The Anti-Football League had many members by the middle of 1967. Sales of badges were strong and the football going public were both bemused and riled by the new organisation. But to give the AFL real strength, it needed an accolade – a way to honour its heroes. And so, the Douglas Wilkie medal was conceived.
The ‘Wilkie’ was to be awarded annually to whoever in any given calendar year did the least for football in the best and fairest manner. It didn’t matter that Douglas Wilkie wasn’t exactly a household name. The Victorian Football League (as it was known then) had its Brownlow Medal and nobody knew anything about Charles Brownlow. The Wilkie Medal could be awarded at the same time, just before the Grand Final, when anti-footballing Melburnians most needed a football anti-hero to emulate.
Through his daily column, ‘A Place in the Sun’, Keith Dunstan received suggestions on who should win the first Wilkie Award. One reader, Mrs Ivy Thacker, exclaimed “Why must a Wilkie Medal go to a man? Why not to one of the real martyrs of football – a footballer’s wife?” Another suggestion was Chairman Mao Zedong. Remembering this was the sixties, Mr Lee Ryan’s nomination was encouraged because Mao “didn’t want to play ball with anyone.” All worthy suggestions, but cheekily, the first Wilkie award was going to make a gentle remark on both sport and politics.
Politicians, then as now, have been known to ingratiate themselves with popular sports to curry favour with the voters. Admittedly, enthusiasm may have been genuine in some instances. Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, was the number one ticket holder for Carlton Football Club, and conspicuously seen at games. But the presence of political leaders at football matches if they came from Sydney was a dead give-away. Interest in the game north of the border was virtually non-existent in 1967.
One politician who stood out was the Prime Minister, Mr Harold Holt. Dunstan had done his research; Holt had never been seen at the football whilst he had been a politician. His leisure interests lay elsewhere, in scuba diving, tennis and swimming. The League felt that anyone who braved the waters of Portsea in frigid September, as Holt did, certainly deserved a medal. And so it was announced, in the Sun, and by mail directly to Holt himself. Two weeks passed and there was no response. Dunstan called Holt’s press secretary, Tony Eggleton, to find out why. Eggleton said that Mr Holt welcomed the tribute but thought it best not to make a fuss.
“The trouble is he has an election coming up, and if word gets around it might be his downfall. I’ll tell you what; he would be delighted to receive the award privately, with no photographs”
And so, the award was presented, with no photographs, on 11th September 1967. Holt talked of his youth when he did play football, winning colours for Wesley College and breaking a collar bone in a game for Queens College at the University of Melbourne. The Prime Minister was certainly more of a ”doer” than a spectator. Tragically, it was Holt’s adventurous disposition as a swimmer that was to bring about his demise. The Prime Minister disappeared only three months later whilst swimming at Portsea, presumed drowned.
In subsequent years many worthy souls from politics, stage, television, radio and even Australian Rules Football, have won Wilkie medals. The award is traditionally presented on Anti-Football Day, in September, not long before another big event that need not be mentioned.
Award winners are expected to destroy a Football in a unique and creative manner, in a tradition established by Wilkie medal winning author, Cyril Pearl, in 1972.
For a complete list of winners since 1967.
To make a nomination for this year’s Douglas Wilkie medal winner.
Sources: Keith Dunstan, No Brains at All: an Autobiography (1990) p.197.