Details of Preston’s earliest years have proved extremely hard to uncover, but it is known that the club merged with Gowerville in 1886 (albeit whilst retaining the name of Preston), and first entered the VJFA First Rate competition in 1890. The VJFA First Rate competition was, at the time, just one tier below the VFA, and Preston found life at such an exalted level rather difficult. After two somewhat mediocre seasons the club withdrew, for reasons unknown, and spent a year in the football wilderness, playing just three matches, before resuming in the VJFA in 1893. This time around the club gradually gained in strength, culminating in three successive premierships between 1900 and 1902. These successes made Preston without doubt the strongest metropolitan-based football team in Victoria outside the VFA or VFL.
Admitted to the VFA in 1903, Preston struggled throughout its initial nine season stint in the competition, winning only 14.5% of the 162 matches contested. At the end of the 1911 season it was ordered by the VFA to merge with Northcote, and indeed several of its better players did front up with the Brickfielders in 1912 leading to a certain amount of confusion in the media, which occasionally referred to the club as ‘Northcote-Preston’. However, Preston itself continued to exist as an autonomous entity, reverting to its original stamping ground of the VJFA where it eventually met with some success, winning the 1921 and 1923 premierships. In 1926 it resumed its membership of the VFA and, whilst premiership success continued to elude, it did at least prove more competitive than during its first stint. Finals appearances came intermittently both before and after World War Two, but when the VFA reorganised itself into two divisions in 1961 the Bullants were unfortunately at something of a low ebb and found themselves consigned to the lower grade.
Preston lost the division two first semi final in 1961 and went a step further the following year, finishing third. The 1963 season saw the club participating in a VFA finals series for what ultimately proved to be a lucky thirteenth time. Grand final opponents Waverley led by 24 points at the final change and looked to have the flag in their keeping but the Bullants, aided by a strong breeze, made a formidable recovery to add 5.5 to zero and clinch victory by 11 points, 11.14 (80) to 9.15 (69). Follower Ray Murnane, forward pocket Ron Mills (5 goals), centreman Bob Stewart and back pocket Graham Pinfold were best for the premiers.
Twelve months later there was an unhappy sequel to the grand final, at least as far as those associated with Preston were concerned. At the end of the 1963 season the VFA expelled division one premiership-winning side, Moorabbin, for reasons explained in the entry for that club, and division two runners-up Waverley were promoted to replace them. Then, in the final home and away round of the following season Waverley and Preston met in a match which would determine the Bullants’ immediate future status; quite simply, a win would ensure continued involvement in the top flight, while a loss would herald relegation.
Waverley won comfortably by 37 points and suddenly the previous year’s division two grand final must have seemed a distant memory to Preston supporters.
Thankfully, the Bullants again proved too strong for the lower division. Pitted against Mordialloc in the 1965 second division grand final they won easily by 38 points, 15.12 (102) to 9.10 (64), with centreman Bob Stewart and rovers Viv Peterson and Bruce Waddell leading the way.
The 1966 season saw Preston genuinely beginning to emerge as a force as the side finished third in first division. The following year saw Channel 0 (later renamed Channel 10) commence ‘live’ television coverage of VFA football and the Bullants’ 45 point win at home to Sandringham was the first match covered. The Zebras later had the last laugh, however, when they ousted Preston from premiership contention in the first semi final.
The Bullants’ long wait for the ultimate success finally ended in 1968. Having recruited well during the close season under captain-coach Alan Joyce the side overcame the setback of a 28 point second semi final loss to Prahran to overcome the same opponents 15.8 (98) to 12.12 (84) in the grand final. Preston ruckman Bob Heard was best afield, with sterling support coming from the likes of centreman Dick Telford and roving duo Bruce Reid and Davis Dalton.
Having participated in the VFA for more than half a century before finally breaking through for a flag Preston had to wait just twelve months to repeat the accomplishment. In wet, windy conditions before a comparatively small crowd of 10,000 at Punt Road the Bullants led Dandenong narrowly at every change en route to a 2 goal win. Centreman Dick Telford was again prominent, amassing 32 kicks in a best on ground performance, while half back flanker Laurie Hill, ruckman Bob Heard, and half forward flanker Len Clark also shone.
Preston’s bid to secure three premierships in a row was undermined by the loss during the close season of half a dozen key players, and the side slumped to sixth.
This was just a temporary hiatus though and in 1971 the Bullants came within 6 points - courtesy of a Dandenong goal which was controversially kicked before the start of play - of another flag.
The Bullants were now very much one of the VFA’s leading sides, but for the next decade or so they only had losing grand finals in 1978 (to Prahran by 22 points), 1981 (to Port Melbourne by a calamitous 113 points), and 1982 (against Port again in a high scoring thriller by just 7 points) to show for their efforts.
A change in fortune finally came in 1983 when Preston won a torrid grand final by 7 points against Geelong West. Ruckman Geoff Austen was a major key to the Bullants’ triumph and was rewarded with the inaugural Norm Goss Memorial Medal for best afield in a VFA grand final.1 Centreman Rob McEwan, centre half forward Paul Bolger, and 6 goal forward pocket John Bourke also did well for the winners.
Just as in 1968-9 Preston made it two in succession the following year. The opposition this time was provided by Frankston and, in front of a hefty crowd of 22,341 spectators at the Junction Oval, the Bullants ultimately won with some comfort by 54 points. There was a fright early as the Dolphins kick the game’s opening 5 goals but thereafter Preston assumed complete control, adding 19 goals to 7 en route to a 19.21 (135) to 12.9 (81) triumph. First year ruckman Phil Jordan won the Norm Goss Memorial Medal, with strong support afforded by the likes of captain-coach Ray Shaw in the centre, 5 goal forward pocket John Bourke, and ruck rover David Brine.
The Bullants continued to contest finals regularly throughout the 1980s and on into the ‘90s but without adding to their premiership tally. When the VFA competition was dismantled at the end of the 1995 season, and ostensibly replaced by the VFL, Preston had achieved the commendable overall success rate of 50.5%, but in common with many Association clubs it had begun to experience financial difficulties. At the end of the 1997 season the VFL announced that it was revoking the club’s license. However, the club was to re-emerge under the new monicker of ‘Northern Bullants’ in the re-vamped (some would say virtually unrecognisably so) VFL.
In 2003, the Northern Bullants followed the lead of so many of their immediate competitors and announced an alignment with an AFL club, in their case Carlton. In terms of on-field performances it would probably be fair to observe that the team has endured a mixed time, going from second to last in 2004 to within a game of the grand final in both 2005 and 2006. The 2007 season then balanced things out as the Bullants dropped to ninth position, missing finals participation on percentage.
1 Initially, under the two division format, this award was bestowed on the best player in the division one grand final.