AFL revisionists’ flagging logic

Early football

Like many a footy fan, I nearly choked on my morning gruel last weekend when reading of a push to award Carlton six AFL premierships in one very foul swoop, based on a notion the League could rebirth itself 27 years ahead of time.

Shining a brighter light upon the achievements of football’s hazy bygone era, as football boffins Col Hutchison, Mark Pennings and Adam Cardosi have done, is a valid exercise. However, it’s a Roy Cazaly sized leap of logic to rewrite footy’s version of the Periodic Table.

The proposal has, surprise, surprise, been accepted by a working party led by ex-Carlton captain cum AFL Chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick. He’s a Rhodes Scholar too, is Mike, just like our cerebrally gifted PM.

One proposed birthdate represents the year of the first recognized premiership, seven years before the VFA was instituted in 1877 (the same year as the South Australian equivalent).

Notwithstanding goals were worth a single point until 1878, upon which behinds were recorded for the purposes of a tie-breaker, seasons were completely adhoc as clubs arranged their own fixture. Until 1894, in the same year one team might play as many as 23, or as few as just four games (don’t be getting ideas Gill)! Even the method of determining the premier was somewhat arbitrary, based on ‘proportional wins’ but open to interpretation if too many of the wins were against junior clubs such as South Ballarat or Ballarat. There were no grand finals until one was required to split Collingwood and South Melbourne in 1896.

In fact the breakaway League was only established due to widespread disenchantment over the VFA’s lack of professionalism. Some clubs were a rabble, many games were tediously lopsided, and a groundswell of disreputable incidents pervaded both sides of the fence.

Is this a history the AFL should seek to appropriate?

Despite his preeminent status as a historian, Professor Geoffrey Blainey’s curious view ladles a hefty dollop of romanticism to boot.

“The AFL record book ignores them or treats them as phantoms. If they don’t take the field in or after 1897, they apparently don’t exist, and yet their achievements are astonishing and a glory to the game.”

Of course these ‘astonishing’ achievements aren’t recognized by the AFL record book because neither an AFL nor VFL one existed until 1897. They could simply be recognized by a VFA/VFL honour roll, though the VFL website appears to treat the VFA as a dirty little secret. Herein lays the hypocrisy of the AFL, when for decades its more insular self despised the Association!

Alas, the clubs concerned have the right to validate and celebrate the glory of these Australian Rules feats to whatever extent they deem appropriate.

To draw a roundabout comparison, the ICC would never consider awarding ‘Test’ status to World Series Cricket’s supertests, being the separate breakaway competition it was.

Perhaps the delineation of VFL and AFL titles is an area warranting some degree of navel gazing. But what’s to be gained by adding these non VFL/AFL titles to the all-important premiership table, yet granting them a giant asterisk or sub-heading (which theoretically they already have)?

The desire to take this course to ‘establish Australian football as one of the oldest in international existence’, as Caroline Wilson wrote, is a moot point. No one disputes other senior Australian Rules competitions existed pre-1897, and this fact is not contingent upon the AFL’s substantiation. Of course, the AFL’s relentless obsession to be the sport rather than merely execute its assigned raison d’être to administer the elite level national competition has seen their logo slapped on most state bodies and ‘AFL’ become inherent across all footy lingo.

Vic-centricity is another contentious aspect. Is it a stretch to say Port Adelaide’s 34 SANFL pre-Power premierships should be upgraded? The original Fremantle Football Club won 10 WAFL (est 1885 as the WAFA) flags. It was a complete different entity, but hey, they were the Freo of the day…

Colin Carter, whose beloved Cats stand to benefit most, mentioned the desire to achieve ‘what is right rather than what is easy’. To this observer it’s fairly easy to determine this historical fabrication is about as right as a $7.20 plastic cup of mid-strength.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. Lovely piece of historical analysis and reflection, Jeff. But:
    “Some clubs were a rabble, many games were tediously lopsided, and a groundswell of disreputable incidents pervaded both sides of the fence.
    Is this a history the AFL should seek to appropriate?”
    They already have.

  2. Rick Kane says

    Great piece JD. I reckon your very last point (I too hate mid-strength, plastic and handing over money for nothing) sums up the argument neatly. Sadly, I think it is also exactly why the AFL will get away with this beyond Lewis Carrol-esque type idea.


  3. “Herein lies the hypocrisy of the AFL…”

    Jeff, like you, I could not believe my eyes.
    Surely Fitzpatrick and the AFL have bigger fish to fry than spending time and energy on re-writing history?

    And we are in further agreement that, if the AFL goes ahead with this, why stop there? Yes, all of Port Adelaide’s pre-AFL flags should count, as should early Freo flags.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Good call JD. A cynical attempt to sell more memberships by putting ersatz trophies on display. I’d expect it from Carlton, but Geelong?

  5. Dave Brown says

    Spot on, particularly the point of the Vic-centricity. That Port Adelaide has faced the most ridicule during the week as a result of their claim – having won 34 premierships in a continuous, organised competition (although the first SA grand final was in 1889 and did not become a permanent fixture until 1898) clearly demonstrates this. Can’t we just accept that the AFL didn’t start until 1990 or thereabouts and partition any thing prior to that based upon each club’s history?

  6. Steve Fahey. says

    Couldn’t agree more Jeff re illogicality and Vic-centricity of this proposal. And with Smokie that surely they have bigger fish to fry with the current state of the game.

    The only bit I don’t agree with is the roundabout comparison with WSC. That cricket should be retrospectively awarded Test status, especially given some of the drivel which counted as Test cricket served up when Zimbabwe was in its latter sad years of decline. I know that the issue is not the standard but the banner under which it was played, but I ask one question about those years -was it harder to make runs against Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft or Gannon, Clark, Mann and (the exception) Thomson ?

  7. The AFL’s anniversary re-alignment sub-committee have it all in hand as per the following timeline.

    2008: 150 years of AFL [sic] Football.

    2020: reclaim the history back to 1870 as part of AFL history — a new sesquicentenary can be celebrated

    2027: Over the previous six years, slowly admit the error of the previous judgement and realign with the formation of the VFA — a new sesquicentenary can be celebrated.

    2040: The sesquicentenary of the formation of the Australasian Football Council, the centenary of which was scandalously ignored by the AFL. Also 50 years of AFL proper (depending on which date you choose as the founding moment) — though this might need to be forgotten.

    2047: recant on the previous judgement about VFA and use the formation of the VFL as the founding moment — a new sesquicentenary can be celebrated

    2058: 200 years of footy. Celebrate the bicentenary.

    Restart re-alignement process.


    My response on neososmos might have some interest

  8. Interesting piece Ian, the early years of Australian football saw many a game played with interchangeable rules (I suppose little has changed!). Also like your cynicism re the AFL’s motivations and love of a timely party.

    I agree Peter B, what I should have added is the AFL appropriating such a sordid history is quite appropriate in light of recent times.

    I agree with you Steve in so far as WSC degree of difficulty versus Zimbabwe, Bangladesh etc. My point was more so about separation of governance and the can of worms the AFL are opening.

  9. Keiran Croker says

    Speaking totally from self interest, I’d take the extra 5 premierships (?) to add to the 3 VFL and 2 AFL flags the Swans have managed so far.

  10. aussie80s says

    Absolutely spot on Jeff. This whole thing is being driven by Carlton and Geelong as they have the most to gain from it,…and opposed by Eddie only because it puts Collingwood too far behind the others – just as Eddie had previously told the Bulldogs, Melbourne and North to try harder when they were complaining of Sunday fixtures but now also bemoans it when they have to play the time slot.

    It’s all self interest spin.

    Anyone who has seen how football was played from the records kept in the early days would realise how farcical this exercise is. For instance in 1878 Carlton played Sale in one of their wins when they had a trip to the country. They also played Sydney club Waratah in 2 games that year – one in Australian Rules and one with rugby rules – and these games are included. St.Kilda was twice thrashed by junior club Hawthorn yet St.Kilda was a VFA club and Hawthorn was not.

    The VFA ladder did not resemble a normal competition amongst clubs until 1888 when games were only being played against other member clubs.

  11. Jeff,
    I’d heard nothing of this and reckon it is irrelevant – does anyone really care?
    There’s some empire building on dodgy soil.

  12. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said Jeff. What a ridiculous concept. Surely many more important issues for the AFL than rewriting history.
    Agree that the World Series Super Tests shouldn’t be given Test status, but think the time has come for them to be given First Class status.

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Agree wholeheartedly Jeff worry and try and fix real problems please afl !
    The players are adamant World Series should be given test status as DK said bowling to 1 Richards was bad enough let alone having to bowl to Barry and Viv . Thanks Jeff

  14. Yes this does open a range of questions. Carlton beating Sale and Warath has me stumped. I’d like to see what ‘fixtures’ from 1870 onwards these historians are using to determine these’new’ records.


  15. I can empathise with the players MA but would it not be a dangerous road for the ICC to green light a breakaway comp in these fractious times? What about the rebel South African tours? A pretty tough standard of cricket played in those games as well.

    The more you look at the season by season records Glen the more it becomes apparent that at least until the mid 1890’s the competition was looser than Lindsay Lohan.

  16. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good point ,Jeff yes would create more problems than it is worth

  17. Dave Nadel says

    Apart from anything else, the VFA continued after the eight VFL clubs broke away from the older competition. Do North Melbourne and Richmond get to count the premierships that they won between 1897 and 1925?

    The fairest way to do this is to regard the VFA (including the current comp which should not have been called the VFL), the SANFL, the WAFL and the VFL from 1897 to 1989 as separate organisations with their own histories.

    The AFL should be regarded as a unique organisation whose records commence in 1990. In which case Hawthorn, West Coast, Brisbane and Geelong have all won three flags, Collingwood, Essendon, North Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney have won two. Carlton and Port Adelaide have won one flag each. The other seven clubs are yet to win an AFL Premiership.

  18. Peter Fuller says

    Precisely, Dave; obviously your proposed solution is too sensible to be considered, let alone adopted.

  19. If we take on board the point Dave mentioned can we finally put to rest the nonsensensical statements such as Sydneys current winning streak being its best for over 70+ years, or that the Brisbane threepeat of 2001-2003 being their only flags since 1944.

    Surely a historty of the VFL condensing the period 1897 to 1989, with an AFL history commencing from 1990, only including the clubs who have played in that time, not making artifical links to extinct Victorian teams, would do justice, giving a more accurate refelection of footballing fortunes over the years.


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