– 1903 Collingwood v Fitzroy in Sydney – it nearly didn’t happen!

Mostly through bad management and petty squabbles, the game failed and ceased to exist in Sydney in 1895.

This had been after a long and arduous period of getting the game established and accepted in Sydney.  The first clubs, Sydney and East Sydney were formed in 1881 which played under the NSW Football Association formed the year before.

Despite its demise, many of the proponents of the game were still keen about in the early 1900s and one, Harry Hedger, who had put his heart and sole into the game as a player and official in the aforementioned period, was very keen to see it rekindled.

After the NSW Football League had been formed in January 1903, he visited Melbourne late in the next month especially to attend a meeting of the VFL and club delegates where he outlined the need for support to have the game re-established in the NSW capital.

After Hedger harangued delegates until 2.30am, “Mr. C. M. Hickey (Fitzroy) said that his club was willing to go to Sydney at its own expense, and to forego any share of the gate receipts. Eventually Mr. Copeland, on behalf of the Collingwood club, agreed to make the trip. The cost to each of these clubs will probably be about £300, and they will each lose the proceeds of the match, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been played in Melbourne. Thus either the Fitzroy or the Collingwood ground will lose one of its most productive games. In order to compensate the two clubs for the sacrifice it was decided that the proceeds of the games played in Victoria on that day shall be pooled and divided equally between all the clubs in the league; and, further, that the ground which suffers by the arrangement shall be awarded one of the semi-final matches. ” [1]

But the Collingwood membership were not all that too happy with the decision.  At the annual meeting of the Collingwood Football Club on March 9, some members of the club resented the action of their committee in making the interstate arrangement.  One member, a Mr. Mansergh, said “that he thought the committee had exceeded its powers in committing the club to such a course. The members had a right to be consulted, and they should have decided. The match with Fitzroy was the most popular game of the season, and he did not think it fair that members should be deprived of the game.”

Mansergh then move that  “This meeting disagrees with the action of the committee of the club in deciding to play a premiership match in Sydney.  The motion was declared carried on a show of hands.” [2]

The decision of the members of the Collingwood club did not affect the Sydney visit, but had the potential to rob the match of its interest as far as the premiership was concerned”

In the meantime football euphoria had gripped Sydney with the two biggest clubs in Australia to visit in May.  Sydney was a Rugby town (Rugby League had not yet been introduced) and as well, soccer was played but not as popular as it is today.  Despite all this, eleven new first grade clubs were formed – and there were others.

However Collingwood had more problems when it comes to impediments to their proposed match. In May 1903 Victoria was gripped with a rail strike which subjected the match to a good deal of uncertainty.  The May 9 game of Geelong v Carlton game had to be postponed because of the strike.  The sudden impact of the strike had stifled any arrangements for travel to Geelong by boat because any such arrangements had not been considered early enough. [3]

There is more to this story …. stay tuned.

[1] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser – 4 March 1903, p.570
[2} The Argus 10 March 1903 p.7
[3] 1903 VFL results

Stan Day

Following months of searching we are slowly drilling down to the names on a 1932 NSW State photo which the Society inherited some time ago.

The image was taken at the MCG prior to a game against the VFL.

We were able to identify the majority of players by comparing the photo with both club and league images taken around the same time but there were four names with whom we had trouble.

An article in the local Broken Hill newspaper provided some joy in one being identified then after we sent an article and the photograph to the Narrandera Argus we had the son of one of the players in the team, Stan Day, who played for Narrandera at the time able to identify his father.

Stan Day 4A smallSth Melbourne Letter Stan Day 6AEssendon Letter Stan Day - Carlton thumbnailCarlton Letter

Not only that but he sent us some very historical letters Stan received from Essendon, South Melbourne and Carlton clubs asking him to go to Melbourne and try out for their senior sides.

Additionally there is a letter (not included here) from the secretary of the local league providing some info.

The information Stan’s son, Geoff, sent in opens another chapter on how VFL clubs of the day recruited players from areas distant to Melbourne.

Stan never did move to Melbourne but remained in Narrandera until his death, playing with the local side for many years as their star ruckman.

NSW v Melbourne FC

Ever s1923-07-31 Sydney Sportsman p.1 A thumbnailince football was played in NSW, a highlight of the season has been the visitation of an interstate team.

Before the establishment of the VFL in 1897 they came from the VFA and South Australia, then after the resurrection of the game in Sydney in 1903 visiting teams came thick and fast:  Geelong, South Melbourne, Williamstown, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, North Adelaide, Norwood and the list goes on and on.

You can view what teams did visit and how they performed up to 1930 by clicking here and search under ‘Advanced Search’.

On most occasions the visitors left the gate with the NSW Football League to further enhance the game in Sydney.  But, the league battled.  There was never any real foresight, planning and strategies put in place to develop and grow the game in the early days.  They merely survived from year to year.

One club that did visit Sydney on four occasions was the Melbourne Football Club.

They played NSW or a Combined Sydney side on four separate occasions, winning one and losing three, but two of those were within a very close margin.

The game they crowed about was the win in 1911.  NSW won the game 14-12 (96) to 10-14 (74) and didn’t the local press pump up the win.  One headline read: Victors a Trifle Superior All Round, and Home Team Wins Brilliantly but the best read: NSW Whips Melbourne.  Were victories against these interstate teams all that rare – The Answer: Yes.

The Signing of Davies was Unethical

1926 Fred Davies smallYou have probably never heard of Freddie Davies  …  not many football followers these days have.

But Fred was one of those rare players from NSW (Sydney), who went on to captain a VFL Club, but that was in 1934.  Ironically Davies was not the first Sydneyite to captain his VFL Club, Fitzroy.  Chris Lethbridge from the now defunct, YMCA Club was captain in 1922 and later non-playing coach.

However Fred had an ignominious start to his VFL career.

Born in Sydney he attended Double Bay Public School where the headmaster, Tom Stafford, was a keen (Australian) football supporter and one of few teachers in Sydney who actively promoted the game in and out of school.

Following his schooling the snowy headed Fred was elevated to the ranks of  local senior club, Paddington and by 1925 was a permanent fixture in their first grade.  When the team combined with East Sydney in 1926 he went on to become one of the stars of the new Eastern Suburbs Club and the league.

He represented NSW against the VFL, Richmond and Footscray Clubs in 1925 and twice against the VFL in 1926 so he was no slouch.

Then in the All-States carnival held in Melbourne in 1927 where he again was representing the state, the manager of the NSW team, Leo Percy, made an astounding announcement at a public function.

He told those gathered at a dinner held during the carnival where officials from all of the VFL clubs were present “I want to refer to the despicable action of the officials of one of your League clubs in persuading Davies, one of our best men, to sign an agreement to play with their team next season. I can assure you that I will do my utmost to prevent it”

It was an unfortunate introduction to league football for Davies.  It was also reported that he knocked back a big offer £4/10/, a week ($340 in today’s money and well in excess of the weekly wage) to play football and a job in the bargain in 1928, however it wasn’t until 1930 that he made his entry to Melbourne football in a season where he played the whole 18 games.

Fred ended up playing 63 games for Fitzroy from 1930-34 during a period when they didn’t enjoy the best of success.  He gained the captaincy in his last year by default when the original captain (and coach), Jack Cashman was of the opinion that he did not have the committee’s complete confidence and went off to play with Carlton after only two games.  It was then that the captaincy of the side was thrown in Fred’s lap and he went on to lead the side for the rest of the season, winning his first (against Carlton) and a further five games for the year.

After that the 28 year old pulled up stumps and returned to Sydney where he was appointed captain of the new St George Club and later leading them to a premiership in 1937.

Bob Merrick – Goalkicker

1917 Bob MerrickWe came across some interesting information when researching Sydney goalkickers.

The Sydney 1st grade goalkicking list is far from complete although we are slowly closing the gaps. Next to no records were kept of the goalkickers (or any other players for that fact) until the league went through a minor restructure in 1926.  Then though, the scant record keeping started from that year.

That was when the successful Paddington Club joined together with East Sydney to form Eastern Suburbs to play in the familiar red, white and blue.

Balmain and Railway clubs disappeared and “District” football was reintroduced.

It was almost from then that football achievements were recorded, mainly due to the efforts of long term league secretary, Ken Ferguson.

Bob Merrick was a Port Melbourne Gun. He was small for a full forward at 175cm and sometimes was used in other positions but mainly he kept on the forward line. At 21 he won Port’s leading goalkicking award in 191,  then again in 1914 & 15. His 1915 effort also saw him top the VFA goalkicking list with 43 goals. In July of that year he kicked 10 against Brighton and his form was so good that early in that season, the Carlton Club offered Port Melbourne £50 ($100 or $ today) to “buy him out”. In other words, pay Port Melbourne to transfer Merrick to the Blues.

However in mid July he was on crutches after hospitalisation with an injured knee he received while playing. The injury kept him off the field and presumably out of work for 15 weeks. So much did it effect him that his club were obliged to hold a benefit night and fund for him.

Merrick 1 small Merrick 2 small Merrick 3 small

By December, Merrick was playing cricket so he obviously overcame his disability.

What, I can hear you ask does all this have to do with NSW Football?

Well in May of the next year, Bob Merrick turned out for the East Sydney Club. This in a period that the VFA had gone into recess because of WWI and the lack of man power.

At full forward, Merrick won Sydney Football’s 1917 Leading Goalkicking Award booting 35 majors. In the same year he was married. Merrick also played the 1918 year for East Sydney and again figured prominently in the goals.

In 1919 at aged 27 he transferred to the Fitzroy Club where he went on to play 59 games booting 181 goals. He topped Fitzroy’s goalkicking in 1919, 20 & 22. In round 16, 1919 he booted 12 goals against the Melbourne FC at Brunswick Street.  He missed playing in the Maroon’s 1922 premiership due to his re-occurring knee injury.

Merrick played country football and had one last shot at the VFL in 1926. He then tried his hand at umpiring.

Jim Phelan’s Writings

Jim Phelan 1920When we get stuck for some stories to present, its handy to look back through old Sydney Football Records where, before the Second War, Jim Phelan, after whom the league’s best and fairest medal is named and who is credited with virtually saving the game in Sydney “when not only the dark clouds of the first world war descended the nation but again, mismanagement with the game in the city almost proved fatal,” wrote about his experiences.

Here is one of those tales and you will probably have to join the dots, because it is written at a time when patrons of the game in Sydney could recall their times in the twentieth century:

“Fate and faulty administrating during crucial periods has played a big part in connection with the Australian game in Sydney.

To old time followers who can recall the period between 1881 and 1893 it seems almost incredible that no master mind came to light to save the game from the destroying forces of club rancour and bitterness as exhibited in the latter year by the then Sydney and West Sydney clubs, and which unfortunately brought the game to an untimely end – players and public being heartly sick of the win, tie or wrangle methods.

How effective the methods of the clubs named had been can be instanced by the fact that the late Dan Hutchinson (Carlton FC player and captain) came to Sydney early in 1894 and made an attempt to revive the game by advertising that a scratch match would be played at Moore Park.  The effort failed lamentably.

Present day followers of the game will, probably, be surprised to read that in the period between 1884 and 1889, teams from Newcastle, St Ignatius and St Joseph’s college were regular participants in games at Moore Park and, alternately, at the College grounds.

The playing standard of the senior clubs was excellent and when Victorian clubs visited Sydney (which they did more frequently then than now) they invariably made offers to some leading players.  Among several who went to Victoria was E Reynolds who shone as one of Fitzroy’s best half backs and gained intercolonial honours in games against South Australia.

The most memorable intercolonial game that took place in Sydney during that period 1886 to 1891, was that between the Carlton Club (Vic.) and Tasmania in 1890 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.  In that game Bob Dawes (a regular attendant at present day games) was in the Tasmanian side and was one of the youngest players in the team.

Later he took up residence in Sydney and as an employee of the ˜Referee” newspaper, for very many years, he has rendered wonderful service to the game by his writings, apart from the period he played the game in Sydney with the old Waratah club.

Incidentally, he acted as field umpire in that bitter game between Sydney and West Sydney which marked the demise of the game in 1893.  It is worthy of note that after many disagreements between clubs as to the choice of field umpire, both agreed on the choice of Bob Dawes.

Reverting to the match between Carlton and Tasmania, it was a pleasurable sight to find a attendance of 15,000, each of whom thoroughly enjoyed the fine play which the match produced and which was graphically described in the Sunday Times of the following day by A G (Smiler) Hales who later became a successful book writer eventually migrating to South Africa and from there to England where he died.

On the following Saturday, South Melbourne who had gone to Brisbane to meet a Queensland led by Jack Gibson (an ex-South Melbourne player) were to meet Carlton on the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the most pleasurable anticipations reigned in my mind during that week of the coming clash between those great rivals.  And for many reasons.

Not yet thoroughly weaned from the glamour and excitement of the stirring games I had witnessed in Melbourne in the early eighties, I was all agog to see my early Ballarat pals, Peter Burns and Harry Purdy in action again, as I had oft seen them both in Ballarat and in Melbourne.

Again, had not Peter Burns brought discomfiture to Carlton when, in 1889, he kicked that wonderful goal on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Would we in Sydney have the pleasure of seeing him repeat it?

On the Friday Night while the Carlton and South Melbourne teams were being entertained, rain commenced to fall, and continued throughout the night and all day on the Saturday, with the result that the match had to be abandoned.

On the following morning, as the sun shone brightly, it was a disconsolate party composed almost wholly of South Melbourneites, which sat in Hyde Park, lamenting with Peter Burns, Harry Purdy, ˜Dabbera”  Decis and others over the vagaries of fate and the “might have beens” of life.

Fate and faulty administration had much, if not all, to do with the loss of the Australian Football Ground, situated on the boundaries of Alexandria, Mascot and Waterloo Municipalities.”  (By the way, these latter local government areas were swallowed up in the 1948 statewide council amalgamations)


Mick Grace smallNSW normally participates in one or two interstate games a year.  This then placates the representative faction so domestic football can continue.

However in 1910, the NSW Football League played an incredible eleven representative games over a six week period which restricted their home and away games and pushed the finals deep into September.

On three occasions during the season, the league had to field two representative teams on the same day just to fulfill their obligations.

It was no secret that the NSW Football League were poor managers of their finances and continually finished their seasons in the red.  The main reason for this was that many games were played on Moore Park, which was and still is an open and unfenced arena near Sydney central.  They might well have attracted 2-3,000 spectators to these free games but it didn’t reflect in the finances of the league when they were the ones who manned and took the gate.

Fortunately the league entered the 1910 season with a very rare surplus of one hundred and twenty three pounds ($246.00), thanks to a round robin series between South Melbourne, Geelong, Collingwood Clubs plus the NSW League state team in Sydney the previous year.  The then VFL clubs made no claim on the gate and left the entire amount with the league.

Queensland games were one source of continuing wastage.  Games would attract a poor crowd when they played in Sydney and conversely a big-hearted NSW would not make a full claim on the gate at their Brisbane matches.  In 1910, NSW played Queensland twice, once in Brisbane and an additional match in Sydney. In the middle of all these games, Queensland too played Riverina in Sydney, but were easily outclassed.



NSW Team

Local Team Score





Erskineville Oval


12-7 (7(9)


Nth Adelaide FC

18-12 (120)




9-15 (69)



5-7 (37)


Erskineville Oval


6-6 (42)


Nth Adelaide Fc

10-14 (74)


Erskineville Oval

Comb Metro

9-11 (65)


Nth Broken Hill FC

9-8 (62)


Erskineville Oval


19-12 (128)


Geelong FC

16-12 (108)


Erskineville Oval


11-3 (69)


Geelong FC

16-12 (108)


Erskineville Oval


6-8 (44)


Fitzroy FC

6-17 (53)


Erskineville Oval


6-11 (47


Fitzroy FC

9-14 (68)


Erskineville Oval


10-14 (74)



5-11 (41)


Erskineville Oval

Comb Metro

13-21 (99)



8-4 (52)


Erskineville Oval

Comb Metro

14-22 (106)



4-11 (35)

In this year the NSW League employed the services of Mick Grace as coach.  He was a very well known VFL footballer who had played with Fitzroy, Carlton and also St Kilda, the latter in a captain-coach capacity.

Grace lived in Sydney for almost two years, coaching NSW.  In 1911 he coached the state at the National Carnival ion Adelaide, but when he took ill, Grace returned to Melbourne where he died a year later from tuberculosis at the age of 37.  Although he was in the employ of the league, it is unknown who actually paid his salary but considering the league finished 1910 with a debt of one hundred and sixty six pounds ($332.00), the revenue stream of which included all the rep games, most h & a and finals – some of which attracted crowds in their thousands, it is difficult to say that they did not.

The acquisition of Erskineville Oval in 1910 was a real bonus for the league.  For the most part, it was the only ground where a gate could be charged with the then three remaining weekly fixtures played at different venues on the expansive Moore Park.

The league put up one hundred pounds ($200) to the trustees of Erskineville Park as rent in advance for the facility. (In that era, the old Erskineville Oval was located more west of the present site, about where the Department of Housing flats are situated with an east-west configuration.)


In an effort to kickstart the game in Sydney after it had imploded in the mid 1890s, Fitzroy and Collingwood played a competition match at the SCG on 23 May 1903 attracting 20,000 spectators.

We have displayed a very rare programme from the match where, for the first time, players names and jumper numbers were published for spectators to view.

Both clubs paid their own costs and left the six hundred pound gate with the newly formed, NSWAFL, to further promote the game in Sydney.

Prior to these arrangements the Collingwood fans attempted to veto their involvement in the match because it meant losing one of their competition games, so it was decided that the entire gate from that weekend’s football in Melbourne would be pooled and divided equally amongst the then eight clubs of the league.  The club (Fitzroy) that lost their home game in this encounter was also allocated a semi final to their ground.

In round 2 of the same year a rail strike prevented the Carlton players from journeying to Geelong for their match so the game was postponed.  Quick to act, NSWAFL officials asked that the game be played in Sydney, which it was.

However this game too had trouble when rain washed out their 1 August clash at the SCG forcing a postponement until the following Monday.  Then, before 5,000, including the Governor of NSW, Geelong defeated the Blues by 10 points.

But, it doesn’t stop there.  The following year Melbourne played Essendon on 28 May also at the SCG.  As things would have it the rain came again and this time it was torrential.  Newspapers reported that the rain “was phenomenal” and that in the morning of the match, any chance of a game would be remote.  However, the rain stopped around midday and after 1.00pm there was not a cloud in the sky.

The rain however had done its damage however and only 6,000 ventured to witness the match which was easily won by Melbourne.

The Bombers took their time going home, this time by ship.  They did not get to Melbourne until late on the following Thursday night after a rocky journey in big seas.  The side did not train and four of their best were unavailable for their subsequent game against Fitzroy which they lost convincingly.

One or two VFL matches were played in Sydney following this period but generally, the euphoria had gone and the Sydney officials were left popularise the game themselves.


From time to time, mostly before the 1930s depression, interstate clubs toured NSW and more particularly, Sydney.

Many of these clubs played matches against a state representative team and a few against the leading city club of the day.

We are going to run a series of articles about such games.

In August 1927, before an attendance of 21,229, Carlton played Geelong in an exhibition game at the SCG .  Both teams were able to travel away from Melbourne because of the national carnival between all states, being played on the MCG.

Carlton led all throughout the game to win 11.10 (76) to 9.6 (60).

On the following Wednesday Geelong accepted a challenge to play the leading Sydney club,  Eastern Suburbs, who at that stage, were undefeated with fourteen wins.

The venue was Trumper Park at despite being mid week, the 2,000 who attended were certainly not disappointed.

At 3:00pm, the Mayor of Paddington, Ald Maurie O’Sullivan, also the publican at the Lord Dudley Hotel, bounced the ball to start the game.

Geelong, who had some players in the Victorian team, fielded their strongest combination possible.  It included Jocka Todd who went on the win their 1927 B&F, the captain, Cliff Rankin, the immortal Cargi Greeves and Reg Hickey, all of whom were subsequently selected in the club’s team of the century.

Eastern Suburbs, on the other hand, had their share of players in the NSW side in Melbourne so as odds would have it, they were both represented by their best eighteens at the time.  All of the Eastern Suburbs side were able to get off work for the game.

Geelong seemed to have trouble with the small ground and took a while to adjust while Easts star full forward, Stan Milton, the league’s leading goalkicker in almost every year during the 1920s was at his best.  The play was close and tight however Geelong led 5.3 to 3.3 at quarter time.

Each side scored 5 goals in the second term and the play was again very evenly matched.  Despite their reputation, Geelong did not pull away from their opponents as predicted and in facts Easts commendably kept pace at every turn.  The score at half time was Geelong 10.8 to Eastern Suburbs 8.6.

The Cats were worried.  This wasn’t what the script said and they had trouble getting the machine that got them to third place in the VFL ladder that year in motion.

Both teams remained unchanged for the third quarter and finding they could keep pace with their far talented opposition, the Eastern Suburbs players seemed to gain in confidence.  Milton delighted onlookers with his clever play but this couldn’t shake Geelong’s lead with the score at the final change: 15.10 to 14.11

Although Geelong scored soon after the resumption of play, Milton and Hagger put full points on the board for the Sydney side getting them one point in front and holding their own against such a star studded team.

The lead then changed hands several times and it was only a goal from clever play by their captain, Rankin, who incidentially played rugby union in Europe during WWI, which gave Geelong the game by three points 18.17 (125) to 18.14 (122).  The goal brought his tally for the game to nine.

It was Milton who was  Eastern Suburb’s star.  The small forward booted eleven goals and nearly got his side over the line.

Best for Geelong were Rankin, Greeves, Todd, Hickey and Keppell while Easts were best served by Milton Crout, Saunders, Green and Dunn.

Top photographs shows George ‘Jocka’ Todd.  The one on the right is Cliff Rankin.