Sydney’s rich Australian football history

Roger Duffy – Newtown Football Club

 By Miles Wilks

It is a commonly held belief that Sydneysiders have had an almost non-existent role in the game at the top level, yet the fact is that as many as 80 players have been recruited from Sydney to the VFL/AFL.  Amongst the “no-name” players recruited from Sydney is a player who kicked the winning goal in a VFL grand final, a Norm Smith medallist, eleven premiership players and a couple of record-holding goal kickers.  It is a record of achievement that deserves more kudos.

In comparison, although one must preface this by stating I don’t have an intimate knowledge of rugby league recruiting, this figure of 80 players from Sydney to the VFL/AFL would presumably be larger than the combined number of rugby league players recruited from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Darwin rugby league clubs to the NRL. The same situation would presumably apply with rugby union recruiting from these five cities to their top competition.

Decade by decade- number of players recruited from Sydney clubs to the VFL/AFL

1897-1909                            4 players

1910s                                     6 players

1920s                                     12 players          

1930s                                     10 players

1940s                                     2 players

1950s                                     7 players

1960s                                     1 player

1970s                                     5 players

1980s                                     11 players

1990s                                     9 players

2000s                                     11 players

2010-11                                2 players

In 2012, there are 20 Sydney recruits on AFL lists. Eight of these twenty have debuted in league football.

1897-1910

Sydney’s first player:  Bob Kenny

Bob Kenny was the first player recruited from a Sydney club to play in the VFL. He debuted in 1899 and played just two games for St Kilda. He was followed soon after by John Stephenson, who was recruited from the Balmain football club and played 10 games for Essendon in 1907. Marshall Herbert, a recruit from Redfern, was the most successful of these early Sydney recruits, as he played 51 games with the Pies from 1908 to 1910. At this stage it should be noted that the only major football code that competed with Australian football in Sydney for players was rugby union, as Rugby League was not played in Sydney until 1908.

1910s

The 1910s was a decade that resulted in the recruitment of two Sydneysiders who had a significant impact in the VFL.

STAR PLAYERS: Bob Merrick and Chris Laird

Recruited from East Sydney, Merrick established a goal-kicking record for his adopted Victorian team of Fitzroy in 1919 when he kicked a total of 12 goals in a match. This feat of 12 goals in a match was never bettered by any other Fitzroy player in the history of that club. The other Sydneysider to have an impact in the big league during this decade was Chris Laird. He was recruited from the eastern suburbs club of Paddington and is one of the few players in the history of the game to live the dream of kicking a clutch goal in a grand final with just vital seconds remaining in the match. Laird changed the fortune of the 1918 VFL grand final when he kicked the winning goal for South Melbourne with less than a minute remaining in the match.

1920s

The 1920s saw a twofold increase over the previous decade in the number of players from Sydney making the transition to the best Australian football competition in the land. Six Sydneysiders played in the VFL in the 1910s and as many as twelve Sydneysiders were recruited in the 1920s. Fred Davies, who was another recruit from Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, was the pick of the Sydney recruits in this decade. His most notable achievement was being named as the captain of Fitzroy in 1934. Nevertheless, few of the other Sydney players had a large impact during this decade.

1930s

Ten players from Sydney made the transition to the VFL in the 1930s. The pick of the players was Newtown’s Reg Garvin.

STAR PLAYER: Reg Garvin

Before he played football for the Sydney club of Newtown, Reg Garvin had played soccer and rugby. Garvin was recruited from Sydney by St Kilda and he was a star player for that club, as he won the Saints’s best and fairest award in 1941 & 1944 and also captain-coached the club.

1940s

The 1940s was a decade in which there was a noticable drop-off in the numbers of high quality players making their way from Sydney clubs to the VFL. Ron Hall, from St George, was one of only two players recruited from Sydney to the VFL in the 1940s. The other player was Arthur Richardson, who played just five games for the Swans.

1950s                    

The 1950s was another decade in which only a small number of Sydney players were recruited to the top league.  One of the recruits, however, had a large impact in the VFL.

STAR PLAYER: Roger Duffy

Duffy played his junior football for the South Sydney Australian football club and then for the nearby rivals Newtown.  He was an exceptional player in the Sydney league, and was a Newtown premiership player as well as the leading goal kicking for the Sydney football league in 1950 and 1951. Duffy achieved the “premiership and goal-kicking double” by being a premiership player and a goal-kicking leader in two states.  His premiership wins were with Newtown (NSW)and Footscray (Vic) and he was the leading goal kicker with Newtown (1950-51) and with Footscray (1952).

1960s

The 1960s was Sydney football’s lowest point in terms of the number of players recruited from  Sydney clubs to the VFL.  Barry Fitzgerald was the only player recruited directly from a Sydney club to the VFL during this decade.  And he played just 35 games for Fitzroy.

1970s

The 1970s can be viewed as a decade of revival for football recruiting from Sydney. Whilst the 1960s was a low point in terms of player recruitment, the 1970s saw the recruitment of two stars of the game – Mark Marclure  and Michael Byrne.

STAR PLAYER: Mark Maclure

Maclure played junior football for East Sydney and also won the Sanders Medal as the best player in Sydney’s reserve grade competition as a 17 year old. From there he tried out with Carlton’s under 19s team and was eventually lured to Carlton by their master recruiter Bert Deacon. Of all the players to have been recruited from Sydney, Mark Maclure is the player who can boast as having the greatest CV. On top of his list of achievements is being a member of three premiership teams (1979, 1981 and 1982). Maclure is the only player recruited from a Sydney football club to have played in as many as three VFL/AFL premiership teams. On top of this, he was the captain of his AFL club (in 1986), won his club’s goal kicking award (1979 and 1985) and played over 200 games for his beloved Blues.

STAR PLAYER: Michael Byrne                                    

Michael Byrne is Sydney born and raised, having come through the ranks of local Sydney football on the northern beaches and then playing for the Sydney club of North Shore. Byrne’s induction into football was a tough one, as he played in the ruck for North Shore in the bloodbath Sydney grand final of 1976 at Trumper Park.  This match was infamous in Sydney football for being punctuated by rolling brawls involving almost every player on the field. After he left Sydney, Byrne became a premiership player with Hawthorn in 1983 and he produced on the big day, as he was the 2nd highest goal kicker for Hawthorn in the grand final after the legendary Leigh Matthews. Playing during Hawthorn’s greatest era, Byrne also had the honour of being runner up for the club’s best and fairest in 1984.

1980s

The 1980s saw the introduction of the Sydney Swans into the VFL competition and it was a decade in which there was a large upswing in the numbers of players recruited from Sydney. Only one player (1960s) and five players (1970s) made the transition to the top league in the two previous decades, but 11 players made the transition in the 1980s. Amongst these players was St George’s Mark Roberts, who was  a premiership player with North Melbourne in 1996.

1990s

The 1990s was a remarkable decade in terms of the contribution of Sydney footballers to the AFL. It was the starting point for the careers of three Sydneysiders who played over 200 games of AFL football.  The three players from Sydney who pulled on the guernsey in over 200 games of AFL football were Mark McVeigh (Essendon), Lenny Hayes (St Kilda) and Greg Stafford (Sydney and Richmond). McVeigh and Hayes were recruited from the Pennant Hills football club and Greg Stafford was recruited from Western Suburbs.

STAR PLAYER: Lenny Hayes

Hayes became the first player from Sydney to win the Norm Smith medal. His last quarter performance in the 2010 grand final for the Saints was one for the record books, as he

willed his team back into the contest by obtaining 11 possessions as well as kicking an inspiring goal from 50 metres out.

STAR PLAYER:  Nick Davis

Nick Davis, recruited from Ramsgate juniors, didn’t have the longevity of career that Hayes, McVeigh or Stafford had, but he produced one of the defining moments in finals history and arguably the Swans’s greatest moment outside the 2005 grand final when he kicked four goals in the last quarter of the 2005 semi-final against Geelong. That blitz of goal turned the match around and secured the Swans a vital 3-point victory and the passage to a grand final victory.

2000s

Two exceptional footballers were recruited from the Pennant Hills football club in the 1990s (Lenny Hayes and Mark McVeigh), and the feat was replicated in the noughties, as two further Pennant Hills juniors of exceptional talent, Jarrad McVeigh and Kieran Jack, made their transition to the AFL.

STAR PLAYER: Jarrad McVeigh

McVeigh won the Sydney Swans’s best and fairest award in 2008. This was a noticeable feat as McVeigh became the first player to be recruited from a local Sydney football club to win the award. It took 26 years after the club started in Sydney for a Sydney local to win the award, yet it only took a further two years for the next Sydney local to win the award when Kieran Jack was deemed Sydney’s best and fairest player in 2010.

STAR PLAYER:  Kieran Jack

Jack started his career for the Swans as a dogged tagger in 2007, yet it was only three years later that he won the club best and fairest award. Displaying unbridled determination, Kieran Jack won the award in 2010 largely because he had become a vital attacking option for the Swans. In his best and fairest year of 2010, Jack kicked 21 goals whilst still largely working in the midfield. In 2012, he is in contention for All-Australian selection as he continues to combine attacking flair with an ability to win the contested ball.

Many may question if the introduction of the Swans has been a success, yet from a recruiting viewpoint for Sydneysiders it has been. Only one player from Sydney in the 80 years prior to the Swans introduction into the Sydney sporting landscape played over 200 games of top grade football. Since the Swans moved to Sydney there have been three 200 game players from Sydney.

The players recruited from Sydney clubs in the years ahead will be following in the footsteps of exceptional footballers such as Roger Duffy, Michael Byrne, Lenny Hayes and the McVeigh brothers amongst others. Over the journey, the record of Sydneysiders at the top level is far better than what many would presume is the case – there have been premiership players, club captains, club coaches, and best and fairest winners. Sydneysiders have achieved at the highest level of the Australian game, but just not with all the fanfare of players from other cities.

Comments

  1. Very revealing. Thanks for that AA. I would never have guessed that Lenny Hayes was a Sydneysider.

  2. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Very interesting Miles. As you have rightly pointed out the rich history of Aussie Rules in NSW and Queensland is often ignored but I think with the introduction of the Suns and the Giants more attention will be given to it in the future. Yesterday Kevin Sheedy spoke about this.

  3. Great article Miles, really enjoyed it, let’s hope Sydney and NSW’s rich aussie rules history gets richer.

  4. Steve Castieau says:

    Dylan Addison who was one of the western bulldogs best against the swans yesterday was recruited from St George

  5. Steve Alomes says:

    Sydney goes even further back as I found when researching my book
    Australian Football The People’s Game which is coming out from Walla Walla Press next month.

    Thomas Wentworth Wills has family links with William Wentworth, the famous Sydney emancipist and politician, while Jock McHale was born in Balmain.

    …and I haven’t looked it up again but if I remember correctly HCA Harrison, one of the other founders of the game, has New South Wales connections….

    Steve Alomes

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