Football as Australian as AFL

Unlike the AFL, football has never truly utilised the game's history in Australia. But Kevin Sheedy's outburst should encourage us to look more closely at our roots.

Lost in the rather excitable reaction to Kevin Sheedy's ill-time outburst has been one, extremely important, fact. Australian Rules football, or AFL as it is now branded, is no more an indigenous game than our version of football.

Sheedy's accusation that football is fundamentally an immigrant sport perpetrates a myth that has always suited the AFL agenda: the claim that there is only one, fair dinkum, Aussie sport, and that's the 18-a-side game.

By continually branding football as a sport for immigrants, the AFL - helped by a compliant media in the southern states - is able to maintain what it believes is a moral high ground in the battle for hearts and minds.

Don't underestimate how important this is to the AFL strategy. In that sense, Sheedy was only doing what he's always been paid to do. To spread the propaganda.

By focusing on football's multi-culturalism, the AFL cleverly manages to divert the debate away from a much more pertinent discussion. Just which sport, exactly, was the first choice of Australians?

We need to delve into history to establish the facts - and that's something football has never been much good at. That oversight has cost the game dearly. While other sports, especially the AFL, have used history as a powerful weapon to justify their legitimacy, football has been guilty of apathy.

Thankfully, that's starting to change, and the FFA's recent move to appoint a Panel of Historians is a crucial step in the right direction.

People like Ian Syson, Nick Guoth, Richard Kreider, Roy Hay and Bill Murray are burrowing as deep as they can into the origins of football in Australia, and - believe me - they're on a mission. The deeper they go, the more interesting it gets. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, we'll have a definitive history of our game, and then we can really build the narrative.

In the meantime, here's some known facts which are worth repeating in the wake of Sheedy's outburst.

Organised Australian Rules may well pre-date organised football, but not by much. Significantly, when the rules of the 18-a-side game were drawn up in 1859, we know at least two of the authors (Englishman William Hammersley and Irishman Thomas Smith) were migrants. My suspicion is that among the other seven authors, there were a couple more.

Indigenous game? Depends on your interpretation, doesn't it?

The first Australian Rules interstate match (Victoria versus South Australia) was played in 1879. The first football interstate match (NSW versus Victoria) was played four years later.

It's not widely known, but our version of football boomed in the 1880s. The South British Football Association (NSW) was formed in 1882, and by 1900 there were state bodies in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia. Our state federations are some of the oldest football associations in the world.

Australia formed its first national body in 1911, and the game boomed again during the 1920s and 1930s, partly on the back of the establishment of the national team in 1922.

Crowds, notably in the Illawarra and Hunter Valley coalfields, were large, and boisterous. Just like the Western Sydney Wanderers fans are these days, funnily enough.

It's absolutely true that the migration boom of the 1950s gave football a huge boost. But the point that needs to be made, as often and as loud as possible, is that football was around for a long time before the migrants arrived, and at times had done pretty well for itself.

Great players like Judy Masters, Alf Quill, Jimmy Osborne, Frank Parsons, Reg Date and Joe Marston were all dinky-di Australians. It's just that - because of media disinterest - the wider world didn't generally know about it.

Eventually, hopefully, it will be understood that football is almost as old as AFL, and just as Australian. In that sense, Sheedy might just have done us a big favour.