A crowd watches a presentation at the MCG following the 2022 Grand Final

When the Pivitonians met the Bloods

The stars in heaven aligned. The stars came out to play. Geelong have carried off their 10th V/AFL Premiership.

For anybody who was on the Moon last weekend and somehow missed that final score, Geelong 20.13 (133) d Sydney 8.4 (52) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of a crowd of over 100,000.

Before the game I had heard it said that Geelong and Sydney had never met to decide a Premiership, but that isn’t quite the full story is it? Until the 1980s the Sydney Swans were the South Melbourne Football Club, a club which along with Geelong was a foundation member of the Victorian Football League in 1897. If you look back far enough into the stories of these clubs, Geelong and South Melbourne, you will find a tale to be told.

Before the VFL formed, teams played regularly in the Victorian Football Association competition and in the 1880s, the two strongest teams running around in the VFA were Geelong and South Melbourne. Together, these two teams managed to win 12 of the 13 premierships decided between 1878 and 1890.

The Geelong Football Club in 1884. (Source: Wikipedia)

This was a bit before my time you know, but I can tell you it was an era before the round robin style finals series we are all familiar with and which is now used to decide the Premiership. The team that finished on top of the ladder at the end of the home and away season was deemed to be the premier team of that year and in 1886 both South Melbourne and Geelong went into September undefeated. A meeting planned between the two teams that month would decide it. The winner would go to the top of the table and become the Premiership team, the loser would finish as the runner up. It was a match that even to modern eyes had all the trappings of a Grand Final of the modern era.

A team of 19th Century Australian Rules Footballers seated in front of a grandstand.
The South Melbourne Football Club in 1890. In an era before the concept of an “Away” jumper, Geelong played in blue hoops, South red which I guess must have caused a little confusion. (Source: Wikipedia)

This famous game has been called “the sport’s most important match of the 19th century”, and has become known to modern football historians, (yes, there really are such a thing) as the “Match of the Century”.

The “villainous” South Melbourne recruit, William Bushby pictured two years after the Lakeside Oval clash. (Source: Stump & Co photograph, Wikipedia)

The lead up to the game was steeped in controversy. In their last meeting resulting in a draw, South Melbourne had been accused of deliberately turning up late for the game to achieve a shortened match in a tactic to combat Geelong’s perceived greater endurance and athleticism. Professionalism was yet to be openly accepted in sport and tensions were raised further when it was revealed that South had somehow convinced a certain Mr William Bushby, the Captain of the Port Adelaide Football Club and reputedly the best Australian footballer “in the world,” to travel from the Colony of South Australia to Victoria to play in the game. Bushby said he had come to Victoria for a short time for a business opportunity, but nobody was letting on what the opportunity might involve.

The night before the game, these tensions turned to alarm then outrage when it was discovered that the rail line near Newport had been pulled up in an apparent attempt to derail the Geelong service in front of two special trains bringing the team and its supporters, an act of sabotage committed by persons quote, “unknown”.

They took their football seriously in 1886.

As reported by a thrilled writer in the Argus newspaper:

“No football match ever played in the colonies excited the same amount of interest as the premiership decider between Geelong and South Melbourne.” (The Argus, p10, 6 September, 1886)

The game took place on Saturday, 4 September, 1886 at the old South Melbourne, Lakeside Oval where over 34,000 people crammed into an outer designed to hold about a third of that number, while as many again jostled outside the closed gates. This was the largest crowd to see a football game of any type anywhere in the world up to that point and to this day it remains one of the largest to ever witness a VFA game.

News of the score or rumours of the score were breathlessly passed up and down Clarendon Street in South Melbourne by an excited mob gathering outside packed shops. Finally, after the bell sounded at the ground to announce the end of the match there was a cry from the largely parochial South Melbourne crowd inside. Geelong were the victors, 4.19 to 1.5 and, perhaps fittingly that scoundrel Bushby had hardly touched the ball. His direct opponent, the Geelong Captain Dave Hickinbottom, was named by contemporary sports writers as Best On Ground.

136 years later Geelong and the team that in another time was South Melbourne have played the game that has been pencilled in by some as their first ever meeting in a Grand Final. The match was a rout, criticized by many as a debacle not worth watching but I say this again. That’s all a matter of perspective. To say I enjoyed it is an understatement.

When I was old enough to choose a football team to pin my hope and heart upon, it seemed to me that Geelong and South Melbourne were regularly fighting it out on the bottom of the ladder for the right to the wooden spoon. Sort of like the situation between these two clubs in the 1880s, but in reverse. The only way seemed to be up from there.

A football scarf hanging on a blue door
VFL Cats scarf hanging at the door, Yallambie, September, 2022
A picture of a footballer on a magazine.
Geelong’s record breaking captain, Selwood pictured on the cover of the 2022 GF Footy Record.

So, like millions of other Australians, I watched the game on the telly at home last Saturday, a Geelong scarf from the VFL era draped over the front door here. Our boy was fortunate enough to get himself a ticket and was there to witness history, texting me pictures and providing a commentary like a modern day version of the Clarendon Street summary of 1886. It was clear from the emotion seen when the veteran Geelong Captain Joel Selwood kicked a goal just before the final siren that this would be the Cat Cap’s last game, and what a way to finish.

“Nipper” Trezise (right) chasing the ball in a Geelong v Collingwood game of the 1950s. (Private Collection)

This family has always been Geelong on both sides, the result of an earlier family connection, and it’s moments like these that bring it all home. I messaged a cousin after the game and eventually received a reply. She had fallen asleep before the first bounce and only woke up when it was over.

Life’s like that. Close your eyes, and you will miss it.

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