Lions old and new

I was getting a much needed Saturday morning coffee in North Fitzroy when word arrived of an impromptu kick to kick at the Brunswick Street Oval. Beaumaris had forfeited their Ammo’s match so the Fitzroy Thirds were playing a social intraclub – all welcome. A mate of mine, Curly, runs around for the Roys and he’d convinced a few of the other boys, Shacks and Porky, to venture down for a look. Shacks was the only one dusting off the boots so Porky and I drifted back into the shadows of the Fitzroy Pavilion to watch the warm up.

There were men of all shapes and sizes: tall and short, rotund and wiry and that they were all wearing the old Fitzroy strip made it all the more magnificent. There was a Daniel Merrett lookalike and another bloke had a bit of Mark Zanotti about him.

Warm up complete, players congregated in front of the race and two captains were picked at random. They took it in turns to pick their sides and it ended up twelve on twelve or thereabouts. When one team turned their jerseys inside out the stage was set. Porky and I made our way up into the stand via the canteen – a hotdog and three steamed Dim Sims for $5 – and took our place amongst the empty wine casks and cigarette butts. We sat and watched as the Roy Boys trotted across the hallowed turf all of the Brunswick Street Oval.

The nominated player-turned-umpire-for-a-day signaled the start of play and we were treated to a glimpse of football at its best. The umpiring was loose, there was plenty of space and everyone was getting a touch. With footy in hand players took the play on with a grin. The skills were woeful but it was a great spectacle: end-to-end play and plenty of goals.

There were plenty of reminders of footy as it used to be. One bloke played the first half in a beanie. There was a permed blond mullet and moustaches. Players snuck darts at halftime while spectators drank instant coffee from polystyrene foam cups. There was good-hearted sledging and a rolling drizzle obscured the city skyline.

The sun came out at the start of the third quarter. Curly was moved to full forward. One poor bloke sprayed a regulation shot from the top of the square and Shacks adopted a Robert Harvey hunch. The breeze very much favoured the Gardens end and the play followed suit. There was no keeping of score, people simply enjoyed the game and time with their mates.

As the boys walked off I reflected that the last time I’d seen Fitzroy play was more than fifteen years earlier. Growing up in Wonthaggi, I didn’t see many live AFL games as a kid but I vividly remember coming up to watch the Lions take on Footscray at the Western Oval. I reckon the crowd would have been lucky to be 4,500. I remember huddling under the pie van annex for shelter from the icy gale. Brad Boyd had about 50 touches and I was shocked by how much abuse John McCarthy copped from Lions fans.

I followed Fitzroy because dad did and I liked that I was the only person I knew outside my family who barracked for them. I idolized Paul Roos and remember the optimism associated with the finals campaigns of the mid-80s. I remember Alistair Lynch and Gary Pert going. Then Roosy left. The final game against Fremantle, played away, came a few years later. Since that day I have lived in a weird football limbo: a footy fan without an AFL team.

I moved up to Melbourne for University in the late 1990s but despite it being far more accessible I couldn’t bring myself to watch a lot of AFL level footy. I traveled back down the coast each weekend to play and contented myself by following the Lions players who had found new homes – Johnny Barker, Matty Primus, Steve Paxman, Chris Johnson and Martin Pike to name a few. As I watched the Fitzroy Thirds start their post-game stretch I thought back to those old Roy boys. It made me hanker for more footy and I decided to extend my Saturday football odyssey to include Richmond taking on Brisbane at the MCG.

Hopping a tram to the city and walking across to the ground I found conditions at the ‘G to be the polar opposite to Brunswick Street. There was no wind, it was mid-afternoon and the lights were on. There were also thirty thousand odd fans in attendance. The most obvious difference was that it was watching the Lions in name only. The players were wearing the same strip but they weren’t Fitzroy anymore.

I took a seat amongst the Brisbane cheer squad at the Ponsford end and the woman next to me asked who I was supporting. She accepted my decision not to support Brisbane after the merger with good grace. “I used to barrack for Fitzroy too,” she said, “I got back on board a couple of years after the move. You get used to it.” Maybe or maybe not.

When the game started Tyrone Vickory was in everything. He’d kicked a couple within minutes but Bronx cheers still came from the Richmond fans and I was reminded of the treatment McCarthy coped at Whitten Oval.

The game wasn’t reaching any great heights. Riewoldt brought a bit of interest into it when he clunked a big pack grab and converted from 20m out but for the most part Under 9s congestion ruled.

Jonathan Brown’s retirement meant it fell to Ivan Maric to provide the link to a football past. His mullet and lumbering run draws the eye and while he might be a little limited by foot he’s got great hands. The other player worth watching was Dustin Martin. The man’s a bull. A bull who can run, carry and bully his way into the clear. His tats are a little more hip than Kevin Murray’s but there’s definitely spunk about him.

Richmond took a 16-point lead into the main break and I decided to spend my life savings on a pie with sauce and a schooner of mid-strength. Luckily I was able to subsidise that outlay in the basement TAB when Excellantes saluted at $6.50 in the sixth at Eagle Farm. I high fived a Brisbane supporter who looked like his nose had been chewed of by a badger then returned to my seat for the second half.

Cotchin and Martin continued racking them up as did Rockcliffe and Handley. Rance did a number on Merrett and I thought back to his lookalike at Brunswick Oval. The boys from the Fitzroy Thirds would be well on the way by this stage of the afternoon. The ‘G was bathed in winter sunshine but the game was poor by AFL standards. Brisbane butchered the ball and Richmond over-possessed it. The latter made a better fist of their opportunities.

A Brisbane chant went up early in the last. The rhythm was familiar but the words were all wrong. ‘Bris-bane’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘Fitz-roy’. It was to no avail and the final siren sounded with the margin 25 points in Richmond’s favour. With back to back wins under the belt, the Tigers faithful launched into the theme song with gusto. “Yellow and black” was shouted with gusto and I took comfort from the fact that at least some things never change.

Walking out of the ‘G I reflected that while the skills were infinitely better than those on display at the Brunswick Street Oval there just isn’t the same fun and joy in the game at the elite level. The stakes are too high in the AFL. There’s too much scrutiny. While I no longer have a close affinity for the Lions of the AFL I rejoice that the Fitzroy Football Club is alive and thriving at the Brunswick Street Oval.

About Rees Quilford

Communications stooge. PhD student. Occasional scribbler. Football watcher. Underwater Hockey tragic.


  1. Rees

    Glad you saw the jumper at Brunswick St. In junior football in the Yarra League, Fitzroy is alive and well and it is brilliant to see the kids running around in that stunning jumper. Brings back memories for us dads. The image you created sounds great, old style footy in a fantastic environment.

    My Under 14s have played games at Brunswick Street and out at Preston in recent weeks, and the old stands, change rooms and the ovals are brilliant. I think even the kids know they are around something special

    Well written and thanks


  2. Hey Sean,

    Glad you liked the piece.

    It is a magnificent strip. I’ve still got my old long sleeve with No.1 on the back. Was shattered when Roosy left but didn’t begrudge him going. At Sydney he got to play with a freedom Fitzroy couldn’t afford.

    The stands down at Brunswick Street are a monument. Built in 1888 I think. Imagine the scenes those change rooms have witnessed.


  3. If I ever make my way back to Melbourne, I will be conspiring to plant myself somewhere close enough to the Brunswick Street Oval to get the kids into a Fitzroy jumper.

  4. Thanks for that yarn, Rees.
    Everyone associated with the current Fitzroy FC should be proud of the successful club they have built from the ashes of Uni Reds.

  5. They definitely seem to be running a good ship down there. Good numbers, great setup and beautiful jumper.

  6. Travis Hocart says

    Great article Rees. You are heading down the John Harms path with the images you create and the memories you bring to life for blokes of our generation.
    I grew up in Doncaster and played Little League for the Roys with Steve Paxman. Although I barrack for the Cats, I always had a strong affiliation with Fitzroy after being in their zone and having guys like Leon Harris come to our school for clinics.
    I live in Perth now and I bought a Fitzroy jumper for their last game held over here. Bloody special day.
    Would love to get that jumper signed and framed !

  7. Glen Potter says

    Great write-up, Rees. I’ve taken my young bloke down to Brunswick St. just for a kick and was thrilled to the back teeth about the experience.

    “Shacks adopted a Robert Harvey hunch” – brilliant

    Do the current Fitzroy team have the F.F.C. or a lion on the guersney? Is it maroon or red? Royal blue or navy?


  8. Hey Travis, wish I traveled across to Perth for that day. Often you only realise the significance of those type of events in hindsight.

  9. Glen, great ground for a kick. They play in what (from memory) was the last Fitzroy AFL strip. Red, blue and gold FFC on the chest.

  10. Nice article Rees. I thought I was too young to be a nostalgic old coote but I guess not!

    I watched a 1993 replay of pies v saints the other night on NITV, the game made famous by Nicky Winmar pointing at his skin. Spud frawley knocked out a bloke with a hip and shoulder in the back pocket, Gilbert McCadam had kicked 5 by half time, big monkhurst was belting the ball out of the ruck and into the forward 50, Gavin Brown was dominating the midfield and Spider Everit didnt even have a single tat. The pies supporters were still exactly the same though.

  11. Laurie Laffan says

    Walking up Brunswick St heading for the Oval, sporting my FITZROY beanie and scarf, with my wife Karen on the morning after the 2001 GF. Got offered and accepted a lift with a fervent Fitzroy supporter and his family in an old EH wagon. There were 7000 dyed in the wool Fitzroy supporters there awaiting the arrival of THE TEAM.Walked back to Fitzroy Gardens and met the doctor who delivered the Scott twins. We live in Canberra but made a special trip, arriving for the Friday parade and leaving on the Monday. Spent a lot of money in Lygon St.

  12. Rosey, never too young for nostalgia.

  13. Hey Laurie, sounds like a cracking day. 2001 turned the tide for my old man. I enjoyed seeing the old Fitzroy guys (Johnstone, Pike & Lynch) taste success.

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