Review: Football's Forgotten Years
The release of Colin Carter's book, Football's Forgotten Years, has generated much debate. At times it has been heated, if not downright hostile.
Carter's mission of more than a decade – to have the pre-VFL years of elite football in Victoria recognised as part of a contiguous competition that is now known as the AFL – has reached a culmination of sorts with the release of this book.
'Of sorts' is the operative phrase here, because while Carter has done almost all he can to convince footy's governing body of the merit of his argument, the AFL remains in a 'holding pattern' on the issue. Gillon McLachlan, in launching the book at the Melbourne Cricket Club Library this week, was at his diplomatic best, acknowledging the strong case made in the book but leaving it the hands of the game's historians to make the final call.
McLachlan is right to do so, but the AFL must play a stronger hand in this. As Carter himself has pointed out – in the book and at the launch – the AFL Commission has enough on its plate with day-to-day business, managing conflicts and controversies while ensuring the current state of the game remains healthy.
What's needed is a permanent, fully-funded, AFL-sanctioned body which respects and protects the history of our game. Colin Carter's book should be the catalyst.
The essence of Football's Forgotten Years is simple. It makes a strong case for the years 1870 to 1896 (under the auspices of the VFA from 1877) to be accepted as the same competition as the one which came after it, the VFL, which had its inaugural season in 1897. Carter argues that because the eight clubs that broke away formed a majority of the clubs that had played in the VFA in 1896, the inauguration of the VFL through these clubs represented nothing more than a change in name and legal structure.
I believe that to be an argument of some merit, but many don't. Throughout the debate sparked by Carter himself in 2011, many have questioned the validity and motivation of the case he makes. Carter's previous attempts to have the 1870-1896 era 'adopted' by the AFL were done through the Geelong Football Club, where he served in a number of roles including director and president.
Those questioning his motives have been quick to note that Geelong stand to gain the most, in terms of premierships won, in the period in question. The Pivotonians won seven flags – all in a nine-season stretch from 1878-1886 – during the period in question.
I don't believe those additions to the trophy cabinet were Carter's driver, but even if they were, that is no reason to discount a well-mounted case. It has been made by others, including this site's editor-at-large, Adam Cardosi (a Richmond supporter), who kicked off australianfootball.com's existence with his 2012 piece, ' Rethinking the historical record'.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Football's Forgotten Years is the clear evidence it presents with regard to the historical narrative. A common refrain among the push-back has been that Carter is attempting to rewrite history; that his approach is revisionist. This continues today, with South Australian football legend Graham Cornes tweeting this on the very day of the book's launch:
"This attempt to rewrite history has to be called out. The VFL broke away from the VFA and became a new competition with new rules and new standards of play. Finals were more formalised, behind posts were added.. it is a nonsense to claim it as the oldest."
In fact, Football's Forgotten Years presents an argument that Carter and his supporters are doing the opposite.
Carter cites numerous examples from the VFL's early years of the way the league itself, its clubs and all associated with the game considered the Victorian football premiership to have been contested in an unbroken period going back to 1870. And by 'numerous', I am probably understating it. Carter presents page after page of quotes from a who's who of the VFL clearly showing a universal agreement on the matter.
So many pages, in fact, that by the eighth or ninth of them, I found myself thinking, "Enough Colin! You've made your point." But as Carter explained in the book and at the launch, convincing people to change their minds about a deeply entrenched narrative is no easy task, and it needs to be hammered home.
I was aware that the League's own official organ had, in its early years, regularly included a list of premiership winners which begins in 1870. What I hadn't realised was that this was a reflection of the accepted narrative of the entire football community in Victoria.
This is important because it indicates that competition's history has already been rewritten since that time. Carter, it could be argued, is attempting to undo an earlier rewriting of history.
How the AFL ultimately officially acknowledges the years before 1897 remains to be decided. If the arguments Carter mounts in Football's Forgotten Years do not persuade the AFL to view the years 1870 through to today as an unbroken line of competition, it should, at the very least, convince the league that the pre-VFL years have been ignored for too long and it is incumbent on the AFL to rectify that oversight.
Having read the book from cover to cover, I am of the view that Carter's arguments do stack up. Many won't. And I respect those who don't. They are as passionate about the game's history as the rest of us, and extremely passionate in their perspectives. Numbered among them is my own adult son, himself a keen student of Australian football history who, upon seeing my review copy of Footy's Forgotten Years suggested it was akin to allowing a copy of Mein Kampf into the house. I think he was joking...
In any case, if Footy's Forgotten Years fails to help the footy community reach a consensus on when the 'AFL' or the 'competition' began, it will hopefully at least make the achievements and stories of the pre-1897 footballers known to a wider audience.
I've recommended to my son he reads Footy's Forgotten Year's in full, and I recommend others whose views do not align with Colin Carter's do the same, and at least reconsider both sides of the argument.
Football's Forgotten Years by Colin Carter, published 2022 by Slattery Books is available to order here.