Growing up in the Riverina of NSW where there was fierce competition between the football codes, especially between what we then called Australian Rules football - my game- and rugby league and rugby union and now living in Brisbane, I often heardpeople who are not followers of Australian Football often criticise the game because it is not truly international and is only popular in a few southern states of Australia.
Well stick this up your pipe and smoke it!!
Melbourne Football Club was established in 1858 making it the oldest existing football club of any code in the world. Melbourne FC is 4 years older than the oldest existing soccer club and was formed well before any rugby union, rugby league, gridiron or gaelic football clubs came into existence. We should spruik this loud and clear and be proud of our game and its long history.
Australian Football has been a huge part of the life of our country and is the glue that holds many communities together in the small towns and farming districts of Australia.
Castlemaine is the second oldest club, forming in 1859 just before Geelong. Castlemaine was then a large town of 15 000 people in the midst of the gold rushes in Victoria.
Indigenous Australian’s were reported to have played a game named "Marn Grook" with a possum skinned "ball" in the Port Phillip District when it was settled by Europeans in the 1840s. This game involved kicking and catching the "ball" . The founders of Australian Football, Tom Wills and Henry Harrison, created the game as a means to keep cricketers fit in the winter. It is likely that Wills and Harrison applied the best aspects of ‘Marn Grook’, gaelic football, rugby union and soccer to create the our great game of Australian Rules Football.
The games' rules were defined in 1859 and the basics are no different to today's rules. These can be seen written on a wall at the MCG. These rules include kicking, marking, tackling, the distinctive hand balling and either bouncing or touching the ball to the ground after running 10 yards.
At the same time in history when Melbourne FC was formed an early form of soccer and rugby union was played in England and the beginnings of Gaelic football was being played in Ireland. These early games of soccer, rugby union and Gaelic football often did not resemble today's modern versions of the sports. There are allegedly older rugby union and soccer clubs but they do not have a continuous existence like Melbourne FC.
Australian Football became very popular in Melbourne and Victoria during the gold rush era of the 1850s and 1860s. After the gold rush ended in the late 1860s, many of the gold diggers dispersed to other parts of Australia and took the game with them to other colonies on the continent.
In the 1880s in Queensland and NSW, hybrid games were played between rugby union clubs playing the "English Rules of football" (rugby union) and those that played the "Victorian Rules of football".
In the mid 1880's the NSW rugby union had a vote to decide which rules to adopt and by one vote went for the "English" rules as colonial rivalry was very strong and NSW did not want to adopt the Victorian rules.
Until the 1880s the Victorian Rules of Football was the most popular game in Queensland but the parochialism of Queensland came to the fore early as the local independent schools voted to use the English rules (rugby union) as they thought that using Victorian rules did not sit well with Queenslanders!
What might have been?
In addition in NSW and Queensland, Australian football and rugby union voted to go into recess during World War I, but rugby league, then in its infancy, continued their competition which led to the rise of rugby league as the most popular football code in these states.
The Australian public needs to understand that Australian Football has been around a very long time. Followers of our game should be proud of the long history our unique game and its huge contribution to Australia and the Australian identity.
And remember that Melbourne, Castlemaine and Geelong Football Clubs are much older than Manchester United, New England Patriots, Randwick, South Sydney and any other football club of any football code in the world!