Francis Doherty never soared like Alex Jesaulenko to take a breath-taking mark in a VFL Grand Final but he has managed to produce something equally exciting – the most breath-taking book about football memorabilia in the history of the game.
Table of contents
FRANCIS DOHERTY, AUSSIE RULES – THE GLORY YEARS
New Holland Publishers, 2016.
New Holland Publishers, 2016.
DAZZLING AND UNIQUE
Doherty’s Aussie Rules – The Glory Years is a glossy coffee-table book that will gladden the hearts of football history buffs everywhere. When I first encountered it lying innocently on the shelf in the bookshop I was blown away – in fact dazzled - by the visual brilliance. As I excitedly skimmed through the pages, it slowly dawned on me that in all the 158 years since the invention of our game there has never before been a book devoted exclusively to the souvenirs of yesteryear – the treasures that we in the present day call ‘memorabilia’.
Certainly most of the various, and now proliferating, club histories contain attractive displays of memorabilia, and one can visit the new and flourishing footy history websites for photographs, newspaper articles and football cards, but no-one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully assembled the very best of all this material in the one printed publication. Aussie Rules – The Glory Years is unique. It is a veritable museum; a museum between two covers.
Francis Doherty lives in Melbourne. His ‘life-long football obsession’ began at the age of five when he was taken by his Dad to see St.Kilda play at Moorabbin. He started collecting footy cards soon afterwards – and that he never actually stopped collecting seems obvious from the smorgasbord of visual goodies he has laid before us. Not that all the material displayed here is his own – far from it. Doherty has thankfully also drawn on the collections of several other committed (and quite possibly obsessive) football ‘magpies’: Dr A.Selzer; Tom Mahoney; Joel Williams and Armin Richter. (Williams has provided much Melbourne material and from Richter we have images of an extraordinary number of rare Hawthorn items). The fact that almost all the items shown in the book have been sourced from dedicated private collectors is another unique feature of the publication. It is my experience that publishers of football histories have in the past relied mainly on public and semi-public institutions – the State Library, the Melbourne Cricket Club, or the football clubs themselves – for their illustrations. Doherty therefore breaks new ground here.
SOUVENIRS AND MEMORABILIA – HISTORY AND ICONOGRAPHY
(Other copies of the above images appear in Doherty's book. These particular photos face each other on pages 110 and 111)
There can be no doubt that much of this privately-owned material, particularly the truly rare exhibits, will not be found in the collections of the above-mentioned public institutions. Even the most conscientious football club has let items slip through their finger tips. By the same token, no private collector can hope to sweep up more than a tiny fraction of footy’s historical paraphernalia. The book was thus necessarily a collective effort.
The book is organized into sections, with each section encompassing a particular decade, starting in the late-nineteenth century and continuing through to the end of the 1970’s. Doherty has written an introductory section for each decade and a caption for each of the hundreds of memorabilia items. The book qualifies as a history of sorts because the items of memorabilia are presented in roughly chronological order and Doherty provides enough historical information (albeit information that is abbreviated and fragmented) in his introductions and captions we cannot fail to sense how the game developed and changed over time. However the book is definitely not, in any sense, a history of the game.
As the most popular spectator sport in Victoria, ‘Australian football’ spawned suburban tribes craving information about their football heroes. Coverage of ‘Aussie Rules’ in its initial formative period was most commonly provided by colonial-era newspapers and magazines. Inevitably, the game also attracted the attention of commercial interests seeking to invest in (and profit from) the market for photographic images. At the turn of the century the appearance of football cards accelerated the development of football’s iconography. The book is first and foremost a history of football iconography – the images and symbols produced as ‘souvenirs’ by commercial entities and the game’s official bodies. It is also partly a history of the game’s literature but the printed text is not so prominent here as the photographic or artistic image.
Over the course of time, objects which originate as tempting and tantalizing contemporary souvenirs become archaic objects of historical memorabilia, the means by which we remember and assess the past. The book is a museum of football memorabilia but not a history of the memorabilia. Such a history would require a discussion about the process whereby souvenirs of one epoch become transformed into the memorabilia of a later epoch. Probably because this discussion is beyond the scope of his book, Doherty does not attempt to explain how his material entered the relatively restricted private realm after originating historically as souvenir items that were publicly and widely available (or at least widely available to all who could afford the time and money to acquire them).
The mystery therefore remains. How and why does a particular souvenir survive the hustle and bustle of life, pass into the hands of a collector, pass from this collector to another, pass down through generations within the one family (and then perhaps to another family), find itself in a collectables shop or on Ebay, and then perhaps find itself lost and forgotten in some old person’s garage filing cabinet? Nor does Doherty explore or discuss the theme of why some items are rarer than others – and how they became so – and the related theme of why they are valued and how they are valued. 1 A history of the memorabilia would also require a description and identification of the human agents (obsessive fanatics?) who made the whole process possible by parting with their money and sanity.
BETWEEN THE COVERS
In recent years, and increasingly, the football public has been bombarded with the crude and twisted sociological conflation – deliberately fostered by the hegemonic AFL and compliant (apparently ignorant) football commentators - that the AFL competition and ‘the game’ are one and the same thing. 2 Many fans are therefore inclined to forget that the game of Australian Rules encompasses a far wider universe than the sphere inhabited by the elite AFL (or VFL) competition.
Doherty’s book, a history of football iconography certainly, is far too limited in scope to qualify as a history of the iconography of the ‘game’. It is essentially a history (for all except ten years) of the iconography of the Victorian Football League. Doherty does not cover the AFL years (post-1990). 3 He covers only the classic twelve (Victorian) VFL teams (ignoring the memorabilia of the Brisbane Bears and West Coast who actually competed – from 1987 – in the VFL). Much more significant though is his conscious decision to exclude from the book all but a tiny number of references to the Victorian Football Association (VFA), and football in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. 4 Victorian country football (except for four 1907 cigarette cards on page 13) and Melbourne metropolitan football do not get a look-in. Doherty’s choice of material is narrow but not necessarily illegitimate. It does however imply ‘VFL/AFL’ = ‘Aussie Rules’.
It is almost impossible to ignore the VFA’s role in Victorian football history. Doherty in his introduction (p. 4) recognizes the VFA as the original competition (1877) but unfortunately neglects to mention the VFA’s tenacious continuation after the 1896 VFL split. The book has virtually no VFA memorabilia whatsoever. The VFA is only included by virtue of being ‘the other’ – the ever-present but scorned cousin of the VFL. References to the VFA are merely incidental. VFA fixtures occasionally appear but only when printed at the bottom of a VFL fixture. 5 VFA clubs are mentioned but only as footnotes to the careers of VFL greats - Ron Todd, Ron Barassi, Sam Kekovich, Wayne Johnston and Trevor Barker. VFA cards are excluded from the two-page spread of 1933 ‘Giant’ Licorice football cards, and VFA team photos are omitted from the twelve-page spread of 1949 Argus Weekend Magazine colourised team photos. 6
Each section of the book is organized chronologically but within each section the images are laid out higgledy-piggledy like gold doubloons in a pirate’s casket. There are badges, medallions, postcards, fixtures, club season tickets, football ‘swap’ cards (whether from cigarette packets, breakfast cereal packets or chewing gum packets), photographs, newspaper articles, metal matchbox holders, footy mugs - and an astonishing array of very rare items (a 1927 Melbourne Sports Depot catalogue, St.Kilda Football Review of the 1930’s, programs for the 1940-41 Patriotic Cup in Melbourne, programs of matches played in war-time Sydney, Kia-Ora Sports Parade programs) one would not expect to see in a million years. I counted 76 VFL team photos in the book, many of them (The Argus set of 1949 for example) in glorious technicolour. A considerable number of Charles Boyles photos are also included and it is refreshing to note that Doherty has suitably acknowledged their creator.
My favourite item in Doherty’s book is the football-shaped ‘How-to-Vote’ card issued by Jack Dyer when he stood as the ALP candidate for the lower house seat of Prahran in the 1967 Victorian state election. I had the good fortune of being present on the night Dyer attended the Prahran ALP branch meeting. He was armed with his cards and accompanied by ‘Uncle Doug’ Elliott who was standing as an ALP candidate for the Legislative Council (upper house). See Doherty, p. 218
SCRATCHES AND DAMAGE
Doherty has gone to a lot of trouble to provide detailed annotation for the illustrations and images. His captions, of varying length and adorned with esoteric and amusing tidbits, are well-researched and knowledgeable, displaying deep respect for the grandeur of the game. 7 In almost all cases his sources have been properly acknowledged. There is indeed so much to admire about this book that one hesitates to finish the review with a series of important criticisms. It is painful to say so but in many respects the manner in which the book is presented to the reader could be improved. Finding so many errors in the text was like caressing a beautiful ceremonial trophy only to discover it had been scratched and damaged. For this we should probably blame the publisher as much as the author. The publisher’s blurb on the back cover celebrates a book ‘meticulously researched and collated by collector and historian Francis Doherty’. True, but not meticulously edited or proof-read. There are frequent typographical errors and grammatical mistakes. The punctuation is abominable – particularly the absence of appropriate full-stops and the presence of inappropriate commas. Doherty’s prose is sometimes awkward. Spelling mistakes also abound. Melbourne Football Club’s original mascot name was ‘The Fuchsias’. Here it is spelt ‘The Fuscias’ and ‘The Fuschias’. The Victorian town of Shepparton is rendered ‘Sheppaton’. The last names of VFL footballers have been spelt incorrectly – John O’Mahoney (Hawthorn), Roy Simmonds (Hawthorn), Bryan Kenneally (Melbourne), Morton Browne (Hawthorn), Errol Hutchesson (Collingwood) and Max Walker (Melbourne).
There are also a significant number of incorrect identifications. The football action shown (p. 149) on the cover of the 1956 Argus book ‘The Footy Story’ is identified by Doherty as action from the 1955 Geelong-Collingwood preliminary final. Actually it is an Argus photo from the 1953 Grand Final between these two clubs. 8 The Argus publication ‘Football Headlines’ identified by Doherty on page 120 as a 1949 publication, and therefore included in his ‘forties’ chapter of the book, was actually a 1955 Argus publication. The cover of Sports Novels magazine shown on p.121 is identified by Doherty as the cover of the June 1950 issue. However I suspect the issue is from 1954. Firstly the cover caption ‘can Magpies retain pennant?’ strongly suggests this. Also, Thorold Merrett, who appears on the cover alongside Des Healey, was only 16 in 1950 and had barely played a VFL game. (Since writing this article I have discovered an actual copy of the June 1950 issue of Sports Novels and the player whose image adorns the cover is 1949 Brownlow winner Ron Clegg. KM December 4, 2016). In addition it seems inappropriate that this, plus all the other content of page 121 from the fifties, is placed in Doherty’s ‘forties’ section. Bill Snell’s 1951 Easi-Oats football card is also placed in the forties section despite the fact he only started with Essendon in 1950. Similarly, the colourised pages featuring Dick Reynolds (from 1947 and 1949 issues of The Argus Weekend Magazine) should be in the 1940’s section of the book, not the 1930’s section.9 In several instances Doherty is mistaken in his identification of players and teams. For example, the Geelong team pictured on page 128 is 1952 not 1951; the South Melbourne player seen on page 152 kicking at the MCG is Bob Pratt junior, not Jim Taylor; the Melbourne player pictured on page 198 is Laurie Mithen, not Bob Johnson. Reg Poole is rendered as Les Poole.10
Scratches aside, however, Francis Doherty’s Aussie Rules – The Glory Years is a welcome and important addition to the pantheon of Australian Rules history. May it be read widely and emulated. Francis Doherty – you star!
1. Here I am referring to both monetary value and historical value. Assessments of both are almost entirely subjective. As an illustration of how much these assessments can differ – even among football aficionados – let me relate the day, sometime in 2008, I turned up at the State Library of Victoria to attend a workshop on the Library’s holdings of football artifacts. During question time I innocently asked if the Library had a football card collection. A number of the academic types present began to quite audibly snigger and snort (presumably conveying their superior view that football cards collecting was for lesser mortals and little kids) so that I was inspired to point out that football cards represented football iconography par excellence. How else were the football fans of yesteryear ever to know what their player heroes actually looked like!
2. Witness the idiotic statement - often heard in the mouths of football commentators and conveniently ignoring the football history of other competitions - that so-and-so is the greatest goal-kicker in the ‘history of the game’. Media journalists more generally make the same mistake. The game of Australian Rules is routinely described on radio and television as ‘AFL’. Full marks to Doherty for calling the game ‘Aussie Rules’, not AFL.
3. Doherty’s decision to repeatedly refer (see for instance p. 92 and p. 129) to the VFL Record as the ‘VFL/AFL Football Record’ flies in the face of historical truth and defies logic – unless of course he was legally obligated to deploy this ridiculous term. He also habitually uses the lower case ‘l’ for League.
4. Doherty reproduces several South Australian items (for example a cover of South Australia Football Budget featuring a match between North Adelaide and Melbourne, a photo of South Adelaide champion Dan Moriarty, and a West Torrens item).
5. A fixture of VFA matches printed on the back of an early-twentieth century fixture of VFL matches mentions the following VFA clubs: Preston, Brighton, Port Melbourne, Prahran, Footscray, Essendon, Brunswick, Williamstown, Northcote, and North Melbourne.
6. Given the paucity of his information about the VFA it seems strange Doherty saw fit to include Marc Fiddian’s VFA history book in his brief Bibliography.
7. How many people would know, or still remember, home team black shorts ended in 1974?
8. One of the three players shown – Geelong full-back Bruce Morrison - had retired before the 1955 finals. The other two players shown are Geelong’s Norm Sharp and Collingwood’s Mick Twomey.
9. The very first display of memorabilia in the book is on page 8. We see cards of players ostensibly representing the eight foundation VFL clubs of 1897 (‘8 1897 foundation VFL clubs’) – but the cards are not from 1897 and there is no indication as to who published the cards, nor which year they were published. Another example (p. 13) is the VFL/VFA fixture from the 1930’s placed in the 1900’s section.
10. Minor mistakes that should be noted include the following: wrong row for Mark Maclure (p. 278); repetition of 1945 ‘bloodbath’ Grand Final text (pp. 80, 94); 1957 Kornies Fred Goldsmith card twice (p. 155); two 1963 programs reversed (p. 196).