Almanac (Footy) History: Fitzroy’s Last Great Win

 

 

 

 

by Paul Harman

 

‘The fixture list still seems wrong when I look to see where the games are being played and there is no Fitzroy’ – (the late) Bill Stephen.

 

 

It was 31 years ago, around this time, that Fitzroy had their last great win in the AFL. We played top of the table team North Melbourne at Princes Park. It was the first weekend of July 1993, and after leading early in the game by five goals, then trailing by as much as 27 points in the third quarter, we rallied at the end­­ – to pip the Kangaroos by one point. Alistair Lynch kicked seven at full forward, John McCarthy played his best game for Fitzroy, restricting North Melbourne centre half forward Wayne Carey to only seven disposals. James Manson took one of the marks of the year, and it was a truly heart-stopping, goosebump feeling, come-from-behind win.

 

1993 was one of the more competitive of football seasons. Fitzroy ended up finishing eleventh on the premiership ladder, on the same number of points as Melbourne and St Kilda. They were only two games out of the finals, and only three games and a draw from top team and eventual premiers, Essendon. The best team at the end of the home and away rounds, Geelong, finally hit their straps in the last month of the season, but still missed the finals. Such was the compressed tightness of the ladder throughout the season, that if Sydney – who had only won one game all year – had beaten Carlton instead of losing to them by one point in the last round of the season, the Blues would have tumbled from second to fifth. This was the year that Gary Ablett kicked fourteen goals for Geelong in a game that the Cats lost, and that Nicky Winmar, sick of the racism he copped, lifted his shirt to expose his Aboriginal skin at Victoria Park. Fitzroy forward, Darren Wheildon used the long-extinct drop kick to score a goal, and glamour forwards Tony Modra, Ablett and Jason Dunstall all kicked over 120 goals for the season.

 

In the early 1990s, the AFL came up with the match ratio system to determine each club’s percentage and place on the ladder. It was disjointed and perplexing, and for a few seasons the win, loss and draw columns disappeared from the ladder and were replaced by a second set of percentages. It didn’t matter what system of calculators and mathematics was used, it didn’t help the Lions, and Fitzroy were rooted in their usual position mid-way through the season, mired in the bottom half of the ladder.

 

There were six one-point results in 1993, and Fitzroy was involved in three of them. We started the season by coming from behind to beat Carlton by a goal in the opening round, lost to Footscray by three points (we never did beat the Bulldogs again after the aborted merger with them in 1989), lost heartbreakingly to Adelaide by one point, smashed the hapless and unravelling Swans, then lost to the lowly Brisbane Bears – like we always did when we played them up in Brisbane. We trailed Melbourne by five goals at half-time at Princes Park the following week before storming hole to win by a point; future Demons captain David Neitz missed a goal from ten metres out, directly in front with his first kick in football. From mid-April to mid-May, for the next games against West Coast, Collingwood and Essendon, we were the form team of the league and were as high as fourth on the ladder.

 

For the first half against Essendon at the MCG in May, we were all over the Bombers and led them by four goals at half-time. This was the match where Lions coach Robert Shaw, thanks to an MCC communications mishap, was able to overhear everything said in Essendon’s coaching box. This meant he was one step ahead of Kevin Sheedy’s coaching decisions, until the collective conscience of the Fitzroy coaching staff got the better of them, and they notified the MCC of their blunder.

 

This was the match where – such was the excitement of the build-up – I was there before the gates were even open. The ground was so empty when I arrived, I could hear the shouts of the players in the opening minutes of the reserves match, echoing through the stadium. This was the match where, decked in my Lions scarf and jumper, I was abused by Essendon fans for jumping on the ‘Fitzroy bandwagon’. This was the match where it was so close at the end, that Essendon fans – sitting in the old Bay 13 area – were smashing and kicking empty plastic seats near them in anger when umpiring decisions didn’t go the Bombers’ way.

 

I almost knew what would happen as I caught the train to Jolimont after work in the early evening. We’d pull out in front, lead for most of the match, then Essendon would rein us in at the end. My prediction came true. The Bombers caught up to us in time-on in the last quarter and we lost by four points. I was hoarse and shattered when the final siren rang. If we had won, if we’d beaten a perennial powerhouse team like Essendon, we would have cemented our place in the top four and we could have been a contender.

 

I was always jealous of those Essendon supporters smashing seats and abusing me in toilet blocks. They had a mentality of success: in every game their team played, they expected they would win. Teams such as Essendon weren’t bothered by the constant talks of mergers. While devastated by the loss, I was happy in a way. For only the third time in Fitzroy’s history, we had played in front of over fifty thousand supporters during the regular season. We could pull the fans in when we were playing well. Teams like Carlton, Collingwood and the Bombers were pulling those numbers every week.

 

We never recovered from the Essendon loss. We lost our next three matches and, in a month, tumbled from fourth to eleventh. North Melbourne, after a pre-season upheaval were the leading team of the competition. And so it came to that fateful North Melbourne game. After we flew out of the blocks for an eight-goals-to three opening quarter, they gradually pegged us back and had a slender lead at half-time. This was also the game, where – for the first time ever – I left during the main break. I was in love; I lost my heart to a woman who was alone at our flat in Clifton Hill while I was at the footy. A thunderous storm passed through late in the second quarter, and I was drenched and shivering on a cold Melbourne afternoon. I’d packed no umbrella or raincoat – all I took to the footy were my smokes, my headphones and my membership card. Thinking North Melbourne would run away in the second half and win easily, and in an act of football blasphemy, I snuck out of Princes Park and drove home to the comfort of a hot shower, the warmth of a heater, and the heart-fluttering hope of caresses and intimacy.

 

I was kicking myself when I heard the result on the radio and Fitzroy had won. Why didn’t you stay, you idiot? I chastised myself. What type of supporter are you?

 

After the North Melbourne win, we lost to Hawthorn, Carlton, and Footscray by an average margin of seventy points. Then in keeping with the evenness of the season and doing what Fitzroy tended to do – win games when it didn’t matter – we went on a four-game winning streak in August which finished us with ten wins, ten losses, and an eleventh-placed finish on the ladder.

 

While we had an admirable and gutsy victory against premiers Essendon early in 1994, as well as a shock triumph in Adelaide in 1995, and our joyous yet heartbreaking last ever win – against Fremantle in 1996 – could be seen as Fitzroy’s last great win. However, for me, our one-point triumph against North Melbourne in 1993 was our last great win. We had hope then. We had potential – we had champion players like Roos and Lynch holding down key positions, our midfield players of Armstrong, Broderick and Wynd were ready to blossom, and we had future stars in Elliot, Wheildon and Gale. Three years later, Fitzroy was publicly humiliated, belittled, bundled up and shipped interstate, while North Melbourne celebrated a premiership win.

 

I knew when Alistair Lynch signed to play for the Brisbane Bears a few weeks after the 1993 season ended, that we were in trouble. When he went on 3AW to explain his decision to leave, the station opened its talk-back line, and it was soon flooded with Fitzroy supporters. ‘How could you leave, Alistair? How could you?’ they wailed. They knew we were in trouble too. One day years later, at the Victoria markets, I saw Ian Collins, one of the AFLs architects behind Fitzroy’s move to Brisbane. I wish I’d had the guts to go up to him and say, ‘How could you? How could you do what you did to Fitzroy?’

 

Three decades later, I’m still angry at what they did to us. They could easily have saved us but chose not to. They manipulated the end of season draft at our expense, and as well as losing Lynch to the Bears, we lost Broderick, Gale, Dundas and Elliot to Richmond; Armstrong, Seecamp, Lyon and Roos went to different clubs a year later. Half a team of our best players, gone in twelve months.

 

If I was ever on a stage, standing in front of a lectern, with a minute to impart any wisdom I’d learnt after nearly sixty years, I’d ask for silence, unfurl a scroll and read from the parchment.

 

My proclamation would be:

 

The 1990s were the last great decade of civilisation.

 

There might be hushed murmurs and nods of cautious agreement form the audience. After all, in the 1990s, barricades collapsed across Europe, the cold war ended, and the Berlin Wall fell. The internet became mainstream, and technology was finally catching up with the desires of humankind. Nirvana and Oasis led a musical revolution within a few years of each other, and Bruce Willis was always saving the world in Hollywood blockbusters. Hope abounded, whereas the first quarter of the new century brought the gloom of September 11, a world-wide pandemic, the demonisation of minorities and the failure to respond to climate change.

 

I wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

 

Then I’d take my argument one step further. The scroll reveals further enlightenment:

 

And I can pinpoint the date when civilisation began its slow and eventual decline exactly. Its first symptom was when Fitzroy merged with Brisbane.

 

There would be uproar and pandemonium. My soap box would be yanked from under my feet, I’d be pelted with rotten fruit, and I’d be carried off the stage.

 

I stand by my beliefs.

 

***

 

I’m at my home in 2022, in a country town in New South Wales, far away from Melbourne and its cobblestoned streets, its trams, its laneways. I’m fiddling around on YouTube on the telly – and for a few weeks I’ve been getting my nostalgic Aussie rules fix by feasting on the colossal brilliance of Tony Lockett from his St Kilda days. I type in Fitzroy like I always do, see previews of matches I’ve watched many times, but then I come across a recent upload.

 

I see the panoramic scene of a game about to begin. Players standing in their positions on the ground. A crowded outer, familiar colours of the teams, familiar grandstands – Princes Park. The video is entitled Fitzroy v North Melbourne, 1993.

 

It’s the game I left at half-time thirty years back, the game where Fitzroy pipped the ladder leaders by one point.

 

To add to the joy of the moment, the commentary is a 3LO feed, and I hear voices I haven’t heard for decades – Tim Lane, Peter Booth, Stan Alves and ‘Crackers’ Keenan. I hurriedly grab the remote and press play. The game comes to life, the siren sounds, the umpire bounces the ball in the centre of the ground and the game begins.

 

Do you remember the movie A Fish Called Wanda where John Cleese wooed Jamie Lee Curtis by speaking Russian to her, which would send her into a sensual madness, and she would groan erotically, and crawl over furniture? When I hear the ABC commentary, voices that I’d grown up listening to on the radio, even though I’m now in my fifties, and my former whippet-shaped body has evolved over the decades into a shape of a bloated barrel-shaped torso while my legs remain as thin as a frog, I feel like I am Jamie Lee Curtis. I feel like I want to crawl over furniture, squeeze cushions and moan in erotic expectation.

 

Our 3LO match of the day is under way at Princes Park. The umpire’s spotted a centre square infringement, and the free kick goes to Sartori. Do you give Fitzroy a chance, Crackers?

 

NO.

 

Fitzroy lead by thirteen points. Early days yet. The Lions are pumped for this one.

 

Carey’s dragged and had a very short and sharp conversation with the coach.

 

Lyon gets his third – and it’s another one for the Lions. The Fitzroy army can scarcely contain their delight. I see one dad hoist his son to the heavens.

 

Manson soars high over Clarkson and takes a screamer. He was so high he winked at us.

 

The city’s about to disappear, the clouds are so thick.

 

North Melbourne coming back. How quickly things can change.

 

At the thirty-second minute of the second quarter, Fairley can put North in front.

 

I watch the game I left early, but remember none of it. It was such an end-to-end, free-flowing era of football back then, compared to the clogged and suffocating tactics used now by coaches. The storm that passed through was one of the heaviest in Melbourne for a long time, and I do remember I was soaked from head-to-toe, and thinking with North Melbourne in front at half-time, they’d kick on and win easily. Fitzroy had lost their last four matches, so – in the driving rain – I had walked out of the ground and headed home.

 

I never followed the footy much after Fitzroy merged with the Brisbane Bears and moved up north. It wasn’t the same, and as the years went by, I became more aggrieved about the way we had been treated. Why be part of an organisation that went out of their way to kick the club that I loved out of the competition? In a vast land with hundreds of Aussie rules clubs, there’s only one Fitzroy. When the Brisbane Lions won three flags in a row in the early 2000s, I couldn’t have cared less. When Fitzroy came out of administration after the merger with Brisbane, fans who – like me – hadn’t transferred their allegiance to Brisbane, the club sponsored the University Reds in the VAFA who by then were playing their games at Brunswick Street. In 2008, University went broke, and the two clubs, both unwanted by their controlling bodies, joined forces to become one club – Fitzroy. The club wears the same jumper as Fitzroy did when they were in the AFL, they play their home games at their original ground at Brunswick Street, and for supporters who didn’t follow Brisbane, it’s as close as can be to the original entity of Fitzroy.

 

 

Clocks are rolling, second half underway at Princes Park.

 

We watched summer footy in the first half on a firm ground, now in the second its mid-winter footy, pouring with rain. It’s almost torrential. Goals now are going to be invaluable.

 

German snaps and with the wind it sails through. North have turned a twenty-eight-point deficit into a ten-point lead early in the third quarter.

 

Manson and Ishchenko have been at it for three or four minutes, and they’ve been letting the bombs go, let me tell you. North draw further ahead. Manson’s been reported. North Melbourne lead by twenty-two points.

 

Zanotti’s been reported. He cannot believe it. Roberts will kick a goal and has. Kangaroos by twenty-seven points.

 

North have got this game pretty much parcelled up. It’s not beyond Fitzroy. The suns come out, but with the way North are playing, it will be very hard to peg them back.

 

Seecamp kicks Fitzroy’s first goal of the quarter.

 

Lynch snaps a goal. The Lions are lifting.

 

The siren goes. Its three-quarter time and a four-goal-to two quarter for North Melbourne gives them a lead of seventeen points. It’s 15 12 (102) to the Roys, 13 7 (85).

 

I would go early to Princes Park for Fitzroy’s home games when I lived in Melbourne. I’d stand in the outer, have cigarettes in one hand and a can of beer or rum in the other. I would put my headphones on and listen to the Coodabeen Champions and watch the crowd build while the reserves played. I’d read and reread the footy record, then fold it into my back pocket. I’d always see if I could spot playwright and Fitzroy tragic Barry Dickins standing behind the goals at the scoreboard end – I loved it all.

 

Centre bounce to start the last quarter.

 

McGregor has the free, the man on the mark is standing at fifty, Fitzroy need the first goal. Has it got the carry with the wind? Yes, it’s shepherded through for a goal.

 

Carey’s had only three or four possessions today.

 

Seecamp soccers towards goal. Lynch is running onto it, and he soccers it through and the Lions, who looked down and out in the third quarter, trail by five points. Stanley, we have a ball game.

 

Elliot chops it off, he kicks to Lynch. He should kick his seventh and level the scores. He does. Scores are level.

 

They talk about Carey; this Lynch is very good.

 

The fans have come alive. Centre bounce taken by Baldwin and the mark is taken fifty metres from goal. It’s Ross Lyon. He hits the post and the Royboys are a point in front.

 

Fitzroy climbing back into it when they looked well beaten.

 

It’s a free kick to McGregor who puts the Roys into attack to half forward. The ball beats the pack, Zanotti breaks clear, here’s a chance for Fitzroy, Harding drives it through, and Fitzroy are in front by five points.

 

Lynch is in front, was held and gets the free kick.

 

A handsome-looking drop punt but he’s hooked it.

 

Fairley’s marked dead in front and he’s put it through. Scores are level. Twenty-three minutes in the final term.

 

It’s a tremendous struggle. Who’s got that last gasp?

 

Four goals to one this quarter, Fitzroy’s way.

 

Picked up by Armstrong, it’s a behind. Fitzroy in front by a point.

 

Seecamp kicks it to full forward, two North defenders fist it clear but straight to Elliot. He sidesteps Clarkson, stabs for goal and kicks it through, and Fitzroy leads by seven points.

 

Love to see a kid cool in a crisis.

 

Here go the Roys again, down to Lynch, one grab, he soccer’s it off the ground but it’s a point. Fitzroy by eight points.

 

I think the Roys are home.

 

Off the pack, it’s McAdam. The left-foot snap is a beauty. Thirty-two minutes on the clock, the Roys by two points.

 

Can North work it forward for a goal?

 

Marked by Lyon. Pokes a pass to Sartori. Dangerous. Spoiled by Clarkson. North Melbourne mark to Fairley. A handpass to Stevens, fifty-five metres out. He kicks to full forward. It slides, it bounces, it’s misdirected and through for a behind. Suddenly it was almost stolen from Fitzroy.

 

Thirty-three minutes, Fitzroy by one point.

 

There’s the siren! The Roys have won. Final scores are Fitzroy 18 11 (119) have defeated North Melbourne 17 16 (118). Joyous scenes at Princes Park. Fitzroy never cease to entertain us.

 

Even though I know we’re going to win, the last few minutes are so tense I’m glued to the screen, and when the siren goes and the game ends – and Fitzroy does win – my frog-shaped legs hold my barrel-shaped torso steady, and I jump off the couch to commemorate the victory.

 

I watch Fitzroy supporters, fans who stuck around during the rain – more committed than I was that day – jump the fence to mob their heroes. Kids in Fitzroy jumpers celebrate with their parents on the terraces.

 

A sea of maroon and blue jubilation from another era.

 

A lost time.

 

Fitzroy’s last great win.

 

 

‘Dedicated to all the wonderful sporting commentators.’

 

 

 

You can find the recording by using a Google search.

 

Read Adam Fox’s story on the same game, written a few years ago HERE.

 

 

To return to the www.footyalmanac.com.au  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 keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.

 

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE

 

 

Comments

  1. Ah, that’s a beautiful piece. I love how a particular game of football can stay vividly with us, decades down the track. (Of course the YouTube time machine definitely helps but, in this instance, it’s the personal memories that are so affecting.) Also – I appreciate a person that can sustain a well-founded bit of righteous anger!

  2. Wonderful article, great reading about those times.

    Gee whiz 1993, the 1993 football season, is a fair way back, though it doesn’t seem totally ancient to me. We must be a similar age.

    Clifton Hill in 1993. I was living in Walker St, down the eastern end. It was a nice place, a good house, pleasant memories.

    I was a Geelong supporter back then. Runners up in 1992, 1993 was a topsy turvy season; win, loss, win, loss. Geelong beat Fitzroy at Kardina Park. The home side had a big lead but Fitzroy got back to within a point in the dying stages before a Geelong goal sealed it. Geelong finished the year in a blaze of glory with five consecutive wins including a final round victory over the Weagles in Perth. No finals though.

    Brisbane football club is not, and will never be, Fitzroy football club.

    Glen!

  3. RagingBull says

    Interesting read, YouTube is great for looking up old games.

  4. Great read.
    I remember being a young man in love in that era. Thankfully I followed Carlton (albeit from afar) so it was easier to introduce her to the game, with less heartbreak than that surrounding Fitzroy.

    You made the right call.
    You had to take the punt that some San Francisco Bay area tech geeks would one day create a platform that would allow you to watch a replay of the game in the comfort of your own home.
    But to leave the girl home, alone in the flat? That’s too big a gamble. You have to take those opportunities when they arise.

    ps If I am in the crowd when you may your proclamation I will shout ‘Hear, Hear’.

  5. A brilliant read, Paul, and in addition to enjoying your reminiscences about a magnificent Fitzroy win, I’m glad that you “got the girl”.
    As well as Fitzroy playing in eight games decided by seven points or less in 1993, the realisation that the VFL/AFL was now a national competition was reflected by the Royboys’ last four games being wins over Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
    It’s just a shame that there wasn’t a team called Perth for a “full house”, although the Lions did beat West Coast at the WACA earlier that season.

  6. Wonderful tale, Paul, evoking a real ‘great / not so great’ true Royboy experience, circa 1990s. Was there for that game, along with all other Melbourne games that year. The Essendon lose hurt most – I had a sense which ever team won that night was going to kick on and shake up the comp. Alas…
    Thanks for the memories!

Leave a Comment

*