In 1908 the VFL competition saw the inclusion of two new teams in the shape of Richmond from the VFA, and University from the Metropolitan Football Association. Neither side was expected to have much of an impact in their debut season, but Richmond provided a shock in their very first match. Admittedly, the opposition, which was provided by Melbourne, might have been stronger. The Reds as they were commonly known had endured a dismal time in recent seasons and had not contested the finals since 1902. They ended up with the wooden spoon in both 1905 and 1906 and although they showed marginal improvement in 1907 they were still not regarded as one of the VFL’s major forces. Therefore when they travelled to Punt Road to play Richmond on Saturday 2nd May there were many who felt that an upset was on the cards. Such suspicions were augmented when it was discovered that Melbourne would be playing the match without five first choice players.
Richmond had been a dominant force in the VFA since that competition was depleted by the departure of the eight foundation members of the VFL. In 1902 and 1905 the Wasps, as they were known, had claimed premierships, and although they had missed out in 1907 there was little doubt that, all things considered, they boasted the credentials of a viable league club. They were coached in their first VFL season by former top Collingwood player Dick Condon, under whose tutelage they played an aggressive, long kicking game with the emphasis on playing straight down the middle of the ground. Condon would also be playing for the Tigers and, if he struck form, could be expected to enhance their prospects considerably.
The opening term of the match saw Melbourne in firm control, and but for some slipshod kicking for goal the match could have been as good as over by quarter time. As it was, the Reds enjoyed a 14 point advantage which, given that they had been kicking into a strong breeze, was creditable enough. For most of the second quarter Melbourne continued to dominate, and with eight minutes remaining until half time they had 6 goals on the board to the Wasps’ 1. It was then that something or somebody lit the Tigers’ touch paper and they rattled on 3 quick goals to go into the main break full of confidence, and just 9 points in arrears.
Richmond made full use of the breeze in the third term, adhering closely to coach Dick Condon’s philosophy of kicking long and, whenever possible, heading straight for goal. By three quarter time they had seized both the initiative and the lead, with the scoreboard showing Richmond 7.11 (53); Melbourne 6.7 (43). Would a lead of just 10 points be sufficient to hold off the wind-assisted Reds in the final term?
The answer, most emphatically, if perhaps a touch surprisingly, was yes. Playing aggressively and determinedly, Richmond stifled the life out of Melbourne, and in fact actually outscored them by a point to finish the match 11 points to the good, 8.14 (62) to 7.9 (51).
Richmond would go on to win a total of 6 of their 18 home and away matches for the 1908 season, finishing in ninth place, ahead only of Geelong. Melbourne finished one place higher, with 7 wins. The other new admission to the league, University, surprised everyone - except perhaps themselves - by winning 8 matches for the year to end up in a highly creditable sixth place on the premiership ladder. Over the ensuing decades, however, it would be the Tigers who would make the greater and more lasting contribution to Australian football.
Among Richmond's best players were Heaney, a half forward cum follower, Ted Olsen on the forward line, and half back flanker Burns.
His VFL career may have been somewhat spasmodic, but Thomas Heaney was one of the finest and most spectacular players of his era. Nicknamed 'The Aeroplane' because of his remarkable aerial prowess, Heaney made his league debut with Richmond during the club's inaugural season at that level, 1908, but after some excellent performances ended up missing much of the year through illness. He played again in 1909, but ended up being sacked by the club for missing a match without notifying club officials that he would be unavailable. All was forgiven by the start of the next season, however, and he remained at Punt Road for another three years before crossing to Fitzroy.
While with the Roys he had the satisfaction of participating in three grand finals, for wins in 1913 and 1916. Less overtly spectacular than during his heyday at Richmond, he was nevertheless extremely effective, and was widely acknowledged as one of the finest key position forwards in the game. Knee problems restricted his appearances towards the end of his career, and he missed the entire 1918 season. However, he resumed in 1919 and continued to make intermittent appearances until his retirement, after 154 VFL games (56 for Richmond and 98 at Fitzroy) in 1921. Heaney was Fitzroy's leading goalkicker in the club's premiership year of 1916, booting 27 goals.
Ted Ohlson was a stalwart of Richmond's early VFL sides, playing 105 games and kicking 36 goals between 1908 and 1915. Renowned for his hard-hitting style, he captained the club in 1912. In one game during the 1912 season he was persistently booed by Richmond supporters who felt he was playing dead. However, it later emerged that he had broken his shoulder earlier in the game, but in typically brave fashion had elected to (pun intended) shoulder on regardless.
Originally from South Bendigo, William Burns had a first stab at VFL football in 1904 with Geelong, but he managed just a couple of games before returning home. Four years later he resumed his league career when he appeared on a half back flank for Richmond in that club's first ever VFL fixture at home to Melbourne. In 1909 his career appeared to be over when he was suspended for life for kicking an opponent, but this does not appear to have prevented him from playing 3 games for West Perthin 1910. In 1912, following an appeal, the VFL officially rescinded the ban and he resumed with the Wasps. Hardy, tenacious and quick, he spent the 1914 season with East Fremantle, and was on a half forward flank in the winning grand final against local rivals South Fremantle. He also represented Western Australia at the 1914 Sydney carnival where he played in all 5 matches and booted 4 goals. Burns returned to Richmond in 1916, taking his final tally of VFL games with the club to 52. From 1917 to 1923 he was a key member of a powerful East Fremantle combination that won the 1918 premiership and then played off in four of the next five grand finals, only to lose them all. Popularly known as 'Poet', Burns was a wingman for most of this time, and ended up playing a total of 107 WAFL games (all but 3 for Old Easts).
Melbourne's best player on the day, and arguably best afield, was half back flanker Fred Harris, who was a solid defender during the pre-world war one period with three clubs of league standard. He played 25 games with St Kilda from 1903 to 1905 before taking a one year break from top level football. The 1907 season saw him back in action, this time with Melbourne, and he added a further 61 games to his tally over the ensuing six years with the under-achieving Fuchsias. In 1913 he crossed to Essendon Association, but unfortunately for Harris his arrival coincided with a decline in the club's fortunes and he ended his career without a senior grade premiership to his name.
First Up Win For Richmond - VFL 1st round, Saturday 2nd May 1908: Richmond versus Melbourne at Punt Road Oval
Richmond's Tom Heaney
Will Burns (Richmond)
Melbourne's Fred Harris
Ted Ohlson (Richmond)