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.


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.

B & F During WWII

Bob Neate smallIn 1943 a slightly built, sandy headed young man signed up for the army in Melbourne in February.  He was Bob Neate and one of many to join the forces which would take most overseas during the conflict.

At the time Bob was a footballer with a suburban side, not particularly talented, but a real goer on the wing.  He weighed in just over 10 stone (70kg) and following enlistment, was sent to Sydney for training.  Most infantry training in those days was undertaken at Ingleburn.

Being a footy fanatic he went to his first game in Sydney at Trumper Park and asked for a game.  He signed with the Sydney Club, which later changed its name to Sydney Naval.  Fortunately for Bob he was posted closer to the city to undertake a course and was housed under the grandstand at Randwick Racecourse for a month or two.  This gave him easy access to the Paddington ground for training and playing.

Later however Neate was tansferred to a camp about 7km outside Bathurst which curtailed his sporting activities.  He began to play inter unit football but yearned to get back to Sydney to play for Sydney Naval.

He spoke to some club officials who said they would pay his return train fare of 19/11 (nineteen shillings and eleven pence – $2) if he could travel down from Bathurst to play.

Bob had to clear it with his commanding officer who said he would have to finish his duties on Friday afternoon and be back in camp by 8:00am on the Sunday following Saturday games and 8:00am on Mondays if the team played on Sundays.  If however, if he was was rostered for guard duty, he would have to remain in camp.

The soldiers’ accommodation at the Bathurst camp is described here:

The original barracks were made from galvanised iron and had no insulation. On sunny days they were extremely hot inside but freezing cold at night . The troops slept on palliasses which are hessian bags stuffed with fresh straw. During the cold winter months, the soldiers were issued with four grey blankets and slept in “long johns” under their  pyjamas along with any other clothing that did not restrict their breathing. However the army was not always so tough on its men “during the winter months they were allowed to sleep in till 6.30am instead of 6.00am!

So in the freezing cold Bob hitched a ride in an army truck from the camp to the railway station where he caught the 11:00pm train for Sydney arriving at 6:00am.  When the games were over Bob was straight down to Central where he caught the last mail train back to Bathurst arriving in the worst of the weather.  Fortunately there was always an army truck at the station which gave him a lift back, in the rear of the uncovered vehicle.

He had an aunt and uncle in North Sydney so would catch a further train over the bridge and have breakfast with them then find his way to one of the grounds, which in those days mainly consisted of Erskineville Oval and Trumper Park with Trumper Park again used of a Sunday where games attracted huge crowds.

He played in the club’s historic 1944 Grand Final win at Erskineville Oval when the team came from fourth place to steal the flag.  They won the 1944-09-23 - Football Record Articlefirst semi by a point over St George then in the preliminary it was a 17 year old naval rating, Jack Sheedy, who was the hero in the mud when he marked a greasy ball on the forward flank in the dying minutes of the game.  No-one gave him any chance but the very talented Western Australian who in 2001 was inducted into the AFL’s Hall of Fame, booted a goal with metres to clear to give his side a three point win and straight into the grand final.

Neate eventually did serve overseas but not before he won Sydney Naval’s 1944 Best & Fairest.  We have attached a copy from the Sydney Football Record of 23 September 1944 where it shows Neate’s achievement.

1945 Sydney Football Club - 1st Grade 2 smallA 1.5 hour oral interview conducted with Bob in 2005 about his time in Sydney is available at the State Library of NSW.  It is soon to be digitised and available for the public.

Upon his return to civilian life, Bob was recruited to Hawthorn where he played one game for Hawthorn in 1946.

The attached photo shows the Sydney Naval side of 1945 taken at Trumper Park with Bob Neate second from the left in the front row.