The history of the AFL grand final involves challenge matches, bloodbaths, skipped years and a Geelong lawyer named Kenneth McIntyre.
But before the AFL grand final existed, there was the VFL.
1897 – The First VFL Final Series
The Victorian Football League (VFL) was a breakaway competition, formed by eight Victorian clubs who split from the Victorian Football Association (VFA) in 1897. The inaugural VFL season featured Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda.
The new comp would distinguish itself with a new method to decide the winner. The VFA had awarded the Premiership to the team that finished on top of the table after the home and away season, the VFL would use a finals series instead.
It was thought that finals would add excitement to the end of the season. There would be fewer games that did not impact the overall outcome, and a series of playoffs could generate public interest.
But the original system of finals used in the VFL meant that a Grand Final, was not guaranteed.
The top 4 teams progressed to the finals, where they played each other once in a round robin series; whichever team was most successful would be premiers. A Grand Final would only be held if there was a tie, at the top of the finals table.
This did not occur in 1897. Essendon won all three of their finals, and so won the inaugural flag.
1898 – The First VFL Grand Final
The finals system was changed for the second season. The VFL’s organisers realised that, under the system used in 1897, a Grand Final was unlikely.
And so they added a complication.
The team that finished top of the ladder at the end of the regular season, the Minor Premiers, would be granted an additional benefit. If they were not the winner of the finals series, they would be allowed to challenge the winner, in a one off game to decide the Premiership.
This happened in 1898.
Essendon won the Minor Premiership, but were less successful in the finals than Fitzroy, who went undefeated. A final match between the two was required to decide the overall winner.
Essendon were not happy.
They initially claimed they should be awarded the Premiership anyway, and threatened to forfeit the additional game. The VFL held firm: Essendon would play Fitzroy in a decider.
At the time this was known as a ’Challenge Match’; it was retrospectively labelled a ‘Grand Final’, the VFL’s first. The game was held on 24 September 1898, in front of a crowd of 16 500.
The venue was Junction Oval in St Kilda; one of the conditions of the league at this time was that the Challenge Match, if required, would be held at a neutral ground. Essendon also protested the venue.
Fitzroy won the match by 15 points, and claimed the flag.
1901 – Challenge Match Removed… And Reinstated
In 1901, the Challenge Match rule was removed, and the finals simplified. The top four teams progressed to a simple knock out series: first against third, second against fourth, the two winners playing off in a Grand Final.
That year Geelong won the Minor Premiership comfortably, two games clear of second placed Essendon. But they lost their final to Collingwood, and the Bombers then won the Grand Final and claimed the flag.
The Cats lodged a protest. The Challenge Match was reinstated for the 1902 season.
1902 also saw the first Grand Final at the MCG. The popularity of VFL was increasing, and the league experimented with holding the game at their largest ground: a record crowd of 35 000 turned out to watch Collingwood beat Essendon.
From 1908, the league would hold the Grand Final at the MCG every year, a run only broken by World War II and the Covid pandemic.
1924 – The Last Season Without a Grand Final
In 1924, the VFL returned to a round robin finals series, with the Challenge Match provision still in place. But Essendon were both Minor Premiers, and top of the finals table, so a Challenge Match was not required.
While this was within the rules, it meant a shorter finals series; the VFL had missed out on a week of revenue. It was also unsatisfying to the fans. Essendon lost their last final to Richmond, and only topped the finals table due to percentage.
The local press labelled the shorter finals series a ‘failure’.
The league began considering a change to the finals structure, to remove the Challenge Match and guarantee a set number of games. There were other reasons they wanted change as well.
With complex rules determining whether a Grand Final was played, it was felt the system was open to manipulation. Rumours swirled through the 1920s that players were throwing games, to ensure a Grand Final would occur; they wanted the extra revenue as well (these claims were never proven).
1924 would be the last VFL season without a Grand Final. To revamp the system, the league turned to an unusual source.
1931 – Kenneth McIntyre
Born in 1910, Kenneth McIntyre was a Melbourne lawyer with a wide variety of interests.
A graduate of Melbourne University, he was a professor of literature there from 1931 to 1945. Afterwards, he practised law in Box Hill, where he also served as mayor.
In retirement, McIntyre headed the Box Hill Historical Society, and wrote a controversial book where he claimed the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover Australia, in 1521.
He was also interested in mathematics, and sports, and a keen follower of the VFL. In 1931, while still at university, McIntyre developed a new system of finals for the league.
His proposal kept the top four, but removed the Challenge Match. Teams that finished first and second in the regular season would play off, the winner proceeding directly to the Grand Final. The loser would feature in a ‘Preliminary Final’, where they faced the winner of third against fourth.
This met the VFL’s criteria for a finals series: it guaranteed four games, and a Grand Final.
The idea was championed by Richmond’s Club Secretary, Percy ‘Pip’ Page, and eventually found wide support. This system of finals, known as ‘Page-McIntyre’, would be in place for 40 years, until 1972.
The VFL, and the Grand Final, continued to grow in popularity; a crowd of 88 000 turned up to the GF in 1937, and 96 000 in 1938.
1945 – The Bloodbath
Unlike other sports, football did not cease during World War II (play had continued during the First World War as well).
This was controversial in some quarters. But the authorities reasoned that the public still needed some forms of entertainment, and they often used the games as fundraisers for the war effort.
The MCG itself was unavailable; requisitioned by the Government, it was put to use as a temporary military camp. Up to 200 000 troops, many of them from the US, were stationed at the ground, which they dubbed ‘Camp Murphy’.
Instead, the Grand Final was held at Princes Park, and once, in 1944, returned to Junction Oval.
Perhaps reflecting the times, play in this period was marked by an uptick in aggression; writer Martin Flanagan noted that many football players had been rejected from military service, and so ‘young men who hadn’t been to war played a war game in front of a lot of young men who had.’
A more lenient interpretation of the ‘bump’ rule, allowing players to deliberately collect anyone within 5 metres of the ball, contributed as well.
This culminated in one of the most infamous Grand Finals, in 1945. Featuring Carlton and South Melbourne, and held just a few weeks after the end of the war in Europe, it would come to be known as ‘The Bloodbath’.
Carlton, underdogs against a strong Souths team, deliberately targeted their best players with aggressive physical tactics. Souths retaliated in kind.
Players from both sides were knocked out. All in brawls flared in the second and fourth quarters. Carlton’s Fred Fitzgibbon, watching the game after being suspended earlier in the finals, jumped the fence to join one of the melees, and had to be escorted from the ground by police.
The crowd rained bottles down on the playing surface.
In the end, 9 players were reported and given a combined 44 weeks of suspension. A Melbourne paper called the game, ‘the most repugnant spectacle football has ever known.’
Carlton won the game by 28 points.
1948 – The First Drawn Grand Final
In 1948, Essendon were hot favourites to win the flag.
They had enjoyed a dominant season, topping the ladder to win the Minor Premiership, and defeating their closest rivals, Melbourne, each time they had met. They entered the Grand Final having won 12 games in a row.
But inaccurate kicking would cost them.
In front of 85 000 spectators, the Bombers kicked a wasteful 0.6 in the first quarter, and 2.15 in the first half. Melbourne made better use of their opportunities, kicking 4.5 to lead by 2 points at the main break.
The Bombers found better form in the second half, and lead by 12 points late in the final quarter. Melbourne then goaled twice in quick succession to level the scores, and a frenzied final few minutes ensued.
Melbourne’s legendary forward Norm Smith, in his final playing season with the club, had a chance to seal victory inside the last minute. But his running shot on goal from 45 metres went out of bounds on the full.
The game was drawn.
The rules at the time meant a Grand Final replay would be held the following Saturday. This time Melbourne won comfortably, by 39 points.
There were two subsequent drawn Grand Finals: in 1977 (North Melbourne and Collingwood) and 2010 (St Kilda and Collingwood). Both of these lead to replays. After the more recent draw, the rules were changed to allow extra time to be played instead.
1959 – Introducing: The Premiership Cup
In 1959, the VFL introduced the Premiership Cup.
The Cup was the brainchild of Sir Kenneth Luke, then VFL President. Luke had attended the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London, and been impressed by the spectacle of the Cup presentation after the match.
He decided to bring the idea to the VFL.
To make sure that the new cup would be an appropriate size, viewable from all over the MCG, the legend is that Cash had his assistant run around a local park with a prototype, while he watched from a nearby vantage point.
The first Premiership Cup presentation was a simple affair.
Melbourne won the Grand Final, defeating Essendon, part of a run of 7 consecutive GF’s the club participated in, from 1954 to 1960. After the game, Melbourne captain John Beckwith walked by himself into the stands, where he received the Cup from Victorian Governor Sir Dallas Brooks.
He then carried it back onto the ground, to share with his teammates.
The Premiership Cups are made of plated silver, and are valued on their own at around $7 000. They are manufactured by ‘Cash’s Awards’ in Frankston, who also make the Brownlow Medal. The league has given permission for clubs to have cups made for Premierships won before 1959, at their own expense.
1961 – First Televised Grand Final
Another first came in 1961, when the Grand Final was televised for the first time.
TV had commenced in Australia in 1956, prompted by Melbourne hosting the summer Olympics. VFL coverage began in 1957, when Channels 7, 9 and the ABC broadcast the final quarter of selected games.
The commercial stations then wanted to expand, and broadcast whole matches live. But the VFL were resistant, fearing that live TV coverage would impact attendances.
In 1961, Channel 7 made an offer to broadcast the Grand Final live, which was again rejected. While the game was sold out, the VFL cited the potential impact on country football competitions, many of which held their own finals on Grand Final day.
A delayed telecast of the game was made, instead (this is the earliest one you can find in full on Youtube, or DVD). The VFL Grand Final would not be televised live until 1977.
1961 was a significant Grand Final in other ways as well.
Hawthorn won their first Premiership, defeating Footscray. Both teams had joined the VFL in 1925, marking the first time that both Grand Finalists were not from the original 8 foundation clubs.
1970 – Record Grand Final Attendance
Grand final attendances had continued to climb through the 1950s and 60s. The ground’s capacity had been significantly increased for the Olympics, and there was still abundant standing room, meaning that ever more people could be squeezed in.
‘Some spectators perched dangerously on the back fences of the grandstands and even the roof of the southern stand to get a view of the game. At least 2,500 gained entry by mobbing gates, climbing fences or sneaking in when the Military Band arrived.’
– ‘The Argus’, reporting the Grand Final in 1956
In 1970, a staggering 121 000 people crammed into the ground to watch Carlton play Collingwood, an attendance record not likely to be broken (the modern capacity for the MCG is set at 100 000). They witnessed one of the most thrilling Grand Finals.
Collingwood, heavy favourites, dominated early play and built a formidable lead of 44 points by half time. They were led by their star full forward Peter McKenna, who kicked five first half goals.
But late in the second quarter, McKenna collided heavily with his team mate Des Tuddenham. Left groggy, and likely concussed, McKenna faded out of the game, kicking only one further goal. He later said he had no memory of the second half.
Carlton were rallied by their own star forward Alex Jesaulenko, whose spectacular second quarter mark was immortalised by TV commentator Mike Williamson; ‘Jesaulenko, you beauty!’ After half time, the Blues gained momentum, kicking 7 goals in 11 minutes of thrilling attack.
They eventually ran out winners by 10 points.
The half time deficit of 44 points is the largest any team has come back from in a Grand Final. Carlton coach Ron Barrassi’s innovative use of handballs over kicking, was subsequently much imitated, and is widely seen as setting the template for modern football.
1979 – The First Norm Smith Medal
Despite missing the crucial kick in the 1948 Grand Final, Melbourne’s Norm Smith built a formidable finals record as both player and coach.
Between 1935 and 1948, Smith won 4 Premierships with Melbourne as a player. He then turned to coaching, and was even more successful; he was in charge during Melbourne’s run of 7 consecutive GF’s, and the club won 6 flags during his tenure.
Smith died in 1973, and in 1979, the VFL decided to honour him with a medal, awarded to the best player on Grand Final day. That season it was an eagerly anticipated rematch of 1970, with Carlton again facing Collingwood.
A panel of five judges determines the award, comprising a mix of former players, coaches, journalists and commentators. Each votes on the best player, in a 3-2-1 format; the player with the most votes wins the medal.
Joint winners are not allowed, ties are separated by a countback system. This has only occurred once, in 2009 (Geelong’s Paul Chapman winning on countback, from St Kilda’s Jason Gramm).
The first Norm Smith Medal winner was Carlton’s Wayne Harmes.
Harmes was a stocky utility player, who was originally named in the back pocket. But in the second quarter he was shifted into the midfield, and helped turn the game Carlton’s way.
Late in the match, while in attack, Harmes dived towards the boundary and desperately slapped at a ball that appeared certain to go out of bounds. But the umpires called played on, the ball landed with Ken Sheldon in the goal square, and he popped through the sealer: Collingwood fans will contend, to this day, the ball was out.
In a curious final coincidence: Harmes was Norm Smith’s great-nephew. He was presented the medal by Smith’s widow Marg.
1992 – The ‘AFL’ and The First Interstate Winner
The VFL undertook a significant expansion in the 1980s and 90s.
South Melbourne became the first interstate club, when they relocated to Sydney in 1982 and became the Sydney Swans. They were followed by new clubs that were founded in Perth (the West Coast Eagles), Brisbane (the Brisbane Bears), both in 1987, and Adelaide (the Adelaide Crows) in 1991.
Reflecting these changes, the league itself would be renamed in 1990, becoming the ‘Australian Football League’ (AFL).
Fierce rivalry sprung up between the new interstate clubs, and the traditional VFL clubs based in Melbourne. The Melbourne clubs were reluctant to cede turf to the upstarts, which extended to the finals series; until 1990, every final had to be played in Melbourne, regardless of where the teams finished on the ladder.
The Eagles were the first to break this monopoly. Having won the Minor Premiership in 1991, they were allowed to hold one final in Perth. They lost that match, and ultimately the Grand Final, to Hawthorn.
But they would make amends the following year.
In 1992, they again reached the Grand Final, this time facing a star studded Geelong team, heavily favoured to win. But the Eagles, under coach Mick Malthouse, had gained a harder edge.
In a pulsating, physical game, the Eagles overcame an early deficit, and eventually won by 28 points. It was the first Premiership won by an interstate club; this author, growing up in Perth, well remembers the eerie, deserted feeling of the city that day, as the whole state seemingly tuned in to the match on TV.
Peter Matera, with five electrifying goals from the wing, won the Norm Smith medal.
2020 – The First Night Grand Final
More changes were made to the league, and the finals, through the 90s and into the 21st century.
Additional clubs were founded in Fremantle, Port Adelaide, Gold Coast and Western Sydney, while Fitzroy and Brisbane merged. The finals series was expanded to a top 6, then a top 8; Kenneth McIntyre, in his 80s, was again consulted on the new finals structure.
But one change that was often mooted did not occur: moving the Grand Final to a night fixture.
The traditional timeslot for football is Saturday afternoon, when all VFL games used to be played. Night football began in the 1970s as a novelty, usually deployed as part of a short pre-season tournament.
Beginning in the 1990s, the AFL trialled regular season games on Friday nights, which quickly became popular. This led to night matches on Friday and Saturday every week, and more regularly on Thursdays (Monday night was also trialled, with less success). But while night footy is popular, there remains strong resistance to moving the Grand Final away from its usual Saturday afternoon slot.
In 2020, during a season disrupted by Covid, most of the games were played in Queensland, one of the states with the lowest rates of infection. The league capitalised on the unusual circumstances by experimenting with a night Grand Final as well.
Held at the ‘Gabba, this was the first Grand Final away from the MCG since the ‘Bloodbath’ in 1945, and the first ever held interstate (another would follow, again due to Covid, in Perth the following year). Richmond, in the middle of a run of 3 Premierships in 4 years, defeated Geelong in front of 50 000 fans.
The night Grand Final itself drew a mixed response: some enthusiasm, some indifference, much strong feeling for the game to remain in the afternoon. Which is what happened in 2022, post Covid, when it returned to the MCG.
Whether it stays there, or moves permanently to the evening, is an ongoing debate.