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Our history: South Melbourne foundations

Peter Blucher  May 11, 2017 9:17 AM

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The Swans made the move to Sydney in 1982 but there is a long and rich history before that time.

The Swans became the ‘Sydney’ Swans in 1982, when the club relocated to the Harbour City from South Melbourne. It’s a club with a rich history and according to In The Blood, by renowned football journalist and author Jim Main, had its roots in the area just south of Melbourne’s Yarra River. The area was settled by merchants and dockers who had arrived from Europe, primarily from Ireland, in the early 1850s.

Originally known as Canvas Town, it had adopted the name Emerald Hill due to the strong Irish influence.

By 1861 it had a population of 9000, and quickly became one of Melbourne’s most populous areas before adopting the name South Melbourne.

It is believed the first football club in the area was Emerald Hill, which played near the old Albert Park railway station. Within five years a second club, Albert Park, was based at St Vincent’s Gardens, and in 1867 Emerald Hill and Albert Hill merged to become the South Melbourne Football Club. The new entity played its first game against South Yarra on July 13, 1867 when neither team scored.

But less than a year later the original South Melbourne club changed its name to Emerald Hill, upsetting many of the old Albert Park group.

The new Emerald Hill club played at an area known as ‘Three Chain Road’, which was later part of Albert Road, and quickly became one of Melbourne’s strongest clubs.

It was a turbulent time. In 1869 at the club’s annual general meeting a vote was taken to change the name back to South Melbourne, but after the former Albert Park group left the meeting the motion was rescinded and instead it became known as Albert Park.

In 1870 Albert Park played in the South Yarra Presentation Cup, the foremost competition of the era, and wore red and white striped guernseys. So striking was the uniform that the players were known as ‘those red and white beauties’.

Albert Park enjoyed modest success until June 1874, when a rival group formed the new Cecil Football Club. Within a month, the new club changed its name to the South Melbourne Football Club, and after a complicated beginning this was the club that would subsequently relocate to Sydney to become the Sydney Swans.

But still there was one more twist. The Albert Park club continued to operate as a separate entity and became the most powerful club in the area. Other clubs included South Park, South Melbourne Imperials, Rising Sun, Emerald Hill Standards, St Vincent’s, Excelsio and Southern.

In 1878, the most powerful clubs in the colony formed the Victorian Football Association. Albert Park was among them, and in the first season they played 11 matches for one win, three losses and seven matches that were described as ‘unfinished’. One match against Melbourne attracted 3000 fans, but the rival South Melbourne club was on the rise.

South Melbourne stepped up to the senior competition in 1879 and finished third behind Geelong and Carlton. With Albert Park on the wane, the two parties amalgamated in 1880, compromising on name and colours.

South Melbourne kept its name but abandoned their blue and white strip in favour of the red and white of Albert Park.

The new club played their first game against reigning South Australian premiers Norwood at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground to begin a season in which South finished third with 13 wins, two losses and five draws.

In 1881, the South Melbourne Cricket Club made its ground at Lake Oval available to the football club but their first match at the ground on June 4 against Essendon was washed out before either team could score. It was declared a draw.

South went on to be the top side for most of the season and beat Geelong by four goals in front of 10,000 people at Lake Oval to claim their first premiership.

In 1883 South changed from the original red and white stripes of the Albert Park era to red and white hoops, and, in an unknowing and ironic pointer to what was to follow almost 100 years later, they played a match in Sydney.

As is detailed in In The Blood, the Maitland Mercury reported: “This afternoon the important football match between the South Melbourne Club and a Combined Northern team will take place on the Albion ground, West Maitland. Proceedings will begin at a quarter to three o’clock sharp. A numerous attendance of the general public is anticipated … the visitors will arrive by the mail train this morning ”.

South Melbourne won the VFA premiership undefeated in 1885, winning 22 matches and playing three draws as star recruit Peter Burns, from Ballarat Imperials, was named Champion of the Colony.

They won the premiership again in 1888, when they played a match against the visiting English rugby side in front of 12,000 people at Lake Oval. South defeated England seven goals to three.

In the same year Dinny McKay, later to play such a key role in the club’s history, was named Champion of the Colony.

In an era in which there was no grand final and the premiership was awarded to the team on top of the ladder after the home-and-away season, further flags followed in 1889 and 1890 under captain Henry “Sonny” Elms and vice-captain Burns.

Elms was widely acknowledged as one of the great captains of the 1880s when captains performed many duties that are assigned to coaches in modern football.

Burns, equally at home at fullback, in the ruck or the midfield, later switched to Geelong and became the first player to play 300 VFA/VFL games. The four-time premiership player three times Champion of the Colony was an inaugural inductee of the AFL Hall of Fame in 1996 and in 2017 was elevated to Legend status in the Swans Hall of Fame.

In 1888, too, South Melbourne attracted a record crowd of 31,672 to a match against Essendon at Lake Oval and also played against a visiting Maori rugby team,

But after the historic premiership hat-trick the club slumped to fourth in 1891, when Burns was named Champion of the Colony, and sixth in 1892.

Depression hit the colonies hard in 1893, with the South Melbourne industrial area among the hardest hit, but in its final season under Elms the club climbed to fourth and then third under new captain McKay in 1894.

In 1895 South Melbourne recruited Fraser, later to be the club’s first VFL captain, from Port Melbourne, but they suffered a savage blow when McKay, later to return and become such a prolific goal-kicker, crossed to rival VFA club Richmond. A mediocre season followed.

In 1896, they were outstanding. So were Collingwood. Both won 14 games, lost three and drew one. And both kicked 86 goals and had 55 kicked against them.

The VFL ruled that under such extraordinary circumstances there should be a Grand Final. On a warm and sunny afternoon in front of 21,289 fans at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground Collingwood led from the outset, and although South fullback Dave Adamson was names best afield Collingwood won six goals to five.

Shortly after the VFA was turned upside down when the stronger clubs met at Buxton’s Art Gallery, near Melbourne Town Hall, to propose a breakaway competition.

South Melbourne, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong and Melbourne, who felt they were propping up lesser teams, led the breakaway and invited St Kilda to join.

And so, the VFL was born with South Melbourne as one of its foundation teams.