western Sydney in the preliminary final. I cannot predict whether the Pies will reach the grand final, nor who they might play if they make it. Readers on Saturday will know.

It is almost beside the point.

We follow footy clubs as much for celebrating their great triumphs as to ache for their disappointments. A club is bigger even than a premiership. It is an amalgam of stories built into myth and legend over decades, and in Collingwood’s case, for 131 years.

The lucky charm sitting in Collingwood’s archives is a horseshoe hammered together by an Australian military farrier on the Great War’s front line somewhere in northern France.

Collingwood Football Club’s good luck charm originated on the battlefields of the Western Front.Credit: Darrian Traynor

It was fashioned from part of a 15-inch German shell and remnants salvaged from the fighter plane flown by Prince Friedrich Karl, which was brought down on March 21, 1917, its engine shot through by Australian Lieutenant Charles Pickthorn of 32 Squadron Royal Flying Corps.

The prince’s plane came to a flaming stop 200 metres in front of Australian lines near the disputed, ruined village of Bapaume. Dashing Prince Karl escaped the wreck and ran across No Man’s Land towards the German trenches, his speed hampered by a wound to his foot. He was shot. He died within days. He was 24.

Mal Seddon, in uniform, as he prepared to ship out to war.Credit: Collingwood: A Love Story

Nearby was one of Collingwood’s most renowned footballers turned soldier, Malcolm “Doc” Seddon, of the 29th Battalion.

Having known a bit of rotten luck himself, he salvaged parts from the prince’s plane, added the band of a German shell, and had the metal beaten into the shape of a horseshoe, hoping, we might imagine, to invest war’s hell with better angels.

He sent the horseshoe back to his old club as the finals season approached.

“I hope that this shoe will bring the boys to the top of the tree this year,” Seddon wrote.

The war-touched talisman was put on display in the Pies’ dressing room at the MCG. And, glory be, its magic worked.

Collingwood won the 1917 grand final, played on September 22, defeating Fitzroy by 35 points.

When Seddon made it home from the trenches, he rejoined Collingwood and helped his team beat Richmond by 25 points in the 1919 final.

Over the next 30 years, the Pies won another six premierships as Seddon went on to become revered committeeman, chairman of selectors and eventually, Collingwood mayor. Glory days.

It was a little compensation, perhaps, for the bitter events of the 1915 grand final, when Collingwood faced Carlton.

Paddy Rowe, seated, with his best mate “Doc” Seddon.Credit: Age archives

Seddon and his best mate and fellow Collingwood star, who boxed and played footy as Paddy Rowan (real name Percy Rowe), were in military training camp at Broadmeadows.

As 1915’s grand final day dawned, their drill sergeant – believed to have been a Carlton supporter – took it into his head to force the two young men to undertake a 10-mile (16-kilometre) route march.

The pair only just managed to get to the MCG in time.

Unsurprisingly, their energy flagged as the match wore into the last quarter. Collingwood lost the premiership by 33 points. An abiding enmity has characterised the Collingwood-Carlton relationship ever since.

Collingwood had beaten Carlton in a brawling 1910 grand final, but it has never repeated the feat in the 113 years since.

The chance of a Collingwood-Carlton match-up next week has thus been the dream of footy followers right through this finals series.

A mate of mine and former colleague at The Age, Paul Daley, even now, sends reminders by text message of the historic depth of feeling: “#remember1915”, he shoots into the cybersphere every time Collingwood plays Carlton.

Daley, an author and journalist with The Guardian these days, wrote the definitive story of Doc Seddon and his mate Paddy Rowan/Percy Rowe in his lyrical book, Collingwood: A Love Story, published in 2011.

It is an astonishing, star-crossed story.

Seddon’s sweetheart from childhood in Collingwood was lovely Louie Newby. But when a dashing fellow calling himself Paddy Rowan blew into town, Seddon became his best friend … and Louie was bowled over. She became pregnant to Rowan/Rowe and married him. Seddon was left to stand as best man.

Paddy and Seddon, Collingwood’s finest, sailed for war. Paddy was killed by an explosive artillery shell in the Somme valley near Longueval on December 5, 1916.

Doc and Louie in later years on the beach at Rye.Credit: Collingwood: A Love Story/Seddon family collection

Doc Seddon returned to Collingwood … and to Louie and little Perc, the son Paddy/Percy never saw.

Doc and Louie were married in 1923. A Collingwood love story indeed.

It was from Daley’s book I learned of the horseshoe and its presumed powers.

Eddie McGuire understood. During his long years as Collingwood’s president (1998-2021), he fished out the lucky charm and brought it into the team’s room each Anzac Day before the game against Essendon, imbuing the players with the hope and power of its storied history.

And here we are in 2023, win or lose, dreaming of old magic. Again.

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