Footscray’s Fightback in 1989

How did the underdogs of the Footscray Football Club triumph over the giants of the VFL?
The term “Triumph over Adversity” means to overcome a great challenge. To defy the odds and to defeat the bigger foe. The story of the Footscray Football Cub “Fightback” implies these traits. Faced with certain extinction of their team, the people of Footscray and the western suburbs of Melbourne had to put up a fight in order to keep their Club where it belonged. This story demonstrates the spirit of a region and the importance of sport in Australian culture. The “Fightback”, as this story came to be known, in October 1989, occurred at a time when sport was becoming increasingly dominated by business and determined Victorian Football League commissioners wanting to transform the face and future of the sport. The Footscray Football Club had been given a decision by the VFL to merge with the Fitzroy Football Club; this was turning point in which sport was revitalised as a passion of the people.  This David and Goliath struggle demonstrates that a community coming together can change a decision.

The Goliath in this story is the VFL, headed by Ross Oakley who was the head of the VFL from 1986 to 1996[1]. Ross Oakley never had any doubt that the Bulldogs wouldn’t succeed and he knew that their days of staying alive were numbered.[2] The VFL had a vision that the future of football needed to be a national competition and this excluded club’s like Footscray. A new era of football was about to embark, an era where there would be no room for financially vulnerable Club’s like Footscray.[3] Football was a business according to many football fans; the VFL didn’t care about the Club.[4] Footscray historian, John Lack’s view expresses that, “It made sense only if Australian Rules was to become a more media spectacle, luring players of star status and transforming involved followers to passive viewers.”[5] This vision was completely different to the traditional views of football which consisted of suburban grounds, supporter passion and legendary icons. The Footscray Football Club had all these great attributes that made them loved by many in the West.

The Footscray Football Club was a financially vulnerable Club representing a struggling suburb. Since the concentration of industry in the 1880’s, Footscray had been a steadily working class suburb of Melbourne. At this time there was a strong sense of community being established. According to Greg Davison, by 1885 Footscray’s thirty three pubs were the focus point of a strong and sometimes fierce local sentiment.[6] Unlike the wealthier middle-class suburbs to the east, religion wasn’t so important to the community of Footscray. Of the population of Melbourne, 9.7 % were people from Footscray who actually attended church.[7] In contrast, 50% were from wealthier suburbs of St Kilda and Kew.[8]One possible reason for the difference was that many people of Footscray did not attend because you needed to donate money to the church and because of a struggling community, people could not afford it. Footscray was the home of industrial factories because of cheap land. This and the access to water frontage and drainage drew attention to companies as they moved into Footscray.[9] The community was developing; Footscray could offer settlers more space and better houses than the city-bound suburbs of North Melbourne or Collingwood.[10] The settlers still moved in, even though there was a lingering smell from all the factories. However, from 1890 to 1895 factories had declining from 72 to 39.[11] The working class suburbs and in particular Footscray suffered the most. People were doing it tough with a staggering 85% of houses getting repossessed by building societies.[12] In contrast middle class suburbs had relatively low repossession rates with Hawthorn 51% and St Kilda 35%.[13]

Yet in all of that, there was football that brought people together from all parts of Melbourne. As Davison states, “Football was watched from both Collingwood bookmakers and St Kilda stockbrokers.”[14] Footscray was no different, and its team allowed it to participate in this important aspect of Melbourne’s culture. In 1924, The Advertiser proclaimed that in Footscray “Sport is gaining so much popularity that very little else is spoken about”. [15] Later that year Footscray was crowned “Champions of Victoria” when it defeated league premiers Essendon in a charity match, causing the Advertiser to publish a special supplement which claimed,

In one afternoon the Footscray Football team has given its home town the greatest boosting it ever had. Where before this city of ours was maligned as a place of smells and bad roads, the praises of Footscray are now being sung. [16]

 

When Footscray was brought into the VFL in 1925, the town erupted into joy. Everyone was ecstatic that their Club was promoted into the VFL, but little did they know that after all that hard work, they were only to win one premiership in the next sixty years. [17] Yet the pride and passion of this team still remained in this working class community.

By 1989 many aspects of life in Footscray had changed. Footscray was a financially struggling area with unemployment steadily rising from 1974.[18] Waves of migration changed the face of the suburb.[19] Despite this, football still remained a focal point in Footscray; for the supporters and residents of the west, it was cheap entertainment they had every weekend which helped defined the identity of the region. The team’s performance on the ground reflected the town’s struggles off it as it became known as “Among the worthy battlers of the League.”[20] Football wasn’t drawing the support and interest it once had. On August 23rd 1989, only weeks before the merger was announced, the Bulldogs ended the season against Richmond at the Western Oval. The Bulldogs had a thumping victory but only two out of every hundred people in the Western Suburbs bothered to turn up.[21] It was a small crowd of 8,673 which raised questions about the Club’s long-term liability.

The Club’s struggle for survival took a dramatic turn on October 2nd, the Bulldogs annual best and fairest night. Dennis Galimberti, the Club’s CEO at the time, was chatting with an anonymous Bulldogs board member about the Club’s troubled future when the word ‘merger’ was mentioned. Galimberti couldn’t believe what he was hearing.[22] Footscray without the beloved Bulldogs , was unthinkable. When the night ended at around 9pm, he and former Footscray marketing manager Brooke Anderson drove straight to the Western Oval. Galimberti rang The Sun reporter Michael Stevens and told him the news. Stevens couldn’t believe his ears. Scared he might be caught by Club officials Galimberti had to quickly rush and tell Stevens all he knew and faxed out all relevant documents detailing how the Club could survive to every media outlet around. [23]The ‘adversity’ had only just begun; the Bulldogs were met with a challenge, now they set about facing it.

The next day at a meeting with VFL officials, Galimberti sat and listened to a VFL commissioner’s propositions for the new team to be called Fitzroy Bulldogs. Galimberti sat there in shock while he was told who would be on the new board and the new coach.[24] It was more of a takeover than a merger.  Tuesday October 3, 1989, when the merger was officially announced, was doomed to be the Footscray Football Club’s darkest day. The Sun’s headline of October 4th was devastating “Death of the Bulldogs.”It pictured a woman in tears; this event obviously traumatised many and had a huge impact on the people.[25]

The media would play an important role in the Footscray Fightback. Peter Gordon, a local solicitor who would lead the Fightback campaign knew this. He stated “The VFL had a lot of media on their side so our task was to turn the media our way”. [26]The Sun first broke the news on October 3rd. The headline had read “VFL Club’s to Merge”.[27] That article had many quotes from Bulldogs members saying that the deal had been done without any consultation to the board and without any respect. As Dennis Galimberti stated in The Sun, “It has also been done with complete disregard to the people of the Western Suburbs, It is now up to the Footscray supporters and people who care for football generally to rise and protect a Club from the Western region”. [28]

The local papers had very different reactions. The headline from The Mail exaggerated “DOGS DIE.”[29] To The Western Times headline of “Stand Up and Fight”[30]. The Western Times seemed more sympathetic to the Bulldogs, whereas The Mail simply told the facts and not the community’s reaction. Headlines then changed with all of the papers starting to rally behind the Bulldogs. The real issue was that the VFL were dishing out a harsh sentence, and they started to reflect this in their articles. The newspapers may have changed their view because if they attacked this football Club, they were going to attack on a whole community. Peter Gordon stated that, “In the end, it was probably the ability we had to turn the media our way (by emphasizing the David v Goliath battle,) that was one of our key assets.”[31] That was one part complete; the next was to start raising the money.

Footscray decided to take the VFL to court, resulting in the VFL agreeing to a reprieve granting the Club’s supporters to raise 1.5 million dollars by October 25th in order to avoid the merger.[32]

October 7th became a day of massive planning to organise a rally of supporters at the Western Oval. The ‘Footscray FightBack Foundation’ was developed and administrated by Gordon, who spent a lot of that day on the phone recruiting a new board of directors. Former Footscray mayor Lynne Kosky, ex-board member Bob Moordie, former player Peter Welsh , Williamstown Football Club President Tony Hannebery, Western Times Editor Ron Coleman, ‘Save the Dogs’ board candidate Don Gibson, Brooke Anderson and Dennis Galimberti. [33]On the morning of the rally, things didn’t look good. As Gordon now remembers,

I woke up on the morning of the rally; Oakley had got an article on the front page of the Sunday Age saying that the real figure Footscray Football Club needed to raise was five point three million. Then it started to rain. My view at that point was there was a chance people would read that article, look at the weather and not bother to turn up. The sun came out, 20,000 people turned up and the rest, as they say, is history.[34]

Indeed it was. Thousands turned up at the Western Oval offering their donations, Bulldog supporters, locals and even non-Bulldog supporters. The wider public didn’t want to just see a side fall to ashes like that, they wanted to fight. A supporter who did not barrack for Footscray sent a letter to Footscray saying, “Dear Footscray, I am giving you all the money I have. I know it’s not much but you never know what it could do. I hope you do well, Good Luck.”[35]

The people of Footscray were on a mission to save their club. As Lack noted the clubs survival became, “A critical test of the municipality’s prestige and position.”[36]Some donated five dollars, some donated five hundred dollars and many of these donations came from people who were already struggling to pay their bills. Some examples of where the money came from included a seventy year old Maidstone pensioner named Ray Ashton who had donated $100, a past players raffle which raised $20,000, a local car dealer who donated a brand new Holden car to be raffled off, a former politician Peter Ross-Edwards who donated $200 to the Club.[37] A supporter who did not barrack for Footscray sent a letter to Footscray saying, “Dear Footscray, I am giving you all the money I have. I know it’s not much but you never know what it could do. I hope you do well, Good Luck.”[38] Other letters spoke of the Club’s as holding “people’s dreams, hopes, inspirations and spirits” and the club “falling victim to the VFL’s ruthless economics” [39]They were not only donating to save their club, they were donating to defend their vision of football and their community.

The “Door Knock” campaign was a success with supporters gathering money from neighboring suburb houses. [40] Streets, restaurants and public places were also used to collect money. Peter Matthews and his fiancé of Altona spent 12 hours rattling cans at the intersection of Old Geelong Road. The Western Times stated that “Most of these people were thrown out of food places, spat upon and bruised all over from rattling cans and waving their arms for 12 hours”.[41]But one of the most courageous and inspiring stories was from a woman, with two artificial legs. She entered the Footscray Drill Hall on crutches and insisted that she be part of the Footscray Fightback Foundation. The woman went out with a collection tin tied around her neck. She arrived back with the tin full. But it wasn’t enough for her. She went out for a second shift and came back with another tin just as full as the first. [42]This was the determination and perseverance that thousands of ‘tin rattlers’ showed throughout the Fightback.

All together the community had raised one point one million with more to come. This showed that a community could come together to save their football Club from transforming into another Club, a Club that was not Footscray at all.

It still wasn’t enough. But once the people from the community showed their determination and commitment, sponsorship followed. With the help of Peter Gordon, Footscray secured a three year sponsorship with ICI Australia of between $1 million and $1.5 million a year.[43] It was the biggest sponsorship in the VFL and it was going to save the Bulldogs from a merger.

They had triumphed over the VFL and in the process had re-asserted the peoples ownership over the game of football. They had celebrated this on October 28th, which now became a Victory Parade/Concert to celebrate their triumph over adversity. Words from Ron Palmer expressed their newly born confidence, “It’s all right, they can’t take our Club away from us. We beat ‘em… We’ll beat ‘em again if we have to.” [44]

Looking back at that time, 20 years later, Peter Gordon remembers,

Key things have changed in the last ten years including pay TV, new stadia, and the introduction of more interstate franchises which will bring down the average cost of running a team. The Club has a better chance than ever of long term survival.[45]

The VFL ended up getting what they wanted, a year later they had a national competition with endorsed media and sponsorship deals. But the Footscray Football Club lived to fight another day and to represent the spirit of Melbourne’s west. As Peter Gordon said,          “I think it’s a very important story regarding football and the western suburbs community generally. I don’t think there’s really any other story like it”. [46]

 

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Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Interview

  • Interview with Mr. Peter Gordon, July 20th 2009

-This was used for direct information on major issues and for quotes.

 

Secondary Sources

 

Books

 

  • Gordon, K & Dalton, Too Tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, 1990, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne

-This was a major asset to the research I conducted. It was a good starting point for the essay as it told a great story of the Footscray Fightback. It provided valuable historical information, statistics and was used for direct quotes.

 

  • Davison G, 1978, The Rise and Fall of Marvelous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne

-This book was used for statistics and direct quotes. It provided a valuable historical background of Melbourne and in particular Footscray.

 

  • Lack, J, A History of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing Company, 1991, Footscray, Melbourne

-This book provided a great historical background of Footscray. It was used for general information, statistics and direct quotes.

 

Websites

 

Date retrieved: 4/9/09

-This site was used for general information on the background of Ross Oakley.

 

Newspapers

 

  • Stevens M, “No Cash, No Club – Oakley”, The Sun, October 4th 1989

-This was used for general information and direct quotes.

  • Jamieson R, “Dogs Forget The Worries”, The Mail, 23rd October, 1989

-This was used for general information and direct quotes.

  • Dalton A, “Battlers rally to the Bulldogs”, The Western Times, October 18, 1989

-This was used for general information and direct quotes.

  • Ryan, Mary-Ellen, “Show Biz Support” , The Mail, October 25th, 1989

-This was used for general information and direct quotes.

  • “Death Of the Bulldogs” The Sun, October 4th 1989

-This was used for direct quotes

  • “Dogs Die”, The Mail, October 4th, 1989

-This was used for direct quotes

  • “Stand Up and Fight”, The Western Times, October 4th, 1989

-This was used for direct quotes

 


[1] Witham. J, Last Updated, Thu 21 May, 2009, Profile: Ross Oakley http://www.afl.com.au/news/newsarticle/tabid/208/newsid/77256/default.aspx , Date retrieved: 4/9/09

[2] Stevens. M, “No Cash, No Club – Oakley”, The Sun, October 4th 1989, pg .70.

[3] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne, Australia, pg .35.

[4] Stevens. M, “No Cash, No Club – Oakley”, The Sun, October 4th 1989, pg .70.

[5] Lack. J, 1991, A History of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing Company, Footscray, Melbourne, pg .401.

[6] Davison. G , 1978, The Rise and Fall of Marvelous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Australia, pg .244.

[7] Davison .G , 1978, The Rise and Fall of Marvelous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Australia, pg .254.

[8] Ibid, pg .254.

[9] Ibid, pg .57.

[10] Ibid, pg .188.

[11] Ibid, pg .77.

[12] Ibid, pg .223.

[13] Ibid, pg .223.

[14] Ibid, pg .254.

[15] The Advertiser, January 12 1924, pg .1. , in Lack. J, A History of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing Company, 1991, Footscray, Melbourne, pg .255.

[16] The Advertiser supplement, 11 October 1923, pg. 255. , in Lack.  J, A History of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing Company, 1991, Footscray, Melbourne, pg .255.

[17] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne,     Australia, pg 37

[18] Lack. J, A History of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing Company, 1991, Footscray, Melbourne, pg .383.

[19] Ibid, pg .371.

[20] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne, Australia, pg .37.

[21] Jamieson. R, “Dogs Forget the Worries”, The Mail, 23rd October, 1989, pg .76.

 

[22] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne,     Australia, pg 32

[23] Ibid, pg 33

[24]Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne,     Australia,  pg 37

[25]“Death Of the Bulldogs” The Sun, October 4th 1989, pg .1.

[26] Interview with Mr. Peter Gordon, July 20th, 2009

[27] De Bolfo, Tony & Stevens, Michael, “Footscray, Fitzroy To Merge”, The Sun, October 3rd ,1989, pg .1.

[28] Ibid, pg .2.

[29]“Dogs Die”, The Mail, October 4th, 1989, pg .1.

[30]“Stand Up and Fight”, The Western Times, October 4th, 1989, pg .1.

[31] Interview with Mr. Peter Gordon, July 20th, 2009

[32] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne,     Australia, pg .47.

[33] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne, Australia, pg .48.

[34]Interview with Mr. Peter Gordon, July 20th, 2009

[35]Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne, Australia, pg .93.

[36] Lack. J, A History of Footscray, Hargreen Publishing Company, 1991, Footscray, Melbourne, pg .401.

[37] Ibid , pg .402.

[38] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne,     Australia, pg .93.

[39] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne,     Australia, 90.98.

[40] Dalton, Alan, “Battlers rally to the Bulldogs”, The Western Times, October 18, 1989, pg 11

[41] Ibid, pg.11.

[42] Ibid, pg .11.

[43] Ryan, Mary-Ellen, “Show Biz Support” , The Mail, October 25th, 1989, pg 1

 

[44] Gordon. K & Dalton. A, 1990, too tough To Die: Footscrays Fightback 1989, Footscray Football Club, Melbourne, Australia, pg 136

 

[45] Interview with Mr. Peter Gordon, July 20th, 2009

 

[46] Interview with Mr. Peter Gordon, July 20th, 2009

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Terrific stuff Dom.

    A time well worth remembering.

  2. Andrew Fithall says:

    Well done Domenic.

    The last 12 years of football would have been very different if this had proceeded. Brisbane wouldn’t have had the success they did without the Fitzroy input (one example is that Jonathan Brown would have gone to the Fitzroy Bulldogs). Maybe North Melbourne would have been the eventual victims. All conjecture of course. What seemed to save Footscray was the geography – of being able to call on the Western suburbs. What was already a deprived area would lose something important – their own football team. It is what a gentrified Fitzroy lacked when the pressure came for them to “merge” with Brisbane.

  3. I remember the time very well, I was acting Principal of Yarraville Primary School and parents and students were shattered that their footy team was being taken away. We had lots of discussions in the office and in the classrooms on how we could help Footscray survive. Collections tins were everywhere anyone who came to the school had to make a donation, and on a couple of times I took the full tins across to the” Save Footscray” at the Drill hall. I made a donation telling them it was so we ( Essendon) could continue to beat them for many years to come. People gave far more than they could afford time and time again. It brought everyone together to fight the common enemy, Oakley and the VFL. I can remember the tears of joy and relief when it became obvious that “The Doggies” were going to survive, it was a great time.

  4. Damian Watson says:

    Great stuff Dom,

    A very informative account of the events.

    I am just wondering, where did you accumulated those newspaper resources and how did you set up that interview with Peter Gordon?

    Fantastic work!

  5. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    Always thought the name was wrong – Footscray Lions would have been more appropriate – that way the geographical aspect would have been preserved. The Fitzroy Football Club was playing at the Western Oval at the time as I recall. The name did not make any sense.

    It ended up being a great result – for Footscray – and the Lions who have had their logo and traditions honoured – which North Melbourne were never going to do. I think their only concession was going to a Lion emblem on the shorts…

  6. Thanks everyone for the feedback!
    It seems that this topic is creating a forum for discussion, especially considering the current state of the dogs

    Damian- The newspapers were obtained from the State Library in the city, there are these massive computer machines which let you print out old newspapers from the archives.
    -The Peter Gordon was set up via email, i simply sent an email to his law business and asked him if he could answer a few questions, he was glad to help.

  7. Dave Nadel says:

    A good account Dom. If I could maje one suggestion. You should look at the role of Nick Columb. Columb was the president of Footscray who led the merger negotiations. I wrote several pages about the issue in my PhD thesis but I just want to quote one paragraph.

    “President Nick Columb was a Brighton Grammar educated businessman with racing interests. The merger he had accepted would involve Fitzroy’s colours, coach, board of directors and name. It was effectively a takeover. Prominent western suburbs youth worker Les Twentyman summed up the view from the West when he said at an impromptu meeting outside the Western Oval on the afternoon the news was broken ‘People from Brighton Grammar are making decisions about the western suburbs. It’s just not on. The silvertails have absconded with our football club in the dead of night’ ”

    In that one sentence Twentyman set the basis for the whole “Save the Dogs” campaign. It allowed mobilsation of the West against the Southeastern suburbs, of the battlers against the silvertails.

    Mention of Columb’s role is important, not only for historical accuracy and to locate the Footscray struggle in Melbourne’s geographical and socioeconomic landscape but also because there was a rumour in recent weeks that Columb is involved in a current group of Bulldogs members seeking to replace Smorgan. As a Collingwood supporter it is not for me to say who should run the Bulldogs but the idea of the man who tried to sell the club reinvolving himself in its administration strikes me as outrageous.

  8. Mic Rees says:

    Terrific work Dom. Marvellous companion piece to Garry Linnells mid 90’s look back at those rather interesting times – “Football Ltd”.

    Did your interview with Peter Gordon look at his 6 year stint as President or was it focused on the Fightback period ? I thought Peter could’ve ended up as the MHR for Gellibrand when Ralph Willis pulled the pin prior to the ’98 election.

    Do you have plans for a follow up piece ?

    MCR

  9. Mic,
    Thanks for the comments.
    The Peter Gordon interview was based on the Fighback period and the effects it had on him and his family. Also, there were a few questions about how that event relates to the state of the game today.
    I was in year 9 when i wrote that and haven’t though of a follow up piece, but it could work.

    Dom

  10. Great read. I have a copy of Football Ltd if anyone wants to have a read.

  11. Chalkdog says:

    Nice work Dom
    I think the bumper sticker used at the tiime summed it up best “Up yours Oakley”.

    In the end the VFL/AFL hierachy came to realise that they had to grow the competition and make it profitable in the long run to fund expansion [Fitzroys poor treatment aside].

  12. Hi guys,

    im thinking of a part 2 to this piece, looking at the stabilized resurgence of the dogs and the return of merger hero Peter Gordon.

    Thoughts?

  13. John Harms says:

    Dom

    Go for it. And, by the way, I’ll be in touch on Monday.

    Cheers
    JTH

  14. Skip of Skipton says:

    My parents met at a dance at the Footscray Football Club. I was born in Footscray. I descend from first settlers in Footscray on my dads side. Uncle Len, my dads brother, was president of the Social Club for a long time. He represented the Big V a couple of times in the ’60s on interstate trips as a piss-up organiser. We have an official photo of him, John Schultz and John Jillard in Big V kit. Uncle Dick, my mums brother-in-law played 100 games for the ‘scray before the lure of big money and lifestyle took him bush.

    About the fightback in ’89, the coin donated by the Vietnamese (who pretty much owned the town by then) was not insubstantial. They might not have known or understood or followed footy, but they knew it was important.

    Don’t fuck with Footscray!

  15. bulldogboy says:

    I remember going to the drill hall that morning to collect my tin which had a red, white and blue sticker on it with an id number. I was then given a photocopied map of Footscray with Buckley street highlighted on it. That was to be my run. I was a bit tentative, unsure of the reception i would receive. Shouldn’t have worried. From house to house, Vietnamese, Italian whatever; they all gave. I even ventured into a nursing home where people who quite obviously weren’t long for this world wanted to give. Quite humbling. And still one of my fondest memories.
    Thanks for this piece.

  16. Dom have you spoken with Alan Dalton, the co author of “Too tough to die.” I remember him from the early 1980;s. He was a school teacher. I don’t know where he is now ?

    Glen!

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