So close to the Holy Grail: A personal reflection on Fitzroy Football Club’s 1983 season







 by Philip Mendes


The 1982 Fitzroy Football Club (FFC) Annual Report confidently predicted the Lions would be a premiership contender in 1983. Featuring a photo of the premiership cup on the front page, the Report assured supporters that the Club sought “top honors” in 1983. [i]


These high expectations proved to be not without merit. In their Centenary year in 1983, Fitzroy won 15 out of 22 home and away games to finish third on the ladder. But disappointingly, the Lions lost two hotly contested finals games to drop out of contention. The Club had a strong group of players including Coleman Medallist “Superboot” Bernie Quinlan who became the first Fitzroy player to top 100 goals in a season at the age of 32, Captain courageous and champion rover Garry “The Flea” Wilson, star ruckman Matthew Rendell who earnt all-Australian selection, other classy experienced players in Michael (Mick) “The Tank” Conlan, Laurie Serafini, Grant Lawrie and Gary Sidebottom, and young rising stars in Paul Roos, Gary Pert and Richard Osborne. Conlan, Lawrie and Serafini were all selected in the Victorian state side.


Both Quinlan and Wilson were recognized by their peers as two of the greatest players of the modern era. Player of the Century Leigh Matthews named Quinlan in his best team from 1969-85 at full forward.[ii] Another legend Kevin Bartlett selected both players (at centre half forward and rover respectively) in his Best Team from 1965-83.[iii] Former team mate Paul Roos handed out similar accolades.  He branded Wilson “an absolute star”,[iv] and Quinlan as “one of the two greatest players he’s seen”,[v] and “the most complete player I have seen”.[vi] Recently, Roos rated Quinlan as the best of the ten highest AFL/VFL games holders, noting “he won a Brownlow as a midfielder and kicked 100 goals twice at full-forward and that’s why he’s my No.1, an even better version of Adam Goodes”.[vii] Respected commentator Mike Sheahan ranked Wilson 47th in his 50 top players of the era, noting that “his greatness” was recognized by both Matthews and Bartlett. [viii]


A number of commentators have argued that the Lions were unlucky not to win the flag in 1983. Jim Main’s history of Fitzroy noted that it was their “best chance for decades to win a flag”.[ix] Oral historian Adam Muyt referred to 1983 as “the one that got away”.[x] Another history of FFC cited champion defender Gary Pert as referring to the 1983 side as “the team that could have won the premiership”.[xi] Lions champion Paul Roos, also believes the 1983 side had a genuine “opportunity to win the premiership. The team was an excellent combination of youth and experience, with all our big-name players in their prime”.[xii] Another gun player, Richard Osborne, argued Fitzroy in 1983 “were the best team in the competition”.[xiii]


Football commentator Ashley Browne has similarly acknowledged 1983 as the Club’s “best chance for a flag”,[xiv] and journalist Peter Ryan noted that “plenty of Royboys (are) still convinced that was their year”.[xv]


What follows is a round by round personal reflection on the 1983 season based on weekly press reports from most games of the season, video recordings of segments of some games, and long-term personal memory which may be imperfect. Some others who viewed or indeed participated in these games may remember or interpret them somewhat differently.


Round 1: 26 March 1983


Fitzroy 1.4, 5.10, 10.12, 16.16 (112)

Hawthorn 6.3, 12.4, 17.8, 20.11 (131)


Best players: Rendell, Quinlan, Lawrie, McMahon, Sidebottom, Murnane, Clayton

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 5, Sidebottom 4, McMahon 3, Conlan 2.


Fitzroy had been favoured to win this opening game at home against Hawthorn, but were never in the hunt. The Hawks led by as much as 60 points 10 minutes into the 3rd quarter before the Lions pegged them back getting within 18 points half way through the last quarter. But it was too little too late. Ruckman Matt Rendell (36 hit outs), Bernie Quinlan (13 disposals and 7 marks) and David McMahon (19 disposals and 7 marks) led the belated comeback.[xvi]


Analyst Neil Roberts later observed wryly: “The Lions will drop into a giant hole this year unless they realise that individuals don’t win matches…I cannot work Fitzroy out. They just didn’t have a go for three quarters – they didn’t run, they didn’t tackle, they didn’t smother the ball. And when they did get it they were either dumped or looked lost”.[xvii]




Round 2: 4 April 1983


Fitzroy 1.4, 5.11, 6.11, 12.16 (88)

North Melbourne 1.2, 1.4, 2.5, 6.7 (43)


Best players: Wilson, Quinlan, Rendell, Parish, Conlan, Carlson, Lawrie, Clayton.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 7, Conlan 3.


This was a quick and welcome turnaround against North Melbourne played on the Monday at VFL Park. Rendell dominated in the ruck, Wilson starred on ball, and Quinlan kicked seven including five in the second half. The Age reported that Fitzroy had “proved it is going to be an aggressive, daring combination this year”. Lions coach Robert Walls affirmed after the game that his side were aiming for a top three finish to secure a double chance in the finals.[xviii]



Round 3: 9 April 1983


Fitzroy 1.3, 6.9, 8.11, 14.13 (97)

Essendon 2.7, 5.7, 6.12, 7.14 (56)


Best players: Sidebottom, Pert, Lokan, Harris, Rendell, Murnane, Parish.

Multiple Goal kickers: Sidebottom 5, Quinlan 2, Harris 2, Murnane 2.


This was an important victory at home against a highly rated and tough opponent. It was close for three quarters, and then Garry Sidebottom single-handedly destroyed Essendon in the last quarter. His 5th goal was a delightful left foot snap under pressure.[xix] Columnist Ken Piesse opined that he “played confident, aggressive football…He took some telling marks, kicked five goals straight, and rucked effectively on the forward line”.[xx] Coach Robert Walls again expressed confidence that the Lions would finish top three, and columnist Mike Coward agreed, stating that “Fitzroy is a legitimate contender for high honors, in this, its centenary season”.[xxi]



Round 4: 16 April 1983


Fitzroy 3.6, 6.11, 8.17, 17.23 (125)

Sydney Swans 0.7, 1.11, 4.14, 6.16 (52)


Best players: McMahon, Pert, Thornton, Sidebottom, Rendell, Conlan, Parish.

Multiple Goal kickers: Conlan 5, McMahon 4, Quinlan 2, O’Riley 2.


This was an easy victory at home over the lowly Swans. Youngster Gary Pert dominated in defence with 22 possessions and five marks. Neil Roberts opined that “Young Gary Pert is going to be a star. He is not yet 18 and shows great form with his boot”.[xxii]



Round 5: 23 April 1983


Fitzroy 1.7, 6.9, 14.13, 18.17 (125)

Carlton 2.4, 6.7, 7.11, 9.11 (65)


Best players: Rendell, Lawrie, Pert, Serafini, Thornton, Clayton, Carlson, McMahon.

Multiple Goal kickers: Carlson 4, McMahon 4, Quinlan 3, Murnane 2, Parish 2, Conlan 2.


In the lead-up to this game, journalist Mike Sheahan boldly predicted a Fitzroy victory despite the fact that the Lions had not won at Princes Park in decades. Sheahan emphasized that “Fitzroy is a fine team, one whose progress has vindicated the judgement of those of us who had the Lions near the top in pre-season prognostications”. [xxiii]


Sheahan was proven right. After an even first half the Lions destroyed the reigning premiers and jumped to the top of the ladder. Rendell was brilliant in the ruck, and Grant Lawrie dominated in defence. Young Gary Pert was described as “the most exciting teenage defender in the business…played another immaculate game on Saturday.”[xxiv]  Other highlights included a beautiful goal by Leigh Carlson on the run, and an amazing goal by Mick Conlan who ran about 20 metres, took one bounce, and then ran almost another 30 metres before booting it through. So much for the 15 metre rule limit on running without bouncing. The amusing lowlight was tall forward Grant O’Riley missing from a set shot less than five metres out. Channel Seven commentator Lou Richards said “he can’t miss”.[xxv] He did.



Round 6: 30 April 1983


Fitzroy 7.4, 12.8, 17.10, 22.11 (143)

StKilda 2.2, 6.4, 9.9, 15.12 (102)


Best Players: Quinlan, Conlan, Francis, Roos, Hinchen, Parish.

Multiple Goal Kickers: Quinlan 10, Conlan 4, Murnane 3, Francis 2, Herbert 2.


Superboot Bernie Quinlan produced one of the great individual performances against bottom side St Kilda at Moorabbin with 17 disposals, 8 marks, and ten goals two. Columnist David Humphries opined that “When he is in touch – and that is far too frequent for opposition coaches – Quinlan is the craftsman in a team of highly competent, dedicated and disciplined journeymen: the artist whose finishing touches add the bright hues to foundations built on honest, professional football”.[xxvi]



Round 7: 7 May 1983


Fitzroy 3.3, 5.3, 9.8, 11.10 (76)

Geelong 1.1, 4.4, 7.8, 9.13 (67)


Best players: Parish, Lawrie, Hinchen, Carlson, Rendell, Osborne, Clayton.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 3, Conlan 2, Carlson 2, McMahon 2, Wilson 2.


This was a tense match: first (Fitzroy) against second (Geelong) in the Match of the Day at the Junction Oval, and the Lions only just prevailed. Columnist Trevor Grant specifically praised 18 year old Richard Osborne who was playing only his 4th game stating that he “showed remarkable flair and courage in dealing with some very tight situations”. [xxvii] Another highlight was a great goal on the run by Mick Conlan from the right forward pocket.



Round 8: 14 May 1983


Fitzroy 4.4, 7.7, 12.12, 18.18 (126)

Melbourne 3.3, 6.7, 8.12, 12.15 (87)


Best players: Wilson, Rendell, Quinlan, Roos, Lawrie, Clayton, Carlson.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 8, Wilson 6, Conlan 2.


This was a comfortable victory over middle of the road Melbourne at the MCG. Bernie Quinlan celebrated his 300th game with 15 disposals, 9 marks and 8 goals including 5 in the last quarter.[xxviii] Fitzroy had now won seven matches in a row, and were two games and percentage ahead of the second team North Melbourne.



Round 9: 21 May 1983


Fitzroy 2.5, 5.11, 9.16, 13.21 (99)

Footscray 6.3, 10.4, 15.9, 22.13 (145)


Best players: Lokan, Rendell, Parish, Harris, Osborne, McMahon.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 4, McMahon 2, Wilson 2.


Fitzroy expected to beat 9th placed Footscray even with their two key defenders Grant Lawrie and Laurie Serafini missing on state football duty, and Mick Conlan suspended.[xxix] But the Bulldogs forwards dominated all day. Nevertheless, the Lions remained top of the ladder by one game from North Melbourne.



Round 10: 28 May 1983


Fitzroy 6.1, 7.7, 8.12, 13.15 (93)

Collingwood 3.4, 5.9, 6.13, 10.17 (77)


Best players: Parish, Francis, Coleman, Sidebottom, Pert, Carlson, Hinchen.

Multiple Goal kickers: Reeves 3, Quinlan 3, Carlson 2, Sidebottom 2.


This was a good victory over 8th placed Collingwood who were never easy to toss at Victoria Park. Former North Melbourne forward Michael Reeves iced the game with three goals in the final quarter. Tall defender Glenn Coleman, who replaced the injured Matt Rendell in the ruck, was best afield. Coach Robert Walls described it as a “gutsy win” that was equal best for the season with the earlier victory over reigning premier Carlton.[xxx]


Round 11:  4 June 1983


Fitzroy 7.6, 11.9, 17.12, 20.16 (136)

Richmond 3.5, 8.8, 11.11, 16.18 (114)


Best players: Wilson, Hinchen, Conlan, Harris, Francis, Parish, Osborne, Clayton.

Multiple Goal kickers: Wilson 5, Conlan 5, Quinlan 4, Roos 2.


This was another solid victory against last year’s runner up Richmond, who were struggling second from bottom, to stay top of the ladder. A highlight was a brilliant long goal on the run by Mick Conlan in the first quarter from the left forward flank. Columnist Trevor Grant praised the skills of Grant Lawrie, Graeme Hinchen and Garry Wilson. He noted that Wilson “has been forced to adapt to the role of a goal-getting forward rather than the roaming rover. His contribution on Saturday went way beyond the five goals he bagged…Apart from his marking, his handballs and short kicks never missed the target”.[xxxi] However, Neil Roberts warned that Fitzroy were “over-confident – a condition which has brought many giants crashing to earth…One minute they look like they will conquer the world, but when they get ahead they lose their marbles”. He implied that they were too reliant on Conlan, Wilson and Sidebottom to act as “safety valves” when their teammates lost concentration.[xxxii]



Round 12: 11 June 1983


Fitzroy 6.0, 9.1, 15.7, 21.8 (134)

Hawthorn 4.7, 12.9, 20.13, 25.17 (167)


Best players: Quinlan, Serafini, Wilson, Osborne

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 9, Carlson 3, Conlan 2, Osborne 2, Wilson 2.


Hawthorn beat Fitzroy easily for the second time in the season at Princes Park. The Hawks led by as much as 56 points in the third quarter before the Lions came back to within 17 points. Quinlan was an enormous presence with 16 disposals, 11 marks and 9 goals, and headed the VFL goal kicking table with 60 goals at an average of five a game. Additionally, young Richard Osborne impressed with two outstanding goals (from his non-preferred left foot) on the run under pressure. But their teammates mostly went missing, and the loss knocked the Lions from the top of the ladder down to third.[xxxiii]


However, a leading commentator argued there was no need for panic. Harry Beitzel opined that Fitzroy had numerous strengths including the tactical skills of coach Robert Walls, the transformation of former St Kilda and Geelong big man Gary Sidebottom from an alleged wasted talent to providing a crucial “rugged and physically strong” presence at Fitzroy, and the outstanding form of Quinlan, Wilson, former Carlton player Peter Francis, youngsters Paul Roos and Gary Pert, and many others. He made special mention of Matt Rendell, Laurie Serafini and Grant Lawrie whom he described as “three stars” able to “mould their best individual efforts into a strong team effort”.[xxxiv]



Round 13: 18 June 1983


Fitzroy 8.4, 13.8, 24.11, 34.16 (220)

North Melbourne 2.2, 8.3, 10.5, 10.10 (70)


Best players: Rendell, Osborne, Parish (39 disposals), Carlson, Hinchen, Pert, Quinlan, Roos, Conlan

Multiple Goal kickers: Rendell 8, Quinlan 7, Conlan 7, Wilson 4, Carlson 3, McMahon 2.


This was an amazing performance and the highest ever winning margin against a top of the ladder side. The victory restored the Lions to top spot and premiership favouritism. Gerry Carman opined that “Fitzroy amply demonstrated its credentials to win the ultimate match in September”, [xxxv] and Bob Crimeen argued “the victory has made the Lions short favourites to win the 1983 flag”. [xxxvi] He added that “If cold, hard, black and white facts and figures could be believed, Fitzroy has the 1983 VFL premiership at its mercy”.[xxxvii]


There were many individual highlights including a great left foot snap and later wonderful acceleration and long goal on the run from Quinlan, a tremendous high mark by Graeme Hinchen, an excellent snap by big Rendell from the right forward pocket, a (non-preferred) right foot goal on the run after two bounces by Leigh Carlson, and an excellent tagging performance by young Richard Osborne on North Melbourne captain and champion Wayne Schimmelbusch.[xxxviii]



Round 14: 25 June 1983


Fitzroy 1.3, 5.5, 7.7, 9.11 (65)

Essendon 1.3, 3.4, 6.7, 8.10 (58)


Best players: Roos, Clayton, Pert, Osborne, Thornton, Conlan, Hitchen.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 3, Conlan 2, Wilson 2.


This tight win on a cold wet day against a tough opponent at Windy Hill was widely viewed as Fitzroy’s best win of the season.[xxxix] Individual highlights included Mick Conlan’s sharp goal on the run in the second quarter, and a long goal by Paul Roos from inside the centre square also in the second quarter. The victory firmed up Fitzroy’s ladder leadership one game ahead of both North Melbourne and Essendon.



Round 15: 3 July 1983


Fitzroy 8.4, 15.6, 15.10, 17.15 (117)

Swans 6.1, 10.5, 17.9, 23.9 (147)


Best players: Wilson, Pert, Rendell, Conlan, Parish, McMahon.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 4, Conlan 3, Wilson 2, Pert 2.


This was a disappointing loss to the 3rd bottom side in Sydney, particularly after leading by 31 points at half time.[xl] Nevertheless, the Lions retained top position on the ladder by percentage from North Melbourne. There was one memorable right foot snap by Mick Conlan.[xli]



Round 16: 9 July 1983


Fitzroy 6.2, 8.6, 10.11, 13.11 (89)

Carlton 2.4, 9.5, 15.13, 18.16 (124)


Best players: Serafini, Sidebottom, Clayton, Francis, Wilson, Parish (30 disposals and 8 marks), Carlson.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 5, Coleman 2.


This was another disappointing fade-out against the reigning premier (but 8th placed) Carlton at VFL Park. The Lions led comfortably by 29 points mid way through the second quarter, but then conceded six goals in 10 minutes to lose control of the game.[xlii] There was still some individual highlights including a great goal on the run by Quinlan, and a sensational goal by Mick Conlan who took two bounces on a long run up the left forward flank and then somehow managed to swerve past two Carlton defenders to settle back onto his right foot and goal.[xliii]



Round 17: 23 July 1983


Fitzroy 2.4, 14.10, 16.12, 20.18 (138)

St Kilda 7.6, 14.7, 19.14, 22.17 (149)


Best players: Quinlan, Wilson, Coleman, Harris, Sidebottom, Lokan.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 6, Sidebottom 3, Harris 3, Conlan 2, Roos 2.


A third consecutive loss this time at home to bottom side St Kilda (despite kicking a massive 12 goals six in the second quarter) left the Lions just hanging onto 3rd spot ahead of Essendon on percentage.[xliv] There were still some individual highlights including a long goal by Paul Roos, a sharp handball by Garry Wilson to Leon Harris who snapped a brilliant goal, and a smart pass by Wilson to Quinlan who then passed back to Wilson near goal.



Round 18: 30 July 1983


Fitzroy 5.0, 8.6, 12.9, 16.15 (111)

Geelong 0.1, 4.3, 6.5, 7.7 (49)


Best players: No press cutting retained. Les Parish had 34 disposals, and Bernie Quinlan had 16 disposals and 8 marks.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 5, Murnane 3, Gotch 2.


In the lead-up to this game, coach Robert Walls employed combatant training drills to address what he labelled an “insidious softness” affecting his team.[xlv] The tough physical contact at training seemed to succeed as the Lions enjoyed an easy win at VFL Park against Geelong who had fallen away after a solid start to the season. The Lions remained third on the ladder.



Round 19: 6 August 1983


Fitzroy 6.8, 12.16, 21.22, 22.29 (161)

Melbourne 2.2, 5.6, 5.6, 11.9 (75)


Best players: No press cutting retained. Bernie Quinlan had 21 disposals, took 9 marks, and kicked 5 goals 8.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 5, Roos 5, Carlson 2, Gotch 2, Lokan 2, Scott 2.


This strong victory at home against middle order team Melbourne took the Lions back to 2nd place on the ladder. Highlights included an outstanding chase by Leon Harris, a beautiful pass by Wilson to Quinlan who goaled from 65 metres, a great mark by Les Parish running back with the flight of the ball, a short pass by Michael Nettlefold to Peter Francis who goaled, and a very long goal by Bill Lokan who took the ball out of the centre and covered about 70 metres.



Round 20: 13 August 1983


Fitzroy 9.3, 11.13, 12.15, 14.15 (99)

Footscray 2.0, 8.4, 12.6, 19.11 (125)


Best players: No press cutting retained. Garry Wilson had 25 disposals, 10 marks and 3 goals.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 3, Wilson 3, Conlan 2, Harris 2.


The Lions dominated the first one and a half quarters of this away game against middle order Footscray, but completely capitulated after half time. They now just held second spot on percentage from both Hawthorn and Essendon. This was veteran Warwick Irwin’s last senior game for the Lions.



Round 21: 20 August 1983


Fitzroy 2.4, 8.5, 10.10, 19.13 (127)

Collingwood 3.4, 3.12, 4.15, 7.21 (63)


Best players: No press cutting retained. Matt Rendell was the leading disposal winner on the ground with 28, and also had 32 hitouts.

Multiple Goal kickers: Scott 4, Quinlan 3, Roos 3, Gotch 3, Lokan 2, Conlan 2.


All eyes were on Bernie Quinlan seeking his 100th goal for the season. Number 99 was converted from 60 metres out. The century finally came in the last quarter following a perfectly weighted pass by rover Brad Gotch. Quinlan drilled the drop punt from 65 metres out right on the centre square line, and hundreds of youngsters invaded the ground. Other highlights included a long bomb from the centre square by Bill Lokan which evaded all defenders and bounced through, a smart goal from Leigh Carlson on the run, and two bounces followed by a goal on the run by Mick Conlan.



Round 22: 27 August 1983


Fitzroy 4.3, 9.5, 13.10, 19.13 (127)

Richmond 3.5, 5.12, 9.17, 12.21 (93)


Best players: No press cutting retained.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 5, Parish 3, Conlan 2, Harris 2, Sidebottom 2, Wilson 2.


This was a crucial victory against Richmond whose legendary rover Kevin Bartlett played his last (and 403rd) game. Highlights included the dominant performance by ruck rover Les Parish (25 disposals and 3 goals), Richard Osborne dashing off half back, a long goal by Mark Scott, the 7 marks and strong overall game from Garry Sidebottom, a smart handpass by Ross Thornton to Mick Conlan for a long goal, and an exquisite left foot (non-preferred) pass by Garry Wilson to Brad Gotch who goaled.



Qualifying Final: 3 September


Fitzroy 5.4, 7.5, 12.8, 19.9 (123)

Hawthorn 5.4, 11.8, 15.10, 19.13 (127)


Best players: Rendell, Quinlan, Clayton, Parish, Wilson, Nettlefold, Sidebottom, Harris.

Multiple Goal kickers: Quinlan 8, Wilson 3, McMahon 2, Sidebottom 2, Conlan 2.


Football writer Rohan Connolly called this game an “epic…featuring a high standard of play, a couple of superb individual efforts by two ageing, but still brilliant veterans, a big second-half comeback and a see-sawing 11 goal final term”.[xlvi] The Hawks led comfortably for most of the first three quarters with veteran Peter Knights dominating up forward. But then came Fitzroy’s sensational last quarter led by five goals from Bernie Quinlan who arguably played one of the best ever games in a final series.[xlvii]


The amazing last quarter progressed as follows:


  • Mick Conlan scored a behind on the run;
  • Bernie Quinlan marked in the left forward pocket at the 6 minute mark and goaled to bring Fitzroy within 13 points;
  • Gary Sidebottom grabbed the ball at the edge of the centre square, and his long goal made it 7 points only;
  • Bernie Quinlan took a screamer over a big pack 65 metres out, but failed to make the distance;
  • Peter Knights marked and kicked his 6th goal, back to 13 points;
  • Bernie Quinlan marked and goaled from 55 metres, 7 points again;
  • Michael Nettlefold was penalized by umpire Glenn James for deliberately taking the ball over the line near the behind post. Seven’s Big League commentators Sandi Roberts and Bob Skilton called this a “courageous decision”. It is still causing contention decades later. [xlviii] Michael Tuck goaled from the resulting free kick, back to 13 point margin;
  • Leon Harris kicked a great goal on the run, back to 7 points;
  • Garry Wilson passed to Bernie Quinlan who kicked his 6th at the 15 minute mark to reduce the margin to 1 point;
  • Hawthorn score a rushed behind;
  • Michael Tuck marks and goals, back to 8 points;
  • Bernie Quinlan marks in the goal square and converts his 7th goal at the 20 minute mark, back to 2 points;
  • Bernie Quinlan grabs the ball from a ruck throw-in near the right forward pocket, and somehow manages to get his non-preferred left foot to the ball whilst tackled by four Hawthorn defenders, Fitzroy lead by 4 points at the 22 minute mark;
  • Richard Loveridge is pushed in the back by Gary Pert and goals from the free kick at the 27 minute mark, Hawthorn 2 points in front;
  • John Kennedy misses from the pocket, 3 points;
  • Leigh Matthews misses on the run, 4 points is the final margin.


There were other individual highlights in this game including a sensational high mark Paul Roos took on the shoulders of John Kennedy in the first quarter, a sharp handball by Garry Sidebottom to Garry Wilson who goaled, a great left foot snap by Mick Conlan from the boundary, smart handball by Roos to Wilson who goaled on the run, a lovely right foot snap by David McMahon, and a shrewd front and centre by Paul Roos to goal.[xlix]



First Semi Final: 10 September


Fitzroy 3.4, 8.9, 10.12, 12.14 (86)

Essendon 5.3, 7.8, 9.11, 16.13 (109)


Best players: Carlson (29 disposals), Wilson, Rendell, Harris, Sidebottom, Conlan.

Multiple Goal kickers: McMahon 3, Quinlan 2.


In the lead-up to this game, the Fitzroy (and Victorian) full-back Laurie Serafini broke down at training.[l] Serafini had also missed the Qualifying Final with a back-related injury, and his absence cost Fitzroy dearly in the two finals as both Peter Knights and Terry Daniher feasted on inexperienced and/or smaller opponents.


This was a brutal game marred by bouts of indiscriminate violence from Essendon. Paul Weston ran through Bernie Quinlan in the opening quarter, and the key forward (probably severely concussed) was unsighted for the remainder of the game. Ron Andrews attempted unsuccessfully to elbow Mick Conlan in the head. Then tough big man Roger Merrett elbowed Grant Lawrie (breaking his jaw) and also elbowed tiny Leon Harris in the head during the second quarter leading Lions coach Robert Walls to remonstrate with Merrett as the players left the ground for the half time interval.[li]


But for most of the game the Lions kept their noses in front. There were individual highlights including a sharp handball by a falling Garry Wilson to Leigh Carlson who goaled with his non-preferred right foot on the run, courageous play by Leon Harris to handball to Scott Clayton who goaled, and a smart pass by Richard Osborne to David McMahon who goaled. When Wilson ran into an open goal late in the 3rd quarter, the 19 point lead looked enough in a low scoring game. But Essendon scored two goals just before three quarter time and then the first seven goals of the final quarter to ice the game.[lii] It was a very disappointing end to the season against a side that the Lions had beaten easily in two home and away games.



Top Ten Fitzroy Best and Fairest


Matthew Rendell 155

Bernie Quinlan 108

Scott Clayton 106

Leon Harris 76

Garry Sidebottom 74

Garry Wilson 73

Les Parish 66

Laurie Serafini 62

Leigh Carlson 45

Paul Roos 42


Top Ten Fitzroy Goal kickers


Bernie Quinlan 116 (VFL leading goalkicker)

Michael Conlan 51

Garry Wilson 38

Leigh Carlson 25

David McMahon 25

Garry Sidebottom 24

Paul Roos 22

Leon Harris 15

Les Parish 14

Lee Murnane 12




A personal reflection


1983 was a wonderfully exciting season to observe. I was 18 years old enrolled in my second year at university, and Fitzroy were a joy to watch. I attended about two thirds of the matches that year including most home games and both finals. Reflecting back, I think there are three principal reasons why we just missed out on the holy grail.


One was a lack of finals experience. We had only one player with premiership experience, that being Peter Francis from Carlton. Most of our senior players had participated in the 1979 and 1981 finals series (two wins and two losses), but this was minor compared to say Hawthorn who had retained a number of veterans from their 1976 and 1978 flags.


A second deficit was our lack of physically rugged, some might say, dirty players. Other than Garry Sidebottom all our top liners were clean skins, and I think this cost us particularly in the rough final against Essendon.


A third specific factor was the absence of the injured Laurie Serafini from the two finals. If we had been able to restrict Peter Knights and Terry Daniher in those two games, we may well have won through to the Grand Final.


A broader factor was that Fitzroy’s three young champions – Paul Roos, Gary Pert and Richard Osborne – were promising but still very green second year players in 1983. They were able to dominate in 1984, but that proved to be one year too late for a number of club veterans.



(Philip Mendes supported Fitzroy from 1970-1996. He has written a number of historical articles on the Lions including most notably “Revising the Doom and Gloom Historiography: Fitzroy Football Club’s last golden era 1978-1986”, Australian Society for Sports History Bulletin, No.54, August 2011, pp.33-37. In his spare time, he is an Associate Professor in Social Policy and Community Development at Monash University: [email protected])



[i] Fitzroy Football Club (1982) 99th Annual Report and Balance Sheet. Fitzroy Football Club Ltd, p.6. See also front cover and p.3.

[ii] Leigh Matthews (2013) Matthews: Accept the challenge. Sydney: Ebury Press, p.487.

[iii] Kevin Bartlett as told to Rhett Bartlett (2011) KB: A life in football. Melbourne: Slattery Media, p.149.

[iv] Roos interviewed in Mike Sheahan (2013) Open Mike. Melbourne: Slattery Media, p.309. See also Paul Roos (1997) Beyond 300: An autobiography. Milsons Point: Mandarin, pp.129-30.

[v] Peter Ryan (2010) “Bernie Quinlan: A champion ahead of his time”, AFL Record, 3 September, p.86.

[vi] Paul Roos (1997) Beyond 300, p.131.

[vii] Jon Anderson (2019) “How we rated our AFL Longevity Superstars”, Herald Sun, 24 May.

[viii] Mike Sheahan (2008) “Cream of the Crop” in James Weston (ed.) The Australian Game of Football since 1858. Melbourne: Geoff Slattery Publishing, pp.158-59.

[ix] Jim Main (2007) Fitzroy. Melbourne: Bas Publishing, p.208.

[x] Adam Muyt (2006) Maroon & Blue: Recollections and Tales of the Fitzroy Football Club. Melbourne: Vulgar Press, p.292.

[xi] Chris Donald (2002) Fitzroy: For the love of the jumper. Melbourne: Pennon Publishing, p.261.

[xii] Paul Roos (1997) Beyond 300, p.122. See also similar comments by Roos in Matt Zurbo (2016) Champions All: A history of AFL/VFL football in the players own words. Melbourne: Echo, p.363.

[xiii] Richard Osborne with Michael Hyde (1998) Ossie Rules. Melbourne: Victoria University of Technology, p.97.

[xiv] Ashley Browne (2016) “Lions’ Last Roar”, AFL Record, 23 June, p.20. See also Garrie Hutchinson, Rick Lang and John Ross (1997) Roar of the Lions: Fitzroy Remembered 1883-1996. Melbourne: Lothian Books, p.70.

[xv] Peter Ryan (2019) “Infamous deliberate bound to have comeback”, The Age, 29 May.

[xvi] Geoff Poulter (1983) “Hawks rip the jinx out of Lions”, Sunday Press, 27 March; Gerry Carman (1983) “Fitzroy’s charge no match for Hawks”, The Age, 27 March.

[xvii] Neil Roberts (1983) “Suicide play by Fitzroy”, Herald, undated.

[xviii] Trevor Grant (1983) “Walls justified in aiming high”, The Age, 5 April.

[xix]  Visual Entertainment Group (1994) That was the Season that was 1983. Melbourne: Seven Sport Production.

[xx] Ken Piesse (1983) “Sidey sparks a big win”, Sunday Observer, 10 April.

[xxi] Mike Coward (1983) “Lions most convincing”, The Age, 11 April.

[xxii] Neil Roberts (1983) “Footy takes a swan dive”, Sunday Press, 17 April. See also Geoff Slattery (1983) “Rousing chant or Swansong?” The Age, 18 April.

[xxiii] Mike Sheahan (1983) “Lions look likely”, Herald, undated probably 22 April.

[xxiv] Mike Coward (1983) “Spit and polish put shine on Fitzroy”, The Age, 25 April 1983. See also Ken Davis (1983) “Woeful blues capitulate to Walls’ pride”, Sunday Observer, 24 April.

[xxv] That was the Season That was 1983.

[xxvi] David Humphries (1983) “Quinlan, Lions get 10 out of 10”, The Age, 2 May.

[xxvii] Trevor Grant (1983) “Lions headed for big things”, The Age, 9 May.

[xxviii] Michael Lovett (1983) “Fitzroy stretch league ladder”, Sunday Press, 15 May; Mike Coward (1983) “Fitzroy makes it looks so easy”, The Age, 16 May 1983.

[xxix] David Humphries (1983) “Dogs back to their giant-killing best”, The Age, 23 May.

[xxx] John Rice (1983) “Mike nails the lid down”, Sunday Press, 29 May. See also Gerry Carman (1983) “Gutsy Lions please Walls”, The Age, 30 May.

[xxxi] Trevor Grant (1983) “Lions above suspicion”, The Age, 6 June. See also Trevor Grant (1983) “Now the lions are tiger tamers”, Sunday Press, 5 June.

[xxxii] Neil Roberts (1983) “Fitzroy’s lion-size dilemma”, Sunday Press, 5 June.

[xxxiii] Anonymous (1983) “Injured Hawks on top”, Sunday Observer, 12 June; Ken Piesse (1983) “The Big V needs the Boot”, Sunday Observer, 12 June.

[xxxiv] Harry Beitzel (1983) “Fitzroy’s Mr Magic”, “Walls keeps up Bernie’s form”, “From rock bottom, to a top player”, Sunday Observer, 12 June.

[xxxv] Gerry Carman (1983) “Massacre at the Junction”, The Age, 20 June.

[xxxvi] Bob Crimeen (1983) “Wow”, Sunday Press, 19 June.

[xxxvii] Bob Crimeen (1983) “Lions great win”, Sunday Press, 19 June.

[xxxviii] Bob Crimeen (1983) “Boy did a real man’s job”, Sunday Press, 19 June. See also Paul Roos (1997), p.150.

[xxxix] Trevor Grant (1983) “Fitzroy stand firm in the mud”, Sunday Press, 26 June. See also Paul Roos (1997), p.149.

[xl] Greg Crowden (1983) “Hurt Evans shows how”, The Age, 4 July.

[xli] That was the Season that was 1983.

[xlii] Bob Crimeen (1983) “Blues are back from the dead”, Sunday Press, 11 July.

[xliii] That was the season That was 1983.

[xliv] Trevor Grant (1983) “Saints find ego to win”, The Age, 25 July.

[xlv] Mike Coward (1983) “Fitzroy gets physical with bruised egos”, The Age, 27 July.

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

[xlvii] Jon Anderson (1983) “Next time Hawks”, Sunday Press, 4 September; Fitzroy Football Club (1983) 100th Annual Report and Balance Sheet. Fitzroy Football Club Ltd, p.6.

[xlviii] Paul Roos (1997), p.151; Robert Walls (2013) “1983 Qualifying Final”, AFL Grand Final Record, 28 September, p.67; Rohan Connolly (2001) “One free kick in it”; Peter Ryan (2019) “Infamous deliberate bound to have comeback”. See also comments by Paul Roos in Matt Zurbo (2016) Champions All, p.363.

[xlix] Paul Roos (1997), p.151.

[l] Mike Coward (1983) “Lion loses biggest battle”, The Age, 8 September. See also Ashley Browne (2016) “Lions’ Last Roar”, p.20.

[li] Chris Donald (2002) Fitzroy, pp.240 & 247.

[lii] Jon Anderson (1983) “It’s Bomber Power”, Sunday Press, 11 September.



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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. A really great piece, PM! I like your passion but equally your sense of balance when it would be easy to show (quite understandable) bias. The games they dropped during the season were most perplexing. Bernie Quinlan certainly was a superstar. He’s become a bit of an Almanac icon given several recent articles which have featured him. Maybe we need to name an annual Almanac honour after him.

  2. Magnificent summary of a season that promised so much after the Round 13 annihilation of North Melbourne, Phil.
    I rate that game and the Round 21 match when Superboot brought up his century among my top five Fitzroy wins of all time.
    Would a premiership in 1983 have been enough to stave off the AFL executioner’s guillotine in 1996 – I guess we’ll never know?
    Ian, I fully agree with your sentiments about the Almanac naming an annual award in honour of Bernie.
    Perhaps it called be called the Quinlan Quarter for the best 30 minutes of football by any player in 2020, inspired by Bernie’s five goals in the final quarter of the heartbreaking 1983 qualifying final.

  3. ‘The Quinlan Quarter’ – I like it, FP! JTH and Eds, please take note.

    From PM’s offering, it was instructive to read the evaluations of Bernie made by his contemporaries both on the field and in the press box. Very high praise indeed. (I lived in SA at the time and so had a lesser opportunity to appreciate BQ’s prowess.)

    Given BQ’s demeanour, skills and standing in the game, was he the VFL equivalent of his SANFL contemporary Barrie Robran, the ‘best and most admirable’ player I ever saw?

  4. Love it, Philip. Go Roys!

  5. What a read, thanks Phillip. I was 6 in 83. These games are shadowy memories for me. To paraphrase Roy and HG – too much writing about Bernie Quinlan is barely enough!,

  6. Tremendous piece. Brings back so many memories. I was at uni in those days too and recall brilliant afternoons in the TV room at Union College watching pure footy from the Roys – and especially Bernie.

  7. And,yes, Adam, we all loved the Roys. They were so lovable.

  8. I went to many of these games.

    It was the late season loss of Serafini that was the loss we could not cover. He and Grant Laurie were the selected state key defenders. Bernie and Sidie were selected at full forward and centre half forward in the state games

    Against Essendon we ran out of players. Grant Laurie had to stand in the forward pocket in the last quarter as he could run at all but Sidie and Gotch has done shoulders.

  9. Good stuff Phil. I’m old enough to remember Fitzroy.

    I’m also old enough to remember this season, as a few of our conversations on FB re the R 7 clash V Geelong would indicate.

    Fitzroy, The Lions, like South Melbourne, the Swans no longer exist. Unlike the teams designed by the AFL marketing division those old time sides had an organic base in their communities, though in a changing world it was fading away.

    Vale, The Lions.


  10. Great stuff – I went to almost every game that season. The reason being is that I befriended a sports-nut English work colleague who was missing the camaraderie of the terraces, didn’t know much about footy or Melbourne suburbia and got beguiled watching Malcolm Blight standing on heads at Arden St. So I persuaded him to follow the Lions to every ground to get a real taste. Result !

    So many highlights .. but the games v Nth ( football perfection ) and Bombers, in the driving rain at Windy Hill , where I believe the kick-in huddle was born. And my English mate was seriously exposed to mullet-headed boganry. Thanks to Youtube, the past keeps expanding so we can indulge.

    Can you imagine how well suited Bernie Q’s game would be today ? Of course we all can – legend.

  11. Philip, Fitzroy were not unlucky to win the flag in 1983. They lost both their finals in straight games. One of those finals was to Essendon by 23 points. Even if Fitzroy had beaten Hawthorn in the Qualifying final, Fitzroy would have lost to Essendon in the Grand Final. Finals are completely different to home and away games. Finals are what separates the best teams from the average teams. Fitzroy was simply not good enough in the finals. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. I think Ashley Browne was simply being polite by saying that 1983 was Fitzroy’s best chance for a flag. His beloved Hawthorn ended up winning the flag by a record margin of 83 points. Hawthorn were the best team that year.

  12. As a St Kilda supporter, I can relate to Fitzroy’s missed opportunity for a premiership in 1983. In 2009, St Kilda won their 1st 19 games in a row and were the flag favourites. In the 2009 Grand Final, St Kilda had so many opportunities to seal the game by half time but missed so many easy shots for goal, which cost them the game. In 2010, St Kilda weren’t the flag favourites but stormed home in the drawn Grand Final and had the ball bounced favourably for Stephen Milne in the dying minutes of that Grand Final, the result would have been a St Kilda flag. In 1971, St Kilda were 20 points up at three quarter time against Hawthorn, and lost by 7 points. St Kilda were flag favourites in 1997, led Adelaide by 12 points at half time but lost easily.

    At least Fitzroy won 8 flags. I am yet to see St Kilda win a flag and they are the least successful team of all time, considering how long
    they have been in the league. Only 1 flag is very disappointing for the club and its supporters.

    Fitzroy supporters, I share your pain. Of course, Fitzroy had a lot of success in the 1980s playing at the Junction Oval, which was
    St Kilda’s home ground for many years, before they moved to Moorabbin, which brought St Kilda its flag in 1966.

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