1882 (as Unions)
Red and white
Admitted to the Western Australian Football Association in 1886, Unions gave the port city of Fremantle two representatives in the competition. When the second of those representatives, the Fremantle Football Club, disbanded at the end of the 1886 season, Unions acquired a large number of players from its erstwhile rival, and immediately sprang into prominence. Indeed, for the next decade, Unions enjoyed unprecedented success, both under its original name, which it bore until 1889, and under the new name of Fremantle which it subsequently adopted “because of the district”.
In the ten seasons from 1887 to 1896, Unions/Fremantle failed only once, in 1891, to secure the premiership, and that it did so then was seemingly a prime case of shooting itself in the foot. Having commenced the season with its customary efficacy, Fremantle, as unbeaten ladder leaders, played host to its only serious challenger for the premiership, Rovers, in round 7. After a tumultuous encounter in which the umpire, Mr. Croft - a former Rovers player, no less - made several highly contentious decisions, the visitors emerged victorious, and a huge riot ensued. The police eventually managed to stymie the unrest, but could do nothing to quell the underlying feelings of injustice, which far from abating, grew more intense and extreme as the weeks passed. Fremantle duly engaged in, and won, its next two fixtures, reinforcing its position at the head of the ladder. However, matters again came to a head when it refused to take the field under a certain umpire Croft for its third from last fixture of the season. Hardly surprisingly, the WAFA responded by awarding the match to Fremantle’s opponents. Equally unsurprisingly, they then appointed Croft to officiate at Fremantle’s last two fixtures as well, which Fremantle, “standing on principle”, forfeited. With its last three games recorded as losses, Fremantle dropped to third place, behind Rovers and West Perth, in the final standings.
During the mid to late 1890s, the standard football in Western Australia, both on the coast and on the goldfields, reached unprecedented heights as a result of large numbers of eastern states footballers venturing west in pursuit of fortune. No club benefited from this migration process more than Fremantle, which at various times boasted in its line-up players of the calibre of Albert Thurgood (ex-Essendon), the former South Melbourne pair of Harry Duggan and Dug Irvine, brilliant centreman Harry Hodge, Tom Wilson (formerly of North Melbourne), Bob Byers, Paddy Knox, ‘Spot’ Chadwick, Jack Gibson and, albeit very briefly, Dave ‘Dolly’ Christy.
Not surprisingly, Fremantle proved to be the WAFA’s dominant club for much of the 1890s, winning no fewer than seven of the ten premierships for the decade. However, the departure in 1898 of Thurgood and several of the other champions precipitated a marked downturn in fortunes, both on and off the field. With just 7 wins from 18 matches the side finished a distant third behind Imperials and premiers West Perth, but worse was to follow. At season’s end, with debts mounting up, the club hierarchy saw no option but to pull the plug, bringing the reign of the most consistently successful team in Western Australian football history to a peremptory and, one is forced to suggest, premature end.
If any club can claim to have, in some small measure, perpetuated the traditions of the second club to bear the name of Fremantle it would have to be South Fremantle. Formed in 1900, and admitted to the WAFA senior competition the same year, the red and whites not only adopted identical colours to their extinct predecessor, they also inherited a large proportion of its playing list. Had this occurred just a couple of seasons earlier it would have placed the newcomers in a position of considerable strength, but as it was it would take them several years to develop into a power.
As for the club which began life as Unions, and which for a time at least was almost certainly capable of fielding the strongest collection of players in Australia, the importance of its role in the consolidation and development of the native code of football in Western Australia cannot be over-stressed. A detailed analysis of its exploits would make fascinating reading, and would perhaps act as a worthy counter-balance to the often outlandishly disproportionate claims of importance and value made by supposed experts on behalf of suburban Victorian football (or, as it seems to have been retrospectively re-christened today, with an earnest conviction that frankly defies belief, the ‘Australian Football League’).