In comparison with the other states in which Australian football was king among winter sports Western Australia’s love affair with the code was slow to blossom. The Western Australian Football Association was not established until 1885, at which point rugby was still the colony’s preferred brand of football. Over time this state of affairs would change, but initially at least the change was only very gradual. The impetus which propelled Australian football into pre-eminence arrived when gold was discovered at Coolgardie in 1892 and, more particularly, Kalgoorlie a year later. Lured by the imagined prospect of imminent riches, thousands of men from such Australian football hotbeds as Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat and Adelaide made the long journey across the Nullarbor and, for a time at least, put down roots. Australian football became popular overnight, and the Hannans District Football Association, which included clubs from all over the goldfields area, was formed in 1896. For a brief period in the 1890s the standard of Australian football produced on the goldfields rivalled that of almost anywhere else in the land.
When the gold rush ended, many of the eastern states immigrants opted to head for Perth or Fremantle rather than returning home. This in turn had a positive effect on the standard of football on display in the WAFA. Indeed, between 1895 and 1897 arguably the greatest footballer in Australia at the time, Albert Thurgood, ploughed his trade with the Fremantle Football Club. Among his team-mates at various times were the former South Melbourne pair of Harry Duggan and Dug Irvine, brilliant centreman Harry Hodge, Tom Wilson (formerly of North Melbourne), Bob Byers, Paddy Knox, “Spot” Chadwick, Jack Gibson and, albeit very briefly, Dave “Dolly” Christy.
Despite the departure of many top players goldfields football remained in a vibrant state for some time. Challenge matches between teams from the coast and their counterparts from the Goldfields Football Association, as the Hannans District Football Association was renamed in 1901, took place regularly. The goldfields-based sides invariably acquitted themselves well in these contests, and in 1903 it was decided to raise the bar in terms of competitiveness by staging a match between the coastal and goldfields premiers, with the victor earning the title of premier team of Western Australia. The encounter attracted enormous interest, and for the ensuing couple of decades a match for the state premiership proved to be a popular way of rounding off each football season. As time went on, the WAFA premiers tended to dominate these contests, which is probably the main reason they were eventually abandoned. However, initially at least the competing teams tended to be quite evenly matched, resulting in closely fought encounters of admirable standard. This was most certainly the case in 1903, when GFA premier Kalgoorlie Railways met the WAFA’s top team East Fremantle at the Kalgoorlie Recreation Reserve in front of one of the largest crowds to attend a sporting event on the goldfields up to that point.
Railways had been formed in 1900, and the 1903 premiership triumph was the club’s first. East Fremantle was only two years older, but already it had developed into the WAFA’s pre-eminent force, capturing flags in 1900, 1902 and 1903. Over the remainder of the decade this dominance would be reinforced, and indeed the club has been far and away the most successful in the history of the competition. Railways has also enjoyed consistent success, with only Mines Rovers claiming more premierships.
Both grandstands at the Kalgoorlie Recreation Reserve were full, and the remainder of the ground was also densely packed with spectators. East Fremantle enjoyed the benefit of a strong breeze in the opening quarter, and attacked consistently. The only 3 goals of the term went their way, while the home side’s fitful forward flurries produced just a couple of behinds.
Anyone imagining that this would prove to be a one-sided encounter was swiftly disabused of the notion as Railways proceeded to dominate the second quarter even more comprehensively than East Fremantle had dominated the first. Playing a fast, team-orientated game in which handball and short kicks featured heavily, the home side rattled on 4 unanswered goals to head into the long break with a 5 point advantage, 4.4 (28) to 3.5 (23). East Fremantle’s style of play, which was based on long kicking and strong marking, had failed dismally when the players did not have the wind at their backs.
During the third term Railways drastically altered their tactics, and in so doing went a long way towards securing victory. In a highly unorthodox move for the era, players were instructed to leave their positions, and converge on the ball. The resultant football was ugly and congested, but as far as the home side was concerned highly effective. East Fremantle admittedly managed to edge in front, but with the wind still blowing as powerfully as ever, a 1 point lead at the final change did not look likely to be enough.
East Fremantle fought valiantly in the final term, but not only was the wind against them, they also found their efforts impeded by the state of the ground, which was considerably harder than they were accustomed to, and which appeared visibly to sap the strength of many of their players. Slowly but surely, Railways battled their way in front, and although the visitors did their fair share of attacking, their kicking for goal was wayward. The GFA premier ultimately squeezed home by 7 points, 7.6 (48) to 5.11 (41). South Australian Jack “Snowy” Jarvis, who had headed west in search of gold during the 1890s, was best for the victors, with James “Carbine” Gullen, another eastern states import, earning that distinction for Easts. Jarvis was a distinctive figure in that he wore a hat whilst playing. As for Gullen, rather tragically, a little over eight months later he would be dead, a victim of accidental poisoning at the age of just twenty-nine.
East Fremantle remained in Kalgoorlie for another week, during which they engaged in two further matches. A midweek encounter with a combined goldfields team brought a miraculous last quarter recovery, and victory by 14 points, 6.10 (46) to 4.8 (32). At the final change the combined side appeared comfortably in control, leading 4.8 (32) to 2.5 (17), but in the fourth quarter the visitors made full use of a strong breeze to run all over their opponents and win “pulling away”.
All told, the Western Australian state premiership was contested a total of twelve times between 1903 and 1924. East Fremantle and Kalgoorlie Railways proved to be the most frequent participants in this match with five appearances each. East Fremantle won the title four times, in 1904, 1906, 1909 and 1910, while Railways managed one further victory, downing Subiaco 8.12 (60) to 7.9 (51) in the 1912 play-off.
 Sometimes rendered “Gullan”.
 The match was not held during world war one as well as in several other years when agreement could not be reached over when and where it should be played.
.Golden Era for Goldfields - WA Premiership Decider, Sunday 4th October 1903: Kalgoorlie Railways versus East Fremantle at the Kalgoorlie Recreation Reserve