Shedding light on the early VFA
From its formation in 1877 though until the establishment of the breakaway VFL (Victorian Football League) in 1896, the VFA (Victorian Football Association) was the premier football competition in Victoria. It was during the early years of the 'Association' that football came to be the dominant sport in Victoria, and as such an accurate recording of the history of the VFA is essential in understanding the history of the game as a whole.
Given the importance of the early VFA competition, I expected a full statistical record of the matches of the period to exist. In May 2011, on a whim, I set about to find it.
I decided to search for pre-1897 VFA results on the internet. It wasn't 2005 any more, so I was sure they must be there somewhere! After typing all reasonable combinations into a search engine, I realised my expectations were a touch optimistic. If the results had been compiled they they had not been made available online.
I did find a forum posting¹ which questioned why the early VFA results were not online. Football stats expert Michael Rogers responded to this post: “Should you attempt (reconstruction of early VFA records) you will find many pre-modern elements to the competition. Matches unreported. Scheduled matches not played. Extra matches played that may or may not be counted. Incomplete and contradictory scores.” I took this as a challenge, to see if I could achieve a database of VFA results using newspaper archives as my primary resource. Just over twelve months later I think I am a fair way headed in the right direction. For the 1877 to 1896 period I have assembled a complete listing of the 1,924 senior VFA matches played, of which I have the full results for 1,912 (99.4%), only missing nine results involving Ballarat clubs, plus final scores from just three other games for which the result is known.
So how did I go about it? At first my aim was limited to compiling complete and accurate final ladders for the 1877 to 1896 seasons. I was unsatisfied with those available online, which seemed to have been reproduced uncritically from contemporary and modern publications, often did not reconcile wins and losses, goals for and against, and also were inconsistent in what games were included and excluded. To create sound ladders, it was necessary to collate all the results. Various pieces of the puzzle were available, but they had not been put together to form a complete picture. I had to go back directly to the primary sources to do that.
I had a quick review of articles available in the Trove Digitised Newspaper database and was aware that the earlier I went the more difficult my task would become. So I decided to start with the 1896 season and regress through history. To make the task manageable I initially limited the collection of data to VFA games only, recording only the quarter by quarter scores and the venue in a simple Excel database. Once I had the whole year's results and had satisfactorily reconciled it with the final ladder then I published it to a website I set up: VFA Results and Tables.²
For seasons from 1896 back to 1889, most of the results data was readily available in The Argus, with fixture lists at the beginning of each season providing a useful guide. Where results were missing or incomplete I found these in other sources, including The Age and local newspapers such as the North Melbourne Advertiser and the Williamstown Chronicle. As I had to refer back to sources often, I always saved a copy of the primary source on which my data was based.
Soon after commencing I began to realise the breadth of the task, and wanting to save myself some work, I contacted others who I thought may already have their own results archives. Generally this was to little avail. However, once my website was up and running I did receive assistance from enthusiasts who provided corrections and useful tips. I also added a thread to the Big Footy statistics forum Victorian Football Association (VFA) results and ladders³ to publicise the site and this led to further ideas and feedback.
When I reached 1888 I decided to collate attendance figures, realising the historical significance of these. The attendance figures for the 1880s in Melbourne at least rivalled and probably surpassed those of any other football code anywhere in the world at the time.
The Argus usually published the VFA ladder after each round in its Monday edition between 1888 and 1896. This was probably in response to the Association endorsing the Proportional Points System for ranking the teams, agreed in September 1887. Without round-by-round ladders prior to 1887 there was a much greater chance of missing results. To overcome this, I decided (initially) to omit the games played among the Ballarat teams in the 1886 and 1887 seasons, for which there was very little coverage in The Argus or The Age. I'm slowly making headway with these, and am hopeful to one day see the 1880s editions of the Ballarat Star newspaper have been digitised and available on Trove!
When I reached 1886 I decided to collate every matches played by each of the 14 senior metropolitan clubs and Geelong. This was necessary as the season fixture list published at the start of the season was not comprehensive, with not all clubs covered, and fixtures subject to change. Recording the activity of each club each Saturday was the best way to avoid missing results, especially with my decision to include games between Metropolitan clubs and the three Ballarat clubs (the results of these games are included in the final ladders published in the Argus for 1885, 1886 and 1887).
It was also at this time that I started to cross-check every result between The Argus, The Age, and local Melbourne newspapers. This was partly brought about by necessity as it was not uncommon to find matches reported only in one source and not others. This more comprehensive approach was much slower, but also necessary as the reporting of results became more scant. Reports of results were often buried deep inside the match report, and had to be searched for, which slowed the process even further.
However, using multiple sources also brought up discrepancies between them. Mostly these were resolved as errors or typos. But with behind totals, there were frequently discrepancies, and I attribute this to behinds not being officially recorded as part of the match score, but instead being tallied by journalists. To reconcile, I referred to match report and accepted the more detailed. If in doubt the higher behinds tally was accepted, assuming the lower tally had missed some behinds.
In 1884 (and earlier years) there was no final ladder published in The Argus⁴. Therefore I decided to record every game played by the seven metropolitan clubs and Geelong, then reconcile my results with ladders containing every games played. Such ladders for the early years are available on the Carlton Football Club historical website blueseum.org and there is also a list compiled by the football historian Norm Snowden. After I had achieved a successful reconciliation and was sure I had all results, I was able to create my own ladder of exclusively senior games against VFA-affiliated opposition.
It should be noted of these early ladders that they often contained glaring inaccuracies. One example is the oft-repeated claim that South Melbourne lost four games in 1881 but were made premiers ahead of Geelong due to a contrived method of the Association. In fact, South Melbourne only lost once (to Carlton) during 1881, the same as rivals Geelong.5 But importantly, after drawing at Corio Oval earlier in the season, South beat Geelong 4-11 to 1-9 in what was virtually a Grand Final on 3 September 1881 in front of 12,000 spectators to claim the premiership. In those days, head-to-head results were seen as a more apt tie-breaker than 'for and against' or percentages.
As I approached the earlier years of the VFA I came across issues of which games to include and exclude. I wanted to come up with a credible criteria. To assist with determining senior status I collated 1875 and 1876 Challenge Cup results to understand the background to the formation of the VFA. James Hothersall, who has a strong interest in the classification of first-class status games was a valuable sounding board and it was after our discussions that I finally settled on the criteria for inclusion and exclusion of games set out on my website.6
As well as match results, it was also necessary to check all reports of meetings of the Association which frequently dealt with disputes among the clubs. These meetings decided the outcome of protests and match results were occasionally overturned. There were also decisions made on the status of games, for example the meeting of 12 August 1887 which decided to exclude the Jubilee Round matches, but include the Ballarat Imperial vs Geelong game, a decision which ultimately resulted in Carlton winning the 1887 premiership ahead of Geelong, without a premiership decider being required.
I see the current results list as it appears on my website as just a framework, with much of the detail (goalkickers, playing lists, umpires) still to be filled in. After coming across the Australian Football website, I found that I share much of their philosophy in bringing greater attention to this period. Therefore I look forward to the results I have compiled being presented on this website in the future.
- Final ladders for 1883 to 1886 were published in The Argus on 4 October 1886 (page 10), http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11574948
- South Melbourne drew three games in 1881, including a match abandoned at half time against Essendon (Round 4, 4 June 1881) but counted as a draw rather than an abandonment/cancellation.
- see James Hotherall's website 'First Class Footy', http://www.firstclassfooty.web44.net/Index.html