A-League’s Western Sydney ‘Wanderers’ revives the name of the city’s first “English Association” football club, founded in 1880. The arrival of the club and code was not only embraced by Sydney’s Rugby officials, but suspiciously, they took an active role in making sure the round-ball game quickly became established in the NSW capital.

King's School Rugby team 1879 - the following year they played in Sydney's first soccer game vs
King’s School Rugby team 1879 – the following year they played in Sydney’s first soccer game vs “The Wanderers”

Founded in 1863 by London’s Football Association, the primarily non-handling version of football was not unknown in Australia, with its rules appearing in various publications in the late 1860s and through the 1870s, and often raised in club meetings and newspaper articles debating the merits of football rules. Ex-players from England and Scotland were also amongst the great numbers of men and families migrating to a new life in the colonies.

The round-ball code appears to have been first played in a one-off match in August 1875 at Goodna in Queensland [link].

Two years earlier a meeting of clubs in Adelaide was reported by The South Australian Advertiser (14.3.1873) to have adopted laws “somewhat similar to the rules of the English Football Association”, though what year’s version of the English FA’s this comment is based upon is unclear, as subsequent match reports indicate catching and running with the ball in hand was continued [link].

The first club to adopt the FA rules in Australia, albeit briefly, was footballing side of The Cricketers’ Club in Hobart in 1879 [link].

In the wake of Sydney’s Waratah (Rugby) and Melbourne’s Carlton (Victorian) football clubs meeting in cross-code matches in 1877 and ’78, and claims being put forward that Rugby in Sydney was too dangerous to play and too boring to watch, efforts (ultimately unsuccessful) were made in 1879 to change the playing laws under the NSWRU to align them closer to those of the Victorian Football Association.

Far from discouraged, those agitating for change, aided by ex-pat Victorians, opened 1880 with moves towards forming a NSW body to establish the Melbourne-born code in Sydney. Debate raged amongst the city footballers and supporters, much of it spilling into the newspapers. On the night of 30 June 1880 “a very largely attending meeting was held” in the city for a final debate and vote on founding the code.

Being a public meeting anyone could attend and have their say and vote. The proposal put forward to be voted upon was “That in the opinion of this meeting a radical change in the game of football, as at present played in this colony, is necessary” (via the adoption of Victorian football rules). Unsurprisingly, each speaker in turn was in favour of the proposal. 

However, Monty Arnold, a prominent NSWRU official since its inception in 1874, and co-founder of the powerful Wallaroo Rugby club in the early 1870s, “spoke in opposition to the resolution, and contended that, although the Rugby game might be susceptible of improvement, it was superior to the game as played under the Victorian rules.” A representative of the Sydney University club also rose to make it clear “that the University players still adhered to the Rugby rules.”

Despite the efforts of the Rugby supporters, the motion was passed to form the NSW Football Association playing Victorian rules. At a meeting the following week (7 July) Philip Sheridan, one of the trustees of the Sydney Cricket Ground and an advocate for the Australian game, accepted the position of NSWFA President.

It was into this now open warfare between Rugby and Victorian rules that a letter appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald (14 July 1880) from someone identifying himself as “Half Back”:

Sir, If you will allow me, I wish to suggest through your columns that some move might be taken to form a club or association to play football according to the rules of the English Association. This game is played in Scotland also, where it is immensely popular, and I am sure, once introduced, the dribbling game would be equally so here. I have played at home, and would gladly subscribe to the membership of any club willing to play our grand game. I think it possible also, that there are many old hands, may-hap a “Queen’s Park” man, or a “Wanderer,” who would take a pleasure in promoting such a club in Sydney; and, although I cannot again become a playing man, I would form one in any team for a show-match, and otherwise assist to put the young Australians right (if a club were formed) until they could walk alone.

Three days later the same newspaper included another letter advocating the introduction of English Association football to Sydney. Written by John Walter Fletcher, a graduate from Oxford University who had arrived in Australia in 1875, the letter provided more information on the game, and proffered the notion that in Britain the two codes happily co-existed, and indeed aided the skill development of Rugby players: 

I have reason to think from conversations I have had on the subject that if the game could properly be started it would become very popular, not only with players, but with the public. Unfortunately, a very general misapprehension appears to exist as to the nature of the game, a great many people I have spoken to evidently confusing it with the Victorian Association game, whereas the two games have not a single point in common … At the present time the football players of Great Britain, playing under Rugby and Association rules, are about equally divided, and the two games exist side by side without one interfering in the least with the other, save that of late the value of good dribbling has become universally acknowledged in the Rugby game … I am quite sure that the principle of the game, which forbids the use of the hands, except by goalkeeper, and does away with scrummaging, collaring, mauling, &c, will commend itself to a very large section or this community. The game is essentially a scientific one, requiring, above everything else, unselfish and organized combination.

I do not wish to attack the old Rugby game, which, properly played, is interesting and exciting to players and spectators; but must enter a protest against the introduction of the Victorian game, which, though certainly interesting and amusing to look at, is, I believe, rougher than the Rugby, and violates the fundamental principle of all games like football – I mean the law of off side. The very thing condemned under the name of “sneaking” in the Eton [College] game is here encouraged and applauded, and in fact may almost be said to be the chief art of the game.

In the brief space of a letter it is impossible to say all that one would in behalf of the introduction of the rules of the English Association ; but I hope that, since at the present time a radical change is demanded in the present code, football players and the public generally will give the matter a more thorough investigation than it has yet received before committing themselves to the Victorian game. I should be willing to communicate with gentlemen willing to assist in starting a club under the rules of the English Association, and perhaps it might be possible to convene a meeting to consider the whole question. 

On 3rd of August 1880 a “meeting of gentlemen favourable to the formation of a Football Club under English Association rules was held.” Again, as with the Victorian rules meeting four weeks earlier, anyone could attend and make their views known.

The meeting was chaired by William ‘Gurry’ Burkitt – a master at the King’s School in Parramatta since 1870, he started the School’s first Rugby team that same year, acting as on-field captain and coach; he was also a player for the Wallaroo Rugby club, an official of the NSWRU since its founding in 1874, and often chaired club meetings of the Wallaroos and the Sydney University.Why or how he came to chair the meeting to introduce soccer remains a mystery.

Burkitt may have been educated in England in the mid 1860s, but clearly showed upon arrival at King’s School in 1870 a great love of the Rugby code, which barely yet had any presence in Sydney at that time. King’s taking up Rugby was a significant and influential move. 

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the English Association meeting:

…after explaining the object for which the meeting had been called, [Burkitt] said that football, no matter under what rules it was played, provided the game was carried on in a proper manly spirit, was worthy of support. It was suggested some years ago [1877] that it would be well to start football under English Association rules, but many of those who preferred that game thought that such a movement would be rather premature, and that football at that time had not prospered sufficiently in the colony to justify the introduction of the Association game; but, probably, the time had now arrived when it could be established successfully. At any rate, it would do good to the Rugby Union game by improving the forward play [by learning kicking skills]. A great deal had been said about the Rugby game, and a great outcry had been made against scrimmages. He must say, that the old form of scrimmages was very dear to him. It had been said that there was no skill required in these scrimmages, but he thought that when a player put the ball down with ten trusty opponents standing shoulder to shoulder in front of him, and got it through, it required no little skill, and there was no pleasanter feeling than that which attended the successful effort in this part of the Rugby game.

Fletcher also spoke, again reinforcing that soccer was no threat to Rugby, and offered the alternative form of football that seemingly was now desired by many in Sydney football:  

…as the game [football generally] had been in a somewhat uncertain state for some time, and a movement had been started in favour of making a change at least in one direction, it seemed to him, and to some others, more advisable that it should be in the direction of the good old game which was played in England side by side with the Rugby, rather than the game which was known here as the Victorian …  Another thing in favour of the English Association game was that it need not interfere in the smallest degree with the Rugby game, and indeed a Rugby player, by playing the Association game, could materially assist his own. But there were a great many players who, although they played the Rugby game, did so because they had no other. They must have some exercise, and preferred football, and therefore they played the Rugby game; but if any other game were started, he was sure they would find it far more suitable to their tastes than that at present played. There were a great many people who did not go to see football because it was too rough, but a game like the English Association need offend nobody. It was a fast, exciting, and interesting game, and everyone-even the most tender-hearted-could enjoy it.

J.A. Todd, who had played the game in England,also pushed the line that with soccer as the city’s alternative code, Rugby was not under threat:

In his experience he never found the Association game interfered with the Rugby game, but there were many players who could not play the Rugby game, and this Association game would fill a gap which at present existed. The advocates of Rugby football need fear nothing but a very healthy rivalry.

Richard Arnold, who like his brother had been at the forefront of Rugby development in Sydney, added:

…that, as for as he was concerned, as an old Rugby Union player, he should be very glad indeed to welcome the Association game into New South Wales, and thought it was a great pity it had not been started long ago. He was unfortunate in not having seen the game, but he had certainly seen plenty of Association play in Rugby Union matches, and was certain there was nothing that would improve the forward play in Rugby matches more than by getting players to practice the Association game. He feared it was too late in the season to do much now: but he certainly hoped that old Association players who might be willing to instruct others would take up this matter next season…

Though none of these speakers had mentioned Victorian rules, the clear inference was it was a hostile rival code retaining sufficient on-field robustness as well as a zeal for national dominance, that it would inexorably work towards suppressing Rugby, whereas soccer, being a considerably less dangerous and altogether different football game, could co-exist without impacting on Rugby at all.

Indeed, Arnold saw the competition as so negligible that he put forward the idea of Sydney football clubs having teams under both Rugby and soccer, with players even swapping between codes from game to game:

…either try to start clubs under the banner of the Association, or else persuade the Rugby Union clubs to also play under Association rules – that was to say that they could send one team into the field under Rugby rules and another under Association rules. He thought this was done in England, and it might be done here. In London there were several clubs playing under both rules, and he thought, considering the comparatively limited number of football players in New South Wales, that perhaps that would be the better plan to act upon. They might give countenance to the English Association game, and when it got stronger the players might drop off from the parent plant and form clubs of their own. (Applause.)

The Sydney Mail report of the meeting gave an account of an interesting side-note:

… the business of the meeting proceeded with the greatest harmony until Mr. [Frank] Weiss got upon his legs, and, while seconding the resolution then before the meeting, candidly avowed that he was in favour of Australians striking out a line for themselves in this matter. He said … as the colonies in many matters, political and social, had struck out a path for themselves, he did not see why the same line of conduct should not be adopted in the game of football. Such an expression of opinion was, of course, considered rank heresy, and coming from a gentleman who was known to possess a penchant for the Victorian game quite shocked the English Association advocates, and nearly drove the Rugbyites to the refreshment bar. 

A motion was successfully passed: “a club to play football under English Association rules should be formed, and that a committee be appointed to carry out that object.” Fletcher accepted the position of Honorary Secretary, Todd joined the committee, but despite their strong advocacy for the club’s formation, neither Arnold or Burkitt took any further role.

Burkitt provided one final piece of assistance, arranging for the King’s School Rugby team to provide the soccer club with their first opponents. However, he did not play, nor did he coach the team, choosing to turn out in a Rugby game for the Wallaroo against Newcastle held at the same time.

FOOTBALL.The first match in New South Wales played under English Association rules was played on Saturday last [August 14th 1880], by the newly formed club, against the King’s School boys at Parramatta. The visitors had a very fair team, allowing for the fact that hardly one of them had played football for some years. This advantage was, however, balanced by the fact that the boys had not played these rules before. The game was well contested for an hour and a half, and terminated in favour of the visitors by five goals to none; the number of goals must not, however, be taken as a criterion of the play, which was remarkably even, particularly after half-time, the boys on several occasions only failing to score on account of their want of familiarity with the art of passing and middling the ball. On the side of the English Association Club all played up well, but the play of D. Roxburgh as back was remarkably good and invaluable to his side, and Scott’s goal-keeping deserves praise. On the King’s School side the play of Fenwick was very fine, and he would make a grand Association player; all, however, played well. Mr. Savage, an old International player, played with and coached King’s School. The names of the club players were – T.A.Todd (captain), W.J. Baker, J.W. Fletcher, C.E. Hewlett, C.F. Fletcher, Wastinage, W. Robertson, W. Simson, Chapman, D. Roxburgh, J. Scott.

In the space of a month the English Association game had gone from a mere speculative letter in a newspaper to the permanent establishment of a club (soon named ‘The Wanderers’) and code.

The NSW Football Association (Victorian rules) battled on hard for support in Sydney and the Hunter region, but by 1895 became defunct and the code was no longer played.

As had been predicted at the founding meeting in 1880, soccer’s presence had no impact on the growth of Rugby, but there seems little doubt Australian rules may have fared much better had it only to contend with Rugby.

Had officials of the NSWRU played a clever hand in rapidly and unexpectedly bringing forth the soccer code to Sydney, with the goal of thwarting the hopes of Australian rules to win over the colony’s footballers?

© Sean Fagan

The match between Wanderers FC and King’s School at Parramatta is thought to have been held in Parramatta Park at what is now known as Old King’s Oval (to the south-west of Parramatta Stadium)..