McNamara: Banned?

The recent findings of a La Trobe University study into the relationship between the AFL and gambling revisits a problem that has dogged administrators almost as long as the game has been played.

Research showed supporters were exposed to more than five minutes of broadcast gambling advertising on average during an AFL match.

It is an uneasy relationship because while punting on the footy isn’t a crime– there is always the possibility of criminal elements casting an unwanted shadow across the results and culture of the sport.

It doesn’t take much digging into history to find stories of gambling and mentions of players being “got at” or asked “to play dead”.

The greatest public crisis occurred in the first part of the 20th century when several clubs in both the VFL and VFA came under scrutiny.

Until 1911 players were amateurs and only allowed to receive reimbursement for travel expenses. At the same time the sport’s popularity in conjunction with the introduction of the Saturday afternoon holiday in Victoria made for bumper gate receipts.

Matches were at times being marred by violence with umpires, spectators and players being attacked. There was a belief that gambling was playing a part in the riotous behaviour.

While suspicions were raised at South Melbourne and Fitzroy the most dramatic consequences were at Carlton where the club dropped three players on the eve of the 1910 finals under suspicion they had been got at. Two were subsequently disqualified by the league for five years.

On the eve of the 1911 VFA Grand Final Brunswick found three of its players had been offered a collective £150 to throw the game.

There had also been a shadow cast across St Kilda.

In the fourth round of 1908 the Saints had an emphatic win over South Melbourne but followed with a shock loss at home to University. Amid allegations that a club vice-president had made money by gambling on the upset, the club formed a sub-committee to examine the result. It fingered several players and proposed dropping Vic Cumberland, George Morrissey, and Dave McNamara for the next match against Melbourne. The committee agreed on the first two but spared McNamara.

Dave McNamara was no ordinary player. Since arriving from Benalla in 1905 he had become a giant of the competition literally and figuratively. At 192 cm and 89 kg he played as a key forward, on the ball or in the backline depending on how he felt.

Saints historians Russell Holmesby and Jules Feldmann describe him as “quixotic” and “independent” but he was a match winner best illustrated by his ability to place kick.

At St Kilda in 1909 a kick was measured at 84 yards 2 feet 5 inches (77 metres). In 1913 during an exhibition at Launceston the tape read 86 yards (78 metres). In 1914 at the Australian National Football Carnival in Sydney, great pride was taken by organisers in McNamara’s easy defeat of Australia’s Rugby League captain Herbert “Dally” Messenger in length of kick, if not accuracy. McNamara believed his best effort was as a 36 year old in 1923 against Geelong at the Junction Oval. Assisted by a breeze he launched a kick 93 yards (85 metres) which was declared in the press to be a “world record”.

Given his status in the game, how McNamara reacted to the allegations of bribery is unreported but there was a hint of things to come. That week McNamara was named in both St Kilda’s side and the Essendon VFA team. He played for the Saints as they thrashed Melbourne by 42 points. The players then fronted the Committee demanding Morrissey and Cumberland be reinstated. They were and the Saints won eight of the next 13 games to reach the finals.

At season’s end Dave McNamara walked out of St Kilda and moved to the rival competition. The shift to Association club Essendon rejuvenated his career. In four seasons he became the dominant forward of the VFA and winning premierships in 1911 and 1912.

McNamara’s goal kicking took on epic proportions producing 81 in 1911 and 107 the next. He kicked 18 in one match against Melbourne City in 1912 and burnished his legend with a place kick as time ran out to clinch a premiership decider.

Despite the success McNamara sought to return to his old League club in 1913. Rumours suggested St Kilda had helped set him up as publican of the Post Office Hotel within its zone so as to create a neat business symmetry turning admiring supporters into front bar patrons. The club also had a citizens committee raising cash for player payments which were now legal.

The only snag was the rival competition wasn’t prepared to see its champion switch to the increasingly stronger league and take crowds with him. While Essendon approved a transfer to the Saints, the VFA refused to clear McNamara despite a solicitor arguing his case.

While he couldn’t play, he became involved at the club in 1913 helping coach the side into its first grand final.

His presence seemed to unleash a team passion best seen in a remarkable victory over Carlton in round 15 when Billy Schmidt channelled his leader by kicking the winning goal as time ran out. After watching the rover carried shoulder high off the field McNamara wrote he had “never yet seen a player create so much favourable excitement”. He also believed it exonerated Schmidt who had been under suspicion of falling to gamblers by playing dead.

Dave McNamara was finally cleared to play for St Kilda in 1914. He was still in his prime and the club seemed on the verge of more success. This is when he produced the first book of its type about Australian Rules football – a book written mid career by a star player – simply called Football.

The paperback was printed cheaply and littered with advertisements, fixtures, player photos and a history of the game.

There are also passionate essays about the sport from a player’s perspective. McNamara invites the reader to a considered examination– a plea to avoid judgement based on ignorance and sensationalism.

That the game has of late years attained a degree of prominence unequalled by any other pastime goes without saying. The intense interest and concentration given it by all classes of people, in all kinds of weather, is a matter of no small wonder to those who concern themselves about it. There must be something in football for it to command such respect. Rightly, then, it demands what it has not yet had – a fair deal – and the demand will be met as squarely as a satisfied promissory note.

It is far from my intention through this medium to attempt any vindication of my own actions, but to justify football, and, with it, its exponents and conductors.

He dedicates the book to the father of Australian Rules Henry Harrison who helped him with research and celebrates moments such as Schmidt’s winning goal in 1913 and one of his own dramatic failures. He opines on gambling, payments, umpires, violence and the rival competitions.

Few copies of this modest volume have survived but eventually a tatty one appeared at an auction.

It was badly water damaged and missing its covers but peeling apart the pages revealed an insight into a footballer’s perspective that was both foreign and familiar. The more things change the more they stay the same.

100 years after being produced it deserved another printing.




About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. The Wrap. says

    It would appear that gambling is not the only human activity that has been with The Game since its earliest days. The pen has recorded the passion it has inspired as well.

    Has McNamara’s salvaged book been re-printed anywhere? If so, is it available to the football loving public?

  2. djlitsa says

    This is all very interesting – I look forward to details on how to purchase the book.

  3. Wonderful stuff, Michael.
    I too am looking forward to reading it.

  4. matt watson says

    I will read it…

  5. bernard whimpress says

    Excellent Mike, great history superbly told. I’ll be checking my PO Box early next week.

  6. Robert Allen says

    It is a great read. The SLV has a copy in its Rare Books collection [ref. RARELT 796.332 M45F]. Anyone with access to the SLV can request and then view it in the Heritage Reading Room.

  7. The book, with Mike’s intro is available through us at [email protected] $30 (inc postage).

  8. Michael Flanigan says

    I’m confused by this. Essendon was a founding member of the VFL in 1897, as was St Kilda. Did Essendon also have a VFA side in 1912-13? If not, someone has their facts utterly wrong.
    Mike can you please explain? Thank you

  9. Hello Michael (Flanigan)

    Essendon Town (or Association as it was known from 1905 onwards) played in the VFA for 19 seasons (1900-1921). Different entity to the Essendon Football Club of the VFL.

    The competition went into recess between 1916-1917, ETFC returned in 1919.


Leave a Comment