A Phoenix from the Ashes: A Review of The Merge

 

 

The 1996 merger of the Fitzroy Lions and the Brisbane Bears was a seminal event that reshaped the AFL landscape, asked deep and difficult questions about the relationship between sport and business and, tragically, left thousands of loyal Fitzroy supporters heartbroken. Twenty-three years later, the media team at the Brisbane Lions, in conjunction with Fox Footy, have produced a documentary about what happened in July 1996. The Merge explores both the Fitzroy and Brisbane perspectives in the years before 1996, the dramatic events around Fitzroy going into administration, the merger negotiations with Fitzroy, North Melbourne and Brisbane, the AFL Commission decision on the night of 4 July 1996 and then the aftermath. It culminates in the 2001 Grand Final, part rapprochement, part vindication, which was seen by many to have solidified the merger in the hearts of many Fitzroy supporters who had yet to embrace the new entity.

 

The Merge is a well-produced film and a good introduction to those not familiar with the events of 1996. Sadly, the merger has begun to recede into history, with a growing number of younger football followers only knowing the Brisbane Lions as a single, unified club. In that respect, the club and its media team are to be applauded for producing The Merge, not only because it’s an important story to tell, but also because it’s a difficult and uncomfortable topic to address. The merger is a complex story, one that is still very emotional for Fitzroy people. I particularly commend the filmmakers for including the damning footage of Noel Gordon’s ill-fated remarks on The Footy Show on the night of the merger which, even after 23 years, still come across as tactless and poorly judged. It’s a robust organisation that can look at its own history in such an unvarnished manner.

 

The Merge is told through interviews and media footage/newspaper reports from the time. There is no authoritative narrator, but instead players, coaches, club officials and former AFL CEO, Ross Oakley, outline the events as they occurred. Possibly the best aspect of The Merge is that it gives equal weight to the Brisbane Bears story, too often neglected in Fitzroy-centric retellings of the merger. The Bears had a fascinating and difficult decade as a stand-alone entity and were treated particularly poorly by the Victorian clubs. As Ross Oakley notes, in order to gain Victorian clubs’ approval to sell the $4 million VFL licence to Brisbane (to help the league out of its dire financial predicament), the Commission deliberately weakened the Bears’ ability to compete in the league. Their restrictions were later unwound later, but it demonstrates the self-serving attitude of the clubs at the time.  That sort of football realpolitik plays all though The Merge, and is a good reminder that clubs competed just as hard off the field as they did on it.

 

In some ways, I’m not the best person to review this documentary. I have been researching this topic for the past 18 months, speaking to many of the people featured in the documentary. I know more of the backstory behind the merger and can fill in the blanks. Given the restrictions of an hour and twenty minute-long documentary, there are many details left out of The Merge, or which are only briefly covered. Yet despite its enforced brevity, The Merge hits all the major beats: Fitzroy and Brisbane’s financial troubles, the appointment of the administrator on 28 July 1996, the Punt Road and AFL Commission meetings on 4 July 1996 and then Fitzroy’s pitiable final games that season. The suite of interviewees provide a good commentary on these events, and most of the major players are represented: Ross Oakley (the AFL), Andrew Ireland (Brisbane), Greg Miller (North Melbourne) and Greg Swann (in lieu of the administrator, Michael Brennan, who died in 2004). AFL journalist Geoffrey Poulter serves as the somewhat impartial commentator. Alastair Lynch provides an interesting perspective, as he played for Fitzroy, the Bears and then the Brisbane Lions. Jonathan Brown’s suggestion that “seagull shit” was Nauru’s main export provided an unlikely highlight, but it would have been interesting to hear from someone like Chris Johnson, who played in the Three-peat, but had also played for Fitzroy in 1996. Alan McConnell, the caretaker coach for the Lions’ final games that year, gives a good sense of how difficult it was for the players and the remaining staff in those last matches. The major voice missing is that of Fitzroy’s own administration. The producers may well have reached out to people such as Dyson Hore-Lacy (Fitzroy’s president) and they may have declined to participate, but it affects the story being told to not have a Fitzroy presence when key events are being discussed – the club becomes a passive object being bartered over by others, rather than an actor in its own right.

 

On the issue of the interviewees, The Merge falls into the trap that so often plagues historical research based primarily on oral testimonies. Memory is notoriously difficult to deal with when reconstructing the past. People invariably forget things, conflate events, shape a narrative suit their own purposes and/or have their own memories influenced by others over the course of time. This makes dealing with this form of history difficult. Personal reflections can be powerful, but they need to be used cautiously. I would tentatively suggest, some untruths, exaggerations or selective recollections of events creep into the interviews. That Greg Miller places the Leonda meeting between the AFL Commission and the clubs at the start of 1996 rather than in the middle of 1995 when it actually took place is neither here nor there – it doesn’t affect the substance of his remarks. However, Ross Oakley suggesting that North Melbourne “made a blue” with their merger negotiating position by insisting on a 54 player list is disingenuous, as the AFL Commission (and the clubs in 1995) had already agreed on that arrangement in the months before the merger – the “blue” that North Melbourne made was trusting the Commission to stick to its original agreement. These are technical quibbles, but they speak to the limitations of relying on oral history to tell a complex story.

 

 

Once the documentary has passed through the events of 1996, it ends on the triumphant note of the 2001 AFL Grand Final, which is presented as a coming together of the Brisbane and Fitzroy supporters in a moment of glory. This is an appropriate place for the story to end for a Brisbane Lions-produced film and it allows the film’s strongest voice, that of Brownlow medallist and club legend Kevin Murray, to shine through. “Bulldog” Murray is the most compelling reason to invest in the Brisbane Lions as a continuation of Fitzroy; he was a strong advocate for the merger at the time, and his endorsement is the link the modern day Lions required to be considered spiritual heirs of Bunton, Smallhorn, Hughson, Ruthven and many more. The sight of Murray standing in the crowd after the final siren on Grand Final day in 2001 hasn’t lost its lustre. While presenting the merger as a triumph, The Merge doesn’t leave space for those Fitzroy supporters who did not decide to follow the Brisbane Lions, many of whom are now lost to AFL. Nor does it mention that the Fitzroy Football Club continues to operate in the Victorian Amateur Football Association, where they are proud to be a suburban club representing their local area, just as they were in 1883.

 

Nevertheless, the executive producers Courtney McDonnell and Anthony Alsop have created a polished and insightful retelling of one of the most significant and emotional events in league history. The inclusion of the Brisbane Bears history is an important aspect of the story that needs to be considers and speaks to the national considerations involved in the AFL Commission’s decisions. It is a story that every Brisbane Lions fan should know, as well as those who love Australian rules football but also think deeply about the commercial imperatives behind running a national, professional sporting competition. For the Fitzroy supporters who adopted the Brisbane Lions, it’s a reminder that they are part of a club born in controversy and the grubby business of sporting politics but which nevertheless has become a proud and distinct member of the Australian Football League.

 

Watch The Merge on the Brisbane Lions’ YouTube channel:

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About William Westerman

Canberra based military historian and sporting enthusiast.

Comments

  1. I don’t know why this is referred to as a ‘merger’, in effect Brisbane took just eight players from Fitzroy, only one of whom played for any length of time in Chris Johnson, and they changed their name from Bears to Lions. A true merger would have been a combining of the two playing lists and the history of both clubs which didn’t happen.

  2. William Westerman says

    I agree Gerry. While the intention was always to create true mergers, there’s always a stronger partner and a weaker partner and the negotiations are often carried out accordingly. Calling them ‘mergers’ is also a better PR approach, I don’t think the VFL/AFL Commission would have gained too much support if if they’d decided to call them ‘takeovers’ instead.

  3. george smith says

    as a Fitzroy hater, you’ll get little sympathy from me. In the early ’60s Lou Richards correctly predicted the moribund nature of Fitzroy, stuck as it was between the powerful Carlton and Collingwood clubs with little money and room for expansion due to early gentrification. Fitzroy never moved to the outer suburbs like St Kilda, or to Sydney like South, or to the MCG or Waverley like Richmond and Hawthorn or nationwide like North. Instead they moved around the inner city – Albert park, Footscray, Victoria Park. When they were there they seemed to cheese off the locals, as indicated by their unhappy 2 year stint at Collingwood. Then there was the 1989 merger with Footscray which went down like a lead balloon – how would a merger with North be any better? Fitzroy got Geelong’s recruiting ground of Warrnambool as their zone, which must have cheesed off Geelong.

    Collingwood used it’s sheer numbers to survive a financial crisis in 1986, as did Richmond. There were no numbers for Fitzroy, in spite of tins wagged in solidarity by other supporters. As for the second team myth, there is an expectation that such a team would beat up Carlton and Hawthorn. They never did.

    if you go interstate the Cardinals will look after you. Stay in Melbourne you’re on your own.

  4. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks for this William. The Merge is well worth a look.

  5. I was Roy Boy and hated the merger. I looked for the side that had a similar long Premiership drought. That was the Bulldogs. Turned out to be a good decision in 2016.
    Still check on the Roy’s in the amateurs.

  6. Finally got to watch The Merger last night, a good production well worth watching but strangely nobody from Fitzroy apart from ex-players in Kevin Murray and Alastair Lynch appeared. Nothing from Dyson Hore-Lacy, nothing from the CEO at the time, nothing from board members who would have given the programme a bit more insight into the machinations of the whole Fitzroy-North-Brisbane fiasco of 1996. Perhaps they were asked but chose not to appear for whatever reason. Personally I found the ABC podcast about the merger more enlightening from a Fitzroy perspective. It can be accessed at the following link
    https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/fitzroy-lions/4565326

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