For too long, the remarkable sporting career of Jack Worrall has been glossed over by generations of sports writers and commentators. One of the most influential figures in the formative years of Australian Rules Football, and the first coach ever appointed by a VFL/AFL club, his achievements in both football and cricket entitle him to a place among this country’s greatest-ever sportsmen. Worrall’s enduring legacy is that he restored respect for the Carlton Football Club when it was so badly needed. He provided the blueprint for the Blues’ next century of success, and put Victorian Rules on the road to professionalism and nation-wide popularity.

Worrall was born on June 21, 1861 at Chinaman’s Flat; a gold-mining settlement outside Maryborough in central Victoria. His Irish-born father Joseph was a miner whose wife Ann provided him with seven children. By the time their youngest son John (Jack), attended school in Ballarat, he was obsessed with sport, and excelled at any kind of physical expression.

Throughout his teens, Worrall honed his skills playing football in winter, and cricket in summer. Although he was no wowser, Jack abhorred alcohol and tobacco. Virtually all his spare time was spent honing the basic football skills of marking, kicking with both feet, and handballing off either side. By 1883 he was a star of the Ballarat competitions, and soon, a prized signing for the Fitzroy Football Club in the fledgling Victorian Football Association.
Coach of the 1906,1907,1908 premiership teams
Worrall made his playing debut for the Maroons in 1884. A solidly proportioned rover-forward with sure ball skills, pace, and accuracy with hand and foot, he was a sensation from his first game. Fitzroy appointed him captain of the club in 1886, an honour he held for six of the next seven seasons. He won their Best & Fairest in his first year as captain, and was the club’s leading goal-kicker in 1887 and ‘89. But the greatest testament to Worrall’s ability came in 1887 and 1890, when he was named Champion of the Colony (effectively, Best and Fairest in the competition) both years.

Determined, self-confident and strong-willed, he was one of the outstanding figures of the first decade of the VFA. Fitzroy’s supporters revered him, while his rivals – to a man - respected him. And when the football seasons ended, he kept his name in the sporting headlines with his equally impressive exploits for the Carlton Cricket Club. Between 1883 and 1902, Worrall scored 4660 runs (including seven centuries) for Carlton at an average of 20.99, took 105 wickets at 23.10, and held onto 101 catches.

In 1896, he scored a mammoth, Australian-record 417 not out for Carlton against Melbourne University. In addition, Worrall also represented Australia in 11 Test matches against England between 1885 and 1899. A right-handed opening batsman and handy change bowler, he was renowned for his aggressive attitude when batting, and on his day could tear an attack apart. In the 1899 Test at Headingly, however, 38 year-old Worrall (in one of his last games for his country) curbed his attacking instinct to top-score with 76 runs in Australia’s first-innings total of 172, on a wet wicket later described as a batsman’s nightmare.

While compiling these impressive lists of on-field achievements, Worrall also found time to play a leading role (as a Fitzroy delegate) in the formation of the breakaway Victorian Football League in 1896–97. Dissatisfied with the structure and administration of the VFA, eight clubs - Melbourne, Geelong, Fitzroy, Carlton, Essendon, South Melbourne, Collingwood and St Kilda - set up the new league and played their first matches against each other in May of 1897.

Those early years of the VFL were barren times for the team from Princes Park. The Blues were anchored near the bottom of the ladder from 1897 to 1901, with only the hapless St Kilda standing between them and a string of wooden spoons. That was until sometime around the dawn of the new century, when the committee of the club (under President Robert Heatley) made the momentous decision to offer Jack Worrall the post of secretary.

Worrall accepted, with the stipulation that he alone would control of all aspects of the recruitment, training, selection and administration of the team. This was a revolutionary idea, particularly for a time when most clubs still considered themselves strictly amateur. Apparently with some reservations, the Carlton committee agreed to Worrall’s terms, and the stage was set for the rebirth of the Blues.

Worrall had unshakeable confidence in his methods and theories. He wanted a team that was not only taller, faster and fitter than its rivals, but played under disciplines that Worrall himself personally drilled into his players at mandatory training sessions. He dedicated himself to the task of lifting Carlton up the ladder, and searched the country for football talent.

In 1901, Carlton had won just two games. Under Worrall in 1902, the Blues claimed seven victories, and in 1903 we were VFL finalists for the first time, when, at Brunswick Street Oval on Saturday, September 5, 1903, Carlton lost the First Semi-Final to Fitzroy by 4 points in heart-breaking circumstances. Right on the final bell, Blues’ full-forward Joe Sullivan marked strongly in a forward pocket, only to have his set shot for goal drift wide.

Buoyed by that minor success, the Blues looked forward to 1904 with confidence. And sure enough, by the half-way mark of that season, a top-four finish was looking highly likely. At least until a committee-level brawl erupted when it was revealed that Worrall had paid the gate receipts for three matches into his personal bank account, then reimbursed the club the full amount with his own cheque. There was no evidence of dishonesty, but the practice was certainly irregular. Many committee members were disturbed by Jack’s actions, and they voted 16 to 7 to sack him.

That decision was met by a storm of protest from a majority of Carlton members and most of the players, in the first of a series of bitter disputes that were to plague the Blues throughout the next century. Eventually, an extraordinary Annual General Meeting was called to resolve the matter, and, amid joyous scenes, Jack was reinstated when all 16 of the men who had voted for his dismissal were themselves tossed out of office in a landslide of popular support.

Somehow, those weeks of dissension at Princes Park didn’t derail the Blues season. With Worrall firmly back in charge, Carlton finished runners-up to Fitzroy for the minor premiership, and deservedly qualified for our first Grand Final with a fighting three-point semi-final victory over Essendon. Coincidentally, this time it was Essendon’s Jack ‘Dookie’ McKenzie who had a chance to snatch the game for his team with a last minute set shot. But he too, just missed.

When 32,688 people packed into the MCG two weeks later, on Grand Final day, 1904, they saw the warm favourites Fitzroy pushed hard all day by a gallant Carlton team. The Blues actually led by a point at half-time, before Fitzroy’s champion rover Percy Trotter cut loose in the second half and drove the Maroons to a four-goal victory. Melbourne’s football press was unanimous in its praise for both sides after the decider, generally agreeing that while Fitzroy’s greater all-round experience made the difference, the Blues were a team on the improve

Carlton’s extensive recruiting drive continued in 1905, with the arrival of a dozen new players, including Rod McGregor, Norman Clark, Charlie Hammond and George ‘Mallee’ Johnson – all of them future champions. At the same time, the club committees at Collingwood, Essendon, Melbourne and Richmond were already following the Blues’ lead by considering the appointment of senior coaches.

The real surprise packet of the 1905 finals was Collingwood. The Magpies topped the ladder; two wins and a draw clear of Fitzroy, with Carlton and Essendon next. Carlton was given little chance against the Magpies in their semi-final, but in a huge boil-over, the Blues’ slick teamwork and evenness all over the ground overwhelmed their opponents by almost eight goals. That stirring victory - a coaching coup by Worrall - booked Carlton into the Preliminary Final against their recent nemesis; Fitzroy. In that penultimate match of the season, Carlton matched it with the ‘Roys for most of the game. There were only two kicks in it at the last change, before the eventual Premiers surged home to win by 27 points to knock the Blues out of contention again.

In November of that year, Jack Worrall’s standing within the game was further enhanced when he was appointed as one of two Victorian delegates to the inaugural meeting of the Australian National Football Council. Jack never lacked self-confidence or optimism, but it is difficult to imagine that even he could visualise that he was on the threshold of the defining moments of his remarkable life.

The turnover of players at Carlton continued in the lead-up to the 1906 season. Included in the arrivals at this time were three solid, experienced hard-nuts in Martin Gotz, Fred Jinks and Les Beck, and a brilliant, feisty rover in Alex ‘Bongo’ Lang. All four forced their way into the Blues senior team during the year, to help lift Carlton to the minor premiership for the first time. Fitzroy finished runners-up, ahead of Collingwood and Essendon.

At last, on Saturday, September 22, 1906, the Old Dark Navy Blues finally claimed back complete respect with an emphatic, 49-point Grand Final demolition of our keenest rivals. In front of a then-record crowd of 44,437 spectators at the MCG, Worrall’s men played the way he demanded, and reaped the rewards he had promised. That evening, as many pubs throughout Carlton shouted free beer, Blues’ supporters danced in the street at the beginning of days of celebrations. Jack Worrall and the Carlton Football Club had brought a Premiership home at last!
Jack Worrall
One of the qualities of Worrall’s coaching that has often been overlooked was his ability to quickly refocus his team after big wins. This was clearly evident in 1907. As the new season beckoned, the Blues clicked back into gear immediately, despite the lingering euphoria of our first-ever flag win. Consistent, team-oriented football took Worrall’s Boys to the minor premiership for the second year running; two wins clear of the big improvers South Melbourne, and St Kilda. Collingwood made up the top four, ahead of a fading Fitzroy.

Carlton thrashed St Kilda by almost 10 goals in their semi-final clash, but the win came at a heavy price. Our champion centreman Rod McGregor had his nose smashed in the last minutes of the game, ruling him out of the Grand Final against South. On the Thursday prior to the 1907 decider, Worrall named journeyman Alby Ingleman as McGregor’s replacement.

Saturday, September 21, 1907 drew 45,477 spectators to the MCG, to be entertained by one of the great Grand Finals. South’s speed and finesse matched Carlton’s strength and marking power in a fascinating encounter from the first bounce. The Blues led by 1 point at quarter time, 3 points at half time, 15 points at the last change, and withstood a late burst by the Bloods to win by five. Of Carlton’s better players, Ingleman was a revelation in the centre, where his tireless teamwork began many forward thrusts.

For the second time in twelve months, jubilation swept Princes Park and its surroundings for days after Premiership number two for the Blues. Worrall loosened the reins on his players until early in the New Year, before the iron discipline kicked back in when he demanded that they focus all their energies on the task of winning a hat-trick of flags.

Season 1908 marked the apex of Jack Worrall’s tenure as coach of the Carlton Football Club. Seemingly content that at last he had the right mix of players, he found their ideal positions, then concentrated on getting the best out of each individual. The confident Blues responded in the most positive of ways; by dominating the home and away rounds with 17 wins from 18 matches, in an expanded 10-team competition (including Richmond and University).

Carlton’s third top of the ladder finish in successive seasons came at the expense of Essendon, St Kilda and Collingwood; but there was never any real doubt that the 1908 Premiership would be fought out between Same Old Essendon and the Navy Blues.

In a complete contrast to the previous year, the 1908 Grand Final was a dour struggle described by one journalist as the most mediocre finals match for years. Essendon had been weakened by injury to five regular members of their team, and so tried to transform the game into a rugby scrum. They were helped by a surface still soggy from recent rain, as well as a strong cross-breeze that made accurate kicking over distance impossible. They nearly caused a huge upset, too - but four missed shots on goal in the last quarter cost them dearly, and they fell short by nine points.

Worrall’s feat in coaching Carlton to three straight flags added a cherry to the rapture at Princes Park, and sent the newspapers of the day in search of superlatives. One might have believed that harmony and goodwill were the order of the day at Princes Park afterward, but unfortunately, this was not the case. Over the years, the players had seen ever-increasing crowd numbers at VFL games, greater gate receipts and improved profits for the club as a whole – while their “expenses” had remained dormant. Discontent surfaced early in the new season, when a group of senior Blues, led by Norman Clark, asked for more money and fewer of Worrall’s rigid training sessions.

Worrall responded by dropping Clark for two matches. The club committee then stepped in, and a full-blown crisis erupted when they reinstated Clark against the express wishes of the coach. With his authority undermined, Worrall tendered his resignation on the spot - but the committee refused to accept it. Worrall was forced to swallow his pride, return Clark to the team, and carry on as before.

Eventually, as the finals approached and the tension continued, the rebellious players petitioned the committee again, demanding this time that Worrall be sacked. When informed of this development, Worrall asked to be relieved of his duties as coach, while staying on as secretary. The committee eventually agreed to “absolve him from the duties of coach”, and appointed club stalwart Fred ‘Pompey’ Elliott to the dual role of captain-coach. Somewhat unbelievably, Carlton qualified for a fourth straight Grand Final in 1909, and lost to South Melbourne by just four points.

That narrow defeat, and the continued ructions at committee level concerning Worrall’s status, came to a head in March 1910, when the first ever “reform group” (a term destined to become all-too familiar at Princes Park) emerged prior to the club’s Annual General Meeting. The AGM turned into a shambles that eventually decided on a spill of all committee places, and a new ballot to elect alternatives. The reformers swept to power, and on April 1, 1910, Jack Worrall’s stormy and spectacularly successful association with the Carlton Football Club ended with his formal resignation as secretary.

Even then, there was one more twist to the tale. When Worrall left, four of Carlton’s stars; ‘Mallee’ Johnson, Fred Jinks, Frank ‘Silver’ Caine and Charlie Hammond went with him. All applied for, and were granted clearances to VFA club North Melbourne. Worrall himself took up a new role as coach of the VFL umpires, and Arthur ‘Shooter’ Ford replaced him as Carlton’s secretary – while still continuing his playing career.

The circumstances of Worrall’s departure from Princes Park were condemned by an editorial in the pages of The Australasian newspaper. “The dismissal from the management of that experienced campaigner Mr Jack Worrall, who had raised the club from a very low ebb to a high position financially as well as on the field, smacked of both folly and ingratitude,” it said.

Those words resonated at Princes Park within two years. After spending the remainder of 1910 as coach of the VFL umpires in winter, and mentor to the Victorian Cricket Association Colts (Under 19) team in the summer months, Worrall was appointed senior coach at Essendon – where, employing the same methods and disciplines as he had at Carlton, he promptly lifted the Same Olds from fourth place in 1910, to Premiers in 1911 and 1912. Those additional flags took Worrall’s tally to five, a record surpassed to date by only two others; Jock McHale of Collingwood (8) and Norm Smith of Melbourne (5).

Worrall departed a grateful Essendon in 1916, while football struggled with the hardships of World War 1. He joined the weekly Australasian as a sports columnist specialising in his dual passions of football and cricket. Tough, stubborn and opinionated, he did not make friends easily, but his lively style and experience gained him widespread appreciation for more than 20 years, during which he continued to encourage young players, coaches and later, writers. In time, he was made a Life Member of the VFL, the ANFC, and the Fitzroy and Essendon Football Clubs. In 1996 he was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame, and in 2006 was finally honoured in the same way by the Carlton Football Club.

When 76 year-old Jack Worrall passed away at Fairfield on November 17, 1937, Australian Football lost one of its great figures. Flags flew at half mast at Brunswick Street Oval, Princes Park, Windy Hill and the MCG on the day when a wide cross-section of people - including many of Australia’s finest footballers and cricketers - attended his funeral at Heidelberg Cemetery.