The great South Melbourne
After discussing recently with Mr Bert Howson, manager of the South. Melbourne Football Club, prospects of his team for season 1917, which begins next Saturday, our talk of games and players ranged down the years to those halcyon days when we were both young and all the world was wide. Our retrospective brought happy memories of the past, mingled with regret that some of the fine fellows with whom and against we had played were dead and gone before passing manhood’s prime.
Howson's first game in the Red and White of South Melbourne was 25 years back, and the writer began his career with Fitzroy in the season before, so that our interchange of impressions after all that time was engrossingly interesting. Fitzroy and South Melbourne always furnished a magnificent struggle, even when the former were slowly climbing from the bottom of the premiership ladder, and South stood at the top, practically unbeaten and unbeatable.
Clearly, as if it were yesterday, I remember my first big game in 1891, when, as a junior, I joined in the fray against the redoubtable Southerners. In my mind's eye I still can see the dense crowds pouring down Clarendon Street as we drove to the ground, which even then was black with people, and the stands were gaily bedecked with premiership pennants, waving defiantly their evidence of South's mighty prowess. My feelings later, when standing face to face with champion footballers whose names had been on every lip for years, while the crowd roared deafeningly, are simply indescribable.
South Melbourne had then won the premiership with the utmost brilliance three years running (1888, 1889, and 1890), and were the most perfect combination of footballers that ever took the field in Victoria. Every man was an absolute star—some were reared in South Melbourne, but others were chosen because of high excellence displayed by them in other teams in particular sections where South had been weak. They were big fast men, and each was an artist of the first water.
Those were the days before permit rules controlled the transference of men from club to club, and the Southern executive never hesitated to employ tactics nearly approaching American baseball methods in forming championship combinations.
South Melbourne that day were led by burly Sonny Elms, whose rushes from the back lines struck terror into all forwards hearts until at last he was mastered by husky young Thurgood of Essendon, when on the down grade.
Peter Burns, Champion
The keystone of the arch of mighty South, however, was Peter Burns, undoubted champion of Victoria even in those days of champions. Over 6ft tall, loose and big limbed, moving huge bulk with electric rapidity, and handling the ball in air and on ground with the ease and certainty of a juggler, Burns was simply unapproached till past his best, when the incomparable Fred McGinis came to Melbourne from Tasmania.
Associated in the ruck with Burns, boring in and out with the precision of a piston-rod, was Harry Purdy, persistent as a terrier and marvellous in the crush; dashing Jimmy O'Meara, whose carefully parted hair was never ruffled; Dinny Mackay, and Boliver Powell, a modern hercules, strong as a bull, but active as a cat.
With one exception Fitzroy's ruck were men who had won glory in many a bitter-fought field, hard, tough fellows, who battled grimly to the death-knock, but who, nevertheless, were as brilliant as the best South could show.
There was Tom Banks, a most beautifully built man, whose right place, however, was centre half-back, where nothing could stop his aerial fights and tremendous drives; strapping Rapiport, Billy Cleary and Ted Melling, a pair of sawn-off giants like Sam Langford, the black fighter, the trickiest pair the game has known. The other place in the ruck was filled by myself.
It was a terrific struggle, played at great pace right to the final bell. We kicked goal for goal (Jim Grace was booting them from all angles and distances with lovely drop kicks, models of grace and precision). The game which was described as the best ever played up to that time ended in South Melbourne's favor nine goals to eight. Of those mentioned, two are dead.
Poor Dinny McKay, who that saw him will ever forget his spectacular football? With short, mincing steps his prodigious place kicking and high marking stamped him as an artist to his finger tips. Though a six-footer, he was like lightning in his twists.
And Henry Rapiport, who died with shocking suddenness, was equally famous. Bulking big in every crush, and relentlessly rough, never sparing an opponent, nor asking for quarter, soaring for the marks with the utmost abandon, though surrounded by bitter enemies, Rapiport typified the indomitably, fierce courage of his race, whose desperate valour in the heroic defence of Jerusalem rings down the centuries.
Other renowned Southerners were Billy Windley, than whom Victoria has never seen a greater centre, who preserved his amateur status so strictly during a career of about 20 years that he never accepted so much as a tram ticket against his expenses, and at a time, too, when South's treasury was overflowing with gold; the late Chopper Doran, short and stocky like a Shetland pony, Buck Morton, Bosco Dunne, E. Kerr, R. Talbot, Ben Page, and Con Buckley (two former Fitzroy backs), Freddy Waugh. J. Graham, Archie McMurray, and Dick ‘Hockey’ Gibson.
The days of glittering success
Money flowed like water in those golden days on Emerald Hill, with the late Henry Skinner and Bob Phillips, the big bookmaker, as lavish supporters. The manager of the club was Angus Evans, who has died comparatively recently. He ran the team in princely fashion.
We in other, and in a moneyed sense, poorer teams, heard how on one occasion, when holidaying to Queensland the whole boat, bar, saloon, in fact, everything on board, were taken over for the players accompanying whom was a specially engaged orchestra and entertainers.
The pace was a cracker, too fast to last, and the crash came shortly after the match I have mentioned, when Essendon gained an ascendancy which they kept for four successive years. Broken and all but ruined, South scattered far and wide.
Peter Burns went to Geelong, McKay and Powell to Richmond, Con Buckley returned to Fitzroy, but not the old Con of old, while some went to Port Melbourne. A faithful few remained staunch and true, amongst them Bert Howson, who for 16 years had no superior on the centre wing, and is now rounding off his service to South with notable work as secretary.
Another stalwart in South's dark days was Harry Duggan, eldest of the family of boxers, who though one of the best 'all-in' heavyweight fighters in Melbourne, was never seen to do an unfair action on the football field. I was glad to learn that he is now a wealthy bookmaker in Johannesburg.
The season's prospects
Although not playing last season, South will have a powerful side. They have 14 of their former players, and a promising crop of youngsters, among whom, by the way, is a son of the old-timer, Harry Purdy. The club's honour roll of players, past and present, at the war, includes 40 names of whom Lieutenant Bruce Sloss, Corporals Bradford and Harrison, Sapper Freeman and Private Hugh Callan have been killed.
At Fitzroy, they are confident of retaining the premiership won last year, although Wal Johnson, C. Fergie, G. Shaw, Bert O'Dee, Percy Parratt and Jim Toohey donned khaki during the summer. These were classy players and their places will be hard to fill, but a lot is expected from Dr Bert Hartkopt and N. Barker from the University club, Fooks from South Australia and Lipscombe of Tasmania, while there is a number of talented juniors to pick from. Two old players, F. O'Neill and Alex Salton have been killed in action.
J. Arrowsmith, after valuable service as delegate to the league, has been succeeded by Mr Marcus Clota on that body. Ted Meliing (whose benefit by the way realised £250) is improving in health, and he will act as supervisor to the trainers. The brilliant George Holden has been appointed honorary coach.
Carlton ran second to Fitzroy last year, and hope to go one better in the forthcoming campaign. But they will miss Carter and Sharp through enlistment, and Jameson, whose broken arm is still giving a lot of trouble. The Carlton skipper, Billy Dick, has taken a hotel down Collingwood way, but is expected to again strip for the Dark Blues.
Richmond made a strong advance last winter, mainly owing to the assistance of the Geelong players, Eason, Marsharm and Martini, whose defiance of the permit rules was blinked at by the League. Eason, who is one of the finest footballers I have seen, is now fighting in France, and as the others will doubtless return to Geelong, the loss will be severely felt. Still, the coaching of these experienced players will surely have left its mark on the young Richmond team.
Geelong is 45 miles by rail from Melbourne, and on account of this remoteness little is known as a rule of their prospects till the season begins. But with the healthy surroundings of the big seaport and its suburbs, and prolific recruiting grounds such as the farm lands of Port Arlington and the garrisons of Queencliff, Geelong is always sure of being strongly represented.
Rumours are current that it is proposed that Geelong shall travel to Melbourne each weekend and play their matches at East Melbourne. I imagine that the expense would preclude consideration of such a scheme, to say nothing of the certain loss of that local support so essential to success.