We have written many times that Australian football was first played in Sydney in 1880.
Following some ups and downs it again got on its feet in 1903 and during the following number of years there was a particular player of some significance who was in the army and based at Victoria Barracks, Paddington who played for many years on and off in the Sydney competition.
He was killed in WWI when, as a Lt Colonel, a shell hit the foxhole he and some of his staff were sheltering in.
His name is Bert Watts and was the most highly decorated Sydney footballer we know in WWI. His life and time as a footballer and soldier are highlighted in our soon to be released book on Sydney Football and the First World War. As you will read, he also served in the Boer War.
The image below shows him on the left with an unknown soldier serving in the Boer War, South Africa.
We have been very fortunate to have found a newspaper article about Bert; his thoughts and experiences, where he mentions some of his ideas on the game and what rules should be introduced to make it a faster and a more attractive sport. Ironically, many of these have since been introduced to our game over recent years.
The fact that he was an outstanding Sydney footballer and man has been lost on us all. We knew nothing of Bert Watts and his colleagues, such is the fragility of the history of the game in the nation’s largest city.
Here is the article, taken verbatim, so any mistakes are from the article itself. We hope you enjoy the read:
One of the most striking personalities in the Australian ‘game in Sydney is Captain Bert Watts. A tall, dashing fellow, with shoulders which might well excite the envy of a champion wrestler; straight, well-shaped legs, he is the beau ideal of an athlete. Was it ever your lot, reader, to see him kick a football? No! Well, when at his best he would open your eyes to their fullest extent.
In the final at the Australian Football Ground last season Watts obtained a mark a tremendous distance from the posts. He placed the ball, and many of the spectators jeered. Even those possessed of the knowledge of his exceptional kicking abilities considered he put the ball on the ground with the idea of sending it in front of goal to give his forwards a chance to do the heedful. Now, that was evidently not Watts’ idea. He walked back a few yards, and then came at the ball like a speedy Rugby three-quarter back, who, when near the line, has visions of a try. ‘Boof!’ went his right foot, into the ball. Through the air at rocket-like pace it went, keeping low. All eyes were on that ball. Will it go between the uprights after all must, have been in the minds of not a few. When the ball neared the posts it took a rise, and the players jumped high in their endeavours to reach it. The sphere went gaily on and six points were hoisted for Paddington. Bert Watts was a hero! Everybody cheered him. Well they might, for rarely has such a kick been seen anywhere. In the course of a conversation he said:
“I learnt to play football in South Australia, and was captain of my State School team at Allendale. I also, played with school teams at Broken Hill. In 1902 I regularly took part in the practice matches for South Melbourne, and in 1898 I played with the Royal Australian Artillery team. QueenscIiffe, Victoria. I was in South Africa in 1900-1, and we ran a competition between the squadron of the regiment (the Victorian Imperial Bushmen), and played Australian football in Rhodesia, Cape Colony, and the Transvaal. We had some fine players, too, notably Charlie Moore, one of Essendon’s best, who was killed in action; ˜Joker” Cameron, who figured in South Melbourne’s colours for ten years; and George Angus, who was a similar period with Collingwood, and was captain when they won the Victorian premiership.
In 1902 I was stationed at Newcastle, in Natal, and captained an Army Soccer team. But the two succeeding seasons I played for the R.A.A. (Royal Aust Artillery) team at Queenscliff (Victoria), though I was offered a place in several of the Victorian League clubs. I donned the Paddington colours in 1905, and represented New South Wales in the first inter State match against Victoria after the resuscitation of the game in Sydney. The season after found me in Brisbane, and I played for Brisbane and Ipswich clubs, and also represented Queensland against New South Wales.
In 1907-8 I was stationed at Thursday Island, and had a go at Rugby Union, but in 1908 I was once again in Brisbane. I represented Queensland at the first Australasian Carnival at Melbourne. I have played for Paddington since the beginning of 1909, and I play the Northern Union rules with regimental teams at present. Of the 1905 New South Wales representative team only Ralph Robertson and I now remain on the active list.
I consider Ralph Robertson the headiest player I have ever been associated with. Any scientific footballer would have no difficulty in teaming with him. I recommend young players to study his methods. You see, he never misses an opportunity of passing to a comrade in a better position than himself. And his play is always for the side, irrespective of self.”
ADVICE TO YOUNG PLAYERS
“As an old player, I would like to give a word of advice to young footballers. One of the first things I would impress upon them is to avoid cliqueism (sic). Don’t have particular pals to play to; always put your team before everything else on the field. Select a comrade in a good position to pass to as soon as you get the ball, and send it on to him at once. Never mind a tricky, pretty run. Get rid of the ball quickly before opponents have time to form up to meet your attack.
If a forward, try and escape from your opponent; if a back, follow your man wherever I he goes. Centres should not wander from their place. On a large ground they get more opportunities by keeping their proper position than by wandering towards the backs or forwards. Obey your captain without argument; you put him in that position, and should stand by him. When the hall is being kicked from a mark, arrange who is to fly and who is to stay down. One should be in front and the other behind the high-markers. The ball comes to the ‘floor’ offener (sic) than it is marked. Don’t bounce the ball when, beginning your run; travel a full ten yards first. But run as little as possible; kick the sphere hard and often, but always to a mate. Only handball to a man in a better position; handball is easily overdone. Don’t be selfish; you play a better game for yourself when you consider your side first.”
SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS IN THE GAME
Yes, although our game is now grand, I think it could be still further improved. I favour the erection of a bar, with 6 points for an untouched kick over the bar, 2 points if under, and 1 point touched over or under the bar and 1 point for a behind. This would improve the game by making a goal harder to get, and therefore of more value. It would give the full-back a better chance to participate in the play than he now enjoys. Then, again, dribbled goals are not worth six points.
â€œI suggested similar alterations in the ‘Referee’ some years ago. Many correspondents wrote, some in favour, some against. But, like you, I am of opinion they would immensely improve the game. But proceed.
Well, when the regulation size of the ground cannot be obtained, I favour the reduction of the teams to 15. We boast of the openness of our game, but 36 men on small areas make play congested. Instead of the ‘throw-in,’ when the ball goes out of bounds, I think a free kick should be given to opponents when the ball goes out on the full; at other times the ‘throw-in’ to be adhered to.
“I also suggested a similar rule, with the exception that a certain portion of the ground at each end should be exempt. It would certainly make the game much faster.
It would,â€ replied Bert. There is still another rule I would like to see introduced, and that is, the umpire should have the power to order an offending player off the field. The argument that it places too much power in his hands will not hold water. We must trust our umpires. Occasions are rare when an umpire spoils a game, and a man who strikes an opponent should not be allowed to play. Clubs would soon drop ‘fightable’ (sic) players, who are a disgrace to any game.
Well, there are many young players who are showing excellent football, namely, McLean (North Shore), McConville and Stewart (East Sydney), Chapman, McCann, Mahoney (Paddington), Ratcliffe and the McLarens (Balmain), Hortin (Newtown), and Mack and O’Grady (Sydney).
The best players’ I have been associated with? I am afraid the task is far too difficult; A flood of names of good, in fact, great footballers fly to my mind; but to name some means leaving out dozens of others.
Yes, I – have found Australian football as played in New South Wales a beautiful game. It is nearly always fought out in the best possible spirit. Both, contesting teams leave the ground pals, ‘and the spirit at’ strenuous rivalry is only maintained as it should be on the field. The game is clean. I have played – all codes, and, and whilst I enjoy any game of football, I consider the Australian invented pastime’s greatest charm is that .it seems to possess all the good and leaves out the bad points of the other codes. ‘It is strenuous, requiring well-trained men; it is fast, and – therefore attractive to spectators; it is clean, though not by any means ladylike, as its opponent’s endeavour to paint it. Then it is open, onlookers seeing all the game, and the scoring is fast, and therefore exciting. Drawn games ”always unsatisfactory ” are rare, and a match between two good teams always furnishes a clever exhibition. In short, it is full of incident; dull moments being very rare.
FUTURE OF THE GAME IN NEW SOUTH WALES
‘I consider the game should be developed principally by local talent. Second Graders should be taught that selection in the First Grade should be their ambition. There seems to be too much difficulty in getting the Association (second grade) players to come into the League. This is radically wrong. The club that builds up a complete team of local lads will have the biggest following. Besides, players living in the same district will have a chance working up combination, so necessary to success it is hard on a captain each year to have a new set of players. They are strange to each other, and the season, is well advanced before a thorough understanding exists between them.”
There should be only one club in each district, which should select its players for each grade. The selectors would have to watch the schools. The Third Grade team could be picked principally from schoolboys, who could work their way up to the seniors. Young players’ ambition should be to represent their districts in inter-State- matches.
‘Bert Watts, who is a Captain in the State Artillery, has had vast experience in his long football career. This interview is particularly instructive from the players’ and managerial sides. It is to be hoped his remarks will bear fruit. His own football has been of a most exemplary character. “The ball all the time” is always his motto, and his influence on the Paddington team, which he captains, is most marked. Players would do well to select skippers of the calibre of Watts. The matches would always improve enjoyable under such leadership. Captain Watts left Sydney for England yesterday, where he will pursue his studies in the British Army.”
Bert Watts married in the UK. They had a son but unfortunately his wife died soon after the birth of the child. What happened to the son is unknown.