Football matches had been played in Victoria since 1850. However, the game between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar in 1858 is generally acknowledged as the first ‘official’ game of Australian football. A year later, the first rules of football were adopted. Footscray was also declared a municipality at this time, with the centre of town located between the railway and the Saltwater (now Maribyrnong) River. Somewhat isolated from Melbourne, Footscray was the industrial heartland of the west. It was still the scene of roaming goats and stock, unmade footpaths, mudflats dotted with wooden houses and open plains pockmarked with bluestone quarries – which were the source of the building blocks of early Melbourne.
Such was football’s early popularity that clubs quickly sprang up all over Melbourne and in country towns. In its infancy the game and its early rules allowed for such things as the ‘little mark’, tripping, hacking, rabbiting, pushing (from behind) and slinging. While these rules were gradually phased out, football remained a rough sporting pursuit – brutal at times, but exciting for spectators – and injury was commonplace.
Early Williamstown papers suggest football in Footscray was first played in the mid-1870s, although scratch matches in the district may have been played even earlier. Early games in Footscray were said to be played on a vacant lot bounded by Napier, Bunbury and Hyde streets. Between 1870 and 1876, the population of Footscray more than doubled to just over 4000 and a team called ‘Footscray’ appeared – very much regarded as a junior club, playing games against a variety of Williamstown teams including Williamstown thirds, Williamstown Union, and Star of Williamstown.
Matches were usually arranged by the secretaries of the competing clubs, generally started at about 3:00pm and were played on an ad hoc basis. At times, last minute arrangements were needed when clubs had double booked. Games could be cancelled due to inclement weather or if a team declined to play due to the state of the ground (as was the case when Footscray were due to meet West Melbourne Alberts in 1878). Behinds were sometimes recorded but did not count towards the final score so, given the low scoring nature of the game at the time, draws were a common occurrence. Without defined boundaries, crowds regularly encroached onto the playing field. There were often disputes between competing teams over playing numbers or umpiring decisions and some games were abandoned or left undecided. It wasn’t until 1877, when the Victorian Football Association (VFA) was formed, that any formal body controlled the increasingly popular game.
Footscray, while not yet a VFA team, played regular fixtures for the latter part of the 1870s and ventured further afield, playing at such venues as Richmond Paddock, East Melbourne, Braybrook, St Kilda, and Royal Park in Carlton. Prominent players who represented the club during these foundation years included members of the Lovett, English, Cleghorn, Droop, Emmerson, Woods and Dallaway families. The more rounded ball that characterised most of the 1870s evolved into an oval-shaped football by the start of the 1880s.