Since the Tiger Train crashed so spectacularly at the Adelaide Oval eight days ago, I’ve been preoccupied. WHICH BANDWAGON SHOULD I JUMP ON NOW? I’m torn between North Melbourne and Port. While I love the way Port Power (cliche alert) ‘go about their football’, I feel that any team that can dispense with the Axis of Evil (aka Essendon and Geelong) deserves my support. So let’s explore a little episode from North Melbourne’s past and see if it offers any hope for the future…
It was late July, 1896. The Victorian Football Association was in crisis. There was pressure mounting to form a new League in Melbourne, one with better teams, better organization and better crowds. Better crowds? Bigger crowds and better behaved crowds. And in the midst of this debate, Collingwood trekked to the North Melbourne Recreation Reserve – Arden Street – to take on North Melbourne.
The game was a close one. Sandford, a reporter for the North Melbourne Courier likened it to David versus Goliath. North had been plagued by injury and misfortune during the season, their ranks filled with untested rookies. The Magpies, in contrast were veterans, a “capital representation” with their players of fine physique. Despite the mismatch, the game was “one of the grandest games of football ever seen”. The Magpies scored big quickly, and led five goals to one before half time. But after the long break, the youngsters came out with a new attitude. The second half was played with “zest” and “determination”, the home team drawing to within a goal of the visitors. The ball flew up and down the ground with “lightening rapidity”, so that by the end all the players were exhausted from the effort.
North just couldn’t get that last, much needed goal – the final score being Collingwood 5.4 to North’s 4.4. But the journalist Sandford waxed lyrical about players from both teams:
the visitors came out winners in a game, on the merits of which a draw would have been a more equitable termination. Each side had played admirable football. Every man had done his level best for his own particular side. As for the central umpire, Roberts, the only thing to be said is that he should never have been appointed.
And that’s it. That’s all the reporter for the local paper had to say. But as people around the country opened their newspapers over the coming days, they got a slightly different story:
A most disgraceful scene took place at North Melbourne on Saturday (Wagga Wagga Express).
As the players were leaving the ground at the half time interval a virago in petticoats deliberately struck the field umpire, J.Roberts, in the face (Launceston Examiner).
The crowd, being annoyed at the umpire, took to knocking him about in their own playfully brutal way (Geelong Advertiser).
The quarrel of the crowd with the umpire was for what they regarded as his ultra strictness regarding little marks (The Barrier Miner)
Roberts (an old Carlton player), was attacked in a brutal and cowardly manner. When the game ended Roberts was attacked by scores of barrackers, who used fists and sticks, and one of their number seized Roberts by the hair and dragged him to the ground (The Inquirer, Perth)
Several of the Collingwood players and a few North Melbourne quietly got round the umpire, who had to run the gauntlet of this ruffianism to reach the dressing room. It was well they did so, or Roberts would either have been killed or seriously injured (The Argus)
One of the goal umpires in the match said that while he was trying to protect Roberts one of the crowd threatend to put a knife into him (The Argus)
You get the picture?
Bill Proudfoot – who played for Collingwood on a Saturday and was a police constable during the working week – was knocked out with an umbrella as he tried to shepherd the much loved (not) umpire from the ground. His assailant initially escaped with the help of the crowd, but finally “fell into police clutches” as he run around the back of the Pavillion. Sam Fenton fronted court and was described by the press variously as “elderly”, a “powerfully built man”, “Old Sam”, or an “enthusiastic blue and white supporter”. In his defence, Fenton argued he had not intended to hit Proudfoot, he was trying to ward off an attack from another supporter wielding a “Ben Bolt”, a piece of iron wrapped in brown paper. In turn Alfred Bayfield, the Collingwood supporter accused of having the Ben Bolt claimed it was not an iron bar in his hand but “a roll of music”. I am not sure which is more likely – a Collingwood supporter armed with an iron bar or a copy Handel’s Messiah?
Fenton was fined four pounds and gaoled for three months, while Bayfield received the choice of a month behind bars of a five pound fine. Quite aside from these penalties, reputations were tarnished. Female football fans were particularly condemned. During Bayfield’s trial the defence lawyer was asked to confirm if a woman had started the fracas at Arden Street, to which he quipped:
Ever since the days of Adam and Eve a woman has been at the bottom of every mischief (Laughter).
And not only were some of the troublemakers women they were from the Reserve rather than the ‘Outer’. If this was the way people with the money to buy a seat behaved, civilisation was doomed. The North Melbourne Recreation Ground was condemned as an “awful patch of swamp” that was “mismanaged by some kind of trust” and the umpires association, refused to officiate there again. The North Melbourne Football Club Committee in a nineteenth century version of “whatever”, said there had been way too much fuss made over the incident and that everyone should get over it and move on. And, in a way, everyone did: the football world ‘moved on’ to form a new league in 1897 – the Victorian Football League. And whilst the incident in July was not the sole cause, it certainly helped mark the end of the old VFA.
So does this episode offer any clues about North Melbourne’s chances this weekend against the Sydney Swans? Not really. It’s just a good yarn about a distant time when the game was in crisis, the umpires made bad decisions, the fans got annoyed and media was biased. Not like today at all.