Almanac Book Review – ‘Merger’ (Part 1: Background)





The collapse of the Fitzroy Lions in 1996 was met with mixed opinions. While for the Australian Football League it was in-line with their plans for national expansion, it left many supporters devastated. The book Merger covers 1996 specifically, however it is in my opinion that events in Australia during the 1980s significantly contributed to the struggles of Fitzroy in the 1990s. To explain my reasoning, I will be breaking this up into multiple parts. This section will focus on the 1980s and the rising debt and bankruptcy the whole Victorian Football League faced. To conclude it will briefly examine Neo-Liberalism and how it was adopted by the soon-to-be nationalised VFL.


The governing body of the league had always been made up of the club presidents. They’d meet to decide on policies and the overall direction of the competition. Because of this set up, it led to each club’s success rising and falling with these decisions. In its basic form it worked thus: wealthier clubs won the premierships, while teams that lost did not have as much influence at the presidents’ meetings, and got poorer. This led to half the competition becoming almost bankrupt by the middle of the 1980s. The problems were exacerbated by stubbornness and flat refusals by the presidents, which had led to a form of hegemony that would benefit no one. If nothing changed, then it would lead to a complete liquidation of the entire competition.


Now this might get a bit political, however I did major in politics at university, so try to keep up! Neo-Liberalism had been introduced in the United Kingdom, under Margaret Thatcher and in the USA under Ronald Reagan. Keen to also try it in Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his treasurer Paul Keating introduced the first of Australia’s neo-liberal policies during the 1980s. It was intended as an experiment to try and generate wealth for Australia. In essence, Neo-Liberalism, or Economic Rationalism, is a process where governments downsize. They do this by selling off government departments, to individuals in a bid to promote entrepreneurship. The whole idea is to reduce government responsibility and encourage market growth through private ownership.


The VFL pursued this path under the newly appointed Ross Oakley. The appointment of Ross Oakley was intended to break the presidents’ stranglehold over the league and imbue a fresh perspective. Oakley had a business background, and it was felt he’d be able to make the ‘right’ – albeit unpopular – decisions. The kind of thinking the VFL really needed, the kind of thinking that would not be driven by club loyalties.


A few years before Oakley’s tenure, the Sydney Swans were put up for bidding. Doctor Geoffrey Edelsten was the eventual winner, and the first private owner of a VFL club. In a few short years, this was followed by Christopher Skase’s purchase the new club the Brisbane Bears, debuting in 1987. Privatisation was the first of these Neo-Liberal style decisions made by the VFL. My next piece will examine how it negatively affected Fitzroy.




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  1. It’s too simplistic an analysis to blame Fitzroy’s demise on 1980s ‘neo-liberalism’. Fitzroy had struggled financially for decades, particularly from the 1950s onwards, even shifting from Brunswick St Oval in the mid 1960s in part for financial reasons, as was the move to the Junction Oval in 1970. Fitzroy heavily relied on it’s local urban and rural zones for players through the postwar decades, and right up until the late 1970s, at which point it embarked on a player buying spree in a vain attempt to win a flag. Fitzroy’s leadership even gave major consideration to moving operations to Sydney in the late 1970s.
    Fitzroy may have been cleaned up and screwed by the AFL but to take the view it was all due to the neo-liberal politics of the day, misses the point. And that point is / was, Fitzroy’s often precarious finances, stretching back decades. A historical, ‘small supporter’ base when compared to the bigger clubs next door and around inner Melbourne or, to paraphrase well-known Royboy playwrite and author, Barry Dickens, Fitzroy were the Poland of the VFL/AFL, with Russia on one side, and Germany the other. The tanks eventually rolled over brave, little ‘Polroy’, as they did over the flatlands around Albert Park.

  2. RagingBull says

    I of course have read all of that and I know. I was just choosing to focus on that, the last decade.. there are obviously a lot of reasons for Fitzroy’s trouble. Much that can be said in 500 words. I’m not blaming it, I’m simply pointing out it also didn’t help. Something I’ll be examining in a future peice.

  3. RagingBull says

    I was just giving a background to an actual review of the book

  4. RagingBull says

    I focused on that area as I’ve not read anything that really examines neo liberalism in relation to Fitzroy. The decision in 1996 not to financially assist the club I say has a lot to do with it.

  5. Hayden Kelly says

    As sad as it was I tend to agree with Adam .Fitzroy hemmed in between Carlton and Collingwood had a very small and dwindling supporter base . Lets not forget the proposed merger between Footscray and Fitzroy who both on the surface had small dwindling supporter bases . That proposal revealed the Bulldogs had a much larger covert supporter base over a rapidly growing geographic area . It helped they had never left their heartland at the Western Oval .The latent Bulldogs supporters were awoken from their slumber and galvanised to scuttle the deal .
    Fitzroy like South Melbourne lost out because they didn’t have silent non contributing supporters like Footscray did .
    Ironically at the time I reckon Dogs supporters would have gladly agreed to a merger with North Melbourne as would have Fitzroy supporters a few years later .
    Re the tanks rolling in Oakley had egg over his face after the Fitzroy /Dogs debacle and in my view he saw Polroy as the solution given he had been scuttled at the Footscray border

    Enjoyed the read


  6. RagingBull says

    I agree with both of you. My peice was not intended as an exploration of the everything that was going on, just some of it. Merely just to give a little bit of background before actually reviewing the book

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