Why Football Did Not Kick in Sydney

axe 2There have been several reasons why Australian football never kicked on in Sydney.  Most of these have been offered by people who have little knowledge of the background and history of its development in the city.

Here, Hugh Stone, a Sydney based journalist of the late 1880s and early twentieth century offers his opinion.  If you have a moment, its not a bad read.  It was written in 1920 and appears verbatim:

TRUMPER PARK – why it is Australian Football’s prime piece of real estate in Sydney

Submitted by Miles Wilks author of Australian Football Clubs in NSW

Trumper Park can lay claim to being the most enduring and important Australian football oval in Sydney. Whilst the SCG has only been consistently used for football in the last thirty years,

Trumper Park has been used as a football oval for approximately 110 years. Other inner-city football grounds, such as Erskineville Oval, Kensington Oval and Drummoyne Oval, have all seen their time, come and go, yet Paddington’s Trumper Park has endured. Trumper Park Oval is the one constant for a sport that has struggled to have continuity and hold its place in the crowded Sydney

For many, Erskineville Oval is the only oval that could rival Trumper in Sydney as a long-term venue for the game. I can remember as a youngster seeing a grand final match in the early 1980s and it was full of life, yet now when you go there it seems as if all traces of previous football action has been erased.

Football ovals have a soul to them, a life, when they are in use, but empty ovals that are past their use-by date have a melancholy quality about them. And this is the case with the former Newtown FC home ground of Erskineville Oval.

The game ceased to be played there in the early 1990s, and today one would never know that the oval was once the home of a proud football club, the Newtown Angels. There is not a skerrick of evidence (not even a plaque on the grandstand) that confirms that Australian football was once played there.

In contrast, Trumper Park has endured and it is the only Australian football ground in Sydney that has been used more or less continuously for more than 100 years.

The first documented match I could find reference to occurred in 1903, and there is perhaps some chance that football was even played there prior to this date. Colossal figures in Australian history have links to Trumper Park, including the cricketer and sporting hero Keith Miller and the Prime Minister and war leader John Curtin was a visitor to the ground. On top of this, footballers of exceptional quality have played at Trumper including the AFL legend Jack Dyer, as well as the Brownlow medalists Bill Morris and Kevin Murray amongst many other star players.

KEITH MILLER- cricketer.
Undoubtedly one of Australia’s greatest sportsmen and a hero to many, Keith Miller is someone whose life is linked to Trumper Park.  Yet before his link to Trumper is discussed, one should know more about the Keith Miller story and why he is an important figure in Australian history.

Whilst our most iconic Australian cricketer Don Bradman was described as a “clean-skin”, Keith Miller was described by some at the opposite side of the spectrum “a rogue, a big drinker, a womaniser.” There were even persistent and “unsubstantiated rumours of an affair with a member of royalty.”

Don Bradman and Keith Miller had an ongoing battle over the years due to their clash of personalities and different lifestyles and this conflect had some role in Miller not being selected as the Australian team captain towards the end of his career.  This though should not override the fact that Keith Miller was a hero to many.

The iconic figure in Australian football, Ron Barassi, was one of the many who considered Keith Miller as a hero.

The Great Keith Miller- Ron Barassi’s hero
Ron Barassi stated:

“When I was a teenager, I began to idolise one special Australian sportsman. As far as I was concerned, he stood for everything that was important in playing sport. He was dashing. He was cavalier. He was handsome. And he could do anything.

“Apart from his marvellous cricketing skills, I was fully aware of his background as a footballer, and a war hero as a fighter pilot, his war exploits being by far the most intriguing to me.

“He was the hero of the common man. Above all else, Keith Miller taught me the importance of being your own man.”

It wasn’t just Australians who idolised Miller, even the English saw Miller as the hero of the common man. Michael Parkinson, the celebrated English journalist who had his own tv chat show for over two decades, stated:

“I mean here was this man who played cricket, hit big sixes, looked like Errol Flynn, broad-shouldered, dark hair, blue eyes, the ladies loved him, every man wanted to be him.”

Of all the quotes attributed to Miller, the one that has received the most recognition is his comment about his time as a fighter pilot flying against the Germans and their Messerchmitt planes in WWII. A few years after flying in fighter squadrons in England, Miller was asked about the pressure of playing cricket at the top level. He replied: “Pressure, mate. In cricket? You’ve got to be kidding. Pressure is turning around and seeing a Messerschmitt flying up your arse.”

Keith ‘Nugget’ Miller also had a target on his back when he settled in Sydney after the war and played football for the Sydney Naval football club, which had its home ground at Trumper Park.

Any high profile player in the Sydney league was a target, and Miller was a public figure who had represented Australia in cricket and was an ex-VFL player as well.  As a sportsman, one couldn’t get more high profile than that.

The newspaper reports from the time verified that Miller was the target for footballers who played the man and not the ball. A July 1947 report from the Sydney Morning Herald stated, “While on the umpire’s blind side a Newtown player picked up Miller from behind and dumped him heavily. Miller received undue attention from a few Newtown players until the final bell.” Suffice to say that Miller’s football career in Sydney was short-lived – one season, as he was then in his thirties and perhaps not prepared for the lawless nature of football in Sydney, but in later years he was a representative on various committees who had the aim of improving the standing of the game in Sydney.

John Curtin
For some, just mentioning the topic of politicians is enough to put them to sleep, yet every so often there are great politicians who do make a difference and this is the case with John Curtin – Australia’s leader during much of World War II.

His most important moment in history came about in February 1942 when he refused Churchill’s request to divert  Australian troops to Burma so as to shore up the collapsing British front in that region. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was furious that Curtin disobeyed him, but Curtin wanted those troops to defend Australia, and not Burma.

The early months of 1942, when the Japanese were bombing northern Australia and seemed likely to invade the continent, were the darkest hours of the war for Australia – and Britain certainly could not help.  Those troops were eventually used on the Kokoda Trail and were vital in the protection of Australia against the Japanese forces.

John Curtin, our wartime leader, was also a passionate supporter of Australian football, and was a regular visitor of matches held at Trumper during the war. In 1943, he was reported to have gone into the rooms after 0ne game to speak to both teams. Curtin’s sad passing towards the end of the war is also linked to Trumper Park as the newspaper report of the Sydney Morning Herald on the 9th of July, 1945 mentions. It states:

Six thousand people stood in silence yesterday at Trumper Park in memory of the late Mr Curtin. The ceremony arranged by the NSW Australian National Football League, of which Mr Curtin was patron, was held before the first grade Australian Rules game at Trumper.

“The Minister for Transport, Mr O’Sullivan said: “We pay our simple homage to a great sportsman and the man that did so much to keep this country free. The president of the League, Mr Norman Joseph, replied that Mr Curtin was one of the game’s greatest supporters.”

The future:
There is no doubt that the history to the ground is immense, but what of the future? The present football playing tenants of the oval, the UTS Bats FC, have been told to move some of their home matches to Waverley Oval by the Sydney AFL.  The future of the oval is in jeopardy as the Sydney AFL consider the ground too short. This transference of matches has occurred despite the fact that Trumper isn’t as short as two grounds that are still in full-time use in the league: the University of NSW’s Village Green and Sydney University’s home ground.

There is a legacy there. Australian cultural heroes, such as John Curtin and Keith Miller, have graced the ground and have an ongoing link to the ground. It would be a shame to let that heritage go by the wayside just for bureaucratic reasons. Perhaps in the years ahead the ground will be lengthened and another 100 years of football history will be added to what has gone before.

Note: In the second part to this article on Trumper Park I will look at some of the legends of the game who have played at the ground.

The Season 1947

1947 was a mammoth year for football in Sydney.

It began with a tram strike which, if continued into the season, would have created havoc with fans and players getting to games.

The weather was not kind with several weekends suffering terrible downpours throughout the year, starting with a very damaging hail storm in January.

The league participated in eight interstate matches.  Five of these were in Sydney, one in Queensland and another in Broken Hill.  Then the NSW side travelled to Hobart where they played in the All States Carnival, competing in a further four games, under very wet and boggy conditions.

The most damning feature of the season, which for the most part went unreported, was the issue of charging admission at games on a Sunday.

Australian football was the first sport to play on a Sunday.  This first occurred in 1943, when, mainly because of the lack of grounds where an admission fee could be applied, one of their three Saturday matches was shifted to the Sunday, played mostly at Trumper Park.  Rugby League soon followed but Rugby Union, forever the traditionalists, never deviated from their conventional Saturday fixtures.

In May, the Sunday Sun newspaper, ran a series of articles on sports which charged a gate of a Sunday – copy attached. This convened a little known section of the Police Offences Act of 1901 which was almost never applied.

There is no doubt the church lobby would have had a great influence on this Sunday sport issue.

For many years, these Sunday games were the biggest revenue stream for the league, the proceeds of which it very much relied upon and to see the possibility of this being suddenly removed sent shock waves through the administration.  In those days, the league conducted the gate at each game.  It took the proceeds, paid the gatemen but also paid the rental on all grounds used in the competition.

The league secretary, Ken Ferguson, wrote to the Chief Secretary’s Department seeking clarification on its ability to apply a charge.  Click here to see their answer, said charging admission to Sunday sport would most likely be seen as contravening the Act and the League would have to accept full responsibility for their actions.  In fact the Department forwarded the league a list of conditions which would have to apply should they continue with Sunday games.  We have also attached a copy of these conditions for your edification – click to read.

The police from the Paddington station attended some games in this period to observe the nature of admission.  By this stage the league had resorted to requesting patrons to donate the 1/11 (one and eleven pence or 19¢) admission fee.  The local licensing sergeant stated that this still amounted to a definite breach of the law.

Other sporting bodies had taken to providing free admission but charged an appropriate increased amount for their match programme (Football Record).  The league pondered this position but questioned if it would make them subject to paying further taxation.  All sporting bodies were subject to paying tax on the amount received for admission charges in those days.

Eventually, following legal advice, the league advised the Chief Secretary’s Department that no charge would be made to any of their games they staged of a Sunday.

This prompted a letter to the League’s legal advisor – click to read.

A further inspection of the situation by the police, the president and secretary of the League found themselves in front of Inspector Magney of Paddington Police.

In no uncertain terms he stated that in his opinion, the league was violating the law in calling for a donation of a certain amount for admission, although underneath the donation sign it was advertised that a free gate existed at Hart Street, which we believe was a street at the eastern end of the ground, on the hill and adjacent to a rubbish tip.  At the time this was a very difficult location to get to.  Inspector Magney said this practice would have to cease or otherwise the league would face the consequences.

As a result the league altered their admission system by increasing the price of a programme from 3d (three pence or three cents) to 1/6 (one and six pence or fifteen cents), plus the erection of a sign at the Glenmore Road gate stating: ADMISSION BY PROGRAMME, 1/6d., FREE GATE AT HART STREET”

We can’t see how this change fitted the requirements of the law, given that, according to the documents and what we have written above, we believe the league was previously almost doing the same thing as the police inspector intimated.  Even so, the price of Football Records increased and nothing further was heard of the matter.

The Free Gate though, lasted at Trumper Park until well into the 1970s and became somewhat of a joke to those who knew it existed.