As published by Melbourne & Whittlesea Leader and Herald Sun, March 2010
Globally, few football institutions pre date the Melbourne Cup or Abe Lincoln’s ascension to the US presidency. Formed by students and graduates in 1859, Melbourne University is possibly Australia’s oldest club of any code, bar Melbourne and Geelong. Since long ago dividing and conquering less illustrious pastures, the club’s audacious Victorian Football League (AFL) foray remains an Aussie Rules oddity.
Given rugby wasn’t formalised until 1863 and the English Football Association was established in 1871, ‘University’ likely won the world’s first football trophy in 1861 by defeating Melbourne at the Caledonian Games (a variation of the Highland Games). Copious beer and champagne at a refreshment break was reason enough to call it a day, University’s single goal enough to be awarded ‘a handsome silver cup’.
Early glory was no harbinger for the remainder of the 19th century, which bore harsh lessons for ‘the Students’ (also known as ‘the Professors’, and ‘the Shop’). Admitted to the premier competition of the day in 1885, they endured a disheartening run of five wins from 70 matches over four hapless seasons in the Victorian Football Association. University was admitted to the amateur Metropolitan competition in 1893, but struggled for numbers and again went to recess. The club returned to the fold better prepared in 1905, boasting considerably more talent. Following back-to-back flags, University’s determined submissions to join the big league were rewarded in 1908.
The Students’ began full of promise, landing their first victory over fellow newbie Richmond in their second game. University struck wins against all VFL teams of the day bar Collingwood, with whom they once drew. In fact, University almost achieved a 50% win-loss ratio for the first few seasons, but alas no finals action.
Relocating from the long departed East Melbourne Ground to the nearby MCG in 1911 coincided with University’s VFL experience turning sour. ‘Tanking’ allegations aren’t new to football it seems – at this time claims of ‘shamateurism’ (which entailed individuals ‘playing dead’ for cash) reached a crescendo. University and Melbourne’s objection wasn’t enough to sway the League against allowing match payments. By the time the Great War descended, University were figuratively as black and blue as their guernseys. By staying true to their amateur vows and requiring matriculation or a higher degree, the Students effectively consigned themselves to failure. Whether noble, naïve or apathetic, University’s competitive ills were personified by Arthur Hinman. For this mining engineering student, a field trip was more enticing than VFL selection!
Not surprisingly, University’s trophy cabinet rapidly became cluttered with wood, the last four seasons reaping just 1, 1, 0 and 0 wins – their second crack at the nation’s premier competition eliciting a sense of déjà vu. Besides losing its last 51 games on the trot, with so many military enlistments the club couldn’t field a team in 1915 anyway. The Melbourne University Magazine lamented its demise thus;
“Had we triumphed we might have preserved “the highest ideals” of our game… We might have slain the ogre of professionalism”.
In addition to providing several influential football administrators, eight of the 112 footballers to represent University in the VFL earned State selection. One of the Students’ best, Dr Roy Park, led the goalkicking in 1913 with 53 majors and booted 111 goals over 44 games, yet never tasted victory. Sadly, ‘the University midget’s’ illustrious international cricket career echoed his football club’s fortunes at the top level. Legend has it Park’s wife missed his solitary one ball test innings as she picked up her knitting!
Whilst other VFL clubs spent periods of the Great War in hibernation, there was no reawakening for University. The club was gutted, suffering the most casualties of all. At the behest of the League, the Students somehow fielded two VFL Reserves competition teams in 1919, known simply as ‘A’ and ‘B’.
In between the ‘A’s’ losing the 1919 and 1920 Grand Finals to Collingwood, a pivotal juncture in MUFC’s history saw the B’s join the Metropolitan Amateur Football Association. The A’s followed in 1921 and with an internal draft mirroring the old schoolyard selection process, both contested the 1921 MAFA Grand Final. A few years after the cell divided, their DNA was recognised in becoming known as University ‘Blues’ (originally A) and University ‘Blacks’ (B). Still constituted as one club, the two teams have always been separately affiliated and been treated as separate entities by the Victorian Amateurs. A sometimes fractious rivalry sees the Blues lead head to head clashes 43-36, reflecting its consistent strength in the Amateurs’ A Grade over the past half century. Yet in terms of flags, the Blacks have it over the Blues with a record 13 to three (surprisingly 1921 remains their only Grand Final rendezvous).
As the AFL looks to expand to 18 clubs with Greater Western Sydney, sans football heritage, in terms of the eighteen already gracing the League’s records, the Students’ trivial footnote contradicts an abnormal football club with one of the richest of histories.