|Local sport is facing unprecedented disruption in 2020 which also marks eighty years since the Wimmera Football League last faced the situation of not being able to complete a full season.
This weekend would have seen the first full round of the Wimmera, and the second round of the Horsham District football leagues, but the current State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 situation neither will now commence before the start of June at the earliest.
The last time the region’s premier football competition went through an entire season without playing a game was 1945 which was the last of five seasons abandoned due to World War Two, but we must go back to 1940 to find when a season was last curtailed, which came at the end of a turbulent decade for major league football in the Wimmera.
The Wimmera District Football League, which was the forerunner to the current Wimmera Football League, had been formed in 1921 as the first attempt to form a competition involving teams from across the region. It initially involved seven clubs including Ararat, Horsham, Minyip, Murtoa, Rupanyup, Stawell and Warracknabeal.
With Dimboola joining in 1923, Nhill in 1925 and Rupanyup withdrawing after the 1929 season, by the 1930s an eight-team competition covering the major centres of the Wimmera was being contested.
At this time many football clubs, like all aspects of society, were feeling the financial pressures of the Great Depression, with their major source of income, gate receipts, declining.
A difference of opinion developed between the larger clubs that supported the prevailing arrangement of these receipts being retained by the host club, and the smaller clubs that were in favour of pooling the money and sharing it equally.
The larger population centres could attract more people to their games and therefore took in more revenue through the gate compared to the smaller clubs that did not get as many spectators to their home games.
When a vote to change the way that gate receipts were distributed was defeated at the League’s Annual General Meeting in early 1932, the Dimboola, Minyip, Murtoa and Nhill clubs all withdrew from the competition.
This left the premier competition in the district with only the four larger clubs and with the finances not improving after two seasons of this, the Wimmera District League joined with the Ballarat League to form the Ballarat-Wimmera Football League for the 1934 season in the hope that a stronger competition would increase interest and revenue.
Ararat, Horsham, and Warracknabeal all qualified for the finals in that first season, but it was South Ballarat that defeated Horsham to win the premiership, and in the following two seasons only one Wimmera team made the finals each year, with Horsham in 1935 and Warracknabeal in 1936, but neither won the title.
After leaving the Wimmera District League the small clubs intended to form a new two zone competition that would have involved Glenorchy, Minyip, Murtoa and Rupanyup in an eastern zone and Dimboola, Jeparit, Kaniva and Nhill in a western zone, but this concept fell through when the Kaniva players voted to remain in the West Wimmera competition.
After this development the Dimboola club applied to re-join the Wimmera District League, which was not granted, leaving them to join Nhill in entering the West Wimmera competition, whilst Minyip and Murtoa both replaced their seconds teams in the Dunmunkle league.
With these teams dominating these lower competitions - Nhill defeated Dimboola in their grand final and Murtoa won the Dunmunkle premiership with Minyip finishing third - it was clear that there was a need for a middle tier of competition in the Wimmera.
This was achieved by the formation of the Mid Wimmera Football League in 1933 featuring the Dimboola, Minyip, Murtoa and Rupanyup clubs. Nhill joined in 1934 and Jeparit in 1935, and Rupanyup left after the 1934 season.
During this period, a number of unsuccessful proposals were put forward to reunite the leading teams in the Wimmera, with one for the 1936 season being to form a competition with two divisions involving Dimboola, Horsham Firsts, Murtoa, Warracknabeal, Stawell and Ararat in the top division and Rainbow, Jeparit, Nhill, Rupanyup, Minyip and the Horsham Seconds in a lower division with promotion and relegations based on previous year’s results.
At the end of 1936 with the Ballarat-Wimmera experiment not achieving the growth in the game that was needed, a truce was negotiated and a new era in major league football in the Wimmera was to commence in the 1937 season when the four local teams from the Ballarat-Wimmera competition were joined by all five teams from the Mid-Wimmera league to form the new nine-team Wimmera Football League.
Dimboola won the inaugural premiership to add to their recent titles from the Mid-Wimmera in 1933, and the Wimmera District Football League in 1928 and 1929, and Jeparit came into their first season at the top level as the reigning premiers from the Mid-Wimmera League.
By the start of 1940 Australia’s commitment to the war in North Africa and the effects of the Depression were increasing the pressure on the clubs, but all nine committed to the new season.
Once the season commenced the financial situation did not improve as low attendances with the associated drop in gate takings resulted in most games making a loss, and a lack of special football trains due to a strike in the coal industry was also not helping the crowd numbers.
The Jeparit club also encountered their own issues when their coach and entire committee resigned after their team suffered a ten-goal loss to Nhill in round three.
These pressures all came to a head after round five when following a military recruitment rally in Warracknabeal, that club decided that they were unable to continue and withdrew from the competition. Within a couple of days of informing the League of this decision, the Minyip, Murtoa and Jeparit clubs also withdrew and went into recess.
The remaining five teams completed two more rounds before Nhill also withdrew, which prompted the finals to be brought forward and completed by the first weekend in July with Stawell defeating Dimboola in the grand final.
Following this the league went into recess for the duration of the War and did not resume competition until 1946, and since then the Wimmera Football League has enjoyed an uninterrupted run of 74 seasons with all completed as planned. In that time both Dimboola and Nhill have won four titles each, and Jeparit never won a premiership and only ever featured in one grand final, in 1954.
It is hoped that the 2020 season joins 1940 as a shortened one in which a premier is still crowned, and not the war years when no games were played at all.