Almanac Books: The Fateful Season – Remembering the Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996

 

 

 

“Why do you barrack for Brisbane?” she asked, with the emphasis definitely on the offending word.

 

It was a frustrating, if predictable, follow-up to her first, more customary, question: “who do you barrack for?”

 

Perhaps she was expecting me to reply ‘Melbourne’ – we were, after all, in the MCC Reserve at the time. ‘Hawthorn’ or ‘Essendon’ (her team) might also have made sense, as they were playing that evening. She might even have been prepared for a more unconventional answer, such as ‘the Western Bulldogs’ or ‘North Melbourne’. In fact, I think any Victorian-based club, short of Collingwood, would have elicited an approving (or perhaps sympathetic) nod in response.

 

Instead, I offered up something seemingly unpredictable – an ‘interstate’ club. Her incredulity was palpable. Unable to make the instant connection, I needed to put the pieces together for her.

 

Wearily, and with an inward sign, I offered up my standard, one word response to the question that was becoming uncomfortably familiar.

 

‘Fitzroy’.

 

. . .

At a fundamental level, such interactions were why I wanted to write a book about the Fitzroy Football Club.

 

It would be tempting to suggest that the club has been forgotten, but this is not the case. Established in 1883, Fitzroy was a foundation club of the VFL, winning eight premierships and boasting six Brownlow Medallists (including Haydn Bunton Sr, one of only four players to have won the medal three times). It was, until 1996, a regular feature around the grounds on Saturday afternoons each Melbourne winter; most VFL supporters can no doubt recall watching their team play against the Roys. ‘Deep in our hearts everyone barracks for Fitzroy’, the Coodabeens sang, encapsulating the place that the Lions assumed within the footy landscape. ‘Fitzroy exists’, broadcaster Gerard Whateley wrote, ‘in the archives and in the aching memories of those that loved the Roy Boys’.

 

I was certainly never going to forget Fitzroy, I had grown up with the Lions. My father was a passionate supporter (and a former cheer squad member) and I had inherited that allegiance. I was the only Fitzroy supporter in my primary school year-level (and, for all I knew, the only one in the entire school) – it was a lonely experience. I also never saw them win a game. Literally.

 

Furthermore, Fitzroy still exists. After playing its final game in the AFL, it disappeared from competitive football for several years until after several false trails, the club merged with the Fitzroy Reds in the VAFA and became a proud and vibrant community football club.

 

And yet, each new season takes us further away from when the Fitzroy Lions last played in the AFL. My incredulous Essendon-supporting interlocutor certainly found it difficult to remember the club and its link to Brisbane, and she is not alone. Supporters under the age of 30 no doubt struggle to recall anything of Fitzroy, while the memories of those from older generations fade with each passing year. While the Roys have not been forgotten, the passage of time will not be kind to the boys from old Fitzroy.

 

. . .

 

After growing up in Melbourne, in 2015 I moved to Canberra to pursue a career as a professional historian. For years I had toyed with the idea of writing a book about Fitzroy. In particular, I was interested in exploring the club’s historic merger with the Brisbane Bears. It was a rich topic; as the editor of the Footy Record, Greg Hobbs, wrote in August 1996, Fitzroy’s demise was the most significant football upheaval in League history: the ‘loss of a foundation club in the centenary year beats everything else in terms of emotion and ramifications to the competition’.

 

It was a story that I knew primarily through folklore, peppered with my own primitive recollections. After a crisis point in the early 1980s, the League looked to professionalise and nationalise to ensure it was financially and commercially viable. In this new environment, it embraced ‘economic rationalism’: clubs that could not ‘pay their way’ risked being left behind. League administrators were unable and unwilling to support struggling Melbourne-based clubs. Instead, they offered a solution: get two of the smaller clubs to merge, and they could, it was argued, pool their resources to become a larger and more competitive entity.

 

Fitzroy, the weakest of Melbourne’s teams, was low hanging fruit. The AFL Commission encouraged, cajoled and finally coerced the Lions to a position where they had no other choice but to seek a merger. It was a painful decision, but the club’s financial distress had simply became too great. There were several suitors. Some, like Collingwood, were the equivalent of a corporate raider, others, like North Melbourne, were looking to be genuine partners. In the end, due to the appointment of an administration, the intervention of the AFL Commission and the will of the other clubs, on 4 July 1996 Fitzroy found itself merging with Brisbane.

 

Despite the continuation of the club in the VAFA, the importance of the AFL’s first and, thus far, only merger is an important story to tell. Several years ago, I set out to do just that. It was, however, a daunting prospect. The Fitzroy saga is a sprawling tale, stretching right back to the late 1970s. To tell the story properly would require a substantial explanation of VFL/AFL politics and finances over the period, not to mention detailed discussions of the League’s merger policy and a recounting of each individual crisis to befall Fitzroy as it struggled to make ends meet year after year. This is to say nothing of the actual football being played each season and the colourful cast of characters in and around the club.

 

Initially, I did not have a clear idea of how to tackle this enormous task. With the notion of a Fitzroy book only a formative thought in my mind, I was driving home from work one evening, listening to Martin Flanagan talk about his book, A Wink From the Universe, which recounts the remarkable story of the Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership. As he was talking, I realised that the ‘year in the life of a club’ concept might work well to tell the Fitzroy story, thus unlocking the key to the book’s structure.

 

While it is important to understand the precursor narrative leading to 1996, the most dramatic events in the story of Fitzroy’s demise all took place in that year. Limiting the book to this single, powerful year, allows for a deeper story to be told, capturing the full complexity and detail of a football club with a history and culture as rich as Fitzroy’s. In essence, it would be a story told in depth, rather than breadth.

 

The big downside, however, is that limiting the story to 1996 robs a reader of a chance to enjoy a period of rare on-field success for the Lions: the first half of the 1980s. This was a difficult choice, but one that I was willing to make in order to tell a more complete, detailed and nuanced story overall.

 

Having determined to limit the narrative to 1996 (with several earlier chapters for context and a concluding chapter for resolution), I could turn my attention to the book’s internal form. In this, I was heavily influenced by the first season of the Netflix documentary Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which chronicled the ill-fated 2017/18 season of English football club Sunderland. The beauty of the documentary was that it captured a dramatic and memorable season of football from both inside the four walls of the club and from the perspective of the supporters and people of Sunderland. As one reviewer wrote, ‘It’s equal parts love letter and Zapruder film, a window into a working-class city whose dearly beloved home team cannot help but disappoint, bitterly, ad infinitum’.

 

I wanted to replicate this approach, telling the story from four main perspectives: first, the club president, Dyson Hore-Lacy, and his board, those initially responsible for the fate of the club; second, the AFL administration, chiefly (but not exclusively) the CEO, Ross Oakley; third, the players and staff at the club, those who would likely lose their jobs if Fitzroy folded or merged; and finally, the supporters and volunteers, those who were emotionally invested in the club and who have lived, ever since, with the consequences of the decisions made in 1996. Furthermore, in telling the supporters’ story, I wanted to ensure that I fit as many different voices into the narrative as I could; I wanted to showcase the full range of emotions they felt and, in addition, demonstrate how widespread the impact of the merger truly was. If I could ensure that all four perspectives were told, then I was sure I would have a robust and complex account of the events of 1996.

 

Finally, and possibly the most important influence on the book, was my family. After being diagnosed with MND, my father died in 2017. The book was conceived, in part, as a tribute to him. When my first son, Joel was born a year later, I realised that the book would be a way of explaining to him why we supported the Brisbane Lions and, more importantly, an important piece of connective tissue between him, his younger brother, Toby (born two years later), and the grandfather they will never meet.

 

The result is Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996. It is my explanation of what took place in 1996, why it occurred and, importantly, why it mattered. As author and Roys supporter Adam Muyt argued, Fitzroy deserves better than to be a mere footnote in VFL/AFL history. The history and heritage of Australian rules football belong to those of us who love the game, but we are mere custodians of it – we own it for a time, nurture it, and then pass it on to our children and future generations. For them, the story of the Fitzroy Football Club in 1996 is a worthy tale to tell.

 

Merger will be launched on 2 June 2021 at the North Fitzroy Arms. Further details to come.

 

Merger is published by Melbourne Books and is available through their website: https://melbournebooks.com.au/products/merger

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE

 

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About William Westerman

Canberra based military historian and sporting enthusiast.

Comments

  1. Thanks William. My son barracks for Brisbane as do some of his friends as they were getting into football when they were winning flags. If we go to a game when they are not playing Richmond I will support Brisbane. I am prone to say go Fitzroy and then remind him of the history.

  2. Jarrod_L says

    It’s here! Well done mate, I’ve been so keen to have a read of this since you told me about it all those months ago.

    I’ll be at the launch with maroon and blue bells on too.

    To the club we hold so dear!

  3. Good luck with the book, William.

  4. Great work, Will.
    I’m certainly looking forward to the read.

  5. And might I add, the book is a great tribute to your late father.

  6. Can’t wait to read this! Loved Russell Holmesby’s book but that one season alone deserves a book of its own. I was in Year 12 in Perth where there was but one Fitzroy supporter at my high school and although I don’t have too many memories of that year the one thing that I’ll never forget is watching Fitzroy’s story unfold while all the centenary hoopla was going on.

    Well done and best of luck with this book. Only wish I could be at the launch.

  7. Matt Watson says

    The merger between Fitzroy and Brisbane didn’t make sense back then and it still doesn’t.
    As a North Melbourne fans and a Brisbane resident, that merger made me resent the AFL and hate the newly formed ‘club’.
    It should never have happened.
    It remains a shameful part of our games otherwise rich football history.
    Congrats on the book.

  8. Looking forward to reading your book. At school it was like of a badge of honour being the sole Fitzroy supporter in your class. I was liucky to experience the 80’s at Primary school they were great days.

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