Invented in Melbourne in the late 1850s and codified in 1859, Australian Rules is the oldest code of football in the world. In this period each of the British schools and universities played by its own rules, and the codification of Rugby Union, Association soccer and Gaelic football was several decades away. Although there were many folk versions of football played in the colony - the Wurundjeri people had their own football, called marn-grook - it was not until 1858, when Melbourne's private (independent) schools took up playing, that Australian football began. A committee of four men drew up the first rules in 1859, based on their knowledge of English school football. They were William Josiah Hammersley and James Boyne Thompson, both colonial journalists educated at English private schools and Cambridge University, native-born Thomas Wentworth Wills, who had been to Rugby School, and Scotch College classics teacher Thomas Henry Smith, educated at Trinity College, Dublin. They assumed that cricketers wanting a winter game would take up football, and most of the early clubs sprang from cricket clubs and played on cricket fields.
The rules prohibited kicking in the shins ('hacking') and allowed for a 'mark' (a catch of the ball followed immediately by a free kick). In successive decades other rules were added, particularly the use of an oval ball instead of a round one, the addition of umpires to adjudicate free kicks, the waving of flags to indicate a score, the necessity of bouncing the ball every 10 yards (9 m) when running with it, the abolition of the 'little mark' (short kick), and the addition of behinds to the score (in 1894 Collingwood had suggested that a goal should count as six points). As the game spread through the Victorian countryside, these rules were insisted upon and a uniform code was established. There was never an off-side rule, which sped the game up. Although the game's administrators failed to convince the English to take up this colonial version of football, they had better success in New Zealand, the southern colonies of Australia, and South Africa. The migration of Victorians to the Kalgoorlie goldfields in the 1890s ensured that the game would come to dominate Western Australia, and migrations of Victorians to Darwin and north Queensland in the same era, and to Canberra in the 1920s, are still evident in the long-standing club traditions in those regions.
However, for most of its history, two-thirds of 'Victorian Rules' football, as measured in numbers of players, clubs or leagues, has been a Victorian preoccupation. The amateur Victorian Football Association (VFA) commenced in 1877, initially comprising a mixture of metropolitan and country clubs: Albert Park, Ballarat, Barwon, Beechworth, Carlton, Castlemaine, Geelong, Hotham, Inglewood, Melbourne, Rochester and St Kilda.
In 1897 eight clubs broke away to form the professional Victorian Football League: Carlton, Collingwood, Essen-don, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, St Kilda and South Melbourne. Richmond and University joined the VFL in 1908, the latter withdrawing in 1915, while in 1925 three VFA clubs moved across to the VFL: Footscray, Hawthorn and North Melbourne. This brought to 12 the number of teams in the VFL, all based in Victoria until South Melbourne's move to Sydney in 1982, and the addition of interstate clubs in 1987 (West Coast Eagles, Brisbane), 1991 (Adelaide), 1995 (Fremantle) and 1997 (Port Adelaide, whose arrival came at the expense of Fitzroy). The VFL became the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990, and the VFA's name was changed to the (new) VFL in 1996.
The essence of the game, and the reason for its success, however, is that each of the Victorian clubs, which still make up the majority of the national competition, brings a specific local history to the contest. Embedded in each club's guernsey colours, club song, nickname, home ground and supporter base are powerful historical associations that provide a continuity and tradition to those teams. This localism has in recent decades been overtaken by a new corporatism, which separates the fans of specific clubs from the governing AFL commission. Like many modern-day shareholders in large corporations, the fans have no real influence in the running of the game.
The Melbourne Football Club (1858) and the Geelong Football Club (1859) dominated the early years of the competition, with Geelong inventing the idea of the loose man ready to receive the ball from the congested pack. This tactic made Geelong the leading team of the 1870s and 1880s. Traditionally the preferred club of rural Victorians, Geelong represents the cockiness of bush-dwellers in the face of their grim city cousins. Its first nickname was the Pivotonians, reflecting Geelong's colonial position as a significant port, but a newspaper cartoonist's suggestion in 1923 that they adopt the black cat as their totem brought such a reversal of fortune that the new nickname stuck. Geelong's early administrator Charles Brownlow is honoured in the name of the AFL's best-and-fairest award.
A keen rivalry developed between Melbourne and the Carlton Football Club (1864), both blue-blood clubs in that period. Carlton (the Blues) is the most successful and consistent Victorian club, has only once finished last on the ladder (in 2002), and has traditionally played to a safe and reliable formula. Conversely, the St Kilda Football Club (1873) has been unsuccessful through most of its history, but was invited to join the VFL in 1897 because of its superb ground at the Junction Oval and the league's interest in having a southern suburbs team. 'The Saints' lost their first 48 games, ran last the first six seasons, have 25 wooden spoons in all, and suffered a players' strike in 1911.
Also formed in 1873, Essendon Football Club is the only colonial club not formed by cricketers. A patrician Protestant club, Essendon performed well in the 1890s and again in the 1920s. Hawthorn Football Club, although formed in 1873, was not invited to join the VFL until 1925, the same year as North Melbourne Football Club, established in 1874. These clubs were respectively Protestant middle-class and Catholic working-class in orientation. So, from an early stage, Australian Rules football came to reflect the complex mosaic of class and ethnic divisions that characterised the growing metropolitan area. South Melbourne Football Club started in 1877, based at the northern end of Albert Park Lake, prompting the rivalry with St Kilda known as the 'Lakeside Derby'.
During the boom of the 1880s, three new clubs were formed: Footscray Football Club in 1883, a Protestant working-class club; Fitzroy Football Club (1884), based in the newly affluent inner-northern suburb; and Richmond Football Club (1885), a classic Catholic working-class club. Fitzroy performed well in the early years of the VFL, but faded for want of new supporters in the middle and outer suburbs. Those clubs that knew how to recruit players and supporters from outside their original base were more likely to succeed as the game became more professional. Women, as mothers, aunts and sisters taking their families to the game, were particularly important in shaping club loyalties.
No club learnt this lesson faster than the last Melbourne club to be formed, the Collingwood Football Club, established (in 1892) just as the crash of the 1890s bore in on this working-class district. Established by local Australian Labor Party parliamentarian W.D. Beazley, Collingwood quickly became Australia's best-known sporting club. It was such a disciplined club that no player could disagree with the club hierarchy and escape unpunished. Players quitting the club on bad terms famously had their photographs turned to the wall. The fierce rivalry between Collingwood and Richmond in the 1920s started because the Magpies' captain went over to the Tigers. Collingwood became involved in great rivalries, first with Fitzroy and then with Carlton. Carlton regarded itself as a more respectable working-class suburb than the factory suburb of Collingwood. But the Magpies were unbeatable: Collingwood's achievement of four flags in a row, from 1927 to 1930, has never been equalled. Their best goal kicker was not equalled until 1999. Loyalty to Collingwood became a badge of one's social origins, even as Melburnians whose families had been associated with the district moved up the social ladder and out into the leafier suburbs. The Victoria Park railway station was easily reached from the northern suburbs, where the club recruited actively for members.
This same pattern was followed by the other clubs, and those clubs that remained parochial were doomed to fold. University is a case in point. Whereas successful clubs looked far afield for new talent, 'the Students' recruited only graduates of the University of Melbourne. Its supporter base was similarly myopic, and it is not surprising that the club, whose colours were black and blue, lasted only 126 games, from 1910 to 1915. The players volunteered for war service and the club folded. The story of Fitzroy is also instructive. Because Fitzroy was not a place of primary settlement for new immigrants, after the 1920s it did not have the advantage enjoyed by Carlton or other clubs built on the tribal loyalty of newcomers to Melbourne, and Fitzroy never succeeded in developing an outer suburban following. When Richmond's traditional inhabitants began to migrate upwards and outwards along the Glen Waverley train line in the 1960s, they took their black-and-gold loyalties with them. Similarly, the Footscray and North Melbourne fans held onto their traditional allegiances as they migrated out west in the postwar period.
Success on the playing field was never a guarantee of an increased membership base. Hawthorn, the most successful team of all time in the 1980s, had a miserably small following because the suburb, like Fitzroy, was never a place of initial settlement for immigrants. It was this problem that occasioned the near merger of Hawthorn with Melbourne in 1996.
Clubs also had to learn that even if their leadership was of one class or religion rather than another, their playing lists had to be rather more inclusive. Hawthorn's Protestant ascendancy in the 1940s and 1950s was such that the minority of Catholic players were regarded as a separate caste. Only when the club got the two groups of players to fraternise with each other did the team properly coalesce. Similarly at North Melbourne, success only came in the 1970s when fresh blood was introduced into a conservative Catholic team.
Australian Rules football remained a tribal affair in the postwar period, with the Saturday afternoon ritual of the 12 teams battling it out across the suburbs. Although the VFA continued to run a parallel competition, it lost out to the VFL sometime in the 1940s, and the VFL competition grew in strength and support. Crowds at the Melbourne Cricket Ground reached 90 000 and 100 000, huge in world terms for a sporting event. The great rivalries were between Collingwood and Melbourne, and between Footscray and Geelong. Until the 1960s, people still walked from home to their nearest ground. In 1970 the VFL opened its own stadium at Waverley, based on the logic that it was the demographic centre of Melbourne.
During the 1960s the skills of the game improved dramatically, with handball becoming less a defensive measure of a player under pressure and more often an attacking move. The drop kick gave way to the drop punt, and the game started to speed up. It was less a kick-and-mark affair, and more a team game. New standards of fitness were imposed by coaches: no longer could players enjoy a cigarette at half-time! The standard of the South Australian and Western Australian competitions was also improving, so more players were recruited from those States, while former Victorian players often went interstate to coach sides in Perth and Adelaide. Zoning was introduced in an attempt to regulate the position of the 12 clubs: players were generally tied to specific clubs on account of where they had grown up in Victoria.
Still the game had failed to become popular in New South Wales, so in 1982, when South Melbourne was about to fold owing to its relatively dwindling supporter base, the club was moved to Sydney. This was the first sign of the game developing from a traditional suburban rivalry to a national competition. Further steps in this direction were taken by the VFL in the mid-1980s, with attempts to merge smaller clubs, to even out the competition with a national player draft and a player salary cap, and to foster VFL clubs in other States. The West Coast Eagles were the first club to be formed on a Statewide basis and to transcend suburban parochialism. However, attempts to create privately owned clubs, a feature of the interstate experiments, all failed, and the VFL acknowledged that public ownership - the tradition in the older clubs - was still the best model.
Private ownership was one of several attempted innovations based on American sport, and the new AFL and some richer clubs were particularly seduced by American ideas for reforming the game. Television earnings came to dominate the finances of football; fixed seating replaced standing room at most grounds; some clubs introduced female cheer-squads; merchandising expanded, including the introduction of designer clothes, and guernseys were often redesigned to be more eye-catching. By the late 1990s the annual economic benefit of the AFL Grand Final to Melbourne and Victoria was measured at over $30 million.
The AFL broke open the parochialism of the old game and in so doing saved the game from bankruptcy, but at the expense of some traditions. Supporters experienced a sense of alienation from the new governing structure. The game has for many become too commodified, especially with the new stadium at Docklands. However, the basic elements of the game remain intact. The core rules of the game have survived modernisation. All the Melbourne clubs, except Fitzroy, maintain a suburban base while building a national following. They have purchased social clubs as a place for their members to meet; they have set up websites and other marketing vehicles, and they have dug deeper into their club histories to recover the iconography of their past. By the late 1990s Melbourne's suburban clubs, such as St Kilda, Richmond and Footscray, once threatened with extinction, were doing better than ever.
The AFL continued to insist, however, that new clubs should be formed outside Victoria, even at the expense of Melbourne clubs, and the process of corporatisation seems to be going on unchecked.