The Melbourne Rules : An Esoteric History compiled by Brian Membrey


For some years leading up to the end of the 1896 season, the Victorian Football Association had been under fire from all fronts.

The stronger V.F.A. clubs where highly critical of the way that they considered themselves to be propping up the outer suburban teams and for the imbalance of the competition structure.

Interstate organizations resented the arrogance of the V.F.A. in assuming it was responsible for things relating to football and that it had become an autocracy,

From the general public viewpoint, hooliganism was rife, brawling on and off the field was commonplace, and there were rumours of matches being fixed for betting purposes.

By 1896, the crowds were so out of control the umpires refused to officiate at Port Melbourne and North Melbourne games unless extra police protection was in attendance.

In September 1895, The Australian wrote:

"Umpires do not report what they see on the field and what they do report is either deemed too frivolous to be considered or is dealt with by delegates in a half-hearted fashion".

"The crying want of football in Victoria is, and has been for some time, an association composed of men who know the game and who will not permit club interests to come between them and the performance of their duty".

It was an open secret that Geelong, South Melbourne, Melbourne, Essendon and Fitzroy were looking at the possibility of a breakaway competition, leaving the lesser clubs to play at the district level.

The V.F.A. also decided early in the year that gate-takings would be pooled and divided equally amongst all clubs, a move certain to attract the wrath of stronger clubs.

Collingwood, who only been in the V.F.A. for four years favoured the retention of the existing competition and the amalgamation of existing clubs (even offering to merge with Richmond) before the events of the 1896 Grand Final left them with the splinter group.

With no finals series in place, the premiership during the 1890s had been decided on "percentages" – in this case the percentageof points actually won as against the number available (the number of senior games a team played multiplied by four).

Remarkably, Collingwood and South Melbourne in 1896 had both won 14 games and played a draw against each other, both had kicked 86 goals, and both had 55 goals kicked against them.

A play-off was organised to determine the premiership.  Interest in this first ever Grand Final gripped Melbourne like no other.

The Association's mismanagement of the draw saw a number of matches, which could not affect the Collingwood – South deadlock still to be played.

With public interest at an unprecedented level, the two teams demanded that the game should be played on the Saturday immediately following the end of their season, and Collingwood warned the V.F.A. that if the demand was not met, it would join the breakaway group.

The V.F.A. insisted on completing the meaningless home and away rounds and playing the final two weeks later on October 3.  

On the eve of the Grand Final, Collingwood joined delegates from the other five clubs at Buxton's Art Gallery in Collins Street,Melbourne, and the meeting voted to form a breakaway competition in 1897.

A few weeks after the meeting, two less successful clubs, St. Kilda and Carlton, were invited to join based largely on their suitability of their ground location.   

Carlton’s entry was provisional on the establishment of a new playing centre in Prince’s Park.

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The move was no surprise to anyone.  

The leading newspaper of the day, The Argus had maintained a watchdog-like surveillance over the game and the misdeeds of the Association and had regularly damned the organization for its failures.

The Argus actually announced the new competition on July 27, some five weeks before the meeting, and missed only Collingwood’s change of heart from its coverage.

"It has been painfully apparent for some time past that football as it is now played in Melbourne has lost caste.  The majority of players compare unfavourably indeed with some of the old Melbourne, Carlton, Essendon, South and Geelong teams that made the game a great one".

"… many of the clubs simply struggle on from year to year with little strength in the present and less hope for the future, and the idea is to drop those teams and continue the competition with six or eight teams, thus giving three or four good games each week".

Several rule changes were introduced by the new competition before the start of the 1897 season.    Most histories attribute the rule changes to the newly formed V.F.L. but in fact most of them were as a result of recommendations made by a V.F.A. sub-committee during the 1896 season rather than the formation of the League.

The "little mark" was abandoned and a minimum distance of 10 yards was introduced for a mark and the ball to be thrown in by the field umpire after going out of bounds rather than being bounced.

The one "new" rule adopted came from the  Collingwood delegate who initiated a move that saw behinds counted in a team’s score, with a goal to register as six points. (The first impact of the new rule came in round 2 of the Association, which kicked off a week before the new League, North Melbourne 4.9 defeating Williamstown, 4.6)

Amongst the changes rejected was a proposal to erect a cross-bar 10 feet from the ground over which the ball had to be pass to be counted as a goal (this idea had been badgered to-and-fro virtually since the game’s inception).

Most of these changes were immediately adopted by both the V.F.A. and V.J.F.A., although there is some indication that the junior body adopted 5 yards as the minimum for a mark.

Following the breakaway, the V.F.A. was left with just five teams - Williamstown, Port Melbourne, Footscray, North Melbourne and Richmond

Brunswick joined prior to the 1898 season and were joined by Prahran and West Melbourne in 1899 and Essendon Town (later known as Essendon Association) in 1900.

Oddly enough, Brunswick, a moderately performed junior club and something of a surprise selection played their first V.F.A. game on the M.C.G. when they were drawn to play Richmond, whose Punt Road ground was still being used for cricket  Prahran and West Melbourne were admitted in 1899, Essendon Association in 1900.


1897 :The Split