Neglected heroes: The sad case of the Australian Football Hall of Fame
Since its inception in 1996, the Australian Football Hall of Fame (HOF) has become the benchmark by which the historical standing of past players, coaches, and others associated with the Australian game are judged. Induction to its hallowed halls is akin to official recognition of greatness, a stamp of high distinction whereby the anointed ones are set apart from the rank and file. By definition the HOF maintains its exclusivity by excluding the majority of eligible candidates. Its remit is to honour outstanding achievement and to recognise the best of the best, regardless of popular sentiment, league or era.
When the selection committee gets it right the kudos of the institution and the selection process is enhanced. When they get it wrong—by prematurely inducting candidates and, as a corollary, by failing to induct more deserving ones—the standing of the institution is undermined and a sense of historical injustice created.
The gross underrepresentation of inductees from what I euphemistically term the ‘dark ages’ of football, i.e., from the inception of the game in the late 1850s to the early-1920s—before the advent of mass media football coverage on TV, radio, and the tabloid press—represents such an injustice. Many of the most deserving ‘old timers’ have been overlooked, not because they don’t sit high enough on the totem pole of achievement or their contribution to the game is limited. Indeed, among them are some of the game’s greatest ever players, captains—performing the equivalent role we now associate with coaches—umpires, newspapermen, administrators, and early pioneers of the code, without whom the game would not be what it is today, and may not even exist at all.
This cohort has been placed in the ‘too hard basket’ by the very institution charged with the responsibility of ensuring their legacy is preserved. The HOF has eschewed the onerous task of inducting pre-modern candidates to concentrate instead on the more straightforward task of evaluating recently retired candidates and, more broadly those of the modern era (post-1945). While satisfying the demand of the wider footy-loving public for recognisable heroes, the upshot is that the Hall has become absurdly skewed in favour of the TV age at the expense of the forgotten greats who developed and shaped the Australian game. This dereliction of duty, if left uncorrected, will ultimately diminish the standing of the HOF, and the footy world will be the poorer for it.
A lack of historical consciousness
The annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony has not only become an established fixture on the football calendar, it’s one of the most anticipated and celebrated events. Debate about who is inducted and who isn’t—but should be—is always lively, and reflects the keen interest taken in the doings of the institution. Should, for example, the on-field feats of Carey, Ablett Snr, and Cousins override their off-field indiscretions? Which modern great—Carey, Ablett, Williams or Lockett—should be the next legend? Will Richo be inducted on his next nomination? Do Cornes, Davies, and Peake warrant inclusion on S/WAFL form alone? Which of the great Sandgropers of the 1980s—Buckenara, Rioli, Hunter, or Krakouer—has the greater claim for inclusion.
But these debates invariably reflect the concerns of the contemporary-minded footy follower whose opinions are based almost solely on watching and discussing the modern game over the past ten to fifty years. With very few exceptions, the achievements and relative merits of the men of the pre-TV era are not canvassed, and their case for inclusion almost never made. That is because popular debate about footy history tends to be confined to living memory, which now stretches back no further than the war years. As such, it is widely assumed that because no one alive today saw the ‘old-timers’ play, can watch them on video, or can otherwise assess their contribution visually or by first-hand account, they are beyond assessment and therefore cannot be considered. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When living memory is not sufficient, it is the discipline of history we need to fill the space beyond anecdote and help us understand the past. No one alive today was there when the ANZACS stormed the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915, or when the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in 1788, let alone when the Romans marched into Britain in 43 A.D. But we do have a fairly good idea about these and other significant events through the research of historians and other historically literate parties who are able to reconstruct, interpret, and understand the past through analysis and careful reading of the sources based on thorough contextual knowledge. The fact that we weren’t there to witness an event, whether it be a battle or a game of football, does not mean we can’t make valid judgements about it, or the people involved, so long as we’ve done the necessary research, reading, and thinking to back up our views.
In the case of football history, wide reading of secondary sources such as quality books, magazines and current newspapers may well be sufficient for the interested layperson to establish the required knowledge. But for those seriously hoping to add to that knowledge or, as in the case of those expressly charged with preserving the history of the game, living memory, anecdotal evidence, and even history books are not sufficient. Rather, they should be immersing themselves in the club and league records, contemporary publications, and above all, in the old newspapers and magazines of the day. These sources are in fact replete with extensive coverage of football and footballers going back to the 1860s—and now readily available online through the National Library of Australia’s Trove project. Only through studying such material can we develop the required deep understanding of that past.
One wonders how many of those associated with the Hall of Fame’s nomination and induction process over the years have ever undertaken such research. If sufficient research has been done, where are all the pioneers of the Australian game of football? Is there a justifiable reason why so few of them have been inducted? If there is, we at australianfootball.com would like to know.
A flawed process
From its conception in 1995 through to the present day the HOF has failed miserably in the task of recognising the greats of the game’s early history. The process has been flawed from the start, most significantly when the maximum number of pre-1900 players eligible for induction was set at 10, compared to 30 players each for the 1901-1930, 1931-60, and 1961-90 periods. The creation of quotas to ensure a historically balanced representation was a sensible stricture and itself a tacit acknowledgement that without such enforced parametres selectors may have prioritised players of their own era! But why then was a lower limit imposed on the colonial era?
Perhaps the architects of the guidelines believed there just weren’t that many champions before 1901, or they were somehow less significant than their twentieth century counterparts. Whatever the reasoning, it portrayed a condescending attitude toward the pioneers of the distant past, and betrayed a lack of understanding as to how rich in history the game already was by the time of Federation, not to mention how many champions it had produced.
Moreover, as the formative period of a unique code of football, and the only indigenous Australian game, the role of the ‘pioneers’ in our sport is especially significant. Yet there was no special category created for these men in the HOF, and in the event, only two of them, Wills and Harrison, were inducted (see below). The short shrift given to the colonial period only served to perpetuate the commonly-held myth found in many history and record books that the ‘real’ football only started with the creation of the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1897. It also laid the foundation for the historical distortion of the HOF that is now enshrined and seemingly irreversible.
Another flaw that impeded the proper consideration of the early champions and as such compromised the historical legitimacy of the process was the choice of the initial selection committee. The original committee consisted of former players, journalists, administrators, and politicians, but no historians of note. While possessing a wealth of [post-1930] football knowledge only two of the thirteen members, Harry Gordon and Geoff Christian could lay claim to having done any hands-on historical research, despite the fact that it was during this initial establishment phase that the HOF was most in need of deep knowledge of the pre-1925 game.
The make-up of the selection committee has evolved over the years, and has since included several members that have a solid track record in historical research and knowledge. While we assume that all members take their responsibility seriously and are widely read in the history of the game, the overall criticism still remains—that in broad terms the committee lacks the requisite research background and knowledge base to properly consider pre-1925 men, and is naturally biased toward modern candidates who they have seen play but who, in a number of cases, are significantly less qualified than many comparable dark age champions.
Of course the selectors can only work within the parametres they’re been given and with the material they have before them, and as such, the football clubs, leagues, and other associations from which nominations, lists, and other supporting evidence come, also need to bear some responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. In short, these institutions cannot be relied on to act in the wider historical interest and advance the case of the dark agers.
In some cases, the institutions pre-1925 men were associated with no longer exist. But even those who were affiliated with what are now the most powerful clubs of the AFL are more often than not forgotten or passed over in favour of more ‘relevant’ heroes. When it comes to nominating candidates to the HOF or creating lists for inclusion, modern clubs will invariably prioritise a very good player from the 1980s over an outright champion of the 1880s, for example. It’s far safer to nominate the names that officials and supporters fondly remember than it is to advance the case of men that few now have even have heard of, even if their contribution to the game was significantly greater. When such matters become a popularity contest, or influenced by superfluous considerations such as whether their inclusion will be suitable for the televised induction ceremony, it’s the old-timers who lose out in favour of the modern men.
Such was clearly the case when in the years around the turn of the millennium most senior clubs announced ‘teams of the century’. Although they did not, by definition, include 19th century players, most teams nonetheless exhibited an overwhelming preference for post-1945 players over pre-war players, with some clubs, such as Carlton, North Melbourne, and St Kilda selecting teams that were, for the most part, teams of the half century. Ironically, in so doing they omitted champion players that had earlier been inducted in the inaugural Hall of Fame!
Dark agers in the HOF – the record so far
To fully understand the degree of neglect suffered by our footballing forebears at the hands of the HOF, we need to go back to the initial selection of inductees and follow the trail over subsequent years.
In June 1996 the names of the initial 136 men (and they were, and still are, all men) inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame were revealed. Twenty-six of these were from the pre-1925 era of football, broadly defined, including only eight from the colonial period.
From the earliest years of the Victorian game came Tom Wills, a co-founder of the code and an early champion player, and his cousin Henry ‘Colden’ Harrison, another key pioneer and himself an outstanding Melbourne player and captain of the 1860s. Interestingly, because there was not a separate category for ‘pioneers’, both men were inducted as ‘administrators’, which in their case, and the case of so many others of the early period, failed to captured the true multi-faceted nature of their contribution to the game as rule makers, players, captains (who acted as coaches and even umpires in this period), and administrators. No other pioneers of the game were inducted, nor were the other co-founders or the first batch of great players and captains that laid the foundations for the unique game we have today.
From the 1870s there was only one inductee, the first bona fide superstar of the game, George Coulthard (left) of Carlton [Imperial]. None of his teammates from the great Carlton sides of the 1860s and 1870s were chosen, nor from their bitter rivals of the time, Melbourne. The 1880s, the decade that saw football become entrenched as THE winter sport of southern Australia, fared little better, with three inductees: Peter Burns, the celebrated follower and champion of two clubs, South Melbourne and Geelong; Jack Worrall of Fitzroy, one of the best players of the decade, although he is probably best known now for his exploits as [the first] coach when he lead Carlton and Essendon to five flags in the decade prior to the Great War; and the South Australian player, Jack ‘Dinny’ Reedman, the eight-time premiership captain of South Adelaide (and, like Worrall, a Test cricketer).
A further two more inductees can also be classified as purely colonial in the sense that their reputations were made in the 1890s, although both played into the new century as well, namely John ‘Bunny’ Daly, universally acknowledged as the greatest player produced in South Australia before federation, and Albert ‘The Great’ Thurgood of Essendon and Fremantle, widely believed to the best footballer of the pre-1925 era. That brought the total for the first four decades of football to eight!
A further six men who emerged in the 1890s, but who made their most significant contribution in the new century, were also inducted. They were Reg Wilmot, the famed Argus football writer better known by his byline ‘Old Boy’, Dave ‘Dolly’ Christy of Ballarat and Melbourne, who, like Thurgood and so many other Victorian champions of the era, was lured to Western Australia during the gold rush (and severe depression in Victoria), Geelong’s stalwart follower Henry ‘Tracker’ Young, Charlie Pannam, the patriarch of the great Pannam-Richards footballing dynasty, leading umpire Henry ‘Ivo’ Crapp (who also went west), Harold ‘Vic’ Cumberland, best known today as the oldest ever V/AFL player but in fact one of the most outstanding and durable players of his day, and North Adelaide’s triple Magarey medalist Tom MacKenzie.
Eleven more inductees were prominent in the years immediately before the ‘Great War’ but played on through to the early-to-mid 1920s—which surely helped to ensure their legacy survived the inter-war years. They were Carlton centreman and radio pioneer Rod McGregor, St Kilda and Essendon Association superboot, Dave McNamara, umpire Jack Elder, Collingwood ‘goal-sneak’ extraordinaire Dick Lee, South Melbourne follower Vic Belcher, St Kilda captain and long-time club servant Wells Eicke, Richmond’s champion full back Vic Thorp, St Kilda and South’s rucking legend Roy Cazaly and his roving sidekick Mark Tandy, Collingwood star and dual Richmond premiership captain-coach Dan Minogue, and William ‘Nipper’ Truscott, a legendary centreman from Western Australia (originally a Rugby player from New South Wales!). The last of the dark age inductees was South Adelaide’s star half back Dan Moriarty, a triple Magarey medalist who produced seven outstanding seasons before retiring in 1925.
The rest of the inductees from the officially defined 1901-30 period made their most significant mark in the mid-to-late 1920s and many went on to become stars of the 1930s. Given the ‘depression decade’ was also the time mass media coverage of football ‘took off’ and many enduring sporting legends were made, it can in no sense be classified as part of the footy ‘dark ages’. While some of the great names inducted from the 1920s, such as Albert Chadwick, Horrie Clover, Tom Fitzmaurice, Allan Hopkins, Ivor Warne-Smith, and Colin Watson have faded from memory somewhat, the champions that immediately followed them—the Coventrys, the Colliers, Hickey, Bunton, Reynolds, Pratt, Nash, and Dyer—have not. One assumes that an original member of the selection committee, Melbourne star of that era and veteran journalist Percy Beames, would have been able to provide first-hand accounts of all the great names from the mid-1920s onwards.
Given the make-up of the inaugural selection committee and the strictures they were working under, twenty-seven dark agers out of 136 total inductees (or almost 20% of the intake) wasn’t such a bad start (although sliced in another way, twelve men from the first fifty years of football, or 12%, sounds somewhat less impressive). But there seems little doubt that because there was a quota imposed upon them, the committee was forced to focus their minds on the early period, a period they may otherwise have neglected. The true test would only come came from subsequent inductions when no such quotas were imposed. The results speak for themselves.
Left to its own devices over the past two decades, the various incarnations of the selection committee has failed in its task to induct the most worthy candidates regardless of era or league. While continuing to induct vast numbers of TV-age footballers of the V/AFL—presumably in the belief that the 1996 induction left too many gaps—they have almost completely ignored the pre-1925 period, apparently taking the view that the inaugural selection of twenty-six dark agers was adequate and that no worthy candidates from that era had been left out.
Of the 115 post-1996 inductees, more than 90% are associated with the post-war game, and only three pre-1925 men have been included. These are:
Charles Brownlow (1997): A worthy inclusion, but no doubt the memory of this famed and long-serving Geelong and VFL administrator endures because of the prestigious medal named after him;
Phil Matson (2004): A champion player and multiple premiership coach from Western Australia, and an official ‘legend’ in the WAFL HOF, his was one of the most egregious omissions from the inaugural induction in 1996; and
Horrie Gorringe (2011): The outstanding Tasmanian player of the 1920s and probably the best footballer from the Apple Isle not to play in the V/AFL, he only gained admission after years of lobbying from his home state.
With these three additions (one every seven years!) the ‘dark age’ tally now stands at twenty nine, out of 251, or 11.5%. Slicing the figures in another way, there are now thirteen men from the first fifty years of football, or 5% of the total and 238 men from the next 100 years, or 95% of the total. In existential terms we can rephrase this as, ‘I appeared on TV, therefore I exist’, or conversely, ‘I do not appear on TV, or YouTube, therefore I may as well not exist’.
This lamentable state of affairs is magnified when it comes to the ‘Legend’ category. Reserved for those judged to have reached the very highest level of achievement and restricted to the top ten percent of the total inductees, there is only one dark age player deemed worthy, Roy Cazaly, of ‘Up There Cazaly’ fame, who was one of the original twelve legands. His elevation, one suspects, owes as much to the Mike Brady hit song as it does to the selectors’ appreciation of his football skills, worthy legend though he is.
Needless to say there are no legends from the formative years of the game—the co-founder Tom Wills, and his cousin Colden Harrison don’t make the grade, nor does the player almost universally regarded as the best of the pre-1925 era, Albert Thurgood. Other worthy candidates for legend status, such as the first superstar of the game, George Coulthard, goal-kicking machine Dick Lee, champion player, five-time premiership coach and influential journalist Jack Worrall, and the high marking ‘superboot’, Dave McNamara, have also been overlooked in favour of the stars of the TV era, particularly the much-loved baby boomers.
If we take the HOF at face value, footy legends only started to appear in number from the 1930s, and reached a high point in the 1960s and 1970s. Fifteen of the 25 legends (or 60%) were playing senior football in 1969, a phenomenon that corresponds almost exactly to that found in the AFL Team of the Century, where 62% of the team was playing senior football in 1970/71. Thus, according to the HOF’s reckoning, the first sixty five years of the game is worth one legend, while the next sixty five years is worth 24 legends. Given that players should be evaluated and judged relative to their peers, and that the law of large numbers dictates that, despite anomalies in footballing talent over the years and across the country, over time there will be a similar per capita number of clearly superior ‘champion’ players (i.e., a recurring top 10%) from each era, this gross imbalance is clear evidence of the failure of the institution to do justice to the pioneers of our game.
Fred McGinis and the forgotten heroes
Of all the omissions from the HOF, the most egregious is that of Fred McGinis (left), a rover and centreman from the City (Hobart) club who made his name with the Melbourne football club between 1894 and 1901, when failing eyesight prompted his early retirement from the game.
McGinis’ case is a classic example of how the memory of a champion can slip through the cracks of time and be totally underestimated by modern writers who reply on other secondary sources, i.e., other writers, who are not well read in the journals of the day. Although most modern accounts of McGinis recognise him as a ‘fine player’ and the outstanding performer of the first VFL season in 1897, there is no indication of the esteem with which he was held by many of his contemporaries, and the generation that followed. If his contemporaries’ assessment of him is to be taken at face value—and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be—he was, on the basis of aggregated opinion, the greatest footballer of the pre-1925 era after Albert Thurgood (and with due acknowledgment to George Coulthard, Peter Burns, Percy Trotter, and Jack Baker, et al). That pronouncement will come as a surprise to most football followers, even those well versed in the history of the game, as McGinis is just not a name heard these days when great players of the past are discussed. But, as research into the archives of many Australian newspapers makes clear, he was at the forefront of such discussions for many years.
McGinis’ name stands at the top of a long list of notable omissions associated with the early game that may never find their way into the Hall as presently constituted. For the sake of argument, I have listed below some of the more prominent men, firstly from the Victorian leagues, and secondly from the ‘outer’ states, that have the credentials to be included in the HOF—in most cases more so than some of the recent ‘back fill’ inductees of the 1945-1990 era selected since the original 1996 launch. At the very least, the best of these candidates need to be considered over the next decade if the selection committee is to fulfill its duty as the arbiter of greatness in our game.
Though by no means an exhaustive list (and certainly one open to debate and amendment based on further research), it is indicative of the calibre of men that are currently missing from the HOF and whose claims need to be taken seriously. They are:
Charles Backhouse (left): The outstanding Richmond player of the VFA era, he was a champion centreman for more than fifteen years and 200 games during the club’s rise to power. He was so revered at Punt Road that he gained the then rare distinction of life membership while still playing.
Tom Banks (right): Of Caribbean origin, he was considered one of the great defenders and captains of his era, leading Fitzroy to the 1895 flag, and was a regular Victorian representative and captain. One of the most respected men in football he was the first ex-V/AFL player to be awarded life membership of the league, in 1911.
Jack Baker (left): A centreman recruited from Geelong, he was the outstanding Carlton player of the 1880s and one of the stars of the VFA in that decade. He appears on almost every list of contemporaries’ greatest players, and is reckoned by Ivo Crapp (speaking in 1914), and Jack Worrall (1923), inter alia, to be among the top three footballers they ever saw.
Fred Baring (right): One of the greatest players of the 1910s, he was a follower who spent an increasing amount of time at full back as his career progressed, so much so that he was named in the Essendon team of the century in that position. A key member of four flag-winning teams, he kicked one of the most famous goals in VFL history to clinch the 1912 decider against Collingwood.
Syd Barker (left): The outstanding follower in the VFA for a decade, he played in four North Melbourne flags, two as captain-coach, and subsequently had the Shinboners’ best and fairest named in his honour. He later transferred to Essendon in the VFL where he led the ‘Same Olds’ to back-to-back flags in 1923 and 1924.
Bill Busbridge (right): When a serious knee injury prematurely ended his career in 1912, he was by far the best centre half back in the game. A regular state rep and voted by the football public as player of the year in 1908 and 1909, he was placed at No.14 in the official ‘Champions of Essendon’ list selected in 2002.
Norm ‘Hackenschmidt’ Clark (left): A Stawell Gift winner nicknamed after the famed body-builder of the day because of his physique, this back pocket dynamo from North Adelaide made an immediate impact at Carlton as a player in three premierships, and later coached the Blues to back-to-back flags in 1914 and 1915.
Dick Condon (right): When asked to name the greatest Collingwood player he ever saw, Jock McHale had no hesitation in naming this controversial character. Highly skilled and perfectly balanced, he was a wizard with the football, and was reputed to be one of the inventors of the stab pass. Denied recognition by Collingwood for many years, his rehabilitation is long overdue.
Jack Conway (left): One of the first champion players and great captains of the game, he strode the field like a colossus through the 1860s, and helped create the great rivalry of the era between his team Carlton and his old team Melbourne, led by his foe Colden Harrison. He was also a pivotal figure in the development of Australian cricket.
Alec Eason (right): The feisty Geelong rover of the 1910s ‘ran opponents ragged with his verve, aggression, skill, heart and fitness, while his kicking, particularly when picking out team mates over shorter to medium distances, was superb’. He played out his career with Footscray in the VFA and also coached the club.
Henry ‘Sonny’ Elms: Acknowledged as one of the great captains of the period (when captains performed many the duties we assign today to coaches), he led South Melbourne to three flags in a row and was one of the most respected figures in the game, as well as being one of the great defenders. Returned to the club as assistant coach in 1918 and helped win another flag.
Jim Flynn (right): A late developer, this follower played his best football after the age of 30, first with Geelong and subsequently with Carlton, where he captained the team to the 1906 and 1907 flags. After retiring soon afterwards he was recalled several times for finals series by coach Worrall who considered him the finest leader he had encountered in football.
Charles ‘Tracker’ Forbes (left): A larger-than-life character, he was surely the most popular player of pre-Great War football. This genial giant was the spiritual backbone of the great Essendon team of the early 1890s and one of the strongest followers, high marks, and protectors in the game.
Hugh Gavin (right): From the mid-1890s until 1915, he distinguished himself as one of the finest defenders of the age. ‘Superb overhead, and fast and sure at ground level’, he was the finest exponent of the centre half back position in the country. After 112 games with Essendon, he headed west and continued his career on the goldfields, becoming one of that competition’s greats.
Ben Goldsmith (aka ‘Fairplay’): A redoubtable Melbourne follower during the club’s first heyday in the late 1860s and early 1870s, he captained the club and was often among the best players. His greatest impact on the game came from his writing. As ‘Fairplay’ in the Australasian he promoted the game and was responsible for numerous rule changes that improved it, including the idea to include behinds in the official score.
Mick Grace (right): A champion with Fitzroy and later with Carlton, the ‘flying angel’ was one of the great goal-kicking forwards cum followers of his time. Widely acknowledged as the best player of 1898 VFL season, he later moved to Sydney where he became a coach and advocate of the game, before being cut down by TB, aged 37.
Harry Guy: The finest and most reliable backman of the 19th century, he was the rock on which Carlton’s considerable success in the 1870s was built. Universally respected, he was the Blues captain and best player when the club won four flags in the period 1871-75. He retired in 1879 after fifteen years’ service.
William Hammersley: One of the original founders of the game as well as an early player, as sporting editor of the Australasian for eighteen years he was an influential advocate for the new code, and was especially vocal when its popularity began to wane in the early-to-mid 1860s. His absence from the HOF is inexplicable.
Billy Hannaysee (left): The standout Port Melbourne champion of the pre-1897 period, he stands alongside Frank Johnson as that club’s the greatest ever player. Few men have ever been as elusive to catch or as clever with the ball as this rover cum centreman, who Jack Worrall rated in his best six of all time.
Charlie Hardy (right): At only 157cm he roved in support of Syd Barker (and George Rawle) and was the pocket dynamo that underwrote Shinboner success through the 1910s. Toward the end of his career he crossed to Essendon in the VFL (with the aforementioned teammates) and was a lynchpin of the 1923 flag.
John Healy (aka ‘Markwell’): An astute observer and analyst of the game, he was the most influential football writer of his time. His column in the Australasian ran from 1888 to 1911, and was compulsory reading for all serious football fans. Also a devoted cricketer, he was Secretary of the V.C.A when he died in 1916.
Dave Hickenbotham: As the Pivotonians captain and star centreman of the 1880s, he was one of the instigators of the ‘Geelong way’ of fast, open, and tactically astute football. A member of four flag winning teams, including as captain in 1886, he later become the club’s first official coach in 1910.
Con Hickey (left): Few people have been actively associated with the game for longer (54 years of continuous service) or done more for its development. As a player, he (and brother Pat) shone for Fitzroy for over ten years, as an administrator he served as secretary of the club for eighteen years, was inaugural treasurer and later vice-president of the VFL, inaugural Chairman of the code’s governing body, Australasian Football Council (later the Australian National Football Council, or ANFC), and its secretary for twenty seven years.
Bert Howson (right): A stand-out and skilled wingman for South Melbourne for sixteen seasons he retired in 1908 to concentrate on his duties as secretary of the club. He held that post until 1921, although in 1918 he stepped into the breach and coached the team to the premiership.
Hugh James (left): The leader of the Richmond ruck for nearly fifteen years, he was considered one of the best, and fairest, players in the league when he retired in 1923. He played in, and helped organize the famous AIF exhibition matches in London in 1916 and 1917, and at the front the next year was awarded the Military Cross and bar, making him the most decorated senior footballer of the Great War.
George ‘Mallee’ Johnson (right): Already an established Richmond champion when he crossed to Carlton in the VFL in 1905, this bullocking big man became a stand out in a star-studded Blues team. After three premierships in a row, he (and a group of teammates) left the club in acrimony and moved back to the VFA, first with North Melbourne and later with Melbourne City, and Prahan.
Tom Kelynack (alias 'Kickero'): Under the by-line ‘Kickero’, he wrote about football and cricket for the Herald for forty-two years before his retirement in 1931. Lauded in the VFL Annual report of that year for his contribution to the game and to journalism in general, he was said to have few, if any, compeers.
Jack Kerley (right): One of the pioneers of the running high mark and among its greatest early exponents, this Geelong champion of the 1880s was the lynchpin of several premiership teams, most notably in 1886 when the Pivotonians went through the season undefeated.
Billy Lacey: This Carlton champion was widely acknowledged as the best centreman of the decade 1865 to 1875. The inaugural edition of The Footballer was full of praise: ‘An all-round player of undoubted excellence for taking the ball into play from bounds, a good left foot kick, and follows the ball all through the day’.
Joe Marmo (right): Originally from Geelong, he was a part of the 1890s’ exodus across the Nullabor where he starred as a half back on the goldfields and later for West Perth. In unison with teammate Dave de Coite, he headed back to the VFA and joined Footscray where he became the backline general for over ten years and was instrumental in three flags wins.
Theo ‘Thop’ Marshall: Another of the forgotten pioneers, he was at the forefront of the code for over four decades, first as an outstanding player in the 1860s, and subsequently as an administrator, serving in a variety of roles, most notably as Secretary of the VFA between 1882 and 1897, the year of the great split.
Alexander McCracken (right): From the time the Essendon football club was established in his family’s backyard, he was at the centre of its development from a junior club into a League powerhouse. From a famed brewing family, he became the first President of the VFL in 1897, a post he held until his death in 1915.
Jack ‘Dookie’ McKenzie (left): A crowd favourite, he was something of a footballing nomad, playing in the VFL for Essendon and Melbourne, in the VFA for Brunswick and Essendon ‘A’, as well as in the WA goldfields. But wherever he played there was always one constant—his brilliant play characterized by his 'one grab' marking ability and the crisp accuracy of his foot passing.
Hugh McLean: The first of the great centre half forwards, this Geelong star of the late 1870s and 1880s was described by Jack Worrall as ‘an absolute champion and perhaps the most graceful player ever seen on a football field’. He established a goalkicking record in 1882 when he booted 25 goals in 13 games, an astonishing feat at a time when a few goals was often enough to win a match.
Donald McDonald (right) (aka ‘Observer’): An accomplished player in the 1880s, he became best known to football followers by his Argus byline ‘Observer’. An articulate and influential analyst of football, as well as being an acclaimed cricket and nature writer, at his passing in 1932 was described as ‘probably the most widely known journalist in Australia’.
Orlando ‘Lanty’ O’Brien: A foundation member of Carlton and an outstanding player for 13 seasons, the Irish born dasher was first prominent as a ‘goalsneak’ but secured his reputation when moved to defence. He was the first player to perfect the punt kick, and had the longest and most penetrating boot of his era.
Paddy O'Brien (right): A tough and highly effective defender for over a decade at Carlton, he was always the man to stand the opposition's best forward. A regular state representative and captain of the 1924 carnival team, he was also a champion boxer who evoked fear in opponents after he knocked out five of Gordon Coventry's teeth!
George O’Mullane: One of a core group of early champion players which helped shaped the game and its rules, he was known throughout the colony for his ‘pluck and skill’. Representing multiple clubs (often in the same year as was common in the 1860s) he made his name principally with South Yarra.
Ned Officer: A key member of the star-studded Essendon team of the early 1890s, the 'Doctor' held down the all important full-back position and was the foundation upon which the 'Same Olds' success rested. A sure mark and fine kick, big 'Ned' was as tough as they come, albeit scrupulously fair.
Percy Parratt (right): One of Fitzroy's all-time greats, Percy Parratt was once memorably described as "the evocation of football brains". He captain-coached the club to the 1913 flag, and was a vital factor in the 1916 and 1922 victories. He combined brilliantly with goalsneak Jim Freake to create countless opportunities for his team.
Charles ‘Commotion’ Pearson: While he had a relatively short career with Essendon before heading off to South America, his style of play revolutionized the game in the 1880s. While others had mastered the overhead mark before him, he literally hurled himself into the air and over packs, thus establishing the high mark as the distinctive feature of the game. According to Jack Worrall in 1923, ‘it is questionable whether a better high mark has ever lived’.
Tom Power (right): British-born, he was one of the leading ‘second generation’ pioneers of the game through his involvement with Carlton, where he was a founder, player, treasurer, and secretary for many years, and the inaugural treasurer of the VFA. He was also the editor and driving force behind ‘The Footballer’ (1875-81), the first dedicated football publication. It was said of him that ‘he was the brains of the game in those days, and was always on the lookout for opportunities of advantageously amending the code’.
Bill Proudfoot (left): Described as ‘one of the genuinely great figures in Collingwood's illustrious history’ the burly defender was already a star with Britannia when that club went on to form the core of the new Collingwood club in 1892. A key player in its rise to power, he was the first Magpie to play for Victoria, and also captained the team. A policeman, he famously went to the aid of a besieged umpire and despite being injured by the angry mob managed to save the day, and the umpire!
Bob Rush: The epitome of the faithful club servant, he was the backbone of Collingwood for over half a century. First as an accomplished player, then as treasurer (for over forty years!), and secretary, he also served as President of the ANFC for eleven years. It was no surprise when a grandstand at Victoria Park was named in his honour.
Joe Slater (left): Although his career, and subsequently his life, was cut short by the Great War, this dashing half-back had already achieved enough on the football field to warrant his place among the greatest players of the era, and a spot in Geelong’s team of the century.
Tom ‘Red’ Smith: The forgotten man of the quartet that framed the first set of rules of Australian football, the Irish-born classics master of Scotch College was an important contributor to the early game, as a participant (including as captain of Melbourne), a promoter within the public schools, and as an administrator.
Bill Strickland (left): Best remembered as Collingwood’s first ever premiership captain (in 1896) and an inspirational leader of the club through its formative years, he did in fact spend most of his playing career at Carlton where he was a star throughout the 1880s. Recruited from Brunswick.
James Thompson: This English-born sportsman was a seminal figure in the development of the game. Initially as a drafter of the first set of rules and then as Melbourne Football Club secretary and subsequently sports editor of the Argus, he was among the most influential. Without men like him and Hammersley the Australian game we know today may not have come into being, let alone survived its formative years.
Jack ‘JJ’ Trait: The man who set the standard for all the umpires that followed, he was universally regarded as the greatest umpire of the 19th century. A VFA umpire for ten years, he was regularly invited to officiate at important interstate contests because he was the man in white that all sides trusted. His omission from the HOF is a complete clanger.
Percy Trotter (right): One of the last men to play with a cap, Fitzroy ‘old-timers’ thought little separated him from Haydn Bunton, a view shared by umpire Jack Elder and commentator Rod McGregor, who proclaimed him the best player of the 1900-1920 era. At his peak he crossed to Essendon ‘A’ in the VFA and subsequently completed his career with East Fremantle. He turned to umpiring, and also played in the famed AIF game in 1916.
Robert Wallace (aka ‘Peter Pindar’): Another of the Australasian’s impressive and influential stable of commentators and perhaps the most significant in the sense that he wrote at a time when the game was evolving from a minor sport in the 1860s to the winter game of Southern Australia in the mid-1880s. He set the standard for football writing for the next fifty years.
George Watson: A key figure in Geelong’s dominance from the late 1870s, he was, according to The Footballer, ‘a splendid kick and fast runner, the heavy-weight of the team, first class in every point of the game’. Famous for his tussles with Carlton champ, Coulthard.
Jimmy Wilson (left): Described in the 1881 edition of The Footballer as ‘the best all-round player in the colony’, all reports indicate that the Geelong skipper was, along with Coulthard, the dominant player of the 1875-84 decade. As physically powerful as he was naturally skilled, he was the driving force behind four Pivotonian premierships. Later a Geelong president and famed horse trainer, he is honoured at 'Legends Plaza', Kardinia Park.
George Vautin (right): Renowned for his pace, elusiveness and guile, he was already a star performer in Tasmania when he arrived at Essendon in 1890. He proved his worth and much more, going on to become one of the great rovers of the 1890s, and a pivotal figure in four ‘Same Old’ flags.
The ‘outsiders’ stake their claim
As for those forgotten champions who made their most significant mark in the ‘outer’ states, their chances of induction appear even more remote than the aforementioned stars of the Victorian competitions. Since its inception, this cohort, perhaps best described as ‘the outsiders’ (as it also includes Victorians who made their mark in the VFA and other competitions outside the V/AFL), has been underrepresented in the HOF, and none more so than that subset of ‘outsiders’ who are also ‘dark agers’. Their representation is in fact abysmal—seven out of 251 to be precise, or 2.8%—with the aforementioned Reedman, Daly, MacKenzie, Christy (via Ballarat and Melbourne), Truscott, Gorringe, and Matson being the only men deemed worthy.
Recent changes in the composition of the HOF selection panel has made it less Victorian-centric—and there is clear evidence from recent inductions that the change is having the desired effect—a positive sign that the AFL has listened to the raising chorus of complaint from the outer states. Indeed, it is fair to assume that under the old Victorian dominated panel, the likes of Brian Peake, Rick Davies, and Graham Cornes would never have stood a chance of induction. That they have been inducted on the strength of their W/SANFL careers alone is a move in keeping with the mandate given to the HOF to induct outstanding performers on a national basis regardless of league.
This more ‘Australia-wide’ approach to the history of the game augers well for aspiring post 1930 players such as Ted Tyson, Frank Jenkins, Jerry Dolan, Bernie Naylor, Ern Henfry, Ray Sorrell, Austin Robertson Jnr, and Mel Whinnen from the West, Terry Cashion, John Leedham, and Jack Rough from Tasmania, and Laurie Cahill, Jack Broadstock, Ian McKay, Jim Deane, Ron Phillips, John Marriot, Peter Darley, Paul Bagshaw, and Garry McIntosh from South Australia, among others. It’s a moot point, however, whether the arguably even more deserving pre-1925 men from the outer states will be given equal consideration. Some of the most prominent of these men are:
John Acraman (right): This english-born pioneer is ‘arguably the single most pivotal figure in the inception of organised football in Adelaide’, and exerted significant influence on the development of the game in that colony as a player, administrator, and sponsor.
Bill Bateman (left): A Fremantle local who learned the game at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, and returned to the West to become the leading player, multiple premiership captain, and chief promoter of the code (along with his brother, Charles). His importance to the game in WA cannot be overstated, indeed without his considerable influence that state would probably be playing Rugby now!
Bruce Carter (right): An official ‘Tasmanian icon’, this famed captain-coach led ten senior teams to premierships in the period 1903 to 1916 and was arguably the best player in the state, which he also captained and coached at the 1908 carnival where he won the award for Tasmania’s best player.
Arthur Collinson (left): Widely considered to be the father of the game in Queensland, he held every senior position with the Queensland League over a 35-year stint. Born in Victoria, he was an accomplished player and highly respected umpire, and is an official ‘legend’ in the Queensland Football Hall of Fame.
Billy Cundy: This Victorian-born pioneer was instrumental in having ‘Victorian rules’ adopted in Tasmania in 1879 (by one vote) and was the first star of the game in the Apple Isle, playing throughout the 1880s. He returned to Ballarat and continued to dominate the game in that region.
Anthony ‘Bos’ Daly (left): Brother of ‘Bunny’, ‘Bos’ was the champion goal-kicker of SA football in the pre-Great War period, scoring over 556 goals at 2.6 per game at a time when six or seven goals was a good team total. A member of seven premiership teams, he kicked an astonishing 23 goals in a game in 1893, a record since equalled (by Ken Farmer) but never beaten.
Billy ‘Doddy’ Dedman: Another Carlton champ of the 1870s who was enticed to Norwood when that club was building its star-studded team, he was undoubtedly the most successful goal-sneaks of his day and was justly ‘famous for his superb accuracy and agility on the forward line’. He later became a leading administrator of the VFA.
Charles Eady (left): Better known as a cricketer, he was also one of the greatest ever Tasmanian footballers. According to Jack Worrall he was as just “about as fine a defender as I have ever seen. He was a giant, and active, brilliant in the air, and was a lovely long kick”. He later became a widely respected administrator, serving two stints (totaling 25 years) as President of the Tasmanian Australian National Football League.
Frank Golding (right): Originally from Perth, Sturt’s stalwart full-back was the first man to play 200 games in the SANFL and was regarded by many as ‘the best goalkeeper in Australia’ when he retired in 1928, although he had spent his early years as a forward.
Barney Grecian (left): Originally from Geelong, this dashing and highly-skilled wingman made his name with Essendon in two premiership wins before joining the movement west. He became captain of West Perth, leading them to two flags and establishing himself as among the leading players in the new state.
Jack ‘Snowy’ Hamilton (right): Perhaps the most electrifying and sought-after player of the immediate post-Great war period, this North Adelaide champ combined with Scott and Moriarty to form an outstanding SA half-back line, before heading West and starring with Subiaco. Many astute judges regarded him as one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Sampson ‘Shine’ Hosking (left): One of the fiercest competitors to ever lace on a boot, the Port Adelaide strong man managed to win two Magarey medals despite his ‘robust’ style of play. He played in four Port premiership teams and coached the Magpies to a further three flags. He helped create the template of Port Adelaide football later built upon by Fos Williams.
Charles Kingston (right): A driving force in the creation of the SAFA in 1877 and its adoption of ‘Victorian rules’ over other competing claims, he was President of South Adelaide from 1880 until his death in 1908. Premier of South Australia in the 1890s, he was also an instigator of Federation and an architect of the White Australia policy.
Tom Leahy (left): Known throughout Australia as ‘the prince of ruckmen’ he was arguably the most widely celebrated footballer produced in South Australia prior to the TV age. Jack Worrall said of him, “I have never seen a more able ruckman, or a fairer”. Nonetheless, a dozen ruckmen from the mid-1970s have been inducted in the HOF in preference to him, making a mockery of historical balance.
Frank Marlow (left): After twenty years building the South Adelaide football club, he became secretary of the SANFL in 1912, a position he held until his death in 1935. He lived for the game and was a pivotal figure in the development of footy in his state, where his exclusion from the HOF remains a mystery.
Bruce McGregor: One of Broken Hill’s greatest exports, he made his way to West Adelaide and was an immediate sensation. The winner of back-to-back Magarey medals in 1926 and 1927, he was an automatic selection for the state, before heading to Tasmania as Captain-coach of North Hobart. On his return, he led perennial losers Glenelg to an unlikely flag in 1934.
Harold Oliver (right): In the words of Vic Richardson, this Port Adelaide high-flyer was ‘the finest all-round exponent of Australian football in my playing and watching experience of it’, and was widely acknowledged as the best player never to win a Magarey. A star of the 1911 carnival, he captained Port to the 1921 flag.
Billy Orr (left): Originally from Victoria, he was an outstanding rover with several WAFL clubs before 1915, and after war service returned to become secretary of the WAFL for the next thirty-five years. He was a driving force behind the development of football in that state, and is also regarded as the father of the WA Amateur Football league.
Tom Outridge (right): Originally from Ballarat, via the goldfields, this great Subiaco follower is best remembered now as the first winner of the Sandover Medal, although he was in fact the dominant ruckman in the West for over a decade. He excelled against the best and his encounters with the likes of Cazaly, Leahy, and Con McCarthy at state level were legendary.
George ‘Staunch’ Owens (left): This versatile rucking utility was for many years regarded as the best player to come out of the West, and is surely the greatest from that state not to be in the HOF. The 1925 Sandover medalist, he helped lead East Perth to seven flags, and later become an umpire, officiating in five WAFL grand finals.
James Phelan (right): Widely credited as the father of Australian football in Sydney (along with Harry Hedger), he migrated there from Hotham in the 1880s and soon became involved in promoting the Australian code. Such were his tireless efforts over the next fifty years that without him the game may well have died several times over. The Sydney league’s top individual award bears his name.
Ralph Robertson (left): The greatest ever Sydney-based footballer, this British-born rover started his career with St Kilda, before work commitments took him north. There he established himself as a bona fide champion, not only in the local competition but also in over 30 appearances for the state. Captain of NSW at the 1908, 1911, and 1914 carnivals (winning the Referee Medal), he was killed in action in Egypt when his fighter collided with another aircraft.
Joe Traynor (right): After starring with Hotham in the 1870s, he was one of a number of leading Victorian players enticed to the fledgling Norwood club in Adelaide. There he enhanced his already considerable reputation by becoming the outstanding follower in the colony and helping his new team dominate the competition well into the 1880s.
Jack Tredrea (left): South Adelaide’s champion utility for over twenty years to 1922, he was so admired by Collingwood coach Jock McHale for his tough no-nonsense but fair approach to the game that his picture hung in the Magpie rooms for many years. Always first picked for the state, he was one of the best exponents of the stab pass.
Alfred ‘Topsy’ Waldron (right): A Carlton star in the mid-1870s, he was recruited to Norwood in 1879 and was the captain of that club during its premiership domination of the 1880s. Regarded throughout Australia as the best captain of his time, he led the Redlegs to a famous 3-0 victory over VFA premiers South Melbourne in 1888 to claim the Championship of Australia.
John ‘JJ’ Woods: A legend of the Norwood club, he was another of the Redlegs great stars of the 1880s. Jack Worrall said of him ‘a centre man, had power, pace, and resolution equal to the best. If he had been a Melbourne player his name would have been handed down as a champion’. He subsequently became the leading umpire in the state, as well as secretary, treasurer, and benefactor to his old club.
Although the above list of seventy five ‘old timers’ from around Australia is not meant to be definitive or exhaustive, it is meant to serve as basis from which further discussion and debate can occur, and more specifically to bring these men to the attention of the Hall of Fame and the football public in general. No one is left to speak on their behalf, and very few footy people seem to be either informed enough or interested enough to lobby for their inclusion in the Hall. That is a great shame, and if interest can be sparked and debate started, then this article has served its purpose.
There are slightly better prospects for the missing greats of the next generation on from the dark agers, those of the 1925 to 1955 era who at least have a modicum of living memory behind them and enduring reputations within their former clubs to support them. Men such as Jim Bohan, Harold Bray, Reg Burgess, Wally Buttsworth, Jack Collins, Dennis and Don Cordner, Bert Deacon, Keith Forbes, Les Hardiman, Jack Howell, Allan Geddes, Frank Maker, Neil Mann, Basil McCormack, Thorold Merrett, Bert Mills, Alby Morrison, Doug Nicholls, Tommy Quinn, Neil Roberts, Jim Ross, Des Rowe, Harold Rumney, Keith Shea, Len Smith, Bill Stephen, Gordon Strang, and Marcus Whelan, in addition to the group of ‘interstaters’ listed previously, certainly deserve to be considered at the very least. As for Ron Todd, the most egregious omission of this cohort, one gets the feeling that it’s only a matter of time before the committee comes to its senses and admits one of the greatest forwards ever to play the game.
As for potential new inductees over the next few years, it is the selection committee’s job to induct the best of best of the recently retired, and with that strict standard in mind the likes of Simon Black, Ben Cousins, Brad Johnson, Andrew McLeod, Matthew Richardson, Matthew Scarlett, and Warren Tredrea should be elevated, followed in four to five years’ time (depending on when they retire) by champions such as Jonathan Brown, Dean Cox, Cory Enright, Adam Goodes, Brent Harvey, Chris Judd, Matthew Pavlich, and Nick Riewoldt, to name some of the more obvious candidates. That is one of the functions of the HOF and one that it performs reasonably well. The problem comes when instead of ensuring fair representation across 150 years of the game, the selectors plough back into the already over-represented recent decades to fill in the gaps.
Based on the selection policies over recent times, there is little doubt that unless pressure is brought to bear on the committee, it is very unlikely that any more pre-1925 men will be inducted into the HOF. Instead, there will be more gap filling. If, for example, it comes down to a choice between Garry Lyon and Fred McGinis, Wayne Johnston and Jack Baker, Geoff Raines and Hughie James, Kelvin Templeton and Joe Marmo, Stan Alves and Billy Hannaysee, Brent Crosswell and Syd Barker, Alastair Lynch and Percy Trotter, Mike Sheahan and Peter Pindar, Mike Fitzpatrick and Tom Outridge, or Andrew Demetriou and Con Hickey, we can safely assume which men will get the nod! Worthy candidates though these modern names are, they (and the other post-war candidates still being considered) should be made to wait their turn in line so that their footballing ancestors are allowed to take their rightful place at the front of the queue.
- A list of all those inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, up to and including 2017, can be found here.
- The central tenet of this article was first expressed by this author in a piece called, 'The case for australianfootball.com' was which published on this website on 22 June 2012. That article can be found here.
- I am indebted to an article written in 1996 by Bernard Whimpress, and republished on this site, 'AFL Hall Of Fame - See Victoria', for this insight and for other reflections on the biases of the HOF. That article is available here.
- I consulted many sources to gather together the following lists, most specifically the newspaper and journals of the day, accessed via the NLA's Trove project and also through the State Library of Victoria. Of the secondary sources, I'd like to acknowledge particularly Mark Pennings' great research work 'Origins of Australian Football: Victoria's Early Years', a review of which can be found here, as well as www.blueseum.org, the best club history site on the net. A special mention also to John Devaney of Full Points Publications. I have used numerous snippets from his work (which can be found throughout this site) in creating these profiles. He is invariably spot on with his assessments.