2016: A year of high and low anniversaries for Fitzroy Football Club supporters

2016 is a big year for old Fitzroy supporters incorporating both the 30th anniversary of their last finals series, and the 20th anniversary of the club’s demise.

Let’s start with the high of 1986. It’s easy to forget, but Fitzroy was one of the more successful VFL clubs from 1978-86.

They played in five finals series which ranked them equal 5th out of the 12 clubs in the competition. They also won a night grand final in 1978, and Lions players secured numerous personal honours including a Brownlow Medal (Bernie Quinlan 1981), two Coleman Medals (Bernie Quinlan 1983 and 84), and top three finishes in the Brownlow on four occasions (Garry Wilson 1978 and ’79, Paul Roos 1985 and ’86). Additionally, stars such as Grant Lawrie, Laurie Serafini, Michael Conlan, Gary Pert and Richard Osborne were considered to be amongst the competition’s elite players.

The Lions had a poor season in 1985, and at season’s end engaged in a controversial coaching swap. Carlton Premiership Coach David Parkin moved to Fitzroy, and the Fitzroy Coach Robert Walls (also a former Carlton captain) moved to Carlton. The swap proved successful for both clubs. Carlton finished runner-up in 1986, and the Lions third.

Fitzroy in 1986 had some excellent players including veterans Bernie Quinlan, Grant Lawrie, Leon Harris and Michael Conlan; young stars Gary Pert, Richard Osborne, Paul Roos and Doug Barwick; emerging talent such as Scott McIvor, John Blakey and rookie Mark Dwyer; and consistent clubmen such as Matt Rendell, Scott Clayton, Tim Pekin and Ross Thornton. They could beat anybody on their day, but lacked the depth of the top two or three teams. The Lions’ season was a bit topsy turvy, but they finished off well with five victories from the last six games to grab 5th spot. Then the fun began.

Playing much-favoured premiers Essendon in the Elimination Final at Waverley Park, the Lions trailed narrowly for most of the game in wet conditions. But famously Leon Harris grabbed the ball in the centre of the ground with a minute to play, evaded two players and short passed to Michael Conlan on the right half forward flank who goaled on the run provoking a mighty roar. The siren rang soon after for an amazing one point win. I was working that day at the Salvation Army Crisis Centre in Grey St. St Kilda, but managed to listen to much of the game on the radio, and smashed (and nearly shattered) the old wooden office desk in delight when the siren sounded.

A week later the Lions were again the underdogs against Geoff Edelsten’s high-profile Sydney Swans on a cold afternoon at the MCG. Sydney led for much of the journey, but the Lions grabbed the lead in the last quarter via brilliant snap goals from Bernie Harris and Bernie Quinlan. Home by five points, and life couldn’t get better.

On Preliminary Final day we took on the mighty Hawthorn at Waverley Park. The Hawks had played in the three previous grand finals and would win the cup in 1986, but the Lions shot out of the gate to lead 20 to nothing after eight minutes. Veteran Bernie Quinlan nailed two early goals including an outstanding left foot snap on the run. It seemed as if the stars were on our side. I began to visualise my team in the Grand Final, but alas the fantasy was just that. Hawthorn steadied, took a narrow lead to the half time interval, and then destroyed the tiring Lions in the final half.

1986 proved to be the Lions’ last hurrah with arguably the club’s greatest player Bernie Quinlan hanging up his boots at the end of the season. To be sure, they had some decent seasons, and only just missed finals action in 1989, 1992 and ’93. But gradually the combination of off-field financial crisis, the lack of a consistent playing and training base, and the associated player drain took its toll. Their best players such as Pert, Roos, Osborne and Alistair Lynch all left for other clubs. By 1995, the Lions had few senior players left, and could only manage two wins for the season.

Ironically 1996 seemed initially to offer some promise of a better future. Experienced South Australian mentor Mick Nunan was appointed as the new club coach, and top juniors Matthew Primus, Nick Carter and Scott Bamford were secured in the draft. The young Lions showed some promise in early games, and finally broke through for a victory over Fremantle on 18 May. There were only just over 5000 fans at the game that day at the unfashionable Western Oval, but the noise as we passionately sang the club song made it sound like double or even triple that number.

Merger talk was already in the air. Most supporters favoured a partnership with North Melbourne, as long as Fitzroy’s history and traditions were reasonably protected, given this would preserve the Roys as a Victorian-based team. Far fewer backed a merger with the Brisbane Bears as this would mean Fitzroy suffering the same fate as the relocated South Melbourne Swans, although it gradually became apparent that this was the preferred option of the AFL.

The bombshell hit in June when the club’s financial backers in Nauru pulled the plug, and an administrator was appointed. This meant the decision about a possible merger would be made by persons other than club members or supporters. On 4 July, the AFL Commission announced that Fitzroy would merge with Brisbane to form the Brisbane Lions. I was holidaying in Cairns at the time, and heard the news on the local radio station. To say that I was shocked was an understatement. Nearly 20 years later, the former AFL Chief Ross Oakley quipped in his book, The Phoenix Rises, that many ‘hard-core’ Fitzroy fans refused to support the new club, or abandoned football altogether. He still lacks insight into the pain that the AFL’s actions caused to so many football followers.

Historian Adam Muyt later wrote in his outstanding book, Maroon and Blue: Recollections and Tales of the Fitzroy Football Club, that Fitzroy fans were divided by the merger. Some chose to support Brisbane, some adopted other teams such as North Melbourne, and many stopped following the AFL at all. Muyt’s book was proudly launched by ex-Fitzroy champion Bernie Quinlan at the old Brunswick Street Oval on a quiet Sunday afternoon in 2006. Following the launch, the crowd sang the Fitzroy song one last time – it enabled us to remember the good times (1986) as well as the bad (1996).

About Philip Mendes

Philip Mendes is an academic who follows AFL, soccer, tennis and cricket. He supported Fitzroy Football Club from 1970-1996, and on their death he adopted the North Melbourne Kangaroos as his new team. In his spare time, he occasionally writes about his current and past football teams.


  1. Adam Muyt says

    A big year for Royboys and Roygirls, Phil – thanks for writing something on that matter.

    Twenty years…for me it doesn’t feel that long ago since they took the field. Still remember that last season vividly. Guess that’s what comes of pain and loss and grief – things become seared into the memory.

    Also, thanks for the plug for ‘Maroon & Blue’. Couldn’t have done it without the interest, help and assistance of Royboys like yourself. Perhaps I should post my 1996 journal extracts that I included in the book, at the Nac through this ‘anniversary’ season?

  2. Adam – good to hear from you. Hope life in Tassie is treating you well. I think ex-Roys fans would love to read those extracts.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, Phil, and hasn’t the past 20 years certainly flown by.
    Regards the 1978-86 period, if the Roys had only been able to win one premiership (while fully aware of the 1978 Night Grand Final success), I can’t help but think we’d still be around.
    Ten finals for four wins and six losses in that period – in four of those losses the Lions were still in the game at three-quarter-time (including the near misses against Collingwood in 1981 and Hawthorn in 1983).
    Of course, this year is the 100th anniversary of Fitzroy’s sixth VFL premiership.
    Adam, I have “Maroon and Blue” proudly sitting in the Fitzroy library/memorabilia part of my house.

  4. Pete – Agree, very unlucky in 1983. Pretty sure if we had got over Hawthorn in the Qualifying we would have beaten North Melbourne in the Second Semi, and been a big chance in the Grand Final. Even against Essendon in the First Semi, we were 21 points up shortly before three quarter time. The absence of Laurie Serafini in both games cost us dearly as Knights and Daniher dominated against lighter bodied defenders. Some fond memories.

  5. Terry Riordan says

    Hi Phil
    Thanks for a great article and a trip down memory lane l still miss the Royboys and l maintain that that the AFL lost a part of its soul when they departed the scene
    I still miss them


  6. Thanks Terry, I may write a few more things about 1986 and particularly Bernie Quinlan as the season progresses.

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