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Rebellion in the Ranks – The Story of the VFL Breakaway that almost was

In 1984, John Elliot was concerned. As the Carlton delegate to the VFL all he could see was delegates interested in how things affected their individual clubs. He was dismayed at the overall lack of direction for the VFL itself. Nothing of value was done during the delegate meetings, deals were done outside them, and Elliot felt that the bigger clubs – Carlton, Essendon, Collingwood and Richmond were left out in the cold on far too many matters, where the VFL executive could get by with the other 8 clubs.

At the end of each season, the leagues income would be divided equally amongst all the VFL clubs. Elliot found himself wondering why the leagues better drawing clubs werent recieving more of the income,

League football was in disarray. Eight clubs were believed to be treading a very fine line indeed on their solvency, a fact which prompted a warning from the Corporate Affairs Commission. The league itself was spending more than it earned by 2 million a year.

Elliot concluded that something had to be done, and after discussing the matter with Ian Collins decided that the only way around the Leagues incompetence was to break away.

The first thing was to ensure the competition would have somewhere to play – In 1984 the VFL had no contracts over the MCG, Princes Park or Kardinia Park, and could only prevent the competition from using Waverly Park, owned then by the VFL.

Elliot and Collins hatched a plan – the new league had to have an independent board of management, and would go nationwide by adding two clubs from each of WA and SA along with the Swans. Current VFL clubs could join but had to meet certain financial criteria, which more than half a dozen of the clubs would not have been able to meet.

Michael Standish, Elders corporate lawyer was consulted and advised that he felt quite positively that the competition could break away from the VFL.

Elliot then approached Ranald Mcdonald, then president of Collingwood and Greg Sewell, then Essendon president, and both were very warm to the idea. These three and Collins and Standish formed a committee. Standish drew up a proper constitution.

Collins was sent to South Australia and Western Australia to gauge interest. Elliot notes that while WA was quite positive, the South Australians were more guarded- wanting to be involved, but not wanting to be leaders of the developing competition.

Elliot then approached Richmond president Ian Willson who was also keen on the idea. Bob Ansett was the last of the club presidents/businessmen to be consulted, and wanted assurances that North Melbourne would be included if he supported it. Hawthorn would be wanted in the cabal, but no one wanted to talk to Hawks president Ron Cook, as he was very close to the men at VFL House.

Collins would write a 48 page report entitled “A proposal for reconstructing the existing competition to make it viable for the long term”.

By mid 1984, the Committee was ready to explain the proposal to the rest of the league – but the clubs first, and not the VFL which had launched its own subcommittee to address its own issues and was run by John Kennedy.

Elliot wrote a memorandum – the 5 leading Melbourne clubs would form the nucleaus of a new 12 team breakaway league, joined by two from SA, two from WA and Sydney, leaving two spots for the remaining 6 in Melbourne. The Committee wanted Geelong as a strong regional representative, but the other 5 were financial wrecks. Eventually, while the presentation ideally wanted 12 teams, they were prepared to go to 14, if financially sound. Each club that applied to join would have to have at least $250,000 in assets – and the ability to maintain that.

Matches would be played all through the weekend – Friday to Monday to make it more attractive to television

Projections of the finances for the new league expected revenues 15-20% higher than the VFL earnt in 1983.

The fateful meeting was held at Elders property at Sefton, Mt Macedon, on 4th September 1984, with all clubs represented. Ron Joseph represented North in Ansetts stead, while DIck Seddon replaced Melbournes president. Many were skeptical because it seemed like a Carlton idea, and the VFL clubs were always wary of each others plans. Elliot concluded that the league had no choice – either go national or stay as it was, but if it chose the latter, then the Victorian Competition Commission would have a very large say in how many clubs were left, and very soon.

The next morning Ian Collins rang Elliot to tell Elliot that after lengthy discussions with Seddon and Joseph on the drive back to Melbourne, he thought that the plan needed to be presented to the VFL executive so they didnt get the wrong idea, and so they could have a chance to enact the plan themselves. Elliot notes he was skeptical but did feel it was the right thing to do.

Shortly after, Collins and Elliot met with Aylett and Hamilton to outline the proposal. Aylett was evidently irritated – not least because he already had a committee looking at these things, but faced with the support of the big clubs and the prepartion already in hand, in the end could see that he had to deal with it and the rebels were given the chance to brief the VFL committee on September 12.

On October 1, the VFL strategy committee presented a report that included the major parts of the rebel proposal – a national competition run by an independent commission and a full time CEO.  Elliot was delighted with the recommendations.

  • Big Jack – My Sporting Life – “From VFL to AFL” – pg 42-49
  • Football Limited – “A Legion of Sworn Enemies” – pg 17-35
  • The Phoenix Rises – “Death Watch”  –

Jason Lassey

Ive been collecting and publishing Sports related crowd, financial, and ratings data here and on twitter for about 12 years.

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