Monday, 19 August 2013

◄250► Controversy Uninvestigated

Given the events of the last days, we won't dwell on the Essendon / ASADA Affair again. We, and the mainstream press have covered that enough. Instead we will consider another part of the Australian Crime Commission "Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport" report. The ingress of organised crime and gambling into sport.
It is not in the context of modern AFL football, but back almost 100 years ago. In an unusual match in the annals of VFL/AFL history.

Back in 1924, the VFL champions agreed to play an end of season charity match against the premiers of the rival footballing faction, the VFA. As both the League and Association were not on the best of terms, the arranging of the match was not an easy task. But with a request by none other than Dame Nellie Melba, the footballing factions set aside their differences to help wounded soldiers, and the match was duly organised.

The Argus noted:
"Nothing but the appeal of Dame Nellie Melba, on behalf of the limbless soldiers, could have induced the League to agree to a game which they have strenuously opposed for nearly 30 years."
So on October 4 1924, Essendon as VFL Premiers met Footscray, the VFA Premiers at the MCG for what is commonly referred to as the "Champions of Victoria" match, but is officially know as the "Dame Nellie Melba's Appeal for Limbless Soldiers" match.
Image via 

The wonderful website has the full rundown of the match, written in beautiful period English, and it carries a certain style that would be welcomed today in place of the current jargon loaded writing we now have (and that you are currently reading).

Click on the headline below, and have a read of the account published in The Argus by correspondent 'Old Boy'.

A wonderful moment in football history that has not been repeated.
An extract (used with permission).
Footscray wins the 'Championship of Victoria'
For the first time in the history of football in Victoria the premiers of the League and of the Association met on Saturday to decide the premiership of Victoria. Ever since the League clubs broke away from the old Association in 1897 I have been urging such a game, but the League was never willing to give its rivals a chance to show their worth. The Association has always been anxious to play, but it was not until Dame Nellie Melba made an irresistible appeal on behalf of the limbless and disabled soldiers that the League abandoned its policy of aloofness and consented to the match.
At first it seemed as if the match would not be played, but Essendon, winning the League premiership without a grand final, left Saturday free, and the game was arranged. The agitation for the inclusion of Footscray to the League aroused the curiosity of those who had never seen an Association game, and the enthusiasm for the Association by its own followers attracted many; but the moment it was announced that the match would be for the championship of Victoria its success was assured. The weather, though threatening in the morning, was perfect in the afternoon, and 46,100 people crowded the Melbourne Cricket-ground, and contributed more than £2,800 to the fund for the soldiers.
The final term saw the rout of Essendon complete, and, as Footscray made their victory sure, the crowd became enthusiastic Essendon, attacking half-heartedly, added three behinds, one of which, a shot by Stockdale, hit the post, and then a free kick to Zinnick on the pavilion wing began a streaming rush, in which Eason, Hopkins, Mullens, and McHenry were unbeatable and McHenry snapped the goal. Another behind to Essendon, and then Footscray came in by the other wing. Punch, playing magnificently, gave Mullens a chance, and a beautiful left-foot shot brought seventh goal.
It was all over for Essendon who were hopelessly beaten and though Fitzmaurice, Donaldson, and Watt worked like tigers, and Farrell, Maher, and Stockdale backed them up, the rest were never in it. When Merton, Hopkins, Eason, and Mullens, by perfect hand-passing found McHenry again, and eighth goal was signalled, there was tremendous cheering; but when Essendon rallied, and Shorten scored there was hardly a sound, and though the game was well won, Footscray, to ram their triumph home, scored still another goal. Punch getting it with a long snap, and the game ended.
Footscray, 9 goals, 10 behinds (64 points) defeated Essendon, 4 goals, 12 behinds (36 points).

As a match report, in the days before television and before radio, it makes for great reading and documents some of the ebbs and flows of the game wonderfully.
What it does not deal with, was the allegations of 'playing stiff' that cam about post game (and according to some during the game).

These are more fully explored by Dale James Blair in an article titled "The 1924 Championship Game: Did the Dons play dead?" [PDF]
Dale digs deep in the archives to explore evidence of the Dons allegedly playing dead.
"It is a game remembered not for Footscray’s outstanding performance but rather the poor performance of its opponents. Eleven years after the match a former Essendon champion, Tom Fitzmaurice, alleged that some of his team-mates had accepted bribes to play dead. Australian Football’s chroniclers have generally accepted this view of the Don’s defeat. Fitzmaurice’s allegation has never been placed under scrutiny."
Tom Fitzmaurice when
at Essendon in 1932
Tom Fitzmaurice did indeed detail his displeasure at those in the club he thought were playing dead... initially by leaving Essendon at the end of that year (and moving on to Geelong), but also in a newspaper interview a few years later.
On 1 June 1935, nearly eleven years after the match, the Sporting Globe published a story in which Tom Fitzmaurice claimed that ‘[t]he historic game between Essendon and Footscray for the Championship of Victoria in 1924 was a frameup’.
Doubting readers were assured by Fitzmaurice: ‘I played in it ... I know’.
Fitzmaurice was also during the play sensing something untoward was occuring during the match. His interview also...
"implied the existence of division in the ranks. He claimed that a number of the players held an ‘indignation meeting’ at three-quarter time and decided it was no use ‘busting their boilers’ while team-mates were letting them down."
Charlie Hardy, when at
North Melbourne (via
Wikipedia, cropped)

Another Essendon player, Charlie Hardy also claimed in the 1935 article that
"...he was beginning to ‘see things’ during the first quarter when an un-named player, usually adept at putting the ball down his throat, missed the mark with a pass that went skimming over his head."

Hardy is also said to have 
"insinuated that the Essendon captain-coach, Syd Barker, was involved. He claimed the Essendon team was attacking via the wrong flank in the first half and during the half-time break suggested to a highly placed official that they should attack from the other side, the pavilion side of the ground. The team was subsequently instructed to do so and the full-back was accordingly told to direct his kick-outs to the preferred flank."

There is only scant mention of the game being fixed by the players involved and these were also years after the event. There is also brief mention in the press at the time of the scandal usually relating to the reports disparaging the players who took part.
And of course, the Footscray skill with the 'flick-pass' (a method banned by the VFL) was also mentioned as a key reason why Footscray were able to pull away from Essendon and win.

What is known is that none of the above allegations of a fix were investigated by the League, Association, or anyone bar a few journalists at the time.
Other allegations, such as those published by Cec Mullen in the Essendon club history of 1958 were also not acted upon in the day. These included that
"...the match had not long been in progress when spectators realised that Essendon was only taking it in picnic or Interstate fashion and after half-time it was apparent to all keen observers that seven or eight Essendon players were not doing the best and the crowd told them so. After the game there was dissension in the Essendon training room and allegations by some Essendon supporters that some of their team had taken Footscray money."
The Blair document also mentions fists flying in the Essendon rooms after the game the week before the Champions of Victoria match (v Richmond) post game, and that divisions in the club meant that some players were not even willing to play in the Champions of Victoria game.
John Lack, Chris McConville, Michael Small and Damien Wright also note in their Footscray club history (A History of the Footscray Football Club: Unleashed) that fists flew in the Essendon rooms post-game as well.

The Blair document also details other possible matches fixed or bribes paid back in the early years of football.
Dave MacNamara addressed the existence of match fixing in the opening of his 1914 book 'Football'. In 1910, three Carlton players were accused of accepting bribes, two of whom were suspended for five years by the league.
Of greater significance were the allegations of four Port Melbourne players following the 1922 VFA Grand Final that they had been offered payments by Footscray’s club-president, George Sayer and a former player, Vernon Banbury. Both men were brought before the VFA commission. Banbury was outed for life and charges against Sayer were not sustained.

George Sayer, mentioned above as President of Footscray during the Port Melbourne / Footscray bribery scandal final of 1922 awas still President of Footscray for the 1924 match, and he is also noted as being a colourful identity around football at the time. Notably as a key bank roller of the talent the 'Scray's had collected, but also as one involved in gambling houses and illegal lotteries.

The Australian Football website page on the history of the Footscray club also describes George Sayer in the following terms:
Footscray's president, George Sayer, "a curious mixture of self-made industrialist and gambling king"*, who was in a sense synonymous with the club. When rumours began to circulate of Sayer's involvement in bribes being offered to Essendon players prior to the 1924 championship clash it was, in effect, the good name of the Footscray Football Club that was being besmirched.
Irate at what they saw as petty victimisation, the club's members rallied behind their president, who was comfortably re-elected at the 1926 Annual General Meeting, only for the league to refuse to accept him. With the threat of compulsory disaffiliation looming, Sayer chose to do the honourable thing, and resign "for the good of the team".*
(Refference: John Lack, Chris McConville, Michael Small and Damien Wright: A History of the Footscray Football Club: Unleashed).

John Wren

Australian Football also has a track record of colourful identities being on the margins of the game. Most well known of course would be John Wren (right), famous for his Collingwood tote (illegal betting house that revolutionised betting in Australia).

The current discussions around the Australian Crime Commission "Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport" report is sobering for the grerater footballing community. And looking back at the history of the game, it is fair to say that organised crime has been noted as having influence in football, and it probably wont be the last time either.

The Blair analysis is well worth study if you are a fan of the history of the game, and we encourage you to do so. It also says so much about what can happen when allegations of impropriety are not fully examined by the governing body. 

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