‘On The Take: The 1910 Scandal That Changed Australian Football Forever’ – review by Roy Hay

 

On The Take: The 1910 Scandal That Changed Australian Football Forever by Tony Joel & Mathew Turner,

Slattery Media Group, Melbourne 2020. ISBN 9780975728703. RRP $29.95.

Review by Roy Hay

 

When playing well is badly paid, getting paid well for playing badly becomes a temptation.

 

In 1910 the domestic game of football in Victoria was rocked by a scandal that, according to Tony Joel and Mathew Turner in On The Take, led the code to embrace the payment of players at last. In that they were a long way behind cricket in Australia, income earning for top and some club players from the start, and soccer in England from 1885. The amateur ideal in Australian sport was a class issue, though it was embraced by many who were happy to treat their sport as a recreation. Most people who depended on a wage to keep them and their families alive were less keen, especially when football became a mass spectator sport and hence a generator of significant income for clubs. Time spent training and playing was money lost and in the late nineteenth century clubs increasingly recognised this in practice with underhand payments. Sometimes, as at Carlton, payments were disguised by the maintenance of two sets of accounting books—one to convince the authorities and one reflecting the reality of payments to players. The rewards were not generous and they probably varied according to the success of the team as well as the individual performances of players.

 

In 1910 one of the outright stars of the game, Alex Lang, nicknamed ‘Bongo’, a triple premiership player with the club and a genuine star in his era, was accused of accepting a bribe to play dead along with two colleagues in a semi-final match against South Melbourne. Lang, Doug Fraser and Doug Gillespie were dropped from the team and replaced by other players and Carlton, which was the Minor Premier, lost the match by 12 points. However, under the system then in operation, Carlton had the right to challenge the winner of the final between South Melbourne and Collingwood, which they did when Collingwood won. Still without Lang, who had been suspended for five years by the League and his two colleagues, Carlton went down to Collingwood by 14 points after a torrid match in which the last quarter was particularly brutal.

 

The outline of the story is well known and the link to professionalism is mentioned in histories of the game, but Joel and Turner have provided a thorough examination of the extant records. The characters involved come alive to the extent that these records permit. Dick Casey of South Melbourne led a demand for open professionalism at a well-attended meeting of players in February 1911. However, it was not until well into the season in May that a special meeting of the League simply deleted Rule 29 which banned the payment of players. This did not result in freedom of contract or allow players to earn their marginal product nor did it eliminate bribery and corruption in the game but it was an important step nonetheless. Was the Carlton episode the key reason that came about? Readers now have enough evidence to make up their own mind.

 

The violence and thuggery on and off the field is mentioned and the incidents in the grand final are analysed in great detail, particularly bringing out the injustices in the ways the penalties were imposed. Inconsistencies in the evidence at the meeting to consider the events in the match resulted in some of the guilty escaping punishment and others being awarded penalties that may well have been ultra vires had they been tested in a court of law.

 

All this and more is conveyed in illuminating detail in On The Take which David Parkin, illustrious successor to the then Carlton coach, John Worrall, says opened his eyes to the story of ‘Bongo’ Lang and the subsequent switch to payment for players, as well as the similarities in his own career with that of Worrall in the hot seat at Carlton.

 

This book is a marvellous example of the way in which the stories of sport illuminate the social history of Australia in the hands of expert scholars. It is only by meticulous forensic examination of the contemporary evidence that a clearer understanding of the relationships between sport and society can be understood and this book is a model of its kind. Anyone who wants to understand what was going on in Victoria’s winter sport and its place in early twentieth society should read it.

 

I need to declare an interest. The authors are colleagues at Deakin University and my grandfather remains the only manager in the history of soccer to be suspended for life for refusing to apologise after he accused a director of the club he was managing at the time of trying to bribe a referee. See Roy Hay, ‘The Perils of Blowing the Whistle: Match-fixing in Scotland and Australia, 1920s to 2015’, in Mike Huggins & Rob Hess, Match-fixing and Sport: Historical Perspectives, Routledge, London, 2012, pp. 74–93.

 

For details to purchase the book, click HERE

 

More from Roy Hay HERE

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. Geoff Slattery says

    Thanks for such a positive review, Roy. Including one of the best intros ever written about sport: “When playing well is badly paid, getting paid well for playing badly becomes a temptation.” Tony and Mat’s research and writing skill has made an important part of footy’s history easily accessible, and understandable. Very few of us understand this era, and the completely amateur conditions that players fronted.

  2. This sounds really interesting. Thanks, Roy

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