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Top Navy Blues forward Mick Grace

South Melbourne's Bill Strang

Carlton's Martin Gotz

Harold Lampe (South Melbourne).

Carlton wingman George Bruce

So Near And Yet So Far For South - VFL round 5, Monday 4th June 1906: Carlton versus South Melbourne at Princes Park

Ever since John Worrall had been appointed coach of Carlton in 1902 the Blues had shown steady improvement. In 1903 they qualified for the VFL finals for the first time, ultimately finishing third, and the following year came second to Fitzroy. In 1905 they dropped back to third, albeit that their tally of 12 wins for the season was a record for the club since the inception of the VFL.


It should not be imagined that Worrall's time at the tiller was always storm-free. On at least two occasions in the months leading up to the start of the 1906 he had to withstand acrimonious criticism from factions within the club who felt he was going about things the wrong way:


While the records of the day are rather sketchy, the basis of the charge against Worrall appears to have been that he insisted on a Spartan discipline in the Carlton side. Research among the records of other League clubs show that discipline was a quality new to League football, and that the slaphappy methods of the 'nineties persisted among some of them.[1]


Apart from finishing runner-up in 1899 South Melbourne's VFL fortunes had not been noteworthy. The team tended to be blighted by inconsistency: capable of beating the ladder leader one week, and then losing to the bottom club in the league the next.


In 1906 Carlton set out its stall from the off, winning its first four matches of the season, against Melbourne, St Kilda, Geelong and Collingwood. South had also made a strong start to the season, with the side's only reversal coming in round four against Melbourne, when the margin was a mere 5 points. When Carlton met South in round five at Princes Park therefore a close game was expected, although many observers expected South to give a solid account of themselves.


An excellent match ensued, watched by a then record crowd for Princes Park of in the region of 35,000 spectators. The Melbourne tram system was incapable of dealing with the strain, and thousands of people ended up walking to the ground.  Shortly after the start of the match the gates had to be closed "because every square yard of that ample enclosure which would give people a view of the match was densely packed.[2]  According to "The Australasian", "the marking, kicking, and hand-play could with difficulty be surpassed" and "In the air South had the call, and their hand passing was brisker and more accurate than Carlton's. The latter, however, more than made up what they lost in these regards by being the quicker to the ball, and the abler generally in ground work".[3]


Carlton started the match the stronger, demonstrating superior teamwork and greater surety near goal. At the first change the Blues led by 7 points, 4.2 (26) to 3.1 (19). The deficit was reduced early in the second term when McGee goaled for South with a neat drop kick. Carlton rallied, however, and the two remaining goals for the quarter went their way, courtesy of Topping and Grace. As half time approached South began to dominate in general play but could not translate their superiority into goals. The long break arrived with Carlton enjoying a 2 goal buffer, 6.4 (40) to South's 4.4 (28).


The third term opened with South still in the ascendancy and shortly after the resumption Kerr notched their fifth goal. South were dominating possession with a combination of slick short passes and deft use of handball, and although the navy blues managed a couple of minor scores, goals to McGee and Mortimer gave the southerners a 4 point advantage. Carlton were so far behind the eight ball at this juncture that defeat appeared probable. However, in the clsoing minutes they rallied, adding 2.2 to go into the final change with a 10 point lead, 8.8 (56) to 7.4 (46).


The fourth quarter saw some scintillating football from both teams. Early on Strang, with a prodigious punt kick, reduced the margin to 4 points, but Carlton responded almost immediately with another goal from Mick Grace. Play surged from end to end and it was anybody's guess which side would be next to goal. Eventually it was South who broke the deadlock thanks to a superb goal from an angle by Kerr, who appeared to be struggling somewhat with a leg injury, and in view of this seemed anxious to pass to a team mate. However, on realising that South had no free men in their forward lines, he took the shot himself and was possibly the most surprised person in the ground when he goaled. Shortly afterwards the red and whites had an excellent chance to take the lead but McGee's shot from straight in front sailed wide of the mark. There then followed the goal of the match from Carlton's South Australian wingman George Bruce who made no mistake after a long, weaving run.


With barely a minute left, Ricketts goaled for South to reduce their deficit to just 4 points. From the ensuing centre bounce the red and whites surged into attack but their progress was stalled when umpire Norden awarded Carlton a free kick. Before the kick could be taken, the final bell rang out.


It had been an excellent match, with the Blues' steely determination in defence the face of relentless attacking from South probably the decisive factor. Writing in "The Argus", Observer highlighted the closeness of the contest by writing "On the scores Carlton won by four points, but on the play It was just a toss up which side was entitled to victory".[4] In a game of many fine performances Carlton defenders Norman Clark and Martin Gotz. Mick Grace, who with 4 goals was the game's top scorer, was also prominent for the Blues,[5] as were Bruce and McGregor across the centre. South's best player was probably rover Charlie Ricketts, while other good performances came from follower cum forward Bill Strang, centreman Billy McGee and burly defender Harold Lampe.


For Carlton, the 1906 season represented the onset of one of the club's greatest ever eras. At season's end the Blues annihilated reigning premier Fitzroy by 45 points in the premiership decider. This was followed by further flags in 1907 and 1908, making Carlton the first club to go top in the VFL three times in a row. Meanwhile, South Melbourne would get within 5 points of Carlton in the 1907 premiership play-off before breaking through for a first ever VFL flag two seasons later.


FOOTNOTES


[1]  The Carlton Story by Hugh Buggy and Harold Bell, page 98. I am personally very dubious indeed about claims that Worrall was quite as innovative as Buggy and Bell suggest. Geelong, for example, rose to the fore as early as the 1870s largely on the strength of highly disciplined, scientific, one might almost say "Spartan" training methods.


[2] "The Argus", Tuesday 5th June 1906, page 5.


[3] "The Australasian", Saturday 9th June 1906, page 22.


[4] "The Argus", op cit, page 5.


[5]  Mick Grace went on to become the top goalkicker in the league for 1906, with 45 goals in the home and away rounds plus another 5 during the finals. He thus became the first player to kick 50 goals in a season in the VFL.