As we rapidly approach the 100th anniversary of that awful day when Collingwood inflicted defeat on Carlton for the first and only time in a VFL Grand Final, the Blueseum is proud to bring forth - to friend and foe alike - a couple of little-known historical facts. One, that the Collingwood Football Club may well have been stillborn in 1892 had it not been for the largesse and encouragement of the Old Dark Navy Blues, and two, that the first great figure in Magpie history, Billy Strickland, was himself a former Carlton champion.

The sequence of events that culminated in Collingwood’s emergence as an elite football club actually began at Princes Park in 1885, when Strickland, a 20 year-old sensation from neighbouring Brunswick, first played VFA football for the Blues. Described in newspaper reports of the day as disciplined, determined and brilliant, he was Carlton’s original great centreman – a player who roamed far and wide, and often turned a game with his remarkable skills. In 1887 he captained the Blues to their sixth Premiership.
Billy Strickland.jpg
Five years later, in 1892, the Association agreed to admit neighbouring Collingwood to the competition. However, only two weeks before the opening of the new season, the Purloiners (as their opponents liked to call them) were forced to admit that they had not complied with all of their obligations under VFA rules. Only 17 matches had been scheduled for the year, when a minimum of 18 was required. An extraordinary meeting of all club delegates was called, and the matter was heatedly debated.

Some clubs were in favour of dismissing the newcomers, before Carlton stepped up with an answer. The Blues offered to cancel a scheduled match against South Ballarat, and instead play an extra game against Collingwood to solve the problem. A very relieved VFA agreed, and the newly-christened Magpies remained in the fold. That gesture was deeply appreciated at Victoria Park, to the extent that the man who suggested it; Carlton secretary Mr J Melville, was loudly applauded by the Collingwood crowd as he walked around the boundary prior to Collingwood’s debut match against the Blues at Victoria Park on May 7, 1892. That joyous occasion drew 16,000 spectators, and although Carlton won - as they were expected to do - relations between the two clubs reached new heights when the Blues donated their share of the match proceeds back to the fledgling Magpies.
John Melville 1.jpg
Less than a year later, Collingwood caused one of the first sensations in the game by convincing Billy Strickland to leave Carlton for greener pasture at Victoria Park. Although the competition was ruled by a strictly amateur code, players were permitted to accept ‘expenses’ and there was widespread rorting of the rules. Strickland was 29 years old by then, and at the peak of his superb career. From an historical perspective it would be easy to assume that such a defection would have caused a deep rift between the two clubs, but strangely, this wasn’t the case. Billy’s arrival quickly transformed Collingwood from also-rans into flag contenders, and in 1896 his astute captaincy was a deciding factor when his new club defeated South Melbourne to win their only VFA flag. Strickland’s individual efforts over the season didn’t go unrewarded either – he was voted Champion of the Colony by a panel of football writers.

In 1897, the VFA’s eight strongest clubs – including Collingwood and Carlton – split from the Association and created the Victorian Football League. Although the game was booming in popularity, Carlton was by no means financially secure. The club’s biggest asset was a new oval at Princes Park – but the league had insisted on improvements to the ground as a condition of Carlton’s inclusion, and the costs were weighing heavily on the club’s coffers. Therefore, when the opening of Carlton’s new ground was celebrated on June 22, 1897 with another match against Collingwood, the Carlton committee was gratified to be told that the Magpies would forego their share of the match receipts because of ‘the favour shown to this club in the early days.’

Later that year, Collingwood captain Billy Strickland ended his illustrious on-field career, although he would later briefly return and etch his name deeper into their history as the club’s inaugural coach in 1904. During the first decade of that century, Carlton and Collingwood continued to develop a rivalry that although hard-fought on the field, was always founded on respect. The Pies won flags in 1902 and 1903, and the Blues responded with a ground-breaking hat-trick in 1906-07-08. Throughout, the bonhomie between the two clubs remained, as this entry in the 1906 Annual Report of the Collingwood Football Club attests;

''‘Naturally we were all disappointed that the honour of the Premiership had not fallen to us. But for the good of the game, and to reward those executives and players who have been trying year after year to reach the top, it is a grand thing that the Carlton Football Club, with such a glorious record in the earlier days, should in the latter years again come to the fore. The Premiership going round a little more will do the game a lot of good.’
(At this point, the Blueseum suggests that those words be quoted to any present-day Magpie supporter within earshot).

Eventually (some may say sadly) the mutual regard and co-operation between the two clubs began to disintegrate under the burgeoning pressures of an ever more popular, and increasingly professional sport. In 1910, when the Blues and the Maggies met for the first time in a VFL Grand Final, the relationship slid toward hatred after a violent, ill-tempered clash. The full story of that match, its aftermath and the feuds and passionate rivalry that has been created in its wake, are further explained elsewhere in the Blueseum....

Blueseum: That Other Great War - Carlton v Collingwood