From the foot of the table to the Final Five: Fitzroy’s exhilarating 1981 season

From the foot of the table to the Final Five: Fitzroy’s exhilarating 1981 season


By Philip Mendes


At the end of the 1980 season, Fitzroy Football Club had hit rock bottom. After playing finals in 1979, the Lions won only four and a half games, and secured the unwanted wooden spoon with an ageing list. Off-field, the Club had lost over three hundred thousand dollars in one year, bringing the total club deficit to over 450,000. [i] The perception of doom and gloom was completed by the exit of star players including Bob Beecroft (winner of the club goal kicking for the past four seasons averaging 3.3 goals per game), best and fairest runner up Warwick Irwin, dashing wingman Graham Allan, and veterans Robert Walls, Max Richardson and Kevin Higgins, although notably only Irwin had finished top ten in that year’s best and fairest. Additionally, the club’s best young player and winner of the 1980 Herald Recruit of the year award, Frank Marchesani, announced he was standing out of football to secure a clearance to his preferred club (He was eventually cleared to Carlton mid-season).[ii]


However, the incoming President, Keith Wiegard, declared optimistically that the Lions hoped to regain their place in the Final Five in 1981. [iii] One of the reasons for his optimism was the appointment of recently retired former Fitzroy and Carlton player Robert Walls as rookie coach. It was a ‘gamble’[iv] that paid off. Walls was confident of success from the start, stating at the time of his appointment that he believed the Lions ‘had the players to make the five’.[v]


Another contributing factor was solid recruiting which brought talented youngsters Matthew Rendell, Graeme Hinchen, Scott Clayton, and Lee Murnane to the club. All were strong performers as were journeymen Terry O’Neill (former South Melbourne), Des Herbert and Leigh Carlson (who joined from Collingwood as part of the Warwick Irwin clearance deal), and Peter Francis (who joined from Carlton as part of the Frank Marchesani clearance deal).[vi] Another factor was the significant improvement in younger players already on the list such as Grant Lawrie, Glenn Coleman, Rod Lewis, and Les Parish who had respectively only played a handful of games in 1980.


Consequently, the Lions enjoyed an outstanding 1981, winning 14 games to finish fifth on the ladder, and then beating Essendon in the Elimination Final before falling very narrowly to Collingwood in the first semi final. Further highlights included:


  • Robert Walls being awarded the Sun Coach of the Year award;
  • Bernie Quinlan’s much deserved victory in the Brownlow Medal at the age of 30 awarded jointly with his old Footscray team mate Barry Round. Quinlan earned 6 three best on ground votes, and 2 two votes to finish with 22 votes after having started the count as 3rd favourite behind Round and Trevor Barker. [vii]


Quinlan later commented that he played ‘mainly as ruck rover, mostly lining up for the bounce then going down to the forward flank or forward pocket’.[viii] Coach Walls added that the team plan was to play Quinlan as a ruck rover for the first ten minutes of each quarter using his height and bulk to overpower the rovers and ruck rovers. He would then move forward, and was able to exploit being picked up more often than not by the third tall defender.[ix]




Round 1: 28 March 1981


Fitzroy          2.2   9.7     15.9   20.13 (133)

Collingwood 6.13 10.15 16.24  22.27 (159)


Best players: Wilson, Conlan, Quinlan, Harris, Murnane, Coleman, Lewis.


Multiple Goalkickers: Conlan 5, Harris 5, Quinlan 3, Hansen 2, Wilson 2, Murnane 2.


The new look Lions started slowly in front of a big home crowd of 27,200 against last year’s runners up Collingwood. If the Magpies had kicked straight, the game would have been over at quarter time, but the Lions fought back hard, and got within two points at the 25 minute mark of the last quarter before Collinwood steadied. New captain Garry Wilson had 35 disposals plus 8 marks and 2 goals.[x]




Round 2: 4 April 1981


Fitzroy      5.5 10.9 16.13 23.17 (155)

Melbourne 3.1 8.5   11.9   16.14 (110)


Best players: Quinlan, Lewis, Lawrie, Smith, Conlan,  Hinchen, McMahon, Wilson, Murnane.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 6, McMahon 5, Conlan 4, Wilson 3.


The Lions easily accounted for Ron Barrassi’s Demons at VFL Park. Big 6 foot 7 Matt Rendell made his debut, and had an immediate impact at full forward with 15 disposals, 7 marks, and an inaccurate one goal four. Quinlan displayed early Brownlow form with 23 disposals, 7 marks and 6 goals. Individual highlights included strong grabs by Rendell (twice) and Quinlan, and a dashing snap on the run by Mick Conlan.[xi]




Round 3: 11 April 1981


Carlton: 4.6  7.11  8.19  14.24 (108)

Fitzroy: 4.5 6.10 10.13 12.20 (92)


Best Players: Wilson, Mugavin, Taylor, Conlan, Smith, Murnane.


Multiple Goalkickers: Rendell 4, Conlan 2, Mugavin 2.


The Lions pushed eventual 1981 premiers Carlton all the way at Princes Park. Multiple commentators agreed they were unlucky to lose in a tight finish.[xii]




Round 4: 18 April 1981


Fitzroy:       3.2 9.9 17.12 25.19 (169)

South Melb  6.5 9.7 12.11 14.16 (100)


Best Players: Conlan, McMahon, Lewis, Serafini, Quinlan, Alexander.


Multiple Goalkickers: Rendell 7, Quinlan 5, Conlan 4, Parish 3, Mugavin 2.


Lions captain Garry Wilson was knocked out early in this game by South ruckman Graeme Teasdale who was later suspended for 5 weeks. But the incident galvanized Fitzroy who recovered from an early deficit to thrash South. Mick Conlan was outstanding with 18 disposals, and four goals three. This win took Fitzroy into the top five. Coach Robert Walls commented that compared to the 1979 side, ‘most of our good players are young and improving’. [xiii]


The Lions destroyed the Swans kicking against the wind in the third quarter. Highlights of that term included a left foot snap by Les Parish, a pass by Lee Murnane to Matt Rendell in the goal square, a classy mark and goal by Quinlan from centre half forward, Rendell running into an open goal at the 18 minute mark for his 5th goal, Parish snapping on his non-preferred right foot for his 3rd goal, a great high mark by Glenn Coleman in defence, a strong mark and goal by Matt Rendell, and Rendell scoring his 7th off the ground. The Seven Big League commentators praised young Lee Murnane as an ‘absolute sensation’.





Round 5: 25 April 1981


Essendon 2.6  9.8  10.13 15.14 (104)

Fitzroy    6.1 10.3 14.6   19.11 (125)


Best Players: O’Neill, Quinlan, Conlan, Mugavin, Murnane, Harris.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 4, Mugavin 4, Murnane 3, Conlan 3, McMahon 2, Rendell 2.


A comfortable win over Kevin Sheedy’s disappointing Bombers at VFL Park. Quinlan was again impressive with 18 disposals, 6 marks and 4 goals. Highlights included Ron Andrews multiple acts of violence, and a splendid goal on the run by Mick Conlan. Fitzroy sealed the game with solid play in the last quarter including Quinlan goaling on the run for his 4th, tremendous play by Rod Lewis to smother and then kick the ball to David McMahon to goal, a beautiful mark and great kick for goal by Lewis, and a left foot snap by Lee Murnane right on the final siren. The Lions jumped to 4th place on the ladder.





Round 6: 2 May 1981


North Melb 4.4 12.12 17.14 27.17 (179)

Fitzroy       8.4 8.6     16.8  19.12 (126)


Best Players: Parish, Rendell, Wilson, Lawrie, Harris, Conlan.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 3, Parish 3, Lawrie 2, Alexander 2, Rendell 2, Conlan 2, Harris 2, Lewis, Mugavin, Murnane.


A disappointing result at Arden St which sent Fitzroy back to 6th place. Utility Les Parish was best with 19 disposals, and 3 goals.





Round 7: 9 May 1981


Fitzroy     4.4 5.6   10.12 13.14 (92)

Richmond 6.6 9.10 11.12 12.16 (88)


Best Players: Alexander, Harris, Serafini, Quinlan, Lawrie, Conlan Taylor.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 5, Rendell 3, Mugavin 2, Alexander, Harris, Clayton.


This was an amazing comeback from 40 points down early in the third quarter against the reigning premier despite losing captain Garry Wilson with a broken cheekbone just before half time. Ruckman Ron Alexander dominated with 19 disposals, 4 marks, and 16 hit outs. Quinlan starred again with 21 disposals, 4 handballs, and 5 goals. Coach Walls made two big moves at half time that turned the game: Conlan shifted into the centre and shut down Geoff Raines, and Brian Brown tagged Kevin Bartlett.[xiv]


Highlights included a left foot snap by Matt Rendell, a right foot snap by Leon Harris (called a ‘freak goal’ by ABC commentator Doug Heywood), a great right foot snap by Quinlan (the Channel 7 commentator proclaimed ‘Quinlan is running wild’), an equally good left foot snap by Quinlan for his 4th goal, and a mark and goal by Matt Rendell in a tight last quarter. First gamer Scott Clayton put Fitzroy in front after a desperate spoil by Grant Lawrie, followed by Quinlan’s 5th goal to seal the game.[xv] The Lions were back in 5th spot on the ladder.





Round 8: 16 May 1981


Hawthorn 2.1 7.7   11.14 21.18 (144)

Fitzroy    3.6 7.12 10.17 16.19 (115)


Best Players:  Thornton, Brown, McCarthy, Keays, Lawrie, Quinlan, Alexander, Lewis.


Multiple Goalkickers: Thornton 4, Quinlan 4, Lawrie 2, Conlan 2.


This was a disappointing finish after the Lions led by 9 points 6 minutes into the final quarter. Ross Thornton was best with 16 disposals and 4 goals.[xvi]





Round 9: 23 May 1981


Fitzroy  3.2  6.5    10.9   13.15 (93)

Geelong 7.6 10.12 14.14 16.18 (114)


Best Players: Smith, Wilson, Murnane, Clayton, Alexander, Keays.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 3, Murnane 3, Wilson 3, McMahon 2, Conlan, Lewis.


Other than kicking the opening 3 goals of the game, it was a disappointing effort at home against a fellow finals contender. Garry Wilson returned from injury with 25 disposals and 3 goals.[xvii] Individual highlights included a great right foot snap by McMahon, a long goal by Wilson, a Murnane goal on the run, and a great pass by Murnane to Leon Harris.





Round 10: 30 May 1981


Fitzroy:    1.2  4.9 11.13 22.15 (147)

Footscray: 5.3 7.4  9.7    10.10 (70)


Best Players: Murnane, Lawrie, Quinlan, Wilson, Harris, Parish, Conlan.


Multiple Goalkickers: Merrigan 5, Quinlan 4, Murnane, Poynton 3, McMahon, Harris 2.


In the lead-up to this game, Lions champion Warwick Irwin was finally cleared to Collingwood in exchange for three players and cash.[xviii] One of the former Magpies, Leigh Carlson, made his debut for Fitzroy. First year player Lee Murnane was best on ground with 20 disposals and 3 goals. According to the media, he ‘was an inspiration for Fitzroy as he threw himself into the packs and created opportunities with effective handball’. Former champion full back Harvey Merrigan impressed in his comeback game with 5 goals at full forward.[xix]


Individual highlights included a Rendell snap goal, and a Parish goal on the run. The Lions breezed home in the last quarter including a brilliant stab pass by Wilson to Merrigan on the chest for his 2nd goal (leading the Channel 7 commentator to describe Wilson as ‘class, disposal is magnificent’), a nice snap by big Rod Lewis, goal on the run by Parish, free kick to Merrigan for his 3rd goal, a lovely pass by Lawrie to Merrigan for his 4th goal, a mark and goal by Wilson, and a chain of handpasses ending with Merrigan for his 5th goal.





Round 11: 6 June 1981


St. Kilda 3.4 6.9 9.13 14.15 (99)
Fitzroy   2.5 3.9 5.11 7.17 (59)


Best Players: Wilson, McMahon, Alexander, Quinlan, Lewis.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan, Lewis, Wilson 2.


A poor performance by the Lions against the lowly Saints at Moorabbin. Wilson had 32 disposals, and kicked 2 goals.[xx] One highlight was a left foot snap by Rod Lewis.





Round 12: 13 June 1981


Fitzroy      5.5 9.12 12.21 17.32 (134)
Melbourne 1.6 6.7   8.10   13.12 (90)


Best Players: Smith, Murnane, Rendell, Quinlan, Thornton, Hansen.


Multiple Goalkickers: Rendell 6, Quinlan 3, Thornton 2, Conlan 2, Poynton 2, Murnane 2.


An easy win for the inaccurate Lions over bottom side Melbourne at the MCG. Chris Smith starred at centre half back, and Lee Murnane was described as a strong contender for the ‘Recruit of the Year, creating many opportunities with elusive play’.[xxi]





Round 13: 20 June 1981


Fitzroy 6.1 14.3 16.9   20.11 (131)
Carlton 7.2 10.7 14.10 15.16 (106)


Best Players: Smith, Hansen, McCarthy, McMahon, Serafini, Rendell, Quinlan, Carlson.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 5, Rendell 4, Poynton 4, Conlan 2, Murnane 2, Carlson 2.


This was a superb victory over the eventual premier at the Junction Oval. The media described Fitzroy’s defence as ‘superb. The likes of Chris Smith, Chris Hansen, Gerry McCarthy, Grant Lawrie, and Laurie Serafini swept the ball clear to give their forwards a great chance’. Quinlan, Rendell and Poynton were equally effective in attack.[xxii]


Highlights included the famous torpedo goal on the run by Quinlan which Channel Seven’s Sandy Roberts called ‘a mammoth kick’, a dazzling goal on the run by Carlson who burst away from Glascott, a high mark by Murnane followed by a pass to Rendell for an easy goal, a left foot snap by Quinlan, a goal on the run by Conlan, another goal on the run by Carlson, a dummy and goal by Quinlan, a mark and long kick by Quinlan grabbed by Poynton for an open goal, and finally a great front and centre by Murnane to goal on the final siren.





Round 14: 27 June 1981


South Melb 2.6 4.10 6.13 9.16 (70)

Fitzroy       4.4 9.5   13.6 14.9 (93)


Best Players: Parish, Lawrie, Alexander, McCarthy, Hansen, Serafini, McConnon, McMahon.


Multiple Goalkickers: Parish 5, Quinlan 3, Rendell 2.


An important victory for the Lions over the 10th placed Swans at the muddy Lakeside Oval. Utility Les Parish starred with 16 disposals, and 5 goals. The media described him as ‘strong and clever…Parish played superbly opportunistic football to kick five goals despite appalling conditions’.[xxiii] Final quarter highlights included a strong mark in deep defence by Gerry McCarthy, and creative play by Murnane.





Round 15: 4 July 1981


Fitzroy    1.2, 3.4, 5.8, 8.13 (61)

Essendon 2.4, 7.5, 9.9, 11.14 (80)


Best Players: Lawrie, Francis, Poynton, Carlson, Parish, Wilson.


Multiple Goalkickers: Poynton 3, Parish 2.


Prior to this game, highly rated youngster Frank Marchesani was cleared to Carlton in exchange for cash and premiership player Peter Francis.[xxiv] Francis made a strong debut for the Lions with 23 disposals against 4th placed Essendon, but the Bombers were too good in the mud and slush for their 9th win in a row.[xxv] Highlights included an excellent pass by Serafini to McMahon, and fine last quarter goals by Poynton on the run, an excellent right foot snap by Quinlan under immense pressure, and a strong pack mark and goal by Rendell.





Round 16: 18 July 1981


Fitzroy                3.2, 5.7, 10.8, 18.13 (121)

North Melbourne 2.2, 2.6, 6.11, 12.15 (87)


Best Players: Quinlan, Wilson, Lawrie, Carlson, Alexander, Smith, Francis, Hansen.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 6, Wilson 3, Poynton 3.


An important victory over a sliding North Melbourne at VFL Park. Quinlan dominated with 34 disposals, 12 marks and 6 goals. Wilson was also brilliant with 38 disposals, 10 marks, and 3 goals.[xxvi]


Highlights included a big goal by Rod Lewis, excellent team play to get the ball to McMahon to goal, a Quinlan left foot snap, and a contested mark by Hansen. Then there was the majestic goal of the day by Quinlan who took 3 bounces, side stepped a player, and goaled from the right forward pocket.





Round 17: 25 July 1981


Richmond 7.5, 9.8, 11.11, 16.19 (115)

Fitzroy     0.5, 8.9, 13.13, 17.14 (116)


Best Players: Quinlan, McMahon, Alexander, Smith, Serafini, McConnon, Francis, McCarthy.


Multiple Goalkickers: McMahon 5, Quinlan 4, Murnane 2.


This was a remarkable comeback from 43 points down in the first quarter at the MCG. The Lions also had to wrest the momentum back after Richmond regained the lead 23 minutes into the final quarter. Quinlan starred with 15 disposals, 7 marks and 4 goals.[xxvii]


Highlights included a handball by Taylor to McMahon for a magnificent goal on the run, a long goal on the run by Mick Conlan, a pass by Conlan to Quinlan who goaled from the half forward flank which ABC commentator Tim Lane called a ‘gem of a goal’. The match-winning goal came from David McMahon who kicked a banana from the boundary line deep in the forward pocket at the 27 minute mark of the last quarter which I oddly missed live. I had rushed to the toilet a minute earlier thinking Richmond were going to win. Whilst in the loo, I heard a large noise, and assumed it was another Tiger goal. I nearly went straight to the exit, but decided to take a quick look just in case, and to my amazement saw Fitzroy were back in front. Lions Ruckman Ron Alexander then spent the last minute smashing boundary throw-ins back over the line on the Richmond half forward flank which would result in a free kick today. What a victory.





Round 18: 1 August 1981


Fitzroy    4.7,  6.7,   8.12, 10.13 (73)

Hawthorn 0.4, 3.10, 5.12, 7.19 (61)


Best Players: Lawrie, Alexander, Smith, Conlan, Carlson, Parish.


Multiple Goalkickers: Poynton 3, Alexander 2.


This crucial victory enabled the Lions to replace Hawthorn in the five. [xxviii] Highlights included a Poynton left foot snap from the left forward pocket, a Murnane goal, a Lawrie left foot goal, a superb interception by Lawrie, and a long kick by Conlan after burning off Dipper which led to a mark and goal by Poynton.





Round 19: 8 August 1981


Geelong 4.2, 7.11, 10.12, 11.19 (85)

Fitzroy  2.5, 2.5,   5.14,   9.16 (70)


Best Players: Quinlan, Alexander, Smith, Serafini, Poynton, Parish.


Multiple Goalkickers: Poynton 4, Quinlan 2.


In the lead-up to this Match of the Day game of 4th vs 5th, the Herald’s chief football writer, Alf Brown, praised Fitzroy’s ‘invaluable half backs: Lawrie, Smith and Serafini. It’s at half back where the Lions launch themselves. There is the marking strength of Smith and the dash of Lawrie and Serafini. They win the ball well, run hard and fast and drive it forward, usually to a bloke in maroon and blue, and usually Quinlan, who usually kicks a goal’.[xxix] But Brown was correct in predicting that Geelong would be too good for the Lions at VFL Park.[xxx] Highlights included a long kick by Alexander resulting in a big mark and goal by Quinlan, a fine goal by Quinlan on the run, and a long goal by Parish in the first quarter.





Round 20: 15 August 1981


Footscray 2.1, 5.7,   8.9,    12.14 (86)

Fitzroy    7.4, 12.7, 19.12, 22.15 (147)


Best Players: Quinlan, Conlan, McMahon, Alexander, Poynton, Clayton.


Multiple Goalkickers: Conlan 6, Poynton 4, Quinlan 2, Alexander 2, Rendell 2.


An impressive win over second bottom Footscray at the Western Oval. Quinlan dazzled with 27 disposals, 16 marks and 2 goals, leading the media to label him a favourite for the Brownlow Medal. [xxxi]





Round 21: 22 August 1981


Fitzroy  3.3, 4.6, 10.15, 14.18 (102)

St Kilda 2.0, 7.7, 7.8,      9.10 (64)


Best Players: Alexander, Smith, Francis, McMahon, Taylor, Wilson, Carlson, Herbert.


Multiple Goalkickers: Conlan 4, Harris 3, Rendell 3.


The Lions recovered from a poor first half to defeat lowly St Kilda, and grab 5th spot with one game to play. Ex-Carlton recruit Peter Francis was outstanding with 26 disposals, as was ruckman Ron Alexander with 24 disposals, 7 marks and 26 hit outs. [xxxii]




Round 22: 29 August 1981


Collingwood 0.1, 0.2, 1.3,   4.9 (33)

Fitzroy         4.4, 5.9, 7.11, 8.11 (59)


Best Players: Serafini, Carlson, Francis, Taylor, Herbert, Quinlan, Alexander, Wilson, Lawrie.


Multiple Goalkickers: All singles.


It all came down to the last home and away game at Victoria Park. Collingwood were not only top of the ladder, but unbeaten at home for the entire season. They also had to win to ensure they retained top spot over 2nd placed Carlton. For Fitzroy a win would guarantee 5th spot, whereas a loss could leave them vulnerable to being replaced by either Richmond or Hawthorn. The Lions led all day for an incredible victory. The media praised the ‘new strength of character among the players…The urgency of the task was apparent in every early movement Fitzroy made. Even the opposition noticed it. As one senior Collingwood player said afterwards: You could see the desperation in their eyes. And you could hear it. They were screaming right from the start’.[xxxiii] The Lions were delighted with their victory as reflected in a post-game TV interview with a very happy Ron Alexander. The Sun featured coach Walls hugging a mud-spattered Alexander on their back page.[xxxiv]


Game highlights included a Conlan mark up forward, a great high mark by Wilson in the mud and slush, a run and long kick by Conlan to the goal square which resulted in Harris grabbing the ball off hands and running into an open goal, a goal by Wilson on the run, a left foot snap by Quinlan, Poynton running into an open goal, Lewis passing to Conlan for an easy goal, and a long sealing goal by Lewis in the final quarter. Serafini was easily best afield with 24 disposals and 4 marks. [xxxv]





Finals Footy


So the Lions were fortunate enough to play finals for the second time in three years. This was the year of my Year 12 exams which meant I was unable to attend either of the finals games, but it was still incredibly exciting (and nerve wracking) to listen on the radio. Alf Brown called it a ‘fairytale rise from last’ which he attributed to two factors. One was the half back line of Serafini, Smith and Lawrie which he rated the ‘best in the competition…The Fitzroy trio is beautifully balanced. Smith’s marking, Lawrie’s dash and the all-round talents of Sera. Not only do they chop off so many opposition attacks, they initiate so many for the Lions’. The other key strength was Quinlan whom he described as having ‘had a magnificent season…He relishes VFL Park’s room, which allows him to make space, get to the ball first, and then exploit his pace, agility and powerful kicking’. He also praised Mick Conlan as ‘explosive, inspiring, direct’ and David McMahon as ‘simply very good’.[xxxvi]


McMahon himself emphasized the transformative impact of Fitzroy’s recruits, ‘This  year we have got blokes like Murnane, Rendell, Clayton, Carlson, Herbert, Francis and O’Neill so when senior players are injured the side is still good enough to win’.[xxxvii]



Elimination Final: 5 September 1981


Essendon 0.5, 4.8, 11.11, 13.16 (94)

Fitzroy    3.4, 7.7, 12.11, 16.13 (109)


Best Players: Wilson, Taylor, Alexander, Parish, Lawrie, Francis, Serafini, Smith, McMahon.


Multiple Goalkickers: Quinlan 3, Poynton 2, Carlson 2, Parish 2, Wilson 2.


This was a topsy turvy game against the highly favoured Essendon who had won 15 games in a row before dropping the last home and away game and unluckily missing the double chance. The Lions dominated early and led by 37 points 10 minutes into the third quarter. Then Essendon hit back, and a Ron Andrews goal gave them the lead 13 minutes into the final quarter. But Fitzroy came again. At the 16 minute mark, Conlan handballed forward, and Wilson evaded a tackle and snapped a great left foot goal under pressure. Five minutes later, Serafini showed desperation on the goal line to touch a long shot by Michael Thompson. Lou Richards on Channel 7 called it a ‘beautiful defensive play’. Then Quinlan, who had been quiet all day, stepped up. Twice in one minute he marked and goaled. The first came from a sharp pass from Wilson, the second following a smart ruck tap from Alexander to Francis. Then an excellent hand ball from Francis enabled Leigh Carlson to ice the game with a brilliant 60 metre goal on the run.[xxxviii]


Other game highlights included three bounces by Terry O’Neill, a pass by Taylor for Herbert to goal on the run, a pass from Parish to Alexander in the goal square, and a Parish handball to Wilson for an easy goal.




First Semi Final: 12 September 1981


Collingwood 5.6, 11.13, 14.15, 19.19 (133)

Fitzroy         2.3, 6.5,     12.13, 19.18 (132)


Best Players: Alexander, McMahon, Smith, Wilson, Serafini, Taylor, Murnane, Rendell, Francis, Lawrie, Clayton.


Multiple Goalkickers: Rendell 5, McMahon 4, Lawrie 2, Quinlan 2, Poynton 2, Murnane 2.


This was another game of two halves. Collingwood were 45 points up early in the 3rd quarter, but the Lions recovered to seemingly have the game under control with less than 10 minutes to play. David McMahon starred for the Lions with 22 disposals, 4 marks, and 4 goals in the second half until he tore his hamstring late in the game, and Ron Alexander had 38 hit outs. [xxxix]


After Grant Lawrie goaled to make it 8 points the difference at the 23 minute mark, the Lions had two chances to seal the game. Des Herbert took a strong mark, and had a set shot from the left forward flank which Rendell marked just near the right behind post, but his set shot missed. Then Carlson had a long shot which was touched through to make it 10 points the difference. But Collingwood responded with goals to Daicos and Brewer at the 27 and 28 minute marks. Even then, Murnane had a long shot which was touched through, and Terry O’Neill had time to balance, but sprayed his kick straight to a Collingwood defender.


Game highlights included McMahon scoring a banana goal from the boundary, Parish handballing to McMahon for a goal, Murnane snapping a goal, McMahon converting off the pack, Lewis handballing to McMahon for his 4th goal 7 minutes into the last quarter, Quinlan’s left foot snap that followed, and Lewis handballing to Lawrie to goal on the run at the 23 minute mark of the final quarter.




Top Ten Fitzroy Best and Fairest


Ron Alexander 140


Bernie Quinlan 131


Garry Wilson 90 (missed seven games through injury)


David McMahon 78


Chris Smith 72


Grant Lawrie 70


Leon Harris 53


Peter Francis 50


Neville Taylor 49


Michael Conlan 47




Top Ten Fitzroy Goal kickers


Bernie Quinlan 72


Matt Rendell 44


Michael Conlan 41


Michael Poynton 29


David McMahon 28


Lee Murnane 24


Les Parish 21


Garry Wilson 20


Leon Harris 17


Rod Lewis 14




[i] Fitzroy Football Club (1980) 97th Annual Report and Balance Sheet Season 1980, p.9. See also the earlier report by Mike Sheahan, ‘Cash crisis rocks the Lions’, Herald, July 1980.


[ii] Mike Sheahan, ‘A cat bid for Irwin’, Herald, early 1981.


[iii] Ibid, p.4


[iv] Ibid, p.7.


[v] Peter Simunovich, ‘It’s Walls: Lions name new coach’, Herald, late 1980.


[vi] Jim Main (2007) Fitzroy. Melbourne: Bas Publishing, p.204.


[vii] Ibid, pp.3, 7; Ron Carter, ‘Quinlan, Round tie with 22’, The Age, 31 August 1981.


[viii] Garrie Hutchinson, Rick Lang and John Ross (1997) Roar of the Lions: Fitzroy Remembered 1883-1996. Melbourne: Lothian Books, p.73.


[ix] Robert Walls quoted in Russell Holmesby (2020) The Death of Fitzroy Football Club. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, p.47.


[x] John Rice, ‘Pies too hot for Lions’, Sunday Press, 29 March 1981.


[xi] Bob Crimeen, ‘Lions show their teeth’, Sunday Press, 5 April 1981.


[xii] Anonymous, ‘Lucky Blues’, Sunday Press, 12 April 1981; Percy Jones and Steve Perkin, ‘Great walls of fire’, Sunday Press, 12 April 1981.


[xiii] Tim Habel, ‘All’s well with Lions’, The Age, 20 April 1981.


[xiv] Michael Lovett, ‘Tigers hit hard wall’, Sunday Press, 9 May 1981; Tom Hafey and Peter Simunovich, ‘Ron still a leader’, Herald, May 1981.


[xv] Pete Carter (2020) Fitzroy’s Fabulous Century: The 100 Greatest Victories 1897-1996. Perth: Mr Smudge Books, pp.106-108; Chris Donald (2002) Fitzroy: For the love of the jumper. Melbourne: Pennon Publishing, p.237.


[xvi] Bob Crimeen, ‘Hawks fly in for kill’, Sunday Press, 17 May 1981.


[xvii] Peter Stone, ‘Bottoms up, Cats’, Sunday Press, 24 May 1981


[xviii] Ron Carter, ‘Magpie Irwin’, The Age, 29 May 1981.


[xix] John Rice, ‘Walls in hot spot’, Sunday Press, 31 May 1981.


[xx] Michael Davis, ‘Alex points the way’, Sunday Press, 7 June 1981.


[xxi] John Rice, ‘Lions still there’, Sunday Press, 14 June 1981.


[xxii] Peter Stone, ‘Proudly Lions’, Sunday Press, 21 June 1981.


[xxiii] Bob Crimeen, ‘Battle’, Sunday Press, 28 June 1981. On Parish, see also Bill Cannon, ‘Les gives Lions a lift’, Herald, 2 July 1981.


[xxiv] Michael Davis, ‘Now Frank’s true blue’, Herald, 2 July 1981.


[xxv] Peter Stone, ‘Bombers…’, Sunday Press, 5 July 1981.


[xxvi] Peter Stone, ‘Fall of the superstars’, Sunday Press, 19 July 1981.


[xxvii] Bob Crimeen, ‘Ta-ta, tame Tigers’, Sunday Press, 26 July 1981; Mike Coward, ‘Lion in winter set for extended season’, The Age, 27 July 1981; Pete Carter, Fitzroy’s Fabulous Century, pp.134-136.


[xxviii] Stewart Murrihy, ‘Fierce Lions in the five’, Sunday Observer, 2 August 1981; Andrew Rule, ‘Walls’ Lions roaring to go’, The Age, 3 August 1981.


[xxix] Alf Brown, ‘Geelong will show they’re big cats’, Herald, 7 August 1981.


[xxx] Stewart Murrihy, ‘The great September pretenders’, Sunday Observer, 9 August 1981.


[xxxi] Howard Leigh, ‘Lions aim at five’, Sunday Observer, 16 August 1981.


[xxxii] Peter Wilms, ‘Finally Fitzroy’, Sunday Press, 23 August 1981; Trevor Grant, ‘Francis at centre of Lions revival’, The Age, 24 August 1981.


[xxxiii] Trevor Grant, ‘New-breed Lions finally in the hunt’, The Age, 31 August 1981. See also Kevin Coghlan, ‘Lions bury Pies in mudbath’, Sunday Observer, 30 August 1981.


[xxxiv] Anonymous, ‘Lions claw their way into the 5’, Sun, 1 September 1981.


[xxxv] Pete Carter (2020) Fitzroy’s Fabulous Century, pp.221-223.


[xxxvi] Alf Brown, Herald, 4 September 1981.


[xxxvii] Bruce Matthews, ‘Query on Leon the Lion’, Herald, 4 September 1981.


[xxxviii] Michael Lovett, ‘Roys ready to rip’, Sunday Press, 6 September 1981; Trevor Grant, ‘Born losers learn how to kick back’, The Age, 7 September 1981.


[xxxix] Kevin Coghlan, ‘Magpies in by a Lion’s left whisker’, Sunday Observer, 13 September 1981; Mike Coward, ‘Magpies prove there’s life after death’, The Age, 14 September 1981.





As a complement to Philip’s fine work here, Sam Steele has been revisiting the 1981 season as a whole in his 1981 Revisited series.





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About Philip Mendes

Philip Mendes is an academic who follows AFL, soccer, tennis and cricket. He supported Fitzroy Football Club from 1970-1996, and on their death he adopted the North Melbourne Kangaroos as his new team. In his spare time, he occasionally writes about his current and past football teams.


  1. Adam Muyt says

    Do you do Royboy request seasons, Philip? I’d like 1986, thanks.

  2. Philip Mendes says

    HI Adam – will get to it eventually, but it hasn’t been a priority because there is a full-length Video, ‘All their best: Highlights of Fitzroy’s 1986 season’. So probably 1984 will be the next one, maybe around end of this year.

  3. Stainless says

    Great summation of a memorable season, Philip. I was at the two games against Richmond and also the Elimination Final win over Essendon. Fitzroy’s resilience was remarkable in all three. What might have happened if they’d got over Collingwood in that semi??

  4. Shane Reid says

    Thank you for this wonderful read Philip. I wasn only four in 81 but got my first Fitzroy footy jumper that year. It must have been a great years for the Roys and for footy, lots of goals being kicked in most games.

    Was 81 the best chance for a flag do you think?

  5. Enjoyable read as always, Phil.
    Re obeying the call of nature late in the Round 17 clash with Richmond, the roar of the crowd when you couldn’t see which team had goaled would’ve been torturous.
    I haven’t been to the MCG in years, but maybe they’ve since installed TVs above the “troughs” for moments like this.

  6. One thing often forgotten about that time is that for Fitzroy, 1980 was very much the outlier, and they were dead unlucky to be lumbered with it. They had had a good second half of 1978 after an unlucky start, and played finals in 1979. Some of their recruiting leading up to 1980 wasn’t great, but they were not the worst team in the competition, beating the Premiers, drawing with and narrowly losing to the runner-up, losing by 15 points twice to the minor premier, and storming home against the reigning Premier, the siren sounding with the ball about two metres from Frank Marchesani’s chest with no Carlton player within nuclear fallout range, about 30 metres from goal, with Fitzroy four points behind. A goal would have put Fitzroy up to ninth – still not good but better – and given even more momentum to their pre-season and new coach. It was their only spoon between 1964 and their second-last season.

  7. Philip Mendes says

    Shane, I’ve argued elsewhere: – that 1983 was the best chance. That was because the 83 side added the three brilliant youngsters: Roos, Pert and Osborne, plus Gary Sidebottom who was very important. Nettlefold from St Kilda and young Brad Gotch were also positive additions. The only major loss from 1981 was David McMahon, who was still on the list, but had run out of steam. Also Matt Rendell became an outstanding ruckman in 1983, probably better technically than Ron Alexander was at his peak. But watching those 1981 games again reminded me of how good Rod Lewis and Lee Murnane were that year. Lewis sadly had his career cruelled by injury, but Murnane just lost form unfortunately.

  8. Danny Shavitsky says

    Phil, I was having a quick look at some of the scores of Fitzroy’s games in1981 and they were remarkably high. The combined totals of both teams we’re often staggering, especially by today’s standards where so much emphasis is placed on defence. Great memories.

  9. Philip Mendes says

    Hi Dan, any team that had the great Bernie Quinlan roaming the forward line was going to pile up high scores.

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