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The History of Football and Soccer in Ashburton: Part II

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 what is 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.

Just the other day, the Australian Football League (AFL) announced it would be screening the World Cup quarter final match of Australia vs France before the Melbourne and Carlton game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). For the Matildas, Australia’s women’s soccer team, winning the match would make them the most successful Australian soccer team in World Cup history, male or female. But the timing of the two matches brought with it a caution from the AFL. Should the win-or-die match run into penalty time and clash with the start of the AFL game, then fans may not get to see who wins.

Message appearing at the MCG during the Matildas v France match

To sceptical soccer fans, it seemed merely another petty fight in the endless football vs soccer battle in Victoria. They widely derided the decision. As one Facebook poster commented bitterly, ‘when has AFL ever thrown us a bone? Not like they’re going to start now.’

The afternoon of the soccer match, nobody at the MCG saw the first quarter of the Melbourne v Carlton match. Rusted on Australian Rules football supporters of two of the oldest clubs in football’s history were all glued to their ‘personal streaming devices’, watching soccer. And not just any soccer … girl soccer.

As the men of Carlton and Melbourne caught and passed their oval ball around the hallowed ground of the MCG, Australia and France battled it out in the longest penalty shoot-out in World Cup history. Extra time had long ago finished. The scores were deadlocked on nil all. After six penalty shots from both sides, it came down to Australia. If they sunk this last penalty, they were into the first semi-final in Australian World Cup history.

Cortnee Vine stepped up. The entire country held its collective breath. With a look of intense concentration on her face, Cortnee took her shot at goal. The ball sailed past the French goalkeeper and hit the back of the net. Australia were in.

A huge, spontaneous roar went up at the MCG. For one very brief moment and possibly the first time in Victorian history, soccer - women's soccer - had transcended football. Even the Carlton and Melbourne men playing wished they had seen that goal live.

Now I can’t tell you if the Matildas’ triumph that day will be the end of the 150-year-old, iron-grip football retains over Victorian sporting culture. But that story demonstrates the long and bitter division that still exists among fans and authorities. As we saw in the first post, this division remains entrenched in Boroondara, the heartland of local football in Melbourne.

But like everything else about Ashburton, it’s not the case here.

In the beginning: ‘Football’ arrives in Victoria

The idea of young men kicking a ball around for competitive fun emerged in the 1860s. This was a time when the British single-handedly monopolised a quarter of the world’s trade across its colonial empire. For those living in its colonies, ‘football’ became a symbol of the self-confidence and self-satisfaction of British imperial nationalism.[1]

Early edition

According to historian Tony Collins, it arrived in Melbourne in a form more akin to rugby, as described in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Since Victorians believed they lived in a suburb of Britain back then – albeit one 13,000 miles away – they quickly embraced the game. Unlike in Britain though, the new football sport soon spread across all levels of society. Then Melbourne’s players started setting their own rules for the sport. Soon after, Australian Rules football emerged. It came to represent a proud, uniquely Australian sporting tradition.

Meanwhile, British immigrants to Australia were still bringing with them other variants of their football game.[2] By 1883, they brought with them early versions of what is now soccer and played it competitively in their new country. A participant rather than a spectator sport like football, by 1919 Melbourne had 12 soccer teams in the Victorian League. These came and went until several entrenched themselves in suburbs with high levels of British or European immigrants.

These teams were not enough for Victoria to compete with other Australian states at soccer. In 1940, ‘Official’ summed up the situation in the Sporting Globe, ‘no code offers so many opportunities as the round-ball game for international distinction but evidently the lure of the National Rules is too great for the Southern youngster.’[3]

Wogball and the battle to play soccer

Faced with a sport the world loved, many Australians adopted a derisive racist, sexist and homophobic stigma against soccer players. ‘"Only poofters and wogs play soccer," was the catchphrase repeated again and again in most schools across the country’, wrote comedian Nick Giannopoulos of his childhood in 2006.[4] Even Australia’s most successful soccer export in the 1970s and former Socceroos captain, Johnny Warren, named his 2002 memoir ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters: An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and Soccer in Australia.’

Soccer historians have examined the antagonism towards soccer among Australians so I’m not going to go into here. But aside from the gross ‘wogball’ thing, a number of barriers to the growth of soccer arose over the years. First came the splitting of soccer along ethnic lines. This caused it to develop competing governing bodies and suffer from a persistently incoherent operational structure.[5] Then the marketers got involved and chose not to embrace and celebrate Australian soccer’s cultural roots. Instead, they banned ethnic club names and ignored the remarkable accomplishments of the over 400 Australians from these clubs who played professional soccer around the world. Finally, to complete the marginalisation of its original grass-roots supporters, television broadcasts of prominent soccer matches moved from the free-to-air channel SBS (derided as ‘Soccer Bloody Soccer’) to line Old Turtle – sorry, Rupert - Murdoch’s pockets over on Foxtel.

And that was just men’s soccer. Just think how much fun it was for women trying to play. As is often the case in Australia, when one group of men marginalise another group, the marginalised tend to take it out on the women.

Soccer already offered young women international playing opportunities that Australian Rules did not. I wrote about the efforts of women to play Australian Rules football already but according to the excellent Women in Boots, Football and Feminism in the 1970s, trying to get a game was just as bad for female soccer enthusiasts.

Available at Ashburton Library

Australian girls keen on soccer in the 1970s struggled to even buy boots that would fit them. There were no change rooms for them, and the men kicked up a fuss if they used theirs. Sometimes the women had to cut up and serve the oranges to the men before they were ‘allowed’ to play. When they did get a game, it was often on a Sunday and the studs of the numerous men’s boots that trampled the pitch the day before made it difficult to navigate. They were then ridiculed for their skills in the press and by male spectators. By age 11 or 12, some teachers and coaches told girls they could no longer play because soccer was not ‘ladylike’ enough. Female soccer players were labelled butch and openly called dykes and lesbians regardless of their sexual preferences. Nobody cared that being gay or straight had little to do with how well they played soccer.­

Despite all this, in Australia today, soccer has been the most popular of all the football codes played at a developmental level since the late 1990s.

But in Boroondara? Nope.

The fight to play soccer in Boroondara

After World War II, a new generation of British and European immigrants arrived in Boroondara who wanted to watch their favourite field sport in winter: soccer. I can not find any record of them playing in Ashburton in any kind of organised way until the late 1970s. More on that in a moment.

But there was no question they were keen to play and watch in Camberwell.

As we saw in my previous post about Football in Ashburton, the oval ball sport became quickly entrenched in Boroondara long before the 20th century. By 1923, Camberwell Football Club had won its third successive premiership, defeating Fairfield in front of 65,000 spectators. This early success no doubt greatly contributed to the struggle for other codes to gain traction in the Camberwell district.

Nevertheless, in 1929, a Camberwell Soccer Club emerged. At a game against Richmond, Councillor Witt commented on ‘how pleased he was to see what he considered a new game introduced into [our] city.’[6] Richmond went on to win the match, 2 goals to 1. The Club was still around in 1937 but disappeared from records after. Most sports clubs shut down during World War II and it may not have had the support to start up again.

The 1920s proved the peak of Camberwell Football Club’s on-field dominance. They spent the next several decades dwelling in the cellars of the league ladder. By the 1950s, local support waned so much that the Club’s financial situation grew more and more precarious. But, despite its lack of on-field success for years, it was not about to give up its stranglehold on its home ground - Camberwell Sports Ground - without a fight.

Australian Rules goal posts still the order of the day at Camberwell Sports Ground

When the Ground’s management committee allowed soccer to be played on the sports ground every alternate Saturday, Dr Frank Hartnett, the Club’s long time and well-connected president, greatly resented the incursion. ‘The soccer club’s real objective is to obtain occupancy of the Camberwell oval at the expense of your local resident senior and second 18s Australian rules football clubs,’ he wrote in a letter to the Victorian Football Association in 1955.[7] He chose to focus on the threat to football rather than that Melbourne Hakoah, the club in question, had a predominantly Jewish Australian supporter base.

Camberwell Council backed the Football Club over the Ground's committee. Soccer officials tried to convince them that the Club had such a small and indifferent following – due to its woefully bad performances – that it was a liability to ratepayers. Soccer, claimed the Victorian Amateur Soccer Association, had thousands of fans in Camberwell and the surrounding areas that could not wait to come out and support their team. They tried to assure residents that soccer would be played every alternate Saturday, so as not to clash with the Camberwell Football Club’s home matches. The Council would still receive the full payment of rental fees for the season.

This sign also applied to soccer players and their fans it seemed

The Council was unmoved.

Four years later, Dr Hartnett was not so charitable towards soccer’s push. He complained in Progress Press that ‘Camberwell was a mongrel city’ and ‘until these people [being British and European immigrants] settled down and got some city spirit, the club would have to wait for their help.’[8]

Two months later, he resigned from the presidency.[9] Camberwell Football Club folded in 1990. Old Scotch Football Club took over the Ground and still plays there today.

Soccer in Ashburton

The first soccer club in the eastern suburbs emerged in 1963 when a group of British expats formed Waverley City. It continues today as the Eastern Lions. Other clubs came and went but did not last long. That is until Ashburton residents started a soccer club.

Ashburton Baptist Church

The roots of Ashburton’s ascension to becoming a powerhouse of community soccer in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs lie in the Ashburton Baptist Church. In 1979, the Church’s minister John Haig decided to create an outreach program for the children of new immigrants and residents. Originally from Queensland, the heartland of rugby, Rev Haig perhaps knew there was little chance of getting a rugby team off the ground in 1970s Victoria. Since there was already a successful football club in Ashburton, he decided to create a children’s soccer team.

With no other soccer clubs for miles around, the new soccer club needed to travel much further afield to find a cohort of teams to play. Enter Bill Perry. Bill had connections with other church-affiliated soccer clubs in the less football-centric suburbs of eastern Melbourne.

‘When we started the Club we opted for coloured T-shirts as an inexpensive option so kids could join without it imposing dramatically on the family budget,’ John says today.

That most of them happened to be red gave rise to the Club’s nickname: the Ashy Redbacks. This name is not to be confused with the present-day Ashy Redbacks Junior Football Club, who did not adopt the moniker until 1987.

The first and only team was an under 12s. ‘My son was 6, and he played with them!’ said one of the Club’s early volunteers, Angie Carter. Within a year, the Club fielded U-8, U-10 and U-12 teams. A less rough sport than football, the new club enjoyed immediate and enthusiastic support from the Church parents and the broader community. A home ground was quickly found at Warner Reserve.

Warner Reserve
‘I remember away games were very far to drive,’ said Angie. ‘But there was sausage sizzles and a wonderful sense of community.’

Very few records of this time survive but Angie remembers it was not long before the Church’s soccer club welcomed high school kids and girls. More formal uniforms appeared, this time in green and gold to distinguish themselves from the sea of red and black/blue worn by other clubs. The Ashy Redbacks name fell into memory.

The break from the Baptist Church

Some time in the mid-1980s, remembered David Clemson, former player and patriarch of three generations of Clemsons still associated with the Club, Richard Shaw approached him about forming a men’s soccer team. David and his wife had emigrated from England some years before. After moving to Ashburton, he had watched the Ashburton Dragons play football with abject horror. A former soccer player back in England, David decided he was not interested in getting his face smashed in every weekend playing Australian Rules. The new men’s team joined the Eastern Suburbs Baptist Church League.

‘It really was eastern suburbs,’ David remembered. ‘We played out in Montrose, Mt Evelyn. One time even in Coldstream. There was absolutely no alcohol and you were not allowed to swear,’ he continued. ‘One of the players was sent off the pitch for blasphemy.’

By the early 1990s, soccer still languished in the ball sport popularity stakes of Australians. It attracted far less government support than every other sport, despite its burgeoning international reach. The idea that football was the only winter sport that mattered in Australia refused to budge. But by the end of the decade, soccer had turned itself around to become the most popular sport for boys in Australia.[10]

Everywhere except in Victoria of course.

By the 1990s, many local church-affiliated sports clubs had disappeared. But soccer in Ashburton had grown even stronger. The demographic of the club was very broad; people came from all over Boroondara and further to play. It was not just that there was not any other club around; the club had a strong group of dedicated volunteers striving to improve it. The unceremonious demise of the Ashburton Football Club in 1988 also meant that, unlike in the rest of Boroondara, there was playing space available for soccer at Ashburton Park in addition to the original grounds at Warner Reserve.

The Ashburton Park Pavilion, opened in 1979, the year soccer came to the area.

Although the new Boroondara Council had granted permission for the Soccer Club to take over Ashburton Park, it was not exactly supportive in the provision of additional facilities for the game. ‘We always had to play with a cricket pitch in the middle,’ David Clemson recalled. ‘In winter, Ashburton Park had bad drainage problems and terrible facilities. The referee change room was designed for cricket umpires who were not inclined to become as hot and sweaty as soccer referees. We used to use the Scout Hall to store our gear and for changing.’

The reforms that swept across Victoria during the Kennett Government era meant that for local sports clubs to survive, they needed to adopt a more formal organisational structure and actively fundraise to cover access fees for grounds and travel costs. As many a sporting club already knew, the best way to do this was to sell alcohol. The Ashburton men’s team decided it was time to break from the Baptist Church and become the Ashburton Soccer Club. In 1995, it joined the Victorian Football Federation Division Three and played respectably for a few years as it found its footing.

Girls in the club

When Bob Stensholt moved to Ashburton from Canberra in 1995, he brought with him a family of five young soccer enthusiasts. His eldest daughter, keen to continue her soccer playing career, joined the Ashburton Soccer Club. By the time she was a pre-teen, she discovered that the boys of Ashburton Soccer Club were not too keen on playing with girls. Especially girls who were better than them.

With the support of club stalwart Barry Paulson, Bob set about creating a girls and women side for Ashburton Soccer Club. The first year was tough. ‘There were only eight girls on the side,’ he said. ‘Most of them were my daughters’ friends.’ But he persisted in promoting the club through the local schools. Within a few years, the girls had won their competitions.

Remnants of the stigma against not just soccer but girls playing it remained. ‘I remember their school announced the boys U11-12 Aussie Rules team won their final but no mention of the girls U9-10 soccer win,’ said Bob.

Pathways for women to play soccer on a professional level were slowly beginning to emerge. Although there had been a national women’s soccer team since 1978, it consisted mostly of players from NSW and WA. But in the 1990s, the introduction of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and women’s soccer at the Olympic Games had caused participation levels in the sport to surge.

But in Boroondara, the only club for girls to play was still Ashburton Soccer Club. In 1999, the first Women’s metropolitan league emerged and by 2001, Ashburton Soccer Club fielded its first team in Division Three. The next year, Ashburton finished top of the table.

Within a few years, thanks to its dedicated volunteers, Ashburton Soccer Club ran a diverse range of children’s, men’s and women’s teams. It changed its name to Ashburton United Soccer Club. In 2018, Barry Poulson, who the Club appointed a life member in 1990, received Football Victoria’s Volunteer of the Year award. Barry’s strong and consistent support, especially for women’s soccer, proved a major factor in the win.

Said Barry at the time, ‘I have been at the Club for over 35 years and we were a small Club in the beginning. It's just been extraordinary how it has escalated. All the primary schools around here, the top sport is now soccer. The promotion through the Matildas and the Socceroos has been tremendous.’

Barry Paulson officially retired from the Club in September 2023.

The problem of playing space

In a district that had for over a century created all its extensive green spaces around ovals for football instead of the rectangular-shaped playing grounds needed for soccer, the ascension of soccer in the area quickly became political.

In 2007, Ashburton Women and Junior Women’s Soccer Club had grown so much that there was no longer space at Warner Reserve or Ashburton Park for them to train. Bob Stensholt, now a Labor MP for the state seat of Burwood, proved influential in securing more State Government resources for soccer in the area. In 2007, the Bailleau Government announced $350,000 for a Women’s Premier League soccer ground at Ashwood College to be used by Ashburton’s Women’s Soccer Club.[11] Bob also promised $500,000 to develop the soccer playing facilities of Markham Reserve in 2010.[12]

Ashwood High School's large amount of green space helped establish women's soccer in the area.

Although Ashburton United had become a local powerhouse for women’s soccer, the emergence of women’s AFL in 2017 brought Council attention to women's sport; but in favour of football. Despite women playing soccer in Ashburton for 20 years, Council began investing in playing space and improving facilities for girls and women to play football in winter. Once again, in the hierarchy of ball sports in Boroondara, football still reigned supreme.

Alamein Football Club

In 2015, the women’s side separated itself from Ashburton United Soccer Club. They wanted to create a new club that could take their women beyond community level sport to the second-tier national competition, the Women’s National Premier League.

Originally calling itself Melbourne United, the new club decided to adopt the name Alamein, to honour the area around the old club’s original home ground, Warner Reserve. After eventually managing to wrangle playing space down at Dorothy Laver West Reserve – much to the great displeasure of the Camberwell Lacrosse players – Alamein Football Club became one of eight of the original NPLW clubs.

The new club attracted considerable talent. Past players included Matilda team members Melissa Barbieri (Melbourne City) and Emma Checker (Melbourne Victory); Amy Jackson (Melbourne Victory), Hannah Keane (Western United) and Jacynta Galabadaarachchi (Celtic).

Early photograph of Alamein FC playing in Ashburton's strip, courtesy of Facebook

The Club quickly outgrew its playing space. In August 2023, Alamein FC asked Boroondara Council to consider women’s soccer in its plans to revitalise the historic Michael Tuck Stand and Glenferrie Oval in Hawthorn. The Club’s sponsor, Bendigo Bank, promised a large grant in support of the application.

Unfortunately, I can not find any recent research specific to Victoria examining the participation rates between soccer and football. But in 2023, thanks to the Matildas and the hosting of the Women's World Cup in Australia, soccer has never had such a high profile in this country.

We can only wait and see if Boroondara Council can move to transform a ground steeped in a long football tradition in the heartland of Australian Rules football into a soccer pitch.

Can Boroondara bring itself to swap the football goals out for soccer ones?

A big thanks to: Angie Carter, Bob Stensholt, David Clemson and Lesley Gemmell for their time and help with this article.


[1] Collins, Tony, How Football Began (Oxon: Routledge, 2019). 83 [2] Brown-May, Andrew and Shurlee Swain, eds., The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne (Maryborough, Vic: Cambridge University Press, 2005). ‘Soccer’ [3] Official, "Too Leisurely," Sporting Globe, 15 May 1940. [4] Giannopoulos, Nick, "Wogball, the Beautiful Game of Aussie Heroes," Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May 2006. [5] 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). [6] "Richmond Soccer Club," Richmond Guardian, 11 May 1929. [7] "Vfa Moves in Oval Fight," The Age, 22 January 1955. [8] "Three Reasons for Camberwell's Plight," Progress Press, Ashburton, 18 February 1959. [9] Davis, Trevor, "Surprise Move by President," The Age, 23 April 1959. [10] Colebatch, Tim, "Revolution on the Field," The Age, 12 November 1998. [11] Miller, Andrew, "Ashburton Is on the Move to Greener Pastures," Progress Leader, 11 December 2007. [12] "Camberwell's Traffic Congestion Will Be Solved If the Liberals [Derived Headline]," Progress Leader, Glen Iris, 23 November 2010.

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