Posted on August 25, 2012

In an attempt to gain “cultural connection” for its GWS team, Australian rules has turned to the code’s historical ties to Sydney’s west. However, the stories being brought forth are at best tenuous, at worst creative myth-making. The AFL’s 2008 “The Game That Made Australia” marketing campaign faltered badly north of the Murray as everyone asked “Made what?” It showed the AFL had little understanding of how the code was viewed in “the non-football states” and the contribution made by the other codes to Australia.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

Two recent instances centered upon the proposed GWS team have suggested that AFL has more historical connection to Sydney’s west than anyone realised, going so far as to claim the code was “invented” and had its “genesis” in the lands beyond Homebush. A closer look, though, suggests otherwise.

Kevin Sheedy told The Sydney Morning Herald in February that “This code is basically invented by a person who lived in the west of Sydney. Jock McHale, a legendary coach of our game, was born in Sydney. It’s got some history that a lot of people don’t realise.”

Sheedy’s idea of the AFL pedigree of 1880s Sydney appears overstated, while his knowledge of the city’s geography looks decidedly askew, given Botany-bred McHale moved to Melbourne when he was five.

Meanwhile, Greg de Moore – author of a biography on Australian rules founder Tom Wills and member of the AFL’s “Community Advisory Group” for the GWS team – revealed that even though both Wills and Aussie rules were born in Melbourne, the code’s true creation was in Sydney’s west.

“In 1823, Tom Wills’ mother Elizabeth entered the Female Orphan School on the banks of the Parramatta River at the age of six, and stayed there for a decade,” de Moore explains. “Two years after leaving she gave birth to Tom Wills, the inventor of Australian rules football. So for me, some people think the birth of Australian rules football belongs to Victoria, but I would argue the genesis began here, in Western Sydney.”

Yeah right – by the logic of Sheedy and de Moore, Warrington-born Bob Fulton (who moved to NSW when four) is a great of English rugby league, John Farnham (born in Dagenham) is an icon of the British entertainment industry, and AC/DC are one of Scotland’s greatest ever bands.

Of course, while the Australian rules community will bend and twist even the most feeble of historical ties to give weight to the code in Sydney’s west, evidence staring them in the face confirming the game’s English origins is ignored or decried – despite Wills spending a decade at Rugby School where he played football, and the first rules of the Melbourne FC in 1859 being of a similar vein to many others in England at the time.

In a new study, ”National myths, imperial pasts and the origins of Australian Rules football”, Dr Tony Collins (Professor of social history at Leeds Metropolitan University) has compared the early rules of the Melbourne code with those being played in schools and clubs throughout the UK at the time.

“The set of rules developed in Melbourne in the 1850s and 1860s was simply one of many dozens of variations in the playing of football throughout the British Empire,” explains Collins.

The University of Western Sydney’s Professor David Rowe, in comments made alongside de Moore’s, says for a fledgling AFL outfit that is trying to establish roots in Sydney’s west, Tom Wills is the kind of figure that can be brandished to give a new club a sense of history.

“Sport is all about bragging rights, so people can turn the historic Tom Wills family connection to their advantage,” Rowe suggests. “Sometimes being fresh and new can be used to advantage as well – but that can only get you so far.”

Resorting to reinventing history, ignoring other influences, while talking up rickety cultural connections, won’t get you far either.

[originally published in The Sun-Herald]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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