This year is the first Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round. It’s not the first Indigenous Round, but the first one named for the very influential (and important) former Carlton player, although that undersells his achievements quite significantly. Nicholls was the first Indigenous Australian to be knighted, he was the first Indigenous Australian to hold vice-regal office, and an active worker in the struggle for equal right for Indigenous Australians. Football does not define Nicholls; it merely provides yet another facet of his rich life.
Nicholls got his start as a top level footballer at Northcote, a VFA club that has historically struggled since its entry into the competition, but with another important link to Indigenous football history. The Brickfielders, either intentionally or unintentionally, was the club to debut the man generally recognised as the first indigenous footballer at top level in Australia, way back in 1903 – more than six decades before Indigenous Australians were counted in the population of Australia.
And Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson is one of the most forgotten names in football history, at least when considering his achievements. Johnson was the first Indigenous footballer at VFL/AFL level, the first Indigenous footballer to win a premiership, (likely) the first footballer from NSW to win a premiership and a player who played in a grand final in every one of his seasons at VFL/AFL level. In 1906, he was considered to be in the top 10 VFL footballers going around, which was his last season at VFL level. It’s undeniable, when looking at his record and reading the match reports of the day, that Johnson was a star of the nascent competition, a player with the ability to play all around the ground and excel.
Johnson left Fitzroy after the 1906 season to re-join the VFA, and to break even more new ground as the first Indigenous captain and coach of a top level football club. Under Johnson Brunswick saw unprecedented success, making two grand finals and winning one, making Johnson the first Indigenous player to captain or coach a premiership winning team.
Johnson left Brunswick after the 1909 season, and ended up back at Northcote again in 1912. In 1916 Johnson went to war to fight for Australia, his football career over. Details are relatively scarce about Johnson’s later life, but it is conceivable that he stayed in contact with his first club Northcote, the club that became the home for Nicholls later on. Three further generations of Johnson’s family played football at the VFL level, most recently Scott and Trent Cummings in the 1990s.
There is a significant academic argument as to whether Johnson ever identified himself as Indigenous (Barry Judd in particular has done a large amount of fantastic work in this field). After reading a large number of newspaper articles of the time (via Trove) HPN could find no mention of Johnson’s Indigenous status, which would have been noteworthy at the time. It’s likely that Johnson was the first Indigenous footballer at VFL level, but also that extremely few people knew he was Indigenous. When judged on an even playing field, without race as an issue, Johnson was considered a star of his day, an opportunity denied to almost all Indigenous footballers for the first six decades of the VFL. More importantly, Johnson was considered as a leader both on and off the football field, a rarity in football history for an Indigenous man.
Indigenous leadership in modern football
Since Joe Johnson’s coaching days very few Indigenous men and women have followed in his footsteps as coaches. HPN’s primary research only shows two Indigenous top level head coaches of VFL clubs – Barry Cable and Graham “Polly” Farmer. Currently, there are only two Indigenous assistant coaches at AFL level (out of 178 total according to an The Age piece earlier this year). That means roughly 1% of all AFL coaches are Indigenous, down sharply from the roughly 10% of indigenous players currently on AFL lists. There are no Indigenous members of the AFL Commission, and the league is currently without a Indigenous Commissioner, with the most senior Indigenous staffer in the AFL ranks, Jason Mifsud, stepping down earlier this year.
The AFL has been increasingly active in encouraging on-field involvement of Indigenous players, and ensuring that their contributions are respected without abuse. HPN isn’t saying that this goal has been fully achieved, but it’s certainly the case that Indigenous footballers are valued and treated equally more now than any other time in football history.
What has been lacking, however, are concrete strategies to ensure off-field involvement by Indigenous players. There are currently no Indigenous umpires, nor any Indigenous recruiters at any club. The Age article mentioned above presents several good options that should be under consideration by the AFL, but the most critical one is that Indigenous coaches should be given a chance to perform. In the corporate world unconscious bias is considered to be a significant obstacle to finding the right person for the job; perhaps that’s also the case in the football world.
Other, Less Important Things
North Get No Respect
It’s not enough for the HPN Ratings to disrespect them; because apparently the fans do as well. Have a look at this chart, via AFL Tables:
North currently sit last for attendance, both home and away, for all Victorian clubs. Perhaps this is argument against the old chestnut that fans love a good bandwagon.
Toby McLean, Man in Green?
Well it rhymes anyway. Toby McLean, through the first nine rounds of the season has yet to have a free kick paid against him and has received 20 himself. Across his short career to date, McLean has had only two free kicks paid against him. If he can keep this up, McLean is on record-setting pace for free kick avoidance.
Hot take of the Week
This is really a lifetime achievement award but would you just look at this column on the AFL’s own website:
The concept behind this column is that each club gets an “if-then”statement that’s supposed to be a conversation starting, agenda-setting series of big calls and hot takes. The result is more often a confused, grammatically-tortured set of Bigfooty topic titles.
This week alone the author manages to insult North Melbourne’s integrity as a club for doing the right thing and analogise Carlton to a foreign doping scandal. We also get the bleeding edge observations that Richmond are erratic, Fremantle are underperforming and GWS have high quality young depth. What’s the point of all this again? And who is this “we” Damien keeps referring to?