Ararat Football Club can trace its history as far back as 1871, but only internal scratch matches were engaged in at this time. Over the remainder of the nineteenth century the club appears to have been active only sporadically, contesting a mixture of relaxed, informal ‘friendly’ games and semi-formal challenge matches, when a trophy or cup of some sort was at stake. The opposition in these affairs mainly comprised teams from towns within a 100 kilometre radius of Ararat, such as Stawell, Beaufort, Horsham, Murtoa, Ballarat, Hamilton and Lake Bolac.
Regular organised competition arrived in the Wimmera region in 1902 in the shape of the Wimmera District Football Association, of which the Ararat Football Club was one of four inaugural members. During the pre-world war one period the club enjoyed considerable success, claiming no fewer than seven premierships. It also endured its share of hardship, and in 1910 even had to withdraw from the competition because of a lack of players.
Organised football resumed after the war in 1920, and Ararat promptly added another premiership. Captained by Austin ‘Whelan’ Carroll, the side clinched its success with a 6.13 (49) to 4.8 (32) challenge final defeat of Stawell. The match was tightly contested except for the second quarter when Ararat produced a decisive burst of 3 goals to nil.
In 1924 Ararat upset its fellow Wimmera-based clubs by securing a transfer to the much stronger Ballarat competition, where it spent five seasons, losing slightly more matches than it won, but overall creating a good impression. It was a costly exercise, however, and at the end of the 1928 season the Rats elected to cut their losses and return to the Wimmera League, only to find the door slammed in their face by clubs still simmering over their defection of five years earlier. It was to be twelve months before this decision was rescinded, forcing Ararat to spend the entire 1929 season in temporary abeyance.
Ironically, just four seasons after resuming in the Wimmera League Ararat found itself once again preparing for regular trips to Ballarat following the amalgamation of the Ballarat and Wimmera competitions to form the Ballarat-Wimmera Football League. This proved to be a short-lived arrangement, however, and in 1937 the status quo was restored. Ararat has been a stalwart member of the Wimmera Football League, as the competition became known at this time, ever since.
The decade between 1949 and 1958 saw the Rats assuming a degree of dominance never previously equalled in the Wimmera competition. With former Oakleigh, Carlton and Fitzroy player Clen Denning pulling the strings as coach Ararat led at every change in the 1949 grand final against Stawell, finally winning by 6 goals, 12.12 (84) to 6.12 (38). A losing grand final against the same opposition followed in 1950 before ex-Oakleigh and Essendon big man Ron Jory steered the side to a grinding, hard fought 7.9 (51) to 5.9 (39) grand final win over Minyip the next year.
Only twice in the entire history of the WFL has a club won four successive senior premierships. Ararat, coached by Percy Bushby (formerly of Essendon and Coburg), was the first club to do so, beating Horsham (which would become the second club, and which would indeed go on to claim six in a row) in the grand final of 1955, Minyip in 1956, Horsham again in 1957, and Dimboola in 1958. Prominent figures in the Rats team at this time included ruckman Jim Bonner, big forward Jack Clark, wingman John Antonio, centreman Gerry Brennan, utility Jim Pearce, and defenders Arthur Clark, Bill Gleeson and Noel Boatman.
By comparison with this halcyon phase in the Rats’ history the 1960s proved quite grim, with second place in 1964 under Brian ‘Muncher’ Molony their best finish. The 1970s brought considerable improvement, however, with four grand final appearances for two premierships. This was followed by two grand final clashes with Horsham in the 1980s, the first, in 1986, being won by 13 points, but the second three years later resulting in a crushing defeat by 51 points after scores had been deadlocked at the half.
Since 1989 the club’s already enviable tradition has continued to be enhanced by regular finals appearances and participation in another five grand finals, of which those of 1999 and 2001 were won. In 2006, the seniors reached the first semi final, while both the reserves and under seventeens won their respective premierships, evincing the strength in depth that has long been the Rats’ trademark. A year later, the under seventeens again went top, while the under fourteens fell short by just a couple of points in their grand final clash with Horsham Saints. The 2008 season brought finals qualification in fourth place for the seniors but premiership aspirations were promptly ruined by Horsham Saints who won a high scoring elimination final by the comfortable margin of 38 points. The under seventeens and under fourteens also contested the finals, with the former losing their grand final to Horsham Demons, and the latter ultimately finishing fourth.
Since 2009 the Rats have qualified for the finals half a dozen times with a best finishing position of third in 2018-19. The last five seasons have seen them come fifth (2015), sixth (both 2016 and 2017), and third (both 2018 and 2019). Having spent the 2020 season in mothballs because of the coronavirus pandemic the Rats will be hopeful of adding to their flag haul in 2021.
With a total of eleven senior WFL premierships to its credit Ararat stands second on the all time list to Horsham (twenty-five). Moreover, the club also claimed a record seven WDFA flags (one more than Stawell) before commencing in the WFL.
Finally, over the years more than fifty players have either joined V/AFL clubs after commencing their football with Ararat, or joined Ararat once their V/AFL careers were over, a record that few country clubs come close to matching.
John Devaney - Full Points Publications