1909 Grand Final: South ends 19-year drought
"On several occasions recently I have pointed out that the football played by South Melbourne was not as good and skilful as the team was capable of showing, the reason being that a majority of them persisted in 'playing the man instead of the ball'. After South Melbourne beat Collingwood in their semi final I warned them that, although successful on that occasion against a team who fell into the same error, they would have no chance of success if they played a similar game against Carlton. Instead of taking the advice in the spirit in which it was given, the South Melbourne players and their so-called 'supporters' chose to resent it as unfriendly criticism, and paid the penalty as they played a similar (though somewhat improved) game against Carlton last Saturday week, and suffered defeat. During the week, however, they apparently realised that after leading in the first round they had been handicapping themselves in the semi finals by their bad judgement and impetuosity, as I had pointed out. On Saturday they changed their tactics completely; instead of knocking opponents about they devoted their attention to the ball, and in consequence they gave the vast multitude assembled a splendid and exhilarating entertainment, and won the premiership after having striven unsuccessfully to do so for nineteen years."
- 'Follower', writing in 'The Age', 4th October, 1909, page 8
When Sydney scraped home against West Coast in the 2005 AFL Grand Final it brought to an end a premiership drought stretching back 72 years, easily the longest in the club's history. Prior to that, its longest such drought had been a mere nineteen years, but such was the vaunted status of the club at the time that its repeated failure generated a considerable amount of incredulity, even dismay. South Melbourne (as the club was known until relocating to Sydney in 1982) was universally acknowledged as one of the game's pre-eminent forces. In the ten years from 1881 to 1890 it was the VFA's most successful club, winning no fewer than five premierships, finishing second twice, third twice, and fourth once. Since 1890, however, although it had gone close on several occasions, it had failed to add to its tally of flags. In 1903, in fact, it had even succumbed to the unprecedented indignity of the wooden spoon, winning just two of 17 matches for the year, which generated the miserly percentage of 54.9%.
Since then there had been gradual improvement. In 1904, 1905 and 1906 the red and whites had finished fifth, and by 1907 the they had all the credentials of a potential premiership combination - pace, height, strength, and excellent team skills. However, after trouncing Collingwood 12.10 (82) to 6.12 (48) in a semi final, minor premier Carlton proved just too strong in the final, edging home by five points.
It was back to fifth place in 1908, and indications were that the club's bubble had burst. However, in 1909, with veterans like Jim 'Joker' Cameron and Bill 'Sonna' Thomas being well supported by relatively recent acquisitions such as Len 'Mother' Mortimer, Albert Franks, Alf Gough, Charlie Ricketts and Alex 'Bubbs' Kerr, South developed into a genuinely potent force. Playing a fast, cohesive, intermittently spectacular brand of football, they both started and finished the season in brilliant fashion, with their four losses in 18 home and away matches all occurring between rounds 6 and 14. None of the losses were by substantial margins, with the biggest a 24 points reversal at the hands of Carlton in round 11.
Carlton, indeed, was the team expected by most to be South's biggest rival for the 1909 pennant. Less successful during its VFA years than the southerners (two flags compared to five), its inclusion in the renegade VFL in 1897 had reportedly been an eleventh hour affair, hinging on assurances that its ground would be brought up to scratch in time for the fledgling competition's inaugural season¹. After struggling to make its mark during its first five VFL seasons, the Blues gradually began to flex their muscles. They contested their first finals series in 1903, and reached their first premiership decider the following year, losing to Fitzroy by four goals. Between 1906 and 1908, under the astute, inspirational and revolutionary coaching of Jack Worrall, Carlton emerged as arguably the most complete team seen in Victorian football up to that point, as well as arguably the finest in the club's history, winning 50 out of 58 matches in all, including all 6 finals games contested. The Blues commenced the 1909 season confident of procuring their fourth consecutive league flag, but internal discontent, much of it focused at the coach, was brewing, and towards the end of the home and away rounds Worrall, presumably sick of all the criticism and back-biting, resigned². He was replaced as coach by Fred 'Pompey' Elliott, who was in his second season as club skipper, but the mood at the club as the finals loomed could perhaps best be described as volatile³.
Both the semi finals were closely fought until half time, before turning into one sided affairs that emphasised the superior pedigree of the leading two teams in the competition. Carlton ended up downing Essendon by 36 points, 14.8 (92) to 9.2 (56), while South, largely on the strength of a six-goals-to-one third quarter, overcame the stern physical challenge afforded by Collingwood by 21 points, 10.8 (68) to 6.11 (47).
The final, largely at South's instigation, proved to be an extremely vigorous, at times openly acrimonious encounter, which Carlton won with some ease by 20 points. Many observers suggested that, in deliberately circumscribing their naturally open, skilful game in order to attempt to confront the stern physical challenge afforded by the Blues head on, the southerners had made a drastic, fundamental error. Perhaps the fact that this approach had worked against Collingwood had given rise to a disproportionate degree of optimism over its potential effectiveness, but the Blues presented a much more formidable challenge than the Magpies. Thankfully for South, as minor premier there would be a second chance, and in the intervening week between the matches the club's 'brain's trust' had plenty of opportunity to analyse exactly where they had gone wrong. In the event, they did their job superbly, thereby contributing in no small measure to what was widely considered, at the time, to be the best premiership-deciding match played in Melbourne up to that point.
The Carlton team-sheet showed just one change from the previous week, with reliable defender Norm Clark, who had been dropped by the club for disciplinary reasons, resuming in place of Les Beck. South were without the injured pair of full back Bill Dolphin, one of the longest kicks in the game, and Dick Casey, who had a reputation as one of the roughest players in the league. They were replaced respectively by former Melbourne defender 'Ted' Wade, and powerful key forward Bob Deas. Meanwhile, Horrie Drane was brought in to replace Jim Caldwell, who had been suspended for striking George Bruce in the final.
How The Teams Lined Up
|B:||E Wade||J Scoble||A Pentland|
|HB:||T Grimshaw||W Thomas||A Hiskins|
|C:||W Moxham||G Bower||H Drane|
|HF:||D Barry||R Deas||J Cameron|
|F:||A Gough||L Mortimer||A Kerr|
|Foll:||A Franks||V Belcher||C Ricketts (c)|
|B:||N Clark||D Gillespie||J Marchbank|
|HB:||M Gotz||W Payne||A Ford|
|C:||G Bruce||R McGregor||E Kennedy|
|HF:||F Caine||H Kelly||F Jinks|
|F:||F Elliott (c)||G Topping||J Baquie|
|Foll:||G Johnson||C Hammond||A Lang|
The match got underway in fine, mild weather, with the turf still a little springy after the previous day's heavy rain. The eastern end of the ground was favoured by a stiff breeze, and Elliott, after winning the toss for Carlton, elected to kick in that direction.
The first three or four minutes saw the two teams testing one another out, almost tentatively, before Carlton mounted the first concerted attack of the game. However, even at this early stage of the encounter, the South defence was "splendidly systematic and effective", with 'Sonna' Thomas and 'Ted' Wade particularly conspicuous. The Blues attacked persistently for two or three minutes, without registering a score, and then it was the southerners' turn. Five times within the space of as many minutes Len 'Mother' Mortimer out-bodied Doug Gillespie to mark strongly within easy goal kicking range, but fortunately for Carlton he appeared unsettled by the strong breeze and only four minor scores (and one clean miss) resulted.
A ferocious scramble for the ball near the southern wing boundary left South half back flanker Tom Grimshaw lying prostrate on the ground. As play moved away, the former Footscray Juniors man staggered to his feet, only to collapse again after managing just a couple of steps. He remained in the hands of the trainers until quarter time. The last fifteen minutes or so of the term saw the Blues very much in control, but they, like Mortimer, found it difficult to cope with the gusty breeze when kicking for goal, and succeeded only in registering a flurry of behinds, including one poster. At the first break neither side had managed to kick truly, and scores were deadlocked.
Quarter Time: Carlton 0.5 (5); South Melbourne 0.5 (5)
Expectations of a South surge with the aid of the breeze proved unfounded as the Blues continued to give as good as they got.
As the term got underway, Tom Grimshaw, having recovered sufficiently to stand unaided, limped forward into the goal square, where he would station himself for the remainder of the match.
Carlton commenced the quarter brightly, and spectacular aerial work by Jim Marchbank and Jack Baquie elicited appreciative applause from the crowd. Clever play by George Topping and Harvey Kelly brought the ball well within scoring range, but Wade, Scobie and Pentland tidied up for South. It was only a temporary reprieve, however, as Topping had a free run in on goal a minute or so later which produced the first full pointer of the afternoon.
The Blues continued to do most of the attacking, but only managed to register behinds, and then at the ten minute mark of the term South suddenly woke up and decided to start playing. During their first concerted forward thrust Baquie, of Carlton, badly wrenched his ankle, and had to be assisted from the field. Play was desperate and tightly congested, but Albert Franks, in the midst of a heaving scrimmage of players just in front of goal, managed to snap the southerners' first major score, and for a few minutes thereafter it was all one way traffic as South poured forward en masse. A clever kick by Bob Deas then found Ricketts in the clear, and the abundantly talented rover had no trouble in notching the red and whites' second.
Towards the end of the term Carlton began to rally giving rise to what, in hindsight, has to be regarded as the turning point in the match. With play compressed around the centre of the ground a hopeful punt forward by a Blues player found Frank Caine alone, and in space, a mere forty yards from goal. As South players dashed frantically back in an unlikely bid to catch him, Caine raced ahead into the goal square from where, completely unencumbered, he unleashed a hefty punt kick deep into the crowd. Unfortunately for Carlton, he put so much effort into the kick that he omitted to pay due attention to the small matter of accuracy, as a result of which the ball skewed so pronouncedly off his boot that it only just managed to register a behind.
Ostensibly undaunted, the Blues continued to press forward, and seconds before the bell Topping added their second major after accepting a neat pass from Fred Jinks. With both sides having added 2.4 for the quarter, scores remained deadlocked at the long break.
Half Time: Carlton 2.9 (21); South Melbourne 2.9 (21)
Baquie re-entered the fray at the start of the third term, but only to limp forlornly into a forward pocket, meaning that both sides were now effectively minus a player.
Play was fast, furious, and often unkempt, with time and space both at a premium. The first piece of truly coordinated football of the quarter came from South, as Vic Belcher found Cameron, who passed to Franks, who in turn relayed it to Gough. The former Leopold rover then picked out a fast leading Len Mortimer and hit him on the chest with a perfect half-distance pass. Mortimer, who up to this point had 5 behinds and several complete misses to his name, duly converted, in the process registering his 50th goal of the season⁴.
Moments later, Carlton levelled the scores when Baquie was freed close to goal, and had just enough strength to make the distance.
South responded frenetically, but their supporters were dismayed when snapshots from first Mortimer, and then Grimshaw, hit the post. Nevertheless, these two posters would represent the difference between the sides at the death.
Next it was the Blues' turn to suffer misfortune as their feisty rover Martin Gotz was heavily felled, and had to be carried from the ground, seemingly unconscious. Despite this loss, it was Carlton who were doing most of the attacking, but South's defence, with Wade especially prominent, stood firm. Then, just before the three quarter time bell, the red and whites produced arguably the best piece of football of the match as Belcher, Ricketts, Cameron and Mortimer maneuvered the ball the length of the ground without a single opposition player touching it. Mortimer was within range of goal when he collected the ball, but spotting Gough in a better position, he passed to that player, who coolly registered South's fourth. Moments later the bell rang.
Three Quarter Time: South Melbourne 4.12 (36); Carlton 3.11 (29)
The fourth term "was worth going a day's journey to see" as players of both sides strained every muscle to the limit in a bid to gain the upper hand.
Both teams had eighteen players - or, at any rate, eighteen bodies - once more as Gotz took up a position deep in the forward lines.
For 15 minutes the match resembled an arm wrestle, albeit an exhilarating one, with two behinds to South and one to Carlton the only additions to the score. This put the southerners eight points to the good.
The crowd roared as South's Bill Moxham and the Blues' Edwin Kennedy momentarily forgot the football and grappled furiously with one another on centre wing. There were a number of other fractious incidents too as the tension of the occasion began to get through to players.
With just five minutes of the game left, 'Mallee' Johnson and Charlie Hammond teamed well together to get the ball to Kelly, whose accurate snap reduced the Blues' deficit to just two points.
South surged into attack from the ensuing centre bounce and Mortimer, despite the intense and probably illicit attentions of Elliott, marked strongly. However, he was too far out from goal to score.
Carlton then retaliated with a swift attacking foray only for 'Sonna' Thomas to repel the danger after taking a last gasp, saving mark. Play thereafter was scrappy, fevered and frenetic, but neither team was able to mount a decisive attack, and the bell went with no addition to the scores.
Final Score: South Melbourne 4.14 (38); Carlton 4.12 (36)
|South Melbourne||0.5||2.9||4.12||4.14 (38)|
South Melbourne: Cameron, Belcher, Franks, Scobie, Thomas, Wade, Ricketts
Carlton: Ford, Jinks, McGregor, Lang, Marchbank, Payne, Kennedy
South Melbourne: Franks, Gough, Mortimer, Ricketts
Carlton: Topping 2; Baquie, Kelly
ATTENDANCE: 37,759 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground
A week after the grand final, South Melbourne once again found themselves in action on the MCG, this time in an unofficial club championship of Australia decider against SAFL premier West Adelaide. Watched by a miserly crowd of roughly 8,000, the two teams produced a closely fought encounter in which South pulled away in the final term to win by 18 points, after having led by just a point at the last change. The main differences between the sides were South's superior fitness and their greater accuracy in front of goal. Final scores were South Melbourne 10.8 (68); West Adelaide 6.14 (50).
South Melbourne's grand final victory over Carlton gave the club its sixth senior premiership, one more than the Blues. It also represented the Blues' first finals defeat since the 1905 final against Fitzroy, since which time they had been victorious in no fewer than eight major round matches in succession.
Both South and Carlton would continue at the forefront of the game throughout the ensuing decade, with the former contesting the finals in eight out of nine possible seasons⁵, and the latter failing to contest the major round only once in ten years. The two sides would again contest a challenge final in 1914, with the Blues avenging their 1909 defeat with a thrilling six-point victory, a triumph that was especially sweet given that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the club's formation. Carlton also went top in 1915, trouncing Collingwood in the challenge final by 33 points, and were runners-up twice during the decade.
South contested the premiership deciding game on three occasions between 1910 and 1919, losing to Essendon in 1912, and to Carlton as mentioned in 1914, before breaking through to claim their seventh flag in 1918 with a thrilling come from behind victory over Collingwood. At the outset of the 1920 season only Essendon, with eight premierships, had been more successful than South and Carlton⁶, but the remainder of the twentieth century would produce a marked discrepancy in fortune, as the Blues and Dons vied with one another, and Collingwood, for the distinction of being the VFL's most successful club, while South's supporters became increasingly used to seeing their heroes battling to achieve some kind of respectability, or at very least to avoid yet another wooden spoon⁷. Even more distressingly, from being one of the competition's most popular, well supported and wealthiest clubs, by the 1970s South Melbourne found itself enduring a hand to mouth existence that ultimately led to its feeling forced to relocate to Sydney in a bid to ensure its survival.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that decision, by 2005, after a somewhat hair-raising rollercoaster ride lasting a quarter of a century, the Swans once again found themselves occupying a prominent position among the game's elite clubs. As for the Bombers and the Blues, life by the early years of the 21st century had become a good deal less comforting and predictable, for success in top level Australian football - unlike many other major sports, most notably soccer - is, to the AFL's infinite credit, no longer entirely a purchasable commodity. Whether, in the face of mass-media and business fuelled propaganda for inferior but more easily marketable pastimes, this will ultimately be enough to ensure its long-term survival remains to be seen, but such is the seemingly all pervasive power of corporate advertising these days that one is very hard pressed indeed to feel optimistic.
1. In the event, Carlton's ground at Princes Park was not ready for use until round seven, 1897.
2. For the time being, Worrall retained his role as club secretary, however.
3. During the close season no fewer than eight senior players quit Carlton, essentially in protest at the club's treatment of Worrall, who finally severed all links with the Blues by resigning as secretary.
4. He finished the season as the VFL's second highest goal kicker, eight goals adrift of Collingwood's 'Dick' Lee.
5. South Melbourne was one of five VFL clubs which did not compete in 1916.
6. Geelong had also won seven senior flags.
7. Between 1920 and the end of the twentieth century South succumbed to this dubious distinction on 10 occasions.