Almanac Footy: The unknown history of country zoning – Part 1

 

Remember ‘football socialism’? That was the slur directed at the salary cap and the national draft back in the mid-1980s when the AFL commissioners transformed player recruitment. As a slogan, and as a slander, decrying football socialism was the default criticism of the powerful clubs offended by changes that, long term, threatened their standing.

 

Yet those who were loudest in their complaint either ignored, or were ignorant of the fact that they were the beneficiaries of an earlier form of ‘football socialism’. That was the introduction, in 1967, of country zoning in Victoria. It transformed the competition, as it was supposed to do, but not always as intended.

 

Ask anyone who was there and they’ll say the problem with country zoning was that the zones were supposed to rotate among the clubs every five years, but they never did. But that is only part of the story.

 

Country zoning was first and foremost about taking down a peg or three the power clubs of the era, and that meant Collingwood, Melbourne and Essendon. In 22 seasons from the end of World War Two until 1967 the trio appeared 28 times in grand finals (30 if the 1948 tied Grand Final is included), sharing 14 premierships.

 

Country football historian Paul Daffey says that in the 1950s and early 1960s, there was a simple message for young footballers looking to move to the big league: Collingwood, Essendon, Melbourne. Good young players were told you have to go to one of those three clubs if you want to amount to anything. They were the big clubs.

 

So far as the VFL was concerned zoning was about levelling the competition. “League competition has suffered because of the gap between the top six or seven clubs who have regularly vied for positions in the Final Four, and the remainder who, after only a few rounds of matches each season, have been in a position where they have no chance of reaching the finals,” VFL spokesman Terry Young wrote.

 

Former North Melbourne recruiter, Ron Joseph remembers the pressure from what he called “the peasant clubs” for recruiting reform. “There was always whingeing going on. Clubs like North, and you could put Fitzroy in that category, and Footscray, South Melbourne, they kept going out there and the player had already signed with Collingwood or Melbourne,” he recalls.

 

First raised in 1957, country zoning was so controversial that 10 years later it remained only an idea and VFL administrator Eric McCutchan began pushing for a draft instead of zoning. His plan was headed off by Carlton which pushed hard for a vote on zoning before drafting could be considered.

 

Carlton insisted zoning be introduced despite fierce opposition from country football leagues. So insistent were they that one journalist began a news article referring to Carlton’s “chances of bringing in country zoning” hinging on a swinging vote from Melbourne.

 

League officials then had the bright idea – borrowed from McCutchan’s draft that gave the lowest placed clubs the earlier draft picks – that the bottom four clubs in 1967 should be able to choose their own zone, rather than rely on a random ballot. That would have meant in order Footscray, Fitzroy, Hawthorn and South Melbourne could opt for their choice while the other eight clubs had to rely on the luck of the draw.

 

That did not happen. Tiger recruiter Graeme Richmond said the idea of preferential treatment for the strugglers was “intolerable in a democracy”. (Country zoning tended to inspire big political statements: the Bendigo Advertiser had earlier complained that the VFL’s plan was “football dictatorship”.)

 

The truth was that anyone paying attention knew which were the most productive zones. One recruiter, South Melbourne’s Peter Charlesworth, had made a study of them and knew the number of players each zone had supplied to VFL clubs in the previous three years. He had also calculated from census figures the numbers of 16-20 years olds in each zone. There were big differences among the zones: the Ovens and Murray had supplied 16 recruits over the previous three years, the Latrobe Valley and the Mornington Peninsula zones had each supplied 15 recruits, while the highly regarded Hampden League had produced 13 players who had recently moved to the VFL.

 

At the other end of the spectrum the Ballarat and Waranga North East zones were responsible for four recruits each and Western Border zone just three.

 

And the populations also varied wildly with three times as many young prospects in the Latrobe Valley and Mornington Peninsula zones compared to the Goulburn Valley.

 

Carlton aside, two clubs that played an important role in advancing the idea of country zoning were Footscray and Hawthorn. The issue was first raised a few months after Carlton president, Sir Kenneth Luke, became VFL chief in 1956. Initially it went nowhere and in 1959 Hawthorn’s committee went so far as to declare its “unanimous” opposition to the idea.

 

In early 1963 Footscray allied with Luke when each put forward proposals for country zoning, but nine clubs were needed for its introduction and, in September 1963, Collingwood, Geelong, Hawthorn, Melbourne and Richmond combined to block it. Two months later Hawthorn breathed new life into it by backflipping on its opposition.

 

When Melbourne abandoned its opposition the push finally succeeded on Grand Final eve 1967. The Bulldogs and Hawks were bottom three clubs. Each did well out of the assignment of zones: the Bulldogs picked up the Latrobe Valley and Hawthorn the Mornington Peninsula and West Gippsland. Second bottom club Fitzroy, was given the Hampden League while the Ovens and Murray – the reigning country champions – went to North Melbourne which had finished just outside the bottom four in eighth position.

 

South Melbourne was the only bottom four club to miss out on a prized zone, receiving the Riverina that had turned out just five VFL players in the previous three years.

 

Given that the motive was to level the competition, it is notable that the most highly productive zones in the three years prior went exclusively to clubs in the bottom half of the ladder.

 

Carlton, which had driven the process and was the only top four side at the time to support country zoning, gained the Bendigo region which was historically strong and highly regarded even though it had generated just seven recruits – about half of the most productive regions – in the previous three years.

 

As one of the original targets of the planned levelling effect of zoning it seems significant that Melbourne was assigned the Goulburn Valley which had produced a modest six recruits in the three years prior, and had the smallest population of any region, one third that of the bigger zones. Unlike Melbourne, which had fallen from its perch by this time, the Magpies were as strong as ever and received the least desirable region.

 

Indeed, Collingwood and St Kilda, which had fought out the previous Grand Final, shared the two poorest performed zones of the lot. Gary Colling who was recruited from Frankston before it was zoned said St Kilda recruiter Ian Drake was desperate to have the Mornington Peninsula zone. “He knew what the talent was like down there,” Colling recalled. “(St Kilda) were pretty confident they were going to get it. They’d written submission after submission.”

 

St Kilda, which by moving to Moorabbin had expected to be assigned the zone that went to Hawthorn, was given the poorly performed Ballarat zone. But then, when the vote was taken the Saints were, for the one time in their history, reigning premiers.

 

It is striking how the result of the supposedly random draw tallied with the desire to make the competition more even. It may be an amazing coincidence, although as former Carlton powerbroker Ian Collins observed: “I think you would be suspicious. I would be too.”

 

 

This article is adapted from Ian Munro’s book about Melbourne Football Club’s wilderness years Between The Flags – Making Sense of 57 Years of Heartache.  The book can be purchased from the website Here, or The Avenue Bookstore (Albert Park, Elsternwick, Richmond), and Beaumaris Books in Beaumaris.

 

The media release for Ian’s book can be read Here.

 

Read Ian’s article in The Age about his book Here

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Tony Taylor says

    Excellent.

  2. As this was a little before my time, I find it especially intriguing.
    I look forward to reading more.

  3. Rochester Rocket says

    Well done Ian for shining a light on zoning.

    It gifted Carlton and Hawthorn multiple flags.
    Really hurt St Kilda…

    And not many players came out of the GVL for Melbourne…

    Of the “six recruits out of the GV in the 3 years before zoning there were four from Kyabram alone that went to the VFL including Dickie Clay & Rossie Dillon plus Maurie Fowler (Carlton) and Frank Fanning (Footscray).

    I’ve ordered the book!

  4. george smith says

    The original “let’s give Carlton a premiership” scheme…

  5. Peter Fuller says

    Thank you Ian for this excellent research. In spite of my absorbed interest in VFL, I didn’t know about the politics of the agitation for zoning, nor the manipulations involved in the allocation of zones, which had a decisive effect on the subsequent success/failure of various clubs.
    A fairer system – not that anyone among the old club delegates to the VFL were interested in that – would surely have required the system to be based on failure-success over more than a single year, then choices based on reverse order, and the intended but scrapped reallocation of zones.
    Charlesworth’s observations are fascinating, although I am curious as to how productive each zone was over a longer period than his three years. My impression is that Collingwood were very badly treated (because as I understand it, they received only half the Western Border League, which at the time straddled the South Australian – Victoria border); South Melbourne and Geelong were not far behind in being disadvantaged. I think Hawthorn’s success in the years following the introduction of zoning is directly linked to their receiving zones which were not just productive, but which were proximate to Glenferrie, so that it was relatively easy for players to commute for training.
    George, while your grievance about the Blues’ good fortune is legitimate, I’d argue that Hawthorn were much greater beneficiaries.

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