The Slow Death of Victorian Football


A mate who has suffered under the curse of the Demons told me a gag the other day. Another supporter said that when he died, he wanted the Melbourne Football Club to provide the pallbearers – so that they could let him down one last time.

That bloke could have got a big hit of masochism yesterday. I flicked the screen on when the D’s were leading 45 points to 18. I did some work and we had only gone on to 49 points. The other side, the newest kid on the block and wet behind the ears, had gone on to 98. About 14 unanswered goals. I doubt whether the players can recover – the supporters cannot.

God only knows why as a kid I settled on Melbourne. Neither Mac nor Norma had any interest. While I was at Glen Iris State School, the then secretary of the Melbourne Football Club, Jim Cardwell, singled me and a few others out for season’s tickets for Melbourne (the Football Club) because we were wearing Melbourne jumpers. That was in about 1953. Although Melbourne had been extremely successful in the 1950s, including a hat trick, I had either been too young or too busy to go to see them much. In 1964 I saw almost every match. I was there for the Grand Final. They had given Collingwood a dreadful hiding in the second semi-final or preliminary final but I had an ugly premonition about the Final. I got to the ground early with a mate of mine. We drank beer to settle ourselves. I then had to meet my mother. We must have been able to buy seats although my recollection from those days is of people sleeping out for a very long time in order to get them. We were at the Punt Road end quite close to the goals on an angle looking toward the Members – right in line for each of the famous goals of Gabbo, including the one on the run. I can remember seeing the Melbourne back pocket player, Neil Crompton, called the Frog, pick up the ball and I can remember very clearly seeing it go through for the winning goal. (I met the Frog once or twice in later years – he was a gifted cricketer as well as footballer, but everyone could only ever remember the Frog’s goal in the 1964 Grand Final.)

The next year, I think, Melbourne sacked the legendary coach Norm Smith. I felt sick to the stomach. I can remember being interviewed on television by Phil Gibbs as I got to Brunswick Street wondering who on earth was going to coach the team that day. It has proved to be like the Red Sox letting Babe Ruth go. Melbourne has not won a Premiership since. I do not regard this jinx as an extravagant exercise by nemesis because the hubris of those involved must have been enormous.

I was not to know this at the time. I was not to know that it would not be until 1999 that I got nearly hysterical when Melbourne won a Premiership and that this time it would not be Australian Rules but Rugby League and Melbourne Storm. Ronald Barassi had become Robbie Kearns. Had I been told this in 1965, I would have taken it as conclusive evidence first that God was in truth dead and secondly that Australia would fall to Communist China.

I suppose that I saw about half the matches played by Melbourne between 1964 and say 1999, when I gave up. We lost most of them comfortably, and on the two occasions that we made the Grand Final by accident, we were thrashed. Two of the wisest decisions of my life led to my being at Iguazzu for the first and Gallipoli for the second – a choice shot through with irony.

I gave up in about 1999 not because we always lost, but because we were just not in the race, and the results were as unattractive as they were unbecoming. Then they made it a TV entertainment and we lost the Saturday lunch which was the only reason that we went. Now I do not like the way game is played, and I spend more time watching the other three codes. Many of my age are happier to watch the amateurs.

The problem for the VFL is that Melbourne is not the only side to have proved to be uncompetitive. The most popular side in Victoria is Collingwood. It is to the AFL what Ferrari is to Formula I. It has to do well for the sake of the competition. It has won two flags since 1958, one less than Melbourne. Footscray and St Kilda have only one won each, 1954 and 1966, in their entire history. It will be 50 years next year since either has won a flag. Flags were last won by four other sides as follows: Richmond, 1980; Carlton, 1995; North Melbourne, 1999; and Essendon, 2000.

From 1967 to 1989 the premiership was shared between Carlton, Essendon, Hawthorn, Richmond and North Melbourne. Two Melbourne sides have been sent out of Victoria (South Melbourne and Fitzroy). Of the 24 flags won from 1991 to 2014, 13 have been won by Victorian clubs and 11 by non-Victorian clubs. The thirteen flags won by Victorian clubs were Carlton (1), Collingwood (1), Essendon (2), Geelong (3), Hawthorn (4), and North Melbourne (2). Since the ratio of Victorian to non-Victorian clubs has only recently reached 10: 8, the boys from out of town have been kicking with a stiff breeze – or they have been playing with loaded dice.

The supporters of South Melbourne and Fitzroy who followed them to Sydney and Brisbane have been rewarded with 5 flags between them – one more than the four that have been earned by a rump of seven VFL clubs during that time – Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Footscray, Melbourne, Richmond and St Kilda.

You can assess the impact of nationalisation this way: the power-houses of what was called the VFL, Carlton (16), Collingwood (15), Essendon (16), Melbourne (12) and Richmond (10) have won a total of 69 flags in all. In the 22 years since West Coast became the first non-Victorian side to win a flag in 1992, those five Melbourne clubs have won only four flags between them. On a cold day in Melbourne, a warm person might say that the guts have been ripped out of Melbourne football,

Three things seem clear.

The business of the AFL is to provide entertainment. If that means that the fans should have a roughly equal chance of seeing their side win, the AFL has failed badly.

The people of Victoria have paid a fearful price for the extension of the game that they invented across the nation. The expressions of gratitude are less than overwhelming.

The consistent failure of the Victorian clubs, including those with the best and oldest names, suggests that the market cannot sustain the present number (ten). In about 1982, the late Jack Hamilton, who knew more about this code than anyone ever, told me that he thought four clubs would go to the wall. Two have. It looks like two more should. This could best be done by mergers within four clubs who have the least capacity to resist it – Footscray, Melbourne, North Melbourne, and St Kilda.

Whatever else happens, can some bastard please put Melbourne, if not Victoria, out of its misery?