Explore the History of australian football

Archie Clarke of Footscray

Footscray's Vern Banbury

Art Gregory (Footscray)

North's Charlie Hardy

Footscray's William "Ching" Harris

North Melbourne captain Syd Barker

In terms of effective proselytism, Australian football has often been its own worst enemy, not least in Melbourne, the so-called "home" of the game.  For much of the twentieth century, two rival bodies dominated football in the city, but the philosophical differences between them were so yawning that they were unable even to agree on such basic matters as the rules of play.  While sports like soccer, cricket, basketball, and baseball rapidly acquired coherent frameworks which were recognised and adhered to right across the globe, football in Melbourne could be sampled in two ostensibly similar, but in some ways mutually contradictory, flavours.   Small wonder the code - or should that be codes? - had little success in spreading beyond its hinterland.  Today's AFL may be guilty of interpreting the history of football in ways which aim at bolstering its own importance as an organisation, rather than providing objective, balanced analyses of what actually went on in the past, but this enormous, and to some extent unforgivable offence is, at least to some extent, counterbalanced by the fact that it provides the sport, for the first time in its history, with a single, unifying authority.

​In 1913, uniformity in football was an elusive pipedream.  That season saw the VFA unilaterally reduce the number of players in a team from seventeen to sixteen,[1] in a move that had little or nothing to do with the good of the game, and everything to do with the perceived good of the Association.  Relations between the VFL and VFA were just about as strained and distant as they had ever been, although the 1913 season did at least see the introduction of a permit agreement whereby the bodies recognised one another's player clearance systems; this lasted just six years, however.  The VFL was undoubtedly the stronger of the two bodies, both economically and in terms of the best standard of play its teams could muster, but its dominance was nowhere near as comprehensive as it was to become.  For one thing, it certainly did not boast a monopoly, or even a near monopoly, on the best available playing talent. When the VFA authorised payment to players in 1911 (the same year as the league) it made itself potentially every bit as attractive as the VFL to some of the top players in Victoria .  True, the average VFA match payment, at just 15 shillings, was somewhat lower than in the VFL, but many Association clubs were quite happy to 'break the bank' on occasion if it meant being able to entice a player of the very highest quality to join them.

​​Dave McNamara and Mick Madden (Essendon Association), John 'Dookie' McKenzie (Brunswick), 'Phonso' Woods (Prahran), Art 'Lofty' Gregory, 'Diver' Clarke, Johnny Craddock and 'Ching' Harris (Footscray), and Syd Barker, Charlie Hardy and George Rawle (North Melbourne) were just some of the many VFA footballers of 1913 who would have been capable of walking into virtually any VFL side.  Moreover, during the period between 1905 and 1911, the Association proved that its best players were at least as good, if not slightly better, than those of the South Australian league.  During that time the two competitions opposed one another in a total of 13 representative fixtures, 7 in Adelaide, and 6 in Melbourne, with the VFA successful 6 times.  This was no mean achievement, as South Australian football at this time was very strong; in 1911, for example, the croweaters were convincing winners of the Australian championships, trouncing all four of their opponents by an average margin of 63.5 points, yet when the Association travelled to Adelaide to play the South Australians that same year they emerged victorious by 13 points, 6.12 (48) to 5.5 (35).

Within its financial and demographical limitations therefore, the VFA was functioning very nicely thank-you at this time, and there would have seemed very little reason at all for it to consider entering into any closer or more formal relationship with the league which, as the larger and more influential body, would almost certainly have only been interested in imposing assimilation and and/or control.  As the oldest football controlling body in Victoria, and the second oldest in Australia, the VFA was, understandably, reluctant to do anything that might compromise its integrity or independence, and so Melbourne football supporters continued to be short-changed by being presented with two contrasting and diluted manifestations of the same template, rather than a single, vigorously coherent whole.  This preposterous, self-defeating state of affairs would persist for another three quarters of a century.

Not that the football provided by the Association in 1913, viewed in isolation, lacked either drama or spectacle.  The leading clubs such as Footscray, North Melbourne, Essendon 'A' and Brunswick were evenly matched, and encounters between them tended to be both entertaining and hard fought.  Among the main stories of the 1913 season was the comparative fall from grace of reigning premiers Essendon whose season was ended at the semi final stage by minor premiers Footscray.  The fact that the Tricolours' final margin of victory was just 2 points emphasises how closely fought the competition was at this time.  The Dreadnoughts would never again achieve a position of prominence in the VFA, and in 1922 their autonomous existence would come to an end when they underwent a merger of sorts (broadly akin to the Brisbane Bears-Fitzroyamalgamation of 1996 - in other words, a takeover in all but name) with North Melbourne.

Overshadowing even the story of Essendon's demise, however, were the incessant rumours of corruption, particularly in the form of 'squaring' by individual players or clubs, with far and away the most noteworthy case involving eventual finalist North Melbourne.  Prior to an important clash with Brunswick a somewhat acrimonious meeting of North's selection committee took place during which club skipper and leading ruckman, Syd Barker, refused to countenance the inclusion in the side of defender Ted Gardiner, "on the ground that he was only a back player, and the North defence was strong enough".[2]  The match duly went ahead, without Gardiner in the team, but "almost from the start North Melbourne supporters seemed to have made up their minds that their captain, S.Barker, was not doing his best".[3]  Brunswick ended up winning the match quite comfortably and, whether or not influenced by the attitude of their club's supporters, the North committee hurriedly convened a meeting at which it was agreed that Barker's approach to the game had been unsatisfactory, and that he therefore had a case to answer.  The eventual upshot was that Syd Barker was presumably found guilty, for he did not line up for North again until the following season, meaning that, by its own volition, the club entered the 1913 finals series without arguably its most important and influential player.

​At first, however, as often seems to happen in such circumstances, the team rose to the occasion splendidly.  After thrashing Port Melbourne in the last home and away match of the year, it effortlessly scuppered Brunswick's premiership challenge in a semi final with a resounding 8.16 (64) to 4.2 (26) win.  Prior to the final clash with Footscray, however, North suffered another blow when its other main follower, George Rawle, sustained an injury, and was unable to front up.  Given that, by common consent, North's chief strength in 1913 was its first ruck combination of Barker, Rawle and Hardy, all the omens appeared to be pointing to an easy Tricolours victory, but football, thankfully, is seldom that predictable.

Footscray had enjoyed a consistent season leading up to the clash with North, with its tally of 14 wins from 18 home and away matches being good enough to claim pole position heading into the finals in which, as mentioned above, it just 'fell in' against the Dreadnoughts.  Unlike North Melbourne, however, the Tricolours would be at full strength as they sought their first senior grade premiership since 1908.

The Teams

VFA teams in 1913 omitted a player each from the forward and back lines (at least in theory).  


BACKS: Harris Sampson  
HALF-BACKS: Neilson McClusky Grimshaw
CENTRES: Lever Clarke Craddock (captain)
HALF-FORWARDS: Baxter Lawson Holmes
FORWARDS: Grierson Banbury  
FOLLOWERS: Spence Gregory Cotton


BACKS: Miles Gardiner  
HALF-BACKS: Sheehan Pemberton Walsh
CENTRES: Heron Jones Laver
HALF-FORWARDS: J.Johnson Hawkins Freeman
FORWARDS: Carpenter K.Johnson  
FOLLOWERS: Treloar (captain) McKay Hardy

The Match

"The Footscray and North Melbourne match, on the East Melbourne ground, reached a standard of play seldom attained in these final matches.  The result was in doubt right to the bell, when the minor premiers squeezed home by a bare point.  Twenty thousand people attended, the receipts amounting to £384, and the crowd was rewarded by the finest game put up by Association clubs this season, at any rate.  Spectacular high marking and clean accurate drop kicking lent sufficient attraction to the contest, without the added zest of the issue being in the balance during the whole of the play.  The game see-sawed this way and that way, and at no time were the odds guineas to pounds on either.  The Northerners got a break in the third quarter, and at one period had a useful lead, but Footscray came with a rattle at the finish and silenced all the croaking ones, who boasted they knew for a certainty that the match was 'fixed' for North, in order that a grand final could be played, with the consequent enhanced dividend.

"Every man of the winning combination was chaired to the dressing rooms by the exultant barrackers at the conclusion of the match, and the losers, after their fine showing, deserved little less honour."  ("The Leader", 13/9/13)

1st Quarter

North Melbourne, who had the aid of "a zephyr like breeze" in the opening term, were first into attack, but Vic Neilson at half back left for Footscray intercepted and returned the ball towards the centre of the ground.  The Tricolours then mounted an attack of their own, and after Vern Banbury found Charlie Grierson with a clever pass the solidly built forward, nicknamed "Piggy", kicked truly to put the first goal of the match on the board after just two minutes.

North responded with great determination and energy, but Footscray centre half back Tom McClusky marshalled his troops superbly and, for several minutes, the northerners were unable to get within scoring range.  Finally, however, a neat sequence of inter-passing involving Sheehan, McKay, Carpenter and Hawkins ended in the last-named breaking clear to snap an excellent goal and level the scores.

The Tricolours enjoyed a period of attacking pressure, but the North defence combined every bit as well as its Footscray counterparts had earlier, and no scores resulted for several minutes.  In the end, however, Lawson, having been freed almost on the boundary line on a tight angle, somehow managed to steer the ball through the narrowest of openings to restore the minor premiers' lead.  Moments later, Lawson was again in the thick of the action as he passed to Banbury, who took a strong mark.  The former St Kilda player then picked out Jim Baxter close to goal and the ex-Collingwood half forward made no mistake.  Two behinds to the Tricolours quickly followed and, with more than half the quarter remaining, they led by 14 points, and were looking confident and assured, but gradually North began to fight their way back into the game.

​Dynamic rover Charlie Hardy, who would later form a key component in Essendon's famed 'mosquito fleet' of the 1920s, was in everything at this stage of the match, and was arguably the biggest single reason for North's resurgence as the term progressed.  Had Footscray veteran William 'Ching' Harris not been in such resplendent form on the last line of defence the northerners might easily have run away with the match at this stage, such was their dominance.  However, they were restricted to a couple of goals, one apiece to Sheehan and Keith Johnson, together with a succession of near misses.  As the bell approached, North found themselves 2 points to the good, but the Tricolours' first concerted attack for some time culminated in Banbury converting from close range to give his side a 4 point advantage at the first change.  Footscray 4.2 (26); North Melbourne 3.4 (22)

2nd Quarter

Appearing to derive greater benefit from the wind than North had during the opening term, Footscray did most of the attacking early in the second quarter, and Grierson, from a free, soon had their fifth goal on the board.  Both sides had changed their rucks at the outset of the term, but Charlie Hardy was still proving a major thorn in the Tricolours' side on a half forward flank.

For a time, both side's defences were on top, with Harris continuing in fine form for Footscray, and Miles showing up to good effect for North, but then a clever sequence of handpasses initiated by Art Gregory was capped  by Vern Banbury's accurate snap, and the best goal of the match so far.

With the Tricolours now leading by more than three straight kicks, North badly needed to respond, and, with Hardy again a key mover, they did just that, courtesy of an easy goal from skipper Arthur Treloar.  Footscray then attacked relentlessly for several minutes, with centreman Archie Clarke especially conspicuous, but their kicking for goal was wayward, and only behinds were registered.  Finally, however, rover Roy Cotton, who was limping badly as a result of a heavy knock received earlier in the game, marked strongly in the forward pocket and scored a nice goal to increase the Tricolours' lead to 24 points.

The remainder of the term saw North upping the tempo and doing most of the attacking, and their dominance was rewarded with late goals to Carpenter and Freeman to reduce the leeway at the half to just 12 points.  Half Time: Footscray 7.10 (52); North Melbourne 6.4 (40)

3rd Quarter

Treloar moved John Pemberton from centre half back to perform what nowadays would be called a tagging role on Footscray centreman Archie Clarke.  Meanwhile Jones, who had been best afield in the semi final win over Brunswick, moved in the opposite direction, much to the obvious disgruntlement of many North fans.

​Play early in the term was frenetic and quite ferocious, with umpire Hurley having seemingly decided only to intervene if the violence became potentially life-threatening.  This policy seemed to favour North, whose approach was much more overtly physical than that of their opponents, and, after a sequence of behinds - one to Footscray, and two to the northerners - it was they who converted first, courtesy of a long raking punt from Hawkins, the player whom most spectators would have regarded as the poorest kick on either side.  The response of the crowd to his goal was a mixture of uproarious, disbelieving laughter, and immense excitement, as the scoreboard now showed that less than a straight kick separated the teams.

Perhaps inspired by Hawkins' unlikely goal, North attacked again, and, with the Tricolours' defence appearing atypically flat-footed, Hardy found time and space to gather the ball, turn infield to improve his angle, and triumphantly fire his team into the lead by the narrowest of margins.  The goal elicited the loudest roar of the afternoon so far from the crowd, and the noise was still simmering when the cheeky North rover, having been freed close to goal in the forward pocket, added another six pointer to give the blue and whites some breathing space.

​Play became even more physical, and on a couple of occasions things threatened to get out of hand.  On one occasion, Art Gregory and Jack Johnson squared up to one another as though wishing to resolve their differences by pugilistic means, but umpire Hurley intervened and the players, albeit with some reluctance, backed off.

The football being displayed by both sides was hardly scientific, but it was fast, frantic and unrelenting, and the crowd were loving it.  For a time, Footscray appeared to have the ascendancy, but all they could manage were a couple of behinds.  Then North attacked en masse and when a clever handball out of a pack by Sheehan found McKay in a surprising amount of space near goal the lanky follower had no trouble in rifling the ball through for his team's tenth major of the match.

The final five minutes of the term saw Footscray in the ascendancy, with Art Gregory in particularly commanding form in the ruck.  He it was who initiated the move that produced the final goal of the term, deftly palming the ball to Banbury, whose quick handball floated into the path of a fast running Billy Holmes, and the former Northcote, Collingwood and Fitzroy half forward fired home with calculated precision.  Three Quarter Time: North Melbourne 10.6 (66); Footscray 8.13 (61)

4th Quarter

Play continued fast, frenzied and largely uncoordinated during the opening phase of the final quarter, with North Melbourne seeming to have an edge in pace, fitness and, most noticeably of all, in aerial strength, with Treloar, Sheehan and Hawkins in particular repeatedly marking well.

​The first score of the term was a behind to Fred Carpenter, which put North a single straight kick to the good.  Five minutes into the quarter the margin was stretched to two straight kicks when Carpenter booted an easy goal after outmarking 'Ching' Harris.  At this stage, the blue and whites seemed to be on top virtually all over the ground, but very gradually the tide began to turn, and Footscray players like Craddock, Spence, Cotton, Baxter and Gregory began to see more and more of the ball.  North's defence was resolute, however, and it was not until there were just eight minutes of the term remaining that Banbury, having received from Spence, finally managed to raise two flags from close in. The scoreboard now showed North Melbourne 11.7 (73) leading Footscray 9.13 (67), and the scene was set for the sort of nerve-tingling finale that the occasion, and the match, deserved.

With five minutes left, Footscray moved to within 5 points when Banbury's long shot sailed narrowly wide of the central uprights, but moments later Gregory made amends when he snatched the ball out of the air at a ruck contest and fired home from close range.

​With the crowd screaming almost manically, North surged forward, and when Walsh took an easy mark well within scoring range it seemed that at least a draw was inevitable.  Inexplicably, however, Walsh opted to attempt a short pass to Carpenter, who was nearer to goal, but closely attended by Baxter, and it was the Footscray man who claimed the ball and relieved the situation.  Although there were still some three minutes of the match remaining, this proved to be North's final scoring opportunity, and the Tricolours held on to record a gut-wrenching but wholly meritorious win by the narrowest of margins "amid a scene of the wildest excitement".  Final Score: Footscray 10.14 (74); North Melbourne 11.7 (73)

BEST - Footscray: McClusky, Harris, Clarke, Baxter, Banbury, Gregory, Craddock   North Melbourne: Hardy, Jones, Sheehan, Carpenter, Treloar, McKay, Heron

GOALS - Footscray: Banbury 3; Grierson 2; Baxter, Cotton, Gregory, Holmes, Lawson  North Melbourne: Carpenter, Hawkins, Hardy 2; Freeman, K.Johnson, McKay, Sheehan, Treloar

ATTENDANCE:  20,000 approximately at the Melbourne Cricket Ground


Over the remaining nine seasons of their involvement in the VFA, Footscray and North Melbourne were the most successful clubs in the competition, winning seven of the available premierships between them.  Moreover, in 1924, Footscray went one better, convincingly defeating VFL premier Essendon to claim the title of champions of Victoria.  Given that this was the only occasion in the game's history that the honour was contested, it was a unique, presumably never to be repeated achievement.

In 1925, both clubs, along with Hawthorn, gained admission to the VFL, but the simmering war between the two principal football organisations in the state of Victoria would continue unabated for decades, to the immense detriment of the game.  At the same time, it can not be denied that the individual clubs which comprised the VFA were locally important, and gave considerable enjoyment to many.  In the end, however, no amount of inspired and thrifty administration could save the Association from the fate that had arguably been inevitable from the very time at the end of the 1896 season that eight renegade clubs elected to go their separate ways.  Whether the fact that all football throughout Australia now operates under the auspices of a single organisation will ultimately be to its benefit is still to be seen, but if it does not, at least there can no longer be any doubt as to where the finger of blame will need to point.


​[1] Five years earlier, the VFA had reduced the number of players per team from eighteen to seventeen.

[2] "The Herald", 13/8/13. 

[3] Ibid. 

".....there should only be one control for football in Melbourne, not two rival bodies."  ('Amateur' in "The Leader", 4/10/13)

​Tricolours Triumph - VFA ​Final, 11th September 1913: Footscray versus North Melbourne at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground