In 2008 a former St Kilda wingman, Tom McNeil, stood in the foyer of the AFL Players Association office in Albert Park and felt a surge of pride.
The office represented all that he’d fought for when he formed a players’ union in the 1950s.
“I was actually quite chuffed about it,” McNeil told me about his time in the foyer.
McNeil, who was then 78, was in the building because he wanted to become an associate member of the AFL Players Association, and because he wanted to show Brendon Gale some documentation of his attempts — more than five decades previously — to form a body to represent VFL and VFA players.
Gale was then the players’ association chief executive. He realised he’d struck gold when McNeil revealed his collection of letters, minutes and newspapers clippings, and he commissioned a sports historian to investigate.
The historian, Braham Dabscheck, published his research in the academic journal Sporting Traditions. His findings, which informed the greater part of this article, reveal an intriguing chapter in the history of the game.
Tom McNeil was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1929. Eleven years later, in 1940, he and his sister were among 475 children who were evacuated to Australia to escape the dangers of World War 2.
McNeil was billeted with host families in Melbourne until his parents arrived in 1947. By then he was recognised as a classy wingman with Bayside club Hampton Scouts.
He was later invited to St Kilda and made his debut in round 17 of the 1951 season.
In round seven in 1952, McNeil was playing his fifth senior game, against Fitzroy at Brunswick Street, when he was king-hit behind play and suffered a major gash near his eye.
He was taken back to the Junction Oval where a doctor stitched him up and told him to recover from the anaesthetic in the cloakroom.
A dance was to be held at the Junction Oval that night. Before McNeil had recovered from his treatment he was bundled out of the building, and later collapsed in Punt Road still wearing his blood-stained St Kilda jumper.
A St Kilda club official who had been alerted of McNeil’s condition by a passer-by advised McNeil to catch a taxi home.
Three weeks later, in round 10 of the 1952 season, McNeil became entangled with a star North Melbourne forward during a melee at Arden Street.
According to McNeil’s account, the North forward struck him twice. McNeil, unaccustomed to using fists, tried to trip Brady, but he missed.
A boundary umpire reported both players.
North Melbourne officials accompanied the North forward to the tribunal hearing, but no one from St Kilda was behind McNeil. The North forward escaped penalty while McNeil was suspended for two games.
McNeil was convinced that the North player had been exonerated because he had a higher profile and because North officials had accompanied him. He, however, was penalised because he was a fringe player who had no officials behind him.
McNeil was upset by his lack of support from St Kilda officials, and had an argument with secretary Sam Ramsay.
He didn’t train after the argument hearing and missed a game. The next week he returned to training and was due to play in the reserves but he was left out.
He quit the club midway through the 1952 season after eight senior games.
McNeil served as playing-coach at East St Kilda in 1953 and Alexandra in 1954 before sailing to Scotland to try to connect with his roots. His plan was also to try to pick up tips from soccer clubs to incorporate into his coaching at home.
In Glasgow, a newspaper got wind of the visit by a suntanned 24-year-old Australian who was going to Rangers to study training and techniques.
The article said McNeil had been evacuated from Scotland a decade earlier and had become a professional coach in the strange game of Australian football.
John Hughes, a representative from a Scottish soccer players’ union, came into contact with McNeil after reading the articles, and a friendship developed.
Through Hughes, McNeil met Jimmy Guthrie, who was chairman of the English soccer players’ union. McNeil’s conversations with the British union officials sowed the seed in his mind that Australian football players needed representation.
He wanted to protect players from similar experiences to those he’d had at St Kilda.
Somehow Melbourne newspapers found out about his intentions. On returning to Melbourne in April 1955 McNeil was greeted at the port by journalists who wanted to know about his plans to form a players’ union.
McNeil used the publicity to muster interest in his proposed union. He wrote to VFL and VFA club secretaries seeking permission to address the players.
Newspapers cuttings in McNeil’s documents reveal that he addressed Collingwood and St Kilda players, but he was denied permission to address the players at Hawthorn. Essendon players said they wanted nothing to do with him.
He was quoted by one newspaper: “I don’t mean that players should dominate clubs. I just believe that the players — the men who provide the entertainment and keep the turnstiles revolving — will be properly recompensed for their work.”
During this era, clubs would prune their training squads and announce their senior lists on the eve of the season. McNeil argued that such lists should be published immediately after the completion of each season.
This would give players who failed to make the grade more opportunity to seek work for the next season as players or coaches in suburban or country leagues.
McNeil also said the players’ union could provide free legal representation for those in dispute with their clubs. The union would serve as an employment bureau; it would start up a players’ benefit fund; and it would try to ensure that all players could get tickets for finals matches.
Eric McCutcheon, the VFL’s assistant secretary, said McNeil was out of step with developments in the VFL. He said McNeil’s references to British soccer players “have no bearing on the scene here …
“English players are straight-out professionals who rely entirely on football for their livelihood in winter.
“Our football is only a sideline for players. There is no need for a footballers’ union in Victoria.”
VFA secretary F.J. Hill agreed, adding that VFA clubs could not afford to look after their players any better than they were doing.
Those most interested in McNeil’s ideas were Pat Cash, a lawyer as well as a Hawthorn forward (and father of the tennis player Pat Cash), and Ted Henrys from VFA club Preston.
The putative union’s first meeting was held at the Scots Church Hall in Collins Street on May 13, 1955. There were 26 players in attendance: 18 from VFL clubs and eight from VFA clubs.
Those at the meeting included Ron Barassi (Melbourne), Jack Clarke (Essendon), Tony Ongarello (Fitzroy), Thorold Merrett (Collingwood), Laurie Icke (North Melbourne) and Stuart Spencer (Melbourne).
Melbourne, with five players, had the highest representation of the VFL clubs. Preston, with five, had the most from VFA clubs.
A constitution was ratified. The Australian Football Players Union was formed.
McNeil, however, was alarmed at what he described as the meeting’s low turnout.
He told one newspaper: “The apathy of most league and association players is terribly disappointing.
“All the top men in every league club have told me they want to be in this union but are too lazy to do anything about it.”
The VFL responded to the formation of the Australian Football Players Union by establishing a sub-committee of five club delegates. Its task was to formulate a response to the union proposals.
One of the delegates, Richmond’s Harry Dyke, described the players’ formation of a union as “too silly for words”.
According to the documents of Ted Henrys, the union attracted a membership of 178 during the second half of the 1955 season, which was about 20 per cent of the player pool. Most members were from VFA clubs.
North Melbourne, with 33 players, and Preston, with 32, were the only clubs with almost every player on their senior lists in the union.
The union’s second meeting, at a YMCA premises on June 27, attracted only 12 attendees. The election of a management committee was postponed until more support could be gained.
The management committee was elected at the third meeting, at the YMCA on July 11. Cash (president), McNeil (secretary) and Henrys (treasurer) were elected as the senior office-holders.
Of those on the committee, only Footscray’s Arthur Edwards and Jack Edwards of North Melbourne went on to have careers of more than 100 games.
Subsequent meetings were taken up with plans to help North Melbourne pair Mick Grambeau and Laurie Icke after the club had sacked them following the match against Footscrary in the last round in 1955.
The committee also organised a benefit function for the family of Sandringham full-forward Bruce Harper, who’d died aged 28, and it began the process of seeking registration as a union before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration.
If the union became registered, the VFL and the VFA would have to deal with the union’s requests or risk being forced into arbitration. The results of that arbitration would be legally binding, meaning the VFL or VFA would have to adhere to the court’s findings in its dealings with the players’ union.
The union also wanted to become registered because this would make it more appealing to players.
The union’s application for registration came before the court on December 12, 1955. It was opposed by the VFL, the VFA and the Essendon Football Club.
The industrial registrar refused to register the union on technical grounds. It was a decision that sounded the death knell for the short-lived players’ body.
Pat Cash was keen to redraft the application and appeal against the decision, but fellow unionists such as McNeil were not inclined. The proposal had already cost too much money, mainly because of highly paid lawyers.
In 2012, when McNeil was 82, I tracked him down in Perth. He had moved to Western Australia to coach in the 1960s and settled there.
In WA, he served as an MP in the state parliament from 1977 to ’89. He served an offshoot of the National Party. He spoke to me from the offices of the WA Parliament.
He wasn’t expansive on the subject of the players’ union; he seemed to regard the affair with wry amusement. It was all so long ago.
He described with a chuckle the time when a cartoonist drew him calling the players out on strike at three-quarter time.
McNeil was never so militant. In fact he voted for the Conservatives, but his stance in support of players’ rights terrified competition and club officials.
McNeil was against an appeal regarding the registration decision in 1955 because his energy was spent. “I was also out of pocket,” he said, referring to his part in funding the lawyers’ fees.
The union’s final meeting was held early in 1956. Those present decided to dissolve the union.
In 1973, a meeting was held in the Albert Park Boatshed to sound out interest in forming the VFL Players Association. That body existed until 1990, when it became the AFL Players Association.
Tom McNeil felt great satisfaction when he was waiting in the foyer of the players’ association offices in 2008 to meet Brendon Gale. The players had an enduring body to represent them. It was the least they deserved.
This article originally appeared in the Football Almanac