The international news story of 1879 had been the heroic death of Prince Eugene Louis Napoleon, the ‘Prince Imperial’ and heir to the French throne, when ambushed by Zulu warriors during the Anglo-Zulu war in Africa. Out of respect to him, the Footscray Football Club changed their name, in 1880, to the Prince Imperial Football Club. After two seasons the ‘Prince Imperials’ struggled to attract playing members regularly and it was decided, in 1882, to revert back to the name ‘Footscray’, to be more identifiable with the district. In 1883, Footscray printed their first membership ticket and offered a silver cup, won by Charlie Lovett, for the ‘Best all round man’. Around this time, a rival team sprung up in the form of another junior club, Footscray Excelsior. It wasn’t long before the local paper called for a merger of the two clubs, but both preferred to go it alone.
By now township activity was expanding rapidly westwards over the railway line and onto the plains, into what was known as Upper Footscray. When the football club’s ground in Lower Footscray disappeared in the late 1870s, a regular home ground was found at the ‘Northern’ or Market Reserve, a vacant allotment at the rear of the Presbyterian Church between Barkly Street and Geelong Road, on what was later to be the site of Footscray Girls’ School.
In 1886, Footscray gained admission to the Victorian Football Association (VFA) after amalgamating with the Footscray Cricket Club to form a ‘senior football club’ and satisfying the VFA’s prerequisite of 80 members and possession of an enclosed playing ground. The Footscray Council allowed use of the Western Reserve, located within an area set aside in 1860 as Footscray’s early botanical gardens, which was already home to the cricket club. This ground, the football club’s home ever since, has been referred to by several names over the ensuing years, including the Gardens Reserve, Western Reserve, Footscray City Oval, Western Oval and Whitten Oval.
Improvements to the ground had been necessary due to VFA entry. The grandstand was moved, by man and horse, to the south-west corner from the ‘Pound’ end (so named because of the stray stock impounded at the northern end near Barkly Street). At one stage the stand became bogged in the centre of the ground. The playing surface was improved and the arena was enclosed.
Footscray originally had worn a blue and white hooped uniform but added a red cap in the early 1880s in honour of Footscray’s successful, Clarke Cup winning, rowing club whose colours were red, white and blue. Eventually, red was incorporated into the blue and white guernsey and Footscray became known as the ‘Tricolours’ throughout their VFA days and beyond. Footscray were also referred to as ‘Scray’, the ‘Saltwater lads’, ‘Bone-mill fellows’, ‘representatives of stoneopolis’ and the ‘men from the land of the boulders’.
Footscray won their first VFA match against St Kilda in 1886 but struggled to have an impact for the remainder of the decade, especially against more established clubs. Some of the stars of the 1880s were Fred English, Charlie Lovett, the Anderson brothers, Arthur Ley, Tom Carlton and Jack ‘Hockey’ Roberts.