Ralph Robertson – Sydney’s first footy and war hero

Australian Football celebrates its 140th anniversary in NSW this year after the founding of the NSW Football Association in Sydney in 1880. One hundred and forty coaches, players, umpires, administrators and media personalities from both the Elite (VFL/AFL) and Community level will be inducted into the inaugural AFL NSW Hall of Fame.

Rod Gillett profiles the nomination of Ralph Robertson for the Hall of Fame:

 

Ralph Robertson
the English Officer

Ralph Robertson was Sydney’s first footy hero. He was also a war hero.

Tragically he was accidentally killed in the First World War.

Robertson is NSW’s most capped footballer having played for the state and/or Sydney on no less than 40 occasions in the period 1903-1914. He was much lauded by the press at the time for his playing skills and leadership ability.

He led NSW at the first national carnival played in Melbourne in 1908 which included all the states and a team from New Zealand. He subsequently led the State at the 1911 AND 1914 carnivals. He also captained NSW against Victoria in 1905 at the MCG, which the VFL won, 12-18 (90) to 10-10 (70).

“’Robby” as he was popularly known was in the best players for NSW at all three carnivals, even against the dominant state teams Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia. He was awarded the gold medal by independent judges as NSW’s best player at the 1914 carnival in Sydney despite missing the last game against WA through his enlistment.

After the 1911 carnival, the Referee, the pre-eminent sporting newspaper in Sydney at the time, reported:

“Ralph Robertson captained the New South Wales team at the first carnival in 1908 and showed good form. But he improves with age, as his previous efforts were put into the shade by his magnificent game against Victoria this time…” (Victoria beat NSW by 24 points).

Alas, no All-Australian teams were selected at national carnivals until after WWII. If so, conceivably, this would have resulted in three All-Australian jumpers for Ralph Robertson.

Robertson was born in Leicestershire, England in 1882 and came to Australia with his family in 1885 to settle in Melbourne.

“Robby” started his football career with South Beach, a junior club in the St Kilda district. He made his VFL debut in 1899 with the Saints at age 17 in round seven against Geelong. The following season he played twelve senior games including St Kilda’s first-ever win in the VFL over Melbourne, albeit due to a successful protest.

In early 1901 the family moved to Sydney and took up residence in Woollahra. As there was no football competition in Sydney at this time, he played rugby for the Fitzroy club alongside legendary sporting all-rounder R.L. “Snowy” Baker.

Upon the re-formation of an Australian football competition in Sydney in 1903, Robertson turned out for East Sydney and was vice-captain of their premiership team in that year. Standing 171 cms, “Robby” was a rover-half-forward; he booted eighteen goals for that season.

Ralph Robertson marching in College Street
Sydney en route for embarkation

According to a quote in A Game to be Played (2015),

“The East Sydney champion usually acts as rover for two quarters, the remainder of the time being spent half-forward. A splendid high-mark and an accurate and long place-kick, Ralph rarely plays in a match without causing the goal umpire to hoist the two flags”.

The following season he became captain of East Sydney, as well as State captain leading NSW against Queensland and was named best player.

Robertson led NSW to a famous victory over leading SANFL club Port Adelaide in 1907 at the Agricultural Ground (the old Sydney Showgrounds) before a crowd of 5000 spectators. NSW 8-8 (56) beat Port 5-14 (44). Robertson kicked two goals and was named in the best players.

The Referee’s report of the match commented on Robertson’s outstanding leadership,

“His sterling performance against Port Adelaide proves this. When the ‘Wheatfielders’ speak of the match they played here, it is certain that the name of Ralph Robertson will be frequently mentioned as one who was greatly instrumental in bringing about their downfall”.

A move across to live on the north side in 1909 saw Robertson transfer to the North Shore club. He was captain and a key member of Norths winning grand final team in that year and also played in the Combined Sydney team that beat VFL club South Melbourne.

Robertson continued to play for North Shore and was captain until his enlistment in the armed forces to serve in WW I on 17 August 1914 just three days after the conclusion of the national carnival in Sydney.

He initially served in the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force to attack the German colonies in the Pacific. He was discharged from ANMEF on health grounds in March 1915. Despite a subsequent enlistment in the 1st AIF, from which he resigned, in May of that year he went to England to enlist in the British Army where he undertook officer training and graduated as a second lieutenant in October.

He then joined the Royal Flying Corp and was attached to the Middle East brigade in Egypt. He was killed in a training flying accident on 11 May 1917.

Ralph Robertson was inducted into the inaugural AFL Sydney hall of Fame in 2003 but was rejected when nominated to the AFL Hall of Fame.

Career summary:

St Kilda FC 1899-1900: 13 games
East Sydney FC 1903-1908: Captain 1904-09 & Premiership 1903
North Shore FC 1909-1914: Captain 1909-1914 & Premiership 1909
NSW/Sydney 1903-1914: 40 games

 

Source: P. McPherson & I. Granland (2015), A Game to be Played: The Great War and Australian Football in Sydney, NSW AFL History Society Inc., Sydney.

NSW’s RECORD IN INTERSTATE FOOTY

1938 NSW State Team to Launceston 1 smallWe have often been asked about NSWs history of interstate games and how successful they had been over the years.

Well we can tell you that the NSW Football Association, the forerunner to the NSW Australian Football League, played their first representative game at the MCG on 1 July 1881.  The match was against the then VFA which was the first controlling body for football in Victoria.  The VFL was formed in 1897 from some clubs that then comprised the VFA.

Behinds were not counted in the score in those days, winners were judged by the number of goals they kicked and just as well in this first game because the VFA or Victoria, kicked 9-24 to 0-1.  The game in Sydney had only been going for 12 months while of course it was founded in Melbourne with the first game recognized as being played in 1858.

NSW played twenty six representative games between 1881 and until the Association’s demise in 1894 and only won against their regular nemeses, Queensland.  They drew several of their other matches, mostly because behinds were not counted, an anomaly in the game that was changed in 1897.

When the code was resurrected in Sydney in 1903, VFL clubs were falling over themselves to visit and play against the locals.  Some of the games were listed as NSW versus … or Metropolitan or alternatively, Combined Sydney and many of the records of the matches were lost or no effort was kept to maintain them.  So it has taken many long years of research and investigation to locate details of the respective games.

NSW’s most significant victories have been two over the VFL which were both played in Sydney.  They won the first of these in 1923, 15-11 to 11-19 and the other two years later by a point 13-10 to 13-9.  It is fair to say though on the weekends these games were played, the VFL fielded at least two other representative sides playing other interstate games so maybe their top side was not that which was fielded against NSW.

In the first thirty years of the last century they defeated Queensland (on several occasions), Port Adelaide, Geelong (twice), Tasmania (twice), South Adelaide, West Torrens, Melbourne, ACT, Sth Aust Football Assn and most of these games were played in Sydney.  They lost the rest which we have calculated as seventy.

The state has competed in numerous national carnivals, which up until the first war were played every three years in different states however in latter decades were relegated to competition between Tasmania, ACT and Queensland while the other states played in the same carnival but against supposedly (and more correctly) stronger opposition between themselves.

NSW have also played in at least three amateur carnivals, the most recent in a country championships carnival in Wagga in 2012.  The other two were held in Adelaide in 1936 and Launceston in 1938 and we have included a photograph of the team taken as they travelled to the apple isle by boat.

As part of the 1988 Bi-Centenary celebrations, a pure State of Origin team was selected to compete in the carnival in Adelaide.  They lost their game against South Australia but recorded their first ever win over WA 10-8 to 9-12.

Some might remember the pseudo State of Origin team NSW fielded on a rainy night game against the VFL on May 22 at the SCG.  They won that match 13-8 to 10-16, much to the chargrin of Victorian selector, Ted Whitton.  We say pseudo because the team contained several Sydney Swans players who were not born, nor played their junior football in NSW.

To sum it up, NSW have lost far more than they have won in interstate contests and now the state combines their fortunes with players selected from the ACT, so here’s to the future.

He Slipped Under the Radar

Jack AshleySydney has produced some great footballers, quite a number of whom went on to play in the VFL and or AFL.

We have uncovered one who went to South Australia where he won the Magarey Medal, the SANFL’s best player.

His name is Jack Ashley or if we are correct, William John (Jack) Ashley.

He was probably born in South Australia in about 1890 and apparently moved to Sydney with his family early in the next decade.  They settled around Balmain and the young Ashley attended a local school and began playing with the club’s one junior team.

It wasn’t long before he caught the eye of the  selectors and by 1907, still under age, began playing senior football along with his older brother, Henry.

The next year Ashley began to show great form.  He was selected to represent Combined Sydney against visiting S.A. club, Norwood.  Then the next year he represented against South Melbourne, Geelong, Collingwood and Queensland.

When Balmain fell over in 1910 together with his brother, he transferred to the East Sydney Club where he again starred.

A classic piece of 1910 journalism exemplifies his ability “Last week I stated that Jack Ashley would win matches for East Sydney by his fine kicking. He did the trick against Newtown with a magnificent drop kick a few minutes before the final bell rang”

And another said “Up till three-quarter time he was not quite so prominent as he had been against Sydney, but brought all his guns into action in the concluding quarter. Of course, he was carefully watched all through  “particularly in the early stages,”  and was opposed by a stronger team. It was his resourcefulness that charmed the critical onlooker. Frequently an opponent grabbed him, he dropped tho ball at once, skilfully knocked it so that when he got loose he was able to gather it in and dart off like the wind.”

He was part of East Sydney’s grand final team of 1910 and their premiership side the following season.  That was the same year Ashley represented NSW in the National Carnival at Adelaide where he came under the eye of the astute Port Adelaide FC Officials who eventually recruited him.

Outstanding Sydney footballer of the period and captain of NSW in three National Carnivals, 1908, 1911 and 1914, Ralph Robertson said of Ashley: ” ‘We have had some fine players in Sydney during the past few years. Some of them have gained places in teams in the other States and acquitted themselves well. Jack Ashley, of course, comes readily to my mind. A natural footballer, and one of the fairest I have met.”

Before we leave Sydney, it is fair to again eulogize his talents as described in several Sydney newspapers:

“Against Y.M.C.A. Jack Ashley was again East Sydney’s best player. While roving he was hardly so effective as usual, but when placed on the half-back line his dash and marking were excellent, while his telling kicks always placed the ball out of danger to his side” and,1914 Port Adelaide FC small

“It is customary to voice an opinion as to the season’s champion player. There might have been differences in that respect in past seasons, but for the season 1911 Jack Ashley stands the Undisputed League Champion.”

He turned out with Port Adelaide FC in the 1912 season and despite an early injury was selected in the South Australian team which played Victoria in Melbourne in July.  The team was beaten but Ashley performed creditably.  The following year he was a member of Port Adelaide’s premiership team.

In 1914 he won the Magarey Medal playing for premiers, Port Adelaide (pictured) and was a member of their team which won the post season Championship of Australia title over VFL premiers, Carlton.

He continued with Port for 1915 but with the advent of WWI when the SANFL went into recess he decided to return to Sydney and play.

Initially he shocked the locals when he signed with the Balmain Rugby League Club where he played one or two early season first grade games but this was only while waiting for his clearance to come through.  Upon gaining permission to play he was appointed captain-coach of the Balmain Australian Football Club and led them to what appeared to be an effortless undefeated run through the home and away season.

Unfortunately their form in the finals didn’t stand the pressure and they went out in straight sets.

1917 saw him back in Adelaide playing for Port in a competition akin to the major league.

By 1919 the SANFL was back in full swing where he again represented South Australia against Victoria.  He played a few games in 1920 but a nagging knee injury which forced him out of the state side also stopped his selection in the club’s grand final team of that year and eventually, it led to his retirement.

South Australian’s hold their champions in very high esteem and in 1946 a contemporary wrote of him “Jack Ashley did something one day which I’ve never seen done before or since. He and I were racing to the ball, and Jack over shot it a little. I was just about to pick it up when he back-kicked it — for 30 yards. After the match he told me he had played rugby in New South Wales, and had learnt the back kick there. It was a new and surprising move to me.”

By 1933 Jack had moved to Melbourne where he operated his own business.

We believe he died without fanfare or recognition in Sydney in 1968.

Ashley is certainly one player Balmain should have in their Team of the Century.

The team image is of the 1914 Port Adelaide FC.  Ashley is one of those shown.