Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Soccer in Melbourne in 1870? surely not!

It is generally accepted that soccer (Association rules) was not played in Australia until the one-off Woogaroo game in 1875. We have to wait until 1880 in Sydney to get a sense of competitive games being played regularly, even though soccer had been officially (but fleetingly) adopted by clubs in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart throughout the 1870s. One competitive game of soccer was played in Hobart in 1879, the result of which was part of the premiership calculations that year. Competitive games were attempted in Adelaide in 1873 but a number of players refused to adhere to the non-handling prohibition, thereby rendering the games farcical.

From time to time the "English Association rules" were advocated by letters to the editors around the country, urging the authorities to adopt the game because it was: a) safer, b) more sensible, c) better, d) more "scientific" (whatever that means) or e) all of the above.

These appeals seemed to fall on deaf ears until the 1880s. A correspondent to Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Chronicle commented on the way football was being played in Sydney in 1867, "I must here say that the code of rules under which these matches are played, a strange combination of Rugby and other rules, is not by any means the best that could be selected." He felt that it "would be far better for the two clubs to discard at once these now generally condemned laws, and play under those of the English Football Association or the joint Oxford and Cambridge Rules, both of which are decidedly superior and much more comprehensible." (27 July)
Despite frequent urging it is not until 1878 that we see a report on a practical application of FA rules in a half-and-half soccer/rugby game played in Sydney.
A football match, between Old Victorian Players and All-comers, was played on Saturday at Moore Park. It was intended to show the relative merits of football as played by the English Association rules and the game as played under Rugby rules. About 3000 spectators witnessed the sport. The play resulted in a draw, with a slight advantage on the side of the All-comers.(Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 1878)
Yet the half-and-half game shows that clubs and authorities around Australia were able to be flexible and keep something of an open mind on football codes and laws.

Even in hidebound Melbourne there seemed a willingness to be open, occasionally. The Argus reported in 1870 that an
amusing game of football will be played on the Metropolitan ground, Yarra-park, this afternoon, between the local club and a team chosen from the ranks of the Victorian police force, who will play under the guidance of Mr. J. Conway, of the Carlton Club. The game will be played something after the home style, and holding or running with the ball will not be allowed. (9 July 1870)
When the Police team and Melbourne FC were scheduled to have a match it was felt that (severe) rule modifications were needed to be fair to the police team. As a result the game was to be played in the "home [British] style".

The report followed two days later. The Melbourne team proved too strong for the police, who struggled to cope despite the rules being modified in their favour.
The Melbourne Club v. the Police. This match, as was expected, was a most amusing affair, and attracted a large number of spectators to the metropolitan ground. The toss was won by the police, who elected to kick down the hill. With the view of equalising the chances of the teams, the rules of the Melbourne Club were slightly departed from, neither "marks," holding, nor running with the ball being allowed. (Argus 11 July 1870).
To try and work out just what this game might have looked like is difficult. We need to imagine the Melbourne rules of the time with three crucial aspects missing. Players could handle the ball but they could not claim a mark, hold on to it or run with it. Most likely they needed to get rid of it quickly after catching it to avoid being pummelled.

Yet it's the notion of the "home style" that intrigues me. The various prohibitions and the absence of offside rule out Rugby and the Public School games. They also rule out Association football as codified in 1863. If anything the 'home' game they most closely resemble is the football of the Sheffield rules (a game which is formative in the development of soccer) -- though it too allowed a mark.

When I found this piece I was excited to think that I might have found a very early example of a soccer-derived game being played in Australia. Unfortunately, wishful thinking won't make it so. Despite its being a close relative, this modified game can't be claimed as an immediate progenitor of Australian soccer.

But the point that should also be made is that the game bears little resemblance to Melbourne rules of the time and virtually no likeness to footy today. Though that won't stop the AFL in its endless campaign to colonise the past, present and future of Australian footballs.

1 comment:

  1. Starting to revise my opinion on this game. It is possibly too defensive to give this game away -- largely because given the description it's hard to imagine it as anything but an early form of soccer. We'd need more evidence, but I think that were this to be found to be a game of association rules then the game is 142yo in Oz. Tantalising!