The 100th Anniversary of one of the most remarkable Premiership wins in VFL/AFL history passed without much fanfare recently. On the 2nd of September 1916, three weeks after claiming that seasons wooden spoon, Fitzroy were crowned VFL Premiers.
That is not a misprint, the 1916 Premiership was won by the team that qualified for the finals finishing last. After their impressive Round 23 performance two weeks ago, what Essendon wouldn’t give to have the same opportunity afforded the 2016 Wooden Spooners. They would at least have more reason for optimism than Fitzroy did, the Maroons entered the 1916 Finals on the back of a nine game losing streak.
The fact that there was a season at all was only after an equally extraordinary series of events. It is a tale with all the elements needed for a riveting Hollywood script, war, Victorian era costumes and an underdog coming from the clouds to win the ultimate prize.
It is fair to say that 1916 was a much different time to today. With war waging in Europe, an extremely bloody conflict requiring more and more men fit and able in the trenches, it was widely expected that footballers should be joining the stoush with the Kaiser rather than looking for kicks and handballs.
Players who did not join the fight were subject to sustained hostility from the general public. Accusations of cowardice, shirking and disloyalty were levelled at those who remained at home. Even men like Fitzroy Captain Wally Johnson, who was rejected for service, or the many others who were employed in jobs that were deemed essential for the continuation of life in Australia, were subject to such taunts.
Community sentiment was almost universally opposed to the season taking place and great pressure was placed on the League to suspend their competition until hostilities ceased. Pressure that only grew when five of the nine VFL teams chose to go into recess in 1916.
After months of vigorous debate between the VFL, the recessed clubs and those wishing to continue, the League chose to stand in opposition to public sentiment and continue with plans for a 1916 Premiership Season. VFL President O.M. Williams and the board deciding that their sport could provide an outlet for those who couldn’t go to war but were suffering at home.
The decision meant the four competing clubs, Carlton, Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy had only a month to prepare for the May 8 competition start date. An unbelievable challenge when compared to today’s almost year-round training and doubly so when each had been unsurprisingly ravaged by the war effort.
Carlton unfurled the 1915 Premiership Flag in front of a healthy crowd of 10,000 before their Round One clash with Fitzroy. The two clubs were to become well acquainted with each other with three more home and away meetings ahead.
Fitzroy were party poopers on this day, squeaking home by 4 points. The balance of the Home and Away played out in reverse for both teams, this was one of Fitzroy’s two wins for the season while the Blues only tasted defeat once more before the finals.
The Argus was vocal, and startlingly accurate, in their concerns for the competition. Pre-season they expressed a concern that ‘with teams meeting each other at least four, and perhaps six, times in three months’ that there would be little public interest’. Despite the strong Round One crowds they noted a distinct ‘absence of the enthusiasm usually noted at the beginning of the season.’
As each side qualified for the finals regardless, the home and away fixture quickly became both tedious and meaningless to the fans, who stayed away. The Argus’ doom and gloom forecasts proven correct with crowds down 60% and a crowd of less than 1000 reportedly in the Princes Park stands when Carlton hosted Richmond in Round 9.
After twelve rounds of matches Carlton, having only lost two games, entered the finals overwhelming favourites to claim a hat-trick of premierships. Five-time premiership coach Jack Worrall went so far as to state in the Australasian that it was ‘a waste of time to watch the other teams futilely endeavouring to lower their colours’.
Collingwood edged Richmond for second place, three and half games behind the Blues. Fitzroy having pretty much made up the numbers all season were expected to replicate this in the finals having not won a game since Round Two.
The apparent inevitability of the Collingwood v Fitzroy Semi Final was reflected in the crowd. An attendance more reminiscent of Port Adelaide visiting North Melbourne than a VFL Final was on hand to watch the Royboy’s eliminate a fast finishing Collingwood. The following week’s victory over Carlton saw a rematch with the Blues the following week after the Minor Premiers invoked their ‘challenge’ to force a Grand Final.
Fitzroy and Carlton entered the MCG on a glorious Grand Final Day in front of a large and boisterous crowd. The Maroons won the toss and took advantage of an advantageous breeze to the Punt Road end in the first quarter.
Fitzroy jumped out of the blocks early, their dash and daring rattling the Minor Premiers. Carlton were run ragged and were lucky to be only 18 points down at quarter time helped immeasurably by the Maroons poor kicking for goal.
In a game described by The Observer in The Argus as having ‘any amount of jolting, and on occasions some little suggestion of unpleasantness’ Fitzroy benefited from Carlton’s ill-discipline. Umpire Norden penalising Carlton often as they tried to answer the efforts of Charlie Norris in the Ruck, the drive of Roy Millen on the wing and the dominance of Percy Parret and Horrie Jenkins up forward.
27 points down at ¾ Time a special effort was required from Carlton if they were to claim the Hat-Trick of premierships that appeared a certainty three weeks earlier. With Jimmy Morris and Percy Daykin prominent the Blues made a last quarter charge for the flag.
With the ball camped almost exclusive in Carlton’s forward half, Fitzroy’s began to look shaky. Captain Billy Dick having been shifted from defence at half time, continued to cause the Fitzroy defence headaches after kicking two third quarter goals. His goal after Charlie Fisher’s opener gave the Blues players hope and more importantly momentum. Alex Lang had a chance to further close the gap with a shot from dead in front but missed. The let off proved costly.
In the face of the barrage, Fitzroy settled and goals to Parret and Jenkins settled the matter. It was now only a matter of the final siren officially completing the Maroons three-week ascension from worst to first.
100 years after the event it is a fairytale that remains hard to fathom. As is the fact that with this triumph Fitzroy became the first club to claim six flags, 20 years after their demise it is extraordinary to think that they were the first powerhouse of the League.