Not Taking Sides Against the Family: Fitzroy and the Lions through the generations

My grandfather didn’t know much about Australian rules football when he moved down from Sydney to Melbourne in 1944. Born and raised in western Sydney, he enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force on 22 November 1944 at the age of eighteen and was sent down to Victoria at the start of 1945 for specialist training as a signaller, first at Bonegilla just outside Wodonga, and then at Balcombe Camp near Mount Martha on the Mornington Peninsula.


In Victoria he was exposed to Australian Rules Football, and either through genuine interest or peer-pressure he selected a team to support. Being a rugby league man, he had little to guide him on which of the VFL’s twelve teams to support, and so he presumably selected the most successful at the time, being the Fitzroy Football Club (or the Gorillas as they were known at the time), which had won the 1944 Grand Final against Richmond 9.12.66 to 7.9.51. With that decision, the Westerman family’s allegiance to Fitzroy had begun.


After my Dad was born in 1952 he continued the family’s support for Fitzroy (soon to adopt the Lions nickname). While he supported them through some truly miserable periods (such as the 1963 and 1964 seasons when the team only recorded one win in two years) by the late 1970s and through most of the 1980s Fitzroy had a relatively decent team and were playing finals. When I was born in 1987, Fitzroy had finished fourth the previous year and had made it all the way to the Preliminary Final, before being defeated by Hawthorn 16.14.110 to 7.12.54.


There was no question that I would be a Fitzroy supporter too, but it was a terrible time to be born into the club. While Dad had seen the likes of Bernie Quinlan and Garry Wilson running around for the Lions, by the start of the 1990s the club’s best players were being pushed out, and lingering doubts about the club’s financial viability made long-term support of Fitzroy a grim prospect. Some time in early primary school I made the decision to support another team, and Dad, possibly realising that Fitzroy was a lost cause at that stage, allowed me to go. After the tumult of the merger in 1996 he followed the Lions up to Brisbane, while I continued supporting my new club.


Dad revelled in the 2001-2003 premierships, and I was happy for him, although I couldn’t truly share in the joy of the occasions. Then, when I was a little older, I decided to return to supporting the Lions. While there were a number of reasons behind this decision, I was primarily following the direction Michael Corleone gave to his brother, Fredo, not to take sides against the family. There is something powerful about a family lineage committed to the one club, with shared experiences and shared passions.


The two of us got to spend just under a decade supporting the same club, before Dad died last year. In truth, he had moved on from AFL and become invested supporting Melbourne Victory in the A-League, but it was nevertheless nice to be on the same side again. Out mutual joy at the Lions’ come from behind victory against Carlton in the 2009 Second Elimination Final was a special moment indeed.


Now, with my first son born just last week, I am faced with the prospect of assigning him a football team to support. Clearly in this age where personal choices about identity are so important, I must tread lightly. I’ve heard many young AFL supporters talk about being ‘brainwashed’ into supporting the team that their parents supported when they were young. While this is usually said in a light-hearted manner, it leverages off more serious ideas of people pushing back against external constraints and ‘marching on to the beat I drum’, as a song from The Greatest Showman expressed. Recognising the importance of young people finding their own way in life and making decisions about their own identity for themselves, I will still be raising him to support the Lions.


The problem is that, being born to Victorian parents, he will be supporting a Queensland club, because of its’ connection with a Melbourne-based club that no longer exists. How can I explain this to him in a succinct way that he will understand? I remember Fitzroy, as an AFL club and that justifies my support of Brisbane, yet my son will have no such memories. As a more Victorian alternative, there is a strong argument for him to support his mother’s family team, Richmond, because her family has a strong pedigree as Richmond supporters. Undermining this suggestion is his mother’s inability to name any current Richmond players, except for famous ones like “Justin Martin” and “that Cotchin guy”.


There is also the question of assigning him a football club that might know decades of failure and disappointment. James Massola, a Fairfax journalist in Jakarta, recently questioned the efficacy of raising his children as Melbourne fans in the wake of yet more disappointment from the team of the red and the blue (Massola, ‘After decades of failure, how can I raise my kids to be Demons fans?’, The Age, 16 April 2018). Given that Brisbane is statistically one of the worst performing clubs in the home and away season since 1987, this is a serious factor to consider.


Nevertheless, until he determines otherwise, I’ll dress him in maroon (red), yellow and blue and call him a young lion. I’ll sign him up as a Fitzroy member and I want to take him to Brunswick Street Oval to watch the Roys, just like my grandfather did with Dad before Fitzroy moved to Princes Park at the end of the 1966 season. While it’s a little harder to do while we’re living in Canberra, I’m looking forward to taking him to watch the Lions, either at the Gabba or in Melbourne, just like Dad did with me.


Back in 1999, Homer Simpson posited that kids are the best because ‘you can teach them to hate the things you hate’. I’d suspect that in its positive form this is the strongest reason for passing football teams down through the family; those who love the game and love their clubs want to share their passion with those closest to them, and I can image few things more heart-warming than celebrating a Lions victory with my young son (once he’s old enough to comprehend it of course). Once I’d become comfortable back supporting the Lions, Dad told me how great it would have been had we both been at those Brisbane Grand Finals in the early 2000s; I don’t want to miss that opportunity with my own son.


Without his grandfather and great-grandfather around, it’s just the two of us carrying on the family tradition. And anyway, as he grows up he might not even care about footy at all – that, at least, is entirely up to him.



About William Westerman

Canberra-based historian. Author of 'Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996' Available here:


  1. By the time your son reaches an age when he can makes his own choices, the Lions will, surely, be up there with the best of them once again! Stick with them.

  2. I love reading about fellow young(ish) Roys fans. Born in the same year no less!

    For me, I think by virtue of holding onto Fitzroy until the bitter end I was in an easier place to enjoy the 2000-2004 years despite having followed the Tigers from late 1997/early 1998ish (took me a while to get over not having a team in the same sense as I’d had pre-1997).

    I think it’d be quite interesting to see how our generation of Roy Boys & Girls have turned out – if they’ve made peace, repressed memories or hitched their wagon to another side…perhaps a meeting at BSO for the Almanackers who’ve followed Fitzroy could be in order?

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