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.
It 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 â€“ 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 venue 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.
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.