It's bound to be news to some, but the salary cap and the national draft weren't the first attempt to make football more competitive and less dominated by a handful of big clubs.

When first introduced, the draft and cap were bagged as 'football socialism' by the likes of Carlton's blustering president John Elliott. “Big Jack” - as in ‘big noise with strong opinions loudly expressed' - reckoned it was all a plot to bring down to earth his mighty Blues.

Which it partly was, actually.

But what Big Jack failed to see with his one Blue eye was that Carlton was one of the big winners from an earlier round of football socialism dedicated to making the competition more competitive.

Back when the main game was the Victorian Football League (VFL), and Collingwood, Essendon, and Melbourne were dominating the competition - and Grand Finals - the big idea to make all the clubs more competitive was “country zoning”. This meant giving each of the 12 clubs its own area of country Victoria and southern New South Wales where they would have first dibs on any recruits.

It was also a time when there was nothing like today's AFL Commission to run the game. Instead, the VFL was run by the clubs themselves. It was a time of secret agreements and handshake deals. Still, it took 10 years of arguments within the VFL, and with country football leagues before the idea became reality, in September 1967.

And over time, it changed the game and shaped the fortunes of every club.

Imagine Hawthorn with no golden era from the 1970s and 1980s; those glorious decades replaced by mostly fruitless struggle.

Imagine St Kilda not seen as a perennial hard-luck club, but with a dynasty all its own thanks to its plan to take over the Mornington Peninsula. The zone which, incidentally, went to the Hawks.

Imagine the Colliwobbles never came into being and the Magpies held a couple more premierships.

And Carlton? Carlton was the architect of the scheme and, maybe not surprisingly, was given one of the most sought-after areas of the lot, the Bendigo League and surrounds.

The big winners over time were Hawthorn and the Blues. The big losers included Essendon, which went into decline until its Wimmera zone threw up players like Tim Watson, Collingwood, which had arguably the worst zone of the lot and lost six Grand Finals, and St Kilda, which may just have lost a dynasty.

The system itself was a failure because after 20 years there were fewer clubs able to aspire for a finals berth, let alone hope for a premiership, than before.

For the full story of how country zoning changed the game and the fortunes of every club get 'Between The Flags' at!


  1. So rather than the “bigger clubs” dominate in terms of recruiting – we now have another form of the same thing in terms of the fixture (it’s certainly not a “draw”) and so called “blockbuster” games as well as the finals series having an ingrained advantage for those clubs (West Coast, in particular, have had premierships denied them due to unfair, unearned home ground advantage).

    The supposed “traditional opening game” and the ANZAC farce are classic examples of how the fixture is rigged to promote the memberships (read dollars) as well as intrinsic sponsorship “worth”…….

    We might also bring to light the actual content of club “constitutions” and the “input” of the VFL’s (AFL in name only) into those constitutions, when the non-vfl clubs have always been far more “transparent” than those inside Victoria.

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