Playing the Field / ‘Brandzac Day’ Short History of Football on April 25

Thursday, 13 August, 2015

If you can cast your mind back to what must be a while ago now, you might recall the eruption of something between a minor furore and a full-blown national panic when Woolworths ran a campaign, which some have noted may have been misguided, to commemorate the centenary of Anzac day and make a little dosh on the side. “Fresh in our memories”, read the tagline above the Woolworths logo and beneath, a portrait of a soldier alongside that solemn slogan, “Lest We Forget”. The campaign was accompanied by a website with a meme generator, with customers encouraged to create their own images and spread the supermarket giant’s logo-encrusted remembrance via social media. Naturally, Woolworths yielded to the ensuing public reaction, withdrew its campaign and removed the website.

In their response to the fiasco, The Daily Telegraph chalked the misdemeanour up as another example of the ‘Brandzac Day’ menace ravaging the nation’s day of commemoration. For many observers, the incident came to epitomise the gross commercial exploitation of the Gallipoli centenary. Yet, prudently understanding the need to address their reader’s short attention spans, the Tele soon leapt to the topic of sport and Anzac Day. In an apparently stark contrast to the methods employed by certain advertising campaigns year after year, the AFL with its Anzac Day Clash has pioneered the kind of respectful commemoration now used as a blueprint by professional sports leagues all over Australia, says the Tele. The lap of honour for the diggers prior to the match, the minute of silence, and the rendition of the Last Post form a powerful and emotional tribute to the nation’s military history.

The Anzac Day Clash is a major feature of Australia’s most important public holiday. It is contested at the Melbourne Cricket Ground between the Essendon Bombers and the Collingwood Magpies on the 25th of April each year. Over the past twenty years the match has averaged an attendance of around 83,000. The inaugural clash in 1995 remains the home and away (i.e. non-finals) match with the second-highest attendance in history, at a cool 94,825. That year, the gates were closed 40 minutes before the bounce, and a reported 20,000 people were turned away. What started as something of a gimmick, or a way for the AFL to make a little extra money, has matured into one of the nation’s most revered and anticipated annual sporting events.

Originally, it was illegal for organised sport to take place on Anzac Day. It wasn’t until 1958 that parliament lifted the ban, paving the way for football to be played on April 25 (In accordance with the Anzac Day Act 1960, 60% of the net proceeds from any match played on the day would go to the Anzac Day Trust, which is still the case today). Yet despite the enthusiasm from the Victorian government and the Returned and Services League (RSL), the VFL wasn’t keen at the time. The league scheduled two matches on Anzac Day in 1960, paying their respects by showcasing four mediocre teams in two mediocre games that took place at Brunswick Street Oval and Junction Oval. Thereafter, the VFL would schedule matches most Anzac Days, rarely putting too much thought into them. In 1975, Essendon upset Carlton at Waverley in front of a then-Anzac Day record of 77,770 attendees. In 1977 a crowd of 92,436 turned out on Anzac Day to see Collingwood coach Tommy Hafey face his former team, Richmond, for the first time. The VFL failed to build on this momentum, but it was one of the Richmond players on the losing side of that very match who finally realised the potential of football on Anzac Day.

Kevin Sheedy was out wandering in his garden one day – presumably because his family didn’t want him in the house – when he had something of an epiphany. The Essendon coach, who would years later take Greater Western Sydney to three wins and 41 losses, orchestrated a meeting between the Bombers, Collingwood and the RSL, and the Anzac Day Clash as we know it today was born.

What I have always found so fascinating about the Anzac Day Clash is how a contest between everyone’s two least favourite teams can be so engrossing every year. Perhaps it’s the dignified pre-match Anzac ceremonies, the roar of the inevitably huge crowds, the extra grit and determination that the players bring, or the fact that we all get the day off to watch the game – whatever it is, it transcends the purpose of an ordinary AFL match. Being close to the start of the season, the four points aren’t critical, but the way the game is played it may as well be taking place in late September.