Perhaps only in Melbourne does a brooding, hidebound and monolithic structure of feeling dominate, where other codes are sometimes humoured and usually dismissed as inferior.
– Ian Syson,Not many cities in the world can claim to have invented a football code, a code that becomes intrinsic to a city’s cultural and political life. This happened in Melbourne, and as a result, it has over the years manifested expressions of hubris, parochialism and protectionism.
Melbourne in the years after World War 2 was undergoing a massive transformation. It would result in the city becoming one of the most multicultural metropolises in the world. With mass migration came a wave of people who were brought up on another code of football, a British game that had been played on the green fields of Melbourne since the 1880s that went by the name of Soccer. New soccer teams were being formed by migrants and, on a local government level, a turf war was being waged to secure grounds.
To Melbourne’s establishment, this human wave represented a threat to not only Australian Rules football, but also, astonishingly, according to news reports from the time, to a way of life. Sublimating the “Red Menace” Cold War paranoia of the time for its own ends, the sporting public of Melbourne were constantly reminded of the “Soccer Menace” and its inherently inferior nature. And if that reminder was served to you by a highly esteemed member of the Melbourne football establishment, then all the better. He travelled overseas to watch the professional expression of the game, he pronounced judgement, he made up your mind.
In 1950s Melbourne, Frank “Checker” Hughes was a sporting icon. A war veteran and two-time premiership player with Richmond (1920-21), Hughes coached Richmond to a premiership in 1932 and then made the move to the Melbourne Football Club. At the time, they were known as not so formidable “Fuschias”.
“You are playing like a lot of flowers. Lift your heads and play like demons!” – “Checker” Hughes
The Melbourne Fuschias became the Melbourne Demons and Hughes coached them to four VFL premierships. He also coached Norm Smith and then mentored him when he became coach of Melbourne. Norm Smith became the most successful coach in VFL history with six premierships. Hughes helped turn Melbourne, the club of establishment, the original Australian Rules football club, the only club that called the MCG home, into a powerhouse.
On September 27, 1952, Melbourne’s Sporting Globe led with the following headline.
“Checker” Hughes, former famous Victorian and Melbourne football coach, just back from a tour overseas, says: …SOCCER NO THREAT TO AUSSIE GAMEI came up with the following words to describe what you are about to read: inexpert, misleading, ignorant, disrespectful, graceless. Here it is in its entirety.
By “CHECKER” HUGHESAustralian football in Victoria has little to fear from the opposition of soccer. I am making that statement deliberately after having studied soccer in England, among the top line clubs. Soccer lacks what the Victorian fan demands.If the best roster match of the English programme were to be played on the MCG each Saturday it, would attract a crowd, from curiosity, the first day. After the novelty wore off it would be played to empty stands. Attendances would tumble to zero.Even the best soccer lacks the thrills of Australian football, and I take it the best soccer is played between the clubs in England. Soccer lacks the fullblooded excitement that Victorians have been educated to expect by their long association with the Australian code.There’s little of that fast-moving excitement as big men throw in their all to save a desperate position. It lacks the scintillating dashes, seen as a defence breaks free and tears down field, or a wingman tears away.The cleverness of the Australian footballer in disposing of the ball is not surpassed by anything soccer has to offer. The pace at which we handle the ball is amazing.I saw the best ball control soccer has to offer in the Cup semi-final last season. Again, this season, I took a second look. No—the Australian is cleverer and has been educated to expect something with more of the nerve tingle to it.As a coach I went to see the training methods of the teams in England. I had an open mind. I thought I might learn something. I arrived at the conclusion that the average soccer player in England is not physically fit by Australian standards.They practise for hours ball control and heading, dribbling and slamming at the net but it is done at no speed. In fact, a player would not run 100 yards flat-out in the whole of his training week. There was none of the hard stamina-building work the Australian footballer has to do.Maurie Fleming, Richmond secretary, and my son Frank, who had a game or two with Richmond, went with me to watch Arsenal train. Arsenal are a top-rating team. We all came away with the impression that not one player would stand up to a half of a League game in Melbourne.But what did impress me were the appointments at Arsenal headquarters. We can learn a lot about club rooms from these big English clubs. They have their own laundry and dining rooms for players. They all have duplicate sets of uniforms ready for a change at half-time.To see a game one has to pay 12/6 to the grandstand. But this guarantees a reserved seat. It’s yours for the afternoon. It costs a big English team some £40.000 for a season. The average team manager gets about £1300 a year. Some are more highly paid.
I was able to find two letters of response published in the Sporting Globe which endeavoured to set the record straight and highlight the wilful ignorance and delinquency of this coaching legend.
Soccer Fan of St.Kilda wrote,
Mr “Checker” Hughes’ report and impressions of soccer during his visit to England has been widely read and discussed by thousands of enthusiastic soccer fans throughout Victoria and I suggest that, as one born and reared in the Australian code, his mind might not have been so open as he states when he made remarks which, we believe, were not tactful.Surely Mr Hughes does not believe that millions of followers of the English code are all wrong in their adherence to that sport, and that practically every country that has adopted the game cannot see any merit in the game. Even those countries who for many years patronised bull fighting have adopted soccer as a national game.During recent months some football writers have sounded a note of warning that the code would encroach upon the Australian game, but football authorities just say “It can’t happen here.”
Mr. W. Mundie, of South Oakleigh wrote,
The article by “Checker” Hughes is remarkable, not so much for what it tells, but for the facts it fails to reveal. For instance. Mr Hughes states a Soccer player would not run 100 yards flat out in the whole of a training week, but he forgets to mention the fact that first-class Soccer clubs in England play over forty home and away games in a season, which means they often have two hard competition matches in one week.On top of this, teams play in hard knock-out cup competitions, and if they are good enough to reach the cup finals would play at least fifty hard competitive matches in a season. Compare this with the 18 home and away matches played by teams in the VFL and it can be easily seen which players, Aussie Rules or Soccer, require the harder training.The weekly attendance at Soccer games in Britain is proof of the code’s appeal to the sporting public, and the fact that between 30,000 and 40,000 Scots travel the hundreds of miles to Wembley to support their country against England in international competitions needs no further comment.
In the course of executing a propaganda offensive against an imminent threat, a prominent figure of the Melbourne football establishment scraped the bottom of barrel to reassure Melbourne’s hoi polloi of the superiority of the local game.
Frank “Checker” Hughes was not alone. He had powerful allies to fight this war. Not only from the Melbourne Football Club, but also from business and political circles.
One such figure to make his thoughts known was the legendary football administrator, Percy Page. As secretary of Melbourne FC he was instrumental in bringing Hughes across from Richmond and with him transformed a team of “lilywhites” into a team to be feared. He then became honorary secretary to the Australian National Football Council, an early forerunner to the AFL Commission.
Upon watching the 1954 FA Cup Final in England he reassuringly told the readers of the Sporting Globe.
On the field, soccer can teach Australian football nothing, but in administration we can learn ‘heaps’ and we’ve got to learn it.I left the Wembley Stadium after seeing the FA Cup Final between Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion satisfied that as a spectacle the game is dull and lifeless. The players with the sole exception of the full-back is more artist than athlete.
The Victorian government went in to bat to maintain the precious Australian Rules way of life and assuage concerns of the soccer takeover. In March 1954, the Labour Minister of Education, Ernie Shepherd, made an extraordinary appearance in the Sporting Globe with Albert Chadwick, President of Melbourne FC.
SOCCER was no menace to Australian Rules the State Minister of Education and leading football officials said this week. They stressed, however, the need for co-ordination in control of Australian football in Victoria. The Minister for Education, Mr. Erm Shepherd, said — “There are 300,000 scholars in Victorian Primary Schools. I’d say 98 per cent, of them are rabidly Australian Football minded. The boys play. The girls barrack.”Melbourne Football Club president, Mr. Bert Chadwick, said — “Soccer a menace — never in your life. Australian Football has it all over soccer or any other football game as a crowd pleaser. That’s where the final showdown comes — over the turnstiles. The game that has what the crowd loves, holds the crowd.Mr. Chadwick, who holds high executive position in the Melbourne business world, sees football through the eyes of executive efficiency. As a former Victorian captain he knows also the power behind a united team. “I do not want to belittle soccer. It’s a wonderful game, highly scientific and well organised. In fact, in some respects soccer can show us points in national organisation. But soccer just hasn’t got what it takes. It will get a tremendous boost from migration and I’m not unmindful that we are absorbing 30,000 annually in the metropolis. The day comes, however, when the migrant is absorbed into the community’s fashions. However, there is an immediate danger in the possibility of soccer outbidding our code for grounds.”
Albert Chadwick went on to become Chairman of the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria. In 1965 he became President of the Melbourne Cricket Club, a post he held until 1979. In 1974 he was knighted and became Sir Albert.
A powerful nexus of sporting, business and political interests getting together to fight a common enemy and preserve a way of life. Sixty years later it all looks like much ado about nothing. Civilization didn’t collapse. Times have changed. The utterances of “Checker” Hughes and Percy Page would be subject to ridicule if made by an AFL coach or executive today. But they haven’t disappeared altogether, even in this post-Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters era. Because Melbourne’s Australian Rules football exceptionalism is a hardy creature, and next to the cockroach, is the second most likely thing to survive a nuclear war.
“After the novelty wore off it would be played to empty stands. Attendances would tumble to zero.” –Frank “Checker” Hughes