One of the new buzz words in the AFL during Covid-19 is ‘asterisk’. It relates to the exceptional circumstances that will surround the 2020 season irrespective of what happens.
Opinion is polarised. Some like veteran WA commentator Dennis Cometti says there should not even be a premier. But coaches collectively suggest it’ll be one of the hardest and most treasured premierships to win.
Whatever, it will have an asterisk. Just like the Fitzroy premiership of 1916.
Yes, the Lions family already has a premiership flag with an asterisk like the 2020 one that all teams will be chasing when competition resumes next month.
It came 96 years ago in the most bizarre circumstances when Fitzroy claimed the premiership and the wooden-spoon in the same season during the First World War.
It was a Victorian Football League season highlighted by a host of intriguing and unimaginable stories featuring some of the Fitzroy greats, a bizarre finals system and one terribly sad story.
It was the 20th year of the Victorian Football League, formed in 1897 as an eight-team competition featuring Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St.Kilda.
The League had swelled to 10 teams with the addition of Richmond and University in 1908 but by the time of the Fitzroy asterisk flag during the war it was down to four teams.
University, or Melbourne University Football Club as it was officially known after being formed by a group of students and graduates of the University in 1859, had dropped out in 1915 for reasons unrelated to the war.
They were the only club in the competition not to pay their players and had never finished higher than sixth. They had an aggregate record of 27 wins, two draws and 97 losses from 126 games, were wooden-spooners from 1911-14 and lost their last 51 games.
The other withdrawals were all war-related and followed a meeting of Essendon players in mid-February 1916 where they passed a resolution that identified the only conditions under which they would play that year.
It read: “That all players play as amateurs. That all gate receipts and membership subscriptions be pooled and held in trust by the League and at the end of the season, be handed over to the Patriotic Funds."
Essendon supported the proposal and vowed to meet whatever expenses were necessary but the club later withdrew from the competition after the League rejected their demands.
Thereafter, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda all refused to play 1916 on "patriotic grounds", leaving only the four inner-suburban teams of Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond, whose home grounds were within walking distance of each other.
Fitzroy had been premiers in 1898-99 and 1904-05, grand finalists in 1903, and finalists every year from 1898-1906. After six years out of the top four they were premiers again in 1913, losing semi-finalists in 1914 and preliminary finalists in 1915, when they lost to eventual premiers Carlton.
There had been big changes at Brunswick Street Oval over the off-season. Percy Parratt, 1914-15 captain-coach and later named on the interchange bench in the Fitzroy Team of the Century, was replaced in both jobs from within the side. George Holden took over as playing coach and appointed Wally Johnson as captain.
Holden, Johnson and Parratt had been members of the 1913 Fitzroy premiership side. Likewise eight other members of the 1916 line-up – Jimmy Freake, Tom Heaney, Bert Lenne, Chris Lethebridge, Harold McLennan, Charlie Norris, George Shaw and Jim Toohey.
No less than four members of this illustrious group would later be inducted into the Brisbane Lions Hall of Fame – Parratt, Holden, McLennan and Freake.
Unusually, five members of his group had captained or would captain Fitzroy for a combined 11 years – McLennan (1911), Parratt (1914-15 and 1920-21), Johnson (1916 and 1919), Holden (1917-18) and Lethebridge (1921-22).
And although the winners of the 1916 and 1917 Fitzroy Best & Fairest are not recorded the 1916 side included six players who won the award eight times between them - Johnson (1907), Holden (1908 and 1915), George Lambert (1909), McLennan (1912-13), Freake (1918) and Horrie Jenkin (1926).
Fitzroy started the abbreviated 1916 season with wins over Carlton and Richmond and a draw with Collingwood. After three rounds they were the only unbeaten side and sat on top of the ladder.
Staggeringly, they did not win another game in the 12-round home-and-away season in which each club played each other club four times. The ladder saw Carlton (10 wins) finish top from Collingwood (six wins and a draw), Richmond (five wins) and Fitzroy (two wins and a draw).
Under the Argus Finals System, which had not been altered despite the reduction in teams, each team was to play in the finals, which were all to be played at the MCG.
But even before the finals began Fitzroy had problems. They had lost two key players to injury - Freake, the club’s leading goal-kicker in 1912-13-14-15 and later to repeat this effort in 1917-18-23, and Toohey, whose sons Jim Jnr and Jack would later play for Fitzroy.
There was some good news – Norris, the 35-year-old veteran who had not played since Round 4, and Jenkin, who had missed two games, were cleared to return in the finals.
On Saturday 12 September fourth-placed Fitzroy beat second-placed Collingwood by six points after being nine down at halftime. It was 9-9 (63) to 8-9 (57). Parratt kicked the clinching goal.
The following Saturday first-placed Carlton beat third-placed Richmond by three points.
Under the Argus System, this set up a ‘preliminary final’ between the two semi-final winners which may or may not determine the premiers.
It was Carlton v Fitzroy on 26 August. If Carlton were to win they would be awarded the premiership because they had been minor premiers. But if Fitzroy were to win then Carlton would be given the right of challenge because they had finished on top of the home-and-away ladder.
So, to win the flag the Maroons, as Fitzroy were called at the time, had to beat the Blues twice and make it three wins in as many weeks. A huge task given they had only won twice in the entire home-and-away season.
The punters gave them little chance but they hung in. Carlton led by 10 points, six points and three points at the breaks, but Fitzroy had been in front in the second and third quarters.
Still the crowd favored the Blues but they were down two men. It was 18-a-side, with no reserves, and they lost one to a broken collarbone late in the first quarter and another to a broken arm in the third.
Fitzroy at least had a full complement although Lethebridge, injured early, was severely handicapped. They kicked the first goal of the final term to hit the front.
As the story goes, things became spiteful but while Carlton played the man Fitzroy kept their eye on the ball. Roy Millen found Heaney who kicked truly to put his side 10 points up. Their biggest lead of the day.
Carlton were gone and goals to Jenkin and Heaney saw Fitzroy win 9-11 (65) to 5-12 (42).
But the job was only half done. Carlton utilised their challenge, and the teams had to go around again the following week. Sadly, Lethebridge had joined Freake and Toohey on the injured list.
It was desperate times requiring desperate measures and to fill the vacancy the great “Hal” McLennan, who had retired after playing the first three games of the season, answered an SOS to make an unlikely grand final comeback.
Fitzroy were still considered outsiders in perfect conditions, but confidence in the camp was high. Especially after they kicked the first three goals inside 10 minutes.
They led by 18 points at quarter-time and were never headed. The lead was five goals at halftime and 27 points at three-quarter time before they cruised home 12-13 (85) to 8-8 (56). Roy Millen, only 22 in his 51st game, was named best afield.
Others to stand out for the victors were Johnson, Shaw, Norris, Teddy Bruist, Parratt (three goals) and Heaney (three goals).
It was one of the great Fitzroy sides and featured no less than 11 players who had or went on to play 100 games for the club. That’s 10% of the 110 players among Fitzroy’s all-time playing list of 1157 to reach triple figures all in one side.
Parratt (195 games) is ranked 13th on the games list. Johnson (190) is 14th, Freake (174) is 20th, Jenkin (168) is 22nd, Holden (164) is 25th and Lenne (157) is 35th.
McLennan (135), Fred Bamford (119), Millen (117), Shaw (117) and Norris (106) complete the 100-gamers, while Heaney played 98 games for Fitzroy after 56 at Richmond.
The side that played in the grand final without Freake, Lethebridge and Toohey was:-
B: Bob King, Bert Lenne, Fred Bamford
HB: Ted McDonald, Wally Johnson (capt), Harold McLennan
C: Teddy Buist, George Holden, Roy Millen
HF: Bert O’Dee, Tom Heaney, Percy Parratt
F: Tom Lowrie, Horrie Jenkin, Teddy Purcell
R: Charlie Norris, Fred Moore, George Shaw.
Coach: George Holden
The grand final was the perfect exit for Buist, who played his 71st and last game.
Fortuitously, Freake and Lethebridge, premiership players in 1913 before missing out in 1916, would get their second flag in 1922 just as Holden, Johnson, Shaw, Parratt, Heaney, Norris, Lenne and McLennan had done in 1916.
Jenkin, too, would get his second flag in 1922, while Parratt would pick up his third.
But there was a sad post-script to an unforgettable grand final. Jack Cooper wasn’t there.
Recruited from the North Fitzroy Juniors, Cooper was a champion half back flanker who had played 136 games with the club from 1907-15. The first player to wear jumper #5 for Fitzroy, he was a key member of the 1913 premiership team, had won the B&F in 1911 and 1914 and was club captain in 1912.
He played eight times for Victoria and captained the Big V against South Australia in 1912, and was just 26 when he played for Fitzroy in the 1915 preliminary final loss to Carlton.
But instead of looking forward to the 1916 season and what should have been his second premiership Cooper quit his job as a storeman and enlisted in the 8th Battalion of the First AIF in November. He left for France on the troopship Wiltshire in March two months before his club began their next season.
He saw action in the Battle of the Somme and had not long been in the trenches when he was so badly gassed that he was sent to England to repatriate.
In October of that year, soon after Fitzroy had won the flag, he played for the Australian Training Units team in an exhibition football match at the Queen’s Club in West Kensington, London, just before he returned to active service in France.
He continued to have problems with his throat, a by-product of his earlier gassing, and after recuperating for a second time he was sent to officer training.
He returned to France again and this time there was no homecoming. He was killed in action in the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium on 20 September 1917 aged 28.
His remains were never recovered. He is commemorated in the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, and his name appears in the Commemorative Area of the Australian War Memorial.