During many wars, Australian rules football matches have been played overseas in places like northern Africa and Vietnam as a celebration of Australian culture and as a bonding exercise between soldiers.
Despite this, League football was not played on Anzac Day for many years. The first VFL matches played on Anzac Day occurred in 1960 after an act of Parliament lifted the previous restrictions.
Over the years, the VFL’s Anzac Day games sometimes drew big crowds. The 1975 Carlton v. Essendon game attracted 77,770 fans to VFL Park, a then record for Anzac Day; two years later in 1977, Richmond and Collingwood drew 92,436 to the MCG.
In 1986, the League used Anzac Day to attempt its first ever doubleheader. Held at the MCG, Melbourne and Sydney playing in the afternoon, followed after a 30-minute break by North Melbourne and Geelong in the evening under lights. Due to a total crowd of only 40,117 and various logistical problems, the league has not staged another doubleheader.
Through the years until the mid-1990s, it was common for at least two matches to be played on the Anzac Day public holidays.
The modern version of the Anzac Day clash was conceived by then Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy while pottering in the garden in the mid-1990s. Sheedy, who had done two years’ service in the army after being drafted to Richmond in 1969, thought back to the success of the Collingwood v. Richmond game in 1977, and considered how the football on Anzac Day could pay suitable tribute to those who had served their country.
The first annual Anzac Day match between Collingwood and Essendon was played on Tuesday 25 April 1995 at the MCG. The round-four match received limited publicity as there had previously been AFL matches played on Anzac Day. Essendon had won its first three games of the season; however, Collingwood were without a victory. Soon after the Anzac Day march in the city, patrons flocked to the ground. Crowds outside the ground were so substantial at 12.30pm, that Collingwood coach Leigh Matthews thought the gates to the ground must have still been locked. When the gates closed at 1.30pm – still 40 minutes before the start of the match – 20,000 additional people had to be dispersed by mounted police, while they attempted to gain admission to the ground. Thousands of people descended to the nearby Fitzroy Gardens, where they listened to the match on radio.
The game itself was a thriller. In the last quarter, James Hird snapped a goal late in the quarter to give Essendon a 6-point lead. Saverio Rocca leapt and took “one of the marks of the year” in the forward-line soon after. At the 28-minute mark he capitalised by kicking the goal and levelling the scores. With just seconds left, Nathan Buckley had an opportunity to score; however, he elected to kick to Rocca, who was cut off. Seconds later, the siren sounded, both teams’ score on 111.
In 2013 St Kilda and Sydney initiated an Anzac Day match in New Zealand to honour the Anzac bond between the two countries. This was the first AFL match ever played for premiership points outside of Australia. Two further matches were played in New Zealand in 2014 and 2015.
Several other Anzac Day matches have been played at other venues around Australia. Had the 2020 season progressed as expected four venues would have hosted Anzac Day matches this year: York Park, MCG, Gabba and Adelaide Oval . Before the match, a special Anzac Day service is held. This ceremony includes the recognition of Australian War Veterans as well as a Flag Ceremony, including the playing of the Last Post and Australian National Anthem.
This year, the Anzac Day will be quite different with no games being played and no public gatherings allowed.
Many thanks to our AFLUA Historian David Flegg AM for his contribution.