Football has long been a key part of the way-of-life for huge numbers of Australians and its impact goes right back to the mid and late-19th century.
With the old VFA (Victorian Football Association) in full flight in the 1870s and 1880s Geelong played a series of games in Sydney in July 1882. A squad of 23 players travelled by train from Melbourne to Sydney arriving at the old Redfern station. Sydney’s Central station had still to be constructed.
So how did the visiting players and officials travel from the station to their digs. Well, they were driven in two drags (big horses and carts) to the Cambridge Hotel in Oxford Street.
As my old e-mail correspondent and footy historian Dr ‘Rocket’ Rod Gillett (he played in the Bendigo league with Rochester back in the day) has noted players in the struggling code in NSW were never really a match for strong Melbourne district clubs.
Geelong played four games starting with a Saturday fixture against East Sydney at the SCG – a match marred by heavy rain throughout play. Officials mulled over whether they should call the match off, but it continued on even though players were flat out holding onto the slippery ball. The non-stop rain restricted the crowd size to just 300 and Geelong won comfortably: 7.15 to East Sydney 0.7. Back in the 1880s only goals were counted in the scores although behinds for both sides were regularly shown in the newspapers’ published results.
On to Tuesday and the visitors were drawn to play the Sydney club, also at the SCG, but this time in fine weather. Newspaper reports recorded the crowd size this time as between 500 to 600 and Geelong crushed Sydney 15.22 to 1.1. Sydney wore a blue uniform with scarlet caps and hose (socks). A team photo of Geelong taken in front of the SCG grandstand shows only three Geelong players wearing their white and navy blue caps. The rest were lying on the benches beside or at the back of the group.
Charles Brownlow, after whom the AFL’s Brownlow Medal is named, played for Geelong in both opening SCG matches.
On Thursday it was back to the SCG for the Geelong-Petersham match, although the opposition this time was a minor grade side which lasted for three seasons only in the Sydney competition. The team was captained by Fred Wedd who had played with Melbourne earlier in his career and had also represented Victoria. Reports of the match indicated that Petersham had “included a few local talented ring-ins to make up their number.” Again Geelong won pretty easily: 5.17 to 0.2.
A tougher proposition loomed for the visitors in their final scheduled game, also at the SCG.
This time the NSW team, selected from the 100 or so footballers playing in Sydney at the time, would be the opposition. A respectable crowd of around 3,000 was on hand after special trams had been put on to transport spectators from the city and from the eastern suburbs of Sydney to the SCG.
Former Melbourne club skipper RB Sibley captained the NSW side “which pushed Geelong more strenuously than the sides they’d played in their three previous games,” the match report stated. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that: “Sydney players were believed to have been profitably instructed by the illustrations of Geelong’s intimate knowledge of the game, and hopes were also expressed that their visit to Sydney would be repeated.”
The Geelong contingent left Sydney the next day bound for Albury where they were scheduled to play a match against a local (today’s Ovens and Murray) representative team.
And Geelong continued on with its dominance of the VFA upon return to Melbourne. The Pivotonians had won the 1878-79-1880 flags and were to win again in 1882 after their NSW trip en route to another treble: 1882-83-84. Then they went through the 1886 season undefeated winning 24 matches and drawing three. In summary, between 1878 to the end of 1886 Geelong played 236 games, winning 190, drawing 27 and losing just 19.
Hugh McLean of Geelong won the 1882 club goalkicking tally with 29, although by 1886 his teammate Phil McShane took out top honours with a much bigger total of 51 goals.
Three other clubs were prominent in the early days of the VFA.
South Melbourne was the top club in 1881 and 1885 and again in a treble from 1888-90.
Essendon went one better than Geelong and South with their threes-in-a-row winning four consecutive premierships from 1891 to 1894.
Footscray weighed in with a treble winning from 1898 to 1900 but by then, of course, the fledgling VFL was up and running – from 1897 onwards. The Dogs weren’t admitted to VFL ranks (along with North Melbourne and Hawthorn) until 1925.
More to come on lookbacks in footy from a NSW perspective. Material from Time On, the journal of the NSW Australian Football History Society headed by Dr ‘Rocket’ Rodney Gillett and Ian Granland.