– Why? – Another Perspective on Sydney’s Failure to Grow

Football imageWe have written before to provide some type of response to the many enquiries we receive about why Australian Football failed to take on in Sydney like it did in the majority of other states in Australia.

Today we are going to relook at the subject but of course the result is well known.

Australian (or Victorian) as it was known in the very early days was first introduced into Sydney in 1881 when the NSW Football Association spawned the Sydney and East Sydney Club.

Already by then rugby (it was only rugby union then) had a very strong hold on the winter sporting interests in NSW and in particular,  Sydney.

At any one time there was only a maximum of five or six senior (Australian football) clubs participating in Sydney during the 1880s while rugby could boast anywhere above 50 or 60.  Each year the rugby code published increased numbers in their fold.

But it just wasn’t the fact that rugby had embedded itself into the NSW psyche.  There were some in the rugby community who saw the Victorian intrusion as a threat and used every opportunity and technique to bad-mouth the Victorian game.  One in particular was Monte Arnold, a stock broker and later a civil servant who joined his brother to work at the NSW parliament in Macquarie Street, Sydney.

He was for some time secretary of the Southern Rugby Union (later NSW Rugby Union) and a leading official with the very right wing, Wallaroo Club in Sydney.  He was very outspoken against the southern game and savage in his sarcastic idiom towards it.  He just did not stop.

So of course coming from such a well placed and educated member of society his type of rhetoric  permeated amongst the rugby fraternity despite at the time what could be described as a ‘sympathetic press’ towards the Victorian game.

Mismanagement, infighting and a real lack of foresight killed the game in Sydney in 1895 and it wasn’t until eight years later that it was resurrected.

Its revival saw a lot more supporters, clubs and players and prior to 1910 it was played in quite a number of Sydney’s schools.

And yet an article written in 1913 was pretty much on the mark.  By then Rugby League had been introduced and was continually outshining Rugby Union as the major code.  It said:

“Four codes will bid strenuously for public patronage, but it is recognised that the Northern Union game will stand highest in favour. British Association (soccer) is making giant strides, but until those controlling it can secure central grounds, there will not be much possibility of the League citadel being threatened. Australian Rules can never become as soundly established in Sydney as in Melbourne. The Rugby Union, has had to give way before the more spectacular League game, but the staunch enthusiasts who have stuck to the old rules (Rugby Union) are sanguine that the day will come when they will hold sway again. They must recognise, however, that so much ground has been lost that the chase after the League will be long Indeed…..

The Australian Rules, or as it is . more popularly known here, the Victorian game, does not seem to be making the progress that it promised a few years back. The advent of the (Rugby) League gave it a kick that took a lot of wind out of it.  The game Is undoubtedly a clever one, and I have seen many stirring contests In Melbourne by such teams as Carlton, Essendon, South Melbourne, and Fitzroy.

THE WORLD’S BEST. Summed up, a person who likes football, and wishes to put in a Saturday afternoon watching or playing it, has absolutely no excuse, to offer. Every branch is played, and the facilities are good. There Is no place in the world where there is such a variation in football as Sydney is provided with.”


Following WWI, the game in Sydney did not have the same hold on the public as it did before.  One interesting consideration as to the probable support given to Rugby League was from the very wealthy entrepreneur and newspaper giant of his day,  James Joynton Smith who was president of the New South Wales Rugby League between 1910-28, he was patron in 1929-43.

Of course Arnold was not the only adversary Australian Football had in Sydney.  Much later when Horrie (H R ) Miller was the secretary, he would go out of his way to schedule big games against any representative or VFL match played at the SCG not wanting to give “the Aussie Rules a free kick.”

This attitude continued way into the 1980s and possibly beyond with the fear that ‘that Victorian game’ would take hold.

Was It Really Like This?

Howlong Football Ground smallWe will print the follow up story about the fate of the Australian Football Ground at Alexander in Sydney shortly.

In the meantime, we came across a very interesting story that displays unbelieveable discrimination against the Australian code in Sydney in 1922.

The following was published in the Evening News, 19 April 1922:

“When is the national game getting a fair deal in Sydney. The question is prompted by the treatment served out by several of the suburban councils when allocating the grounds at their disposal. The procedure adopted is to call for tenders through the press, various bodies put in tenders, with what result:

The Marrickville Council invited tenders for the local oval (Marrickville Oval), the New South Wales Australian Football League tendered £150m, the Rugby League £135. The latter tender was accepted.

The Hurstville, the Australians tendered £25, the Rugbyites, £12.10s, the latter were successful.

At Ashfield they took the palm for Pratten Park. The Australian Rules tendered £200, the Rugby League £175. The Ashfield Council decided that the tenders were too low, although greatly in advance of the previous season. They decided to call fresh tenders. The Australians put in a tender for £250 but were evidentially outbid by the Rugbyites, as it is understood the latter have secured the ground.

Are the Councils doing a fair thing for the ratepayers or for any sporting body outside Rugby League. The Australian game is making slow but steady progress in New South Wales. Practically the whole of the Riverina have adopted it and it is making steady progress in Newcastle, where a record season is predicted.

Last season was the best yet for the Metropolitans but this season promises to far outdo anything hitherto attempted.”

This is just an example of the bias against the code in Sydney.  Contemporary followers of the game cannot image the prejudice that the supporters suffered in many parts of NSW and Queensland right up until the 1980s.  And, as we wrote about not that long ago, much of it started with the comments of Monte Arnold.

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.