|Full name||Northern Blues Football Club|
|Nickname(s)||The Blues; prior to 2012, the Bullants.|
Navy Blue and White|
Red and White (clash)
|Competition||Victorian Football League|
|Premierships||4 (1968, 1969, 1983, 1984)|
|Ground(s)||Preston City Oval (capacity: 10,000)|
|Visy Park (capacity: 20,000)|
Northern Blues Football Club is a long-established Australian rules football club based in Preston and currently playing in the Victorian Football League representing the central and outer areas of Melbourne. The Northern Blues are affiliated with the Carlton Blues in the AFL, and play their home games at the Preston City Oval and Visy Park.
The club was established in 1882 as the Preston Football Club. The club participated in the VFA between 1903 and 1912, and then since 1926. After World War II, the club was known as the Bullants, and wore a plain red guernsey with a white monogram. The club later became the Northern Bullants. Ahead of the 2012 season, the club adopted the colours and nickname of its AFL-affiliate; to become the Northern Blues.
The club was formed in 1882 but little is known of its first three years before the Shire of Jika Jika changed its name in September 1885 to Preston. Preston and another local club, Gowerville, then merged and competed at lower levels of the Victorian Junior Football Association. After a battle with the Council, the club was finally granted permission in 1887 to play on Preston Park where it had remained with the exception of one year when it played at Coburg to allow the ground to be widened.
Victorian Junior Football Association
From 1890, the club played in the First Rate Division of the V.J.F.A. and despite being its remote location compared to the other clubs, was the only one of the 28 teams of 1890 to survive the decade despite finishing last or second last in five consecutive seasons.
By the late 1890s the district was starting to grow and the struggling club gathered depth and strength and took out the first of three consecutive First-Rate premierships in 1900, defeating Collingwood Juniors (effectively the League team's Seconds) before 5,000 people at the Brunswick Street Oval. Further premierships followed in 1901 and 1902, no finals being played as Preston finished the requisite two games clear of their nearest rivals to claim the title.
With the VFA keen to expand their number of clubs, Preston were a logical choice to join the senior body in 1903, changing from a blue jumper with yellow sash (a clash with Williamstown) to a plain maroon jumper with navy blue knicks. Despite a reasonable opening season where they won six games, the club struggled to find players and finished last in 1904 in the middle of what was to be a 27 game losing streak.
Several other bottom-of-the list results came before a brief resurgence in 1909 under former Collingwood champion Charlie Pannam, but with the loss of several key players to League clubs, Preston again went on a downward spiral and won just one game through 1910 and 1911.
Back to the juniors
With Northcote joining the Association in 1908, pressure was applied for the two clubs to merge and the VFA forced the issue early in 1912. Preston officials encouraged their players to move, but diverted all the clubs trophies and assets to the junior Preston Districts club that had acted as their Seconds and the Northcote-Preston entity has never been recognised in Association records.
Preston were simply promoted before their time: by 1912, the district numbered just 4,800 people spread over 8,800 acres (an average of .6 per acre). Of the other suburbs represented in the VFA, the next smallest was Brighton with 11,000. Preston's leading player during early VFA days was Sid Hall, a centre half-back regarded as the best high mark in the competition. Despite the lack of success, Preston managed to supply some fine players to League ranks in Percy Ogden (Essendon), Hedley Tompkins and Bill Hendrie (Melbourne), Hugh James (Richmond), Joe Prince (St. Kilda, South Melbourne and Carlton), George Doull (Geelong) and Eric Woods (University). Preston's place was taken by Melbourne City who didn't win a game in the two years before they folded.
The nucleus of the Preston club returned to the First-Rate Division of the Victorian Junior Football Association. Ogden returned to captain-coach the clun in 1916 and 1917 while Essendon were in recess for the First World Warr and by 1919 Prestonre-established as one of the top teams in junior football. Premierships came in 1921 and again in 1923, Preston, under the coaching of William "Bull" Adams who had been refused a clearance to Fitzroy by his West Australian club, overrunning Yarraville in the final term despite playing one man short.
Rejoining the VFA
With the loss of North Melbourne, Footscray and Hawthorn to the League in 1925, the Association accepted Preston (just proclaimed a City) and Camberwell into their ranks for the 1926 season.
The team used their uniform from junior days, a broad red stripe down the chest and back and with white sides and sleeves. This time the club was ready for senior ranks, raising a few eyebrows when they won nine of the 18 games in their first season as well as supplying the Recorder Cup winner, William "Bluey" Summers. A finals appearance came the following year, Preston's first ever senior final remarkably finishing in a draw with Brighton who won the replay held a fortnight later after the other semi-final between Coburg and Port Melbourne also finished in a draw.
The club remained in the middle ranking of the Association up until the cessation of play during the Second World War, the highlight being a remarkable 1931 season under the legendary Roy Cazaly who sacked half the side mid-season and promoted youngsters. Needing to win 12 games straight to ensure a finals spot, Preston managed to sneak in with 11 wins and a draw, but were bundled out in the Preliminary Final after several injuries (including Cazaly).
Despite the modest finals record (the semi-final win was the only finals match Preston won), the club provided the 1934 and 1936 Recorder Cup winners in Danny Warr and Bert Hyde respectively. A former Preston player in Tommy Downs also won the award in 1925 after switching to Northcote. Leading players up to World War 2 included Summers, Warr, "Bert" Smith, Frankie "Dickie" Dowling and Bill "Socks" Maslen, the latter pair being the club's record-holders for number of senior games played. Although he was never a star with Preston, 17 year-old Bert Deacon played his first match in 1940, later becoming Carlton's first Brownlow Medallist in 1947.
The "Bullants" nickname is believed to have originated around 1939 when radio commentator Wallace "Jumbo" Sharland referred to the small Preston team in their bright uniforms as "like a swarm of busy bullants", but the title does not seem to have been used officially until around 1947.
With the abolition of clearance agreements between the League and Association, Preston snared Footscray champion Alby Morrison as captain-coach for 1939–40, and in 1941 a young Geelong ruckman, Jack Lynch who was switched to full-forward early in the season and finished with 133 goals. Lynch, sadly, is the only known player to have been killed during the War.
Post-war, the uniform was changed to plain red with a PFC monogram, but finals appearances remained few and usually with little success. The club again was to the fore in the new Liston Trophy, providing the 1949 and 1953 winners in Jack Blackman and Ted Henrys. Henrys, a moderate utility player with Brunswick in previous years switched to Preston at age 26 and moved to full-back in just his second match where he made the position his own, adding three consecutive club Best & Fairest awards to his Liston and becoming one of the first two Association players to be named in the All-Australian team.
Deacon returned as captain-coach in 1952 and other leading players through the 1950s including centre-half forward Pat Foley, Kevin Pritchard, rover George Bradford, back pocket Bob "Moggie" McLachlan and the Chard brothers, Kevin and Fred, the latter leading the goal kicking on three occasions.
Despite building a solid combination, the loss of several experienced players saw the club plummet to fifteenth in 1960 and forced into Second Division when the V.F.A opted for two levels. Many thought Preston would return to their solid form of the late 50s and immediately win their way back to First Division, but the finals hoodoo continued in 1961 and 1962 and the club was again unceremoniously dumped out of premiership contention.
By 1963, Preston's finals record stood at just one win and one draw from 18 attempts with 13 losses in succession. Again the premiership hopes looked doomed when the Bullants went down by to Waverley in the Second Semi-Final, but fate finally smiled when Preston beat Prahran comfortably in the Preliminary and then downed Waverley to take out a long awaited premiership, albeit at the Second Division level.
Preston's prospects in 1964 seemed good. but a number of narrow losses saw the club fighting off relegation, and ironically it was to be a last-round to Waverley, promoted after the Moorabbin was disqualified from the Association for being compliant to St. Kilda's quest to take over the ground, that saw Preston again back in Second Division.
With the lessons of 1963 well learnt, the club immediately won their way back by defeating Mordialloc in the Grand Final and with substantially more depth and keen recruiting confounded the sceptics by finishing third in First Division in 1966, the first team to be promoted from Division 2 to play in the First Division final series.
Bert Hyde, Preston's 1936 Recorder Cup winner had lived in the area since his playing days and was an active official at Hawthorn, then rapidly emerging from years in the wilderness to become the power side of the 1960s. It was probably Hyde's influence that saw two Hawthorn players that were to become the cornerstone of Preston's success move to Association ranks – John MacArthur, captain-coach of the 1965 premiership side was transferred to Western Australia on business and replaced by Alan Joyce, later to coach two A.F.L. premiership sides. Joyce (with McArthur returning as a player) led Preston to back-to-back premierships in 1968 and 1969, the latter team still considered as possibly the best Association team to be assembled.
The Liston Trophy almost became a de facto Preston Best and Fairest with the award collected in 1968 by Dick Telford (now Dr. Richard Telford), and in 1969 and 1971 by Laurie Hill.
Preston was beaten by Dandenong in the 1971 VFA Grand Final, which remains one of the most controversial in football history. Field umpire Jim McMaster awarded Dandenong full-forward Jim 'Frosty' Miller a free kick before the opening bounce, resulting in a goal; Dandenong ultimately won by six points. Preston protested, and despite several opinions from leading law-makers that McMaster had no right to award the free kick because he had not officially started the game, Preston's protest proved to be of no avail.
Preston's fortunes slumped for a few years, the one bright spot being Ray Shaw's 1973 Liston Trophy, then the youngest winner of the award, and it wasn't until 1976 that Preston again played a major role in the finals, sadly crashing out after losses in the Second Semi and Preliminary Finals. A poor year in 1977 was followed by a resurgence under Harold Martin in 1978 when a crowd of nearly 30,000 packed the Junction Oval for what is still rated by many as one of the greatest ever Grand Finals and perhaps the VFA’s last ‘hurrah’ with interest waning in later years. After a tense opening, the crowd erupted late in the second term when Martin and another of football's legendary hard men, "Slammin" Sam Kekovich went head to head in a wild brawl. Unfortunately for the Bullants, Prahran settled down much better in the second half and ran out comfortable winners.
1981 again saw Preston highly competitive, but unable to match Port Melbourne who inflicted a record Grand Final defeat (both score and winning margin) on the Bullants after kicking 23 goals to six in the second half to record the only 200 point plus score ever recorded against the club.
The following season saw the return of Ray Shaw, captain of Collingwood in 1982 but disillusioned with bitter infighting at the club. Shaw's influence and a number of highly rated recruits had many believing that this would be Preston's year, but again Port Melbourne proved the nemesis with a seven point win in the Grand Final.
Further strong recruiting brought together probably the greatest depth of players ever at an Association club and Preston rewrote the record books by winning the Thirds, Seconds and senior premierships, the first time the feat had been achieved. To prove it was no fluke, Preston took out "the trifecta" again the following seasons, later captain-coach Neil Jordan running up an astonishing 87 matches with the club without ever playing in a losing side!
Eight straight wins in 1985 extended Preston's winning stretch to a record 23, the highest of any surviving V.F.L. club, but with the loss of Shaw to the Diamond Valley, retirement of a few experienced players and the movement of several promising younger players to League ranks, Preston's glory years were at an end, but the club unearthed a new legend in Jamie "Spider" Shaw who kicked 106 in his first season and followed up with an astonishing 146 in 1986 before an unsuccessful stint at Fitzroy.
With the ethnic mix of the Preston area rapidly changing and the almost saturation coverage of the V.F.L. (later A.F.L.), the late 1980s and 1990s were a constant battle for survival for the Preston club unrivalled since the 1890s. A few scattered finals appearances were more than offset by many poor years.
In deep trouble with the constant loss of clubs, the VFA Board of Management entered into discussions with the Victorian State Football League (now controlling the elite under-18 competition that had effectively replaced both the League and Association Thirds), and plans gradually evolved for the development of a new competition. This ironically became the Victorian Football League, the original title of a competition which had broken away from the VFA in 1897 and who had been their at times bitter rivals for nearly 100 years.
With a mounting debt, Preston entered into a merger with the Northern Knights under-18 team in 1996, the combined entity known s the Preston Knights and adopting the Knights uniform of white with black and blues stripes. The move provided some financial stability off the field, but little success on the football front, and in October 1997, the V.S.F.L. executive dropped a bombshell announcing that the Preston Knights license with the League had been withdrawn and that Preston after 95 years was effectively out of the competition.
A number of protest meetings were organised and the club found a willing ally in Don Gillies, an administrator appointed by the State Government to replace the long-dysfunctional Preston Council who through years of neglect had allowed the Preston Oval to degenerate to a standard well below that required for senior football. Gillies in meeting with the V.S.F.L. undertook to initiate significant drainage and lighting improvements at the ground and after around ten days of uncertainty, the Knights license was reinstated after Traralgon announced it could not continue after an unsuccessful two-year trial.
The shaky alliance with the Knights continued until 1999 when the Board announced it could not recommend continuing. A new group approached the now V.F.L with a proposal to resurrect the club under the name of the Northern Bullants, market research having revealed that much of the club's support and player base no longer lay within the old Preston area.
The revived club returned to a variation of the tradition red uniform, replacing the PFC monogram (with a smaller version later added to the back) with a white bullant, the logo in use for over 50 years. At the same time, the A.F.L. abandoned its Reserves competition in favour of a restructured V.F.L. comprising a number of A.F.L-V.F.L. affiliations, A.F.L. Reserve teams and "stand alone" V.F.L. clubs.
The Northern Bullants opted not to pursue affiliation with an A.F.L. club – 2000 and 2001 saw the stand alone Bullants post six wins in each season, but the difficulty of having part-timer players and coaching staff competing with full-time A.F.L. counterparts was obvious in many games where the Bullants were highly competitive for much of the match but outgunned by fitter, bigger and stronger opposition late in the game.
Just before the end of the 2002 season, proposals for affiliation were received from both Essendon and Carlton. Essendon's plans were virtual domination of the club with a jumper change, renaming as the Northern Bombers and playing several games each season at Windy Hill. Carlton's on the other hand was for a cooperative playing group with no change to traditional values and was accepted without major modification by the Bullants board.
The affiliated team continued under long-serving coach Mark Williams, but there was to be no instant success, the club coincidentally matching the 2001–02 result with six wins in 2003. With a few personal tensions emerging, Carlton announced its intention to withdraw from the two-year agreement at the end of the 2003 season, but subsequent negotiations between the two clubs and the V.F.L. saw the problems resolved and new arrangement established.
Williams had already resigned citing lack of time (later accepting the role at Sandringham) and under the terms of the agreement, Carlton retained the right to nominate one of their assistant coaches, eventually Barry Mitchell, as his replacement. 2004 saw Carlton hard hit with the loss of National Draft picks because of salary cap infringements and with few young players of promise coming through the ranks, 2004 saw the club slip slightly to five wins.
The loss of the draft picks perhaps worked in the Bullants' favour with Carlton opting for a number of players recycled from other teams that were to provide a backbone of experience at the V.F.L. level that saw the club surprise most by finishing third in 2005, and perhaps disappointingly in the same position in 2006 after a stellar season that produced 17 wins from 18 games and the highest percentage in the club's history but a tired looking team unable to produce the goods in the finals series.
In 2007, Mitchell continued in his fourth season as coach and with the ever-popular Frankie Raso as captain. 2005 senior Carlton player Digby Morrell joined the club in 2006 and acted as both vice-captain and assistant coach before moving to Box Hill with Mitchell at the end of 2007.
In 2008, the Bullants were largely controlled by a playing-coaching staff, with Carlton retiree David Teague taking the playing-coach role, and fellow retiree Matthew Lappin acting as playing-assistant coach. Teague continued as non-playing coach in 2009 and was joined by four-time A.F.L. premiership player, Martin Pike as reserves and assistant coach. After sitting in the lower part of the top eight for much of the season, good late season form saw the Bullants finish third on the ladder, then win through to their first Grand Final since the 1984 victory. The Bullants reached a second consecutive Grand Final the following season, again without success.
In 2012, the club abandoned the traditional Bullants nickname, and was renamed the Northern Blues. The club colours were changed to navy blue and white, consistent with the colours and nickname of the Carlton Football Club. The red and white guernsey will be retained for matches played in Preston, and when a clash guernsey is required.
- Joined VFA: 1903–11, 1926
- Division One (4): 1968–69, 1983–84
- Division Two (2): 1963, 1965
- V.J.F.A. 1900, 1901, 1902, 1921, 1923
- Aligned with: Carlton Football Club
The following is a list of the club's VFA/VFL captains and coaches
- Fiddian, Marc The Bullants: a History of Preston Football Club Preston Football Club, Melbourne 1983, Membrey, Brian Where We Come From – the History of the Preston Football Club , Vols 1 and 2, 2002
- Northern Bullants Official Site
- Preston (VFA) - BoylesFootballPhotos
- Full Points Footy Profile for Northern Bullants
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