The Merger Coda: The Birth of the Brisbane Lions





Know your history.


This is not an exhortation to learn which year Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup or what song was top of the charts the day you were born. History is more than a set of facts (although they are vital building blocks). At its best, history is an endeavour to know the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of past events, both to gain a deeper understanding of the past and to appreciate how it has shaped (and continues to shape) the present.


Doing history well is not easy: the past is layered and complex, and we are too often guilty flattening out its subtle contours, reducing historical figures to moral caricatures and failing to acknowledge the oft-quoted observation from L.P. Hartley, that ‘the past is a foreign country; they do thing differently there’.


This is a pretentious way of framing a discussion about football, but the point remains – we understand the past best when we accept and embrace its complexity, its contradictions and its ambiguities.


Few examples in the history of Australian rules demonstrate this so deftly as the formation of the Brisbane Lions in 1996. I have told that story in my book, Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996. The use of the word ‘tragedy’ in the subtitle was carefully and cautiously chosen. No one can deny that the loss of Fitzroy to the AFL was anything but sad, not only for those who followed the club but for the league in general. Fitzroy had been one of the founding members of the VFL and a Victorian sporting institution for generations.


Furthermore, the merger between Fitzroy and Brisbane was not necessarily a happy marriage. There were deep historical and cultural differences between the Lions and the Bears, two clubs separated, in the words of Ross Fitzgerald, by ‘2,000 kilometres and a century of Australian Rules tradition’. There was also the anger and grief of Fitzroy people; at a personal level, every Roys supporter felt a keen sense of loss. Then there was the injustice of being denied the opportunity to merge with North Melbourne, the Lions’ preferred partner. Many supporters remain angry at the AFL for heartlessly allowing Fitzroy’s demise and refuse to accept the Brisbane Lions (the living embodiment of the AFL’s treachery) – some have turned their back on the league for good.


The infamous statement on the Fitzroy banner before the Round 16 game against Collingwood – ‘Seduced By North. Raped By Brisbane. F****d By the AFL’ – said it all.


It should be remembered, however, that Brisbane people did not universally welcome the merger either. By 1996, the club had been through many hard years and had established itself as a presence in Queensland. Not only that, it was starting to achieve success on the field. To some, diluting the club’s identity was unnecessary and even perfidious. Michael Voss, who turned 21 three days after the merger was announced, was initially ‘filthy’ with what had taken place. ‘I felt betrayed’, he wrote years later, ‘I felt that the heart of my football club had been ripped out.’ In throwing away the Bears’ name, jumper and emblem, his club had lost its identity.


Because of the intense feelings the merger still invokes, it is tempting to tip-toe around the topic within Brisbane Lions circles. To recognise and embrace the merger seemingly spits in the face of old Fitzroy supporters, while to condemn it risks invalidating all that the Brisbane Lions have achieved and the love modern supporters have for the club. For some, it might just be better to leave the whole saga in the past.


Yet we do ourselves a disservice by not understanding the story of how the Brisbane Lions came into being. The club’s origins lie inexorably with the merger and it is an integral part of its unique culture and heritage. To know the story of 1996 is to know the essence of the club in its modern form.


We should respect all those Fitzroy administrators, officials, volunteers and supporters who fought so valiantly over years to keep their club alive. We should also appreciate the struggles faced by the Bears as they tried to build a club from scratch in a non-traditional Australian rules state in the face of open animosity and resentment from their Victorian rivals (still the most difficult set of circumstances faced by any newly-established club).


We can appreciate the vision of Brisbane officials who saw what a merger could do for football in Queensland, and yet be frustrated by the AFL administration and the other clubs who stymied Fitzroy’s efforts to merge with a partner of their choice. We can lament the AFL’s poor treatment of Fitzroy, its players and supporters during the final weeks of the 1996 season, and, in the likes of Chris Johnson and Martin Pike, see the foundations of what would be achieved a mere five years later.


There are also people worthy of remembering.


We should never forget the nobility of Brad Boyd, Fitzroy’s last AFL captain, who carried injuries for much of 1996 and, by the final rounds, had become the public face of the Fitzroy Lions. A brilliant player and a captain who led by example, he did all that was asked of him and more.


Consider also the courage of club legend Kevin Murray to stand in front of a room full of angry Fitzroy members at the infamous Dallas Brooks Hall meeting on 24 July 1996 and implore them to give the Brisbane Lions a chance: ‘this is a new era for us. A new beginning. So get behind it.’ With all he had given to the club, who could begrudge him the chance to finally see success.


And then there’s Kevin Elms, the irrepressible Fitzroy trainer who started with Roys in 1962. An icon of the club, the merger destroyed him. ‘The stress of it all hurt my health’, he recalled. ‘I’ve never gotten over losing my club.’ Reluctant to continue with Brisbane, he eventually embraced the new Lions, primarily because the club had adopted the Fitzroy song, its logo, the general jumper design and had recognised the Roys’ honour board. In 2001, his 42nd season as a trainer, he experienced his first premiership. After the final siren he kissed the ground and cried: ‘I was just so proud to be involved.’


Many others have similar stories.


Yet the Brisbane Lions are not Fitzroy, and they never will be. There was a spirit about the Roys that the merged club simply cannot capture – it was an integral part of inner-suburban Melbourne, a working-class football club constantly short on money but rich in heritage and a sense of community. This Fitzroy still exists in the VAFA, playing on Saturday afternoons at Brunswick Street Oval where it all began in the early 1880s.


Still, at its best, the Brisbane Lions preserves the legacy of the old Roys in the AFL while forging its own path as its own entity. As such, while 1996 was a tragedy, it was also the birth of something unique and special. No less an authority than Alastair Lynch wrote that the merger ‘brought together a proud club with a wonderful history and an emerging new force in a rapidly expanding football market. A perfect fit.’ Without re-litigating the merger agreement, it is undeniable that a significant amount of the Fitzroy identity lives on in the Brisbane Lions, even if it lives on in Queensland.


Even Michael Voss, who was so disgusted with the merger, eventually came to appreciate the distinctiveness of his new club. By the time he pulled on a Fitzroy jumper in the 2003 Heritage Round, he knew and respected what the maroon and blue represented. ‘It was a tribute’, he wrote, ‘to the 1000-plus Fitzroy players who had worn it before me: men such as Kevin Murray, Haydn Bunton, “Chicken” Smallhorn, Allan Ruthven and Bernie Quinlan.’


Voss, a three-time Brisbane Lions premiership captain, sits comfortably alongside those Fitzroy greats.


And he knows his history.





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About William Westerman

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


  1. As a former History teacher, I’d give this 11/10 for content, insight, argumentation, style and realism. A classic series, WW!

  2. Hi William, I guess its ‘unique and special’ for those Royboys/girls who chose to follow the new ‘merged’ club, and insignificant for those who didn’t. Almost certainly, the ex-South Melbourne cohort are similarly divided. But the question that has never been answered is whether the Fitzroy constituency would have felt more empowered and less excluded if the Roys had merged with another Victorian-based club such as North Melbourne. We have no control group available for comparison as the proposed Hawthorn-Melbourne merger failed. Perhaps the only viable comparison is with the Woodville and West Torrens clubs in the SANFL who merged to become the Eagles. It would be interesting to read an evidence-based study of how their former supporters view the merger three decades later. Anyway, kudos for writing the book. It was a tale waiting to be written. Philip Mendes

  3. Jarrod_L says

    Thanks again WIll, this has been a terrific series, astutely written and timely. I look forward to future stories on our unique and growing club.

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