The Bendigo Football Netball League, formerly known simply as the Bendigo Football Association, encompasses a fairly long list of clubs which once belonged to it.
From foundation member Bendigo, which won premierships (finishing on top of the ladder) in the opening season of 1880 and then in 1888 and 1892, to one-season wonders such as Golden Square Imperials (1904), there’s a bunch of clubs whose players were only on the ovals around Bendigo for short periods.
Before I examine a few of them in more detail consider this list: Ironbark (1882-83), Long Gully Alberts (1888-June 1889), Coachbuilders (1880-1885), Charing Cross (1883-84), North Bendigo (1888-1897) and North Sandhurst (1891-93).
California Gully (1904-1913) and Long Gully (1906-1913) lasted for reasonably longer periods than many of those earlier organisations with Long Gully one of the three clubs in the newest of the two split associations in the early 1900s: the new Bendigo and Northern District Football Association.
The BNDFA played out the bizarre 1906 season alongside the established Bendigo Football Association.
More on that later but first back to the late 19th century. There were a variety of teams competing in 1880, a few of them from places of employment (Coachbuiders and Pickwicks), plus sides from the High School, the Civil Service and the School of Mines.
There were no finals in those early days with the team finishing on top of the ladder being declared that season’s champions. Advertiser reports of the day often mention a “best team” rather than a “premiership team” as we do today.
Bendigo finished on top with nine wins, two draws and a loss from its 12 games. Sandhurst managed just three wins and two draws from its 10 games while in the cellar with no wins but two draws from its three completed games in 1880 was Epsom.
Incidentally the Coachbuilders club comprised men who worked on constructing coaches, wagons, carts and gigs, all pulled by horses, a decade-and-a-half before the advent of the motor car.
By 1890 the BFA structure comprised five clubs – Sandhurst, Eaglehawk, Bendigo, North Sandhurst and North Bendigo – with matches played at Canterbury Park, the Upper Reserve and the Showgrounds (now the Tom Floods Sports Centre). The major rivalry early in the decade was between Sandhurst in maroon and blue guernseys and Bendigo whose players wore blue and red.
And then by the mid-Nineties Eaglehawk was the top club.
Able to draw on a host of young men employed around the area’s gold mines as far out as the Loddon Valley link road Eaglehawk went on a five-season winning spree finishing on top in five seasons: 1894-1898. Their dominance is evident from the final scores of an 1894 fixture against North Bendigo when the Two Blues won 10.10 to 0.8.
South Bendigo joined the BFA in 1893 and remains the only club to have continued every season since without a period of recess.
The Bloods and Eaglehawk dominated the Association from 1894 to 1905 with South the top club five times and Eaglehawk on top in seven seasons.
Sadly, foundation club Bendigo was starting to struggle with its numbers. The club wasn’t able to field a team in the last few rounds of the 1898 season, then recovered somewhat but by 1906 it was wound up.
This was the era when splits of all kinds happened.
Eaglehawk formed its own association in 1904 following a dispute late the previous year about a South player’s eligibility. In a 1903 match Eaglehawk claimed Bloods’ player Gallagher was ineligible to play and the BFA agreed and awarded the game points to Eaglehawk. But, after an appeal by South, a special BFA board dismissed the appeal leading to Eaglehawk’s withdrawal from the Association.
The Two Blues formed their own association the following season (1904) leaving the BFA with Bendigo, South Bendigo, California Gully, West Bendigo (1904-07) and one-season wonder, Golden Square Imperials.
Formerly known as the Young Colonials Cal Gully had strong junior members and actually played off with South Bendigo in the very first official BFA grand final in September 1904.
South won 4.13 (37) to California Gully’s 3.5 (23) with the low scoring attributed to the sodden state of the Upper Reserve after a big thunderstorm had hit earlier in the day.
Eaglehawk returned for the 1905 season after Imperials had folded but the same two clubs fought out the grand final.
Another poor standard grand final was played in 1905 but that wasn’t the big story from that day.
South won 3.9 (27) to California Gully’s 2.5 (17) with officials of the two clubs deciding to keep the entire grand final gate takings, share it between themselves and not offer a single penny to the other BFA clubs. This caused an enormous kerfuffle. The Association decided to expel both clubs leading to an amazing set-up for the 1906 season.
The newly formed Bendigo and Northern District Football Association came into being with member clubs South Bendigo, Long Gully and California Gully. The old, established BFA had only Eaglehawk, Bendigo and West Bendigo as member clubs and in the ’06 grand final the Two Blues downed West 8.9 (57) to 1.7 (13).
Sadly Bendigo wound up – or rather, disbanded – before the 1907 season got underway. The Red and Blues were the last of the foundation or early season clubs to bite the dust. The 1906 season was their 26th and final year.
But there was to be one more sensation before the first decade of the 20th century wound up.
Long Gully made it to the grand final in 1908 after winning in 1907 – the first club other than South or Eaglehawk to win the BFA flag since 1893. Favourites in 1908 they lost (to Eaglehawk) before an inquiry into the poor form and lacklustre displays from several Gully players was established. An inquiry found that a number of Long Gully footballers “had not played to their full potential” and the hearing panel-members said “that was something which could not be condoned.” After a public outcry involving a number of letters to the editor of the Bendigo Advertiser the charged players were kicked out of the league.
So match fixing is not just a 21st century phenomenon, it would seem.
Next up: another new club, Bendigo City, provides one of the two BFL all-time goalkicking legends: Dave Mahoney. In 1913 playing in a semi-final for Bendigo City (a club which only lasted 1912-1915) against California Gully Mahoney booted 24 goals. It was the top tally in the league to that date and still equal best.
Mahoney had played two games for Richmond in 1911 before returning to central Victoria.
And 1913 marks the year that the local footy competition becomes officially known as the Bendigo Football League.
[Additional material for this article, added to my own data, from Steven Oliver’s and Darren Lewis’ booklet: 130 Years of BFNL History 1880-2010, published 2012]