AFL football is back tonight, but in the weirdest of circumstances.
With the head office only reaching their decision to go through with the opening round last night, the proud competition will begin its craziest season yet in hurried conditions. Due to coronavirus fears, there’ll be no crowds, shorter quarters and a likely abbreviated season.
It would be understandable to presume that season 2020 will be the most intriguing and interrupted year of Australian football that the game has ever seen, and perhaps may ever see.
However, the frenzy surrounding the First World War created a VFL season that matches 2020’s start. The year of 1916 saw four competing teams for the opening round. 1916 was a year where the team who received the wooden spoon ended up winning the flag. It deserves to be looked back on so we have some way of preparing for the year that lays ahead.
It had been a flourishing introduction to the Australian sporting scene.
On the eve of its 20th season, the Victorian Football League had dominated Melbourne winters, pitting resting cricketers against each other in a more hands-on and brutal sport then the gentleman’s game.
Before the league knew it, it had a glorious Grand Final ground in the MCG (a part of the same complex as Punt Road Oval and the East Melbourne Cricket Ground), and a buzzing fan base that began to pour their hard-earned coin into their beloved clubs. It was fair to say the competition was the talk of the town once the sun parted for coolness and clouds in Melbourne. Then, a global conflict took the wheels off of the wagon.
The First World War, beginning just over a decade after Australia’s federation as a nation, soon became the fledgling country’s biggest issue. With the British Empire calling upon their allies, young Australian men soon fled to Egypt en route to the European coasts for a fight. With more gore then glory, terrible battlefield casualties shaped the ANZAC spirit.
Despite this mass exodus of fit men, the VFL was still desperate to run their 1916 season. Numbers had dwindled in the two years prior due to players enlisting and fleeing the country, some never to return. However, before the 1916 season could commence, competing clubs began to pull out due to a lack of players and no financial income. With crowds dropping and the standard worsening, the VFL seemed set to reluctantly agree to a year off until the skirmishes in Europe eased. As stubborn as they are today, the figureheads of the league decided to push on with the season despite having barely four teams ready to field a side.
Football became a simpler game in 1916.
With attention being firmly focused on Australia’s comrades on other shores, only Collingwood, Carlton, Fitzroy and Richmond would take part in the upcoming season.
All sides managed to field teams of 18 players despite there being no reserves or substitutes sitting in the wings. The season would last for 12 rounds – every team would play each other four teams through to determine the ladder come finals.
The winner of the 1916 flag would be determined by the old ‘Argus’ finals system, which gave the minor premier a double chance and right to challenge for another shot at the premiership. In the finals series of 1916, the second placed team would host fourth in a knockout semi final, while first would play third. If the first placed team won their semi-final and then went on to beat either second or fourth, that would serve as the Grand Final and the top side would be crowned premiers. However, if they lost this match, it would serve as a Preliminary Final and the minor premier could challenge their conqueror in a rematch that would become the Grand Final. A confusing system that would be replaced in time, the Argus way of deciding a winner gave all four teams the chance to peak in finals football and play for the cup.
Despite electing to go ahead in 1916, football was far from perfect.
Although becoming a saviour for a nation that was struggling with their decision to go to war (the large amount of casualties resulted in a dispirited Australia who desperately wanted the First World War to end), players faced a lot of issues.
Players were ridiculed for choosing not to enlist and instead continue to play football. Their manhood was questioned – VFL players by fitness and skill were deemed to be perfect soldiers and ideal candidates for the army. By not going, they were labelled cowards. Upon the end of the war in 1919, people suggested the Football Record could place stars next to returning soldiers in their match-day publication (this was swiftly rejected), and other movements called for ex-servicemen to play with badges on their guernsey to highlight their participation in the ‘greater game’.
A class divide was rife in society too. The middle-class, horrified by what the ‘Great War’ had become, viewed football as an unnecessary distraction that only took citizens away from the patriotism being displayed on foreign land. Working class members thought they had already given enough in terms of effort and money throughout the war effort to warrant playing and supporting VFL football.
All clubs faced 1916 without sufficient money or people. Many people in the Melbourne community disproved of VFL happening as it would be unpatriotic and inconsiderate of the numerous deaths being filtered to Australia daily. Once the six other teams left the competition for 1916, the four remaining were at the mercy of the VFL. With harsh condemnation of the league flying through the media, clubs made donations to the patriotic fund and only paid players out-of-pocket expenses. Considering the war effort constantly required more people, maintaining a list throughout the season became incredibly tough on the four teams, as the lack of star quality and the general ill-feeling towards football continuing to be played meant crowds dropped rapidly.
Despite all of the issues, the 1916 season somehow went ahead.
Carlton were far and away the best team in 1916.
They dominated the season, winning all but two of their 12 games to be crowned minor premiers. Their superiority included a seven-game winning streak to cap off the home and away season. Carlton’s only challenger appeared to be the second placed Magpies, who managed to knock the Blues off by a solitary point early in the season and then proceeded to lose their next two meetings by a combined margin of 14 points.
Finishing third was Richmond, who sat a game and a half behind Collingwood. Fitzroy ended up in fourth spot with only a dismal 10 points. Despite making the finals series, they were thought to be no threat to any of the top three teams in the fight for the 1916 flag.
Carlton had won the previous two flags, and were hellbent on a three-peat. In their first semi-final, they stumbled their way through to the next week, scraping past a defiant Richmond outfit by three points. They appeared to have an easy run to the title – a week earlier Fitzroy had recorded the upset of the war period when ousting Collingwood by a goal.
Expected to be over within the week, Carlton fans who hadn’t gone to war eagerly awaited the first final. With only three wins for the season after their performance for the ages against the Pies, they managed to somehow summon a fourth up.
Sloppy kicking for the Blues let them down horribly – without the threat of leading goalkicker in Collingwood’s Dick Lee, Carlton thought they could easily shut down Fitzroy’s forward line. It was their own they needed to worry about – only mustering five goals and an inaccurate 12 behinds, they fell to a shocking 23-point loss. The encounter was brutal and took its toll a broken collarbone and fractured arm meant the Blues had to play with 16 for the majority of the match, and star centre Rod McGregor sat out the match through illness. With a horror match complete, Carlton quickly looked to exercise their right to challenge and save face.
In the first week of September, a tick over 21,000 people made the trek to the MCG in difficult times to watch the 1916 Grand Final. The weather was steadily improving, the sun was starting to shine. Many men still fought overseas and perished – the relentless nature of the First World War had left its mark on a disparate community. There was some optimism for Carlton and Fitzroy fans though; they had the chance to witness a potential premiership, both capping off differing stories.
Both sides had been hit hard by injuries and mid-season enlistments of players too ashamed to continue playing for their side. Fitzroy, with a new lease of life and confidence, took the early lead with three quick goals. Keeping the margin to around five goals for the majority of the match, Fitzroy looked set to clinch the title.
But Carlton were not reigning premiers without reason – with everything against them, they fought back in the early stages of the last quarter. Two quick goals threatened the Lions, who had called back former captain Harold ‘Lal’ McLennan from retirement to help out with one last game. When Fitzroy needed it most, the old timer (of 28 years of age) played some scintillating football that resulted in two goals that gave the Lions a 29-point win.
From the wooden spoon to a premiership cup in four short weeks, Fitzroy had staged a quirky comeback that was emblematic of the season that had been. After suffering from nine straight losses, they had won three straight matches to forge a remarkable football tale that is yet to be rivalled. But who knows – if 2020 is anything to go by, we could be in for a story just as crazy as that of the 1916 Fitzroy Lions.