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The History of Football and Soccer in Ashburton: Part I

For the purposes of this article, the term ‘Football’ will be used to describe Australian Rules Football. The term ‘Soccer’ will be used to describe the round-balled field sport called Football in other countries. The term ‘Rugby’ is acknowledged as covering those other two football codes they like up north but will rarely be uttered again. This is Victoria after all.


Ashburton Dragons in action c.1978

Across Australia, the country’s locally grown sport of Australian Rules Football reigns supreme. Football is the most widely supported and revenue rich league. Soccer, on the other hand, may be played in almost every other country of the world but it occupied the lowest fan, media and revenue support of all the football codes.[1] This marginalisation, wrote James Skinner in a 2008 article for Soccer and Society, resulted from government policy (especially the White Australia one), attitudes in media reporting, reactions by other sport leaders, and xenophobic discourse. It remains the subject of much complexity and discussion.


As the grip of Matildas’ fever begins to loosen and its effect on the country’s football and soccer culture is still to unfold, many people are questioning if their wonderful success is just an anomaly or if soccer’s ascendancy to the top of the football hierarchy has begun.


Historically a man’s game, soccer is played by more children and women than football. Research reveals that it is the most popular sport at a developmental level in Australia.[2] But does this finding hold in Boroondara?

At the present time, Boroondara residents support a whopping 21 different community clubs designed to encourage people to kick some kind of ball around on an oval in winter. There are even more than 21 clubs: this table below does not show private school football and soccer teams. Although some kids play for both, schools usually expect their students to prioritise their school team over a community club.


List of Football, Soccer and Rugby Clubs in Boroondara (by order of establishment)


The table reveals that Boroondara has a very long and entrenched connection to Australian Rules football over soccer. In spite of the incredible popularity of soccer everywhere else in the country, in Boroondara, community football clubs outnumber soccer by 3:1.


That is, everywhere except Glen Iris and Ashburton. There was a time when both suburbs supported at least two football clubs for men and boys. Although both suburbs now have successful junior football clubs, what happened to the adult clubs? And was their demise a contributor to Ashburton becoming one of the only places to play soccer in Boroondara for decades?


And finally, because this is Ashburton, was the former president of Ashburton Football Club really a drug dealer?

In the next two posts, I’m going to investigate answers to these questions.


The first club: Glen Iris Methodist Football Club


From the early 20th century, men and boys could become one of two types of footballers playing in Ashburton and Glen Iris: the kind that played for the clubs linked to the local Churches; and the kind that did not. Both suburbs had strong connections to the Methodist Church at this time. In Victoria, the Methodists brought with them strict rules against the consumption of alcohol and gambling. So it was not long before what football club you joined became a question of whether you liked a few alcoholic drinks after the game, or a cup of tea.


As the Glen Iris Methodist Church is the oldest church in the area by many years, it fielded a team first. A Glen Iris Methodist Church football team first appeared on record in 1934 as a C Grade team in the Eastern Suburbs Protestant Football League (later known as the Eastern Suburbs Churches Football League).


A few years later, the Eastern Suburbs Football League emerged. This League appealed more to those footballers who liked to have a drink after (or before… and probably during) the game. The exodus of players from the Churches League to the non-Church league caused the C Grade to disappear. Glen Iris Meths suddenly became a B Grade team. By 1937 the team managed to make it to the Grand Final, suffering defeat at the hands of Burwood Presbyterian. Nevertheless, Glen Iris Meths ascended to the A Grade. Unfortunately, they could not hold this lofty position. By 1947, they managed to secure their first premiership in the C Grade against Balwyn Combined by only five points.


They then toiled in the C Grade for many years, enjoying premiership success in 1952 with a thumping 50 point victory over their neighbours at Glen Iris Presbyterian. Two years later, the Club disappeared from League records.


The Second Church Club: the Ashburton Methodists


The Ashburton Methodist Football Club enjoyed more longevity. The Church itself was built in 1935 and it appears a Methodist Church-affiliated Club played casually at Watsons Park soon after. After World War II and with an influx of new residents coming in, the Club consolidated and joined the Eastern Suburbs Churches League in 1948. But it would be almost 20 years before it tasted premiership success.


Ashburton Meths won the B Grade premiership against Emmanuel Church of England in 1966. This started a period of ascendancy to the A Grade, where the Meths finished respectably in the top three for a couple of years. The 1970s saw the Meths play in a few premierships but only winning the B Grade Reserves in 1972. Despite consistent mediocrity, the Club scraped together teams every year until 1985. At this stage, the Club merged with Chadstone and played on until 1990.



An early photo of the junior football club formed from the remnants of the Ashburton Methodists

The Ashy Meths always had juniors playing. But demographic shifts caused a decline in memberships. Sometime in 1971, the ‘Ashy Meths’ under-17 side folded so local football identity Geoff Ferguson, his son Robin and friend Phil Dwyer decided to start their own junior football club. I wrote about the history of this Club, now known as the Ashburton United Junior Football Club, in an earlier series of posts: Part I, Part II, and Part III.


Meanwhile, as the two Church teams played, separate, non-church affiliated teams also formed in Glen Iris and Ashburton in the late 1940s. Few records of these two clubs survive. Then in the early 1960s, they both joined the Eastern Suburbs League’s successor: the South East Suburban Football League. Fortunately, the League has a historian who has helpfully collated all the records.


Violence in Football


Football had a reputation for on-field violence.


A brawl at a Parkdale vs Oakleigh Districts game in 1978

‘I had three broken jaws, a broken cheekbone, and I can’t remember how many times my nose was broken,’ said one former player I spoke to. If you were a prospective footballer looking for a bit of a fight, then there were several aggressive local clubs to join. The Hawthorn Citizens were particularly notorious: ‘you took your life in your hands playing there,’ said the same player.


The new SESFL decided to adopt a no-tolerance to violence policy and the Burnley Football Club became the first victim of this rule. They already carried a reputation for trouble into the competition. When a brawl broke out in round three against opponents Balwyn, the League handed out several penalties to all the players. Incensed, the President of Burnley let out a tirade of abuse and threats that caused his Club to be immediately suspended for the remainder of the season. They managed to return in 1964 but by 1965, the Club folded, much to the relief of the entire League.


Regular reports of on-field violence persisted into the next decades. In a September 1978 match between Federal League clubs Parkdale and Oakleigh Districts every player on both teams and three umpires entered into a fight ‘that was just one of the many fiery incidents that peppered the game.’[1] The SESFL too struggled to stamp out fights. The 1978 Second Division semi-final between Port Colts and St Kilda City was ‘completely ruined by ugly brawling which did nothing to bring credit on either side.’[2]


Attempt to break up the Parkdale brawl, 1978

The League’s records reveal little trouble with the Glen Iris Football Club, playing down at Eric Raven Reserve. In 1965, they only lost two games during the season, conquering Murrumbeena by 32 points in the Grand Final. Victory would be elusive again until 1979, when the second division triumphed over Chadstone by 20 points; and the under 15s beat Burwood to the premiership flag. The Club played on until 1992.


But if you were after a few drinks and a fight, there was always the Ashburton Dragons.

The Dragons: Ashburton Football Club


Most of the early players in the Ashburton Dragons lived on the south side of Ashburton or in the Housing Commission estate. Not much is known of their early years but it does appear that by 1960 they fielded several teams, including under 15s and under 17s.[3] In 1963, when they joined the South East Suburban Football League, they fielded teams in the A Grade, B Grade Reserve, and a C Grade under 17s. Since the Club operated concurrently with the Meths, this indicates that football enjoyed strong support in the area.

Rare Ashburton Dragon team photograph from the 1950s

In 1971, Ashburton won its first Grand Final with the SESFL, defeating Carnegie by 22 points. This heralded the beginning of a golden decade for the Club. The playing demographic had shifted towards the younger generation of Housing Commission residents deemed ‘feral’, a ‘bunch of thugs’ and ‘I’m glad you called them feral so I don’t have to’ by people I spoke to. Outside of game days, the players’ main stomping ground was the Matthew Flinders Hotel, just down the hill on Warrigal Road. On game days, Ashy supporters came to watch the match at Ashburton Park and party at the Scout Hall afterwards.


Dragons players enjoy a few beers after a match (courtesy of Dragons Facebook Page)

Here one could find barrels of beer on tap. ‘The place would be heaving,’ remembered one resident. Liquor licensing bans were overcome by each attendee buying a ticket including the statement ‘The President invites you to one glass of beer’ and then giving the ticket to the people behind the bar. That way, you were not technically buying alcohol.


The police attended matches regularly, often using them as an opportunity to find a player with an outstanding warrant. That said, being a player on the team also offered some privilege should the police catch a player doing something illegal. ‘I’m on the football team,’ could occasionally be a sufficient explanation for escaping minor driving offences.


Of course, football’s culture of drinking was not limited to Ashburton. By 1979, the SESFL deemed the final season to be alcohol free, ‘following incidents in previous years.’[4] ‘The police,’ reported Chadstone Progress’ football reporter Norman Hocking, ‘are delighted that a sporting body has finally taken action to make football more of a spectator sport and less a public bar.’


The 1970s: the peak of the Club’s success


By 1977, the Dragons reached unprecedented success when they finished top of the ladder and won the two senior divisions. The next season, they went through entirely undefeated. In one match against Murrumbeena, superstar goal kicker Gary Thompson, ‘helped himself to seven goals despite being out through illness and nowhere near fit.[5]


Ashburton Dragons 1970s Grand Final Results

Year

Position

Final Score

1971

​Reserve Premiers against Carnegie

11.13.79 to 7.15.57

1972

Defeated in second division by Sandown


1973

Second division premiers against Tooronga-Malvern

14.15.99 to 11.17.83

1977

Finished top of the ladder (undefeated)

Second division premiers against Murrumbeena

Reserves premiers against Mt Waverley

19.11.125 to 16.18.114

18.13.123 to 14.13.97

1978

Finished top of the ladder (undefeated)

Won against Murrumbeena

Defeated by Mt Waverley in Reserves

11.18.84 to 10.13.73

17.17.119 to 17.11.113

Dragons v Murrumbeena, 1978

Rumours about the secret to their success abounded. After the 1978 premiership win, club president Brian Horan told Chadstone Progress, ‘at one stage we had a bit of a reputation as being the ugly duckling of the South-east Suburban League. But over the last three years I’d say we’ve shattered that image. Some of us got together, worked out a plan, and then proceeded to put it into action. The appointment of ex-Carlton and North Melbourne player David Rogers as coach laid the foundation for success. [But it was] successful negotiations with Peter Pettigrew, formerly from Collingwood, Preston and Oakleigh, [that was] the real clincher. His appointment as coach brought us the things which had been so lacking in previous years – fitness, teamwork and a will to win.’


It was now common practice for community football clubs to pay players at the higher level. This required considerable fundraising and financial investment. But at the Dragons, their on-field success did not translate into local sponsors. ‘It would be nice to gain some sort of local recognition, even if it were in the form or trophies on a weekly basis for the best players,’ Horan continued.

Peter Pettigrew, c.1978

Another bone of contention was the deplorable state of the Ashburton Park Pavilion. But Council plans were afoot to replace it. ‘All we need now is the Camberwell City Council to come good with the replacement of our present-antiquated amenities, and for a few local businesses to sit up and take notice that a local junior sporting body has emerged from the ruck to become a streamlined and progressive club,’ Horan finished.


With the Club’s considerable success and prospects for more, it came as a great shock when a few months later Peter Pettigrew suddenly left the club.[1] Why he left is not on public record so if Peter is reading this or anyone else who knows would like to tell me, that would be great.


Perhaps what went down in the next few years had something to do with it.


Money changes everything… in the 1980s


The early 1980s saw a significant change in the south-east suburban football landscape. The Federal League, regarded as one of the strongest metropolitan leagues in Melbourne, was disbanding. SESFL clubs recruited heavily from their ranks. According to SESFL records, Ashburton particularly paid out unprecedented amounts to players, believed to be around $1,000 per match. The investment paid off in 1981 when they again took the Grand Final over Tooronga-Malvern: 15.14.104 to 14.12.96.


But speculation in the SESFL mounted. If there were few local sponsors, then where was all the Club’s money coming from to pay all the top players?

‘There was no salary cap to speak of back then,’ one former player told me. ‘And there was certainly no money in the reserves. The Dragons also copped some pretty hefty penalties for rough conduct, rightly and wrongly.’


In the SESFL, there were rumours the Club’s new president, Dennis Lowe was using the club to either launder money from drug dealing or funding it entirely from drug revenue. ‘There were all sorts of dodgy people around back then,’ one person told me. ‘If you wanted a new TV, you knew you could get one for $20 out of the back of a truck at Ashburton Park before a game.’


The Letter that Ended it All


Exactly who Dennis Lowe really was is a matter of some contention. Newspaper records reveal there was a Dennis Lowe who had started out his working life as a dockyard worker in Port Melbourne and did seem to have some dubious connections.[2] He later become a racing enthusiast with connections to the Gold Coast. Was this the same Dennis Lowe now the President of Ashburton Football Club? Do tell me if you know.


Ashburton Dragons after the 1987 Grand Final win. Many of these hairstyles can still be seen on fields today.

The end of the line for Ashburton Football Club did not come because it ran out of money or lost players. In 1987, Ashburton won both the seniors and the reserves at the expense of St Kilda City in both divisions. But the next year, the Club had merged with Caulfield.


The Victorian Football Association (the next tier up the hierarchy of football) had expelled Caulfield from the league for owing $11,000 in levies. Caulfield was keen to re-enter the VFA so decided to merge with Ashburton in a bid to access their high quality players. The new club played in Ashburton’s green jumpers with gold piping but my enquiries revealed that none of the Club’s former players seem to know why the merger occurred from Ashburton’s end.


The only year of Ashburton-Caulfield Football Club, 1988

Despite its mysterious formation, the new Ashburton-Caulfield Club triumphed once again in the 1988 Grand Final. Then came the letter from Dennis Lowe to the SESFL’s Secretary.


‘It came on his company stationary, not the Club’s,’ said the SESFL’s historian Ross McCulloch. ‘I remember it had a Gold Coast post office box address and seemed to be for some kind of exotic product and palm tree importing business.’

Lowe heavily criticised the League for unprofessionalism and directed personal insults towards its Secretary. According to players, ‘the letter was on the back of some suspensions handed out,’ said one player at the time. ‘I was at the meeting of whether we supported the President’s stance.’ ‘There was a dispute with the League over the suspension of their captain for a pathetic king hit in the grand final,’ said another. ‘I was there but I just missed it - I heard the crowd's groan when it happened.’


According to the SESFL historian, the League wrote back asking if Lowe’s criticisms came from him personally or from the Club. Whatever the case, he needed to talk to them directly. Many of the players remember the Club committee members trying to rally their support behind the Club. Yet, according to the SESFL, there was never a formal reply from Ashburton Football Club. According to Ross, there was probably some legitimacy to the letter’s claims. The Secretary of the time was ‘very standover-ish and controlling’.


The Club was essentially a pawn in a pissing contest between two difficult men. Not only that, the SESFL believed Dennis Lowe was personally injecting large amounts of money into the Club but where this money came from was not common knowledge to the members. The SESFL speculated he was actually a drug dealer.


The Club members ultimately voted to back Lowe. Back at the League, two full delegates meetings were held to discuss Ashburton’s future. A motion was put forward at the first meeting to expel the Club because it would not detach itself from the President’s letter. Some of the Club representatives at the meeting admitted to not reading the original letter in the first place. But almost all voted to expel the Club anyway.


‘They were jealous of Ashy’s success,’ noted some former players. Even the SESFL historian acknowledged this point. But the dubiousness of Lowe’s letter, financial resources and the Club committee’s refusal to separate themselves from him also contributed to the Club’s demise.

At that point, adult football in Ashburton began to die out. By 1990, with the demise of the Ashy Meths, it was gone. In the meantime though, down at Warner Reserve, the Ashburton United Soccer Club was growing. Within a few years, the four posts of football at Ashburton Park would be replaced by the rectangular nets of soccer goals.


The last word comes in 2003. A Gold Coast court convicted a man named Dennis James Lowe for trafficking, possessing and receiving money for the sale of methamphetamines.[3]


I’m not saying it’s the same guy. But it sure is a hell of a coincidence.


Up next: the story of soccer in Ashburton


Thanks to Ross McCulloch for his efforts preserving All SESFL records and taking the time to answer my questions. Also to Mick, convenor of the Ashburton Dragons Facebook page, for his thoughts too.



References

[1]Skinner, James, Allan Edwards, and Dwight Zakus, 'Coming in from the Margins: Ethnicity, Community Support, and the Rebranding of Australian Soccer,' Soccer and Society (2008). [2]Ibid.

[1] "Parkdale Brawl," Chadstone Progress, 13 September 1978. [2] Hocking, Norman, "Ashburton Down by Five Points," Chadstone Progress, 2 September 1980. [3] "Flasback Ivor and Barbara Blake," The Sunday Herald, 15 October 1960. [4] "Liquor Ban for South East Finals," Chadstone Progress, 15 August 1979. [5] "Ashburton Still the Masters," Chadstone Progress, 10 May 1978.

[1] "South-East Coach Shocks," Chadstone Progress, 4 April 1979. [2] "Bomb Threat Made at Hotel, Says Licensee," The Age, 10 February 1982. [3] "Jale Ends Glamorous Life Paid for by Drugs," The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 5 December 2003.









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