Almanac Footy: The unknown history of country zoning Part 2 – Reshaping the competition


This is Part 2 of an article written by Ian Munro inspired by his research during the production of his book, Between The Flags – Making Sense of 57 Years of Heartache.


In April 1985, VFL general manager Alan Schwab marked country zoning as a clear ‘fail’. In 1968 it was hailed as “one of the most important changes in football administration since the formation of the League” by VFL publicity officer Terry Young,.


But in an internal memo 17 years later Schwab said that instead of making the competition more even, fewer clubs than ever before could aspire to reach a Grand Final, let alone win one.


The major aim had been to “restrict the richer and stronger clubs and to give the weaker ones a fairer share of the ‘player market’…(but) since the introduction of country zoning in 1968 only five clubs have won the premiership.” They were Carlton, Richmond, Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Essendon.


Since Essendon had joined the elite group only six months before, that meant that four clubs shared the honours over 15 seasons. Only seven clubs had played in a Grand Final and one of those, St Kilda, did so in 1971 with a team created before the system came into play. It had since collected a kitchen drawer full of wooden spoons.


The rest of the decade only underlined Schwab’s point: from 1985 to 1989 three of those same clubs shared five more premierships. Yet before country zoning, from 1947 to 1967, nine clubs had won the premiership, and, Schwab continued: “if we go back to 1944 we have each of the 12 clubs playing in a Grand Final with ten of them being premiers”.


Instead of creating a more even competition country zoning had done the opposite. It was effective in reshaping the competition, just not in the way that was intended.


Country zoning was a controversy for ten years before it became a reality, and it remained controversial afterwards. In 1978 then VFL general manager Jack Hamilton tried to revive the idea of a draft to replace country zoning, remarking with understatement “it is not an easy task to have the scheme completely equitable”. Alternatively, he said the zones should be rotated among the clubs. Hamilton lost on both counts. The scheme remained fixed until the creation of the West Coast Eagles.


How to assess its impact? With the possible exception of Hawthorn’s region, a prolific country zone was no guarantee of success. Yet almost every one of those five premier clubs over the period 1968-89 enjoyed a productive country region in player recruitment.


To assess the clubs’ relative good fortune I adopted several metrics: the number of senior players drawn from each country zone to its assigned club; and also the number of 100-plus game players, the number of best and fairest winners, and the number of Team Of The Century selections.


Hawthorn dwelt amid the bottom four clubs in the three years prior to the introduction of country zoning but within four years it was premier. In the first five years of the system its zone delivered 18 players who would gain senior experience, seven of whom would play 100 games or more: Leigh Matthews, Peter Knights, Michael Tuck, Kelvin Moore, Leon Rice, Michael Moncreiff and Alan Goad.


Contrast that with St Kilda,  the Hawks’ opponent in the 1971 Grand Final, who debuted just two country zone players in the same period, only one of whom, Stephen Theodore, would achieve the 100-game milestone with the Saints. From Ballarat, St Kilda ultimately gained six 100-game players, seven best and fairest winners. Just one, Tony Lockett, won Team Of The Century selection. 


Over the same time Hawthorn found fifteen players who would achieve the 100-plus milestone,13 best and fairest winners, and seven Team Of The Century selections. No other club had a harvest to match. Country zoning was midwife to the Hawks’ golden era.


Footscray was in 1967 viewed as having won the best zone, and it also saw fifteen 100-game players debut, including champions Bernie Quinlan, Barry Round, Ian Salmon, Ian Dunstan, Brian Royal, Rick Kennedy and Steve Wallis. The group included six best and fairest winners and, in Templeton and Royal, two Team Of The Century selections.


The Bulldogs’ problem was that they were forever under financial pressure and repeatedly sold some of their better players to stay afloat. Bernie Quinlan and Barry Round for example, had longer careers with their second clubs. Billy Goggin quit as Bulldogs coach in 1978 in protest at its habit of selling players. Where Hawthorn had stability and just three coaches in the country zoning era, Footscray churned through eight coaches.


Greg Miller, recruiter with the Swans and Kangaroos, argues that more important than recruiting is a united and committed administration. He warns against overstating zoning’s impact. While conceding his point I also note that if zoning did not matter much the zones would have been allowed to rotate as originally planned.


It did matter. Consider Essendon. The Bombers were for many years, and especially after World War Two, one of the most consistently successful clubs. But after losing the 1968 Grand Final the club was missing from finals action for most of the next decade. It did not recover until its Wimmera zone turned out Merv Neagle, Glenn Hawker, Shane Heard, Tim Watson and Roger Merrett all of whom debuted over 1977-8 and helped the Bombers to the 1984 flag.


Of the other premier clubs of the era North Melbourne found 42 players in its zone, eight of whom played 100 games or more for the club. Its zone contributed five players to each of its mid-70s premierships. Richmond had the least country assistance: its 1973-4 premierships were built on teams from the pre-zoning period. In 1980 it won the title with just four country zone players, two of whom, Mark Lee and Dale Weightman, were among the best players on Grand Final day. Lee and Weightman collected three of the five best and fairest awards won by its Sunraysia origin players. Tony Free won the other two.


The last of the era’s premier clubs and the one that pushed hardest for the scheme, Carlton, loaded up on interstate recruits but also profited from its zone providing ten 100-plus game players, six club best and fairests and four Team Of The Century selections: Southby, Keogh, Williams and Rod Ashman. Williams was first dismissed as too slow by the Blues’ match committee but he found his way back to his zoned club via Geelong and Sydney.


The upshot of all this was that Hawthorn was elevated, Carlton was reinforced, Essendon was first hobbled and then enabled by country zoning, as North Melbourne benefited if to a lesser degree.


Perhaps the big loser was Collingwood. By my reckoning they debuted fewer country zone players than any other club – 31 – and found just one member of their Team Of The Century in Billy Picken. They played in six Grand Finals including a five point loss and a draw in that era.


“It’s not like country zoning gutted the club and sent us to the bottom,” observes historian Michael Roberts, “(but) there were four premierships there just for the taking and just one more bit of quality could have made the difference.”


To which advocates of the scheme might respond: Mission accomplished.


As to the club that sparked my interest, Melbourne tilled its country zone reasonably heavily trialling 47 players, but only three of them played 100 games. Key position prospects were hardly on offer, and while Carlton and Hawthorn were unearthing club champions from the scheme’s onset, Melbourne waited almost 20 years until the arrival of Garry Lyon, the sole Goulburn Valley Team Of The Century selection.


As Mike Sheahan observed in The Herald newspaper in 1985 “In fairness to Melbourne, it has been unlucky in at least one crucial area. Its country (zone has) spawned players who look as if they have been recruited from Ethiopia rather than the Goulburn Valley.”


By the time the scheme ended Hawthorn, a minnow at the beginning, was a major club alongside Carlton and a resurgent Essendon. St Kilda could only wonder what might have been had its plan for the Peninsula come through.


You can  read Part 1 of this article Here.


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


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.




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  1. Riverina Rocket says

    This is revealing stuff!

    Gee-whiz didn’t Hawthorn and Carlton get leg-ups!!!

    Extraordinary that VFL/VCFL chief executive Jack Hamilton couldn’t get the clubs to agree to change zones… he was generally pretty ruthless (I know from my experiences in dealing with him from a NSW perspective).

    Got the book!
    Important body of work.

  2. george smith says

    What happened with changing zones was the cunning of the Professor Fates of football, it was similar to the Northern Ireland Boundary Commission!

    When they set up zoning, Carlton made sure that over 3 quarters of the 12 clubs had to agree to change the zones. they then set up 4 clubs – Hawthorn, North, Footscray and themselves to perpetually block all changes.

    As the Professor himself allegedly said, but didn’t, in “The Great Race”:

    “I want to win my way, by cheating!!”

  3. Stan Kluzek says

    Just read Between The Flags – Making Sense of 57 Years of Heartache.

    Great insight to zoning, drafting, and arsehole administrator & coaches.
    So glad we are not the Melbourne Hawks.

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