Footy History: The tragic tale of Alf Dear

by John Donegan

 

Alf Dear is a name no AFL fan has ever heard, there are no chapters dedicated to him in club histories, he made no team of the century, and played little more than two dozen games.

In fact he played exactly 28 games for two clubs: debuting with Geelong against St Kilda at Corio Oval in the second round of 1898, and finishing his career with Essendon against Fitzroy in 1900.

“No such game has been played this year, and both sides are to be complimented on the way they played,” reported The Argus on the match at the Brunswick Street Oval that saw the abrupt and tragic end to Alf Dear’s career.

Alf, the second of twelve children to John Dear and Mary Connolly, grew up in Dog Rocks on the outskirts of Geelong, not far from his grandfather Patrick who had arrived from Ireland a couple of decades earlier and won a land grant in Fyansford. Patrick was a pillar of the church, instrumental in the building of St Mary of Angels Basilica in Geelong.

John and Mary had good land and ran a successful property farming wool, maintaining an orchard, and keeping stands of timber in reserve. The classified ads in the Geelong Advertiser see John Dear constantly building his workforce.

The family had settled well and young Alf was dispatched to Geelong College where he excelled at all sports. Records don’t exist to tell us whether Alf was a scholarship boy, but judging from the rudimentary education his siblings received it would be a fair assumption.

While he graduated from College to the Pivotonians, a path followed hundreds of times since, and debuted as a 19 year old ruckman known for his pace, things at home weren’t going so well.

Having borrowed heavily to invest in the farm, leasing neighbouring paddocks to grow the business, John Dear was seriously over-capitalised as the 1890s depression hit home with soaring interests rates, crippling dock and shearers strikes, and plummeting wool prices. The creditors were seeking redress and, in desperation, John transferred all the assets into his wife Mary’s name days before being declared bankrupt.

When Alf debuted for Geelong his youngest sister Annie was only 128 days old. He held his place in the team over the next eight rounds, kicking his first goal in the Round Nine win over St Kilda that elevated Geelong to third on the ladder with six wins.

Alf missed Round Ten.

 

He wasn’t dropped.

 

On the morning of Saturday 16 July Alf woke as usual, probably thinking of the game ahead against South Melbourne at the Lakeside Oval, but all was not right at the farmhouse on Ballarat Road, Dog Rocks.

 

Alf’s father John had died – six days before his 51st birthday – of ‘alcoholism and brain congestion’, leaving his widow with 11 surviving children, a string of creditors and not much else.

 

The evidence suggests John Dear committed suicide.

 

Alf returned in round 13 against Essendon at the East Melbourne ground after burying his father in the paupers’ section of the Geelong Cemetery. He would go on to play every remaining game of the season, bringing important income to the family.

 

Alf missed the first eight rounds of 1899 season but held his place in the team for the rest of the year in which Geelong finished the home and away season second on the ladder, while at home his mother Mary was trying unsuccessfully to sell the family farm, listing it for sale three times since her husband’s suicide.

 

It was rare for the VFL to approve transfers in those days, but Alf’s circumstances were exceptional, and the request came with the Pivotonians’ blessing. Mary had sold the farm and moved the family to Melbourne. Annie, the youngest, was still only two years-old.

 

Alf won a transfer to Essendon – the club was impressed by the young man’s pace and height. He had finished second in the Sheffield Handicap at the Maryborough Highland Gathering on New Years Day in front of 12,000 people crammed into Prince’s Park. Run over 180 yards, Alf’s result was timely, occurring as he was looking for a transfer to a Melbourne-based club.

 

The 1900 season was particular wet with games regularly played in slogging mud, some games postponed for days, with Round Three being abandoned all together and rescheduled to the end of the season.

 

Essendon brought the young ruckman into the team for the Round Six clash against St Kilda at the Junction Oval and decided to exploit his pace and height, moving him between half forward and the wing.

 

The decision paid off for Essendon with Alf starring in his first match in his new role in his new club, moving Old Boy to write in his Argus match report:

 

“The two best men on the Essendon side were Dear, the wing player, who put in a lot of fast work, and Scott.”

 

Each week Alf’s performances rated a mention in the newspapers of the day and he was proving an asset for the red and black. At home things were on the improve, the family had created a home in Rathdowne St, Carlton, and Alf’s mother Mary was in negotiations to buy a Carlton pub.

 

In Round Ten Essendon ventured to the Brunswick Street Oval to face ladder leader Fitzroy in a bog.

 

“it was a very fast game, full of dash and fire, never stopping for an instant,” Old Boy observed in The Argus, “in the third quarter it was just as good a game as ever. Fine fast rushes on both sides were answered and reanswered again and again. Dear had been hurt early in the quarter….”

 

And that was it. Dear had been hurt early in the quarter. Alf had been kicked in the chest, folklore tells me it was malicious but there isn’t any evidence of that. He was helped from the mud of the Brunswick Street Oval and never played again.

 

The negotiations to buy the pub in Carlton broke down and, exactly two years to the day after Alf’s footballing career ended, his mother was declared insolvent. Mary swore to the court that “illness in the family”, among other reasons, had caused her financial hardship.

 

Alf Dear remained invalided from the injuries sustained in that game against Fitzroy and in 1906 he died at home in the darkened room he rarely left, his older brother Patrick by his side.

 

Alf’s bloodlines must have been good. His great nephew played a few games for Collingwood, kicking 838 goals in 180 games and immortalising the number 6 for the fans at Lulie Street. Wikipedia says Peter McKenna was ‘one of the best full-forwards to ever play the game’ but there is no Wikipedia entry for his great uncle whose career will forever be filed under ‘what might have been’.

 

John Donegan is Annie Dear’s grandson and Alf’s great nephew. This story has been woven from contemporaneous newspaper reports, government records, and family folklore.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. cowshedend says:

    Fantastic John, what a tough life. Wonder how he ended up at Geelong College being a Mick? also would have thought a Catholic at Windy Hill would have raised a few eyebrows at the turn of the century (infact probably till mid last century!).

  2. Great story John. Thanks.

  3. I love reading about the history of the game.
    Even though this was tragic.
    Thanks, John.
    Cheers
    Smokie

  4. jan courtin says:

    I really enjoyed reading this story. As soon as I saw the name Alf Dear, it rang a bell. but not sure from where.
    Quite often it is only in retrospect that we can appreciate others’ histories, especially when coming from close relatives.
    So many stories that need to be told, sad and otherwise, so thank you for sharing this one.

  5. Peter_B says:

    Gave ,me chills to read. Particularly the concluding paras. Thanks JD.
    Grand to honour those who came before and struggled with depths unimaginable today.
    Cricket has a long history of post-career suicides among top players after retirement – most recently David Bairstow (England keeper); Peter Roebuck; Jimmy Burke (Australian opener); Jack Iverson (Australian mystery spinner and subject of one of Gideon’s great first books); and our own Aussie Rules originator Tom WIlls.
    There but for the grace of god………….

  6. This troubled life.

    Thanks for telling this family story JD.

  7. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    The ways we find to live around all the strands of our lives never ceases to amaze.
    Courage in spades.

    Thanks for the story, John.

  8. E.regnans says:

    Thanks J Donergan.
    You never know what someone carries around.

  9. Damian Callinan says:

    Theses days not many early draft picks have to change clubs to support their family. Thanks for telling us the Alf Dear story John

  10. A wonderful story, thanks John

  11. John Donegan says:

    Thanks all for the feedback, glad you enjoyed Alf’s story. I always knew the basics of his story, but never the deeper family history. It has been a fascinating journey ‘meeting’ my ancestors. It probably gives you an inkling of Alf’s sporting prowess that College and Essendon gave a mick a crack.

  12. Peter Redden says:

    John,
    Thanks for the wonderful account, certainly puts 1st world issues into perspective

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