Almanac (Footy) History: The 25th anniversary of the Roys’ sunset in the west

 

 

 

 

Today marks 25 years since a day that for many will live in infamy – September 1, 1996; the last VFL/AFL match of the Fitzroy Football Club. Played in Western Australia against the fledgling Fremantle Dockers, Fitzroy people watched on from all over as a significant chapter in their lives turned its final page.

 

To mark this occasion, William Westerman has shared with us an extract of his book ‘Merger – The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996’ that captures the events and spirit of the lead up to the final siren.

 

 


 

 

For the final time, Fitzroy coach Alan McConnell selected his team. It was a significant decision, not just historically but also financially. The remainder of the players’ contracts would be paid out at whatever rate they received in their final game: if they played seniors, their payout would be the base salary for seniors, if they played in the reserves, it was much less. One omission struck a particularly sour note for some who had been with the Lions for several years. Jason Baldwin had played 125 games for the Lions since 1989, including each game since Round 17, but McConnell decided to omit him from the team for Round 22. The 26-year-old veteran was the club’s longest-serving player, and this, in addition to the way he had been treated by Nunan, left a bad taste in his mouth.

 

For Fitzroy’s final AFL team, McConnell selected Primus, Atkins, Dent and Bamford in the middle, with Barker and Carter on either wing. Hawking, Warry, Rombotis, McCarthy, Boyd and Johnson were in the forward line, with Warfe, Pike, Clayton, Molloy, Chandler and Paxman in defence. Doyle, Morton and Hogg were on the bench. Some knew they would be playing for Brisbane next season, while others were confident they would find another club. Some feared that this would be their final senior game at AFL level, while others knew it for a fact. Several, stung by their performance the previous Sunday, were genuinely looking forward to the game. Boyd, Molloy, Primus and Rombotis met at property steward Glen Ford’s home at Tullamarine before they headed to the airport. They were enthusiastic about the game, and Rombotis thought they were an outside chance to win. ‘Remember’, he noted, ‘we did beat Freo earlier in the season.’ On their flight from Melbourne, Ansett Australia staff inscribed their boarding passes with the words ‘Fitzroy Forever’.

 

The team was joined by thousands of Fitzroy supporters, desperate to travel to Perth any way they could. Those who remained in Melbourne could watch the game on Channel Seven, the official broadcaster making the sensible decision to show this game live, rather than a delayed broadcast of Richmond v North Melbourne at the MCG (where the Tigers were fighting for a spot in the finals). Some Roys would watch at home with family and friends, others would venture out to be with fellow supporters at the Fitzroy Club Hotel or any number of other pubs in and around Fitzroy. An informal picnic was organised at the Brunswick Street Oval for Sunday lunchtime, where fans could partake in an ‘El-Cheapo’ sausage sizzle before the main event. It was, Adam Muyt recalled, such a beautiful day: ‘No clouds, or wind, seductive light glowing over everything, the first real hint of spring warmth. Like the day was created just to confound whatever sombre spirits were hovering around.’ From there, Muyt and others moved to the nearby Tramway Hotel. A crowd at the Fitzroy Club Hotel grew, while other supporters moved into their living rooms. Tuning into Channel Seven’s coverage of the game, they once again cursed Ross Oakley and the AFL for the fact that they were so far away from their beloved club at such a poignant time.

 

Across in Western Australia, 22,515 people had made their way to Subiaco Oval. Emotions were high among the travelling Fitzroy fans. One banner, held aloft by three ageing male supporters, read: ‘Born 1883 – Murdered 1996’. One 51 year-old, Irene Smith, had flown from Dubai via Singapore. ‘I had to get through this game’, she recalled. ‘because it’s like a death and I wasn’t as upset over the death of my mother as I am over this.’ Two club trainers, Troy Hall and Tim Renwick, had paid for their own flights to Perth, determined to be part of the final game. When they arrived, Glen Warry told them that the club had employed local trainers for the game and they would not be needed. Unimpressed, the pair argued their case, and after some debate, it was decided that they would work the second half.
The AFL administration had made Round 21 its send-off for Fitzroy, and, ‘with its customary sensitivity’ (wrote Martin Flanagan) was not prepared to waste any more resources this week. But Fremantle proved unexpectedly generous, contributing a reported $10,000 to the occasion to ensure Fitzroy’s last AFL game was treated with due respect (probably indicating the influence of Ron Alexander, one of Fremantle’s directors and a former Fitzroy captain and best and fairest). They arranged a function room for Fitzroy coterie members and sponsors and brought Kevin Murray, Bernie Quinlan, Ron Alexander and Haydn Bunton Junior out onto the ground before the game to unfurl the 1944 VFL Premiership flag. The Dockers players would also wear black armbands in solidarity. Fremantle’s treatment of Fitzroy was much appreciated at the time and has been long remembered. It was ‘quite telling’, recalled supporter Rick Lang, who had flown to Perth for the game, ‘that a club only a few years old could read the situation better than the AFL’.

 

As it approached 12:10pm local time (or 2.10pm in Melbourne), Alan McConnell, Leon Harris and Greg Swann made their way to the coaches box as support staff for both clubs and the interchange players vacated the field. As the starting 18 for both sides took their positions, the Channel Seven commentary team of Drew Morphett, Kevin Bartlett, Ross Glendinning and Dwayne Lamb made the final remarks. In the middle of the ground, Matthew Primus readied himself for the opening ruck contest, with Simon Atkins positioned centrally and Scott Bamford and Matthew Dent as the pincers, ready to move in from either side. At the appropriate time, 28-year-old field umpire, Stephen McBurney, held the ball aloft, and once he had received the confirmatory blast of the siren, paused, before slowly walking in for the first bounce. Fitzroy supporters at Subiaco, in Melbourne and all across the country, braced themselves for an emotional few hours.

 

 

 

This extract come’s from William Westerman’s book ‘Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996’. You can order a copy HERE

 

 

Read more from William HERE and more about Merger HERE.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. I liked Freo’s colours (and liked them more when I found out about the link to South and East Freo in the purple) from the start, but really took a shine to the club after all they did to help make that last game what it was – Auld Lang Syne sticks in the memory.

    Carn the Roys.

  2. Loved the snippet (plus her great “death” quote) about Irene Smith flying in from Dubai for Fitzroy’s final game.
    The quote by Rick Lang – ‘that a club (Fremantle) only a few years old could read the situation better than the AFL’ – is telling.
    Not that Ross Oakley and his band of faceless men would’ve worried unduly, given Fitzroy was merely the bug that hit the windshield in the AFL’s relentless push towards national expansion.
    Full credit to Fremantle for the generous sendoff (excluding the scoreboard), but the East and South Fremantle link rules me out from ever following the Dockers (except when they play the Eagles).

  3. As a North Melbourne supporter, I was more than comfortable with the prospect of North merging with Fitzroy, as I was of the opinion that their respective histories of struggle, and their respective supporter bases, were very similar. I really believed that a merger of the two clubs could have worked. And remember, North were flying at the time! I have never forgiven the AFL for interfering in and stymiing that merger.

    Fitzroy flying Ansett? There is something serendipitous in that.

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