General Footy Writing: The Sydney footy club has a much longer history than you might think

When did the Sydney Football Club play its first game?
a)      1877
b)      1881
c)       1903
d)      1983

If you answered b) you were correct.

The first recorded game of Australian football was played in Sydney in 1877 when Carlton visited to play the Waratahs Rugby Club in both rugby and “Victorian Rules”.  The Sydney Football Club was formed in 1880 but it did not play its first competition match until the next season.  A club called Sydney was part of the revived NSW Australian National Football Association that was formed in 1903. The club changed its name to Sydney Naval in 1955 and went out of existence in 1971. And, of course, in 1983 the South Melbourne club relocated completely to Sydney and became known as the Sydney Swans. That club is now called Sydney by the media but its official name is the Sydney Swans.

This information was all revealed by prominent Sydney AFL historian Ian Granland at the recent Ralph Robertson memorial lecture in Sydney. This annual lecture on aspects of the history of the game in Sydney is presented annually by the NSW Committee of Australian Football History to honour Ralph Robertson, a former St Kilda player who played in Sydney and led NSW at three interstate carnivals in the period prior to the First World War. Robertson joined the RAF, but was killed flying over Egypt in 1917. He was one of the first inductees into the Sydney AFL Hall of Fame.

Ian Granland is a Sydney born-and-bred man who grew up playing and supporting the Australian game, initially through the South Sydney club and for the past forty years the Killarney Vale club on the Central Coast (the club that produced the McVeigh brothers, Mark and Jarrad). Ian has been highly involved in the running of the game at junior, league and state level. In more recent years, he has been the chairman of the AFL NSW’s History Committee.

The first game of Australian football that was played in Sydney, the 1877 game between Sydney rugby club Waratahs and Carlton, was not sanctioned by the Southern Rugby Football Union (SRFU) which had been formed in 1874 to administer rugby in the Australian colonies. In 1877 the Victorian Football Association (VFA) asked the SRFU to play an inter-colonial match and to send a team to Sydney.  Their objective was not so much to spread the word but rather to give their players a chance of inter-colonial football against NSW in the hope that a return match would be played in Melbourne.

The VFA was keen for a game of football of between Victoria and NSW,  requesting that the game be played “under each code of rules in vogue in the respective colonies, by way of introduction to future relationship”.  The only major difference (at that stage) between the two games, according to Granland’s research, was the knock-on and off-side rules of rugby but there many similar features:

–          both games were played on a rectangular field
–          players faced each other in a line with one team kicking off like in rugby now
–          a kick off from the centre restarted play after a goal was scored
–          there were two halves  in a game and teams changed ends at half-time
–          in both games, the term ‘mark’ was attributed when a player caught the ball, and
–          the number of players in both games was 20.

As cricket games were successfully being played between the colonies, the VFA wanted to extend it to football.  The proposal was rejected unanimously by the SRFU mainly on the basis that “…. the rules under which the game is played in the two colonies are so diametrically different … ”

However, the Waratah Rugby club in Sydney, one of the strongest in the colony, which had already complained about the continued scrimmaging and lack of skill in their game, contacted the Carlton Football Club in Melbourne inviting them to Sydney to play two games:  one under rugby rules and the other under the Victorian rules of football. The matches took place at the Albert Cricket Ground in June 1877, the first under rugby rules on Saturday 23 June 1877 before 3,000 patrons; the Waratah club defeated Carlton 2 goals to nil. The second was on the following Monday, not a public holiday, when 1500 witnessed a win by Carlton by six goals to nil under Victorian rules.

Granland’s research shows that press coverage of the matches was extremely positive for the Victorian game. The Sydney Mail reporter wrote:  “The Victorian game differs essentially from that played here, and gives much more scope for the vigorous enjoyment of football than the Rugby game; and although the play was on Monday, was to a great extent one sided, it was from a spectator’s point of view, much more edifying than Saturday’s performance.”

The Waratah club paid a reciprocal visit to Melbourne the following year where the same format was adopted. The results were the same: Carlton won the footy, and the Waratahs won the rugger. But there were no further matches under Victorian Rules for a few years.

Then in 1880 the NSW Football Association (NSWFA) was formed at a meeting in the Freemason’s Hotel in York Street on 30 June. The meeting was attended by over 100 interested persons including a couple of prominent rugby officials. According to Granland’s research the attendance at the meeting was the largest gathering of football players ever assembled in NSW. The motion put to the meeting was:

“That the gentlemen present, or those who desire to do so, form themselves into an association to be called the New South Wales Football Association, and that they adopt the Victorian Football Association rules.”

However, not all were in favour; the rugby types opposed the move and endeavoured to disrupt the meeting. So if you have ever wondered why and where the antipathy against the game in Sydney and NSW began, this was it.  Granland believes the mind-set of opposition from supporters of the rugby code started from Day 1 has continued ever since.

The meeting to form the NSW FA was followed by meetings to form clubs. On  6 August 1880 a meeting was held to form the Sydney Football Club at Weber’s Post Office Hotel in York Street. The Sydney club adopted the colours of a dark blue guernsey with a red cap and red hose. Then on 10 August at the Cambridge Club Hotel in Oxford Street a meeting was held to form the East Sydney Club. The team adopted the colours of a blue and white jersey and hose with blue knickerbockers and cap. No competition matches as such were played in 1880; there were, however, quite a number of scratch matches played between various combinations of players from both clubs.

The first full game between East Sydney and Sydney was scheduled for Saturday 21 May 1881 but fell through because of a poor roll-up. As it was, a game was played where the players were mixed together to make up the numbers.  East Sydney kicked two goals in the first half while each team scored a goal in the second.  On the following Saturday afternoon the East Sydney 20 played ‘the next 25’ on Moore Park. The team with 25 players won the match four goals to two.

The Sydney Football Club was eventually able to put together a team for a game on 11 June 1881. Rain prevented any play on the Association Ground (SCG) so at the last minute the match was transferred across the road to Moore Park. The match ended in a 2 goals 7 behinds draw and was played in front of a “healthy crowd”. This is the first official game in Sydney, according to Granland, because it was the first played under the auspices of the NSW FA.

Another game between the same two clubs, Sydney and East Sydney, was played on the following Saturday (18 June) at the Association ground. There were several other games played during the remainder of the season but the most important match was the first inter-colonial match against Victoria on July 1 at the MCG, won by Victoria, 9.24 to 0.1.

More clubs were formed in this period with the competition consisting of eight clubs (including Sydney University, which was formed in 1887) by 1888.  A junior competition was also formed in the late 1880s that included St Ignatius College, Riverview – an elite Sydney Catholic private school founded by the Jesuits that now has an extensive junior football program. However, due to the Depression and other influences the game died out in Sydney at the end of the 1894 season.

The game was revived in 1903 when an eleven-club competition was formed. One of the founding clubs was the Sydney Football Club that played in the competition as Sydney until 1954 when it changed its name to Sydney Naval due to the strong influence of naval personnel from nearby Garden Island in the club. After winning premierships in 1960 and 1962 Sydney Naval struggled and eventually folded at the end of the 1971 season.

East Sydney celebrated its centenary in 1980 when it wore a variation of its red, white, and blue colours — a specially designed white guernsey with red and blue bands — and won the premiership under former South Melbourne and Subiaco champion full-forward Austin Robertson. East Sydney amalgamated with the Paddington club in 1926 to form the Eastern Suburbs club which continued until 1968 when it changed its name to East Sydney and since the merger with the University of NSW in 2000, as UNSW-Eastern Suburbs.

Arguably, the most significant development in the history of the game in Sydney since 1877 was the move of VFL club South Melbourne to Sydney in 1982. The club relocated permanently in 1983 and changed its name to the Sydney Swans. The Swans have had a profound impact on the game in Sydney, and in NSW generally, by raising the profile of the game and attracting many supporters to both their games and to the code. It is taken over the mantle as Sydney’s premier AFL football club, but it was not the first; there was a Sydney Football Club going around way back in 1881.


  1. Thanks Rod, I found this a fascinating account of the history of the game in Sydney.
    Given the similarities between rugby and Victorian Rules back in the 1880’s I find it amazing that no compromise set of rules for Australian football were ever achieved.
    The Sydney Naval story is an interesting one, too. I know of lots of cases of Army and RAAF teams playing in various competitions around the country, but I don’t know of a naval club…

  2. Tom,

    There’s a Cerberus footy club on Westernport Bay in Victoria. They play in the Nepean division of the Mornington Peninsula league.

  3. Rocket Rod Gillett says

    Sydney Naval wasn’t actually a navy team as such – it just incorporated ‘Naval’ into its time given the make-up of the team. A prominent player for Sydney Naval was Test cricketer Keith Miller who also played footy for NSW. Reputedly, “Nugget” turned up at half-time for one match against East Sydney after being at the Randwick races came on and promptly booted a drop kick from centre half back!

    Miller was the Chairman of NSW AFL Commission for a few years when I was also a Commissioner in the late 80’s – never much of a one for formalities he used to ask me to chair the meetings while he had a scotch and read the form guide!

  4. George Callum Jones-Kennedy says

    The Harman naval base in Canberra has a team in the ACTAFL third division.

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