Reverend Shinboner looks back at the 1881 season of North Melbourne Football Club – a season full of colour, glory, mischief and controversy.
Football was the undisputed ‘national’ game of Victoria, with no other game being able to ‘hold a candle to it’. Crowds of up to 13,000 would flock to Melbourne’s football grounds throughout the winter.
Indeed the game was quickly spreading across colonial borders- a South Australian representative team played Victoria in Melbourne, and the Vics jumped on a steamer up to Sydney for the first intercolonial match against New South Wales. The Sydney Morning Herald was even hopeful that schools and clubs would relinquish rugby in favour of Victorian football.
After an unsuccessful merger with Albert Park in 1876, North Melbourne Football Club re-emerged as a standalone club in 1877, playing under the name Hotham (in line with the name of the suburb). At the same time, Hotham and twelve other elite football clubs got together and formed the Victorian Football Association (VFA), creating a structured competition. Foundation clubs included Ballarat, Rochester, Castlemaine and Beechworth, as well as several present day AFL clubs.
The strength of football in the North Melbourne region is demonstrated by the sheer number of teams represented. One Saturday, the following teams were all scheduled to play: Hotham, West Melbourne, Royal-park, Hotham United, Hotham (second twenty), West Melbourne United (second twenty), the North Melbourne Alberts and Hotham Zingari (second twenty).
The season begins:
After finishing a ‘highly creditable’ 5th in 1880, Hotham were optimistic about the forthcoming season – particularly after luring W. Bracken, the goalsneak from Norwoods (SA), down to Melbourne. Early form looked good, beating Williamstown 3-0 at their home ground, and putting in a strong showing against South Melbourne, despite being down a couple of good men.
A significant event in any Melbournian’s calendar was the Queen’s birthday celebrations, held this year on Tuesday 24 May. For the occasion, the VFA decided to showcase the colony’s great game in a feature match at the East Melbourne cricket ground: Geelong v. Hotham.
Having learned football under the captaincy of Tom Wills, the father of the sport, Geelong had become the finest exponent of the game and a dominant force in the VFA for several years. Despite heavy rain in the lead-up to the match, 7,000 people came out to see the famous Geelong players strut their stuff.
Geelong won the toss, and kicked down the ground with the benefit of the breeze. Rain was still falling at the commencement of play, making for slippery conditions.
Geelong got off to a flier, kicking a goal within the first 3 minutes, and two more in the first half despite the slippery conditions. Hotham remained goalless.
In the second half conditions cleared up, and with the benefit heading downhill, Hotham came out firing. Unfortunately inaccuracy cost them, registering only behinds, until one of their players was injured and carried off the ground. Momentum was lost and Geelong reasserted their dominance, kicking another goal before full time was called. The final score: four goals to nil.
It was a solid performance by Hotham, but they were clearly outclassed by a superior side. The Argus described the Geelong team as “by far the best; their kicking, marking, running, and handling of the ball being so good as to frequently elicit the applause of impartial spectators.”
It all sounds a bit too familiar.
Hotham were scheduled to play South Melbourne at East Melbourne cricket ground in June. After a close match earlier in the season, over 4,000 spectators rocked up in anticipation. But South Melbourne refused to take the field. It all came down to one man: Barnes.
Barnes of Hotham, perhaps the Brendan Fevola of his time, had been convicted of ‘indecent conduct’ from one of the windows of the Parliament library. Subsequently, he lost his job as assistant librarian but continued his burgeoning football career with Hotham.
Souths refused to play Hotham if Barnes took the field. Robertson, Hotham’s captain and clearly a man of the people, insisted on Barnes playing. After 20 minutes of argument, the moral do-gooders from Emerald-hill pissed off and Hotham claimed the match. (It was later declared a draw.)
The only problem was this left an angry mob demanding a refund. Sensing the mood, the match day officials had already gathered the proceeds and taken it into the safety of the pavilion. Except for Mr. Gooch, treasurer, who was making his way across the ground with a bag full of coin when he was recognised and stampeded upon. He did his best to fend off the crowd, but would’ve struggled had the police not come to his aid.
The money was handed to the secretary, who then blatantly refused to pay any of it back – he suspected many of the larrikins had passed tickets to their friends over the fence, or just jumped over it. The mob was just about to reach flashpoint when our man Robertson stepped in, commencing a scratch match among the Hothamites for the amusement of the masses.
Being the peoples’ club, the Hotham boys allowed the crowd to join – an act which the toffs from The Argus dubbed a ‘fiasco’.
The proceeds of the match, around £60, were eventually donated to charitable institutions in Hotham and Emerald-hill.
The season was only just beginning.
Previously – 1871: Just for recreation’s sake