Book Review – Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the tragedy of 1996 by William Westerman




Review by Craig Horne


Jake Niall, in a recent article in The Age argued that with the appointment of former PricewaterhouseCoopers chairman Paul Brasher and his former chief executive Luke Sayers to the Presidencies of Essendon and Carlton Football Clubs respectively, the corporatization of the AFL was complete.


These appointments, together with the replacement of Eddie McGuire with ‘corporate undertaker’ Mark Korda at Collingwood and the elevation of Qantas and Woodside chairman Richard Goyder to the helm of the AFL means AFL football in Australia is not so much a sport enjoyed by fans, but a business primarily focused on serving the interests of its major revenue sources, sponsors and broadcasters.


But as historian William Westerman points out in his brilliantly forensic analysis of the final tragic year of the Fitzroy Football Club’s AFL’s existence in 1996, the corporate takeover of the sport has been a long time coming.


Its origins lay in the very darkest days of economic rationalism, an era when efficiency and productivity became the primary measures of success. Unfortunately the Fitzroy Football Club was not successful, both on and off the field; it was a prime target for elimination liquidation or merger with another club.


But as Westerman points out, Fitzroy was not just a football club; it was a way of life, a reason to be, for generations of supporters. It was also a foundation stone of the sport itself, with a proud one hundred and thirteen year history that incorporated some of the game’s greatest players; Bunton, Smallhorn, Murray, Roos, Quinlan, the list is endless.


But the club fell on hard times; its membership was low, its sponsors scared off and extraordinarily – in a twist reminiscent of the Whitlam government’s Khemlani affair – it was dudded by the Nauru Government. It’s a weird story.


However, rather than send in the administrators and offer support through an assistance package, the AFL and its commissioners decided to play hardball and punt the Roy boys into history.  The AFLs Ross Oakley and his corporate crew decided there were too many clubs in Melbourne and the weakest link, Fitzroy had to go.


Merger talks began with two suitors, North Melbourne and the Brisbane Bears. The Fitzroy administration and a majority of Fitzroy members and players favoured an alliance with North Melbourne, a name was chosen – the North Fitzroy Kangaroos – a jumper designed and a deal done.  But it’s not all over until the fat lady sings; enter Ross Oakley and the AFL commission’s John Kennedy.


In a last minute Machiavellian maneuver, the AFL leapt over the North/Fitzroy deal and manufactured an arrangement with the Brisbane Bears; it better aligned with the AFL’s corporate strategy for an expanded national competition. It was bugger any morbid nostalgia for Fitzroy’s history and traditions …all hail the Brisbane Lion.


The human cost associated with the lead up to, and the deal itself was palpable. Westerman demonstrates through extensive interviews with players, such as Fitzroy’s captain at the time Brad Boyd, it’s President Dyson Hore-Lacey and many long-term Fitzroy supporter that many still carry deep wounds.


Merger is a must-read story of how the Fitzroy Football Club, it’s players and supporters were collateral damage in a larger corporate game that delivered an expanded competition, greater revenue for clubs and a more professional sport. But it is also a story of how a crucial thread was unpicked from Melbourne’s unique cultural fabric.




William’s book can be pre-purchased HERE.



‘Merger’ is launched on 2nd of June. Details HERE.






The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. 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 HERE



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  1. Another neo-liberal casualty – the only benefit from 80’s /90’s privatization was returns to shareholders. Which was the plan all along. To them that hath. All the rest of the ‘sell’ was twaddle.

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