In Defeat We’ll Always Try

 

Author’s note: I wrote this in 2011.  Phil Dimitriadis’s narrative about Harry the Fitzroy fan [and HEREEd] inspired me to revisit this story.  There is a link at the bottom to a radio documentary made by the ABC about Fitzroy’s demise.  Every football fan should listen to it…

 

 

I’ve always been bitter about North Melbourne’s failed merger with Fitzroy.  That infamous chapter in VFL/AFL history, along with the player and salary cap concessions Brisbane received in the ensuing years made me hate the new club, the Brisbane Lions.

Leading up to the proposed merger, when it was clear the Lions were broke and the AFL wouldn’t support them, all I could think about was what it would mean to North. When the merger was foiled I pondered the injustice.

A merger with North made more sense than sending Fitzroy to Brisbane. I figured if the AFL desperately wanted Fitzroy out, they should merged with a Victorian-based club. And let’s face it, North didn’t have any money or supporters, just like Fitzroy.

A merger with Fitzroy would’ve helped secure North’s future.

That the merger went to Brisbane made me angry.

I was angry for other reasons. In 1996 I became a simultaneous member of North Melbourne and the Brisbane Bears. Living in Brisbane, I wanted to watch more football. The Bears were playing their first full season at the Gabba. Joining the Bears made sense. I didn’t support them. I just wanted to watch football.

I went to nine games that year. Not once did I support Brisbane. It still annoys me that I became a member of Brisbane for one year just to watch football.

Before the 1997 season, a man called Jamie lobbed in Brisbane for a few weeks. We went to the same high school in Melbourne. He was 27. He’d followed Fitzroy all his life, his love derived from his father’s love. Jamie never saw his club win a premiership.  Nor did his father. It didn’t matter. Their love ran deep.

With grim determination, Jamie talked about money, a donation made to the club when it was in complete crisis, unable to pay its players or administration.

‘My father and I donated money,’ he said.  ‘I’m not telling you how much.’  Rolling up his sleeve, he showed the Fitzroy emblem on his left arm, the most magnificent tattoo I’ve seen.

‘I loved Fitzroy,’ he said.

‘Are you going to follow the Brisbane Lions?’ I asked.

‘No,’ Jamie said.  ‘That’s it for us.’

The AFL lost two staunch supporters with the merger. They were two of thousands.

In February, 1997, I received a membership offer from the newly formed Brisbane Lions.  The cost to watch 11 home games was $110.  A few days later the same package arrived from North Melbourne, a membership costing $75.  I called Brisbane’s new administration, asking why the discrepancy.

The woman who answered the phone didn’t know. She gave me Ross Oakley’s number.

“Call him,” she said. “Ask him why.”

“Sure,” I said to her. “Ross Oakley’s going to talk to me.”

I never made the call. Nothing Oakley said would’ve changed anything. North got my money that year. It was clear, given the $35 difference in membership cost that the AFL wanted to extract what it could from Brisbane fans who were clamouring to join the new entity.

On grand final day, 2001, I watched in admiration as thousands of ecstatic Fitzroy fans clad in decades old jumpers celebrated the merged club’s first premiership. For every traditional Fitzroy fan who spurned the new club, thousands more embraced it.

Most gratifying was watching old Lions fans with grey hair who were kids in 1944, when Fitzroy won their last grand final.

It was no different when Brisbane defeated Collingwood in the 2002 grand final. Those same grey-hairs were about.

At the time, the Lions were getting an average crowd at the Gabba of more than 30,000 people. Last year they averaged 16,000 fans.  They have less than 7,000 Melbourne members.

Premierships aside, everything I’ve seen since the merger has me convinced that it should never have happened.

I’ve read extensively about the reasons why Fitzroy went to Brisbane, but almost 20 years later, the merger still makes no sense. Most Brisbane-based fans could care less about Fitzroy. Most Brisbane fans live in Brisbane and identify with the local team.  Fitzroy’s history, for many in Brisbane, is meaningless.

To me, Fitzroy’s history wasn’t meaningless.

Since the reunion with Jamie in 1997 I’d never had to confront the death of the Fitzroy Lions beyond the brief. Jamie was hurting. It was the first time I’d seen the pain of extinction. It unsettled me.

The merger has troubled me ever since. Not that Fitzroy went to Brisbane, but why they went.

Back in 2011, the ABC’s Hindsight program played a documentary called In Defeat We’ll Always Try – the Death of the Fitzroy Lions.  The documentary, by one-eyed Lion’s fan Jack Kerr, forced the listener to confront the murder.

If you’ve never thought how it would feel to lose your football club, listen to the documentary, which described with great accuracy what happened when the Lions were killed off.  You can find the link below.

Another mate from high school, Johnny Franklin, was a Fitzroy fan.  When he wore his scarf or jumper at school he really stood out because no one else at school followed Fitzroy.

I hated losing to them, because they were rarely good. Since 1960, they’d played in just ten finals, for only four wins. It didn’t seem right when they won, but aside from wins against North, I was always happy for Johnny Franklin.

In Defeat We’ll Always Try is a reminder of what Jamie and Johnny Franklin and thousands like them lost. It features key players involved at the time; North’s Greg Miller, Fitzroy’s Colin Hobbs, administrator Michael Brennan, writer Barry Dickins, Fitzroy supporter Jan Wright, former champ Kevin Murray and former Brisbane Bears president Noel Gordon.

If you’ve never listened to a radio documentary before, or found any kind of resolution in Fitzroy’s death, you need to listen to this documentary. In chronicling the months leading up to the merger, the documentary is emotional, provocative, confronting and magnificent.

It is a reminder how the AFL buckled under weight of pressure from the presidents of Richmond and Essendon who were scared that the merger between North and Fitzroy would create a super club.

North’s former CEO Greg Miller said his intention was to create a super club. Certainly North was being tough on the negotiations, wanting 54 players and salary cap concessions. Essendon, who voted against North joining the VFL in 1922, were vocal once again and the rumblings started.

The AFL told Miller his demands were too high.

‘We weren’t prepared to start compromising,’ Miller said, about the promises the AFL had already made.

‘On Monday the first of July we had a firm heads of agreement with North Melbourne, done, signed and dusted and I think as I recall agreed to by the AFL,’ Colin Hobbs said.  ‘Things went wrong on the Thursday.’

Fitzroy went into receivership on the Thursday. Michael Brennan, the administrator for the creditors, spurned the agreement North had reached with the Lions and reopened negotiations with anyone willing to make an offer. The AFL, worried by the fear emanating from Windy Hill and Punt Road, embraced an offer from Brisbane’s president Noel Gordon.

Basically, Gordon told the AFL he could ease their concerns. “We’ll do it your way,” Gordon said.

And Fitzroy went north to Brisbane. The following week, Fitzroy’s banner read, seduced by North, raped by Brisbane, fucked by the AFL.

The AFL was livid.

Supporter Jan Wright is forthright during the documentary. “It’s a really disastrous thing to suddenly lose your football club,” she said. “It was like losing someone in your family.”  Her emotion ran deeper and when she discussed tears they were hard to ignore.

Club historian Barry Dickins was more forceful. “I hope they roast in hell for what they did,” he said of the AFL.

The program provided glimpses of Fitzroy’s last game in Melbourne and those final moments after their last official game against Fremantle in Perth, in round 22, 1996. No football fan can ignore that kind of distraught.

Sara Macliver, a soprano born and raised in Perth, sang Auld Lang Syne, which was followed by a minute’s silence.

Fitzroy faded into memory that afternoon in Perth.

The documentary heralds the success the new club achieved, four grand finals for three consecutive premierships. Former champ Kevin Murray talked up the merger, as did Noel Gordon and their sentiments are genuine.

In Defeat We’ll Always Try is based on pure emotion. That provides weakness, because while Greg Miller talks about creating a super club and Noel Gordon discusses his desire to have supporters in Melbourne, neither man spares a thought for Fitzroy. It was all about what they could gain from the merger.

That weakness, though, is the documentary’s greatest strength, because it reduces football to the outer, to those who loved Fitzroy.

When the fans talk about the death of their club, they’re not exaggerating.  When they talk about being expendable, they’re not lying.

It seems amazing now that the AFL let Fitzroy die because of a $4.5 million debt.  The AFL could’ve covered that debt in 1996. They didn’t, because they didn’t want to. Fitzroy weren’t strategically important. It was as simple as that.

Fitzroy’s demise ensured Port Adelaide’s arrival. And when the merger is stripped primitive, having two clubs in South Australia was more important to the AFL than Fitzroy.

Fifteen years after their demise, Port Adelaide was under major pressure, in debt by $4 million, unloved by former supporters and woeful on the field. It mattered little. The AFL bailed them out. They won’t get rid of the Power because they’re strategically important.  Port Adelaide, no matter what the level of debt or incompetence, will never die.

All the interstate clubs are strategically important.  No matter their troubles, they’ll always find a rich embrace from the AFL. Being expendable isn’t strategically important. Simply, Fitzroy had nothing to offer the AFL, absolutely nothing.

Examine history and analyse what the merger between Fitzroy and Brisbane has provided. Those three premierships Brisbane achieved from 2001-03 might’ve been achieved without the merger.

Think about the money in football right now. Think about the equalising nature of the draft. Imagine if the AFL supported Fitzroy through their financial troubles like they supported Sydney and Brisbane and Port Adelaide.

Imagine the AFL did that and Fitzroy finally won a premiership.

Think about the death of your club…

I’ve always believed the merger was unnecessary. I hate Brisbane for it. After listening to In Defeat We’ll Always Try, I hate the AFL for letting it happen.

I keep thinking about my club, North Melbourne, and how I’d feel if it happened to them…

 

You will find In Defeat We’ll Always Try – the Death of the Fitzroy Lions at the following link: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stories/2011/3240791.htm

 

 

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. G’day Matt,

    When I saw the title ‘In defeat we always try’, I straight away remember how good the Fitzroy song is even I go for the Saints and thought ‘oh I want to read’.

    I am a sort of new footy fan – having been following only since 2011. But I am interested in history of the great and unique game. To be honest, I haven’t listened to the ABC documentary, but will do later.

    I have visited the Wikipedia site of AFL/VFL merges and found the league’s handling was so terrible. Why did they ignore Roy fans’ voices? I am curious to know, so will listen to the podcast. Also I wonder why they have never established a club in Tasmania where people love footy.

    Cheers

    Yoshi

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Matt,
    So much anger and sadness wells up in me when I think of how they killed Fitzroy. Just listened to the radio program again and it hit home that Fitzroy were the last ‘Football Club’ in Melbourne. They are NOT football clubs now in the AFL. They are soulless corporations that sell hope and history to the fans.

    Imagine, if North weren’t going so well in 1996 we might have the North Fitzroy Lions in the comp. The Victorian clubs were accessories to the murder because they were frightened that North Fitzroy would become a superteam. I’m ashamed as a Collingwood fan that Collingwood offered to put a Lion on their shorts and have them as their ‘Reserves’ team. Just appalling. I DO NOT and WILL NEVER acknowledge a Fitzroy person who barracks for the Brisbane Lions, Kevin Murray included. They are deluded and follow a reanimated corpse ala Pet Sematary. Those premierships are NOT yours to celebrate.

    Thank you for the acknowledgement Matt and the wonderfully passionate piece you have written. I will post and share it far and wide. I think this banner sums it up perfectly: https://theholybootsfootballemporium.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/fitzroy.jpg

    With thanks to the HolyBoot.

  3. matt watson says

    Phil,
    It’s got to be a merger the AFL regrets.
    Three years ago Carlton was more than 10-million in debt.
    No talk of a merger. No pressure.
    Sydney finished last from 1992-94.
    They were massively in debt.
    No one went to their games.
    The AFL bailed them out.
    Ron Barassi would never have coached Sydney if he wasn’t sure of the finances backing the club.
    The AFL saved Sydney. They killed Fitzroy.
    What happened was shameful.
    So your Harry stories have struck a nerve, not just with me.
    Keep writing,
    Cheers

  4. Excellent stuff, Matt, I can relate to your sentiments. I’ll certainly have another listen to that great ABC radio doco about Fitzroy’s demise.
    Phil, I largely agree with your thoughts re Roys fans who follow Brisbane. The only time I have any interest in the new Lions is when they wear the old FFC jumper, which happens less and less these days.
    Yoshi, the AFL wanted Port Adelaide in the competition and had determined the “magic number” (of teams) to be 16, hence in their (deranged) minds the Roys had to go.

  5. Great article Matt, your conclusions on the merger concur with what I encountered when I wrote a feature for Inside Sport 5 years ago. Some of the stories Bill Atherton (secretary of FFC representing the Melbourne based fans since the merger) told me were extremely damning of the AFL. The attitude of Michael Bowers (former CEO of the Bris Lions) also reinforced what a farcical pretence the supposed merger is to this day.

    They only treated Kevin Murray like royalty to get his undying support – the Brions needed at least one of the icons on board. Others like Bernie Quinlan ‘wouldn’t piss on them’.

    Also, in my last year of my sports mgt degree I did some voluntary work for the newly established Melbourne base of the Bris Lions that was located at the Albion Charles Hotel. They could not give two shits about the Fitzroy fans when all was said and done. It was a marriage of convenience.

    It was also interesting that Bill Atherton was a realist in that he acknowledged FFC stuffed up in not accepting several prior opportunities that may have seen the club survive and thrive in Melbourne with their dignity and culture intact. The VFL, let alone the AFL, had long passed them by – as he said, for decades they were at VFA suburban club level trying to compete in a professional competition.

    https://jeffdowsing.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/roy-boys-rebooted-part-1/

  6. G’day Pete,

    Thanks for your explanation about Port Adelaide. But I do understand how Roy fans including Matt and Phil were so devastated and feel unfair comparing Carlton and Sydney Swans.

    Last year, I found an SEN article that Fitzroy Lions would be saved in current standards. I am extremely sorry for passionate Fitzroy fans…

    Cheers

    Yoshi

  7. matt watson says

    JD,
    You’re right about the chances they had. Fitzroy knocked back or were unsuccessful in a number of proposed mergers or relocations.
    In 1980 there was a chance they’d move to Sydney and become the Sydney Lions.
    Former chairman Leon Weigard rejected an offer to move to Brisbane in 1986 and he stalled on negotiations with Melbourne that same year.
    In 1989 a planned merger with Footscray was scuttled by Bulldogs supporters.
    There was Melbourne again in 1994 and North in 1996.
    Then, of course, Brisbane.
    It all seems so tragic looking back on it.
    To take Fitzroy’s history out of Melbourne will never make sense to me.
    The Melbourne Lions, the Footscray Lions, North Melbourne Lions all sounds much better.
    Shame one of them didn’t happen.
    It’s an even bigger shame the AFL didn’t save them.

  8. matt watson says

    Yoshi,
    I love that you’re learning about the history of our great game.
    This is the best place to do it.
    It was a sad day when Fitzroy died.
    And as Fitzroy Pete said, the merger allowed the AFL to bring in Port Adelaide.
    The killed a foundation club for a new entity.
    And that remains the disgrace.
    Cheers

  9. Well said, Matt.

    Those who blithely pass off Fitzroy’s demise as a matter of course don’t understand what makes sport great and what makes a great club. It’s all about community and belonging and representing your tribe as a player or a supporter. If your tribe’s in Melbourne, you can’t feel connected to Brisbane. The dickheads who ran the AFL in 1996 didn’t understand that. That’s why they treated the Roys fans so badly. I don’t live in Melbourne anymore, but if I did I’d like to live in Fitzroy and go down to the Brunswick St Oval to support the ‘new’ FFC – by and for their community. That’s the only place the club belongs.

  10. Great piece, Matt. The interstate clubs are the AFL’s stage children – they are exploited by their parent for $, market share and legitimacy. But even the meanest of stage parents still feels a sense of obligation towards their child that they may not feel to their crotchety old uncle that is well beyond his glory days and lacking any political standing within the family.

    Port Adelaide had to be rewarded for abetting the equally as clinical execution of the SANFL in 1989, ensuring that the AFL would remain a competition operated by and for the benefit of the big Victorian clubs. Just as well footy is so bloody good. Otherwise it would be insupportable.

  11. I am a Fitzroy supporter since I was kid and whilst I understand the pain for supporters, ultimately, I just don’t think it is fair to keep incurring debts for other clubs or the AFL to pick up. It is not a charity – it is a football club and Fitzroy just did not have enough supporters or members to keep it going. Similarly, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of these other clubs go down too like Carlton.

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