The Changing Face of Football in Sydney

Australian football has always owned the tag as the poor relation in Sydney.

The game was first introduced to the city in 1880 upon the formation of the NSW Football Association.  It took until the following year before any clubs were formed: Sydney and East Sydney were the first and the East Sydney of those days should not be confused with the East Sydney of the 1980s & 90s.

Immediately the game attracted the wrath of rugby officials led by top protagonist, Monty Arnold who said at the Association’s formation “if the Melbourne and Carlton clubs were playing a match in Melbourne, and the Kelly gang were firing within a quarter of a mile of them, he did not believe there would be a soul looking at the football”

Arnold and his co-horts were absolutely opposed and vitriolic to the new game and its introduction was made all the worse when some tried to change the rules of rugby because of its many dangerous aspects.  Paradoxically, they welcomed the formation of the soccer association.

A few Sydney journalists were sympathetic to the Victorian game but when it sank into anarchy, in-fighting and bitterness they dropped off and the game failed to move into the 1895 season.

Harry Hedger 1908It was left the since unrecognized enthusiast and former player, Harry Hedger, pictured, to lead the resurgence of the game in Sydney in 1903.

Its development went well and the game became stronger reaching out to schools and junior grades.  Poor management in the purchase of the original Rosebery Racecourse site on the corner of Botany and Gardeners Road, Mascot and the onset of WWI put the game back to almost a zero base.  But with steady work and commitment from officials of the league it clung on, despite being comprised of only five clubs in 1917.  There was no second grade during the war and for the most part the junior competition also disappeared.

There was a spark of hope during the 1920s when NSW defeated the VFL in 1923 and again in 1925 but it again slumped into its familiar rung on the ladder as the least favoured game in the city.

The depression years of the thirties brought no solace and for the most part the league was locked with six clubs and only two grounds where they could truly derive a gate – the strength of their income.

Then WWII brought new hope.  Australian football was the first sport to move to Sunday football, for no other reason than they desperately needed that additional Sydney Football Attendances Graph smallvenue where a gate could be charged.  It was during this period that servicemen from interstate were in or moving through Sydney and they played with local clubs.

Names like Collingwood’s captain, Phonse Kyne was the captain and coach of St George, Alby Morrison who was chosen in Footscray’s team of the century was with the RAAF team, future Brownlow Medalist, Bill Morris played with South Sydney while 17 year old Western Australian, Jack Sheedy, another AFL Hall of Famer, turned out for the Sydney Club.

These are just a very few of the football talent in Sydney during the war.

Following hostilities the game was riding high in public opinion, particularly so when three new clubs, Western Suburbs, Balmain and Sydney University were added to the competition in 1948.

During the fifties the image of the game lapsed especially when newspapers highlighted the negative parts of the game: fights and problems in matches.

More clubs were formed and joined the competition leading to twelve in 1962 “a perfect time to turn the competition into two divisions.”  It didn’t happen and the change from 18 aside to 16 aside in  1960 was also overturned mid-season.

By this time though, Western Suburbs gained their liquor licence and became very much a supporter and promoter of the game playing out of the same Picken Oval as now, but then it was surrounded by a training trotting track and privately owned.  The club though pumped thousands of dollars into the game and supported the league’s purchase of offices in Regent Street, Chippendale.

Football didn’t really move, they had lost many chances though by the seventies two new divisions had been formed.

Bill Hart, President NSWAFL 1966-78
Bill Hart, President NSWAFL 1966-78

In 1978 a coup threw out the popular league president Bill Hart and eventually his cronies went with him.  The VFL backed move with promised support didn’t last long before the administration in Sydney really struggled.

Then came the Sydney Swans and new VFL money and finance through the Swans licence scheme.  This eventually fell over and the club was subsequently taken over by the league.  Sydney football though had solidified and were well led with a move to more permanent offices in the Wentworth Park Grandstand, Glebe, where a number of other sports were domiciled.

Of course things always change and in 1998 there was a further takeover by the AFL which has funded the league and NSW football ever since.  It resulted in more staff, more people on the ground but are there more playing the game?

The elected officials have gone and the game is run by bureaucrats in their central Moore Park Offices.

Makes you wonder with all the changes the game has endured over the past 134 years, what the future holds for Sydney football?

In some sense it doesn’t have much but in others it has a lot.  It certainly has a rich past.

MORE FOOTBALL RECORDS ONLINE

1944-07-01 Sydney Football Record front page 1 smallSociety officials have completed another painstaking chore by loading Sydney football records onto the website for the war years, 1941-44.

So far sixty of these publications have been loaded.  Some are four page editions, one or two single page efforts while the remainder are mostly of twelve pages.

Because of a shortage of paper during the war some of the Records were cut down to one sheet of paper folded to present four pages.  This unique contribution was enough to maintain a regular communication on the local competition to players and supporters.

In other years a one page effort had to suffice for a month and this occurred on two occasions in that season.  These gave the teams lists and not much more.

Those were the days (and carried on well into the 1990s) when volunteers who worked in the city, came into the league office then housed in the NSW Sports Club in Hunter Street, and helped the Honorary League Secretary and/or Record Editor to compile and staple the publication to ready them for sale at grounds the following weekend.  We know that a few of these reached our troops in the South Pacific as we imagine some also were sent on to the European theatre.

It is fascinating to read the names of the players who participated in Sydney during that period.  Many were top line interstate players who played in the VFL, SANFL  and WAFL including Phonse Kyne, captain of Collingwood, Alby Morrison a former captain of Footscray and Bill Morris who would go on to win a Brownlow Medal.

Terry Moriarty, winner of the 1943 Sandover Medal played in Sydney as did someone who would go on to be inducted in the AFL’s Hall of Fame from WA, Jack Sheedy.  There were many, many more.

From what we were told, these boys simply turned up at a ground seeking a game.  Maybe a quarter in the seconds would convince the coach of the player’s ability and he was taken off the field and put straight into the firsts.  Because of their situation in the military, many could not train.

It must have been great football and wonderful for the fans, many of whom were military personnel themselves.

Check this graph out which shows a spark in attendances at Sydney football during the war, Chart of Sydney Ground Gate Takings 1930-50 smallmost particularly when Sunday football was introduced.  To separate the grounds, the solitary green line above the ongoing graph is the takings at Trumper Park of a Sunday.  Click to enlarge.

Shortly the Society will post the 1939-40 and 45 Football Records on the site.  They have all of the former but only a handful of 1945 publications.  If anyone has any early editions in their family football treasurers we would very much appreciate copies which could then be added to a most absorbing list of Football Record many of which are available for everyone to peruse on the net.

WHAT THE DOCUMENTS REVEAL

I guess you have to be an absolute footy aficionado to appreciate a lot of what comes across our desk.

We see and read and see lots of stuff from Sydney’s footy history but sometimes we come across some real gems.

In our efforts to include more data on our OCR programme we have almost finished scanning all the NSW Football League’s, or as they are now titled, AFL(NSW/ACT) annual reports.  (We must tell you here that the organisation has had several name changes over the years.)

Reading some of these publications can have a profound affect on those really interested in football history.

For example, skimming through early WWII league annual reports, just shows what a battle it was to conduct the competition in Sydney.

For a start there was a paper shortage so in 1941 the report only consisted of four pages and to conserve paper, the normal page two, where officials were listed, was published on the front cover.  The other pages were printed front to back for the remainder in the roneoed document..

Right up to the 1980s, the league’s annual report began with the greeting “Gentlemen ….”  Not many women in executive positions in those days.

In some of those war year’s issues, there were personal notes written against peoples names and the room would be full on the night of the meeting.

The venue for the league’s annual meeting varied from various locations in the city, all of which have since been demolished.  But they were the times when the vast majority of the attendees (sample shown in photo above taken at the Sydney Sports Club, Hunter Street), club delegates, league officials and umpiring officials would have had to have caught a tram, bus or train home after the gathering – given that the meeting did not begin until 8:00pm.

Competition was fierce to gain a place on the league’s administration and it may have taken several years to be elected to a seat on the board.  A public vote was always taken for life members and there would have been severe embarrassment for those who were voted down, which sometimes happened.  They was not hidden ballots then.

Finding volunteers to administer the game then, as is the case now, was not easy.  Clubs could reasonably rely on ex-players to taken on positions but those who conducted league affairs were few and far between and these honorary officials really had to be dedicated.  There were sub-committees most had to join up to and it was not uncommon for the league secretary and treasurer to attend in excess of 40 meetings a year.

The photograph is of a young Ken Ferguson who was league Secretary for a total of 28 years, 24 of those in an honorary capacity.

The league board met each Monday night during the season right up until 1980.

In 1943 there were some wonderful footballers playing in Sydney having been posted here for training during hostilities.  For the most part they were evenly, but directed,  shared around the clubs and many were from the VFL, SANFL and WANFL.

In 1943 the nation’s prime minister, John Curtin, one of the country’s most outstanding leaders ever in our history was patron of the league.  The former VFA player attended several games at Trumper Park during the season and on one one occasion addressed both teams in their rooms after the game.

This was the year that football first began to play of a Sunday mostly due to the lack of grounds but the initiative saw attendances sky-rocket.

In 1944, Corporal Alby Morrison, former captain of Footscray was the leader of the RAAF club that competed in the Sydney competition during that period.  Although the awarding of the Phelan Medal (the league’s B & F) had been suspended, the talented Morrison, who had represented Victoria and would subsequently be chosen in Footscray’s Team of the Century, was presented with a cup in 1944 for The Best and Most Consistent Player in the Sydney league.

Also in the same year, Collingwood captain, Private Phonse Kyne, who was also stationed in Sydney and captain coach of the St George club, was awarded a cup for Outstanding Fair Play.  Kyne would go on to win three Copeland Trophies at Collingwood and coach the club to two premierships.  Neither of these clubs won the premiership in 1943 or 1944.