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Bill Griffith of Essendon

Fitzroy's Fred Fontaine

Same Old Hang On - VFL 1st Play-off, Saturday 31st August 1901: Essendon versus Fitzroy at Victoria Park

The Victorian Football League in 1901 comprised eight clubs. Over the course of the season, these clubs first played 14 home and away matches, one of each against every other team. After that, the teams occupying first, third, fifth and seventh places on the premiership ladder formed section A, while those in second, fourth, sixth and eighth places constituted section B. Each team then played the other three teams in its section once, with the results of those matches being added to the results of the home and away matches to form the final premiership ladder. This represented a departure from the system used the previous year, which had generated considerable controversy. In 1900, finals participation had been determined by a team’s record in the sectional matches, with its results during the home and away series being used merely to determine in which of the two sections it would compete. Theoretically therefore, it would have been possible to finish bottom of the ladder without a win in 14 home and away games but then go on to claim the flag after a successful sectional campaign followed by back to back wins in the finals. Although this did not happen, what actually transpired was nevertheless, in the view of the vast majority of football supporters, grossly unfair. Melbourne was a mediocre performer during the home and away season, but still proved able to qualify for the finals on the strength of a sound showing in its sectional matches. Overall, Melbourne won 8 of its 17 home and away and sectional fixtures, compared to Geelong’s tally of 11 wins and 6 defeats. Both teams qualified for section B, and won 2 out of 3 matches, as did Collingwood. The three teams were thus separated only on the basis of percentage, with Melbourne coming top, the Magpies second, and the Pivotonians, despite their superior season long record, in third place, and out of the finals.  The unfairness of the system was further emphasised when Melbourne actually went on to win the premiership.

There would be no such unfairness and controversy in 1901, as the four clubs with the best overall win-loss record ended up contesting the finals. The identity of those four clubs remained in doubt until the very last round of sectional matches, with the section B clash between Fitzroy and Melbourne at Brunswick Street determining which of the two clubs would ultimately claim fourth position. In a low scoring affair, reigning premier Melbourne led narrowly at every change by margins of 3, 3 and 5 points before a last quarter surge by the Maroons yielded 3.6 to a goal and secured victory, and with it major round participation, by a margin of 13 points, 4.13 (37) to 3.6 (24).

Fourth place on the premiership ladder meant that Fitzroy would be playing the second placed club in a sudden-death play-off.[1] That club proved to be Essendon, which won 12 out of 17 matches to finish ahead of Collingwood on percentage. Since the establishment of the VFL in 1897 the Same Old had been consistently strong, winning the new competition’s inaugural premiership, and only once failing to contest the finals. Overall, during the 1890s Essendon had been far and away the most successful club in top level Victorian football, finishing top of the VFA in 1891-2-3-4 in addition to capturing the aforementioned 1897 VFL flag.

During the 1901 home and away series, Essendon and Fitzroy met in round 3 at East Melbourne and round 10 at Brunswick Street. On both occasions, victory went to the visiting side. In round 3, Fitzroy trailed for most of the match, but finished strongly to sneak home by 3 points. By contrast, the round 10 fixture proved a one-sided affair, as Essendon raced out of the blocks with 7 opening term goals en route to a comfortable 14.8 (92) to 6.8 (44) triumph. Going into the two sides’ play-off clash the Same Old had been in irrepressible form, gaining resounding wins over South Melbourne, Carlton and Geelong in their 3 sectional matches by a healthy average winning margin for the era of 54 points. The Maroons had also triumphed in all of their sectional fixtures, albeit with marginally less apparent conviction and ease than Essendon, and were therefore seen by most observers as outsiders, although there was little doubt that if they performed at their very best they would be capable of providing an upset.

The match, which was played at Collingwood’s home ground, Victoria Park, attracted a crowd estimated at 15,000, which was the biggest of the season up to that point. Neither side boasted a “coach” in the sense that we use the word today - the first true coach in VFL history, Jack Worrall, would take the reins at Carlton in 1902 - and so on-field leadership was provided by the respective captains, Tod Collins in the case of Essendon, and Bill McSpeerin for Fitzroy. The ranks of both teams contained some of the finest exponents of Australian football of the period. Perhaps most noteworthy among these was Essendon forward Albert Thurgood, described by some as the game’s first “superstar”. "Tall and magnificently built, Thurgood could play in any position on the ground and was extraordinarily fast.  It was said that he could run 100 yards in even time.  His high marking was superb, his ground work robust, and he was said to be as nimble and agile as a hare.  Like a true champion he rarely had an off day and he could kick brilliantly with every type of kick imaginable."[2] 

Thurgood had originally played football at Brighton Grammar School before joining Essendon in 1892.  He went on to help the Same Old lift the next three VFA premierships (making it four in succession all told).  He would be voted Essendon's best and fairest player in 1901, and was the leading goal kicker in the VFA three times and in the VFL once.  He kicked 181 goals in three VFA seasons with Essendon, during which he would have played a maximum of 57 games.  In just under five seasons in the VFL he played 46 games, booting 89 goals.  Between 1895 and 1897 he played for Fremantle, helping the team claim two premierships, and finishing as the WAFA’s top goalkicker every season. Thurgood was particularly renowned for his prodigious kicking, being recorded on one occasion as producing a place kick of 98.48 metres, or 107 yards 2 feet 1 inch.  One of his drop kicks was allegedly measured at 82.3 metres, or 90 yards.

Among the more feted of his team-mates were wingman or half back flanker George Stuckey, Same Old skipper in the club’s first four seasons in the VFL, and one of the speediest players in the competition.[3] Meanwhile, playing alongside Thurgood in the Dons’ forward line was Fred Hiskins, who actually kicked more goals than Thurgood in 1901 - 34 in total - to top the VFL goalkicking list. Hiskins had a comparatively brief career at the top level - 50 games from 1900-2 and in 1906 - but was always highly regarded, and represented the state in 1902. Other prominent performers for Essendon in 1901 included centre half back Hugh Gavin, considered one of the finest defenders in the league, Bill Griffith who would enjoy a 185 game VFL career during the course of which he would transform from a rover into arguably the finest full back in the land, and Harry Wright, a top class centreman from Ballarat who had debuted with the Same Old in their 1894 VFA premiership year and who, like Stuckey, represented Victoria on the cricket field.

Fitzroy skipper Bill McSpeerin was acknowledged as one of the finest leaders in VFL football. The consummate all round footballer, William McSpeerin was equally effective as a rover or in a variety of set positions.  He began with Fitzroy while the club was still in the VFA, and was a key contributor to its 1895 premiership.  In 1898 he helped the Maroons to their first VFL premiership, the last to be won when teams consisted of twenty players, and he also played in the winning grand final of 1899, when he was Fitzroy's top goal kicker for the year with 18 goals.  McSpeerin captained the 'Roys in 1901 and 1902, and rounded off his VFL career with two magnificent seasons in 1903 and 1904.  The last of his 126 VFL games came in the 1904 grand final against Carlton which Fitzroy won comfortably by 4 goals.

Arguably the highest profile Fitzroy player in 1901 was the immensely versatile Fred Fontaine, the highlight of whose career probably came with his fine performance at full back in the 1904 grand final win over Carlton.  Towards the end of the game, he was responsible for making a surging run through the centre of the ground before passing to Percy Trotter, who kicked what proved to be the decisive goal of the match. Fontaine’s ten season VFL career, which ended in 1907, comprised 110 games, and saw him play in Fitzroy’s first four league premiership teams. Terry Moriarty was another versatile ten season player for the Maroons, while courageous and pacy defender Alec Sloan, and classy wingman Edward Drohan, who would later play for both Collingwood and St Kilda, were other top ‘Roys of the time.

Famous umpire Ivo Crapp had charge of proceedings which during the early part of the first quarter were dominated by the Maroons, whose pace had the Dons continually on the back foot. After registering 3 consecutive behinds Albert Sharpe registered the ‘Roys opening goal from a place kick after he had marked Drohan’s pass. In terms of attacking pressure and territorial advantage, Essendon then began to mount a semblance of a fight back  but this was not reflected on the scoreboard, and the second goal of the match also went to Fitzroy, courtesy of Ed Drohan.  Shortly before the end of the term the Dons finally managed to trouble the scorers with a behind, but the Maroons almost immediately reciprocated, so that at the first change they held a 15 point advantage, 2.4 (16) to 0.1 (1).

The second quarter again saw Fitzroy in command early, but play was tight and tough, and scoring opportunities limited. Finally, the ‘Roys managed a behind, but thereafter Essendon began gradually to capture the initiative. Thurgood, who had scarcely been sighted, finally entered the fray with a towering mark roughly 65 metres from goal before sending the ball into the goal square. A mad scramble involving numerous players followed before Thurgood, having run into the square in pursuit of his own kick, managed to obtain possession and snap truly - at least according to the goal umpire - to register the Dons’ first major score. After the match, many Fitzroy supporters remained indignant about this goal as they believed that the ball had grazed the goal post.

Seemingly deriving heart from having broken through, Essendon’s players for the first time began matching their opponents for pace, and indeed if anything the speed of the game was increasing. Sharpe added a minor score for Fitzroy, but overall it was Essendon which was attacking more frequently. Finally, Thurgood managed to register a behind from considerable distance for the black and reds and shortly after he snapped truly from close range to reduce his team’s deficit to just 4 points.

Following the resumption, Fitzroy surged into attack, only for Essendon centre half back Gavin to take a strong saving mark near goal. Gavin passed to Griffith and Griffith’s kick was marked by Thurgood, who promptly carpeted the ball, despite the fact that he was a good 60 metres out. ”Some laughed as he put the ball down, others jeered, and many wondered.”[4] Those who laughed had poor memories, as Thurgood had repeatedly proved himself one of the most prodigious kicks in Australian football. Indeed, some have even claimed that he was the longest kick in the history of the game. He confirmed his credentials now, as his towering place kick sailed straight between the central uprights, and Essendon had captured the lead for the first time in the match. Not long afterwards the bell rang for half time, with the Dons maintaining a 2 point advantage, 3.2 (20) to 2.6 (18).

Essendon went a long way towards winning the match in the third quarter, dominating proceedings almost throughout and adding 2.5 to 1.2 to hold an 11 point lead at the final change. Thurgood was again in the thick of the action, kicking both of the Dons’ goals for the term, the first of which came via another 60 metre place kick. Jim Sharp was Fitzroy’s sole goalscorer for the quarter.

The Maroons had not yet shown the white flag, however, and after the Dons had extended their lead to 12 points they managed the first goal of the final term courtesy again of Jim Sharp. Not long afterwards Jeremiah Brosnan kicked truly to put Fitzroy back on even terms, and the large crowd, understandably, was at fever pitch. A behind from Fontaine then saw the ‘Roys recapturing the lead and the pace of the match, if anything, increased still further.

After a slow start, Albert Thurgood had kicked all 5 of Essendon’s goals to be easily the most influential player on view. He reinforced this status by paving the way for his team’s 6th, and ultimately decisive, goal, shepherding strongly to make space for half forward flanker Jim “Skeeter” Larkin to dash in, snatch up the ball, and snap truly. This gave the Dons a lead of 5 points, but they were far from home and hosed as Fitzroy proved by registering the match’s next major score, off the boot of Sharpe. Only a couple of minutes remained, and the Maroons were a point to the good.

Those final two minutes were arguably the most crucial of the entire 1901 VFL season, as they produced behinds to Essendon from John “Dookie” McKenzie and Mick Peppard which secured the Same Old’s passage through to the grand final. Once there, they met a Collingwood team which had twice accounted for them during the home and away season, but on this occasion the Magpies, unlike Fitzroy, provided little in the way of opposition. By half time Essendon had 5 goals on the board to Collingwood’s nil, and the final scoreboard showed them comfortable victors, for the time, by 27 points, 6.7 (43) to 2.4 (16).

As for the first play-off, the Dons prevailed in the end by the narrowest of margins, 6.10 (46) to 6.9 (45), thanks in no small part to the contribution of Albert “The Great” Thurgood who booted 5 of his team’s goals in a display which recalled the brilliance he had so often shown before journeying across the Nullarbor in 1895 to play for Fremantle. The victors were also well-served by Stuckey on a wing, Griffiths both as a rover and on a half back flank, Gavin at centre half back, follower McKenzie, and skipper Stuckey, particularly in the second half, both on the ball and in a forward pocket. Fitzroy’s best were ruckmen Fontaine and Ernie Jenkins, McSpeerin both while roving and resting up forward, Chris Kiernan in the forward lines, and defender Sloan.

Much of the post-match discussion centred on Essendon’s controversial first goal, and even it seemed for a time as if Fitzroy might lodge an appeal with the VFL. However, in the end the matter was left to rest.

Although Essendon’s eventual premiership triumph was widely lauded, there were still some who maintained that the VFL’s finals system was unfair in that it did not allow the team with the best overall record over the course of the entire season, Geelong, an opportunity to contest the grand final. The VFL took heed of these concerns, and in 1902 implemented the challenge system of playing finals, which conferred on the minor premier an automatic right to contest the season’s premiership-deciding match.


FOOTNOTES

[1] This was what the match was officially described as by the VFL at the time, although it has sometimes subsequently, and erroneously, been referred to as a semi final.

[2] The Encyclopedia of League Footballers by Jim Main and Russell Holmesby, page 436.

[3] In addition to his accomplishments on the football field Stuckey was an excellent cricketer who represented Victoria, and a top level sprinter, winning the 1897 Stawell Gift.

[4] “The Argus”, Monday 2nd September 1901, page 7.