Early VFL finals systems

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Throughout its history, the Victorian Football League (known since 1990 as the Australian Football League) has used a number of finals systems, to determine the season's premiership team. The perceived need for a structured finals system was one of the most important reasons why eight senior clubs broke away from the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in 1896, and formed the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1897. Between 1897 and 1930, a variety of different finals systems were used by the league. It was not until the adoption of the now well-known Page-McIntyre System in 1931 that there was stability in the structure of the league's finals system.

History[edit]

Victorian Football Association (VFA)[edit]

The two earliest controlling bodies in the history of Australian rules football were formed within weeks of each other: the South Australian National Football League (SANFL), which had been formed to control the domestic competition in the Colony of South Australia on 30 April 1877,[1] and the Victorian Football Association (VFA), which had been formed to control the domestic competition in the Colony of Victoria on 17 May 1877.

From the formalisation of a competition ladder in 1888, the VFA premiership was awarded to the senior club with the best record based on all premiership matches throughout the VFA season. In the event that two or more clubs were tied for first place on win-loss record, one or more playoff matches would be staged between the clubs to determine the premiership.[2] This occurred only in 1896, when Collingwood and South Melbourne were tied with a record of 14–3–1. Collingwood eventually won the very close match 6 goals to 5 after the scores had been tied for most of the last quarter; Collingwood only scored the winning goal in the closing minutes of a hard-fought match. According to the VFA rules applying to a tied result at full-time, a tied score would have automatically meant 20 minutes of extra time.[3] This system of deciding the premiership was used in the VFA until 1902.[4]

Victorian Football League (VFL)[edit]

In 1894, the Geelong Football Club had suggested that they along with a number of the strongest Melbourne-based clubs and clubs from other important regional centres such as the cities of Ballarat and Bendigo form a breakaway division in the VFA, and in mid-1896 the pro-Australian Rules newspaper The Argus published a strong editorial to the effect that the overall poor standard of the VFA competition was resulting in a significant loss of spectator numbers to the VFA, and thus to Australian Rules football.[5] On 3 October 1896, the most powerful and financially secure VFA clubs (Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, and South Melbourne), and two other clubs that had been invited (Carlton and St Kilda) established the new Victorian Football League, to commence in 1897.

One of the initiatives introduced to the breakaway league was the use of finals to decide the premiership at the end of every season. The 1896 VFA finals match was necessitated only because Collingwood and South Melbourne finished with the same win-loss record, but the VFL introduced the use of finals in all seasons.

1897 season[edit]

Abandoned systems[edit]

When the VFL was initially established at the end of 1896, it immediately announced that a finals series would be played. However, there were two other announcements of different finals formats, before the system used was ultimately decided upon late in the season.

The format that was originally announced in October 1896 was that after fourteen weeks of home-and-away matches, a finals series would be played as a simple four-team knock out tournament amongst the top four clubs, and the gate takings from the semi-finals would be donated to charity.[6]

By February 1897, the knock-out tournament had been abandoned in favour of a system which bore some similarities to the Page-McIntyre System which would ultimately come into use in 1931.[7] In it, matches were to be played as follows:

  • Week One: Two matches played: one between 1st vs 2nd, and one between 3rd vs 4th. As originally intended, the takings from these matches would go to charity.
  • Week Two: Two matches played: one between the winners from Week One, and another between the losers from Week One.
  • Week Three: The two winners from Week Two would play against each other in a Final for the premiership.

Drawn matches would be decided by twenty minutes of extra time, or if still drawn after extra time, by a replay the following week.

It was realized during the season that this finals system was not entirely fair, particularly since the results of the first week of finals were somewhat meaningless; nevertheless, the league was prepared to proceed with the system right up to its scheduled commencement on 14 August. However, when inclement weather on that weekend forced the postponement of the charity round, the league used this opportunity to abandon this finals system and develop a new one.[8]

1897 finals system[edit]

In a meeting on 17 August 1897, the clubs agreed to a different finals system, which was ultimately used. The new system comprised a round-robin amongst the top four, with the provision for a play-off match for the premiership depending on the results of that round-robin.[9] The top four teams played against each other in a round-robin series over the following three weekends as follows:

  • Week One: the two pairings to be drawn by lot. As had been originally intended, the takings from this first week of the finals were donated to charity; the remaining takings were divided amongst the league.
  • Week Two: the match-ups were determined by pairing the winners and the losers from Week One against each other.
  • Week Three: the remaining pairings would play each other.

A finals ladder was then prepared based on the round-robin, and the premiership was determined as follows:

  • If one club finished as the outright winner of the round-robin series on win-loss record (i.e. without using percentage as a tie-breaker), that club would automatically win the premiership.
  • If two teams had finished with the equal-best win-loss record, those two teams would contest a Final on the following Saturday to decide the premiership.
  • If three (or all four) teams had finished with the same win-loss record, the top two teams as determined by using percentage as a tie-breaker would contest a Final on the following Saturday to decide the premiership.

As it transpired, Essendon won all three round-robin matches, and were declared Premiers without the need for a separate Final.[10]

Second finals system (1898–1900)[edit]

Whilst nobody disputed that Essendon were worthy 1897 premiers, concern was expressed immediately after the 1897 finals over the potential injustice that seemed to be embedded in the round-robin nature of the 1897 system: the argument went that the contest, as it had been structured, could have been just as easily won by teams which finished first or fourth after the home-and-away season.

It was therefore determined that team which had performed well in the home-and-away season should receive an advantage in finals, giving them a better chance of winning the premiership than the lower placed teams.[11]

In order to offset this perceived inequity, the VFL amended its finals system significantly for the 1898 VFL season, as follows:[12]

  • The eight teams played each other in a home-and-away season of fourteen matches, as in 1897. At the end of the season, the team on top of the ladder (based on win-loss record, with percentage as a tie-breaker), was declared the Minor Premier.
  • The eight teams were split into two groups based on their position on the ladder at the end of the home-and-away season. The groupings were:
    • Group A: teams finishing 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th.
    • Group B: teams finishing 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th.[13]
  • Each group played a separate three-match round-robin tournament. These were known as "sectional matches". At the end of the sectional matches, a ladder was prepared for each of the groups, based on sectional matches only.

The finals then took place over one or two weeks as follows:

  • Week One: one final was played between 1st Group A vs 1st Group B.
    • If the winner in Week One was the Minor Premier, or the Minor Premier did not have at least eight premiership points from its sectional matches, then the winner of the match immediately became the Major Premier, and won the premiership for the season.
    • If the winner in Week One was not the Minor Premier, and the Minor Premier had at least eight premiership points from its sectional matches,[14] then the finals progressed to week two.
  • Week Two: if required, one final was played between Minor Premier vs Winner Week one
    • The winner of this match became the Major Premier for the season.

The essence of this format is that the Minor Premier had the right to challenge for the Major Premiership if it was either eliminated in the sectional rounds, or lost the first final, and a stipulation was included to remove the Minor Premier's right to challenge if it performed poorly in the sectional rounds in order to prevent the team from resting its players or failing to take the sectional rounds seriously.[15]

The season's Minor Premier was not obliged to challenge for the premiership, but in all VFL seasons where a challenge option existed, no team that was entitled to issue such a challenge ever failed to do so.

Minor placings[edit]

There was confusion over the allocation of the minor placings under the VFL's second finals system. At the end of the 1898 season, on the Monday following the Grand Final between Fitzroy and Essendon, the football correspondent of The Age made it clear that he was not entirely sure which team should be thought to have finished second:

     "The peculiar arrangement by which the premiership [in the 1898 season] was determined has given rise to some discussion as to which club is entitled to second place.

     In the competition for the major premiership both Geelong and Collingwood have better records of wins as against defeats than Essendon, and I have therefore heard it argued that Collingwood must be considered the runners up, with Geelong third and Essendon fourth.
     In winning the minor premiership however, Essendon secured a record which gave them the right to play off with the best performing team in the series of matches played for the major premiership (viz., Fitzroy), and as, moreover, the runners up are by custom recognised in the losers of the final encounter, I do not see how any team but Essendon can be entitled to the honor.
     At the same time the situation is not wholly satisfactory, and without wishing to cavil at the existing system I still favor the old custom of recognising only one premiership, to be won by the club holding the best record for one whole season.
     The premiers for the season which closed on Saturday [Essendon] happen to hold that distinction, but it might not have been so."[16]

1900 premiership[edit]

The second finals format was ultimately discarded by the VFL after the unsatisfactory conclusion to the 1900 VFL season, where Melbourne won the premiership after having finished sixth out of the eight teams after the home-and-away season (ahead of Carlton and St Kilda) with a record of 6–8; as of 2013, this is the lowest ladder position from which a team has won the premiership.

In the sectional round, Geelong (2nd), Collingwood (4th) and Melbourne all finished with a 2–1 record, but Melbourne won the group on percentage mostly due to a 71-point victory against last-placed St Kilda, a very large margin given the low scoring of the era. From there, Melbourne beat Essendon by two points in the Semi-Final and upset Fitzroy by four points in the Grand Final to win the premiership.

It became clear that the system allowed a team such as Melbourne to display poor form through the home-and-away season, but win the premiership with good form during the final games,[17] meaning that the home-and-away season effectively counted for nothing; The Argus had published an editorial to similar effect in 1899 after South Melbourne contested the Grand Final, losing by one point to Fitzroy, despite having finished sixth with a record of 5-9 at the end of the home-and-away season.[18]

Argus systems (1901–1930)[edit]

First Argus system (1901)[edit]

In 1901, the league adopted the "Argus system", which was conceived, developed, and very actively supported by the strongly pro-VFL Melbourne newspaper The Argus.

Under this format, the home-and-away season was contested as follows:

  • As in previous years, the eight teams initially each played fourteen home-and-away matches, with two matches against each other club.
  • After fourteen matches, three sectional rounds were played. The schedules for sectional rounds were the same as in 1898–1900, with the teams finishing 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th playing each other, and the teams finishing 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th playing each other.
  • Results from the sectional rounds were added to results from the fourteen home-and-away rounds to determine a final ladder, based on each team playing seventeen matches.

This, in effect, served as a way to extend the home-and-away season to seventeen matches (running from May to August), and to ensure that teams have a relatively equitable schedule (i.e. no team should end up playing three finalists three times, and four non-finalists only twice).

From there, only the top four teams from the final ladder qualified for the finals, which took place over two weeks:

  • Week One: the First Semi-Final was played between 2nd vs 4th, and the Second Semi-Final was played between 1st vs 3rd.
  • Week Two: the final was played between Winner SF1 vs Winner SF2
    • The winner of this match became the Major Premier for the season.

The new system successfully overcame the issue of low-ranking teams qualifying for the Grand Final, as now only the top four could participate. However, there was no right for the Minor Premier to challenge for the premiership under Argus System, and after the minor premier, Geelong, was eliminated in the semi-final, there were immediately calls to bring back the right to challenge.[10]

First amended Argus system (1902–1906)[edit]

The amended Argus system returned the right of the team with the best record to challenge for the major premiership.

The seventeen-match home-and-away season was played as in 1901, and the finals format took place over two or three weeks as follows:

  • Week One: the First Semi-Final was played between 2nd vs 4th, and the Second Semi-Final was played between 1st vs 3rd.
  • Week Two: a final was played between Winner SF1 vs Winner SF2
    • If the winner of the Week Two final had the best record in the league across all matches, including all finals up to and including Week Two, then that team became the Major Premier for the season. In these cases, the final in week two has retrospectively become known as the Grand Final.
    • If the winner of the Week Two final did not have the best record in the league as defined above, then the finals progress to Week Three.
  • Week Three: the Grand Final was played between Team with the best record vs Winner Final
    • The winner of this match became the Major Premier for the season.

It is important to note that under this variant of the Argus System, the right to challenge did not automatically go to the minor premiers: if the minor premiership had been decided by a close margin, then any losses sustained during the finals could have cost the minor premier its right to challenge or even transferred it to another team, although this did not occur during the five seasons of this format.

An example of how this could have happened occurred in 1903: entering the Final, Collingwood had an overall record of 16–2, and Fitzroy had an overall record of 15–3, but they had a superior percentage to Collingwood. Had Collingwood lost the Final against Fitzroy, both teams would have had a record of 16–3, but Fitzroy would have been ranked above Collingwood with its superior percentage, and Collingwood therefore would have lost the right of challenge, meaning that Fitzroy would win the premiership. As it happened, Collingwood won the match, giving them a record of 17–2 compared with Fitzroy's 15–4, so Fitzroy had no right of challenge, and Collingwood won the premiership.

The same situation occurred in 1906: entering the Final, Carlton had an overall record of 15–3, and Fitzroy had an overall record of 14–4, but they had a superior percentage to Carlton. Had Carlton lost the Final against Fitzroy, both teams would have had a record of 15–4, but Fitzroy would have been ranked above Carlton with its superior percentage, and Carlton therefore would have lost the right of challenge, meaning that Fitzroy would win the premiership. As it happened, Carlton won the match, giving them a record of 16–3 compared with Fitzroy's 14–5, so Fitzroy had no right of challenge, and Carlton won the premiership.

Many Carlton players and officials erroneously believed that they would have had the right to challenge had they lost the Final; this confusion led to Carlton lodging a complaint with the VFL, and was justification for further amendments to be made in 1907.[10]

Second amended Argus system (1907–1930)[edit]

The second version of the amended Argus system was used by the VFL between 1907 and 1930, except 1924. This is the most widely known variation of the Argus system.

The structure of the finals was mostly the same as the first amended Argus system, except that the right to challenge was given to the Minor Premier, as defined by the team on top of the ladder at the end of the home-and-away season, and the two semi-finals were shifted onto separate weekends, extending the duration of the finals from two or three weeks to three or four weeks. The sectional rounds were abandoned in 1908 when the league expanded to ten teams.

  • Week One: the First Semi-Final was played between 2nd vs 4th.
  • Week Two: the Second Semi-Final was played between 1st vs 3rd.
  • Week Three: a final was played between Winner SF1 vs Winner SF2
    • If Minor Premier won the Week Three final, then that team was immediately awarded the Major Premiership. In these cases, the final in week three has retrospectively become known as the Grand Final.
    • If the winner of the Week Three final was not the Minor Premier, then the finals progress to Week Four. The final in week three became known as either the Final or the Preliminary Final.
  • Week Four: the Grand Final was played between Minor Premier vs Winner Final
    • The winner of this match became the Major Premier for the season.

This variation of the Argus system was introduced into the VFA in 1903, four years before it was used in the VFL,[4] and was used by that competition until the 1932 season.[19]

1924 finals system[edit]

For the 1924 season only, the VFL reverted to a round-robin finals format similar to the format used in 1897, but including the Minor Premiers' right to challenge and using percentage as a tie-breaker. At the end of the home-and-away season, the top four teams qualified for the finals tournament.

The finals were played over three weeks (with a provision for a fourth week), under the fixture:

  • Week one: 1st vs 3rd; 2nd vs 4th
  • Week two: 1st vs 2nd; 3rd vs 4th
  • Week three: 1st vs 4th; 2nd vs 3rd

At the conclusion of the first three weeks, if the Minor Premier had finished on top of the round-robin ladder, then that team automatically won the Major Premiership, but if another team won the round-robin competition, then the finals progressed to Week Four.

  • Week Four: the Grand Final was played between Minor Premier vs 1st Round robin

The winner of this match became the Major Premier for the season.

As in 1897, no Grand Final was ultimately required in this season.[10]

Page-McIntyre system (after 1931)[edit]

See also: McIntyre System

After having utilised three variations of the Argus system for thirty years, three clear drawbacks had emerged:

  • Firstly, the uncertainty regarding whether there would be three or four finals had resulted in the attendances at the semi-finals exceeding the attendance at the Grand Final on nine occasions.
  • Secondly, the minor premier was now seen to have too much advantage through its right to challenge to the point where losing the second semi-final could be seen as a preferable route to a premiership, as the loss allowed for a week's rest, while a win would require playing the following week.[10]
  • Thirdly, there was a clear financial benefit to the clubs involved for a Challenge Final to be played, as it resulted in an extra match with extra gate takings, and it was a common perception among many fans that the clubs would contrive results to achieve this,[20] which had led to concern among some fans that the Semi-Finals were not genuine contests.

To correct for these, the VFL introduced a new system, the Page-McIntyre system,[21] in 1931, which it used in some form for the next 69 years.

Most notably, the Page-McIntyre System removed the Minor Premiers' right to challenge; instead, both the Minor Premier and the second-placed team received the advantage of a "double chance", permitting either team to lose one match (excluding the Grand Final) without being eliminated.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ SANFL#1877–1900
  2. ^ "The Football Quarrel". The Argus (Melbourne, VIC). 24 September 1896. p. 5. 
  3. ^ Ross, (1996), p.34.
  4. ^ a b The Argus (Melbourne, VIC). 28 March 1903. p. 18. 
  5. ^ Maplestone, (1996), p.47.
  6. ^ "New Football Association - Limited to eight clubs". The Argus. 3 October 1896. p. 10. 
  7. ^ "The New Football League - Its Plan of Campaign". The Argus. 4 February 1897. p. 6. 
  8. ^ "The Football Season - Postponement of Charity Matches - Proposed Rearrangement of Games". The Argus. 16 August 1897. p. 7. 
  9. ^ "Football – Victorian Football League – the Premiership Question". The Argus. 18 August 1897. p. 3. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Rodgers, Stephen (1992), Every Game Ever Played: VFL/AFL Results, 1897–1991 (3rd ed.), Ringwood, VIC: Viking O'Neil 
  11. ^ Ross, (1996), p.40.
  12. ^ Maplestone, (1996), pp.52–55; Ross, (1996), p.42.
  13. ^ The Major Premiership, The Argus, (Monday, 22 August 1898), p.7.
  14. ^ The minor premier could have won two games, or won one game and drawn its other two games to reach eight premiership points.
  15. ^ Ross (1996, p.42).
  16. ^ Follower, "The Past Season", The Age, Monday, 26 September 1898, p.3, cols. H and I.
  17. ^ Had the sectional rounds had counted as part of the home-and-away season as they did in 1901-1907, Melbourne would have not have made the final four (which would have been Fitzroy, Geelong, Essendon and Collingwood).
  18. ^ Boy, Old (18 September 1899). "Football - A Review of the Season". The Argus. p. 6. 
  19. ^ "Central ground for Victorian Assn.". Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW). 7 January 1933. p. 6. 
  20. ^ "The Football Premiership - Final Match". The Argus. 19 September 1904. p. 7. 
  21. ^ It was known as the "Page-McIntyre system" after Percy "Pip" Page (who was the Secretary of the Richmond Football Club at the time, and was later the long-time Secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club) and Melbourne legal academic Kenneth McIntyre. There is no evidence that Page contributed anything in terms of the concepts embodied within, or the mathematical justification of the system’s claims, and there is very little evidence that Page did anything else than simply use his considerable influence as Richmond’s delegate to the VFL to introduce and advocate McIntyre’s system (which he had discussed at some length with McIntyre in order to be satisfied with its structure) to the VFL; however, the first in the sequence of the McIntyre systems is always referred to as the "Page-McIntyre system".
  • Hogan P: The Tigers Of Old, Richmond FC, (Melbourne), 1996. ISBN 0-646-18748-1
  • Maplestone, M., Flying Higher: History of the Essendon Football Club 1872–1996, Essendon Football Club, (Melbourne), 1996. ISBN 0-9591740-2-8
  • Ross, J. (ed), 100 Years of Australian Football 1897–1996: The Complete Story of the AFL, All the Big Stories, All the Great Pictures, All the Champions, Every AFL Season Reported, Viking, (Ringwood), 1996. ISBN 0-670-86814-0

External links[edit]