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Fitzroy fairytale in chumps-to-champs 1916 season

IT’S PROBABLY footy’s most quirky and scarcely believable trivia question. Which team won the wooden spoon and the premiership in the same season? To the uninitiated, it’s an impossible proposition. But we assure you it’s not a trick question.

Fitzroy’s 1916 triumph is the greatest anomaly in Grand Final history. It was remarkable for many reasons, not least of all the Maroons’ effort to overcome the loss of several stars and produce one of the most stunning form reversals imaginable, while under the leadership of a first-year player-coach (George Holden) and a first-year captain (Wally Johnson). 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the season went ahead in the first place. In that farcical season 100 years ago, World War I was in full cry and decimating player numbers and the League was reduced to just four clubs and 12 rounds. And, crucially where this story is concerned, all four teams were guaranteed a finals berth regardless of what transpired in the minor rounds.

As had been the case the previous year, there were calls for the League to abandon competition because, critics claimed, playing on would rob the war effort of much-needed soldiers and funds (despite clubs contributing to patriotic funds).

Those calls became increasingly hostile after both the South Australian Football League and the Victorian Football Association cancelled their seasons.

The counterview was that the public still needed entertainment to boost morale and provide a distraction from the daily news of battlefront casualties, which included players from every club. And other high-profile sports such as horse racing and boxing continued through the war, so why should football be any different?

Players who didn’t enlist were accused of being cowards, “shirkers” and disloyal, even though some, like Wally Johnson, were rejected for service; and others worked in protected industries that either helped the war effort or were essential for life on the homefront.

Maroons follower Charlie Norris was one of many men who were sent white feathers, which symbolised cowardice. The associated shame is believed to have prompted one of Norris’ sons to change his surname to Elliott. As the AFL Record discovered last year, this son became the grandfather of Giants player Will Hoskin-Elliott, whose surname could easily have been Hoskin-Norris. 

As late as March, the 1916 season was thrown into chaos when five clubs – Melbourne, Essendon, St Kilda, South Melbourne and Geelong – withdrew from the competition.

This left just four clubs – working-class quartet Fitzroy, Carlton, Collingwood and Richmond – that were willing to play on. This sparked great animosity between these club factions and the League, which decided the season would go ahead.

The League urged players to forego match payments and only accept reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses – a recommendation that at least Fitzroy adhered to. This didn’t bother the likes of Maroons star Harold ‘Lal’ McLennan, who’d never accepted a shilling, even for expenses. However, in 1912 the club rewarded him with a wedding gift of £25.

Fitzroy’s 1915 annual report stated that 15 of its past and present players had enlisted for service, including champion Jack Cooper, who played in the famous exhibition game in London in 1916 before being killed at Polygon Wood in Belgium the following year.

As a result, in 1916 the Maroons blooded 10 players – a League high – including four who became premiership players. Even allowing for the almost nonsensical circumstances of the 1916 season, Fitzroy’s effort was astounding.

The Maroons’ rollercoaster season started with two wins and a draw, thrusting them half-a-game clear atop the League ladder.

At that stage, Fitzroy appeared primed to win the flag on its merits. Despite the high turnover of players, the Maroons boasted considerable big-game experience, having played in the previous three finals series, including their 1913 premiership. 

Fitzroy was then rocked by the shock retirement of McLennan – an ex-captain, dual club champion and star centreman – due to a back injury.

Although The Football Record noted that “hope is still entertained … that (McLennan) will be seen in the colours occasionally”, McLennan’s former captain and coach Gerald Brosnan predicted in The Winner that he would “prove a severe loss”. They were prophetic words.

Though there were presumably other factors at play, Fitzroy lost its next nine games – three times to each rival – which remained the club’s worst losing streak for 13 years.

The Maroons finished last – two-and-a-half games behind third-placed Richmond – in what was their poorest result in a home and away season, and would remain so until 1936. 

1916 ladder
1 Carlton (2) 12 10 2 - 918 669 137.2 40
2 Collingwood (3) 12 6 5 1 803 803 100.0 26
3 Richmond (4) 12 5 7 - 792 881 89.9 20
4 Fitzroy (1) 12 2 9 1 711 871 81.6 10

Brackets indicate finishing position after Grand Final.

But with the League sticking to a four-team finals series, Fitzroy remained in the premiership hunt – many would say by default, but there was little incentive in the minor rounds given each team automatically qualified for the finals.

In any case, the Maroons were transformed from chumps to champs in just 35 days. They won each of their three finals, including successive victories over Carlton – no mean feat given the Blues had won the previous two flags and had just finished three-and-a-half games games clear on top of the ladder.

The reasons for Fitzroy’s quantum leap in performance are not easily identified, but a scheduled week’s rest between the last round and the first final certainly didn’t hurt the Maroons’ prospects. However, injuries did.

For the entire finals series, Fitzroy was without chief goalkicker Jimmy Freake and Jim Toohey, who over the previous four seasons had supplied 47 per cent of their team’s goals.

The fittingly-named Freake – who formed a lethal combination with brilliant half-forward Percy Parratt – had won the League goalkicking in two of the previous three seasons, including a then-equal League record of 66 goals the year before.

Little wonder Jack Worrall, the former Fitzroy champion and five-time premiership coach at Carlton and Essendon, noted in The Australiasian that “Carlton were regarded by most people as invincible, it being considered simply a waste of time to watch the other teams futilely endeavouring to lower their colours”.

This attitude was reflected by crowd figures, which were down 60 per cent during the minor rounds, while the cut-throat semi-final between expected also-rans Fitzroy and Collingwood at the MCG (where all finals were played back then) attracted just 9960 spectators – the worst finals attendance in a decade.

That day Collingwood playing coach Jock McHale, then the League’s games record-holder, was making his 250th appearance and the Pies responded with the first two goals into the wind. But ultimately Fitzroy proved the party pooper, breaking a late deadlock against the breeze to win by a goal.

The next week Carlton eliminated Richmond, leaving the Blues and Fitzroy to fight for the flag.

The Maroons would have to do it the hard way given Carlton had a double chance at glory – perhaps the one saving grace of the 1916 finals series. If the Blues won, they would be premiers; if they lost, they would have the right of ‘challenge’ the following week.

So Fitzroy, the rank outsider, had to beat Carlton twice to be premier.

Carlton was heavily favoured to achieve a premiership hat-trick after winning its previous three low-scoring encounters with the Maroons by 33, 29 and 19 points respectively.

This pattern appeared set to continue when the Blues led by 10 points at quarter-time, but Fitzroy stunned them with a four-goal-to-nil final term to be a shock 23-point winner.

It had helped the Maroons’ cause that Carlton had been reduced to 16 fit men, although their own tough follower/defender Chris ‘Leather’ Lethbridge was also injured early but courageously battled on. 

Lethbridge joined Freake and Toohey on the sidelines for the flag-decider.

However, McLennan came out of retirement for the Grand Final and, without even a training run, the 28-year-old didn’t let anyone down from a half-back flank.

In front of a season-high crowd of 21,130 – some 5000 more than the previous week – the Maroons continued on from where they had left off, kicking the first three goals in the opening 10 minutes, and extended their lead to more than six goals in the third term.

Carlton replied with four quick goals before Fitzroy sealed the flag with two of its own against the breeze to cruise to a 29-point win.

Parratt had led a recast attack that had thrived on special contributions from ex-Tiger Heaney and first-year player Horrie Jenkin.

For rookie coach Holden, the triumph was added redemption after being suspended for the entire 1912 season – the toughest penalty ever for a Fitzroy player.

It was another significant achievement in the sporting career of Edgar ‘Ted’ McDonald, who in a busy 1921 would take 43 wickets in 11 Tests for Australia as a fast bowler.

The 1916 flag was also the start of a premiership legacy in the family of first-year player Fred Moore, the grandfather of Hawthorn great Kelvin Moore.

In subsequent seasons, the League expanded again to six (1917), eight (1918) and, as the war ended, a then full complement of nine teams (1919).

Thankfully, there has never been another season like 1916.

This is an edited version of a story published in the round-five edition of the AFL Record, available at all venues.