Almanac Book Review – ‘The Death of Fitzroy Football Club’: Mixed Feelings

 

 

 

 

The Death of Fitzroy Football Club by Russell Holmesby, Hardie Grant Books 2020, reviewed by Philip Mendes

 

 

Since Fitzroy Football Club’s demise in 1996, a plethora of books have emerged from a diverse group of ex-supporters, club officials and journalists including Adam Muyt, Chris Donald, Jim Main, Dyson Hore-Lacy, and most recently Pete Carter. There has also been books by ex-Roy legends Paul Roos and Richard Osborne which provided some reflection on their Fitzroy careers. Disappointingly, none of the other former Lions champions such as Bernie Quinlan, Garry Wilson, Gary Pert or Mick Conlan have put pen to paper. Regardless, what has been missing is a book which cohesively reflects on the positives and negatives of the modern era. That is a text which highlights the successful era from 1978-86 and acknowledges the on-field achievements of 1989, 1992 and 93, whilst explaining why things went so progressively awry in the club’s last decade.

 

Holmesby’s book could have been that summative text. But unfortunately, his methodology was not up to the task. It must have seemed a good idea in principle to utilize 35 existing interviews with former players, coaches and officials from Inside Football, and buttress them with three additional interviews with former club presidents. But this approach leaves so much missing. I wish Holmesby had accessed much or all of the following: FFC Annual Reports from 1970-96 (most of which I have in my possession and surely the AFL would have access to the full collection); VFL/AFL football records from 1970-96 (I regret selling most of mine to a collector in 1992 but again the AFL would have full copies); and discrete use of media reports from the daily newspapers, the old Sporting Globe, the monthly Football Life, and indeed Inside Football.

 

In the absence of those primary sources, this book often reads a bit like an edited book, but lacking firm editorial direction. To be sure, there are many valuable and enjoyable revelations. For example:

 

  • I didn’t know that Frank Bibby was a very reluctant President of Fitzroy from 1976-80 (p.16)
  • Warwick Irwin’s admiring description of Garry Wilson as the ‘best’ player he ever saw (p.19)
  • Mick Conlan’s praise of Bernie Quinlan as ‘one of the greatest players’ he ‘ever played with’ (p.26)
  • Garry Wilson’s wry reflection that he was a ‘bit stiff’ narrowly missing out on the Brownlow in both 1978 and 1979 (p.38), and admitting that he would have liked to ‘win multiple Brownlows’ (p.65)
  • Robert Walls extolling the greatness of both Bernie Quinlan and Garry Wilson (p.47)
  • Ross Lyon refuting the conspiracy theories, and explaining the real injury-based explanation for his long 18 month absence from the game after making an outstanding debut late in the 1985 season (pp.78-79)
  • Darren ‘Doc’ Wheildon talking about the day in 1993 when he destroyed champion Hawthorn full back Chris Langford at the old VFL (‘Iceberg’) Park (p.136) – For the record I was at that game, what a fantastic (but wasted) talent
  • Robert Shaw exposing Mike Sheahan’s anti-Fitzroy agenda (p.147)

 

But equally, there are some damning errors and major omissions. For a start, Glenn Coleman left Fitzroy for Sydney at the end of 1984, not 1985 (p.76), and Matthew Armstrong hurt his knee in early 1990, not 1991 (p.129). Also, why mention Adelaide’s first captain Chris McDermott who never even played for Fitzroy? (p.50), and even more annoying why include an excerpt from Ross Oakley’s self-serving narrative on pp.229-238?

 

But mostly there are so many on-field highlights from this period that are missing. To give a few examples:

 

  • Alex Ruscuklic was an absolute star forward in the early 1970s, taking 142 marks and kicking 48 goals in 1970, and then backing up with 216 marks and 31 goals in 1971. He almost certainly would have become a renowned champion of the game if his career had not been ruined by injury. But he doesn’t rate a mention in this book.
  • Fitzroy’s 1979 season, which I have described elsewhere as a dream rise from the foot of the table. That season included numerous achievements including: Nine wins in a row from Rounds 5 to 13 to sit 2nd on the ladder; a record VFL score against Melbourne in Round 17 of 36 22 (238); A record winning margin of 190 points against Melbourne (still a VFL/AFL record); and Bob Beecroft kicked 87 goals to break the record number of goals by a Lions player in a season: https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/rising-from-the-cellar-fitzroys-outstanding-1979-season/
  • The well reported Frank Marchesani case, whereby this promising rising star who completed 16 games for the Lions in 1980, stood out of football to secure a clearance to Carlton. He was eventually swapped for Carlton premiership player Peter Francis and a sizable cash payment, but never recovered his best form at Carlton.
  • Fitzroy’s remarkable turn-around from wooden spooners in 1980 to playing finals in 1981 including the amazing last round victory over Collingwood at Victoria Park to secure 5th This occurred after they had lost enormous experience and talent at the end of 1980: Bob Beecroft, Warwick Irwin, Graham Allan, Robert Walls, Max Richardson and Kevin Higgins. To be sure, they picked up some top young talent in Matt Rendell, Scott Clayton, Graham Hinchen and Lee Murnane as well as grabbing journeymen in Leigh Carlson, Des Herbert, Peter Francis and Terry O’Neill. But along with Bernie Quinlan winning the Brownlow Medal, one of the real highlights was Grant Lawrie who transitioned from an average medium forward playing mostly reserves in 1980 to an outstanding running half back flanker.
  • Again only limited detail on Fitzroy’s outstanding 1983 season which I have written about elsewhere: https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/so-close-to-the-holy-grail-a-personal-reflection-on-fitzroy-football-clubs-1983-season/
  • A remarkable rise from bottom of the ladder after nine rounds in 1984 to win 10 out of the last 13 games, and make the finals.
  • Rising again from a distant 9th in 1985 to 3rd place in 1986 with Paul Roos and Gary Pert outstanding in the two key defensive positions.
  • And also the outstanding season performances of Richard Osborne in 1989 and Alistair Lynch in 1993.

 

Additionally, there is no dissection of the failed move from the Junction Oval to share Victoria Park with Collingwood in 1985. This shift back to the Lions geographical roots was expected to secure their future, but instead turned out to be a disaster. The Club lost $687,000 in 1985 and another $534,000 in 1986, heavy financial losses from which they arguably never recovered.

 

Despite this being at times an uneven book, it has its merits, most significantly in sending a clear message to the AFL about the dire consequences of killing off foundation teams. Holmesby argues on p.13: ‘What can’t be measured in dollars and cents is the damage to the fabric of footy itself, and the alienation of not only Fitzroy fans, but also thousands of others who lost faith in the game’s values’. 24 years after the coerced merger, many Fitzroy supporters have not moved on from losing their side, and are still waiting for a belated apology from the AFL.

 

 

 

Dr Philip Mendes is a Monash University academic who writes occasionally about AFL, tennis and other sports: [email protected]

 

 

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.

 

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.

Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Really interesting review, Philip. Your knowledge of telling details is impressive – and persuasive in terms of your overall viewpoint regarding the book.

  2. Hi Philip and Kevin

    I must admit I don’t have the same knowledge as you have, but even still I read this a little differently. I was happy to go along with the material put in front of me. I was happy to be reminded of great players and great matches. And of course, given the overall purpose of the book, to be reminded of the sad final days of the club.

    JTH

  3. Warwick Nolan says

    Thank you for this Philip. Your review had shocked but also impressed me. It reinforces the advice that most writer receive at some point along their journey – write about what you know.

    I have a great deal of respect for Russell’s work over the previous decades – especially around the history of the St.Kilda FC. He would have few peers in that domain.

  4. Phil, you’ve hit the nail fairly and squarely on the head with your very last sentence.
    Somehow, I don’t think the AFL Commission will commemorate the 25th anniversary of Fitzroy’s eviction with a “please come back, Royboys, we were only joking”.

  5. Stainless says

    Interesting review. It sounds like the book has missed the opportunity to be a really comprehensive account of the demise of Fitzroy and is, instead, rather patchy. Their last couple of decades were certainly a rich and varied period for the club and the highs, lows and sliding door moments are worthy of detailed recollection.
    So too is the final point in your review – how are we to judge the treatment of Fitzroy by the AFL? I’ve remarked before about my mixed views on this subject. Numerous clubs were targets for ‘rationalisation’ during the 80s and 90s – even my team, Richmond. That Fitzroy was the only club to fully succumb probably justifies the pity that’s expressed about their fate. But to portray the Lions as an isolated victim ignores the reality that the League had to expand and professionalise the game or face financial ruin. Fitzroy had opportunities to face this reality and participate in what could have been a more palatable transformation. The club chose not to and suffered the consequences. This topic is worthy of a book in its own right.

  6. Philip Mendes says

    Pete: I suspect the remorse will happen eventually. The AFL has in recent decades made enormous improvements in their approach to our Indigenous players and community to the point where we now take it for granted (although the disgraceful Adam Goodes saga suggested much more work needed to be done). I suspect they will also recognize at some point that Fitzroy were woefully treated, and that the so-called Brisbane merger was little more than a corporate-style takeover.
    Stainless – I don’t disagree with what you say. I think the longer Fitzroy avoided navigating a merger, the worse their plight got on and off the field. But the parochialism of the other Melbourne clubs was a major factor. Nobody wanted to give ground on the combined team’s name or emblem. I do think the proposed North merger would have worked mostly because other than the fact that North were top and the Roys bottom in 1996, they had similar histories as struggling clubs with a limited supporter base. I have to admit that I bear a long-standing grudge against the then Richmond President who actively lobbied against that merger, but I accept that there were many other actors and factors (including the representatives of the two clubs) who contributed to the failure of that plan.

Leave a Comment

*