Revising the Doom and Gloom Historiography: Fitzroy Football Club’s last golden era 1978-1986

Much analysis of the now-defunct Fitzroy Football Club presents a doom and gloom perspective. According to this narrative, Fitzroy’s record following its eighth and last premiership in 1944 was characterized by consistent on-field failure, a debilitating player drain, limited off-field membership and support, burgeoning debt, and constant threat of merger or relocation. [1]

In contrast, this article contests this permanent decline thesis by highlighting Fitzroy’s last golden era from 1978-86 when they were widely regarded as one of “the glamour” teams of the competition.[2] In part one, we demonstrate that Fitzroy’s home and away win-loss record and level of finals participation during this era was comparable to all but the most successful VFL clubs. In part two, we document Fitzroy’s season by season team highlights, and in part three we select the best team of this era and document some brilliant individual achievements.[3]

Part One: Comparative Performance

As demonstrated in the table below, Fitzroy was one of the more successful VFL clubs from 1978-86. All 12 clubs played 198 home and away games. During this period, Fitzroy secured 100 victories which was 50.5 per cent of games played, and ranked 7th out of 12 for total wins. They played in five finals series which ranked them equal 5th out of the 12 clubs.

We have also provided separate figures for 1981-1986 to reveal the seminal impact of Robert Walls as coach of Fitzroy from 1981-1985 plus the first coaching year of David Parkin. These figures show an even stronger performance with Fitzroy winning 54.9 per cent of games played, ranked 4th out of the 12 clubs for total wins, and 4th for finals appearances.

Table : VFL Clubs Home and Away Games number of Wins and Final Series Participation, 1978-1986

Clubs 1978-86 Wins 1981-1986 Wins 1978-86 Finals Series Participation 1981-86 Finals Series
North Melbourne 118 70.5 6 3
Hawthorn 131.5 (each draw is counted as half a win) 95.5 6 5
Collingwood 112.5 68 5 2
Carlton 139.5 87.5 9 6
Geelong 102 61 3 1
St Kilda 43 24 0 0
Richmond 99.5 64 2 1
South Melbourne/Sydney Swans 86 58 1 1
Fitzroy 100 72.5 5 4
Essendon 126 96 7 6
Footscray 70 53 1 1
Melbourne 56 40 0 0


Part Two: Season by Season Highlights


This was the year that Fitzroy began to stir. Half way through the season the club recruited two big name players in Robert Walls from Carlton and Bernie Quinlan from Footscray. Walls only played two seasons, but then became the most successful Fitzroy coach in over three decades. Quinlan became one of the club’s greatest ever players.

The home and away results remained disappointing with Fitzroy improving slightly in the second half of the year to win eight games and finish 9th on the ladder. But the club managed to secure the Night series premiership with a huge 76 point victory over perennial finals side North Melbourne.[4]


Club stalwart Bill Stephen took over as coach, and steered Fitzroy to their best season since they had finished third in 1960. They won fifteen games including nine in a row from rounds 5-13. Fitzroy kicked a record score of 36 goals 22 behinds 238 points against Melbourne which was bettered only by Geelong against Brisbane in 1992. The winning margin of 190 points remains a competition record. In addition, full forward Bob Beecroft kicked 87 goals which was then a club record including 10 against Melbourne.

Fitzroy should have secured the double chance, but managed to lose the final home and away game to Geelong despite leading by 27 points with only ten minutes left. They recovered to thrash Essendon by 81 points in the Elimination Final with Garry Wilson best on ground with 40 possessions, but lost the first semi final to Collingwood by 22 points.[5]


This season was a disaster. Dubbed “dad’s army” by the media due to a proliferation of older players, the club secured only four wins and a draw and finished bottom. Meagre highlights included centre half back Chris Smith finishing sixth in the Brownlow medal, a round 14 victory over eventual premier Richmond, and the outstanding first year of winger Frank Marchesani. Off-field woes loomed large as the club fell into massive debt. Rumours of possible relocation to Sydney were rife, and top players such as Beecroft, Allan and Irwin and youngster Marchesani left the club. [6]


At the beginning of this season, Fitzroy took a gamble and appointed the recently retired and unproven Robert Walls as their new coach. It proved a wise choice as Walls was named VFL coach of the year. Walls was an outstanding strategist, and developed numerous set plays including what became known as the “huddle”. This involved the Fitzroy defenders and on-ballers forming a huddle at centre half back when the ball was kicked in after a behind. The players would then suddenly run to planned positions whilst blocking opponents, and the full back would direct the ball to a designated target who was regularly unopposed. That player would then be able to move the ball down the ground with little or no pressure from the opposition.[7]

Walls tactics engineered an exciting jump from wooden spooners to finals side. The club upset highly-rated Essendon in a tight Elimination Final with Wilson and Quinlan starring in the final quarter. Inspired by David McMahon, they then came back from a 45 points deficit against Collingwood in the First Semi Final to lead by ten points with only five minutes to play before losing by one point.[8]


Fitzroy started the season slowly winning only five of their first fifteen games. They then won six in a row as youngsters Pert and Roos began to star, and only missed the finals by one and a half games. They were universally regarded as the best team outside the five.[9]


This was the year that Fitzroy could have and perhaps should have won a premiership.[10] Highlights included seven wins in a row, a record 150 point win over then top of the ladder side North Melbourne, a ten goal away victory over reigning premier Carlton, and two brutal victories over eventual runner-up Essendon. The club also headed the AFL ladder for a number of weeks.

In a sensational qualifying final against Hawthorn, Fitzroy trailed all day, but kicked eight goals in the last quarter to hit the front with a few minutes left including an amazing five goals in the quarter (out of eight in total for the game) by Bernie Quinlan. Sadly a free kick in front of goal gave Hawthorn victory by four points. [11] Fitzroy led for most of the first semi final against Essendon, and seemed home when leading by 21 points late in the third quarter. But Essendon rammed home with often illegal aggression to win by 15 points.[12]


Fitzroy had an awful start to the season, and sat bottom of the ladder with only one win from the opening 9 games. But they made an amazing recovery in the second half of the season to finish fifth with 11 wins. Unfortunately, they lost the elimination final to Collingwood. Fitzroy played their last game at the Junction Oval, and stalwarts Garry Wilson and David McMahon retired at the end of the season.[13]


Fitzroy moved grounds to share Victoria Park with Collingwood, but this was a disappointing year both on and off the field. The club only won seven games to finish 9th on the ladder.[14]


At the end of 1985, Robert Walls moved to Carlton in a direct swap for Carlton and ex-Hawthorn Premiership Coach David Parkin. Fitzroy stormed home to make the finals with first year player Mark Dwyer securing 10 Brownlow votes in only eight games. [15]The club then enjoyed narrow finals victories over Essendon (through a remarkable Conlan goal with less than a minute to play), and the Sydney Swans.

Come Preliminary Final day, Fitzroy shot out of the blocks and led Hawthorn by 20 to 0 after eight minutes including two goals from Quinlan. The large crowd of 68,000 was firmly with the underdog, and sensed a huge upset on the cards. But the Fitzroy players, many of whom were carrying injuries, tired and Hawthorn eventually won by 56 points. Quinlan retired after this game which was Fitzroy’s last ever finals appearance.[16]

Part Three: Best team and individual highlights 1978-1986

Here I list what is in my opinion the best Fitzroy team (or top 25 players) of this specific era. I have also summarized the individual achievements of those I consider to be the six most influential players.

Backs: Hinchen, Pert, Serafini

Half Backs: Thornton, Roos, Lawrie

Centre: Carlson, Lokan, Leon Harris

Half Forwards: Osborne, Sidebottom, McMahon

Forwards: Beecroft, Quinlan, Conlan

Rucks: Rendell, Parish, Wilson

Interchange: Alexander, Smith, Clayton, Barwick

Emergencies: Murnane, Coleman, Poynton

Bernie “Superboot” Quinlan was a star, and arguably the best player in the VFL for much of this period. He regularly scored 60 metre goals with ease, and once in 1981 booted a 75 metre torpedo goal against Carlton on the run. He remains the only player to kick 100 goals in a season (twice), play more than 300 games (366), and win a Brownlow medal. Remarkably, he achieved all these honours after his 30th birthday. In total, he scored 817 goals (9th highest in the AFL) which included 483 over 131 games in his last six seasons for Fitzroy at an average of 3.69 goals per game. He won the club goal-kicking for five consecutive years from 1981-85.[17]

Garry “the flea” Wilson was one of the best rovers in the VFL, and rated the 47th best player of the modern era by Mike Sheahan.[18] The slightly built (only 64 kg) but tallish (177 cm) runner had amazing endurance, and played 268 games and kicked 452 goals. He twice finished in the top three in the Brownlow medal (1978/79), accumulated 161 Brownlow votes in total, was named Victorian captain in 1984, won five club best and fairests, kicked 30 or more goals in nine seasons, and topped the club goal-kicking three times.[19]

Mick “the tank” Conlan was the great goal-sneak of his day playing 210 games and kicking 395 goals. He was extremely strong, lightning quick, and scored goals from anywhere including the “World of Sport” goal of the year in 1982. He kicked 40 or more goals in five seasons, and kicked seven goals or more in a game on three occasions.[20]

Paul Roos was an outstanding forward and later centre half back for Fitzroy who was regarded as one of the best players in the competition. He played 269 games and kicked 270 goals before switching to Sydney in 1995. He finished top three in the Brownlow medal in consecutive years (1985/86), and won the club best and fairest five times.[21]

David McMahon was a battling ex-VFA half-back flanker who was neither tall nor particularly quick, but turned into a gun midfielder and half-forward flanker. He played 218 games and scored 236 goals. Time and time again McMahon kicked crucial goals to get the Lions home in close games, most famously in Round 17 1981 against reigning premier Richmond.[22]

Laurie Serafini started as a full-forward, but soon moved to the back line and gradually turned into an outstanding full back. In his 146 games, he was a dasher who constantly turned defence into attack with long runs and driving punts. His absence from the 1983 finals series was a huge loss, and may have cost them the premiership. Injury forced his retirement at the relatively young age of 27.[23]

This article first appeared in Australian Society for Sports History Bulletin, No.54.

[1] Gary Linnell, Football Ltd. Pan Macmillan. Sydney, pp.153-59, 303-11; Dave Nadel, “Colour, Corporations and Commissioners, 1976-1985” in Rob Hess (ed.) More than a game: The real story of Australian Rules Football. Melbourne University Press. Melbourne, 1998, pp.208, 227-228, 232, 247-49; Dave Nadel, “A game goes national” in Geoff Slattery (ed.) The Australian Game of Football since 1858. Geoff Slattery Publishing. Melbourne, 2008, p.90; Greg Baum, “Fitzroy’s last rites”, The Age, 31 August 2006.

[2] Rick Lang, “Fitzroy” in The Clubs: the complete history of every club in the VFL/AFL. Penguin. Melbourne. 1998, p.137; Adam Muyt, Maroon & Blue. Vulgar Press. Melbourne. 2006, p.291; Chris Donald, Fitzroy for the love of the jumper. Pennon Publishing. Melbourne. 2002, p.234.

[3] Much of the detail that follows is adapted from the Fitzroy Football Club Annual Reports, 1978-86 inclusive.

[4] Jim Main, Fitzroy. BAS Publishing. Melbourne, pp.195-96; Chris Donald, op.cit, p.188.

[5] Jim Main, op.cit, pp.197-199; Ian McDonald, Finals Action: VFL 1979 Season Official Souvenir. Melbourne, pp.40-43, 56-59.

[6] Jim Main, op.cit, pp.200-202; Chris Donald, op.cit, p.232.

[7] Nadel, op.cit, p.212; Ross McMullin, “Tactics and Trends” in Geoff Slattery (ed.) The Australian Game of Football since 1858. Geoff Slattery Publishing. Melbourne, 2008, p.212; Paul Roos, Beyond 300 An Autobiography. Random House. Milsons Point. 1997, pp.133-136; Richard Osborne, Ossie Rules. Victoria University of Technology. Melbourne. 1998, pp.41-42.

[8] Jim Main, op.cit, pp.203-05; Victorian Football League, Finals Battle 81. Herald and Weekly Times Melbourne, pp.33-35, 40-44.

[9] Jim Main, op.cit, pp.206-07.

[10] Paul Roos, op.cit, pp.122, 149-152; Adam Muyt, op.cit, p.292; Chris Donald, op.cit, p.261; Richard Osborne, op.cit, p.97.

[11] Rohan Connolly, “One free kick in it”, The Age, 4 September 2001.

[12] JimMain, op.cit, pp.208-10; Chris Donald, op.cit, p.247.

[13] Jim Main, op.cit, pp.211-212.

[14] Jim Main, op.cit, pp.213-215.

[15] Greg Hobbs, “Bush-boys Brownlow Bonanza”, Football Record, 31 July 1992, pp.44-45; Paul Daffey, “Bush prodigy who rode a rollercoaster”, The Age, 20 September 2003.

[16] Paul Roos, op.cit, pp.161-165; Jim Main, op.cit, pp.216-17.

[17] Peter Ryan, “Bernie Quinlan: a champion ahead of his time”, AFL Record, 2010, pp.83-90; Paul Roos, op.cit, pp.130-31; Russell Holmesby & Jim Main, The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers. BAS Publishing. Melbourne, 2007, p.649; Adam Muyt, op.cit, pp.98-101; Chris Donald, op.cit, pp.263-66.

[18] Mike Sheahan, “Cream of the Crop” in Geoff Slattery (ed.) The Australian Game of Football since 1858. Geoff Slattery Publishing. Melbourne, 2008, p.158.

[19] See Anon, Victorian Australian Rules Superstars. Murray Publishers. Sydney, p.118; Paul Roos, op.cit, pp.129-30; Holmesby & Main, op.cit, p.857; Chris Donald, op.cit, pp.230-31

[20] Paul Roos, op.cit, pp.128-29, 138; Russell Holmesby & Jim Main, op.cit, pp.156-57; Chris Donald, op.cit, pp.196-198; Michael Reid, “Corporate Crash”, The Age, 12 March 1999.

[21] Holmesby & Main, op.cit, pp.685-86; Chris Donald, op.cit, pp.270-75.

[22] Victorian Australian Rules Superstars, op.cit, p.119; Paul Roos, op.cit, p.129; Holmesby & Main, op.cit, p.533; Chris Donald, op.cit, pp.204-05.

[23] Paul Roos, op.cit, p.128; Holmesby & Main, op.cit, p.716; Chris Donald, op.cit, pp.274-76.

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. Dianne Waddingham says

    Please stop this fabulous reminiscence – You are torturing me. I’m running out of Kleenex!! If only Fitzroy was given the support that Swans, Bears/Brissie, GWS and Giants have been given, what might have been…. I can still dream……!! and yes, I am still and will always remain bitter and twisted!!

  2. daryl Sharpen says

    Great read. Like most I was very saddened to see the demise of the ‘Roys. I recall watching them circa June ’84, maybe 30 pts down at the MCG against Richmond before Superboot awoke and a spirited last quarter comeback saw them overrun the Tigers. They were exciting. I am very pleased to see Graeme ‘Kung’ Hinchin in your team of the era. He was a hard, tough and skillful ex-New Norfolk Eagle player who, if my memory serves me correctly, played centre/on ball early doors. He went to ‘The Mainland’ and like so many others, never returned. He would most likely be still resident in Melb somewhere. In a discussion I raise with New Norfolk locals; name the 10 best to PLAY with New Norfolk, I always put his name forward. Good to see you recognise him as one of Fitzroy’s best of that fabulous modern era.

  3. Timmy Pekin ?


  4. Great read, Philip, and it’s a pretty formidable Best of 1978-86 team that you’ve named.

  5. phil hill says

    I would put Peter Francis in this team. His move and the loss of Lee Murnane reduced our onballer depth considerably. Francis had at least one top three Best and Fairest positions for the Tigers after he left us

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