The 1902 VFL season was noteworthy in that Carlton became the first club to appoint an off-field team leader in the shape of Jack Worrall. The label attached to this post, “coach”, had hitherto been applied to men whose job it was to assist the team captain to maintain the players in peak condition in between matches. However, it was the captain who called the shots tactically, and was the real leader of the team. In 1902, however, Jack Worrall, who was not on the club’s playing list, assumed responsibility for all aspects of team leadership.
It was an experiment which, initially at least, did not prove successful. Carlton managed just 7 wins from 17 home and away matches to finish sixth, an improvement of just one place from the previous year. However, success was not to be long in arriving for the Blues.
In 1901, however, the finals would end up being contested by three of the same clubs as in 1902: Collingwood, Essendon and Fitzroy. The only change was that Melbourne would replace Geelong as the major round’s fourth participant.
The system of playing finals was changed yet again in 1902 with the introduction of a right of challenge for the team topping the ladder at the conclusion of the 14 home and away and 3 sectional matches. Basically this meant that the team with the best overall record over the course of the season - referred to as the “minor premier” - earned an automatic right to contest the premiership-deciding match. If it happened to lose its semi final it would nevertheless be entitled to challenge the winner of the following week’s final to a sudden-death play-off to decide the destiny of the flag. Similarly, if the minor premier reached the final only to lose, it would be granted the right to challenge the winner of the final to a re-match the following week. The winner of the re-match would be crowned premiers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this new challenge system of playing finals had to be invoked in its very first season, but more about that in due course.
When Fitzroy met South Melbourne at Brunswick Street in round 3 of the 1902 season the ‘Roys had won against both Essendon and St Kilda while South had lost by 18 points to Collingwood before finding form with a convincing 8.13 (61) to 0.8 (8) defeat of Jack Worrall’s Carlton. On paper, there appeared to be very little separating the two sides.
Brunswick Street, which had undergone £100 worth of improvements during the summer, was one of the VFL’s finest venues and, despite overcast conditions and frequent showers, a sizeable crowd of roughly 10,000 attended the match. The home side entered the fray minus injured captain Bill McSpeerin plus three other first choice players, while the southerners were deemed to be more or less at full strength. South’s on-field leader was Bill Windley who had also skippered the club two years early. Windley was a top class rover, centreman or forward, often likened to an eel, who played much of his career with South in the VFA. In 1897, when the VFL got underway, he was already twenty-nine years of age, but he did not retire until after the 1905 season, by which time he had played 129 VFL games and kicked 36 goals. Windley played football for the love of the game, never accepting any form of payment.
The first term was tightly contested, with little to choose between the teams. Indeed, fully twenty minutes had elapsed before either team scored. The standard of football was high, and the large crowd roared often and appreciatively. The red and whites, having registered the only goal of the quarter off the boot of Dave Powell, led by 4 points at the first change, 1.2 (8) to 0.4 (4). Fitzroy had probably had slightly the better of things in terms of possession, but their kicking for goal was poor, as exemplified by both Alf McDougall and Wally Naismith registering only behinds from easy, close range shots.
Early in the second quarter the Maroons seized the initiative, and a couple of goals from Gerald Brosnan saw them hit the front. South’s response was impressive as they began to dominate the ruck contests as well as outshining their opponents at ground level. In rapid succession they added no fewer than five goals to head into the main break with a comfortable 23 point advantage, 6.3 (39) to 2.4 (16).
Early in the third term the Maroons seemed to be getting their act together thanks to quick goals from Alf Wilkinson and Bob Smith, but South rallied, and in many ways the third quarter developed into a carbon copy of the second. The longer the term proceeded, the more the southerners seemed to get on top, and at the final change a brace of goals from David Powell and Frank Worroll had given them a lead of 20 points, 8.3 (51) to 4.7 (31). For the period, this was a sizeable advantage, and the Fitzroy supporters could be justified in feeling pessimistic about their team’s prospects. However, they were in for a very heart-warming surprise, as Fitzroy became the only team during the entire 1902 VFL season to overcome a three quarter time deficit of greater than 3 goals to win the match.
At the start of the last term the ‘Roys threw an extra man into the ruck and began attacking both ball and man with great vigour. South reacted badly. Some of their players appeared to lose their heads, responding to Fitzroy’s vigour with wayward aggression, and conceding a profusion of frees. Indeed, throughout the match quite a number of South players had shown an inclination to play the man rather than the ball, a tendency that might be said to have cost them a win. Gradually, Fitzroy narrowed the deficit, and with eight minutes remaining scores were level.
As the final bell loomed, players of both sides applied themselves with great ferocity and determination, with the result of the match remaining in the balance until the death. With the seconds trickling away Brosnan’s kick was marked by Fred Fontaine within goal kicking range, whereupon the bell rang out. The man from Phoenix calmly carpeted the ball, and his ensuing kick was perfection itself, bisecting the uprights to give the ‘Roys an unlikely but thoroughly deserved victory by 6 points. Final scores were Fitzroy 8.10 (58) defeated South Melbourne 8.4 (52).
It was fitting that Fontaine should kick the decisive goal, as both when stationed at half back and when following he was high among Fitzroy’s best. Energetic rover Percy Trotter was also prominent, as were forwards Jim Sharp and Bob Smith, and ruckman Ern Jenkins. South’s best included Worroll and Ned Alley in the ruck, and defenders Charlie James, Dave Adamson and Bill Windley.
During the first decade of the VFL’s existence Fitzroy would prove to be comfortably the competition’s leading club, capturing flags in 1898-9 and 1904-5, and finishing second three times. Meanwhile, the southerners, who had lost to the Maroons in the 1899 premiership decider, would have to wait until 1909 before claiming their first VFL flag.
South skipper Bill Windley.
Fitzroy defender Jim Sharp
Fitzroy Fight Back - VFL round 3, Saturday 17th May 1902: Fitzroy versus South Melbourne at Brunswick Street Oval.