It’s time for the AFL to say sorry to Fitzroy

This piece was originally published in Online Opinion in 2008.

by Philip Mendes

This year the AFL is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Australian football. Media reports highlight the overwhelming sporting and financial strength of the national competition, and particularly the inspiring achievements of numerous indigenous football stars. The competition is so successful that the AFL is even planning the addition of two new teams from the Gold Coast and Western Sydney. But there is one event which continues to be the cause of mourning rather than celebration, and that is the premature demise of the Fitzroy Football Club in 1996.

Today we live in an increasingly individualistic society in which the old communal ties of class, workplace, geographical proximity and religious affiliation have broken down. But supporters of Victorian football teams are bound together by a tribal code of allegiance. Many of the original residents of inner city suburbs such as Collingwood, Richmond and Carlton now reside many kilometres from their birth place. Yet they continue to pledge their loyalty and often that of their children and grandchildren to their team of origin linking generations in a common passion.

Football in Victoria is one crucial aspect of the communal social fabric. Many supporters view their football club as one of the few concrete links to their own childhood memories and experiences. Supporting a football club is one activity that still allows individuals to combine with others in search of a collective purpose. For many people, their football team is crucial to their sense of identity.

For Fitzroy supporters, the demise of their club ended their association with others in a collective experience. Some felt a serious sense of grief and loss, almost like losing a close family member. It is not just a matter of having nothing to do anymore on cold wintry Saturday afternoons. Supporters may suffer from withdrawal symptoms, social isolation, and even depression. The major source of passion and energy in their life had gone for ever. Many fans have never forgiven the AFL.

According to Adam Muyt’s 2006 book, Maroon & Blue: Recollections and tales of the Fitzroy Football Club, some chose to support the merged Brisbane team, others adopted new Melbourne-based teams, and many abandoned the AFL together. Most believe the AFL did everything in its power to destroy the proud 100 year old club, a club that won eight premierships, and produced champions such as Hadyn Bunton, Kevin Murray, Gary Wilson, Bernie Quinlan, Laurie Serafini, Michael Conlan and many others.

To be fair, the AFL was not the only problem. Successive Fitzroy administrations eroded the credibility of the club with constant shifts to new grounds, and a failure to retain key players such as Gary Pert, Richard Osborne, Alistair Lynch and Paul Roos. And the supporters also failed to support the club in its time of need. A number of the home games in the club’s final years of competition attracted less than 10,000 people. Many of the 48,000 strong crowd who attended the last Melbourne-based game against Richmond in Round 21 1996 admitted that they had not been to a game for years.

Most of the other teams also did little to help. Powerful clubs such as Collingwood and Carlton negotiated Scrooge-like ground share arrangements with Fitzroy that did little to assist the struggling club. And when it came to the crunch in 1996, the majority of clubs opposed the proposed merger with the North Melbourne Kangaroos (that was favoured by most Fitzroy supporters and supported by the Boards of both clubs) on the self-interested grounds that it would create an overly powerful team.

But the AFL bears the key responsibility. They publicly undermined Fitzroy at every opportunity, they discouraged potential sponsors, and they actively prevented the preferred merger option with North Melbourne. Yet today they provide millions of dollars in assistance to struggling clubs such as Melbourne, the Kangaroos and the Bulldogs. Such support might have saved the Lions.

The AFL continues to propagate the self-serving myth that Fitzroy lives on in the form of the Brisbane Lions. Yet the former AFL Chief Executive Ross Oakley admitted in 1996 that the Brisbane-Fitzroy alliance was actually a “corporate takeover” rather than a merger. And the official AFL statistics today tell the real story: the Brisbane Bears and the Brisbane Lions are combined as one club, whereas the proud history of Fitzroy is counted separately.

The AFL would prefer the thousands of former royboys and roygirls to just forget how they railroaded Fitzroy out of existence.  But the forced demise of Fitzroy will always remain a stain upon the competition. Twelve years after Fitzroy’s last victory over Fremantle on 18 May 1996, it’s time for the AFL to say sorry to Fitzroy.

(Dr Philip Mendes is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University. He supported Fitzroy for 27 years from 1970-1996: Philip.Mendes@med.monash.edu.au)

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.

Comments

  1. Well written Phil, i find it horrendous to hear talk of Sydney, trying to link its history to South Melbourne, similarily the Brisbane Fitzroy situatiion. For the sake of a corpporate exapnsion into new ‘markets’, these two foundation clubs were sacrificed, yet their proud histories are somehow being transplanted onto these two new clubs..

    Brsiabane has nothing to share with Fitzroy, they are two totally seperate clubs. Fitzroy should be given the respect of having their history and legacy preserved as a proud, foundation member of the VFL, not canibalised to be tacked on to Brisbane, to give that club some sort of history.

    Phil, i wish you luck seeking an apology, though i won’t hold my breath.

    Glen!

  2. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Definitely agree Phil. Every Victorian club should apologize to Fitzroy for turning its back on them in 1996 because they feared the so-called ‘Super Team’ merger with North. Comp has not and will never be the same without the Roys.

  3. Nice work Phil. My old man is one of those who left footy after the Roys were crucified.

    However one wonders where the Roys would be today (in the AFL) if they survived. We’ll never know.

  4. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    I too had a soft spot especially at the end for poor old , Fitzroy and find it hypocritical
    how there demise war encouraged and yet now other clubs anything is done for there survival . How ever we must remember with out the , tv deal caused by having the
    AFL a he’ll of a lot more clubs would have fallen over . The absolute tragedy is that all the other comps are being ruined by the stupidity and incompetence of not having a national reserves competion

  5. I’ve already put in my two bobs worth re the sacrificial slaughters of Fitzroy, and South Melbourne, with what it means in contemporary footy, but there’s another slow footballing death we’re watching drift past us.

    The VFA, which is now the VFL, is a mixture of stand alone teams, and AFL affiliatd sides, has been the basis for this competition, is quietly fading away. There is now a trend for AFL clubs to play their reserve sides, rather than have an affiliated, ex-VFA club, which means that over time many of the old VFA clubs will whither on the vine, finishing up with Fitzroy and South Melbourne, in a veritable Victorian football heaven. Sad, but that’s how it’s looking .

    Glen!

  6. To a large extent, Fitzroy’s problems were of their own making and of their time – it was a Woebegone clusterfuck. But there are two things that are difficult to forgive the AFL for.

    One, is that Fitzroy wasn’t given a fair chance to trade their way out of their trouble, with Ross Oakley and his mates white-anting (along with a complicit Melbourne football media) them on just about every opportunity for sponsorship that presented itself (and there weren’t many).

    Secondly, the mess around the proposed merger with North was short-sightedness of the highest order and in effect counter-intuitive. There are still too many Melbourne teams in the league, and the way this merger was managed would have massively dissuaded any club looking at it as an option (and there were few clubs who weren’t).

  7. I remember a comment Paul Roos made in his book “Beyond 300” along the lines of that at the end of season 86 (I think. I could be a year out) the Lions players voted, almost to the last man, in favour of a move to relocate north. In particular I remember him commenting that to this day he still doesn’t know why the move never came to fruition. AFL intervention? Administrative incompetence? Who knows?
    All I can really remember now is that watching them being stripped for spare parts and slowly suffocating over the ensuing 10 years was painful.

  8. The Roy Boys still play on the Brunswick Street oval in the VAFA B Division. It’s great seeing the old jumper and it’s great seeing and hearing the passion of their supporters. Fitzroy Football Club lives on.

  9. Dianne Waddingham says:

    Though I turned my allegiance to another team (and dare I say an interstate team) when my beloved Roy boys were crucified by the AFL and obliterated from existence in the AFL/VFL, this trip down memory lane of talking about Fitzroy can still bring tears to my eyes. Something the AFL could not destroy was my passion for Fitzroy. My favourite and most dear footy moment for me was meeting Kevin Murray and that can never be taken away from me, regardless of who is running (and ruining) the AFL!!! Thanks Phil for still caring about the ‘Roys and giving me the chance to still smile about who the real Lions were!

  10. The elephant in the room here is in paragraphs 2 and 3. In addition to the destruction of Fitzroy, the (now) AFL is in the process of destroying the SANFL (having done a pretty good job in WA) all for the sake of the ongoing expansion of the ‘national game.’ The long-time and traditional family attachments to the clubs of the SANFL/WAFL/Tasmanian leagues are identical to that of the Victorian supporters of the former VFL clubs – I still cannot understand how the vast majority of administrators of Australian Rules Football throughout the country continue to get it SO WRONG. I hope they roll in their graves when Soccer becomes the predominant code in Australia.

  11. Fitzroy was clubbed to death because of their debt, about $1.5-2 million.
    Carlton’s current debt is about $10 million.
    What is the chance of the AFL winding up Carlton??
    Ross Oakley and Ian Collins, if they really wanted to be honest about their tenure, would have to admit they got it wrong.
    It was former Lions president Leon Weigard who rejected the move to Brisbane in 1986. He would surely admit that he got it wrong, too.
    The merger between Brisbane and Fitzroy made no sense at the time. It still doesn’t, and it is another reason why I hate Brisbane.

  12. WAH! WAH! WAH! WAH!

    That’s all I hear from you about Fitzroy. Poor management. Awful governance. Complete lack of any substantial risk assessment left Fitzroy in poor condition. Yours was not the only club looking down the face of extinction. Hawthorn. Footscray. Richmond. They had their issues and pulled through their issues and remain part of the AFL. All I hear is stories claiming the big awful AFL wouldn’t support or help you. It’s not the VFL/AFL’s fault you moved from ground to ground just because your local council didn’t see the big picture and develop Brunswick Street. You didn’t see the aging population around you and get new membership. Nauru. Hobart home games. Canberra home games. Poor retention practices. Lack of sponsorship. Sydney move. Brisbane move. Floundering membership. Fitzroy made a lot of stupid decisions.

    In the end, they were nothing more than ‘deadweight’ to the competition averaging 9,400 at home games in 1996 when most of your opponents were just around the corner. I suppose it was the AFL’s fault that nobody showed up at your games. It was the AFL’s fault for the 1-21 record in 1996. It was the AFL’s fault all your good players left.

    Some members now follow the Brisbane Lions. Some follow other clubs. Some deserted the AFL. Stop blaming everybody for the club’s demise and accept you weren’t good enough.

  13. Mervyn Magee says:

    I supported the Roy’s from 1958 until the end. Didn’t like the merger, but support the Brisbane Lions who do respect the history of Fitzroy. I think bad administration didn’t help Fitzroy and the appalling duplicity of the All, media other clubs help to destroy them But the heart of the Lions still beats in the Brisbane Lions, and the jumper reflects Fitzroy. It is the nearest we will get to our old club. The Brisbane Lions have been more supportive of Fitzroy than Sydney to South Melbourne.

  14. Bob.Peters. says:

    loved the Roys from the age of 5, 1958 same as Merv right up till they folded. It took me a while to get used to them winning consistently from 1978 onwards. So i had followed them for 20 years before they became succesful,although they did pretty well in “71.i thought we probably should have won a flag in the early 80’s but that’s life.I get a kick out of seeing Kev Murray talk about the roys he was my hero when i was a kid.Ithought the world had ended when he went west but he came back and won a brownlow.Will always love you Kevvie.Loved the way Garry.Wilson played the game nothing of him but so brave and skillful.Bernie golden boot Quinlan…..What a great player,And mad Mickey Conlan a runaway bulldozer.Then there was perty and roosy etc.I met Roosy and lynchy in the early 90’s when they came up to sydney.i had a yarn with them for a few minutes and showed them my Fitzroy tattoo(yes it is still there a bit weatherd now though).Unfortunately when the Roys folded i couldn’t follow another team but good luck to the supporters that went to follow brisbane.So as i live in Maitland i sort of followed the swans because of Roosy.He missed a flag as a player but got one as a coach.And still follow him ,he did a fine job with Melbourne.I am nearly 64 now and still a FITZROYBOY.

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