We have often been asked why Australian football never did take on in Sydney?
The explanation is long and drawn out and possibly a controversial one.
The Society’s president, Ian Granland, has written a comprehensive but yet to be published account of Australian football in Sydney between 1877-1895 and in it he attempts to explain why the game failed to get off the ground in the NSW capital.
Here, he offers a frank and previously unexplored explanation. In it Granland provided us with a brief but factual account of his theory why: “Bascially, it all started with politics,” Granland said.
Victoria, or Port Phillip (District), as it was then known, was part of the colony of NSW up until 1851 when under acrimonious circumstances (as far as the NSW authorities were concerned) it was granted separation and autonomy by Britain as a separate colony.
Those in control in Sydney were not happy. Ironically though, it was they who had treated the Port Phillip district with disdain, but at the same time, did not want to lose the area from NSW control.
So there was this underlying current of unease, particularly for example when things like custom duties were introduced between the two colonies and collection officials were placed at various points along the Murray River.
There were other issues as well and these festering differences received a further shot in the arm in of all places on the cricket field in 1863 during an intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales played on Sydney’s Domain.
During the game, Victorian wicket keeper, George Marshall, removed the bails when New South Wales batsman, Jones was wandering out of his crease, reigniting a similar incident when the two colonies had met previously. The Victorian umpire, Jack Smith gave Jones out but the home state umpire, Richard Driver, president of the NSW Cricket Association and after whom the road in front of the SCG is named, decreed he was not out and said he had called ˜over” prior to Marshall’s action.
As a result, Victorian captain, Tom Wills (one of those acknowledged as a founder of Australian football) led his protesting team from the field under police escort only to be hit in the face with a stone while his other players were similarly assaulted. Marshall and fellow professional, Bill Greaves, together with umpire Smith would not continue with the match and left for home by steamer; this was well before the rail line was connected to Albury.
This event created headlines in the two colonies and fuelled the situation.
So in 1877 when Carlton FC visited Sydney to play the rugby club Waratah in two games, one under Victorian rules and the other under the rules of rugby, it gave rugby (and Victorian) opponents the stage on which started their century plus opposition to what would become, the Australian game.
Sport was an easy target and as it turned out fitted the protagonists agenda nicely.
The establishment of football in Sydney followed a more traditional line from the mother country and in the early 1860s they began to play rugby, not soccer. Strangely this was not the case in Victoria whose population exploded upon the discovery of gold in 1853. Victoria then began to develop into a very rich colony indeed, leaving Sydney authorities more bitter at their territorial and population loss.
Gradually, football clubs began to pop up all over Victoria but with no central theme, most invented their own rules or played a general version with a local bias.
At that stage Tom Wills was a rugby man through and through. He had been educated at the Rugby School in England and played the game there.
When he involved himself with a bunch of cronies playing ˜football” on the Richmond Paddock in 1859, it was decided they should write some rules for their game. He suggested the rules of rugby but the others were unfamiliar with the game so his suggestion was dismissed. This group of seven then wrote ten simple rules for their football which would go on to become the foundation for the Australian game of football. This actual list of rules incidentally, still exist today and is housed in the MCG Museum.
So there you have it. Sydney playing under Rugby rules and Victoria under a hybrid brand which became their rules. Sydney had some highly placed people endorsing and promoting rugby, Melbourne apparently did not.
The political differences flowed onto the sporting field or for that matter, in anything that Sydney or NSW had to do with Victoria and yet, over the years, the reverse was not the same.
The early loathing of the Victorian game and the venom from the architects of it, particularly in Sydney, was simply inconceivable and to my thinking quite childish.
I can cite many occasions of pure spite against Australian football in Sydney, none worse than in May 1903 when the VFL assisted to resurrect the game in Sydney by staging a competition match at the SCG between the Collingwood and Fitzroy clubs.
To counter this the NSW Rugby Union (Rugby League was yet to be formed) fixtured a double bill. One game, at the adjacent Sydney Sports Ground, featured the NZ All-Blacks and another game next door at the RAS Showground. Each had a (reduced) entry charge of sixpence (5 cents).
Despite the charge at the SCG of one shilling (10 cents), the game attracted 20,000.
So not only did Australian football have to battle generally to introduce the game to Sydney, the Sydney Swans also fought for acceptance when they emerged in 1982. They had to battle with opponents of the game, many of whom saw rugby, not so much with a mortgage on football in NSW – because they offered no opposition to soccer when it was introduced, but as the game of preference.
This attitude has gone on year after year, decade after decade, spurred on by some journalists looking for a cheap headline. It has permeated into following generations, many of whom really had no idea why they held such an aversion to Australian football, they simply followed suit.
The approach led to fear of it over taking and to some extent envy at the mere mention of the game of Australian football.
Thankfully this attitude is slowly changing so that all Australians can now enjoy the skills and wonderful features of our great national game.