Wars at Home and Abroad

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Ahead of Anzac Day on Saturday, here is an extract from ‘For the Love of the Game’

At the beginning of the 1940 season it appeared that the war might not have that much effect on VAFA activities. Only Brightonvale, Old Brightonians and Geelong had dropped out of the competition. A motion was passed in March that year giving the executive extraordinary powers to cover wartime contingencies.

The Executive Committee shall have power during the continuance of the present war and thereafter until the Association otherwise decides to suspend the operation of any of the rules of the Association and deal as it may think fit with any matter arising out of the conduct of the affairs of the Association provided however that the Association may at any time direct the Executive Committee to observe any of its rules.

There was, however, no need to invoke the special powers because by June 1940 the executive had decided that it did not wish the competition to continue. It sent the following communication to the general committee.

The Executive is of the opinion that owing to the present critical situation overseas and the necessity of our young men preparing themselves to play their part in the defence of the Empire, the time has arrived when all competitive sport should cease and it is therefore resolved that, on completion of the first round of home and away matches, the activities of the Association be suspended for the duration of the war.

At the very least, executive opinion was somewhat ahead of the public thinking and the reality of the situation. Japan had not yet entered the war and life on the home front was not yet on a full war footing. The VFL competition was still flourishing, with attendances above 100,000 a week, and Prime Minister Menzies was in favour of organised sport continuing for reasons of public morale. It is interesting that Menzies had been educated at Wesley during Adamson’s time, but had felt alienated because of a lack of talent for team sports.

Risstrom of South Camberwell immediately declared his opposition to the executive resolution, saying that football should continue until the nation’s political leaders requested a cessation, that it provided valuable recreation for the many young men ineligible to enlist.

Delegates from the State Bank and Glenhuntly spoke in his support. Secretary McCann replied, as his former headmaster would have, that the effort and expense required to maintain the association’s activities was inconsistent with a maximum war effort. Moreover, it was not in the nature of the association to await prime ministerial directives; rather it had always had the courage of its own convictions and should give a lead to others. Which, of course, the VFL and VFA, being professional bodies were conspicuously failing to do. Under the pressure of war, the philosophical origins of the VAFA were reasserting themselves. A classic split along class lines looked like developing, with Public School people, more historically attracted to war than the general population, on the one side, and on the other side the district delegates, perhaps carried away by their love of football and not fully cognisant of the fascist threat.

Chairman Atkins reminded delegates that only he and Stewart had been involved prior to 1914 and they remembered the ‘great mistake’ made in 1915 when it was decided to continue. He did not explain that it was a great mistake largely because the VFL, allowed to get too close, had plundered the MAFA. Risstrom remained unimpressed and moved a motion that the executive decision be disagreed with. Before it was put to the vote Atkins and McCann indicated that this was not a democratic occasion by declaring that regardless of the result of the vote they would not be prepared to act in an official capacity beyond the time decided by the executive. Risstrom’s motion was then defeated 22 votes to 15.

Over the next few days, a petition asking the executive to reconsider its decision was signed by 19 clubs. Stewart, personally in the chair at the next meeting of delegates, opened the debate by reading out a letter from district club Ormond endorsing the executive decision to go into recess. After expressing gratitude at receiving such strong endorsement from a leading district club, Stewart informed delegates that the executive had indeed reconsidered its position as requested and was now even more convinced, in the light of developments overseas, that its decision was correct.

An attempt was then made by delegates in favour of continuing to have the executive decision declared unconstitutional. McCann branded the move as sour grapes and went on to explain that in ordinary circumstances majority verdicts are workable because the minority abides by the decision, but in this instance if a majority had voted to continue the competition, most of those in favour of suspending play would have withdrawn, leaving the competition unworkable. In fact, in the fortnight between he two meetings two more clubs, Myer and Power House, had been forced to withdraw. Stewart refused to accept the motion to declare the executive decision unconstitutional and concluded:

We are meeting in circumstances which we recognise as the most grave in the history of our country. While sharing the belief that victory would come, he felt that hard times were ahead of all of us. There would be a great drain on young men for whom we had catered for so many years. Players from all clubs were now in all parts of the world playing their part in the great struggle. In the last war our players responded splendidly in the spirit we expect from amateur footballers and, this time, they would not be found wanting.

*Feature photo: Major T.S. Marshall, long-serving VFA secretary, was a staunch defender of amateurism in football