Norwood won its third-successive premiership in 1880, in only its third year in the SA competition. Yet this achievement was almost overshadowed by the Redlegs’ ground breaking mid season tour to Victoria, in which they shocked the Melbourne teams with a series of brilliant performances.

Norwood’s tour to Victoria in 1880 was the culmination of a magnificent period for the club. So complete was the dominance of the red and blues, who did not lose a match at local level in both 1878 and 1879, that the club resolved to test itself against the strongest teams from the Victorian Football Association (forerunner of the VFL/AFL).

A defeat at the hands of Geelong, at Adelaide Oval in June, 1879, only made the Redlegs more determined to prove themselves. When Carlton could not be persuaded to come to South Australia in 1880 to meet Norwood, club officials decided on an even bolder step. Norwood would travel to Melbourne and challenge the cream of the Victorian clubs on their home soil. On Saturday 19 June, 1880, a party of Norwood players and officials departed for Melbourne on the steamship “Aldinga” (the railway from Adelaide to Melbourne was still seven years in the future).

Among the Norwood players were some of the greatest of their era: acting captain Alf McMichael, a brilliant follower renowned for his ability to run all day and singlehandedly influence the course of a game; half-back Alfred “Topsy” Waldron; forwards “Billy” Bracken and Johnny Lowe; centreman Lou Suhard; Joe Pollock and Joe Traynor, both strong followers and dangerous forwards; George Giffen, who later captained the Australian cricket team; and wingmen Harry Burnet and Julian Woods. A number were expatriate Victorians, determined to prove a point to their former comrades. After two nights on the “Aldinga”, the Norwood party arrived in Melbourne on Monday morning, 21 June.

They were greeted with great warmth by their Victorian hosts, and were given virtual freedom of the city. The only drawback proved to be the almost continuous heavy rain which engulfed the Victorian capital during Norwood’s visit, threatening to sabotage the red and blues’ carefully arranged match fixtures. Norwood played its first match on Saturday 26 June, against Carlton on the East Melbourne Cricket Ground (now covered by rail yards, on a site near the MCG). Although Geelong was the reigning premier, the navy blues were still considered by many to be the greatest Victorian club. The field of play was little more than a sea of mud, but the game was an exciting, hard fought contest.

The red and blues matched Carlton from the start, and in the end forced a draw, with both teams scoring one goal each. Norwood’s goal was kicked by Johnny Lowe, from a clever snap. Alf McMichael received high praise for his work as a follower, and was rated best player on the ground. The news of Norwood’s tie with Carlton was quickly flashed to Adelaide by telegraph, causing a “sensation” in Rundle Street, where crowds of people had gathered to take advantage of late night shopping. Norwood had captured the imagination of the public, both at home and in the Victorian capital. But the Norwood party was also to find itself caught up in a sensational event which would rock the colony of Victoria, and cause hysteria in the streets of Melbourne.

By an amazing coincidence, the Norwood tour took place at exactly the same time Ned Kelly was captured and his gang destroyed, in a final battle with police at Glenrowan in north eastern Victoria, on Monday 28 June, 1880. Just two days later , on Wednesday 30 June, a group of Norwood players and officials actually visited Glenrowan, 219 km from Melbourne, to view the site of the Kelly’s last stand. The image of the Norwood party walking in the footsteps of Ned Kelly, while the ruins of the Glenrowan Hotel, set on fire by the police, were still smouldering, is very vivid and places them in close contact with one of the most famous events in Australian history. Nevertheless, despite the excitement of this unique experience, they quickly returned to Melbourne to prepare for their next scheduled football match.

On Thursday, 1 July, came the high  point of Norwood’s Victorian tour. In  its second game, on the hallowed turf  of the MCG, Norwood achieved a  stunning upset, defeating Melbourne  by two goals to nil. It was the first ever  time that a South Australian team had  vanquished a Victorian team, at either  club or representative level. The red  and blues scored both their goals in the  first half of the game, through Bracken  and Traynor, and continued to outplay  Melbourne in the second half to record  a comfortable victory. 

Norwood then journeyed by train  to Geelong, where the citizens of  this major provincial centre worked  strenuously to eclipse the welcome  the red and blues had received in  Melbourne. Of course, on the football  field the Geelong players were not so  generous. As premier club of Victoria,  Geelong was a formidable opponent,  and on Saturday, 3 July, at the Corio  Oval, Norwood went down to the first  defeat of its intercolonial tour, by one  goal to nil.  In the remaining six days of the tour,  Norwood played two more matches,  against Hotham and South Melbourne. 

On Tuesday, 6 July, Norwood lost to  Hotham (which would later change  its name to North Melbourne), by  one goal to nil at the East Melbourne  Cricket Ground. The most significant  issue arising from the match, however,  was the serious injury incurred by Alf  McMichael, who suffered a broken  collarbone and was not able to play  again.  The final match of the tour was  between Norwood and South  Melbourne, on Thursday, 8 July,  again at the East Melbourne Cricket  Ground. At last Norwood was favoured  with fine weather, and proved that it  could play first class football on a dry  ground as much as it had in the rain  and slush. With George Giffen playing  a magnificent game as a follower,  Norwood took the lead after Bracken  took a strong pack mark and then  kicked truly from more than 50 metres. 

The red and blues appeared the better  team, but South Melbourne managed  to score an equalizer, and the game  finished in an exciting draw.  On Saturday, 10 July, the Norwood  party began their journey home to  Adelaide on the appropriately named  “SS South Australian”. Following the  excitement of their Victorian adventure,  the Norwood players found it difficult  to settle down to the routine of the  South Australian competition. They  were also without Alf McMichael, who  elected to stay in his “native heath” in  Melbourne. However, the Norwood  team soon returned to form, and went  on to secure the 1880 premiership with  the loss of only one game. 

Norwood’s Victorian tour was of  signal importance in promoting the  development of football at intercolonial  (now interstate) level. Competition  between South Australian and Victorian  teams was now firmly established, and  by the end of the decade matches  were also being played against sides  from Tasmania and New South Wales,  and later against Western Australia  and Queensland. Norwood clearly  demonstrated that SA clubs could  compete at the highest level, and in this  way played a major role in establishing  Australian Football as our national  game.

By Chris Lane

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