The Association Burst Up
Following the launch of Colin Carter's book, Football's Forgotten Years at the MCC in January, the debate about the inclusion of the years 1870-1896 as part of a competition continuum which goes through to present day has reached almost fever pitch in some quarters, particularly on social media.
In my review of the book, I offered qualified support for Carter's case and suggested those who hold an opposing stance at least read the evidence provided. One of those holding a counter view is my own son, Oliver Gigacz, and we have engaged in vigorous discussion in recent days, with both of us consulting newspapers of 1896 and 1897 in our efforts to learn more about the circumstances that led to the formation of the VFL.
In doing so, as Oliver was reading aloud from an 1896 newspaper, one phrase in particular caused my ears to prick up – "the discarded clubs".
This was a reference to the five clubs that had been left behind by the eight clubs that established the breakaway league. To my ear, that phrase was suggested that the eight clubs, and/or the author, considered the newly-formed league as very much a continuation of what had gone before, with the 'dead wood' (my words) cast aside.
Regardless of the motives or any claimed justification for the actions of those eight clubs, those words, to my mind at least, offered further support for Carter's claims that the VFL in its first two decades saw itself that way.
My interest piqued, I decided to delve a little deeper. In Trove, the online Australian newspaper archive, I found that, between October 1896 and May 1897, the phrase "discarded clubs" was used to described the five teams that had not joined the eight VFL clubs in no fewer than five separate Melbourne newspapers: The Champion, The Age, The Argus, The Leader and The Sportsman.
One of the articles using that phrase – reproduced below – appeared in the Leader in October 1896, a week after Collingwood had defeated South Melbourne to claim that season's premiership. In that article, the term 'reorganisation' is also used to describe the upheaval of the time. This word is also used elsewhere. The Argus of October 20 1896 features an article on the matter titled 'The Football Reorganisation'.
For those who can't accept the inclusion of the pre-1897 years as part of the current 'competition' because of the usage of a different name and creation of a separate legal entity, this provides no real incentive to change their opinion, and that's understandable.
But for me, it provides further evidence to support Carter's claim that, regardless of how fans of today view the formation of the VFL, the prevailing narrative of the time was that in the eyes of most, the the 1897 season – and those that followed – were very much a continuation of the same competition, regardless of name.
And some, such as Follower writing in the Leader, saw the formation of the VFL as a necessary step to save the game from an early demise. (See the opening paragraph below.) If Follower's view reflects the consensus, then why should the clubs – and specifically the players that make those clubs – that saved football in Victoria not embrace their prior achievements as part of the story?
There's more to play out in this discussion, in terms of the story's narrative and how it has changed. I think Follower's article below provides a good launching pad for the next phase of the debate, following the release of Football's Forgotten Years.
THE ASSOCIATION BURST UP
After a long, and it must be confessed not very useful or glorious career, the Victorian Football Association has practically ceased to exist, and those who hope to see the game re-established may fervently say "For this relief much thanks!" The members of this fossilised body had year after year turned a deaf ear to unceasing demands for reforms in the game, and could not be stirred into activity until football was almost in the throes of dissolution. Then, and not until then (nearly all the associated clubs having become stonebroke) it seemed to strike delegates that they must either wake up or die in their sleep, so they awakened and appointed a subcommittee to revise the rules in order to re-establish the game in public esteem. It need not be added that they have made an extremely hard task of what might have been much more easily accomplished years ago by men of ordinary common sense and energy.
The old association will, however, have no opportunity of enjoying any success that may result from its tardy display of too long delayed activity, as 8 of the 13 clubs, forming it have seceded from it to form an independent association. Next season the premiership will be contested by these eight clubs: — Collingwood, South Melbourne, Essendon. M.C.C, Fitzroy, St. Kilda, Geelong and Carlton. Each club will meet each of the other seven twice, 14 Saturdays being thus occupied. On the 15th Saturday the four leading clubs will play a semi-final — two matches — the proceeds of which will be given to the charities, and on the 16th and last Saturday of the season the two winners will playoff for the premiership, the gate money to be distributed equally amongst the whole of the eight clubs.
This course has been decided upon in preference to forming two classifications from the 13 senior clubs of the season which has just closed, and doubtless some of the discarded clubs may ascribe their exclusion to the ungenerous opposition which they displayed to Collingwood and South Melbourne playing off for the premiership on the day they desired instead of being kept waiting another week. St. Kilda, Geelong and Carlton are not included in the eight senior clubs on the past season's form as indicated by results, but it was considered that the exclusion of Geelong was out of the question in consideration of past records; Carlton also was included on the score of old association, and as I pointed out long ago when the reorganisation was first mooted, nothing would be more likely to re-establish football in the estimation of decent people than to let them see the game played by such a gentlemanly lot of well conducted fellows as do credit to it in the uniform of St. Kilda.
Under the new conditions Carlton and St. Kilda will probably find least difficulty in discovering eligible players than in deciding as to how many, if any, of the new applicants for admission they will make room for. It will rest with North Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Williamstown, Footscray and Richmond to make their own arrangements for the future, and if they obtained the co-operation of three first class junior clubs to make up eight, there would be nothing to prevent the establishment of a second rate premiership competition, productive of far more interesting matches than those in which the sides are unequally matched.
Title: The Association Burst Up
Date: Saturday 10 October 1896, page 17
Publisher: The Leader (Melbourne)