22 Nov 2021




The Myth of the "Minor Premiers" and  the "Right to Challenge"

The media and many football fans often refer to the team that goes into the finals heading the ladder, as the "minor premiers". Although under the current system of playing finals this supposed designation appears to have no official status1 nor does the so called "minor premiers" have any real advantage accorded them over the team finishing second (besides playing the nominally weaker 4th placed team in the qualifying final). However it is believed in the past the "minor premiers" had a special status including a "right to challenge" under finals systems before 1931. This as we will see, is only partly true and wasn't the case post 1904.

It all came to pass when events in the Victorian Football Association competition led to changes in the rules governing the playing of finals in both the Association and the Victorian Football League.

Umpire Allen fails to compel Nth to boot inspection.2

In the VFA semi-final of 1904, Minor Premiers, Richmond accused North Melbourne of using iron spikes in their boots.
After half time, the Richmond captain requested that the umpire, Allen inspect all boots. The North Melbourne captain refused to let the umpire inspect his team's boots. The match was allowed to continue and the umpire took no further action. (Richmond showed their boots.)
Umpire Allen reported the incident to the Association who beyond reprimanding the North Melbourne captain took no further action.3

From here I'll let "Old Boy"4 of The Argus writing in 1926  take up the story in response to queries at the time about the status of "minor premiers" and the "right to challenge".

The "Minor" Premiership.

Several correspondents have written re-
garding what they call "the minor premier-
ship" and "the right of challenge", and it
is extraordinary to think that these ques-
tions should be asked. There is no such
thing as the "minor premiership", nor is
there a "right of challenge".  Very many
years ago these expressions were used.
"Minor premiers" were those who led at
the end of the first round, and thus had
the right to challenge the winners of the
final game if beaten in a semi-final or
final.  Despite the fact that this has been
explained frequently, ignorance on the sub-
ject still exists5.  The rules provide for a
first round of 18 matches, and then the
rules say:-
"At the conclusion of the first round the first
four clubs on the list shall play off for the pre-
miership, the club standing first to play the third,
and the second to play the fourth on the list.
(The match between the first and third clubs shall
be the second match if it be decided to play on
separate days.)        The winners of such two
matches shall play off, and the winner of that
match shall be awarded the premiership, except
that in the event of the winner of such match
not being the club which was leading at the
conclusion of the first round, then the winner of
such match shall play the club which was lead-
ing at the conclusion of the said first round a
final match, the result of which shall determine
the premiership. Should a tie take place in any
of the matches played in the second or final
round, another match or matches shall be played
on such day or days as the League may decide,
until one of the competing clubs shall be the
Last year, when three Association clubs
were admitted to the League, the contest
between them was jocularly described as
"the minor premiership" and North Mel-
bourne won. This season Hawthorn and
Footscray are well ahead of North Mel-
bourne, and when Hawthorn beat Foots-
scray on Saturday they took the lead by
two points.

Argus 30th August 1926

This was followed up by a further piece in The Argus on 3rd Sept 1926.

Right to Challenge.

A correspondent, in thanking me for
the explanation about the "right of chal-
lenge" and the "minor premiership," asks
why were these abolished. The answer
is another tribute to the influence the
Victorian Football Association has had on
the game, for it was the Association which
altered the system and brought about the
abandonment of these mysterious titles.
In 1904 North Melbourne and Richmond
were to have played off in the grand final,
but did not. Richmond had won the first
round of what was then called the minor
premiership, but were beaten in the semi-
final by North Melbourne. Footscray beat
Port Melbourne in the other semi-final.
In the final match North Melbourne beat
Footscray, and then Richmond, "minor
premiers", having been beaten in a semi-
final, had the right of challenge.  The
Association, naturally thinking that Rich-
mond and North Melbourne would meet
to decide the premiership, appointed the
umpires. Richmond at once protested and
objected to the umpire appointed. The
Association would not listen to their ob-
jections, and Richmond refusing to play
the premiership went by default to North
Melbourne.  The Association, anxious to
punish Richmond, was met with the
answer, "Do your worst; we merely did
not exercise our right of challenge." And
there the Association had to leave it, but
before the following season the rules were
altered, and instead of there being a minor
premiership, with a right to challenge the
title was abandoned, and it became man-
datory for the team leading at the end
of the first round to play again if beaten
in the semi-final or final. The League
immediately followed suit. One would have
thought that after all these years there
would not be such ignorance as seems
to exist on this and other subjects con-
nected with the game.

In summary, from 1905 there was no title or status of "minor premiers" and the "right to challenge" was removed and replaced by an obligation by the team finishing on top of the ladder to play again if beaten in the semi-final or final. Most histories and explanations of previous finals systems have missed this subtle point concerning the "right to challenge" becoming a mandatory obligation.  "Old Boy" probably does a rotation or two every time a journalist somewhere writes about the "minor premiers" and a reference is made to the "right to challenge" regarding finals series 1905-1930. 
The resurrection of these pieces from 93 years ago will probably will do little to change the use of the terms in question. Certain "knowledge" seems to take on a truth of its own beyond the facts.  In 1917, H.L. Mencken
, the iconoclastic newspaper editor and columnist published in the New York Evening Mail a hoax history of the bathtub in America as a satire on the gullibility of the readers. The information in the piece was picked up by various sources as a "straight" news story, and before long Mencken began to see the "facts" he had created used in earnest writings by other men, obviously sincere, who took it all at face value. Despite a number of retractions, the "facts" could still be found in reference books 30 years on. Locally, many in the media refer to the referendum of 1967 as having given "Aborigines the vote", this is despite the fact that the change to the constitution made no mention of voting rights, there is no legislation subsequent to the referendum that gives "Aborigines the vote" and the fact the Aboriginal people around Australia were enrolled to and did vote in the referendum that supposedly "gave them the vote."

I'm going with "Old Boy" and won't refer to "minor premiers" or "the right to challenge" post 1904 any more. I feel he speaks from a time when there was less to know and more time to find out what was known.

1 Since 1991 the AFL has awrded the Wm C. McClelland Trophy to the team   finishing on top of the ladder at the end of the AFL home and away season.  The AFL Annual reports use the phrase "finishing on top of the ladder" and not the term, "minor premiers". " We also congratulate Collingwood on reaching the Toyota AFL Grand Final for the second successive year and for winning the Dr Wm. C. McClelland Trophy for finishing on top of the ladder after the premiership season, also for the second successive year."
AFL Annual Report 2011.

2 Argus Monday 12th Sept 1904.

Richmond lost the match. Allen was appointed to what would have  been the grand final between Richmond and Nth Melbourne. Besides  the incident with the boots, Richmond was concerned about Allen's  lack of control over the final in which Nth defeated Footscray and  refused to play with him in charge. There were many letters to the editor  published at the time decrying the "dirty tactics" of the Nth Melbourne  team.

    More on Richmond's decision not to play.

4 Reginald William Ernest Wilmot wrote as "Old Boy" for The Argus and the Australasian from 1901 until the mid 1930s. Wilmot also devised the so-called 'Argus System' of deciding the Premiership as adopted by the League from the 1901 season that with modifications continued in operation until 1930.

On 3 October of 1925 Wilmot had written in the Argus:

Under the rules of the league the competition consists of two rounds. The second round consists of two semi finals and a final. The two semi finals have been played. Collingwood and Melbourne being the winners and they will meet today in the final. The rules provide further that if the club leading at the end of the first round round should be beaten in its semi-final or final match it shall play a grand final with the winners of the final game.
Thus the winners of today's match will have to meet Geelong the leaders of the first round who were beaten by Melbourne in the semi-final to decide the premiership. Originally the leaders at the end of the first round were called 'minor premiers' but the title has been abandoned for many years. On Saturday last at the Melbourne Cricket ground some Geelong enthusiasts were discussing the question, and claimed that the Geelong club should have been acclaimed as "minor premiers". They could not understand why this had not been done, but Mr, E.L. Wilson (the League secretary) on being appealed to said, "It is 25 years since the minor premiership idea was abandoned."
Several correspondents have written on the subject, and have pointed out that in the country the custom in to use the term 'minor premier'. This explanation should set to rest all doubt on the subject, us far as the League premiership is concerned."