– Junior Football In Sydney – part I

1889 St Ignatius (Australian) Football Team

Junior football and for that matter much of junior sport in Sydney and probably the rest of NSW was very centred on school activities in the early 1900s.

The Southern (NSW) Rugby Football Union had established a junior competition by 1887 playing for John McGregor’s Cup [1] while the first recorded junior game of Australian football in Sydney was in early June 1888 in a match comprising junior players played between boys from West Sydney and Moore Park at the East Sydney club’s ground on Moore Park.  The event was treated almost as if some type of novelty but the players were encouraged to continue with their efforts.  There was no mention of their age. [2]

The first recorded schools game was in 1888 and recorded as “Two juvenile teams under these rules played a very exciting match on Moore Park on Saturday (4 August), the teams being the boys from St Augustines School (Balmain) and what are known as Junior Sydneys.  An amusing part of the proceedings was the discovery  that the youthful ‘Sydneys’ had increased their numbers to considerably over thirty, and when the umpire, under protest from St Augustine’s, arranged both teams for a count the Sydney youths numbered nearly forty.  It is a pity for the school teams that the juvenile matches are nor played in enclosures.  It is expected that the return match will be played in an enclosure, and a strict count made in future to stop the growth of juvenile twenties.” [3]

Then, and at last an item on junior football appeared in the Referee Newspaper when a team representing the Sydney Juniors played the Imperials on Moore Park on 1 June 1889.  The players were all aged under 16 and the smaller Sydney boys won the match 3 goals to 1. [4] (In those days goals only recorded the score although at times behinds were shown in the tally). 

The 1890 annual report of the NSW Football Association stated that “in past seasons junior football has been almost neglected, the result being that junior clubs and second twenties have been a failure.  For the coming season (1890), however, twenty silver medals have been offered for competition among the juniors, and these medals ought to give an impetus to junior football.” [5] [6]

On many occasions in their reporting, newspapers and club officials would often use the term ‘juniors’ when referring to under age players or a second eighteen and determining one or the other  took a judicious view of the records.

At the Association’s 1891 annual meeting held on 21 April at Cambridge Club Hotel which was on the corner of Market and Castlereagh Streets, the secretary’s report eulogised the Association’s activities and praised Mr Henry Alexander for his kindness in donating 20 medals “for the hitherto neglected juniors for competition amongst them.”   Prior to 1890 the juniors were almost ignored by the Association and in previous seasons secretaries seemed to almost despair of ever being able to run junior teams, yet during the 1890 season “no difficulty was experienced in keeping together the second twenties and the members of the other junior clubs.  This highly desirable state of things was brought about by the medal contests.  We should like, by the way, to point out that one of the greatest difficulties against which a secretary of a new club has to contend is that twenty men are required to form a team under our rules.  Under the British Association Rules (soccer) only eleven men are required and under Rugby Rules, fifteen.”   [7]

By the end of July 1891 the following made up the ‘junior’competition:


St Josephs College 4 4 16 16
South Sydney 6 5 1 20 24
Young Australians 6 2 2 2 12 24
West Sydney II 7 3 3 1 14 28
Carlton 6 1 4 1   6 24

In 1892 junior clubs started to emerge publicly and were holding their own annual meetings many of which were in March, notably earlier than their senior cousins.  Their numbers were healthy, with 35 registering with the Carlton Junior club who were moving into their fourth season, while 21 new members signed up with the Young Australian side [8] and a another 14 with the successful South Sydney junior club.

Early in May advice was received that St Ignatius College would not play football under Australian rules in 1892 instead changing their allegiance to rugby. [9] Sydney Mail ominously said that “The New South Wales Football Association has gone off into a long sleep from which it will never waken.” [10]  How right this would prove to be.

to be continued ….

[1] Referee – 28 April 1887
[2] Sydney Mail – 26 May 1888
[3] Referee – 9 August 1888
[4] Referee – 5 June 1889
[5] Referee – 16 April 1890
[6] Daily Telegraph – 16 June 1890
[7] Referee – 22 April 1891
[8] Referee – 23 March.1892
[9] SMH – 4 June 1892
[10] Referee – 4 May 1892

Jim Phelan’s Writings

Jim Phelan 1920When we get stuck for some stories to present, its handy to look back through old Sydney Football Records where, before the Second War, Jim Phelan, after whom the league’s best and fairest medal is named and who is credited with virtually saving the game in Sydney “when not only the dark clouds of the first world war descended the nation but again, mismanagement with the game in the city almost proved fatal,” wrote about his experiences.

Here is one of those tales and you will probably have to join the dots, because it is written at a time when patrons of the game in Sydney could recall their times in the twentieth century:

“Fate and faulty administrating during crucial periods has played a big part in connection with the Australian game in Sydney.

To old time followers who can recall the period between 1881 and 1893 it seems almost incredible that no master mind came to light to save the game from the destroying forces of club rancour and bitterness as exhibited in the latter year by the then Sydney and West Sydney clubs, and which unfortunately brought the game to an untimely end – players and public being heartly sick of the win, tie or wrangle methods.

How effective the methods of the clubs named had been can be instanced by the fact that the late Dan Hutchinson (Carlton FC player and captain) came to Sydney early in 1894 and made an attempt to revive the game by advertising that a scratch match would be played at Moore Park.  The effort failed lamentably.

Present day followers of the game will, probably, be surprised to read that in the period between 1884 and 1889, teams from Newcastle, St Ignatius and St Joseph’s college were regular participants in games at Moore Park and, alternately, at the College grounds.

The playing standard of the senior clubs was excellent and when Victorian clubs visited Sydney (which they did more frequently then than now) they invariably made offers to some leading players.  Among several who went to Victoria was E Reynolds who shone as one of Fitzroy’s best half backs and gained intercolonial honours in games against South Australia.

The most memorable intercolonial game that took place in Sydney during that period 1886 to 1891, was that between the Carlton Club (Vic.) and Tasmania in 1890 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.  In that game Bob Dawes (a regular attendant at present day games) was in the Tasmanian side and was one of the youngest players in the team.

Later he took up residence in Sydney and as an employee of the ˜Referee” newspaper, for very many years, he has rendered wonderful service to the game by his writings, apart from the period he played the game in Sydney with the old Waratah club.

Incidentally, he acted as field umpire in that bitter game between Sydney and West Sydney which marked the demise of the game in 1893.  It is worthy of note that after many disagreements between clubs as to the choice of field umpire, both agreed on the choice of Bob Dawes.

Reverting to the match between Carlton and Tasmania, it was a pleasurable sight to find a attendance of 15,000, each of whom thoroughly enjoyed the fine play which the match produced and which was graphically described in the Sunday Times of the following day by A G (Smiler) Hales who later became a successful book writer eventually migrating to South Africa and from there to England where he died.

On the following Saturday, South Melbourne who had gone to Brisbane to meet a Queensland led by Jack Gibson (an ex-South Melbourne player) were to meet Carlton on the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the most pleasurable anticipations reigned in my mind during that week of the coming clash between those great rivals.  And for many reasons.

Not yet thoroughly weaned from the glamour and excitement of the stirring games I had witnessed in Melbourne in the early eighties, I was all agog to see my early Ballarat pals, Peter Burns and Harry Purdy in action again, as I had oft seen them both in Ballarat and in Melbourne.

Again, had not Peter Burns brought discomfiture to Carlton when, in 1889, he kicked that wonderful goal on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Would we in Sydney have the pleasure of seeing him repeat it?

On the Friday Night while the Carlton and South Melbourne teams were being entertained, rain commenced to fall, and continued throughout the night and all day on the Saturday, with the result that the match had to be abandoned.

On the following morning, as the sun shone brightly, it was a disconsolate party composed almost wholly of South Melbourneites, which sat in Hyde Park, lamenting with Peter Burns, Harry Purdy, ˜Dabbera”  Decis and others over the vagaries of fate and the “might have beens” of life.

Fate and faulty administration had much, if not all, to do with the loss of the Australian Football Ground, situated on the boundaries of Alexandria, Mascot and Waterloo Municipalities.”  (By the way, these latter local government areas were swallowed up in the 1948 statewide council amalgamations)

Writing in 1927

Jim PhelanThis is an article written by a person to whom football in Sydney owes its very existence.

The game has had many, many ups and downs in the state’s capital and Jim Phelan was responsible for keeping it going, particularly during WWl when the organised playing of many sports ceased and our game’s existence became very precarious.

James Edward Phelan was born at Huntly near Bendigo in 1861 (the same year as Charles Brownlow) and following some schooling in Ballarat he moved to Melbourne where he played both cricket and football it was said, with  South Melbourne.  The level of intensity and professionalism then, was not what it is today.  So maybe he did and that is when he fell in love with the red and white.

He migrated to Sydney in the 1880s playing with the West Sydney club of the Ultimo-Pyrmont suburbs during the days of the Flanagan Cup.

He had a marked impact on football, being league secretary for a period of 10 years between 1914-24 and an ardent supporter of the game.  Few realise it was him, who, as an alderman on the then Erskineville Council was a driving force in the game’s headquarters from 1910-1970, Erskineville Oval, to be rebuilt specifically to cater for AFL in the late 1930s.  Now of course, it is lost to the game.

The league best and fairest medal in Sydney is named after Mr Phelan, a small legacy to a man who did so much for Australian Football.  He was one of the leading forces in the game’s reintroduction into Sydney in 1903 and founder of the Newtown Club in the same year and subsequently,  its secretary (general manager) for the next 11 consecutive seasons.  Later he was elected life member of the Australian National Football Council.

The following article, transcribed exactly as he wrote it in a copy of the Sydney Football Record of 1927, is interesting to us because of his consistent reference to football in Newcastle in the late nineteenth century.

In penning, by request of the Editor, a series of short articles on the early days of the Australian game in Sydney I am mindful of a somewhat difficult task I have undertaken.  In the absence of absolutely reliable data these articles, compiled from memory, may be found wanting or imperfect in minor details.

How far the experiences of the past may be linked with the present or serve as a guide to the future is a matter which may be left to the conjecture of readers or administrators of the game.

The game was first played in Sydney in or about 1880.  From that year until 1894, when it came to an untimely end for the time being, the games was known only as the Victorian game.  Just when or how the title Australian Rules came into being I do not know, but certain it is that it is both distinctive and needful.

During the period between 1880 and 1894 the game was strong in public favour, due largely to the fact that the game was a most supreme in and around Newcastle and Maitland and that annual fixtures in Sydney, Newcastle, Wallsend and Maitland were customary.  Those games invariably drew attendances in thousands and were played with a keenness and skill which still carries pleasant memories to those who witnessed or participated in the games.

The Duguid brothers, Tobin, Giles, Bowers, Watson, Leon and W. Moore (relatives of C G Macartney, the famous international and Australian cricketer, and themselves cricketers who gained interstate honours) were but a few of the many brilliant footballers that Newcastle and its outlying districts could boast of while, if memory serves me right, Mr D Watkins, MHR and one of the oldest members of the Federal Parliament was a player of outstanding ability in those far-off days.

The rules of the game in those days provided for twenty a-side teams and the strength of the game in Newcastle and its district may be gauged by the fact that teams representing Newcastle City, Newcastle, Hamilton, Mereweather (sic), Northumberland, Wallsend and Maitland were in existence.  In 1884 the Northumberland (representative) team visited Victoria playing matches at Melbourne and Bendigo with a fair measure of success.

In Sydney the following clubs were in existence:- Sydney, Waratah, East Sydney, City, West Sydney, Redfern, while the game had been espoused by St Ignatius College (Riverview) and St Josephs College (Hunters Hill).

With such favourable conditions and the game commanding public patronage equal to rugby union (rugby league was then unknown) and considerably in advance of soccer, it will probably seem puzzling to the present day follower of the game whose knowledge of the vicissitudes of the game in Sydney would not, in most instances, extend as far back as the inception of the present NSW League in 1903, why the game fell from its then high position and came to an inglorious end in 1894.

The years between that date and the re-introduction of the game in 1903 found the prominent players going over to rugby union and they so enriched that code that the names of some of them will live imperishable in the annals of rugby union.

Club rivalry and bitterness engendered and fostered by a system which permitted the more favoured clubs to fatten their ranks at the expense and in cases, extinction of other clubs was the cancerous microbe which killed the game in Sydney at a period when its popularity was undoubted.  At its demise, ˜there was none so poor as to do it honour.”  This pity of it all lies in the fact that with basic structure crumbling the game flickered out in Newcastle and on present indications revival in that seems remote.


We shall endeavour to publish more of Jim Phelan’s articles in succeeding weeks.