Almanac Book Review – ‘The Death of Fitzroy Football Club’: Hands have been clenched into fists too long






A review of The Death of Fitzroy Football Club by Russell Holmesby


How many dreams remain?

This is a feeling too strong to contain


I’m sure it wasn’t Russell Holmesby’s intention in writing The Death of the Fitzroy Football Club to get me pondering existentialism; but I’m glad he did. I’d just question the verisimilitude of the word ‘Death’ in his title. Because in reading his book, some dormant memories of so many great names and deeds stirred something within me. In spite of the topics that are raked over; reading it was like being at the best parts of a wake. Reading this, I wasn’t just taken back to the ‘death’ but the ‘life’ of the club I hold so dear.


I clear my mind, by wrestling with the famous quote by the noted existential philosopher Paris Hilton who is said to have mused that “when you are dead, a really important part of your life is over.” This takes me a to a Zen place of contemplation because it is irresolvable to me if this is celebrity vapidness beyond compare or insightful genius of the highest order. Honestly, maybe that’s why Fitzroy is not really dead yet – because, there are so many voices in Holmesby’s book for whom Fitzroy is still such a prescient part of their lives. I it put to Holmesby that he has not only told “the story of Fitzroy’s demise” that his cover promises, but the story of their life as well. More deliberately perhaps than Paris Hilton, the nineteenth century novelist, George Eliot, posits that “our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” Are my Royboys really ‘dead’ when the tall tales and true being told in this wonderful book pulse out of the pages? This wasn’t the morbid read I was anticipating.


For mine, this is going to be the Fitzroy book that I feel I will return to the most. For it is the one that takes the story back to the Fitzroy that captured my heart. The Fitzroy of Serafini, Rendell and Thornton. It didn’t make me angry in the way that Dyson Hore-Lacy’s eviscerating ‘Fitzroy’ book did and it didn’t make my heart break again like Adam Muyt’s beautifully rendered Maroon and Blue. It is not an abstract historical Fitzroy that resides in these pages, dormant like a corpse in a cemetery. Holmesby, for the most part, stays out of the way and lets the players have their voice and tell their stories. Even in the sorrowful vignettes that they speak of, the story of Fitzroy – the real Fitzroy – becomes liberated and vibrant again. This is the book that will let me re-experience the famous Elimination final goal in Conlon’s own words. I can reexperience the actual words and deeds of Doc Wheildon, still incredulous about being overlooked for the goal of the year in `92. These men don’t look back in anger and it is wonderful to hear their voices again.


The book actually paralleled the experience of following Fitzroy for me, my lifetime of memories shrunk into a microcosm. It rollicks through the exuberance of the early to mid-eighties, the premierships we didn’t quite land in `81 and `83, Quinlan’s Brownlow and Colemans and the feisty vitality of the Walls and Parkin eras. But it is the Fitzroy story too in that the ominous signs of the end are all touched upon as well. The voices of the administrators start to dominate the story. It becomes a story not of triumph against the odds but raw survival. For when we look back, the signs were there on the periphery. It is just a shame that the story of Fitzroy over the twenty or so years that Holmesby covers moves from protagonists like Quinlan and Wilson to Oakley, financier Bernie Ahern and the Nauruan government. Hemingway would probably have suggested that Fitzroy died gradually at first, then all of a sudden.


The chapter on 1986 is a perfect synecdoche of the whole book. Because there amidst the glorious and improbable ride, where we win two finals by less than a kick, the words of Leon Wiegard punctuate like a foreboding cloud. While the last glorious roar of on field success is being captured and relived by the players, Holmesby also tells of the parallel off field dramas. Hindsight brings a sense of prophetic significance to an ultimatum delivered to the players that season where they were asked to decide between either a “merger in Melbourne, or a move interstate.” But at this point in the book, just like at that point in my life, I found myself able to push that bureaucratic white noise away and revel in the illusory reality of Roos, Pert and Osborne.


I am grateful that Holmesby went back as far as he did, for without the stories of the late seventies and eighties it would be a more sombre read of a slow and certain death. It gives sharp detail to so many “what ifs” of Fitzroy’s last twenty years. To read through these events again is to wonder about a world where Quinlan kicked one more goal in the 83 Qualifying Final, or where they did indeed up-stumps to Brisbane a decade earlier in 86 while they still held a more stacked deck. Or where they merged with Melbourne or did indeed become the Fitzroy Bulldogs. But amidst the weight of these backroom stories there are some more uplifting what ifs as well. The almost, but not quite, re-emergence in 93 or an alternate reality where Peter Daicos joined Dougie Hawkins for a Fitzroy swansong in 95. For every moment that Holmesby brought me down, his book also reminded me of why, from the moment I became I a fan, I did so with a wholehearted abandon that endures long after their “death.”


And that’s the existential thing about it. ‘The Death of Fitzroy’ gives the club back to the players and back to the coaches and, in doing so, gives the Lions life again. Fitzroy has died a few times now and still endures. We died in 96. We died when Chris Johnson, the last of the ‘Fitzroy 8,’ retired. We died when Brad Boyd’s bad back forced him prematurely from the game. We had quite a few painful ends at the hands of Hawthorn. But, death? Maybe Fitzroy just exists somewhere else now. Echoing George Eliot, street artist Banksy suggests that death occurs twice, “first when you stop breathing and then ultimately when someone says your name for the last time.” Holmesby’s book deserves a wide audience to ensure that this second death is postponed for as long as possible.



Forsaking aching breaking years,
the time and tested heartbreak years.
These should not be forgotten years.



Thanks to JTH for suggesting I pen this review, Russell Holmesby and to Midnight Oil, whose song ‘Forgotten Years’ crept into my head while I was reading and writing.


About Shane Reid

Loving life as a husband, dad and teacher. I'm trying to develop enough skill as a writer so that one day Doc Wheildon's Newborough, Bernie Quinlan's Traralgon and Mick Conlon's 86 Eliminatiuon final goal will be considered contemporaneous with Twain's Mississippi, Hemingway's Cuba, Beethoven's 9th and Coltrane's Love Supreme.


  1. Grand memories. Thanks Shane. I steadfastly refuse to embrace the future and live resolutely in the past of memories. If today is good it can be added to memory; if not ruthlessly culled.
    Those Fitzroy teams of the 80’s were special daredevils. I have a strong memory of retreating to the Braidwood pub after a horse I had a share in lost it’s maiden after we backed it heavily on Ascot Vale Stakes Day. Mickey Conlan’s magic relieved all the pain. Fitzroy as David run out of rocks to reload the slingshot for a last assault on Goliath.
    Living in Canberra in the 80’s I saw the fag end of Fitzroy at Bruce Stadium – often being thumped by my now Eagles – but I cherish how many like Johnson and Primus went on to star in flags elsewhere. Brad Boyd’s skinny arms made Flea Wilson look like Popeye.

  2. Stainless says

    Sounds like a good read, Shane. I’ll never really think of Fitzroy as “dead”, although they certainly don’t live on through the Brisbane Lions! Like PB, I have very particular recollections of Fitzroy in the 1980s (see my recent piece in my 1981 series for example ). Fitzroy is an integral part of the history of the VFL/AFL. Ironically the rollercoaster they rode towards their demise over those last two decades only adds to the Lions’ place in that history.

  3. Luke Reynolds says

    Been keen to get my hands on this book Shane, your review has just seen me purchase it.

    Peter Daicos at Fitzroy in 1995, I’d nearly have changed allegiances if that had occurred!

  4. If the book is as well-written as the review, I’ll be buying a copy. Great stuff, Shane, thanks!

  5. Shane Reid says

    Thanks Peter B, that game in 86 is frozen in my memory too. I was just a kid and went with my uncle and cousins (all of whom were Essendon fans), definitely my best day at the footy.

    Thanks for sharing Stainless, I will have a read ASAP, sorry I missed it the first time around.i actually have transferred my allegiance to Brisbane, definitely not the same though.

    I hope you enjoy it Luke, the Daicos thing was mentioned by Dougie Hawkins as part of the carrot that Fitzroy dangled. I did a bit of extra research (beyond the book) and it was a genuine offer apparently, how close he came I don’t know. The book also touched on Quinlan’s first preference when he left the Doggies initially being Collingwood – the sliding doors of football.

    Thanks Merv, I appreciate the kind words. I’m newish to writing but really enjoying it.

  6. matt watson says

    The merger with Brisbane still does not make sense.
    As a North fan, I was looking forward to the merger.
    I dislike Brisbane for taking that away from North, and I dislike the AFL for culling the club.
    I too, love looking into the past, and I wish Fitzroy had never left Melbourne.
    Looking forward to reading the book.

  7. Shane, really enjoyed your review of a book that’s at the front of the queue to read as soon as the marking’s done and dusted.
    Russell Holmesby’s title is a clever one from a marketing perspective, given the word “death” polarises opinion when used in a sporting context.
    For many, the Fitzroy Football Club died late afternoon on September 1, 1996, when the Lions trudged disconsolately off the field, acknowledging the applause of the Fitzroy and Fremantle faithful alike.
    For others, the Roys were resuscitated a couple of years later and are now enjoying a lower-tempo existence as the Fitzroy Reds playing at their spiritual home in Brunswick Street, much like a retired champion racehorse (Fitzroy was more of a placegetter than a Melbourne Cup winner) grazing peacefully at Living Legends.
    Then, of course, there’s the Brisbane Lions factor which has filled a gap for many Fitzroyites.
    The fact that Fitzroy is still frequently talked and written about 24 years after their “death” indicates that the footy club still holds a place in many people’s hearts.
    Next year will be the quarter-century anniversary of the Royboys’ death, but don’t expect the “faceless men” who “buried” Fitzroy to lead the celebrations.
    Speaking of celebrations – and completely off topic – happy 80th birthday, Nancy Sinatra.

  8. EJ Cartledge says

    G’day Shane,

    Excellent, heartfelt review – well done. I’m looking forward to devouring the book.

    And when I next bump into Russell, I’ll ask him if he pinched his title from chapter 5 of my last book which, oddly enough, was headed “The death of Fitzroy”!

    Cheers, Elliot

  9. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Russell Holmesby was interviewed by Barry Nicholls recently about this book.

  10. Shane Reid says

    Thanks all,

    the merger with North is one the great “what if’s” Matt. At the time, I wasn’t completely against Carey and Corey suddenly appearing in my team

    Thanks FitzroyPete, wonderful books like yours that (to steal a line from the children’s book Madeleine!) “smile at the good” are certainly gifts to old Roy’s fans, wherever they ended up.

    Thanks Elliot, I must add your book to my reading list – is it available anywhere.

    Thanks for the link Swish

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