Published as ‘ Footy facts’, Geelong Advertiser, Thurday 31 July 2008, p. 21.
The Newspapers in Education column of the Geelong Advertiser is one of many excellent services this paper provides for teachers and their students. Presenting issues in the news and setting out information about them in an interesting and thoughtful way is a good start to stimulating teaching. Having written for the Geelong Advertiser for more than 20 years, I know how difficult it is to compress and distil difficult arguments into a form which can be both historically accurate and accessible to young readers. But today’s Discovery column Origins of Footy is very misleading in a number of ways and I think needs to be corrected.
Football of various kinds was being played in Melbourne before 1858, but it was not Australian Rules, since even the Melbourne Rules were not written down, as far as we know, until 1859. Those Melbourne Rules of 1859 were based on the practice of a number of English public schools, including those of Rugby school, which Tom Wills attended. There is no evidence whatsoever of Irish or Aboriginal influence on the form of those rules. Incidentally we need to keep in mind the distinction between the rules of the game played at Rugby School and the game of rugby as it developed later in the nineteenth century, and then bifurcated into rugby union and rugby league with the onset of professionalism.
Tom Wills was a highly influential figure in the practice of the Australian game, though many of his suggestions for innovations were not adopted. For example, he wanted Rugby School Rules, a crossbar as in the Rugby game, a designated kicker and an oval ball. None of these was adopted initially. He did have a part to play in the use of an oval ball later and it is possible he helped develop the Geelong running game, something that needs further exploration.
Wills spent some of his youth among Aboriginal children and picked up some language, but in all his correspondence and that of his family there is not a single reference to any Aboriginal links to the code of football developed in Melbourne and Geelong in the 1850s. Marngrook was one of many Aboriginal cultural practices or games using balls of various kinds, but one surviving etching of Aboriginal children which some people suggest shows them playing kick to kick tells us more about modern imagination than what they were actually doing. In the description by William Blandowski he says, ‘The aim of the game: never let the ball touch the ground.’ So the game was closer to what we called ‘keepy uppy’ in Scotland, that is soccer not Australian Rules! But I am not suggesting that Australian Aborigines invented Association Football, honestly.
It is important that students learn about myths in society and their power to influence people of current and later generations. That can be the first step to distinguishing between myths, memories and history. I have been asked to write the chapter on the origins of football in Geelong for a new history of the Geelong Football Club to be published next year. I hope in the course of the historical research for this chapter I will be able to do justice to all the contributions to the development of the game. I will be delighted if I can find any links between the games of the indigenous people and those of the Europeans, who also had species of football in their sporting activities long before 1859.
The Geelong Club was not the second-oldest club of any football code in the world. The Sheffield Football Club was founded in 1857 before Melbourne and Geelong and is recognised as the first Association Football club by the world governing body, FIFA.
Finally if teachers want to find further material on Aboriginal games which can be used in schools to help youngsters understand aspects of indigenous culture they should turn to the work of Ken Edwards. His recent project for the Australian Sports Commission has just been published—Ken Edwards, with assistance by Troy Meston, Yulunga: Traditional Indigenous Games, Indigenous Sport Program of the Australian Sports Commission, Canberra, 2008. See also his earlier book: Ken Edwards, Choopadoo: Games from the Dreamtime, QUT Publications, Brisbane, 1999.