DALLY M TURNS 125! Sean Fagan / dallym.com
125 years ago this Saturday, in a modest terrace in Duke St of waterfront Balmain, a boy was born to a boat builder and his wife.
He was christened as Herbert Henry Messenger, a mouthful of a name that would soon disappear from common usage.
Before his school years had even begun, he simply came to be known to one and all as "Dally" - his podgy belly unitentionally paying homage to one of the colony's most renown parliamentarians of the 1880s, Bede Dalley. The spelling didn't stick, but the nickname did.
By his mid-20s every sports follower in NSW and Queensland knew of "Dally M - the Man of the Moment". After having excelled at sailing, sculling, swimming, spent two years playing Aussie rules, and then rising to national honours in rugby union, Dally decided he would finally settle down - opting to place his allegiance with the newly formed rugby league.
There was never any doubt that professional football was coming to Sydney - it was only a question of when, not if - Dally's move to the 13-man code at its founding in Australia gave it the kick-start and permancy it needed.
Had Messenger not come along in 1908, rugby league would have struggled for decades to eek out its place in Australia's football landscape against the other codes.
His impact delivered to rugby league a rapid rise in popularity and financial security. By the end of 1910, the code's permanency was assured. It's a debt that all of us who enjoy the game - players, officials and fans alike - can never repay Dally Messenger.
How good was Messenger? "He is truly a wonder, and is full of tricks, an opponent never being able to tell what the next move will be." wrote a Sydney sportswriter in 1908.
He was so popular that he not only played for NSW and Australia, but "guested" for New Zealand, Queensland, and was the main-draw of an "Australasian" team, and the first ever league game in Newcastle.
Messenger also toured Britain with the All Golds and the Kangaroos. So impressed were the Poms, they bestowed on him the tag of "The Master". English and Scottish soccer clubs unsuccessfully pursued him for his signature on a contract.
When in 1911 the League finally got the chance to play on the sacred field of the SCG in front of the vast and comfortable stands, more than 50,000 fans flocked into watch "their idol Dally Messenger" lead his NSW Blues team onto the arena for a match against the visiting Kiwis.
"Messenger was the great shining star", "Messenger was just Messenger", "the reliable Messenger shone out", and "Messenger was again star performer" were typical of the countless favourable newspaper reviews throughout his incredible career.
Dally had no "swagger" - he didn't chase the off-field glitz, preferring to while away his time at the family boat building business in Double Bay. He could often be seen out on the Harbour, piloting one of the Messenger pleasure crusiers on a day trip for tourists or locals enjoying an outing.
In an understatement that mirrored his modesty, Dally would simply say of the league fans that "They made me a bit of a hero".
Messenger's on-field deeds made him the hero. Decades before radio, film, tv and video, Dally's exploits were handed down in the re-telling of stories from parents to their children, from football coaches to their junior players, in faded and yellowing scrpabooks, and in the crusted-words of old-timers at the pub or on the SCG Hill to anyone who cared to take a few moments to listen.
The "Dally M" mark appeared on footballs, boots, head-gear, shoulder pads, even boot studs. Well into the 1960s, every footballer who dared attempt an audacious goal attempt was asked "Who do you think you are - Dally Messenger?" In 1980 his name was given permanant accolade in the "Dally M Awards", now the game's official honours for its best players each season.
"I often wondered could a footballer truly be as good as the myths, stories and legends made out" asked Sean Fagan, one of the code's leading historians, and co-author of "The Master - The Life and Times of Dally Messenger". "After I'd poured through the newspaper reports and personal accounts made by those who witnessed Messenger in action" said Fagan, "my doubts were forever dispelled."
"Game after game the headlines kept shouting Messenger's name. Commentators back then, as today, are apt to lean towards their favourite players. The fans though, those that pay at the tursntile with their hard-earned dollar, they are the true judges. As one fan put it succinctly, 'It was a case of Messenger first, middle and last'."
"Mention Giltinan, Trumper, Hoyle, and dozens of others; they certainly supplied the brains of the organisation in those days," says Fagan, "but it was Dally M who supplied the crowds with their afternoon thrills."
"Without Messenger, there would have not been enough gate-money for the code to grow and to take hold of NSW and Queensland as rapidly and successfully as it did."
As the code's Centenary celebrations move into top-gear, it takes a moment to reflect upon the 125th anniversary of the birth of Dally M, and pay tribute to his contribution to the game we enjoy today.
"The thirteen (man) team always means hard playing from start to finish. You never know the result until the whistle blows. A team might be fourteen points ahead of you in the first half, and fourteen points behind you in the second. You've got to play hard until the last moment." Dally Messenger, April 1908.
Book: "The Master - The Life and Times of Dally Messenger" by Sean Fagan & Dally Messenger III. Web: http://www.dallym.com
Contact: Sean Fagan Rugby League Historian and Author Ph: 9836 0972 / 0431 925 832 Email: [email protected] Web: http://www.RL1908.com Mail: PO Box 168 Kellyville NSW 2155