Footscray began the decade sporting their new blue guernsey with red and white stripes and gradually improved their on-field performances to such a level that they finished fifth of thirteen clubs in 1894 and featured in their first ‘Match of the Day’ against South Melbourne in front of a record home crowd, estimated at 4500. Prominent players, able to hold their own against any opposition, in these years were: captain for many seasons, Bob Dick; half-back Jack Coward; Mick ‘Shovel’ Pender; Billy Dickens; Sam Hood; Tom Stranger; high-marking Joe Powell; and star goalkicker Harry Chadwick.
Rule changes were made to foster a faster, more open game. In 1891, the ball was bounced in the centre to begin the game, rather than starting with a kick off.
Footscray had celebrated their first victory over Williamstown, in 1889, and players had been feted at the local Royal Hall. Intense rivalry and ill feeling between Footscray and Williamstown escalated during the 1890s, to such an extent that there was no greater prize, at least to the two clubs, than the defeat of the other. With reputations on the line, their contests were facetiously known as ‘Intercolonials’ (a term usually reserved for representative matches between colonies). The umpire was forced to terminate one game, when the conduct of players became too violent. In 1891, the year Footscray became a city, both sides finished with four wins for the season and debate arose as to who were the better team. A challenge match was played but the resultant draw did nothing to appease supporters of either side.
Economic depression had followed the land and building boom of the 1880s. By 1896, the VFA had problems with the stronger, inner-city clubs wanting a greater slice of the gate profits, undermining the VFA’s plan for equalising distribution of the takings. The VFA was also forced to deal with growing player professionalism and escalating spectator hooliganism, mirroring increasing violence on the field.
In 1897, eight leading VFA teams broke away to form the Victorian Football League (VFL), leaving the VFA competition with just five teams (Footscray, North Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Williamstown and Richmond). Brunswick were immediately admitted to the VFA to bring the number of clubs to an even six, before Prahran and West Melbourne were added in 1899. The VFA introduced the inclusion of behinds in scores (an initiative the VFL would also adopt) and reduced the number of players from 20 to 18. Footscray finished third in 1897 but, under the captaincy of Dave de Coite, won their first premiership in 1898 and then another in 1899. In these days, no grand finals were played in the VFA. The team finishing on top of the ladder at the end of the season claimed the premiership, except in 1899, when a modified version of finals was played. Footscray’s side boasted a host of champion players in 1898, led by captain Dave de Coite and including wingman Arthur ‘Nance’ Williams, Davey Drew, little Billy Kruse, full-back William ‘Ching’ Harris, Thomas Hinch and Billy Robinson. In 1899, Joe Marmo and Lou Daily were added to this list.