NEW NARRATIVE POSSIBILITIES IN AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL HISTORIES
The recent developments in the digitization of library archives have profoundly affected the researching of sport history in Australia and beyond. Some images, facts and data once buried are now easily accessible via simple on-line searches. We no longer need to trust the factual accuracy of the Turners, Hesses, Blaineys and Hays because we are able to check their facts in the blink of an eye. This has compromised some long-held suppositions and has opened the door for new arguments and narratives.
This article is a reflection on the research I have done relating to the history of soccer in Australia. A great deal of this work has been in the NLA digital newspaper archive.
The archive is revolutionary in the way it opens up new narrative possibilities.
The database is searchable — so we can discover evidence that was once nearly impossible to find. Previously, this data could only be found accidently or through an awful lot of hard slog using the old-fashioned techniques of trawling through microfilm and hard copy newspapers.
Without having to leave Melbourne, I have made a number of discoveries in the archive that question some of the established narratives of sport history in Australia.
Three general examples:
- From the Hobart Mercury in 1867 we learn of a group of Aboriginal footballers near Hamilton in Victoria.
- An 1880 regional news report in the Argus records the suppression of a Ladies’ Football Club which had been proposed at Sandhurst.
- The Maitland Mercury reveals a form of football being played in Darwin in 1879.
In each example, factual evidence gleaned from displaced sources troubles established narratives.
A major suspicion I have confirmed over the past 2 years is that Soccer has a much deeper and broader Australian history than has been recorded by sports historians. The game is more ‘embedded’ than is usually assumed. The archive reveals that soccer reports are there in newspapers but they are sometimes buried at the end of, or hidden within, a general football report.
Historians have overlooked vital pieces of information because of this. Also many have been guided by master-narratives that already structures and limits their narrative possibilities. Yet I have my own master narrative which is iconoclastic rather than hagiographic.
Consequently I’ve tried to adopt a sceptical and open-minded approach. Trust no established narrative; question all arguments about origins.
- Established histories have been compiled with access to only a fraction of the available data and are necessarily limited.
- There are no origins only moments of confluence. Or, there are no fathers of the game (any game) – though there may be godfathers.
- Inscription is not origination. Because something is written down for the first time does not mean that it is the first time that it happened. The fetishistic emphasis on written rules and codes (of our own or someone else’s) distorts the historical process.
Perhaps the most significant justification of this approach lies in a discovery I made in 2009.
Trying to find early examples of soccer in Australia, I had scoured the archive for references to football, soccer, british association football and had exhausted those searches. Reading the articles had taught me aspects of the language of the time and so I was able to make informed experiments with search terms. Making a search using the term ‘English association rules’ I found reference to a game played between New Town FC and the Cricketers FC in Hobart on 7 June 1879.
These clubs met for the return match on Marsh’s ground, New Town, on Saturday afternoon, playing the English Association Rules. The result was a draw, no goals being kicked by either side.
Now this defies the conventional understanding that the first game of soccer in Australia was in NSW when the Wanderers took on the Kings School at Parramatta Common on 14 August 1880.
Even earlier examples have since been discovered:
- 1878 a one-half soccer/one-half rugby game in Sydney
- 1876 the new Petrie Terrace club in Brisbane initially adopts London Association rules
- 1873 a football association formed in Adelaide which initially adopts English association rules
- Throughout the 1870s we see frequent advocacy of soccer in letters to the editor
- Prior to 1880 games were played in which carrying and handling the ball were outlawed in a number of places around Australia – Woogaroo in Qld, Richmond in Tasmania. Can we describe these games as soccer? If not, how can we describe them?
- Early 1870s – recollections in the Mercury in the 1920s of soccer being played in the Hobart Domain.
These discoveries and questions inspired me in a number of ways: one was to find out more about the kinds of football played in Hobart during 1879 and the years preceding it.
The public histories of this period are confused and the scholarly histories are generally thin. But an assumption runs through them all: that the game being played in Hobart in the 1860s and 1870s is a kind of warm-up to Australian Rules football – even if not footy per se it is footy in embryo. Indeed this is an assumption that inhabits a lot of Victorian football histories – along with the general problem of the winners rewriting history in their own image.
I’d like to argue for a more fractured and diverse story – one ultimately of colonisation and imperialist contests.
From the Mercury we are able gather that football in Hobart in 1875 is in a slump and that a concerted effort is needed to get the competition on its feet again lest the male population becomes enfeebled. The effort is made and the second half of the decade is a period of good growth. Contemporary journalists do not describe the games in great detail, so it is very hard to decipher the rules in use. Though we can gain a sense from the match reports.
One journalist has several objections to the way the game is being played in 1878:
- He bemoans too much “holding the ball”
- He criticises “the vicious habit of running with the ball”
- He wants the emphasis on kicking:
From the Mercury 15 April 1878 we learn that:
The “Mark” Rule of the Melbourne Association was played for the first time, having been adopted at the general meeting of the club last month. As displayed on Saturday, it appeared to have practically the same effect as the rule of the Rugby Union . . . The rule is, however, one which should not be carried to excess, as [it is] connected with the primary use of the hands which is the principal cause of the many mishaps recorded in connection with the game. The more the ball is kicked, and the less it is handled, the beauty of the game is enhanced, and the danger of it is proportionately lessened. Shoving, handling, and all the many prohibited causes of harm, are connected with the primary use of the hands which should therefore be avoided as much as possible. As an incidental to the game the Mark system may be admissible; but as its ruling principle . . . it would be decidedly objectionable.
What we see here is the crux of a local conflict – and perhaps we also see a moment in a long-term shift in sensibility from a kicking game to a handling game. There is other evidence of difference and shift:
- When City FC played at Richmond FC in August 1877, “City were at a great disadvantage in having to make the concession to their opponents of not running with the ball”.
- When Richmond visited City next season, Richmond “were evidently placed at a disadvantage by the novelty of the mark rule of which they made acquaintance for the first time”.
Richmond clearly play a non-running and non-marking game in 1877.
It appears that the more established forms of local football, especially outside Hobart, are being displaced by Victorian rules after the formation of the VFA in 1877.
In 1879 something of a ‘rules war’ erupts in Hobart. A great deal of rancour develops between the clubs and the situation is so fraught that at least 3 different sets of rules are adopted by Hobart football teams at the beginning of 1979:
- The cricketers and momentarily the City FC adopt soccer;
- The Railway Club and eventually City adopt Victorian Rules;
- New Town has it own set of rules that seem a kind of third way.
There appears little impetus to break the deadlock until the City Club receives a letter from Hotham FC requesting games in Tasmania. It provides the basis for unity. The Tasmanian Mail reported on 10 May that “such an attention . . . from Victoria will demonstrate the necessity for the formation of an Association, uniformity of rules . . .”
From here the general drift was towards the adoption of Victorian Rules which indeed occurred on June 11 (with the ‘minor’ exception of the use of a crossbar over which the ball had to be kicked to score a goal).
The question might be put: was the ascention of Victorian rules an inevitable evolution or a managed political outcome?
This is where I seemed to have fallen into a hole – until, that is, one of the strengths of the archive came to my aid. The archive facilitates the discovery of deferred as well as displaced data.
Looking up ‘Hobart soccer’ with ‘1879’ as an accompanying search term, revealed a wealth of retrospective material in the form of 50-years-ago-today type articles and other recollections published in the 1920s and 30s. A central figure emerged.
WH Cundy arrived in Hobart with his father, a railway engineer, in 1879. Cundy also worked in the railways and was the inaugural captain of the Railway Club. He was a very good player who had played for Essendon — though this claim is debatable. Cundy insisted that the game he brought with him should be the one to attain hegemony in Tasmania.
He was interviewed by the Mercury in 1931, a few years before his death:
“When I first came to Tasmania as a youth,” he said, “there was really no established code. Rugby, soccer, and a sort of hybrid game were being played, and it can well be imagined the chaos that existed. I had played what was then known as the Victorian code in Melbourne . . . but at first was unable to induce other teams to adopt the Victorian rules. I had brought over a book of rules, and had 50 copies printed for distribution, and a meeting was later called at the old High School, now the University, to discuss the position. The . . . meeting could not come to a decision to concentrate on one code, so it was decided that for a season the teams should play the Victorian rules game, soccer and Rugby turn about, and at the end of the year decide which should be adopted, when all were fairly conversant with the codes. When the vote subsequently was taken, the Victorian rules won. I believe, by one vote.” (22 Sep 1931)
Now I’m not sure I trust Cundy’s tale. Nor do I have much truck with the Mercury describing him as the “father of the game” in Tasmania. But Cundy’s recollections nonetheless function to open up the story to new narrative possibilities – the most radical of which is that the ascendancy of Australian rules football Hobart is a matter of a colonial imposition of a foreign set of rules.
And for that new story we have the NLA digital archive to thank, or blame.