Collingwood people can remember with a rare strain of dread that particular Monday morning in spring 1991, when lifelong barrackers heard the mournful news and children who loved the number 42 were woken by their tearful mothers and fathers.
“Darren Millane died … I can’t believe it.”
Across Melbourne, where the best footballers are considered royalty, reactions were similar. Not Millane. He’s only 26. It can’t be true.
Magpie teammate Mick McGuane was in Ballarat, where he was spending time with friends a week after the AFL season finished.
His father spoke to him on the telephone. “Your good mate’s dead.”
“Who’s that?” McGuane said.
McGuane went numb. Thirty years later, he still thinks about Millane; a trigger for his recollections might be seeing 42 on a number plate or a table at dinner.
After the physical numbness wore off, McGuane drove back to the city to meet Collingwood teammates at the Brandon Hotel.
The previous season the Magpies had won the premiership, which bonded them for life. Now they would grieve together.
Across town, in Noble Park, the Millane family’s world had exploded.
Darren’s older brother, John, was catching the first flight back from Queensland, where he’d been living since 1983.
The youngest of the three Millane brothers, Sean, still wearing bruises from his VFA premiership with Dandenong a week earlier, helped his mother Denise cope with the whirlwind of public and media responses.
The Herald Sun ran more condolence messages for Millane than any other person in the newspaper’s history.
Darren’s father Bob, recently separated from Denise, had heard about his son’s crash on the radio news.
Celebrant Dally Messenger III organised and presided over the unforgettable funeral at Dandenong Town Hall, attended by 8,500 mourners.
Messenger, who had to deal with expectations of the family, football club, police, and local council, later wrote in his memoir: “Preparing for the funeral was like a football match in itself”.
Collingwood captain Tony Shaw made a stirring speech and still reckons it’s one of the hardest things he’s ever done.
After the service, pallbearers, including coach Leigh Matthews, teammates Gavin Brown, Denis Banks and football manager Graeme Allen, carried their burden outside, where other Magpies, including Peter Daicos, Graham Wright, and Gavin Crossisca, stood guard.
Millane’s jumper was hanging from the front of the coffin.
Next time anyone saw an official Collingwood 42 guernsey was on world champion boxer Jeff Fenech before his doomed rematch with Azumah Nelson at Princes Park.
Then it was retired. Who knows if any Collingwood player will wear it again?
Who was Darren Millane?
Darren Millane was a boy from Noble Park Primary School who barracked for St Kilda and loved his family and his dog, and got into a few stoushes sticking up for his mates and brothers.
Later, he went to Coomoora High School, then Chandler High; schoolwork was OK but young Darren preferred fenced fields and athletics tracks to four walls and a blackboard.
Millane first made local newspaper headlines as a 12-year-old for feats involving cricket (taking 10 wickets in an innings) and triple jump (state champ). Test bowler? Olympian?
Nah. Anyone who watched him in the Noble Park and Parkmore juniors could tell he was made to be a footballer; the only kid who could match him was teammate Darren Bennett, who would go on to play in the AFL and NFL as a punter.
Dandenong Football Club, long since gone from the VFA (now the convoluted VFL), can brag it had all three Millanes in its ranks.
John was at Dandy first. Sean would later captain the Redlegs.
Sixteen-year-old Darren kicked two goals in his senior VFA debut against Port Melbourne in 1982. John was named best player in the losing team. He might’ve edged towards the big time if he didn’t choose to move to the Gold Coast the next year.
For VFL clubs, recruiting Darren became an ordeal.
Initially, he was bound to the newly established Sydney Swans because he lived in the old South Melbourne zone.
Millane’s father didn’t like the idea.
The book Pants, by Eddie McGuire and Jim Main, detailed Swans football manager Greg Miller’s memories of meeting the family in Noble Park.
Millane needed to be cleared to another club — if one would have him — and this was helped by Swans player Silvio Foschini taking the league to court and challenging its zoning system over restraint of trade.
After another season for Dandenong, reigning VFL premier Hawthorn signed Millane; had he enjoyed his pre-season with the Hawks, he might’ve played in the next six VFL Grand Finals.
But the teenager didn’t like it: he felt uncomfortable in this new environment.
Hawthorn noticed he wasn’t fitting in and cut him loose. He went back to Dandenong for half a season before Collingwood took over his professional contract.
When he went to Victoria Park he dared to wear fancy checked dacks. Now he had a new home and nickname.
During the next five seasons, while Collingwood was being transformed into a premiership contender under the coaching of Matthews, Darren ‘Pants’ Millane built his reputation as a decathlete-sized wingman with a ballet dancer’s bounce.
“He was always extremely fit,” then-Collingwood football manager Graeme Allan said. “When Leigh took over as coach he went to another level of professionalism.”
Allan says Millane’s new-found confidence extended to teammates.
“He really did love being at Collingwood. He loved the club. He made a lot of guys walk taller around him, particularly the guys who were a year or two younger than him (McGuane, Gavin Brown, Damien Monkhorst).
More celebrated opponents took notice of the new boy on the edge of the centre square.
“I reckon it would’ve been Darren’s second game, he played on me at the Whitten Oval,” champion Footscray wingman Doug Hawkins recalls.
“And I looked at him and thought ‘f… he’s pretty big this bloke. He’s a good size for a winger.’ He gave me a bit of a chop across the chest and I thought, ‘hang on mate you don’t do that — this is my wing.’
“He had a good pair of hands. Both sided, good at ground level, good courage, great balance, super balance, good decision maker. He was the complete player.
Hawkins and Millane shared a drink after every game against each other.
“We got along well,” Hawkins said. “He was just a great fella. People warmed to him. What you saw was what you got. He was just good company to be around.”
Millane won the Collingwood best and fairest Copeland Trophy in 1987 and finished fifth in the Brownlow Medal count in 1988.
“I think it was the combination of his mobility and his strength and spring for a guy his size,” Leigh Matthews said in the documentary Millane: A Tribute.
Older viewers who remember Millane from the late eighties, might’ve turned their minds to him during the 2021 Grand Final when one of the commentators called Christian Petracca a ‘raging bull’ (one of Millane’s other nicknames) or when Bailey Fritsch contested a mark and landed so gracefully to gather his own crumb and kick his fourth goal.
“You could throw Millane over a pack and he’d land on his feet,” Mick McGuane says.
For the best 11-second snapshot of that Collingwood team featuring Millane, go back to the 1990 Qualifying Final against West Coast at Waverley.
It’s the last quarter and Collingwood is up by two points.
Eagle John Worsfold, built like a brick shed, goes for the ball but here comes Millane with a hip-and-shoulder to rival Heath Shaw’s 2010 Grand Final smother as Collingwood’s best ever ‘one percenter’. Worsfold gets knocked five metres sideways.
The Sherrin is now between Millane and Eagle Chris Mainwaring, who hesitates long enough for brilliant Gavin Brown to swoop up possession for the Magpies. Brown backs off slightly, contemplates what’s next — he’s 57 metres from goal on the boundary.
Brown dummies, runs around Mainwaring, and floats a handball over Worsfold, where Millane is standing with his back to goal. Millane catches under pressure from another Eagle, Guy McKenna, and handballs over his left shoulder. Pause. Watch his fist! It’s clenched but he hits the ball with his palm and fingers (it is probably against the rules) because he has a broken thumb.
His pass lands in the hands of … DAICOS. Daicos, chased by Worsfold and McKenna, kicks a right foot banana to the goal line and you know it went through.
And all the kids with the duffel coats whose numbers were 42, 35, and 26 (which was most of them) knew they’d keep those coats long after they grew out of them and probably forever.
‘Nowhere to hide’
Millane had busted his thumb three weeks before; the story of his pain tolerance during September and October 1990 has become a famous measuring stick for courage in finals.
Now we can hear it from him: Darren’s brother Sean recently found some pages of a notebook filled with his late brother’s handwriting. It seems Millane was preparing to write a book at the time of his death.
His first chapter: “That Broken Thumb.”
“It was about the 10-minute mark of the first quarter,” he wrote. “I was chasing a Fitzroy player around the outer wing. As he kicked the ball I hit him in the hip with my right hand and I must have got him right on the hip bone. I dislocated my right hand thumb. I couldn’t get it back into place.”
He ran slowly off the ground, dropping a mark along the way.
“The doctor (Shane Conway) put my thumb back into place but there was this abnormal lump at the top of my hand near the base of my thumb. The club surgeon (John Batlett) was nearby and he pushed the lump down and my thumb popped back to where it should be.”
Millane started yelling at the medical staff to give him a pain killer so he could go back on the field; winning the game was important because it meant a top-three finish.
Also, the wingman was worried about damaging his chances of claiming season-ending individual awards. (He would still end up winning the AFL’s MVP — now called the Leigh Matthews Trophy).
“I was either winning or in contention for nearly every media award available,” he wrote. “All I could think about was losing all this money.”
The surgeon Bartlett stopped him from playing again that day. He told Millane the bone needed pinning.
Millane’s mind turned to missing another finals series through injury, as he had done in 1988 and 1989.
A plaster cast was set to immobilise his hand and wrist.
Despite his break, Millane wanted to play the final home and away round the next week and keep going through finals. First, he had to convince Matthews.
“We had to beat Nth Melbourne the last round to make sure of the Double Chance and during the week I had decided to front Leigh and ask for a chance to play. He said that if I didn’t play against Nth Melbourne he would rule me out of the entire finals series.”
His plan was to get a medical clearance and then pass a fitness test at the club.
“I had to meet John Bartlett at his surgery in Heidelberg (on) Friday afternoon at 3pm. John took the plaster off and I must admit the hand was a little bit weak and a bit sore. He made a special brace for the thumb and taped my hand very heavily. Each time he applied tape I nearly went through the roof.
“I went to my car and deliberately tried to use my hand as much as possible. I couldn’t even open the door of the car so I began to have doubts myself.
“I told him that it felt good and that John Bartlett said that it would be okay with pain killers, so I shouldn’t really aggravate it with a fitness test.
“He [Matthews] believed me and said that I could play.”
Momentarily Millane threw the ball into the air and tried to mark it on the way down but failed.
Matthews wanted more proof that one of his most important players was right to play.
Millane said Matthews took him onto the oval and kicked a ball to him from 50 metres away.
“This was alright because I would just pull my right hand away a little at the last moment and from where he was he couldn’t notice,” he wrote. “He called me in and I honestly thought I had bluffed him on my second attempt. No way. He decided to drill the ball at me from about 10 metres away, which meant I had nowhere to hide.
Matthews looked at the chairman of selectors, Ron Richards, and they both agreed Millane could play against Nth Melbourne.
“I went home that night and I was in so much pain that I was vomiting and I was just about ready to ring Leigh and pull out.
“Surprisingly, in the morning I felt quite good and there was no pain at all. I went in to see Shane Conway (doctor) 5 mins before the warm up to have the painkillers.
“That first needle was the most painful thing I think I have come across. I was really sick and needed a glass of water before the second and third needles.
In and out of plaster, aided by all those needles, the game’s best wingman played like that for the next five games.
“He was in agony,” Graeme Allan remembers. “It was a courageous effort. He’d just smile at you as if it were nothing but I know it was horrible pain.”
Allan says there was never any doubt he was going to be allowed to play throughout September.
He collected 26 possessions in the grand final playing virtually one handed.
When the final siren went, the boy from Noble Park was holding the ball in the back pocket. He tossed the ball into the air, and a 32-year Collingwood premiership drought was broken.
The trouble with Millane
Collingwood had a long premiership hangover, crippling its 1991 season.
“They had the run of Melbourne those lads, after we won the premiership,” Allan says. “They were kings of Melbourne at the time — they were on the news, reading the news at one stage, and they didn’t pay for a thing. Wherever they went — drinks cards. It was pretty hard to get them under control.”
The Magpies won only two of their first 11 games, before finding focus and form in the second part of the season, missing the finals by two premiership points.
Throughout September, after being knocked out of the competition, Millane and McGuane went back to work to prepare for 1992.
“Our pride was pricked,” McGuane says.
Their cross training fitness regime under trainer Ray Giles was designed to erase the disappointment of a wasted year.
The pair trained at Leo Berry’s gym in Richmond, where Millane got to know Fenech.
McGuane had come to love Millane and believed he would be the next Collingwood captain, a view shared by most Magpies of the day.
“He taught a lot of us how to go about things, even by the language he used,” he says.
Millane wanted to be skipper one day; the only thing that worried him was his reputation for off-field strife.
In 1989, the wingman was locked up by police in Tasmania after playing for Victoria’s second team in State of Origin.
It followed a fight at Wrest Point Casino.
“We got into a light scuffle,” Doug Hawkins remembers. “Some goose king hit him (Millane). And they come from everywhere — security, bouncers and fair dinkum.”
Millane, Hawkins, and Danny Frawley were arrested but only the Collingwood and Footscray wingmen did time in the holding cell.
VFL chiefs banned Millane from representing Victoria for two years, Hawkins one year, and Frawley got a reprimand.
“Me, Pants and Spud,” Hawkins says. “Can you believe that? The three of us. Two of them are now gone (Frawley died in 2019).”
In the next two years, Millane faced assault charges over two pub fights and received fines and a good behaviour bond.
Collingwood president Allan McAlister gave character evidence, explaining to the courts how often Millane worked for charities and visited sick children in hospitals.
Finally, the night after his last game in 1991, Millane and his best mate Dennis Banks decided to hop onto a bus parked at Spencer Street terminal in Melbourne. The pair had previously been drinking at The Tunnel nightclub with young Channel Ten journalist Eddie McGuire.
Banks started the bus before its driver arrived and tried to get him out.
Next day, Banks and Millane were questioned by police; eventually they received a summons to appear in court in November 1991, but Millane never made it.
The press coverage of these incidents still pains Millane’s family and friends.
Biographers McGuire and Jim Main wrote on page one of Pants: “There have been suggestions that that heart had a tarnished side. Nothing could be further from the truth. Darren’s heart was made of purest gold, solid and shining.”
The Herald Sun interviewed Millane’s girlfriend the day after he died.
“To me he had the devil in him and I guess that’s what attracted me,” she said. “He had a tough exterior but deep down he was just as gentle and very caring. He’d do anything for a mate and his devotion to his family was just unbelievable. I’ve never known a person to love his mother as much as Darren did.”
Darren Millane went to a wedding in the country on the weekend he died.
He came back to Melbourne on Sunday and wound up at The Tunnel.
None of his teammates were there, nor was his brother Sean.
“Had I been there things would’ve been different,” Sean says.
Millane phoned Banks to invite him out and left a song on his friend’s answering machine.
“We were always going out together,” Banks says. “Would that have changed things (if he did go out with Millane that night)? I’m not sure. We all take chances in life and do silly things in life, he paid the ultimate price.”
Darren was drunk when he drove home and ran into a parked truck on Queens Road, South Melbourne: he died instantly.
Banks is still heartbroken three decades later.
“We had a lot of fun. I think about him a lot. You have a football season and there’s always something that comes up (to remind me of him). And it’s great — you want to keep Darren alive by talking about him. I can’t believe it’s 30 years. Where did that go? There’s definitely a massive void.”
Police phoned Graeme Allan after the accident and asked him to come to the city morgue, where the football manager had to identify his close friend.
Now, Allan ponders what might’ve happened if Millane didn’t die so young.
“He would’ve played footy for another five or six years,” he says. “He was on the verge of signing a new contract and buying a farm in Keysborough (south-east Melbourne).Today that would’ve been a big property development so I’m sure he’d be very wealthy.
“Eddie (McGuire) loved him. He would’ve had a media career.”
McGuire started hosting the enormously popular Footy Show in 1994.
Former teammates and opponents think Millane would’ve been a popular TV entertainer.
A family mourns
Darren Millane’s mother Denise says the 30th anniversary of her son’s death is like every other.
“I haven’t stopped thinking about him, to be honest,” she says. “He just made a mistake and paid for it.”
She is thankful he played through the pain of a broken thumb in 1990.
She also thinks about moments away from the limelight.
“When he died, I got a letter from a little boy who had leukemia,” she says. “He said how Darren kept him going. Nearly every week Darren would visit someone. He’d come home hours late after training. It was just something he liked doing.”
Millane’s father Bob died by suicide in 2002.
John Millane still lives on the Gold Coast. He has two sons: Zai and Taj.
Sean Millane is married and also has two boys: Cooper and Daz, both old enough to ask to watch their father’s (Dandenong VFA 1991 premiership) and uncle’s highlights on YouTube.
All four of Darren’s nephews have sporting talent.
Sean has been a well respected coach at community level.
For many years he kept playing football, always wearing a black arm band in recognition of his champion brother.
He will never tire of sharing his love for Darren, who he misses dearly.