Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

How the West was Won

This article (a retrospective from The West Australian in 1929 on the occasion of an Australian rules junior carnival) tells an interesting story of how soccer went from being a dominant junior sport in Perth into being a poor relation. The author sees a J.J. Simons-led Victorian invasion and an upsurge in Australian nationalism as being responsible for Australian rules' ascension into first place in Perth's sporting culture. I've posted about this before but this article speaks wistfully and eloquently for itself. It's biased for sure and there will be alternative perspectives, but the letter's tone of resignation articulates a kind of wearily defensive and reactive perspective familiar to contemporary socceristas.

The piece also offers an interesting perspective on the contemporary AFL push into Western Sydney. Do the schools still hold the key?


(By 'Penalty.')

How many of those who will throw themselves with zest into the schoolboys' football carnival will look back to the vital days in the annals of metropolitan school football— the period of 1900-2— and venture to concede a word of gratitude and praise to those who brought about the great change from the supremacy of British Association football to Australian football?

About 1900-2 there were some 28 schools almost entirely given over to the playing of the soccer game, and the then-called 'Victorian' game had scarcely a footing. The outlook for the home code was gloomy indeed. Soccer had a well-established and popular association, with, senior and junior leagues of excellent and promising standard; it was gradually moving ahead in popularity. It drew officials players and supporters from every walk of life, and seemed destined to become firmly fixed in the hearts of the populace. It was not exactly due to any inherent and special merit of the soccer code that this supremacy was due, but rather to the in difference of such Australian authorities as there were in those days. The soccer association recognised—quite early—that the schools were the best recruiting grounds for any game of football, and from this sphere they looked forward to receiving a large number of promising lads, together with the personal interests of their parents and friends, to build up the popularity of the game in Perth and district. And it was not costing them very much, perhaps only an occasional ball. They tried to inculcate the spirit of self-help or pure amateurism, and the response was remarkable. The association was fortunate in having in those days a band of enthusiastic and untiring men to push this work along in Alex Peters, Captain White, the Burt brothers, and many others, and members of the Schools' Athletic Association, particularly Messrs. Hamilton, Hughes and Wheeler, with all of whom time and expense appeared to be of no account so long as the schoolboys continued to play soccer.

But then someone in the Australian camp had a brain wave, and before the soccer officials woke up to the strength of the campaign launched against them a very powerful movement was in full swing to dethrone the so-called 'foreign' game in favour of the one fashioned and perfected in Melbourne, and till then making little headway in the West, notwithstanding the influx of Victorians into the State after the discovery of gold. The man who figured most in the van of this campaign and who came rather like the bull in the arena to the unsuspecting soccer officials, Was J. J. Simons. Others assisted him, but he it was who aroused the excitement and resentment of the soccer officials by the pertinacity of his efforts to win through with the scheme. The soccer officials fought him by pen and speech, and interview with the schools authorities, but their attempts to stem the rising tide or favour for the 'Victorian' code were in vain.

With free guernseys, free balls, and plenty of enthusiastic coaches and organisers, the campaign was carried on with unusual fervency, and zeal in the avowed interests of Australian nationalism. But the scheme did not end with the schools; it was carried over into the ex- Scholars' region with, extraordinary success, and it was a clever and effective move to give these bands of enthusiastic youngsters titles after Australian explorers and statesmen. Against this wave of fervour for the new game the soccer code very soon began to languish, and its senior and junior leagues began to find themselves lacking in recruits. By about 1910, with immigration slackening off, some of the senior soccer clubs found themselves in difficulties and in some cases had to be abandoned.

When the war broke out there was a very limited number of players available outside the actual clubs of the day. When the struggle for supremacy was raging, about three schools had teachers who stuck very loyally to soccer— Claremont, Fremantle and James-street, which adopted a kind of mixed attitude and played both games. Afterwards, as the result of some concession by the schools authorities, the soccer game has managed to keep a certain amount of affection among a section of the boys of several schools, and to-day it may be conceded that the round ball, while not so common in the school playgrounds as in the years around 1900-4, has its relative place in the scheme of juvenile pastimes. Looking back over these 30 years the writer, as one of the soccer officials of the 'nineties, doubts if without the enthusiasm of J. J. Simons, the Australian game would ever have made its position as secure as it did.


  1. Ian great letter. Very interested to see this. Peaks and troughs are somehow natural. Just read quite a bit of Perth Azzurri's book today and they said Glory's arrival in 1996 was a 'saviour' for the code in this state, that the games interest was at a dire level.

    Same seems to happen in different eras. Like the state's economy, soccer in Western Australia seems to be boom/bust.

  2. Hi Ian, thanks as always for posting intriguing articles about soccer history. I'm not as convinced as the the author of the letter seems to be that the "Victorian game scarcely had a footing" in the early 1900s. Even a scant look at Aussie Rules history in WA suggests otherwise. The rise of what he also calls the "home code" (though thankfully not the Indigenous code) is, of course, regrettable to someone with his heart in soccer. It seems as though footy was well promoted and resourced, which if anything is a commentary about the failure of soccer to do the same. In this case, at least, we can't blame a cashed-up AFL for "imposing" itself on others :-) Cheers, Daryl

  3. From the preliminary research I am doing at the moment Daryl, it seems as if making substantial statements about what Western Australia's interest was is pretty hard.

    It seems Fremantle is very Victorian Rules Football orientated, with rivalry and debates between Fremantle and Perth on how the competition should be ruled. Perth is much more rugby/soccer orientated.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it was Fremantle's success that pushes Australian Rules clubs in the Perth area to move to this code as the reports from the newspapers suggest crowds, interest and sporting skill was better in the port city than it was in Perth.

    This is sort of substantiated by 1897 the Victoria Pavillion stand was far bigger than any other spectator facility in the WA colony.

    We also have to look at Fremantle less bound by sporting code wars then Perth. Australian Rules Football clubs in Freo were looking out for all codes at Fremantle Oval, which can be noted by them accomodating cycling with the placement of the Victoria Pavillion.

    Perth is much more focussed on class based sporting rivalry, Stoddarts chapter on it in the New History of Western Australia is a great account of this.

    We have to regionally look at Perth's sporting culture/code wars because of the deep diversity in how sport is seen. You can see this theme continuing today.

  4. Hi Chris, I don't profess to have your insights into the history of sport in WA. As you say, regional differences are bound to have been important. According to the following web site, which focuses on the involvement of what may have been the first Aboriginal player in WA footy (I'll use that term to distinguish from Association football, or as Ian prefers to put it, soccer), "APRIL 29, 1885 was a key date in the history of football in Western Australia. It was then that the original Fremantle football club decided to adopt the 'Victorian game' over rugby" So the leadership of Fremantle seems pivotal. Curiously, the "official historian" of WA footy contends that Perth soon became the epicentre: "In the 1880s, a Perth-based elite briefly controlled the game before Fremantle businessmen with electoral aspirations supplanted them in the 1890s". This is from the book blurb "Behind the Play: A history of football in Western Australia from 1868", which I just noticed after a web search. Partly because the colonial history of WA sport is so under-researched there is plenty of confusion. No doubt your own work on Association football will contribute significantly to our knowledge. For readers interested in your work, what do you recommend we read?

  5. Hi Daryl. The book is currently being written at the moment, so it will be a bit longer before its finished.

    Will have a few you tube presentations up at for the Australian Society for Sports History Conference. One is looking at the interactions in North Perth, Leederville and Mt Hawthorn from 1923-2004 and then placing it into regional differences in other parts of the city. How there has to be a viewing of Perth's sporting culture as a collection of different villages.joined by conurbation today.

    Perth Azzurri's 1948-1998 book is a cracking account of how they challenged the football culture of the state, just as Glory does.

    That's the best book I'd recommend.

    Another interesting account is Stoddarts article on Perth's sporting culture until 1927 in the New History of Western Australia. I do think after doing this presentation its a bit more complex than what he declares it to be. But it is a well written review of how the culture is in the state.

    I am no expert into Western Australian sporting culture either, I don't think there is anyone out there that is. From what I read in a few of the articles in Trove there is a perception that Fremantle are much better at football and their crowds are much higher than in Perth.

    There is also many many soccer teams that are created within the Perth city in terms of soccer and continue to grow even with Australian Rules being established, with only one team out of Fremantle.

    If you go onto Trove there are some fascinating insights into the parochialism and debates between Fremantle Australian Rules officials and Perth Australian Rules officials.