By Steve Ricketts.
Johnny Gleeson was a quiet, humble man, who largely retreated from the spotlight after a stellar rugby league playing career at International, State and Club level.
Gleeson, who died on Christmas Day, 2021, aged 82, played 10 Tests for Australia and 25 times for Queensland, as well as winning Brisbane premierships with Brothers in 1967 and ’68.
From the time he broke into representative football as a teenager, Gleeson was a marked man, and he suffered some horrendous head injuries, at the hands of rivals who could not match his brilliance.
“So many times, Johnny was the difference between winning and losing a game of football,” recalls Gleeson’s former Brothers’ teammate, Reg Cannon. “He was small, but so strong, and he had a great ability to step back inside the defence. It was a mark of respect for his ability that teams tried to take him out. But there were a number of times when rivals overstepped the mark.”
Gleeson, who grew up at Chinchilla, represented South West Queensland as a teenage halfback, and played alongside Test five eighth, Bobby Banks, who was captain-coach of Cunnamulla.
In 1959, Gleeson signed with All Whites in Toowoomba, and from there represented Toowoomba in the inter-city Bulimba Cup competition, with the Clydesdales claiming the historic silverware two years running.
He made his Queensland debut at five eighth against New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground on June 10, 1961, replacing Banks. Gleeson would go on to play another 24 matches for his state, captaining the side at various stages, and turning out against touring sides from Britain, France, New Zealand and South Africa.
He moved to Brisbane to play for Wynnum-Manly in 1963, and was chosen for the Kangaroo tour of Britain and France, after being a reserve for the First Test against the touring Kiwis.
Gleeson’s chances of unseating incumbent five eighth, Earl Harrison suffered a major setback after Gleeson reacted badly to the travel vaccinations and spent 10 days in hospital on the team’s arrival in England. He had to be content with club, county and provincial matches and scored his first try for Australia in a match against Paris Celtic.
He made his Test debut against France at Lang Park, Brisbane on June 13, 1964, partnering St George’s Billy Smith in the halves. Brilliant Australian centre, Reg Gasnier scored three tries in the 27-2 thumping of the Frenchmen, with Gleeson playing a huge role in two of them. Gleeson scored a try in the 35-9 win over France in the Third Test at the SCG. It was Australia’s first home series win over France in four attempts.
In 1965, Gleeson rejected an offer from Sydney club, Newtown and returned to Toowoomba to play with Souths, alongside his brothers, Trevor, Mick and Joe. From Souths, Johnny was chosen for Australia’s tour of New Zealand and played in five of the six regional matches, with union convert, Jimmy Lisle preferred for the two Tests. Gleeson, who was captain in one of the regional matches, returned to Australia with a fractured cheekbone and broken jaw, the legacy of a high shot.
The following year he moved back to Brisbane to play for Brothers, and was called into the Australian side after Great Britain won the First Test at the SCG. In front of a sell-out crowd of 45,057 at Lang Park, Australia won a try-less game, 6-4. Gleeson retained his spot for the decider in Sydney, which Australia won 19-14, in a match notable for the Test debut of future ‘Immortal’, Arthur Beetson.
Gleeson’s Brothers’ side made the Brisbane Grand Final in 1966, but he was left with a broken jaw after being hit late by a Norths’ rival in the 30th minute. Norths went on to win 9-6.
In 1967, Gleeson played all three Tests against the touring Kiwis, again partnering Billy Smith, as the Australians made a clean sweep of the series, the first played under the four-tackle rule.
Brothers and Norths met again in the ’67 Grand Final, with Brothers getting their revenge, winning a try-less match 6-2. Gleeson had six of his bottom teeth broken off at the gums, thanks to a forearm jolt from a Norths’ forward. The ambulance man threw his hands in the air in frustration when Gleeson refused to leave the field.
Gleeson played all three Tests in the 1967 Ashes’ campaign in England. The home side won the First Test 16-11 in Leeds, with Gleeson at five eighth. Australia squared things with a memorable 17-11 win at White City, London, with Gleeson at halfback and Tony Branson five eighth.
The decider was played at Swinton in Manchester, with straw having to be laid on the icy pitch and the match played in falling snow. Australia won 11-3, but a stiff-arm tackle left the five eighth with a broken jaw. He could hear the crack, but stayed on the field. Soon after, he was hit in the head again, and his jaw was broken in several places. Amazingly, he played for another five minutes before coming off. The following day he left for Australia with his jaw wired shut, enduring a 32-hour trip, before surgery back in Brisbane. Gleeson and Canterbury-Bankstown fullback, Les Johns, both non-drinkers, were roommates on the 1963 and ’67 Kangaroo tours.
Gleeson’s last Brisbane premiership match was the 1968 Grand Final, in which Brothers defeated Easts 21-4, with Gleeson playing in the centres, with skipper, Eric Gelling at five eighth. Gleeson had announced his retirement earlier that year, but, when Brothers approached him to have another shot at a premiership, he couldn’t say no.
“I made a comeback because I really love football,” Gleeson said a few years later. “A few people seemed to think I was money hungry. If they had seen my contract, they would have known I wasn’t in it for the money.”
Gleeson coached Gympie Brothers to premierships in 1969 and 1970, before coaching in Gladstone. He moved back to the Chinchilla district and ran cattle for many years, while he and his wife, Dawn raised six children – three boys and three girls. He was also a Toowoomba selector for many years. Dawn pre-deceased Johnny, and in recent years he had been living in a Home for the Aged at Goondiwindi.