North Melbourne Football Club has been robbed of its traditional rivalries in recent years. But an AFL Gold Coast team presents a unique opportunity for NMFC to capitalise on a very real rivalry.
While rarely acknowledged in the media, North Melbourne has some fascinating traditional rivalries. The Hawthorn-North Melbourne rivalry, founded on the teams’ three Grand Finals in the 70s, has gained momentum in recent years with the clubs engaging in some controversial player trades. The most recent, the Hawk’s sniping of Josh Gibson, should make for an interesting grudge match in Round 5. But as is the AFL’s way, they have ignored the possibility of fixturing a mini-blockbuster, scheduling a twilight match in Tasmania!?!
But it is Essendon who North fans hold the most spite for, a rivalry that is arguably the most enduring in the game. It dates back to the 1890s, when Essendon actively fought against North Melbourne’s inclusion in the newly formed Victorian Football League. This was further inflamed in 1921 when North Melbourne agreed to amalgamate with Essendon in order to enter the VFL via a back door. After taking the cream of North Melbourne’s ‘invincible’ VFA team (including Syd Barker), Essendon decided to scuttle the deal, leaving North Melbourne with neither a VFL birth, nor a full team! Somehow, North managed to re-establish itself and successfully entered the VFL in its own right in 1925, but the team was a shadow of what it might have been.
By 1950, the fledgling North Melbourne club finally managed to build a premiership contending team and made its first Grand Final – against its old adversaries, Essendon. Down by 20 points at the final change, reports suggest that North threw everything at Essendon, including plenty of roundhouses, but ultimately went down by 38 points.
The rivalry gained a new energy in the mid-90s, with the two clubs becoming the dominant forces of the competition. Unfortunately, the salivating prospect of a Grand Final match never eventuated, but the teams’ encounters were no less enthralling, none more so than the Round 16 clash of 2001. Down by 69 points during the second quarter, Essendon dug deep and eventually clawed their way back to claim a famous 12-point victory – dubbed the greatest comeback of all time. Notably, North Melbourne won the next six encounters, and the clashes continue to hold a sense of history about them.
And yet the AFL has only scheduled one match a season between the clubs since that memorable game in 2001. It seems AFL-endorsed rivalries only exist between powerhouse clubs, leaving North Melbourne out in the cold.
While NMFC should continue to press the AFL on the Essendon rivalry, it’s also time for some trademark North Melbourne innovation. I think it’s time to embrace a new rival: the Gold Coast. And unlike some of the fabricated rivalries of recent years (since when were Sydney and Brisbane rivals?), there’s no question that there will be feeling between the two clubs.
And there’s also no question that it’s in the AFL’s interests. With concerns over the size of crowds the GC will attract in Melbourne, a properly supported GC vs NM match could draw more fans than people might think. If scheduled during a marquee timeslot (a Friday night or a standalone match during the split round) and given some well-targeted promotion, 45,000 is achievable. People forget that it was only a few years ago that a similar crowd saw North play its first grudge match against Wayne Carey’s Adelaide.
To the disdain of the traditionalists, theatre is now seen as an important commodity in the AFL. Like it or not, it’s here to stay. And while North continue to receive no marquee fixtures despite repeated attempts (Good Friday, a WA home game), it’s time a bold new plan was put to the AFL. Forging a new rivalry with the AFL’s love-child seems about as good an opportunity as ever.
Make it happen, Eug.