Scottish Football and Working Class Identity in Australia

After the Second World War, the popularity of football (or soccer, as Australians know it) grew exponentially in Australia. Although the arrival of large numbers of migrants from continental Europe gave the game a new image that has survived to this day, prior to this it was a decidedly Scottish game in Australia.

Football has its origins in Scotland in the preindustrial era. With no limit on the number of players, rival teams would compete to see who could kick a bundle of rags into the opposition’s town. Football as we know it today can be dated in Scotland from 1873 when the Scottish Football Association was established, and was at this time mainly restricted to working-class communities.

The professionalisation and commercialisation of football in Scotland during the final decades of the nineteenth century was made possible by economic growth and urbanisation, as well as the growing concentration of free leisure time on Saturday afternoons.

Along with these factors, rising wages, as well as better transport and communication, meant that playing and watching sport came to be the choice of leisure activity for the working masses.

When they emigrated, Scots took their game abroad. Football games in Australia were an important time for immigrants to socialise with other immigrants. Often, groups of Scots would come together to form their own teams and would compete with each other or with teams of other nationalities. As in Scotland, sport (mainly watching it) was the weekend leisure activity of choice for most people in Australia, and provided working people with a strong sense of personal and group identity – both as workers and as Scots.

The first known football game in Australia  was recorded in 1880 at Parramatta Common in New South Wales, while some of the earliest clubs were formed in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales around 1883.

Often, clubs would start up in areas with large populations of Scots. In 1884, Scots formed the Minmi Rangers in Newcastle; the Minmi colliery was owned and operated by Scots. Similarly in 1886 at Ipswich, Queensland, the large number of Scots involved in coal mining provided a solid grounding for the game in that area. Also, the Scottish-owned Clyde Engineering firm provided the Granville football club with many of its Scottish players.

The earliest competition match in Sydney was held in June 1885 in which the Caledonians won 7-1. The first Australian cup final was held at Botany in September of that year between Granville and the Caledonians, and nineteen of the twenty-two players that day were Scots.

As more and more people from Scotland migrated to Australia in the new century, the ubiquity of football grew. One reporter wrote in the early twentieth century, “With the steady inflow of people there is an increasing room for an old-world game, and some twenty teams are now playing under British Association rules in or about Melbourne.”

In Victoria, the Melbourne and Fitzroy Thistle clubs took out the Victorian League Championship eight times between 1914 and 1932. Along with the Royal Caledonians, these three Scottish clubs won the Dockerty Cup nine times between 1914 and 1936. As in Scotland, football provided players and audiences with a welcome distraction from the hardships of the Great Depression during the interwar years.

Despite its popularity among British migrants, football struggled to compete against the more popular local variant – AFL or ‘Aussie Rules’. One observer wrote in 1913 that “Soccer, the more popular of the British games of football, has established a fair footing in Australia in the last few seasons, though, like every other exotic, it must have a hard battle to hold its own in public esteem with a purely local and long-established game, to the points of which Australians are bred from infancy.”

It was also said that “The Australians, who watched the game as a novelty, were largely of one opinion: there were points in it that, if studied intelligently, would improve our football.”

Nevertheless, football enjoyed a loyal following well into the twentieth century. In the earlier decades, an annual international match was played between Scottish and English teams at Fitzroy in Melbourne, providing a focal point for the national and ethnic identities of working-class English and Scottish migrants. Reports indicate that over 4000 people could be in attendance at the games, and writers observed that – as far as could be ascertained from listening to their accents – both the players and onlookers were overwhelmingly British in background. During the half-time interval, Scottish dancers and pipers would take the ground and entertain the crowd.

Football’s Scottish flavourings continued to be evident post-1945, although Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Maltese and Yugoslav clubs became more and more prevalent as migrants from those countries came in large numbers to Australian shores. Brisbane had the Grange Thistle, Canberra had Burns United, and there was Adelaide Celtic and Arncliffe Scots in Sydney, as well as Caledonian and Thistle clubs in Melbourne.

The early pervasiveness of Scottish footballers continued to influence the game and, from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, more players were recruited for professional Australian teams from Scotland than from anywhere else.

Today, football is experiencing a revival in popularity among Australians with the popularity of the ‘Socceroos’ and recently established national leagues attracting many new fans. In recent years, a number of A-League teams have employed Scots on their coaching staff. Fans of the ‘Old Firm’ clubs in Scotland – Celtic and Rangers – maintain a strong support base here and both teams have, in the past, regularly made trips to entertain their supporters.

Football in Australia maintains some of its original Scottishness, while new arrivals from Scotland are as eager supporters as those who arrived in the late nineteenth century. In any case,  football was one of the key reference points of identity for working-class Scottish migrants in Australia, which is a far cry from the Caledonian societies and Burns clubs we have become accustomed to hearing about.

[If you’re interested in the issue of sectarianism and religious bigotry in Scottish football, you may like to read my review of John Flint and John Kelly’s ‘Bigotry, Football, and Scotland’, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2013]

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