Formed in 1859, University Football Club is one of Australia's oldest. Indeed, it seems likely that only Melbourne and Geelong pre-date it. In 1885 University was admitted to what was then Victoria's premier competition, the Victorian Football Association, but in four seasons of involvement the club's record was poor. All told, it managed just 5 wins and 5 draws from a total of 70 matches played, with 4 of the wins coming in the same year (1887). In 1888 the writing was on the wall for the club when, on several occasions, it proved incapable of raising sufficient players to field a team, and was forced to forfeit matches.
University endured a similarly hard time during its brief initial stint in the Metropolitan Junior Football Association (precursor of the Victorian Amateur Football Association) in 1893, but when it resumed in the competition after a twelve year break in 1905 the club was much better organised, and boasted quite a large number of talented footballers. As a result, it was competitive from the start, and it was not long before it had developed into the competition's pre-eminent force. In 1906 the side lost only one game for the year en route to the premiership, and the following year, watched by 5,000 spectators at the University Oval, it scored a 9.12 (66) to 8.4 (52) victory over Brighton in the decisive match of the year.
Winning MJFA premierships was all very well, but University had loftier ambitions and made a succession of applications to join the VFL. Finally, in 1908 its persistence paid off and University, along with VFA club Richmond, gained admission to Australian football's pre-eminent competition.
With its seconds side still participating in the MJFA, University's senior combination commenced life in the “big league” against the previous season's wooden spooners, Essendon. If there had been any lofty expectations among the Students they were soon obliterated; Essendon won by 11 goals, 14.11 (95) to 3.11 (29). The following Saturday, though, University broke through for its first ever VFL win, although given that the opposition was provided by fellow newcomers Richmond the achievement was widely downplayed. However, when the Students overcame St Kilda - which had competed in the finals in 1907 - a fortnight later people sat up and took notice. Further wins followed in round 6 (Melbourne) and round 8 (Geelong) and suddenly the debutants were looking a good outside bet for the finals. They eventually finished 6th (out of 10), with an 8-10 record and, statistically, the 3rd best forward line in the competition. It had been a commendable and highly promising start.
University continued to perform well, winning 7 and drawing 2 of their fixtures in 1909. By the following year the Students had well and truly cast off the “cinderella” tag, and indeed they were felt by many to be genuine premiership contenders. Their start to the season was solid rather than stellar. When, in round 7, they confronted Fitzroy at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground they were placed 6th on the ladder having won 3 matches, one more than the ‘Roys who were 7th. A close match was therefore expected, and for three quarters that was what the teams served up. The final term, however, was another matter.
Both sides went into the match without their captains - Kneen in the case of University, and Sharp for Fitzroy. The Maroons were further weakened by the absence of their vice captain Walker plus two other key players.
Play in the opening term was hotly contested but scrappy. Bert Hartkopf, whose excellent high marking was a noteworthy feature of the match, drew first blood for the Students with a minor score. Shortly afterwards Ken MacLeod registered the game’s, and University’s, first goal. Fitzroy’s response was energetic and purposeful, and a brace of goals to George Holden, one from a free and the other by means of a running shot, gave them a lead which they would hold onto until the first change. Indeed, when Clive Morrison added a third goal for the ‘Roys it looked as if they might run away with the game, an impression reinforced as they continued to attack. However a minor score was all they could muster before the home side broke away and registered their second goal of the match off the boot of Rupe Matthews. A succession of behinds to both teams followed before Morrison, from a free kick, gave the ‘Roys an 11 point advantage which they retained until the dying moments of the term when Frank Kerr snapped truly for the Students. At quarter time the scoreboard showed Fitzroy on 4.2 (26) leading University 3.3 (21).
After an early goal to University the second term developed into something of an arm wrestle with the two teams largely cancelling one another out. Not that the play could be described as dour as there were plenty of examples of fine, dashing defensive work, notably from Fitzroy’s Wally Johnson and Kerr for the Students. Over the course of the remainder of the quarter University added 3 behinds to the Maroons’ 2 meaning that the home side had procured a 2 point advantage
The first ten minutes of the third term saw University holding sway and goals to Martin Ratz and MacLeod gave them a handy lead. Fitzroy refused to lie down, however, and a couple of goals in quick succession to Jim Brophy and Billy Dick reduced their deficit to just 2 points. Thereafter play was evenly contested with the sides exchanging goals so that at the final change bthe scores were University 7.8 (50) leading Fitzroy 7.7 (49).
The nature of the match thus far was such that onlookers could have been forgiven for expecting a tense, closely fought finish, and for most of the final quarter such expectations looked likely to be fulfilled. Early on, Ratz goaled for University, and this was a prelude to a sustained period of relentless attacking. However, the ‘Roys defended desperately and capably, and with time running out University’s lead was a mere 9 points. Then, out of the blue, Brophy goaled for Fitzroy and it was once more “game on”.
The closing moments of the match were both inexplicable and, from a neutral’s point of view, anti-climactic. Fitzroy’s defence, which hitherto had withstood wave upon wave of attacking pressure from the Students, wilted completely, In the space of less than ten minutes Ratz, Matthews, Harkopf, MacLeod and Athol Tymms all goaled so that when the final bell rang out University had procured victory by an astonishing 36 point margin, 13.14 (92) to 8.8 (56).
University went on to win a total of 10 (out of 18) matches in 1910 to finish sixth. In rounds 12, 13 and 14 the side was in the top four. Fitzroy had a poor season by the club’s lofty standards and managed just 5 wins which was only good enough for eighth place.
After the 1910 season University’s fortunes declined markedly and rapidly. in 1911 the club received a kick in the teeth from which it never recovered as the VFL decided, on a 16-4 majority, to rescind its rule prohibiting payments to players. Melbourne and University were the only clubs to vote against the measure (all clubs had two delegates each).
The writing was on the wall for the Students. In 1911 they won just 1 game, finishing last. It was an identical story in 1912, and then in the club's final two seasons, 1913 and '14, they failed to record a single win. All told the side lost every one of its last 51 games to finish with an overall VFL success rate of 22.2% (compared to 48.1% over its first three seasons).
There can be little doubt that University's involvement in Victoria's elite football competition was severely impeded and, ultimately, destroyed by the move towards professionalism, although it is probably also fair to suggest that the onset of war accelerated the club's demise. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for seven seasons University made a contribution toward football at the highest level. It may not have won any premierships or, indeed, even qualified for the finals, but the club managed wins against all of the other teams in the league bar Collingwood (with which it drew), and produced several accomplished players, including eight VFL interstate representatives.
After the war many of the club's better players joined Melbourne, which shared the Students' amateur propensities. University's senior team participated in the VFL's junior competition in 1919 and 1920, finishing runners up to Collingwood both years, but in 1921 it re-joined the Metropolitan Amateur Football Association, where its own reserves team was already participating. Known initially as 'University A', the team later took the name of ‘University Blues', with the reserve side becoming known as ‘University Blacks'. Both teams remain proud members to this day of the Victorian Amateur Football Association, as the MAFA became known in 1932, with the Blacks having actually performed better, in terms of premierships won, than the Blues.
Students Surge Home - VFL round 7, Saturday 11 June 1910: University versus Fitzroy at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground
Gerald Brosnan, the former Fitzroy player who coached University in 1910.