The show must go on
By: Glenn McFarlane, Herald Sun journalist and Collingwood historian.
It was to be one of the bleakest years in Australia’s history, and if it hadn’t have been for the Collingwood Football Club, it’s doubtful whether there would have been any VFL football played in 1916.
As it was, the season would be one of the most unusual on record. Only four teams – all inner-suburban clubs who had connections via their borders – competed in an abbreviated season where each team played the others four times before a finals series that still gave the bottom side the chance to win the premiership.
There were grave reservations about whether the VFL would continue in 1916. It all came against a backdrop of bitter debate on the home front as to whether sporting events – football and racing, to name but two – should proceed while young Australians were being killed, wounded and maimed on the other side of the world.
The Anzacs had evacuated Gallipoli before Christmas in 1915, but as the debate swirled around on sporting pursuits back home, the soldiers were in Egypt, preparing for a move to France and the deadly Western Front.
As early as January 1916, the VFL president, O. M. Williams, offered his view: “Personally, I see no objection to carrying on football, unless we are to give up every form of recreation. But I think it should only be engaged in by those who, for medical reasons or on account of their responsibilies, cannot enlist.”
Williams’ words, though, and the belief that the season could still run as it had the previous years, brought a hostile reaction from some sections of the community, especially those who had already lost loved ones at Gallipoli.
Letters to the editors of the leading newspapers were filled with the debate, just as clubs such as Collingwood led the charge in pushing to retain the sport in a time of war – for “the working man’s pleasure.”
One of the game’s leading writers, Old Boy, from the Argus, was vehement in his belief that football should cease, while young Australians were fighting abroad.
He explained: “If the nation were not at war, if the country was not calling for the best of her manhood, the attitude adopted by the majority of the delegates of the Victorian Football League … might provide the subject for laughter. When, however, there is a call for every able-bodied man, and for every available shilling, the attitude of the men who control the game of football in Victoria is lamentable.
“Whenever sportsmen congregated yesterday, there were expressions of disgust at the action of the League. The general opinion was that the premiership competition should have been abandoned and that no encouragement should have been offered to either players or spectators to set the pleasures of football before the responsibilities of war.”
The VFA went into hiatus, so too did the league in South Australia. And there was considerable pressure on the VFL to adopt a similar stance, led by several clubs who believed it was unwise to keep on going.
Four clubs – St Kilda, Essendon, Melbourne and South Melbourne – decided against being a part of the VFL competition in 1916, and for a time, Geelong wavered. In the end, all five would opt of competition.
For a time, it seemed as if the four remaining clubs – Collingwood, Carlton, Fitzroy and Richmond – would even join up with a few clubs of the VFA willing to still play and create a new league. But it never happened, and in the end, the VFL decided to run with a four-team competition.
At the Collingwood annual meeting in March 1916, Magpies President Jim Sharp detailed the club’s belief that the men and women on the home front needed something to distract them from the bad news overseas.
The Tribune explained: “(Sharp) said he did not see why, of all sports, football – the poor man’s pastime – should be singled out while horse racing – the Sport of Kings – took place as usual.”
The club’s secretary, Ern ‘Bud’ Copeland, had said as far back as the start of the war that “that there was practically no possibility of football declining in popularity”, and while he had tempered that belief – as the war had already had a significant impact on support – he was still of the view that show must go on.
Mind you, it was never going to be easy to find the numbers as recruiting drained would-be footballers. So ahead of the 1916 season, the club had to put out a special plea to local footballers who had not yet enlisted.
The club’s annual report read: “Many players are needed and a hearty invitation is extended to any married men who have not yet felt it their duty to enlist and youths who have been rejected or cannot receive parental authority. We feel there are numbers who love the game and will be willing to play to give enjoyment to thousands who must have a little pleasure on a Saturday afternoon, knowing at the same time their efforts result in hundreds of pounds being raised for the benefit of those who are risking their lives for the fellow men.”
Importantly, there would be no payment to players in this time. Due to the war effort, there was a suspension on wages for footballers. Only out of pocket expenses were to be allocated, and Collingwood did its best to limit this as much as possible. Even the coach, 34-year-old Jock McHale, who did not enlist, was reappointed as playing coach, but it was noted “he would act only in an honorary capacity.”
Clubs were also committed to devoting a significant portion of their gate takings to the war effort.
The battle to retain members was a difficult one. Membership at Collingwood slummed from 3837 in 1915 to only 735 the following year, which was the lowest of the four clubs competing.
Collingwood had a solid start to the season, winning its first game over Richmond, before a loss to Carlton, followed by a draw with Fitzroy at Brunswick Street Oval.
In round eight, against Carlton, at Princes Park, Collingwood lost by 12 points, but farewelled its then captain Dan Minogue from the game, as he was ready to leave for overseas service. The Argus detailed: “At the close of the match a band of soldiers, who had been cheering on Minogue, carried him off the ground.” He would return from the war, but, controversially, not to Collingwood.
In July and August, the battles of Fromelles and Pozieres brought some of the most devastating news imaginable back home to Australia, almost incalculable in terms of the losses.
News also came through came in August of that season that one Collingwood player, Charlie Langtree, had been killed in France, while serving in the British Army.
Collingwood finished that strange 1916 season in second place, having won six of its 12 games. Fitzroy finished last on the ladder, with only two wins to its name as well as the draw against Collingwood.
But in the Semi-Final, watched on by less than 10,000 fans, the last-placed Maroons ended the Magpies’ season with a six-point win. Bizarrely, the team that had finished the home-and-away season on the bottom of the ladder would go on to win the 1916 Grand Final, defeating Carlton.
There was hope that the war was heading in a better direction for the Allies as evidenced by the letter sent back to the club from former player Jim Jackson, who had heard about the conclusion to the season from the Western Front. He wrote: “I see where Fitzroy came out on top, and I think the Allies will be there very soon as everything seems to be going our way.”
Sadly, it would be a long time before that happened.
The news only got more devastating for the Collingwood Football Club. December 1916, would be one of the most tragic months in the history of the club.
As the First World War raged on in a bloody stalemate during one of the worst winters France had experienced, the lives of three one-time Collingwood footballers were altered forever. Two of them died that week; another suffered wounds that would ultimately cost him his life.
Percy Rowe was better known to Magpie fans as ‘Paddy Rowan’, the non-de-plume that he carried in his sporting life. On December 4 1916 he was critically wounded and died on the Somme. Three days later, Peter Martin, a former Magpie who hadn’t played for more than a decade, and who was already beyond his 40th birthday, suffered horrific gun-shot wounds to his skull. He would lose his right eye, which brought about a permanent discharge from the army and a return home to Australia. He would be dead within 15 months.
And if the week could hardly have been any worse for a club so far removed from the western front, on December 12, 1916, a popular former player in Tom Wright was killed by a German shell.
The game had carried on in 1916, but so too had the heartache. And, sadly, there would be more to come.