The Football Jubilee: How the game started
The Football Jubilee: How the Game Started
This season is the jubilee of Australian football, because in the year 1858 T .W. Wills, better known to fame as a cricketer, and especially a great bowler, suggested to his cousin Mr. H. C. A. Harrison, that they should form a football club in Melbourne. Mr. Wills was then fresh from Rugby school, the home of Rugby football, so that the Australian game, unlike Rugby as it is in most points, and lacking above all else the "off side" principle, which is the essence of the classical English game, is none the less a child of Rugby. T. W. Wills was not by any means a nervous man, but it was his opinion that Rugby was too rough a game for men - especially for men who, as in the case of most Australians in those early days, had to earn their living by active work during the week. Some- thing in the nature of an imitation of Rugby was suggested, and Mr. Harrison, in drawing up the first code of rules, became the father of Australian football. Thus "great events from little causes spring." Had T. W. Wills been an enthusiast in Rugby there is not the slightest doubt that he would have been able to influence his companions in its favour, that Rugby, under those circumstances, would have become the universal game in Australia, and the jubilee, which is being celebrated this winter, would be an event of altogether a different character.
Exactly fifty years after Mr. Harrison and his cousin discussed the founding of a new game, the Rugby League of New South Wales suggests that a composite game might be agreed upon as the universal winter sport for Australia. It is not the first time the suggestion has been made. When, in 1884, Mr. Harrison went to England on a holiday tour with the Australian Eleven, he interviewed the authorities of both the Associaton and Rugby games, with the idea of arranging an exhibition match under Australian rules, and offered to devote three weeks to coaching the teams in the main points of the game. Mr. Alcock, then secretary of the Surrey County Cricket Club, was a leading official in Association football, and he had heard so much from English cricketers visiting Australia about our game that he offered the use of Kennington Oval for the match, and agreed to find an Association team to play in it. The Rugby people were, however, less cordial. Their standpoint was "This game of ours is 150 years old. If one of us has to adopt the other's rules the obligation is surely upon you - the younger people-to adopt our game." It was not in one sense an unreasonable view, and had Rugby been the only game played in England at the time the argument would have been unanswerable. But England had its rival games, and, though Mr. Harrison's suggestion appeared to be in some sense audacious, it at least offered a compromise between the two as a universal game, putting Australian interests on the matter quite upon one side.
Later on, when returning to Australia, Mr. Harrison made an effort to impress New Zealanders with the merits of Australian rules. Joe Warbrick, the famous guide of the buried pink terraces, and other leading New Zealand players were impressed, but they all said the same thing. "See Mr. O’Neil. He is the father of football here, and whatever he suggests we are willing to do." Mr. O’Neil was, however, a Rugby enthusiast, very courteous, but very firm in the belief that there was and could be no better game in the world than Rugby. Mr. O’Neil's strongest objection was, "If we adopt your rules, it means that we give up all hope of ever playing matches with the old country. That prospect is too great a thing to sacrifice." This happened 25 years ago, and since then only two New Zealand teams have visited England, though the famous All Blacks established a record upon their tour which has certainly placed New Zealand football upon a very high pinnacle.
As this year is the jubilee of Australian football, it is also the jubilee year of the Melbourne club. South Yarra was the second club formed, Carlton and Albert-Park (which finally became South Melbourne) were founded in 1864, East Melbourne in 1868, Carlton Imperial in 1869, and St. Kilda in 1873, while North Melbourne was indirectly represented for a time in a team known as the Royal-park. The first regular club matches were played between Melbourne and South Yarra, which had its ground at the back of the Presbyterian Church, in Fawkner-park. Amongst the notable men of the South Yarra team at the period were the late Judge Fellowes, George O’Mullane (a first-rate cricketer), and Mr. R. Murray Smith, of whom Mr. Harrison, in a chat about these early days, says –
"He was one of the fairest, as well as one of the pluckiest, of players. He took his spills with a smile, and never lost his temper. I always held him up as a model of what a manly and good-tempered athlete ought to be. George O'Mullane, though a strong, running player, a fine drop kick, and a man who used his strength when there was need of it, had also a fine temper, and it was a pleasure to meet him on the field - even when the meeting was shoulder to shoulder, and you happened to get a trifle the worst of it."
The footballer of those early days led the strenuous life, whether he wished for it or not. As Mr. Harrison himself remarked, after a game between Melbourne and Albert Park, where Melbourne were charged with playing roughly, it was not a game for "men poodles and milksops." The Fourteenth Regiment just returned from pah-storming in the Maori War, played it not strictly to rule perhaps - if there was any rule worth mention - but with a whole-hearted ardour that covered all technical deficiencies. Captain Noyes, who led the Fourteenth in these more serious phases of foreign service, was a fast, plucky, dashing player, whose plan of action was to run with the ball, and when he could run no further to lie down, with the ball under him, while the Fourteenth rallied to their commander, as the chivalry of Scotland gathered round then fallen King upon Flodden field - "grimly dying, still unconquered, with their faces to the foe." The challenge of the gallant Fourteenth, "Wan o' yoz touch him if you dar'," was conveyed in word and look, the light of battle blazed in their Irish eyes, and the consequence generally was that Captain Noyes got his spell and made a fresh start.
On one occasion Mr. Harrison, after being kicked about seven times on the shins by his opponent - he carries his honourable scars to this day - protested, with as much mildness as the captain of the Melbourne could command under such circumstances, that it was not quite according to the rules. "Blasht yer rules!" was the prompt retort; "we're playin' Irish rules." If there was any peculiarity in the Irish rules of football as interpreted by the Fourteenth Regiment, it was extreme liberty of action - maintenance of the fine principle that a man's free impulses should not be unduly curbed by artificial restrictions. After one defeat the Fourteenth said, "Wait till Liftinant Blank comes, an' we'll give yiz fits." Lieutenant Blank arrived in due course. He was not an alarming figure, but he wore a belt, upon which was blazoned the grim inscription, "Neck or Nothing." It was in one sense neck, and in another nothing, for within 10 seconds of the start the gallant lieutenant encountered Mr. Charles Forrester, the staid and gentlemanly golfer of to-day, and was carried off the field a limp and useless casualty.
There was a good deal of "Hit her a lick, Mick," in the footballing methods of the Fourteenth Regiment, and, fortunately for the British army, they played in days when an umpire was not considered essential, except at the goals. If there was any gross breach of etiquette, verging very nearly upon manslaughter, a free kick was sometimes claimed, and it was left to the chivalry of the opposing captain to say whether the claim was justified. In this way nice points were sometimes presented. The portly captain of the South Yarra team, who could punt-kick as far and as high as Caine, of Carlton, once stopped the match and claimed a free kick, on the ground that an opponent had contemptuously referred to him as "a lump of blubber." It was a difficult point, but the sports of the period agreed that the provocation was sufficient to warrant a free kick of some sort without being so precise as to say where the kick should be delivered.
To those who know Australian football today it seems almost incomprehensible that for many years there was no field umpire. There were certain unwritten rules, and if any of these were badly broken the captain of the suffering side had the right to claim a free kick. That meant stopping the game. It also meant, in some cases, a long argument as to the merits of the case, so that only in extreme cases was the free kick claimed. The first formal code of rules was adopted at a meeting of delegates from the leading clubs, held at the Freemasons' Hotel in 1866. Mr. Harrison prepared the code, which was adopted without alteration and in many instances the wording of a rule has been retained. Even then there was no provision in the game for a central umpire, the nearest of the goal umpires being called upon, in case of dispute, to settle the difference.
At a comparatively late period in the history of Australian football there was every prospect of a compromise being arranged between New South Wales and Victoria. The Waratah club, of Sydney, came down to Melbourne and arranged to play two games against Carlton under Australian and Rugby rules. Each club had apparently reasoned the matter out in the same way. Each was certain to win under its own rules, and so gave a great deal of attention to the rival game in the hope of effecting a surprise. The result was that Carlton rather astonished their rivals by their proficiency in Rugby, and were in turn, surprised to find the Waratah playing a rattling good game under Australian rules. Soon afterwards George Coulthard, one of the finest players who ever wore Carlton colours was taken to Sydney to coach their footballers in the Australian game, but a little misadventure in Port Jackson brought the engagement to a sudden close. Coulthard was fishing with some friends one day from a boat in the harbour, when he suddenly disappeared over the stern. His coat, trailing in the water, had attracted a shark, which took a mouthful of it. Fortunately, the coat gave way, and Coulthard was rescured, but after that experience he was never happy in Sydney, and soon returned to Melbourne. At that time all the conditions were favourable for a compromise, and the founding of a universal Australian game. Mr. Phil Sheridan, a trustee of the Sydney Cricket-ground, tried hard to induce two of the leading Victorian clubs to visit Sydney and play a series of exhibition matches, so that Sydney people might be able to see the Australian game at its best. He failed in the effort, but always maintained that had his scheme been adopted, Australian football would have displaced Rugby in Sydney.
The evolution of Australian football as a sport has gone on slowly and steadily for 50 years. No sweeping alterations in the rules were ever made, but as defects became flagrant they were remedied. At one time the side scoring the first two goals won the match and sometimes after three hours’ solid play it was necessary to continue the game on the following Saturday, so that the necessary two goals might be scored. The absurdity of this plan became apparent on one occasion, when Geelong sent up a team to play Melbourne. There was a strong wind blowing, and at that time the custom was to change ends whenever a goal was scored. The game was won in less than half an hour and a scratch match had to be arranged to fill up time. Even when football had become a popular sport in Victoria, it was noticeable that very few goals were scored. Melbourne on one occasion went through a season unbeaten, and had only one goal kicked against them. That was scored by Geelong, owing to the mistake of the Melbourne goal-keeper, Gourlay, who ran out to meet a ball which bounced over his head. In that triumphant season Melbourne scored only 17 goals – a record now frequently beaten in a single match. The low scoring in these old days was, in Mr. Harrison's opinion, wholly due to the greater liberty of action given by the rules. Pushing behind was allowed and that had more to do with spoiling the scoring chances than anything else.
It was a long time before the footballers were allowed to play upon the cricket-grounds, the popular belief being that football would ruin the turf for cricket. Melbourne played at the back of the M.C.C. grand-stand, on a rather rough tract, known as the gravel pits. They were not at first allowed to enclose a space, and the consequence was that excited crowds so encroached upon the ground that its width was reduced to not more than 25 yards. On one occasion, when Melbourne and Carlton were playing a match, some "under and over" artists and three-card manipulators set up their stands on the playing ground, and invited the populace to pick the correct card. On being asked to move off, they pointed out that the park was public property, and they had the same right to it as the foot-ballers. The plea was legally good, so other means had to be adopted. A conference of the players was held, and, Harrison said, "They are quite right. This is a public park; everyone can do as he pleases, so when I give the signal knock off play and follow me." A few minutes later a wild whirl of footballers burst upon the confidence men, tables were sent flying, their owners turned head over heels by a purely accidental charge, and the whole difficulty was settled in one short, strenuous act.
The Melbourne Football Club asked for permission to enclose the ground, and offered to spend £600 in laying down turf, but the proposal was strongly opposed by the late Mr. FitzGibbon, then town clerk of Melbourne, who, like the footballers, had a masterly way of doing things. While they were still agitating for the use of the gravel patch, it was suddenly, planted with the trees which now adorn it, and the foot-ballers, were soon afterwards granted the privilege they had long sought of playing their games upon the cricket-ground. The first match played inside satisfied the M.C.C. that footballers were worth considering, for £500 was taken at the gates, and before an argument so convincing all opposition to the use of the cricket-grounds in winter vanished. Indeed, anyone who takes the trouble to make a comparison between the balance-sheets of the Melbourne Cricket-ground then and now will see that in the following season the M.C.C. had a remarkable increase in its members' list, and took its first great step towards attaining the magnificent position which it now occupies.
Club colours were originally displayed in a cap only, but a special kind of tight-fitting, short-laced jacket close to the body was afterwards worn. In one respect it was a gain, and in others a loss. For example, W. Freeman, a player whom the Fourteenth used to call "that infernal eel." had a trick of squirming his way through a crush that was rather destructive to shirts. When one was torn from his back he went to the pavilion and got another - generally the first that came handy. In one match, Harrison laughingly remarked that Freeman had gone in for his fifth shirt, but laughed less when he realised that - Freeman was wearing his (Harrison's) shirt.
Title: The Football Jubilee: How the Game Started Author: Donald McDonald (‘Observer’). Publisher: The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria, 1848 – 1957) Date: Saturday, 1 August 1908, p. 7, (Article Illustrated) Web: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/10170164?#pstart353904