Australian Rules Football was first played in Melbourne in 1858 and its popularity quickly spread throughout Victoria. New clubs were emerging constantly. Press reports of the time were dependent on clubs to submit results, which makes tracing the history of the clubs of the day difficult.
In its early days, football was an amateur’s game. Players were expected to fund the essential expense of uniforms and the ball itself. The popularity of the game was built on these early days when men and boys would play the game at any opportunity. The games were played on the paddocks and wide open spaces that were easy to find in inner Melbourne in the 19th century.
The first mention of a Northcote Football Club came in 1869 press reports of matches against North Melbourne and Brunswick. While this Northcote Football Club soon disappeared, Brunswick played in the VFA until the early 1990s and North Melbourne play in the AFL. In the early years there were a lot more draws in matches than we see today as prior to 1897 a single point for a behind was not awarded.
Football was already popular in rural Preston when the Shire Council acquired land in Cramer St for a sporting ground in 1876. Preston’s cricket and football clubs have played on the site, known as Preston Park or simply Cramer St, ever since. The best evidence suggests Preston Football Club started life in 1882. At that time, the club was called Gowerville which was the name of the area of Preston around High and Dundas Streets. At this time, ‘Preston’ was the name given to an area further north along High St. By the time the two areas were merged to form the Shire of Preston in 1886, the football club had become known as Preston.
Northcote played at the Croxton Park ground, behind the Hotel. In 1904 Northcote were forced to move by the Victorian Junior Football Association (VJFA) due to alcohol fuelled crowd trouble. In its stead the Hotel owners started a new club, the Rose of Northcote, which became a rival of Northcote in the VJFA. In 1909 Northcote returned to Croxton Park which saw the Rose of Northcote disbanded by the Hotel’s owners. The return was short lived, Northcote returning to an improved Northcote Park in 1915 after further controversy over the presence of a football club so close to licensed premises!
In the 1930s Northcote Football Club became a powerhouse in the Victorian Football Association while Preston also played in the VFA. But both clubs had found the going tough at times. Northcote were resurrected four times before the club finally established itself in 1899. Preston Football Club would face hard times on the field in the early 20th century after promotion to the VFA following a hat-trick of Premierships in the VJFA. The club struggled mightily, winning just 23 of 162 games between 1903 and 1911. Following that season, Preston was forced to merge with Northcote. In reality the club absorbed another local team, Preston Districts, and resumed playing at junior level.
The First World War forced the VFA, and Northcote Football Club, into recess for several seasons. The competition re-commenced with a limited number of clubs in 1918. The VFL continued throughout the war although for one season five clubs were in recess. The VJFA, in which Preston were playing, continued throughout the war. The VFA again went into recess during the Second World War, by which time both Northcote and Preston were member clubs.
Northcote Football Club enjoyed one era of tremendous success. Between 1929 and 1936 the Club played in seven grand finals for five Premierships. The “Brickfielders”, as they had become known, had many great players in this time but two in particular stand out. Frank Seymour was a strong, tall full forward who kicked 880 goals for Northcote in 201 games. Doug Nicholls came to Northcote after being rejected by Carlton, allegedly due to his Aboriginality, and became a star on the field and a huge drawcard at the gate. Though he went on to a successful career with Fitzroy in the VFL, Nicholls would become more widely known for his achievements as a crusader for the rights of Indigenous Australians. In 1944 he used his influence and football credibility to organise an exhibition match between a team of Aboriginals from New South Wales and Northcote. The match was a huge success with several thousand football starved spectators in attendance. The proceeds were donated to Aboriginal welfare funds.
Preston returned to the VFA in 1926 and was consistently competitive but unfortunately established a habit of losing finals. The club won a final in 1931 in Roy Cazaly’s only season with Preston. It was the only one of the first eighteen finals Preston played which they won. The drought was finally broken in 1963 with a second division Premiership. Preston then won back to back first division Premierships in 1968-69 and again in 1983-84. The first were achieved under Alan Joyce, who would later coach Hawthorn to VFL/AFL Premierships in 1988 and 1991. The second pair of Flags was won under Ray Shaw, who had been captain of Collingwood in the late 1970s.
Northcote never built on its success in the 1930s. The Club became part of the VFA’s second division in 1961. They won immediate promotion back to the first division but it was short lived; the club returned to second division in 1964 for good. Northcote struggled to attract enough local support to stay alive and were constantly facing financial hardships. The club had nearly disbanded as early as 195. Once known as the “Brickfielders” due to Northcote’s abundance of quarries, by the 1970s the club was known as the “Dragons”. It continued to wear its distinctive green and gold jumpers until the end; Northcote was one of very few senior football clubs in Australia to include green as one of its colours. The club finally succumbed to financial pressures and folded in 1987.
Preston Football Club continues today as the Northern Bullants in the VFL. The Bullant name was coined in the late 1930s by a radio commentator, who compared the Preston players to a “swarm of busy bullants”. Preston has also faced threats to its survival but has managed to survive due to strong local support and loyal players and staff. Preston was briefly amalgamated in the 1990s with an Under 18 Victorian State Football League (VSFL) team, the Northern Knights, and played under the name Preston Knights. The merger didn’t work and the club went on alone as the Northern Bullants from 2000. In 2002 they began an affiliation with Carlton Football Club, and now serve as the reserves team for the Blues.
Fiddian, Marc. (2004). The VFA: A history of the Victorian Football Association (1877-1995). Melbourne: The Author.
Lemon, Andrew. (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Membrey, Brian. (2004). Where we come from: Celebrating Preston Football Club’s admission to senior VFA ranks in 1903. Preston: Northern Bullants Football Club.
Membrey, Brian. (2003). The pubs, the parks and the Rose. [unpublished manuscript].