Two great tribes reunite for an Anzac game
Former US President Herbert Hoover once remarked: “Older men declare war, but it is the youth that must fight and die.” And so it was in the world wars of the 20th century, when many of the University’s finest footballers enlisted in the armed forces, some never to return from battle.
All Australian football clubs would feel the effects of global conflict, but perhaps none more than the Melbourne University Football Club (MUFC). Jim Main and David Allen’s book on the 115 Victorian Football League (VFL) players who served overseas – Fallen: The Ultimate Heroes – documents 67 deaths across the 10 VFL clubs in the First World War, an average of nearly seven per club. For MUFC, the losses were recorded at 19 and more, if players from the team the University fielded in the Metropolitan Football Association are also included, numbering at least 9.
MUFC President Andrew Donald says it was a horrific few years.
“The disproportionate loss of University footballers, including Club captain George Elliott, was directly related to the qualities of leadership and responsibility instilled in them as footballers, and which in turn caused them to volunteer and lead other young men as soldiers,” Mr Donald says of the players, many of whom enlisted as junior officers.
“University football has always been proud to be home to many young leaders reflected today not only in the men’s footy club but also in the women’s footy club. The fact that so many passed away during the war – be it at Gallipoli or otherwise – is a loss the Club felt keenly.”
George Elliott, a winner of the Military Cross, is cited in Fallen as someone who “not only excelled at football and indeed, most sports, but also was a brilliant surgeon, a remarkably brave and inspirational soldier and a natural leader of men.” He was dead at 32.
Black & Blue, the 2007 history of football at the University of Melbourne relates even more stories. George’s brother, Harold “Pompey” Elliott would become a popular brigadier general; winger Rupert Balfe left his medical course to enlist and was killed in the Anzac landing; Richard Gibbs was posthumously awarded a Military Cross having been killed in his first engagement with the enemy; Stanley Neale was awarded a Military Cross and Ronald Larking, a Military Cross and Bar. As the book notes, the popular notion at the time that footballers were not doing their bit for the war effort did not apply to MUFC.
“This loss took a huge toll on the Club, as back then the playing group was probably only 40 to 50 blokes not the larger numbers which are commonplace nowadays, “Mr Donald says.
Football has been an ever-present part of the University of Melbourne since its establishment in 1853. Australian Rules football was first played at the University in 1859, making it one of the oldest clubs in the country. The club was admitted to the VFL in 1908, just two weeks ahead of Richmond.
And when war intervened again in the 1940s, it would be an under 19s junior squad that would continue the Club’s association with top-level football.
While there was intense community discussion during 1915 on the suitability of continuing to play the game, the football correspondent of Melbourne University Magazine at the time suggested otherwise.
According to Black & Blue he wrote:
The war has claimed many of our fellows, but we are not a large body, and it is surely no discredit to those of us who are left behind to take part in amateur football, to exercise our limbs in a healthy manner, to keep ourselves fit, to make willing sacrifices, and to put aside our individual interest for the sake of our fellow students and our University.
It’s a point of view Andrew Donald still relates to quite strongly today, as the Club prepares for an Anzac showdown between its two iconic teams bearing the names of the University’s colours: Blues and Blacks.
“It follows that the true purpose of University football is, and has always been, to instill the values that come with team sport into young men and women,” he says.
“Such things as the relationship of effort to reward, the importance of skill and physical fitness, the relationship of a healthy body to a healthy mind, the ability to work in combination, the benefits of friendship and association.”
According to Andrew Donald, the Club had for some years wanted to play a Blacks-Blues match for premiership points as an Anzac commemoration. The Club finally got its wish in 2013 with Blacks and Blues in the Premier Division of the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA). AFL legend David Parkin remarked that the teams had one of the great traditional football rivalries and that it was great to have both squads back in A Grade.
Alas, Blues would be relegated that year, meaning a repeat Anzac match was not possible last year. However a successful 2014 campaign for the Club that saw four premierships collected across six grand finals, including an A Grade title for Blacks and a B grade title for Blues, means that 2015 will again see them play off on April 25.
It is fitting the MUFC’s two great tribes are reunited for an Anzac game, with 2015 marking the 100th anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. It will also mark the first intra-club showdown since the completion of the new Pavilion, a step up from 2013 when more than 1000 people crammed a few portables to watch the teams duke it out mid-construction.
Andrew Donald says the Club is keen to build on the success of the last match. “We had a very positive reaction from all who were involved last time around, but particularly the players. They were fully appreciative of the event, not just the rivalry but the atmosphere and sentiment behind such a commemoration. They were very keen to see it continue, and while there’s always some turnover in a football playing list, many of those who lined up in 2013 will be back out there this year.
“This is not just a commemoration of the fallen, it’s also an appreciation for all the men and women of the University who served Australia in war time,” continues Donald.
“Greater love hath no man.”
Enquiries about the Anzac game can be made directly to the President of MUFC.