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The game in a time of war

Volume 9 Number 4 April 8 - May 12 2013

With Anzac Day around the corner, the Melbourne University Football Club (MUFC) has been presented with a rare chance to commemorate fallen club mates from both the Blues and the Blacks. By David Scott

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. 

Speaking ahead of Anzac Day, MUFC General Secretary Andrew Donald said 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.

Often these players were junior officers, and one can imagine them in the trenches of the western front, whistle in mouth, pistol in hand, ready to lead the charge on the opposition fortifications.

George Elliott, a winner of the Military Cross was one of those, whom the book cites 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 beyond that of George Elliott: his 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 20 to 30 blokes, not the 50 or 60 that is commonplace now days,“ 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, and 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.  

“It follows that the true purpose of University football is and has always been to instil 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 has for some years harboured an ambition to play a Blacks-Blues match for amateur premiership points in an Anzac commemoration.  In 2013 this ambition will become a reality, with a game between the sides kicking off just after 2pm on Saturday 27 April on the University Oval.

This season is only the second in the past 30 where Blacks and Blues have faced off in the top division of the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA).  The game will take on a particular significance as it takes place in front of the soon-to-be redeveloped Oval Pavilion (an event much anticipated by players and followers alike).

The Pavilion has been an ever present feature in the University Sport Precinct for more than 60 years – longer, if you include the ‘candle snuffer’ turret, one of the only surviving features from the fire that destroyed the original building.  The “Pavvy”, as it’s affectionately known, will be closed for a football season for the first time in memory.

“This match will be an important and fine occasion in the life of the University of Melbourne and its football club, and we hope that it will be supported strongly by the broader University community, including the men and women not only of University football but of the University’s sporting teams generally,” Mr Donald says.

“Australian Rules football has always been central to maintaining the morale of Victorian defence personnel on active service abroad, and this game will reflect that, providing not just a commemoration of the lives of those players who died before their time, but for all the men and women of the University who served Australia.

“Greater love hath no man.”

Enquiries about the Anzac game can be made directly to the General Secretary of MUFC