Followers of the sport of Australian football might be surprised to learn just how unpopular the game was before being adopted by state associations in the 1880s.
In almost every territory outside of Victoria, the matter of which rules to play was up for considerable debate.
South Australia might have ended up a soccer state if one of the delegates hadn’t been so persuasive. Western Australia might have ended up a rugby state if three clubs hadn’t banded together.
Tasmania could have gone either way, and only took up the Victorian game by the narrowest of margins – and even then evidently voted to include a crossbar for reasons the media reported as bizarre.
Likewise survival appears to have been tough outside of Victoria for many of the WA and SA founding clubs no longer exist, and while there appears to have been something of a revolving door in the early VFA years, most of the early clubs still exist, even at country football level (many in the Geelong and Ballarat competitions).
Of the teams existing at the time of the VFL and VFA split, every single team remains active (yes even Fitzroy still exist at VAFA level).
In those early days, football as we know it now, was almost certainly Victorian in nature.
Media reports in the Advocate in 1926, mention that in 1875 there were 96 clubs in Melbourne alone, and a further 42 clubs in the state with more than 3,000 players. At the same time, there were barely 20 Australian football clubs across the rest of the country.
South Australia (April 30th, 1877)
In 1910, the Adelaide Daily Herald remarked that prior to the formation of the South Australian Football Association forming that there were three different codes of football being played around the city of Adelaide.
Matches between sides were played with general confusion over rules, and so in 1877 a meeting was called with the aim of forming a body to oversee football matters and to draw up the rules.
The meeting was held on April 30, 1877 at the Prince Alfred Hotel and resulted in the formation of the South Australian Football Association.
It included Port Adelaide (est 1870), South Adelaide (1877) as well as other team like Victoria, Woodville, Kensington, South Park, Bankers and the original incarnation of Adelaide.
The meeting is notable for also deciding on playing Victorian Rules, including the bounce, adopting the Melbourne code ‘almost in toto’ according to The Register.
Victoria – May 17th, 1877
In Victoria there appeared to be no such uncertainty over the rules, which had been originally written in 1859 and then modified in 1866. Umpires were introduced in 1872 and Uniforms in 1873. Just over two weeks after the South Australians, the Victorian Football Association was formed on May 17, 1877.
The original VFA sides included Melbourne (1859), Geelong (1859), Carlton (1864), St Kilda (1873).
It also included Albert Park (later merged with South Melbourne), Hotham (later known as North Melbourne), Ballarat (later in the Ballarat Football league), and Barwon (later merging with Belmont and still alive in the Geelong Football league). Still other clubs including Essendon and Richmond were listed as junior clubs in the new Association.
The same year, Carlton would travel to Sydney to play the Waratah at the SCG in Australian football and rugby. Carlton lost the rugby game, but evidently did well in the Australian game.
Tasmania – June 21, 1879
The Australian game was introduced into Tasmania in the 1870s prior to this rugby and soccer were played in the colony, as well as a hybrid of the two known as the Tasmanian game.
At a meeting on June 21, 1879, the Tasmanian Football Association was formed, and the decision to play the Australian game was passed by one vote. There are today no known clubs still existing from that Association (that I was easily able to find anyway, I’m happy to be corrected)
New South Wales – 1880
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that at a meeting on the 18th August, 1880 the New South Wales Football Association voted to play Australian football on the grounds that the rules were an improvement on those used by the English Association, and very different to rules used by the rugby code.
Western Australia – 1885
The Western Mail reported in 1939, that when the Western Australian Association was formed in 1885, the dominant game in the colony was rugby. It was noted that of four football clubs in the colony, only one played the Victorian code.
In 1885, delegates from the Fremantle, Rovers and Victorian clubs voted to move as a body to Victorian football. They would be joined a year later by another Fremantle club, Unions. Today, only Victorians survives, now known as West Perth.
Victoria splits – 1896
The rumblings began when inner Melbourne clubs began to feel that they were carrying the outlying regional clubs, and so in 1896 six clubs Carlton, Melbourne, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy and South Melbourne broke away from the Association, persuading Geelong and St Kilda to go with them.
This left the VFA with just five clubs – three of whom would later join the VFL – Richmond (1908), North Melbourne (1925) and Footscray (1925). Williamstown and Port Melbourne remained, and have done so until now.
Queensland – 1903
A governing body for the game in Queensland didn’t take place until 1903, the game in the country was essentially run from Victoria before that.
Notes: I am heavily indebted to the National library for the articles and source material used for this article.