Book Extract – Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996

 

Amid the barracking and general murmur of the crowd, the sound of the final siren pierced the chilly winter’s air and brought the game to an anti-climactic end. It was Round 13 of the 1996 AFL season, and at the windswept Whitten Oval in Melbourne’s inner west, the Fitzroy Lions had hosted Geelong. The result was beyond doubt; indeed, those of a pessimistic disposition likely pronounced Fitzroy beaten well before the first ball was bounced. For two years the Lions had been undersized and overwhelmed by almost every opponent, losing was now practically a fact of life. That day, Geelong won by 127 points. Fitzroy put up a fight in the first half but then completely capitulated after halftime, adding only two points to their total score, while conceding eleven goals, six behinds. The defeated players were left exhausted, battered and bereft. The victors could have celebrated, but there would have been little dignity in the act and even less grace.

 

It is an inevitability of competitive sport that football clubs will lose games, and although Fitzroy had lost more than its fair share in recent years, this had been no ordinary Saturday afternoon defeat. Barely twenty-four hours before, an administrator had been appointed to oversee the affairs of the club. After an initial meeting with club officials, he had publicly declaring that the club might be insolvent. The players were not stupid, they knew the club had been in financial difficulty for some time, but the severity and suddenness of the events caught them by surprise. That Friday night they were unsure whether they would even be playing the next day. League administrators were determined that the game would go ahead and rushed to secure funds to cover the match expenses. In the longer term, however, no one knew what would happen. The AFL was looking to reduce the number of teams in Melbourne, and the prevailing view at AFL House was that if clubs could not pay their own way, they would need to go. It did not bode well for the Lions.

 

After the game, the players trudged slowly and despondently off the ground and descending into the run-down dressing rooms under the E.J. Whitten Stand. The rooms were like a morgue; no one spoke, not the captain, not the coach. Individually, every player must have been thinking about their future, nervous with uncertainty and full of questions. Even if finances became available to fund their remaining nine games of the season, one journalist believed it was hardly fair to put the players through nine more ‘humiliating and pointless performances’ because Fitzroy was ‘dead in body and soul’.[i]

 

This Fitzroy team, with an average age of twenty-two, was a shadow of what it had been even three years earlier. ‘Fitzroy had become the equivalent of the of those Motown outfits’, one writer commented, ‘who kept touring long after everyone who sang on the original records has retired, died or ambled into dissolute insanity, to be replaced by imitators in similar costumes’.[ii] An uncharitable assessment to be sure, but that afternoon there were no proven champions like Paul Roos or Alastair Lynch was wearing red, blue and gold. Instead, there were twenty-one young men with an average of forty-four games each. Their 24-year-old captain was close to tears as he led the team off the ground. He had played sixty-two games for the club for only sixteen wins. Today was another to add to a long list of losses.

 

For one player, this had been his first senior game. He had waited a year and a half to make his senior debut, and had done well with twelve disposals and seven tackles. For all he knew, however, his first game might also be his last. Fitzroy’s oldest player had been playing senior football since 1986 and was formerly the captain of another club – that was, before he was considered surplus to requirements and traded to the Lions. He had not thrived at Fitzroy and looked to give the game away. The new coach had convinced him to stay, but he soon found himself out of favour and was dropped. This had been his first game in seven weeks, but he had managed only four disposals, and his professional future was looking bleak. Another player’s concerns were more personal. The previous month his 19-year-old wife had given birth to their second daughter, twelve weeks premature. They had come across from Adelaide when the Lions drafted him, and thus lacked family nearby to provide support. He had been juggling the demands of his family situation while trying to establish himself as a regular in his first season of AFL. The club’s current predicament was the last thing he needed.

 

Given the circumstances, the players had done their best. Throughout the afternoon, they were cheered on, as always, by their small band of loyal supporters. Unfortunately, despite the significance of the game, only 10,504 people came out to the Western Oval that afternoon. They did what supporters had always done, barracked for their boys and booed the umpires. Their mood was sombre, and many experienced deep feelings of despair.[iii] One supporter, who had followed the Lions for half a century, had been ‘howling’ all night. It was as if someone had cut out her heart with a knife, she said, and vowed never to go to another game of AFL or give the League a cent.[iv] Yet they were not entirely defeated. Many made light of the situation, if only in the form of gallows humour.[v] Sitting in the stands was the 1969 Brownlow medallist, Kevin Murray. When the Lions scored one of their two points for the second half, Murray heard a supporter behind him sigh, ‘closing the gap, Roys’.[vi] The 1981 Brownlow medallist, Bernie Quinlan, was watching on too. The previous year the club legend stepped in when offered the position of Fitzroy’s senior coach. It had been a bruising year, where his team had only won two games. Sacked before the end of the season and well before his contract expired, he doubted whether Fitzroy had the funds to pay out the remainder of his contract.[vii]

 

All the Fitzroy supporters at the Whitten Oval that day and many more who had not made it to the ground had the same question: what would become of their club – the club, as their song proclaimed, that they held so dear? This may well have been the last time the Fitzroy Lions took the field. When the final siren sounded fans had spontaneously swarmed onto the field. One elderly woman rushed out to hug and kiss as many Fitzroy players as she could, ‘as if kissing her boys goodbye’.[viii] Supporters wept, the club’s theme song was played and played again, and some players almost broke down in tears. The players had disappeared up the race, but the supporters lingered at the ground. ‘Like saying goodbye to a terminally ill friend,’ one reporter observed, ‘they were not sure what to say. Not sure if they’d ever see that dear friend again.’[ix] One elderly gentleman surveyed the scene, wiping away tears from his eyes before his wife clasped his hand and nodded in the direction of the exit. It was time to say farewell, possibly for the last time.[x]

 

The small number of spectators began drifting back to their cars to return home. As one Fitzroy supporter walked along the terraces, several Geelong supporters made a point of stopping to offer their condolences, state their fondness for her club and generally express their disgust at what was happening.[xi] Driving back down the Princes Freeway, one young Geelong supporter, unaware of the larger machinations at play, asked his father whether they had just killed Fitzroy. His concern was touching, if misplaced. A small group of Fitzroy fans had remained in front of the main stand after the game, and they knew who to blame, chanting angrily about the League’s chief executive officer, Ross Oakley. One man yelled, ‘I hate the AFL! I hate the AFL!’ as the Fitzroy club song played over the ground’s loudspeakers.[xii] For some time they continued their show of defiance, but soon they too capitulated and quietly headed home. There was nothing they could say or do to change the course of events.

 

The Fitzroy Football Club, its players, supporters and officials, would experience many poignant moments that year, but the scene of desolation after the conclusion of the Round 13 game against Geelong was perhaps the most powerful. Unlike the orchestrated commemorations later in the season, this was spontaneous; there was no time to prepare, there was no time to think – there was only the raw emotion of it. The following day, the injuries listed in the Age’s match report captured the tragedy of what had occurred that day, 29 June 1996:[xiii]

 

Injuries

Geelong: Mensch (ankle) replaced by Handley

Fitzroy: The club (broken heart)

 

 

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

 

Introduction

[i] Patrick Smith, ‘Ten thousand witness the death of a club’, Age, 1 July 1996.

[ii] Andrew Mueller, Carn: The Game, and the Country That Play It, Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019, p. 293.

[iii] Gary Tippet, ‘Wounded Lions roar in vain’, Sunday Age, 30 June 1996.

[iv] Michael Lovett, ‘Player pay fears as the end looms’, Sunday Age, 30 June 1996.

[v] Adam Muyt, Maroon and Blue: Recollections and Tales of the Fitzroy Football Club, Carlton North: Vulgar Press, 2006, p. 192.

[vi] Martin Flanagan, ‘Defiant to the end’, Age, 1 July 1996.

[vii] Michael Lovett, ‘Player pay fears as the end looms’, Sunday Age, 30 June 1996.

[viii] Gary Tippet, ‘Wounded Lions roar in vain’, Sunday Age, 30 June 1996.

[ix] Melissa Fyfe, ‘Lions fans in mourning’, Age, 1 July 1996.

[x] Michael Lovett, ‘No Roar Lions’, Inside Football, Vol. 26, No. 20, 3 July 1996.

[xi] Correspondence, Kathy Doyle, 29 July 2020.

[xii] Martin Flanagan, ‘Defiant to the end’, Age, 1 July 1996; Melissa Fyfe, ‘Lions fans in mourning’, Age, 1 July 1996.

[xiii] Stephen Howell, ‘Lamentable Lions’, Sunday Age, 30 June 1996.

 

 

 

For more from William, click HERE.

 

 

 

William’s book is being launched on the 2nd of June. Details HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

To return to our Footy Almanac home page click HERE.

 

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.

 

Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?

And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help things keep ticking over please consider making your own contribution.

 

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE.

One-off financial contribution – CLICK HERE.

Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

About William Westerman

Canberra based military historian and sporting enthusiast.

Comments

  1. I was one of those 10,504 people in the crowd. Happy seeing Geelong win but tempered by the fact they beat a team that was scarcely on life support.

    Sad hearing of the challenges facing the players in that gallant line up. Yet they turned up week in, week out putting in their best efforts.

    The AFL had no need for old suburban clubs like South Melbourne or Fitzroy in the corporate plans for how best to maximise the $$. Happy to take the history, the culture of these clubs to add them on to their newly created teams, all the while adding the falsity that Brisbane & Sydney are the same teams that were part of the old VFL. $$ speaks for all.

    It ‘s only just 25 years ago but it seems so distant. My memories of Fitzroy Football Club & its players are still quite strong. Keep up the good work William.

    Glen!

Leave a Comment

*