Bloods fight for first flag - 1909 VFL Grand Final
In 2011, The Slattery Media Group published Grand Finals, Volume I (1897-1938), a substantial account of every Grand Final in that period, recounting not just the details of the decider of each season, but the events leading up to it. This article is an extract from that book. The book — and its companion (Volume II [1939-1978]) — can be ordered directly from http://www.slatterymedia.com/store/viewBook/the-grand-finals-volume-1--1897-1938
Just as Grand Final week celebrations in the modern era open with the Brownlow Medal count, there was a similar event more than a century ago. Although the Brownlow Medal was not inaugurated until 1924, fans 15 years earlier voted for their champion player of the season, with the results of that plebiscite published in The Argus of Monday, September 27—five days before the South Melbourne-Carlton Grand Final.
The newspaper reported that more than 105,000 fans cast their votes, with Essendon’s Bill Busbridge taking the award with 16,503 votes, 1360 more than South Melbourne’s Charlie Ricketts. The poll created enormous public interest and The Argus reported that more than 45,000 votes were cast on the final day of the poll, on the Saturday before the Grand Final.
Busbridge, the finest centre half-back of his era, had won Essendon’s best and fairest in 1908 and 1909 and was idolised by Dons’ fans, with one Argus reader penning this verse to accompany his vote for the season’s champion player:
Here’s to you, Fuzzy Buzzy, You’re a champion, and no kid. Your orders were to play the game, And play the game you did.
Although Ricketts would have been disappointed at missing out on the title referred to as Champion of the Colony, he had far more important matters to worry about as South’s captain-coach. South had yet to win a VFL premiership, but had been runner-up to Fitzroy in 1899 and to Carlton in 1907. It therefore had been 19 years since the Southerners had tasted any flag success, and they were not used to failure. They had won VFA premierships in 1881 and 1885 and had won consecutive premierships from 1888-90.
South, founded in 1874, was strongly supported even from its earliest years and recruited most of its players locally. The club had been formed in an amalgamation with Albert Park and became the most popular club in the area, no mean feat considering it had numerous rivals, including South Melbourne Imperials, South Park, Rising Sun and Emerald Hill Standards.
Whereas the Fitzroy and Collingwood clubs, for example, were based in industrial suburbs, the South Melbourne area had few heavy industries and many of the players worked on the Port Melbourne docks or at iron foundries close to the wharves.
South drew its support from a wide area and, in fact, was instrumental in the birth of a new word in the English language—the barracker. South’s Lake Oval ground was relatively close to the St Kilda Road army barracks in the late 19th century and, when soldiers from there started attending South matches, they became known as “the barrackers”.
Although most VFA clubs struggled to attract an attendance of 10,000, South regularly drew up to 15,000 fans at the Lake Oval and even saw 12,000 fans there for a match against an English rugby side. The gate was a phenomenal (for that era) £202.
South, in its earliest VFL years, recruited heavily from VFA clubs Williamstown and Port Melbourne, but also drew players from Metropolitan Junior Football Association club Leopold, which was virtually a reserves South side. Leopold, which wore navy blue and white and was based in South Melbourne, was a prolific feeder club for the Southerners over more than half a century.
Ricketts was South’s first official coach, the position previously filled by the club captain who, in 1908, was classy defender Bill Dolphin. South was a follower of fashion when it appointed Ricketts, as Carlton had won all three premierships over the 1906-08 seasons under the coaching of Jack Worrall.
South had finished fifth under Dolphin in 1908, and following the appointment of Ricketts as captain-coach Dolphin agreed to become vice-captain. However, he missed the 1909 Grand Final because of injury. Ricketts, a brilliant rover, had won a reputation as one of the best footballers in Victoria in playing for Richmond in the VFA before he joined South in 1906.
A hard task-master, he trained the South squad harder than it had ever trained, while the club committee did its part in the quest for a first VFL premiership by casting a wide recruiting net.
Recruits for 1909 included brilliant Williamstown (VFA) winger Jim Caldwell, who went on to play 155 games with South and captained the 1918 premiership side. Other newcomers included Dave Barry and Jack Scobie, both from the local Leopold club.
Caldwell was regarded as one of the best footballers in Victoria even before he joined South, and mixed pace and skill with aggression.
Williamstown had been a prolific “feeder” club for South as champion full-forward Len “Mother” Mortimer had been recruited from the VFA Seagulls in 1906. Mortimer won his nickname “Mother” because, after taking a mark, he would hold the ball under his chin “like a mother would hold a baby close to her bosom”.
Ricketts and his Southerners had a daunting task in their tilt at the 1909 flag as Carlton appeared to be as strong as ever and hell-bent on a fourth consecutive premiership.
It therefore was ironic that, at the very time Ricketts was emulating Worrall’s tough training methods, the Carlton players were in revolt after more than seven years of their coach’s iron-fisted discipline. When University, in just its second VFL season, defeated Carlton by 15 points at Princes Park in the opening round of the 1909 season, the Carlton committee sharpened its axe. Three players had refused to take the field for that match—in part as a protest about match payments, but also because of Worrall’s heavy-handed methods.
The dispute gathered momentum when a letter carrying the signatures of several players demanded Worrall’s sacking—prompting Worrall to resign on July 26, stating: “For the sake of the club and for peace and quietness, I consider it better to resign.”
Worrall remained as club secretary until the end of the year, by which time he had was asked to relinquish that position as well.
Captain Fred ‘Pompey’ Elliott took over as playing coach for the remainder of the 1909 season and steadied what had been a sinking ship. Incredibly, considering Carlton’s internal problems, the Blues finished the home and away season in second position, behind South Melbourne on percentage.
South, on the other hand, had relatively smooth sailing towards the finals, even though it dropped three of four matches mid-season, by 24 points to Carlton at Princes Park in round 11, by 14 points to Fitzroy at the Lake Oval in round 13 and by 11 points to Collingwood at Victoria Park the following week.
South won its final five home and away games to win the minor premiership and, under the final four system operating at that time, had to play third-placed Collingwood in one semi-final; a week later Carlton played the fourth-placed Essendon in the other.
Carlton and Essendon clashed at the MCG on September 11, with the Blues thrashing the Dons by 36 points to put Carlton well on track for a fourth consecutive flag. South’s bid for a first VFL flag captured the football public imagination and, when the Southerners played Collingwood at the MCG the following week, The Herald reported: “All roads led to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. People on foot swarmed there. Tens of thousands poured down in train and tram, in motor and cab, and, in fact, every kind of wheeled vehicle bore a human burden.”
More than 35,000 fans saw South defeat Collingwood by 21 points and all relished the prospect of a Carlton-South Final at the MCG the following week, especially as the Blues had defeated the Southerners by five points in the 1907 Grand Final. If South won this match, it would be the premier, while a Carlton victory would give the Southerners (as minor premiers) the right of challenge in a Grand Final.
Newspapers were divided on which club they saw as the likely premier, but The Herald noted following South’s defeat of Collingwood: “They (the Southerners) had caught the Collingwood backs napping and their forwards covered themselves with glory. It was a most inspiring series of dashes and roused the spectators to a pitch of great enthusiasm.”
South adopted roughhouse tactics in an effort to unsettle Carlton in their Final of September 25 and paid a heavy penalty, losing by 21 points. Even worse for the Southerners, Caldwell was reported for striking Carlton’s George Bruce, landing him a nine-match suspension.
‘Observer’ wrote in The Argus the Monday after the final: “It is for ‘keeps’ next Saturday and public interest in football will be demonstrated by their having paid over £5000 to see the League finals. I find popular desire rather in favour of South Melbourne because of purely sporting reasons as people want to see the Carlton conquerors checked for a season.”
‘Observer’ believed South had been overly physical in the final against Carlton and was particularly critical of Caldwell when he wrote: “Caldwell was conspicuous on the wing for wholly unnecessary roughness and, after the match, (field umpire Jack) Elder reported him for striking Bruce.”
The Argus’s football writer was correct on one point: South was the sentimental favourite, as most football fans believed Carlton had dipped into the well of success once too often for their liking; they wanted a new champion to hail.
To compound South’s worries, Carlton would welcome the return of star defender Norman Clark for the Grand Final after he had missed the first clash because of neuralgia, a nerve condition. Carlton became the warm premiership favourite.
Film of the 1909 Grand Final has long resided in the National Archives of Australia, but was only recently discovered from its dusty vault. The film, of 10 minutes and 30 seconds, pans across the 37,759 crowd pre-match to reveal men in bowlers and boaters, boys in cloth caps and women with large, wide-brimmed hats. There are no banners, no scarves, no real identity of support for either side.
The players are the only ones in team colours, but even then there are discrepancies. South wore white guernseys with a red sash, but the sashes ran in opposite directions from player to player. Carlton wore its traditional navy blue and white, but again with variance. Some wore the newly designed guernsey with the CFC logo, while others wore the old navy blue with a white yoke.
Although The Argus’s ‘Observer’ had hoped it would be a dry, windless day and perfect for football, Grand Final day dawned miserable. There were showers during the morning and rain threatened as the players took the field. However, the rain held off until there was a sprinkling in the final quarter. Despite the threat of rain, ‘Observer’ noted that one person in 20 living in Melbourne attended either the South Melbourne Grand Final or the VFA Brunswick-Prahran Grand Final (won by Brunswick). Football was king even more than a century ago.
South started brightly, but kicked two behinds that should have been goals. When Mortimer missed a third chance, South fans “groaned in despair”. The combatants scored five behinds in a gripping, but mistake-riddled first quarter.
There was no quarter-time break in that era, with sides changing ends at the sound of the bell. There were no interchange, or even substitute, players and, in the usual practice of the time, the ruck group changed each quarter, with South moving Barry, Cameron and Ricketts onto the ball and resting Franks, Belcher and Kerr in pockets or on flanks. Carlton switched Marchbanks, Baquie and Jinks on the ball to “rest” Johnson, Hammond and Lang.
Carlton appeared more settled at the start of the second quarter and, following good play by Johnson, Topping scored the first goal after the resumption. South then bored in ever harder and, following a couple of behinds, goaled through Franks. Minutes later, Ricketts slotted South’s second goal.
Carlton was devastated when Baquie badly rolled an ankle and was sent limping to a forward pocket. With no reserve, Baquie was restricted for the rest of the match.
The teams were locked together at the main break, with most fans tipping South to forge ahead because Carlton virtually had been reduced to 17 men. ‘Observer’ wrote: “South Melbourne were still playing better football than their rivals—the question that interested thousands of people was, ‘Can they last it out at the pace?’ ”
The Southerners, instead of using the brutal tactics they had adopted in the Final, tried to move the ball as quickly as possible to unsettle the heavier-footed Blues, and the tactic appeared to be working, especially as Mortimer kicked a goal early in the third quarter.
However, hopes South might have had of building a solid lead dissipated when the injured Baquie converted from a free kick close to goal to again level scores. ‘Observer’ wryly noted: “As often happens, the cripple got the goal.” The Argus man also reported: “With the excitement increasing every instant, everybody was wholly absorbed in the play.”
Carlton fans groaned when Gotz fell awkwardly and was forced to leave the ground with a sprained knee. However, Gotz reappeared a few minutes later to a volley of cheers from Blues’ fans. The only problem was that Gotz, like Baquie, could only hobble about.
South took advantage of Carlton’s injury worries and, through good play by Hiskins and Belcher, moved the ball quickly to Gough for the red and white’s fourth goal. But, as ‘Observer’ noted, Carlton refused to surrender and, in fact, he noted: “The more Carlton suffered, the better they played.”
South might have had a seven-point lead at the final break but, as ‘Observer’ suggested, South fans feared Carlton would “pull the game out of the fire with one of their great-hearted rallies”. He added: “The whole of the last quarter was a period of wild excitement, with trembling South Melbourne hands counting the minutes on their watches and the Carlton thousands roaring their heroes on. It was desperately hard—no player cared for consequences. There was only one thought. Win.”
The ball flew from end to end early in the final quarter, with both sides missing chances. Carlton eventually started controlling play and the ball was on the Blues’ forward line for 10 minutes.
Finally, the dam wall broke. Johnson forced the ball forward for Carlton and teammate Kelly took a mark tucked on the boundary line. His shot was straight and true and his goal—Carlton’s fourth—lifted the Blues’ spirits. It now was even money for the premiership.
‘Observer’ wrote: “There was a roar of delight from their (Carlton) followers. They were going to win after all—South, with all their striving were just two points ahead.” He added: “The finish was almost too thrilling for detailed description. People shook with excitement as the play swung from end to end like a pendulum.”
Carlton attacked incessantly over the final minutes in efforts to bridge the gap, but South follower Franks heroically took two strong marks to deny them. ‘Observer’ described him as South’s “lion of the side”.
Although Franks was not rated the best player on the ground over the entire match (with most football writers nominating Ricketts), he held Carlton at bay when it mattered most and, when the final bell signalled South’s two-point victory, the burly West Australian was mobbed by well-wishers.
He and Belcher had controlled the ruck contests over the desperate final quarter and South fans rejoiced in the fact that Franks two years earlier had been suspended following a Carlton complaint.
Carlton, in the lead-up to the 1907 finals series, complained about Franks striking two of its players and he was suspended for a total of 14 matches, putting him out of action until well into the following season.
The suspension forced Franks to miss the 1907 Grand Final, which Carlton won by just five points. South fans wondered for years what might have been if Franks had played, as he was one of the best, and most feared, big men of his era.
Now, two years later, he was chaired from the MCG a hero. South fans stormed onto the MCG at the first peal of the final bell and carried the men in red and white on their shoulders. It was South’s first VFL premiership and its first flag since winning the 1890 VFA title.
That long-lost film of the 1909 Grand Final captures the euphoria of the victory, with South fans throwing hats in the air as they parade their champions around the MCG.
‘Markwell’ from The Australasian wrote: “The excitement that prevailed among the 37,000 spectators was indescribable... the playing ground was rushed the moment the first tinkle was heard, and a surging multitude of the madly excited barrackers bore the victors shoulder high from the field. Such a scene of delirious enthusiasm had never before been witnessed at the finish of a football match in Melbourne.”
‘Markwell’ also paid tribute to South captain-coach Ricketts, writing: “Consummate skill in leadership on the field belongs to few men. It would, perhaps, be an exaggeration to say that captain Ricketts is the possessor of such skill... His training and judgement have built up a side largely composed of men who, until recently, were junior players, into a company of artists... To him, therefore, is due chief credit for the team’s achievement.”
South celebrated its 1909 premiership long and hard and, following a civic reception and dinner at the South Melbourne Town Hall, nursed its collective sore head through a brief tour of country Victoria before playing a “premier of premiers” match against South Australian premier club West Adelaide.
South defeated Hamilton in an exhibition match the week after its Grand Final success and then defeated West Adelaide by 24 points at the Adelaide Oval, with The Australasian naming Thomas, Scobie and Pentland as the Southerners’ best players.
Each South premiership player, following the tradition of the time, was presented with a premiership medallion and cap but, unfortunately, South rewarded Ricketts with the sack, replacing him with Bill ‘Sonna’ Thomas for the 1910 season.
Ricketts was reinstated as captain-coach in 1912 but, after Essendon defeated South by 44 points in that season’s Grand Final, he was dumped again. The South players elected the rash and often outspoken Ricketts as captain for the following season, but the club committee refused to ratify their decision.
The disillusioned Ricketts walked out on South after 82 games from 1906 and returned to his original club, Richmond, which had been admitted to the VFL in 1908. He played 16 games with the Tigers and was coach from 1914-16. Ricketts was appointed St Kilda coach in 1920, made a five-game comeback as captain-coach in 1921 and continued as non-playing coach in 1922.
Despite being a three-club player, he always will be remembered as South Melbourne’s first premiership captain and coach.