Explore the History of australian football

Alec Conlin (West Adelaide)

Henry Richard "Dick" Head of West

Despite the fact that a club bearing the name West Adelaide appeared in the SAFA as early as 1887 it was not until 1892 that the present club of that name was formed. Between 1892 and 1894 the side was administered on a very informal basis and only took part in scratch matches. However, by 1895 club spirit and organisation had developed to such an extent that entry into an official competition was sought and secured. During two seasons as members of the Adelaide and Suburban Association West acquired a firm reputation as the strongest club outside senior ranks in the city. Consequently its admission to the SAFA surprised no one.

Unfortunately for West, however, the gap in standard between junior and senior football was considerable. In 1897 and 1898 the club played a total of 31 matches for just a single win and a draw. Many of the defeats were sizeable.

In 1899 the SAFA implemented district or 'electorate' football whereby players were obliged to play for the clubs from the electoral districts in which they resided. Many expected this to have a salutary effect on a struggling club like West, but while the competition as a whole evened out, the black and reds remained very much the Cinderella side of South Australian football. Even Sturt, which did not enter the SAFA until 1901, proved more competitive than West, reaching the finals for the first time in only their sixth season. At the beginning of the 1908 season, after eleven years in the competition, West had managed just 20 wins and 2 draws from 127 matches, which represents a paltry success rate of less than 17%. Conditions off the field did not exactly help. The club's training ground in the west park lands was a rough and ready affair bisected by a cattle track, while the players were forced to change and wash in a wooden and iron shed possessing no hot water facility. Clubrooms were an unimaginable luxury, and home matches were shared between the Adelaide and Jubilee Ovals.

On the positive side of the ledger the club unearthed a succession of champion players during the early to middle years of the century's first decade. Prominent among these were Tom Leahy, the 'prince of ruckmen', who would go on to win a Magarey Medal with North Adelaide in 1913, his brother Bernie, a redoubtable backman, follower James "Sorry" Tierney, and centreman Henry "Dick" Head - the last two of whom were West's first ever Magarey Medallists, in 1908 and 1909 respectively.

In 1908 these champions and others combined to produce a season the like of which West supporters had never previously seen, and which indeed they would seldom if ever witness again. After qualifying for the finals for the first ever time the black and reds ousted North Adelaide from premiership contention in a semi final by 15 points and then surprised everyone by trouncing minor premiers Norwood 6.15 (51) to 3.6 (24) in the final. The Redlegs exercised their right of challenge the following week and 22,000 spectators saw a much harder fought affair with West scraping home by 3 points, 7.10 (52) to 6.13 (49).

The West Adelaide Football Club had, in effect, arrived, a state of affairs reinforced a year later with a second flag. Then, in 1911, Westies obtained a third premiership, making them without doubt the league’s pre-eminent force at the time.

South Adelaide’s fortunes had been in sharp contrast to those of West. In order to examine and explain them, we need to travel back to the 1870s, a time when football in Adelaide was still struggling to decide on an identity for itself.  In 1875, the Adelaide Football Club, the oldest in South Australia, had become so disorganised that a group of its members decided to secede and establish a new club, bearing the name South Adelaide.  The situation rapidly became confused when, in April the following year, another group of disaffected Adelaide Football Club members held a meeting at the Draper Memorial Schoolroom and decided to form a second breakaway club - also called South Adelaide.

Within a few days, common sense prevailed and, following a meeting of its members at the Havelock, the 1875 club voted unanimously to merge with its recently established namesake.  Proudly espousing the motto 'unity is strength', South Australia's second oldest surviving football club, after Port Adelaide, had been born, and over the course of the next twelve months or so it would play a highly significant, but surprisingly little feted, role in helping create an enduring identity for football both in Adelaide, and in the colony as a whole.

Arguably the key figure in shaping that identity was a certain Charles Cameron Kingston, a colourful personality who would go on to become one of the leading public figures in South Australia of the nineteenth century.  In 1876, however, he was the inaugural secretary, and some time player, of the newly formed South Adelaide Football Club, and his mission - if that is not too strong a term - was to see to it that South Australia adopted the Victorian version of football, in which throwing the ball was prohibited, a player running with the ball had to bounce it "every ten yards or so", and marking was allowed irrespective of whether or not the marking player's feet were rooted to the ground at the moment he caught the ball.  When the South Australian Football Association - the oldest organising body in Australian football - was established in 1877, Kingston's persuasiveness (and, one can not help but imagine, his eloquence) ultimately ensured that the rules of play adopted were more or less identical to those in operation at the time in Melbourne.  Had Kingston not been around it is just conceivable that generations of South Australians would have grown up culturally and athletically diminished, forced to endure scrums, mauls and line-outs rather than - as the divine will surely intended - boundary throw-ins, ball ups and the perpetually fluctuating enigma of the holding the ball/holding the man rule.

As far as South Adelaide was concerned, success was swift to arrive and slow to dissipate. Indeed, when the South Australian Football Association opened for busines in 1877 South had the honour of securing the very first premiership. By the turn of the century the club had added another seven; only Norwood had won more.

However, as alluded to above, in 1897 the SAFA voted to introduce an electorate system of player registration, whereby players would be required to play for the club in whose electoral district they resided.  The system was loosely implemented that very year, but only on a voluntary basis. However, from 1899 it became compulsory and, over the longer term, the big loser was the South Adelaide Football Club.

Initially, however, although the club lost a large number of highly talented and experienced players, including the likes of "Dinny" Reedman, Jack Kay, Ern Jones, and Edward MacKenzie, the overall impact was negligible, as there were also a number of significant gains.  Principal among these was the arrival from Norwood of the leading goalsneak in the colony, Anthony 'Bos' Daly, who promptly proceeded to help himself to 32 goals for the season as South procured the 1899 premiership courtesy of a 5.12 (42) to 2.2 (14) challenge final victory over Daly's former associates from the Parade.  Unfortunately, however, in 1900 he was on the move again, this time to West Torrens, and although the blue and whites were still sufficiently strong to play off for the premiership (losing by 13 points to North Adelaide) the “halcyon era” was very definitely over.

Over the course of the next decade, particularly after Sturt was admitted to the competition in 1901, the effects of the electorate system would truly begin to hit home.  South Adelaide was the only club to vote against Sturt's admission - hardly surprising when you consider that the newcomers were to be allocated a major slice of South's territory, which would see them able to claim as many as a dozen former Blue and White players in their debut season.

South Adelaide's zone was actually centered on east Adelaide, one of the few areas of the city where the population was not expanding; moreover, with limited finances at its disposal, the club did not have ready recourse to alternative methods of recruitment.  (Sturt, for example, had a major beneficiary in the shape of John Frederick Dempsey, whose money was used as bait to lure large numbers of top quality players to Unley from interstate; these players, known as 'Dempsey's Immigrants', would effectively sow the seeds of the Blues' first ever premiership in 1915.)  The situation rapidly became self-perpetuating, and would continue, with only fleeting interludes, for most of the remainder of the twentieth century.

West Adelaide’s recent premiership success coupled with South’s having finished last in each of the previous three seasons made their round nine clash at Adelaide Oval a classic David and Goliath affair. The blue and whites’ only wins so far in 1912 had both been at the expense of North Adelaide, by margins of 9 points in round five and 27 points in round eight. Meanwhile West had experienced something of a premiership hangover, losing 4 of their first 5 matches before recovering somewhat after their round six bye to overcome first North Adelaide and then West Torrens with relative ease.

A crowd in the region of 7,000 attended the match which was played in fine weather with the ground in excellent condition. With less than a minute played Westies had the first goal on the board, courtesy of Oliver. Thereafter the red and blacks continued to attack persistently but their efforts were hampered by solid defence on the part of South, for whom Jones, Tredrea and Coley were particularly prominent. West also tended to overuse handball when a more direct approach might well have yielded better dividends.

West Adelaide ruckman Moore received an accidental kick to the ankle which left him in the hands of the trainers for fully ten minutes. During that time West’s attacking pressure finally told as Alec Conlin booted their second goal.

When play resumed South showed some attacking initiative for the first time, and after McKee and Jones had registered minor scores the first named kicked their first six pointer. West attacked from the restart but Alec Conlin squandered an excellent goal scoring opportunity and only managed a behind. The remainder of the quarter saw South in the ascendancy, with Duane, Dugan and Waye especially conspicuous, but only a brace of minor scores resulted, leaving West in front by 3 points at the first interval. Scores were West Adelaide 2.1 (13); South Adelaide 1.4 (10).

At the start of the second term West’s full back Dailey and full forward Parker swapped positions. Within minutes Dailey found himself running into an open goal with the ball only to slip over. Players from both sides quickly arrived on the scene and South were happy to rush the ball over the line for a behind.

South rallied and had soon added first a minor score and then a goal to Barry to hit the front for the first time. A bad miss by Beck for the red and blacks made the margin a single point. Moments later West’s supporters thought their team was back on level terms after Dwyer’s set shot went through for a behind. However, a South player had overstepped the mark and so the umpire offered Dwyer the option of retaking the kick. Dwyer gratefully accepted - and missed everything. Neverheless, Westies now had the bit between their teeth and shortly afterwards Oliver, from a free, kicked truly from point blank range.

The remainder of the term saw West continuing to dominate but when the half time bell rang out they had only added a couple of behinds to their score giving them a 6 point advantage at the main break. Scores were West Adelaide 3.5 (23) leading South Adelaide 2.5 (17). It had been an even tussle so far and if some of the football had lacked finesse it had nevertheless, at times, been exciting.

Early in the third quarter to two teams exchanged behinds before Barry levelled the scores with a fine goal. West responded with a four behinds in quick succession and then it was South’s turn to take control. They quickly added a minor score and then George Wallace, showing a fine turn of pace, ran in and kicked an excellent left footed goal, putting his side 2 points up.

The topsy turvy nature of the game continued with West now taking up the gauntlet. A neat pass by Beck was marked by Alec Conlin some fifty-five metres from goal. “A raucous South supporter, whose voice rasped alarmingly like a rusty file, promised to eat his headgear if Conlin got the goal, but we noticed it was still intact when he left the oval.”[1] Conlin, needless to say, had kicked truly.

Before the final change West had procured a modicum of breathing space for themselves thanks to a goal from Slattery. The three quarter time scores were West Adelaide 5.10 (40); South Adelaide 4.8 (32).

West opened the final term brightly and had soon extended their lead to 20 points following goals to Dowling and Dailey. South refused to give up, however, and for the ensuing five minutes or so they attacked determinedly, finally reaping their reward when Wallace nabbed his second goal. It was a good one too, the culmination of a trademark long, dodging, weaving run. When, shortly afterwards, the same player again goaled, it looked as if a tense, exciting finish was in the offing.

Sadly for South, during the closing stages of the match the red and blacks proved to have just that little bit more steadiness and assurance, and a deft snap from their centreman Dick Head made the final result certain. A nice running goal from South’s Waye came too late to make any difference. Final scores were West Adelaide 8.14 (62) defeated South Adelaide 7.8 (50).

Despite being defeated, South probably had the best player on view in the shape of Duane. West’s ruck was a key factor in their success, with followers Slattery and Moore and rover “Shrimp” Dowling perhaps their most conspicuous performers. Others to shine included Dick Head and Alec Conlin for the victors, and Jones and Wallace for the blue and whites.

“The westerners were the stronger side, and, going away with points at the start, always appeared to have the issue in their keeping. Their rivals battled gamely and well, and while they ran to the front during the third term, their occupancy of that position was of extremely short duration, and when the other team regained the advantage they proceeded to make sure of the laurels.”[2]

“The quality of the football was not as high as had been expected, but their were many brilliant individual efforts, and at times passages of first-class combined work. Neither team passed so well as they are capable of, and South would have done much more effective work in this department if long kicks had been resorted to instead of so much handball and short passing. The southerners watched their individual men more closely than did the red and blacks.”[3]

The fortunes of the two sides diverged sharply after this encounter. West Adelaide lost just once more all season, and indeed ultimately procured a second successive flag. South Adelaide meanwhile slumped to fifth place on the ladder with just 4 wins from their 12 minor round fixtures.


[1] “The Mail”, 29/6/12, page 4.

[2] “The Register”, 1/7/12, page 5.

[3] Ibid, page 5.

​South's Jack Tredrea

Westies Win Well - ​SAFL round 9, Saturday 29th June 1912: South Adelaide versus West Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval

South rover George Wallace