The case for australianfootball.com
Australianfootball.com has evolved from a lifetime love of the great Australian game, and a love of the rich history that the game has produced.
I grew up in a football-obsessed family and talk around the dinner table in the far off 1970s was more likely to centre on Royce Hart’s knee than the state of the nation or the state of play in the Middle East.
My father, grandfather, and uncles were all prone to reminiscences about footy in the ‘good ol’ days’ and discussion often centred on the great names and games of the past. I was fascinated by the game, its nuances, its champions, its winners and losers, and it’s probably no surprise that the seeds sown in those formative years created a passion about the game and how it was portrayed, a passion that has never left me.
Even when my family moved to Queensland, and I went to school at a bastion of rugby, the flame remained well and truly alive. Indeed, it probably burned more brightly given we suddenly found ourselves in hostile surroundings. But we did learn that a strong and vibrant footy community existed among the northern heathens, and that proved to be our saving grace. The advent of the VCR also helped, allowing me to watch the VFL Match of the Day, the SANFL Match of the Day, and The Winners on ABC-TV. I also played local juniors on Saturdays, and attended QAFL games on Sundays. It was during this time, away from the insularity of the Melbourne footy culture, that I learned the game was truly Australian, rather than just merely Victorian. The passions it evoked in the tropics of Queensland, and the history and traditions and personalities it spawned, were just as valid and keenly felt.
Most of the footy history I learned about in those days was anecdotal, listening to old timers reminisce. Apart from newspaper or magazine features, not much was published in the field back then. Quality reading material was rare and apart from a few heavily ghosted, (and often inaccurate) autobiographies of old timers (Jack Dyer’s ‘Captain Blood’ comes to mind), some stats books, and the occasional potted history from stalwarts like Jim Main and Graeme Atkinson (“Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Australian Rules Football” was a personal favourite), footy history buffs like me were pretty much left in the outer. That contrasted markedly with the summer game, cricket, about which so much had been written, with a commitment to its history that has never waned.
The VFL, as it then was, certainly didn’t appear to take much interest in the history of the game, nor did the media organisations responsible for broadcasting it. The Seven Network in Melbourne, for example, simply didn’t bother to preserve much of the old footage they had, and in some cases simply tossed it in the bin. Apparently the intention was to create more storage space, which is ironic given the digital revolution was not that far around the corner. But whatever the reasoning—if there was any—such wanton destruction can only be termed historical vandalism, albeit typical of the times when many grand old buildings also bit the dust in the name of modernisation and/or economic rationalism. Seven wasn’t the only villain: the VFL itself was perhaps was worst culprit. During its many moves from the sixties to the noughties, many wonderful photos and memorabilia were pitched out, fortunately, some retrieved from dump bins and tips. The content of rubbish bins in the vicinity of most senior football clubs bears out a similarly sad story.
A greater historical awareness through society in general seemed to emerge in the 1990s, and in football it was no different. One catalyst was the AFL-sponsored centenary celebrations in 1996. Suddenly, out of nowhere, or so it seemed, we had Halls of Fame, Teams of the Century, Club Museums, heritage celebrations, and a plethora of new publications, including the annual statistical guide that has since become indispensible to any self respecting connoisseur of the game. This historical renaissance reached a crescendo in 2008 when the AFL organised celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the ‘Australian Game of Football’.
One of the more pleasing outcomes of that occasion was a lavishly produced official history of the same name—funded by the AFL—together with an associated book on the great photos of the game, the following year. These, taken together with some well researched and produced general histories, biographies and club histories, made me feel that footy history was finally coming of age. But whether that translated into creating a true historical consciousness in the sport, as cricket and baseball have always had, remained a moot point.
For all the laudable efforts made in raising the profile of the game’s past, I believe that much still needs to be done to place footy on a sound and proper historical footing. On closer inspection, what is often passed off as history in ‘official’ AFL and/or club sponsored undertakings, and in turn picked up by the general footy public, is in fact not so different from the anecdotal history of my childhood. Much of it lacks analytical rigour and national perspective, and rarely goes beyond the comfortable confines of living memory.
The AFL itself set the tone early when it embarked on its centenary celebration in 1996. Billed by Ross Oakley, the soon to be departing league supremo, as marking ‘one hundred years of Australian football’, it was in fact 99 years after the first VFL season.  The decision to disregard historical convention and ‘fast track’ the 1997 centenary to 1996—the 100th season of the game—seemed to be more about ensuring the Chairman’s last year in office was a celebratory one rather than handing such a prize to his successor.
Moreover, the concept of what was being celebrated was muddled from the start. The AFL (Australian Football League), which was a mere six years old at that stage and initially ‘sold’ (to the interstate public at least) as a new national competition distinct from the old suburban Victorian Football League (VFL), actually jettisoned that concept fairly quickly and simply appropriated by default the history, traditions, and stats of the old VFL, leaving the legacy of the other two major football competitions, the SANFL and the WAFL, downgraded in the process. By osmosis, it seemed, the VFL and the AFL become one, and the SANFL and WAFL, and subsequently the VFA (renamed the VFL!) become feeder competitions to the AFL, a process that now seems pre-ordained.
Contrary to the impression given at the time, ‘Australian football’ per se, did not begin in 1897—the VFL— itself a breakaway competition from the then premier Melbourne competition, the Victorian Football Association (VFA) did. But unlike the AFL’s assimilation of the VFL’s historical legacy, neither league has shown any interest in assimilating the legacy of the pre-1897 VFA. The historical record of the first twenty years of organised senior football in Melbourne has thus been totally neglected, unlike in South Australia where despite numerous competition name changes, the senior football record extends unbroken from 1877 through to the present day. 
The confusion surrounding what was being celebrated in 1996 also brought to light a conceptual problem that has since become widespread. The AFL (nor the old VFL) should not be a term interchangeable with ‘Australian Football’—one refers to a competition within the game, while the other IS the game. But the clear inference then, which has become even more entrenched now as the AFL increasingly seeks to identify itself as the sole custodian of the game and its history, is that they are one and the same. In other words, kids playing Under 12s in Wangaratta, Whyalla, or Western Sydney aren’t playing Australian football, or even Aussie Rules any more—they’re playing ‘AFL’. The precedent of footy politics and ambition trumping history and authenticity has been well and truly established.
One of the AFL’s more encouraging initiatives back in 1996 was the creation of the ‘Australian Football Hall Of Fame’, loosely modelled on the oldest and most revered hall of fame in sport, that of the MLB (Major League Baseball). The special status of the Baseball Hall derives from its longevity (formed in 1936), its exclusivity (only 297 inductees over 75 years), its national reach (reflecting all the major league regions and competitions) and its basis in historical research (selection is made by writers and other experts well versed in the history of the sport and backed up by a committee of historians). The historical underpinning behind the selection process ensures the early years of the game are thoroughly researched and that oversights (such as in the case of Negro leagues) are corrected. While heated debate follows every election, the one truism that holds firm is that only ‘the best of the best’ are inducted. This is not the example the AFL choose to follow.
Our HOF has in essence become a long, somewhat self-indulgent, celebration of past fifty years of football, the TV era, with a particular emphasis on the 1960s and 70s in general and the VFL competition in particular. Some 41 (or 21%) of the players inducted made their debut in a single decade, 1961-71, meaning the ‘B’ team from that era has also been anointed into immortality. This would be unthinkable in the Baseball Hall. I’m reminded of the quote by the most perceptive of the Marxist intellectuals, Groucho, who professed that he didn’t want to be a member of any club that would accept him as a member! I hope it doesn’t come to that.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of the ‘so-called’ Legends are associated with the same period, which for the purpose of illumination we can call the ‘halcyon days’—not too long ago to be out of living memory, but long enough to allow the glow of nostalgia to take hold and rose coloured glasses to become misty. Don't get me wrong, I love that era of footy too, but fondness for a certain period shouldn't be a substitute for sound historical analysis and critical judgement.
As for inductees from the ‘outer’ football states, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, the figure has remained steady at around 25% on a State of Origin basis, notwithstanding that on a per capita criteria, factoring in demographics, participation rates, recruitment, and overall support for the game, the ‘outer trio’ should account for at least 40% of the total. This assumes, of course, that the genetic stock of Victorian males historically is not superior to that of other states when it comes to football.  Other sports and recent draft results suggest that it isn’t! It was no surprise then that after some of their greatest players were ignored by the AFL Hall of Fame, each of the ‘outer trio’ established their own Halls.
The reliance on living memory over historical analysis explains the small, and dwindling, percentage of inductees from the earlier periods of the game. In 1996 twenty-seven men from the pre-1925 era, or what I would call the ‘dark ages’ of football, were inducted, presumably because the selection guidelines demanded a quota thereof.  Given that the panel lacked any background in historical research (with the exception of Harry Gordon), it wasn’t such a bad start, if one could presume that future selectors, left to their own devices, would continue to induct the pre-1925 men that had narrowly missed selection the first time around. The sixteen years later show it’s became clear that such was wishful thinking. Of the 108 post-1996 inductees, almost 90% are associated with the post-war game. Only three additional ‘dark agers’ have made the cut.  In existential terms, we can rephrase this as, ‘I appeared on TV, therefore I am’!
Given the lamentable state of affairs outlined above, there is little wonder that other ‘official’ historical initiatives exhibit the same characteristics. The ‘AFL Team of Century’ also turned out to be the ‘Team of the halcyon days’, with some minor concessions to the greats of previous and latter eras. In this case thirteen of the twenty-one selections played senior footy in 1970-71 alone. Not surprisingly there were no representatives who debuted before 1931, except the umpire, the token salute to the first seven decades years of Victorian football!
Most senior clubs in Australia followed the trend, and selected their respective teams of the century. On the whole they were marginally better conceived, but the results were still mixed. They ranged from the sublime, the Geelong team, that was truly representative of every era, even the dark ages, to the ridiculous, the Carlton team, which in effect was the ‘team of the half century’. Perhaps the selectors couldn’t think of any pre-war footballers apart from ‘Soapy’ Vallence—after all, he’d been on the World of Sport panel for many years so they had the TV-era validation they needed. Most other clubs managed to fall somewhere in between, but in the majority of cases very good players of the halcyon days were preferred over great players of earlier eras. As a rule in such matters, it seems the 10th best ruckman in the League in 1974 will always trump the best ruckman in the league in 1914.
An unfortunate recent example of this mindset was Mike Sheahan’s list of the ‘Top 50 footballers of all time’, in the otherwise outstanding tome ‘The Australian Game Of Football since 1858’. As a selector on the Hall of Fame committee for many years, it may have been hoped that Sheahan would have gained the historical acumen required to master the brief. Unfortunately the Herald Sun veteran couldn’t move beyond the confines of his memory and instead produced what would have been a good list for a book entitled ‘The Victorian game of football since 1958’. Of the 50 greats, twelve retired before 1958 (including one ‘dark ager’, the Collingwood champion, Dick Lee), while a whopping thirty-eight came from the last fifty years of football. Half of the total came from the ‘halycon days’!
Needless to say, they were all VFL players, no players from other competitions were deemed worthy. Sheahan’s rationale, that Victoria was in essence, the centre of the football universe, and that “the Victorian competition always was a quasi-national competition” was curious to say the least. Actually Mike, until the 1980s it was nothing of the sort. Before the professional era very few genuine stars from SA or WA ventured east—not only was it difficult to secure a clearance, in most cases the incentives just weren’t great enough.
It was at some point around this time that I began to think ‘enough already’—there’s simply no use in having phantom arguments with the AFL, and the ‘so-called’ experts anointed to make such judgements. If I thought they were wrong, or at least misguided, I had to say so, on my own soapbox. I had to not just think, I had to do…do something, taking guidance from John Kennedy’s inspired call to arms. It was then I began to contemplate the best means to achieve that goal. By happy coincidence it was also around that time I discovered a website known as ‘Full Points Footy’ operated by John Devaney.
I will talk more about John and his website in my next offering, suffice to say that I found him to be a kindred spirit. Not that I agree with everything he has written, but I appreciated the difference he was trying to make, and the gaps he was trying to fill. There needs to be alternative voices away from the centre, a centre that is now growing exponentially in numbers and influence, and John is one who is certainly attempting to fill that void.
To cut a long story short, australianfootball.com now incorporates the content of the old ‘Full Points Footy’ site, so invariably the new site is picking up where John left off. What he understood, and I concur, is that there is a need to record, understand, and appreciate the past for its own sake, rather than as a means to reward old mates and good blokes, as Hall of Fame inductions are in danger of doing without proper oversight, or enhance legitimacy through association, like corporate-initiated history has a tendency to do.
Placing the game on a sound and proper historical basis can only enhance and enrich it. That is the simple aim of this website, but of course only time will tell if we are really able to make a difference in how the evolution of the sport is understood. To achieve that goal, we need more alternative voices with perspective, and more arguments, anecdotes, and facts based on research to back them up. Australianfootball.com aims to be the platform for all those wishing to add to the rich tapestry that is the history of the great Australian game.
- Due acknowledgement needs to be given to the doyen of footy publishers, Geoff Slattery, the publisher of the aforementioned books ‘The Australian Game Of Football Since 1858’, and ‘Our Great Game: The Photographic History of Australian Football, as well as numerous others, including biographies of Norm Smith and Jock McHale, Grand Finals, Volume 1: 1897-1938, and more recently the reproduction of the VFL Grand Final Football Record from 1912 to the present day in box set, as well as the annual AFL Record Season Guide. Also of particular note is the combined work of the Victoria University faculty, led by Rob Hess, with A National Game: The History Of Australian Rules Football, being the standout work.
- A well designed and researched book of the same name, ‘100 Years of Australian Football, 1897-1996, edited by John Ross, appeared in the same year. Notwithstanding its quality, it perpetuated the misconception that ‘Australian Football’ is synonymous with the VFL. There was little coverage of pre-1897 football, and no coverage at all of other state leagues. See also the Bernard Whimpress article reproduced on this site that raises several of the points made here: http://australianfootball.com/halls_of_fame
- It is the intention of australianfootball.com to provide as complete a historical and statistical record as can be created for the 1877-96 period, and once established, press for the incorporation of this record into the general V/AFL record.
- All other things being roughly equal, such as the cultural significance of the game as measured by per capita participation rates, attendances, and TV ratings, the ratio of footballers, champions or otherwise, should follow closely along demographic lines. The laws of large numbers, and a stable genetic base, make it thus. As far as population is concerned, Victoria in the 20th century has accounted for roughly 58% (down to 55% now), of the adult male population of the southern ‘football states’, SA roughly 20% (18%), Tasmania roughly 6% (5%), and WA roughly 16% (22%). I am indebted to an article by Max Sayer, ‘The AFL and the history of Australian Football’ for inspiring this idea.
- According to the AFL Annual Report, 1996, selectors were permitted to elevate a minimum of two players and a maximum of 10 players for the period 1858-1901, and a minimum of 10 players and a maximum of 30 players the period 1901-1930, in addition to coaches, umpires, media, and administrators. The men inducted from the pre-1925 era (defined by me as having made their major contribution before 1925) were Tom Wills, Henry Harrison, George Coulthard, Jack Reedman, Jack Worrall, Peter Burns, and John Daly clearly from the 19th century, with Reg Wilmot (‘Old Boy’ from the Argus), David Christy, Albert Thurgood, Charlie Pannam, and Henry Young straddling two centuries; and Henry Crapp, Vic Cumberland, Tom Mackenzie, Rod McGregor, Dave McNamara, Jack Elder, Dick Lee, Vic Belcher, Wells Eike, Vic Thorp, Roy Cazaly, Dan Minogue, Mark Tandy, William Truscott, and Dan Moriarty from the period up to 1925. Whether one includes Horrie Clover and Colin Watson is a moot point. The rest of the inductees from the officially defined 1901-30 period, the majority in fact, made their most significant mark in the later 1920s and 1930s, a time when many enduring sporting legends were made and that in no sense can be defined as the ‘dark ages’.
- Charles Brownlow, Phil Matson, and Horrie Gorringe