Birth of the Magpies Pt3
by Michael Roberts
The promoters of the Collingwood push were faced with a tough decision in the wake of the VFA’s rejection of their bid to join: do we walk away, or go again?
Part of the problem was that the people behind Britannia were not as ‘driven’ by the project as those wanting to form a Collingwood Football Club. They already had their own football club, albeit a junior one, and they already had close links to Fitzroy. The idea of having a Collingwood Football Club just didn’t mean as much to them.
But Alf Manfield and Edwin Wilson, increasingly seen as the leaders of the push, weren’t that easily deterred. Neither were the local MPs, George Langridge and William Beazley, or other local businessmen such as Dan Reddan (a tobacconist in Smith Street), J R Bremner (licensee of the Yarra Hotel) and Tom Sherrin (football and leathergoods manufacturer).
So Manfield and Wilson arranged another meeting in August, back where it all began at Harriet Pryde’s City Hotel in Johnston Street. There it was resolved not to give up, but to keep pushing the VFA and its delegates. The resolution passed that night read: “That it is the opinion of this meeting it is thought desirable to approach the Victorian Football Association for the purpose of getting the Collingwood Club admitted to the Association.” A letter was sent to the VFA straight away, and a serious campaign of lobbying was about to begin at both an individual and association level.
They were encouraged in this by the support of the Argus newspaper, which urged the Collingwood locals not to give up. While being critical of its backers for having moved too slowly to form a club years before, and for not having an alternative scheme to propose when their initial request was rejected, the paper also suggested that it was time for the VFA to find ways to remove uncompetitive clubs.
“The general opinion is that the Collingwood club need not necessarily take the first no for an answer,” it said at the end of August. “The perfect system is one that shall compel the failures of the senior association to give way periodically to an outside club which, being duly qualified in all respects, may desire admission.”
The Argus went on to tag Footscray as one club that had “quite failed to justify its admission as a senior.” “The suburb was too small to commence with, and many years must pass before that defect can be remedied. Footscray is the failure of the association, and … a club so situated cannot expect to go on perpetually in that position. Glancing over the records of the past few seasons one finds that Footscray has played some 60 matches against senior twenties and won but 11. It is obvious that the association should ask Footscray to retire and give some other suburb a chance.”
The paper also took aim directly at the arguments of the Evening Standard, among others, over the suitability of Britannia. “It is just as well to recognise openly that the Britannia club is merely a means to an end. If it were intended to play as a senior under its present title, utter and complete failure might at once be prophesied. A senior club to succeed must be identified both in name and residence with some important suburb, and within the local limit must have no rival. That fact has been sufficiently proved.
“Other than Collingwood, the Brighton and Hawthorn districts would appear to be the only centres likely to make a claim on the VFA for many years to come. In any future consideration of the matter it will be as well to remember therefore that the claims are those, not of the Britannia Club, but of Collingwood, and Collingwood will probably get its chance only when Footscray is brought to recognise the hopelessness of its position.”
There was further support in September from Melbourne’s VFA delegate, Mr Hunt. He had been publicly behind the push the night that Collingwood presented to the VFA, and he didn’t back away in the wake of the rejection. In September, when Collingwood’s letter came up for consideration, he suggested that if an existing team couldn’t reach a certain number of points over a two-year period, that team should be relegated to junior ranks to allow in another team “that would make a better show”.
Such public support encouraged and emboldened the Collingwood supporters. But the road ahead was long and frustrating.
The VFA secretary, Theophilius Marshall, described Mr Hunt’s suggestion that poorly performed teams should drop out as “suicide”. Instead he set up a committee to investigate the merits of admitting a thirteenth club to its ranks. In early 1890 there was talk of the VFA being split into two divisions to allow more teams in, but that ended up leading nowhere.
The association, as it turned out, was wracked by internal divisions for much of that year, especially between the weaker and stronger clubs, and there was little or no movement on Collingwood’s petition to join through all of 1890. But all that changed early in 1891. In March that year, as recorded in Richard Stremski’s Kill For Collingwood, the VFA finally amended its rules to allow for a “prominent junior club” to be admitted as a thirteenth team. Manfield seized upon the rule change and asked the VFA if Britannia would be admitted as a Collingwood team if Victoria Park was brought up to standard. The VFA replied that it could foresee no further objections.
Any celebrations were tempered, however, by the death just days later of George Langridge. He had been one of the key players in the push, and sadly didn’t live to see his hard work come to fruition.
His parliamentary colleague, William Beazley, had no trouble convincing the Collingwood council to spend around £600 upgrading the ground and adding a picket fence, and they also promised a new grandstand for Victoria Park should the club be admitted.
It still took until a meeting late in the year for Britannia’s formal application to be considered. And by then the public momentum had swung heavily in Collingwood’s favour. The long fight, and persistence of the club’s supporters, seemed to have won just about everyone over. And the fact that Britannia was enjoying one of its best seasons (it would end up finishing second) didn’t hurt either.
In early September, the Australasian wrote that “there seems to be no just ground for any longer excluding them.” The Argus added: “If persistency and earnestness, coupled with good play are reasons why a junior club should be admitted to the senior ranks, Collingwood has fairly earned the distinction. The Britannia, the local junior club, has long been prominent, and the ground on which it proposes to play is properly enclosed and equipped, and already better than several of the grounds on which senior clubs play. Clubs should not be admitted to the association on any but strong grounds, but Collingwood has in every way justified its claim.”
The changing tide of public opinion even swayed the old enemies at the Evening Standard to come on board, saying that there was “no visible reason” why the VFA should not grant the new club a berth in the association.
The application was formally made at the VFA’s meeting on September 11th, and the discussion held two weeks later, on September 25, 1891. Secretary Marshall and several of his colleagues inspected Victoria Park in the days beforehand and told the meeting that they had “found it in all respects satisfactory”. In the end it was Marshall himself who moved that the Collingwood Football Club should be admitted to the VFA for the 1892 season, describing the suburb behind it as “an important centre of population”. The resolution was unanimously carried.
Collingwood had won. It had been two years, three months and 18 days since that first meeting at the City Hotel, but the local forces behind the push had prevailed. Langridge hadn’t lived to see victory, but Beazley would go on to be the club’s first president, Wilson its first secretary and Manfield its first treasurer. It was, as a famous politician and one-time Collingwood supporter would say many years later, a victory for the true believers.
Much hard work still lay ahead to get everything ready – including assembling a team virtually from scratch, as most of the Brits would go their own ways – in time for the club’s debut the following May. But for now, the only thing that mattered was this: the Collingwood Football Club had been born.