Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

And by amazing co-incidence . . .

Melbourne Soccer also 150 years old in 2020

The AFL might well be shifting the history goalposts once more and moving its origin date back from 1987 to 1870. Preparations seem underway already to celebrate another 150th (didn't we just have one?) in 2020. I guess that's the way the AFL rolls.

However, here's a little snippet from my research that suggests soccer may also have a coincidental anniversary.


Of the Australian colonies in the period 1860–1880, Victoria was the one in which English Association rules seemed the least present. Aside from the occasional reported attempts to advocate the formation of a football association, soccer is absent in the received story of football in Melbourne until 1883. Given this absence, the following report of a game that seems a lot like soccer is somewhat tantalising.

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.[i]
When the Police team and Melbourne FC (the 1870 AFL premiers in the newly rewritten version of footy history) were scheduled to have a match it was felt that major rule modifications were needed to give the police team a chance to be competitive. The Australasian reported that as a result the game was to be played under 'home rules' (using the more definitive ‘rules’ rather than ‘style’). It said, ‘In order to make the game as equal as possibly both teams will play according to the “home rules”, which provide that there shall be no holding or running with the ball.’[ii] 

The Argus match report followed two days later. The Melbourne team had proved too strong for the police, who struggled to cope despite the modifications. The 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.[iii]
To work out just what this game might have looked like is difficult. The Melbourne Rules of the time need to be imagined 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 kick it quickly after catching it to avoid being pummelled.

The notions of the ‘home style’ and ‘home rules’ are intriguing. The various prohibitions and the (presumed) absence of offside rule out Rugby and the public school games. The absence of offside would 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.

Ultimately it cannot yet be said one way or the other if this is a very early example of a soccer-derived game being played in Australia. Despite its being a close relative, nor can this modified game 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 the written Melbourne Rules of the time and virtually no likeness to Australian rules as played today. Then again the Melbourne Rules of the time bear little resemblance to Australian rules of today either, which begs the question of when Australian Rules football actually began. The myth says 1858/1859. The principles that form the basis of a code – established and relatively stable rules agreed and conformed to by an associated community of clubs – says 1877, at the earliest.

The 1870 Melbourne v Police game lies under erasure, unbelonging in our football history. Too difficult to categorise. And still too easy to ignore.

[i] Argus, 9 July 1870, 4.
[ii]  Australasian, 9 July 1870, 11.
[iii] Argus, 11 July 1870, 5.

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