AFL revisionists’ flagging logic

As published by The Footy Almanac, 28 June 2014

Like many a footy fan, I nearly choked on my morning gruel last weekend when reading of a push to award Carlton six AFL premierships in one very foul swoop, based on a notion the League could rebirth itself 27 years ahead of time.

Shining a brighter light upon the achievements of football’s hazy bygone era, as football boffins Col Hutchison, Mark Pennings and Adam Cardosi have done, is a valid exercise. However, it’s a Roy Cazaly sized leap of logic to rewrite footy’s version of the Periodic Table.

The proposal has, surprise, surprise, been accepted by a working party led by ex-Carlton captain cum AFL Chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick. He’s a Rhodes Scholar too, is Mike, just like our cerebrally gifted PM.

One proposed birthdate represents the year of the first recognized premiership, seven years before the VFA was instituted in 1877 (the same year as the South Australian equivalent).

Notwithstanding goals were worth a single point until 1878, upon which behinds were recorded for the purposes of a tie-breaker, seasons were completely adhoc as clubs arranged their own fixture. Until 1894, in the same year one team might play as many as 23, or as few as just four games (don’t be getting ideas Gill)! Even the method of determining the premier was somewhat arbitrary, based on ‘proportional wins’ but open to interpretation if too many of the wins were against junior clubs such as South Ballarat or Ballarat. There were no grand finals until one was required to split Collingwood and South Melbourne in 1896.

In fact the breakaway League was only established due to widespread disenchantment over the VFA’s lack of professionalism. Some clubs were a rabble, many games were tediously lopsided, and a groundswell of disreputable incidents pervaded both sides of the fence.

Is this a history the AFL should seek to appropriate?  In light of recent years, well it would be appropriate.

Despite his preeminent status as a historian, Professor Geoffrey Blainey’s curious view ladles a hefty dollop of romanticism to boot.

“The AFL record book ignores them or treats them as phantoms. If they don’t take the field in or after 1897, they apparently don’t exist, and yet their achievements are astonishing and a glory to the game.”

Of course these ‘astonishing’ achievements aren’t recognized by the AFL record book because neither an AFL nor VFL one existed until 1897. They could simply be recognized by a VFA/VFL honour roll, though the VFL website appears to treat the VFA as a dirty little secret. Herein lays the hypocrisy of the AFL, when for decades its more insular self despised the Association!

Alas, the clubs concerned have the right to validate and celebrate the glory of these Australian Rules feats to whatever extent they deem appropriate.

To draw a roundabout comparison, the ICC would never consider awarding ‘Test’ status to World Series Cricket’s supertests, being the separate breakaway competition it was.

Perhaps the delineation of VFL and AFL titles is an area warranting some degree of navel gazing. But what’s to be gained by adding these non VFL/AFL titles to the all-important premiership table, yet granting them a giant asterisk or sub-heading (which theoretically they already have)?

The desire to take this course to ‘establish Australian football as one of the oldest in international existence’, as Caroline Wilson wrote, is a moot point. No one disputes other senior Australian Rules competitions existed pre-1897, and this fact is not contingent upon the AFL’s substantiation. Of course, the AFL’s relentless obsession to be the sport rather than merely execute its assigned raison d’être to administer the elite level national competition has seen their logo slapped on most state bodies and ‘AFL’ become inherent across all footy lingo.

Vic-centricity is another contentious aspect. Is it a stretch to say Port Adelaide’s 34 SANFL pre-Power premierships should be upgraded? The original Fremantle Football Club won 10 WAFL (est 1885 as the WAFA) flags. It was a complete different entity, but hey, they were the Freo of the day…

Colin Carter, whose beloved Cats stand to benefit most, mentioned the desire to achieve ‘what is right rather than what is easy’. To this observer it’s fairly easy to determine this historical fabrication is about as right as a $7.20 plastic cup of mid-strength.

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