The Merger Trilogy: The Room Where It Happened

 

This is the third in a trilogy of pieces on the 1996 Fitzroy Lions/Brisbane Bears merger by William Westerman.

 

 

On the evening of Monday, July 1, the AFL Commission endorsed a merger between the Fitzroy Lions and the North Melbourne Kangaroos, subject to two important caveats. First, the two clubs needed to finalise their arrangement. While they had signed a heads of agreement in May, they had been unable to complete the final deal. To expedite the matter, the AFL gave them until midday on Friday to have everything squared away or else the $6 million merger package would no longer be available to Fitzroy. With an administrator having been appointed to run the affairs of the club on Friday, June 28, closing access to this money would effectively consign the club to liquidation.

 

 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the merger needed to be approved (or, at least, not vetoed) by the other 14 clubs. Under AFL regulations, the Commission could not admit, expel, relocate or merge any particular club without offering all clubs the opportunity to overturn their decision. To do this, the clubs needed a two-thirds majority – 11 votes. To allow clubs the opportunity to veto a North Melbourne/Fitzroy merger before the Friday deadline, the league scheduled a special meeting of the clubs at 5:00pm on Thursday, July 4.

 

 

The meeting would be a formal affair, with club presidents sitting around the AFL boardroom on Level 2 of the MCG where the league’s administrative headquarters were located. The merger arrangement would be outlined and clubs would have the opportunity to move a motion to countermand the Commission’s decision. There would be no real opportunity to debate the matter. To remedy this, Richmond president Leon Daphne invited his fellow presidents to a preliminary meeting at nearby Punt Road Oval at 3:00pm, where the issue could be thoroughly and robustly discussed.

 

 

The deal before the clubs was this: North Melbourne and Fitzroy intended to merge and become the ‘North-Fitzroy Kangaroos’. The jumper would be a new design, incorporating the colours of both clubs, while a new club song would be composed. Although the club nickname would be the Kangaroos, both a lion and a kangaroo would feature on the club shield. The board would be comprised of half North Melbourne, half Fitzroy directors, at least until 2000. At the end of the season, North would retain their AFL licence and make the necessary amendments to the club, while Fitzroy would hand theirs back to the league. There would also be an arrangement to repay Fitzroy’s creditors, drawing on the $6 million incentive package.

 

 

None of this was particularly controversial. Of greater importance, however, was the AFL’s proposed football department concessions. Earlier in the year, the Commission had offered a merged club an expanded list of 54 players as both an incentive and as a way to cushion the amalgamation of two 42-player lists. This suited the Kangaroos; as a premiership contender, North was keen on limiting the disruption to their powerful on-field unit. There would also be an expanded salary cap to compensate for the additional players and, eventually, the list would be reduced down to the standard 42 players.

 

 

At its Monday meeting, however, the AFL Commission decided to bring the list expansion back to 50 – the number the Commission and the clubs agreed to in June 1995. A 54-player list was overly generous, given the other benefits North Melbourne would be accruing. Yet North demurred. The board had stuck its neck out in pursuing a merger with Fitzroy. Having received significant criticism from their own members and supporters, the directors wanted to receive all the benefits to which they felt they were owed.

 

 

The other clubs disagreed. North Melbourne were on top of the ladder at the end of Round 13, and the prospect of giving them an additional 12 players was, in the words of Leon Daphne, ‘an absolute joke’. Daphne had been vocal in his opposition to the merger even before the details of the playing list became known, and it is easy to see why. The managing director of Nissan Australia, Daphne had been Richmond’s president since 1994. After over a decade of woeful underperformance and, in 1990, their own flirtation with financial destruction, the Tigers had made the finals in 1995, the first time since their grand final defeat in 1982. Richmond was going somewhere, or so Daphne believed; the last thing they needed was North Melbourne, which finished lower than Richmond in 1995, stealing the march on them. ‘We don’t want the AFL to be making clubs stronger by merging through subsidies to make them stronger than the Richmond Football Club’, he declared in May.

 

 

It thus helped Daphne’s efforts that the newspapers were reporting friction between North Melbourne and Fitzroy as they finalised the merger arrangement. Furthermore, there were also rumours that the Lions were sounding out Brisbane as an alternative partner. By Thursday, once all the clubs had been briefed on the merger’s specific football department concessions, the clubs were unified in their opposition.

 

 

None of this helped North Melbourne’s CEO, Greg Miller, the public face of his club’s merger bid. His tough stance on the 54-player list was predicated on there being only two options for clubs to consider – support the ‘North-Fitzroy Kangaroos’ or consign Fitzroy to its fate. While North’s competitors grumbled over the list size issue, when faced with those two options, he believed that they would eventually endorse the merger. With another option potentially available, however, things were not so clear cut.

 

 

Still, North Melbourne and Fitzroy had been working on this merger for months, finally signing the agreement that Thursday morning. It had no legal weight, since the administrator, Michael Brennan, now acted on behalf of Fitzroy, but it did demonstrate that the ‘North-Fitzroy Kangaroos’ was a viable option and one which would have the support of both clubs. Finally, North and Fitzroy had the AFL Commission’s endorsement…or so they believed.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

At around 2:45pm on Thursday the club presidents, or their designated representatives, arrived one-by-one at Punt Road Oval, running the gauntlet of reporters camped outside Richmond’s administration building. Some said nothing, while others made their feelings perfectly clear; ‘We’re not going to have a bar of a list of 54 players’, declared Geelong’s CEO, Greg Durham.

 

 

On his way in, a slightly nervous Greg Miller reiterated North Melbourne’s position: ‘The offer’s on the table from the AFL which is quite clearly a merger between North and Fitzroy, so…the clubs will have to overturn that first.’ By now, a possible Brisbane/Fitzroy merger was gaining momentum, albeit surreptitiously. When Leon Daphne was asked whether the meeting would canvass a potential Brisbane merger, he was thoroughly unconvincing in his denials.

 

 

The presidents – a collection of middle-aged men in dark suits – assembled in Richmond’s upstairs boardroom. Many were patricians, successful business leaders with money and influence. St Kilda’s Andrew Plympton, for instance, was an Old Brighton Grammarian. While he had not played football (sailing and rowing were his endeavours of choice) he was an accomplished sports administrator and highly-respected businessman. The most prominent president in the corporate mould, Carlton’s Jack Elliott, did not attend, and the Blues were instead represented by their CEO, Stephen Gough.

 

 

There were also those with deep experience playing the game, past greats who had subsequently risen to chair their club boards. Essendon president David Shaw was a two-time premiership player for the Bombers, while Collingwood’s Kevin Rose (a member of the famous Rose family), had played for the Pies in their 1958 premiership side.

 

 

There were also power dynamics between the clubs. Indeed, the 16 teams could be divided neatly into four groups of four. First were the participants. Fitzroy was officially represented by Brennan, but with its president, Dyson Hore-Lacy invited as a courtesy (although he could not participate formally). Miller was there, as was North Melbourne’s president, Ron Casey, a 68-year-old former radio and television broadcaster who had recently been in hospital for chest pains (he had not recovered fully by the time of the meeting, and the events that evening would do nothing for his health). Brisbane president Noel Gordon and the host, Leon Daphne, rounded out the first quartet.

 

 

Second, there were the big Victorian clubs – Essendon, Carlton, Collingwood, Geelong – who were never going to merge unless it was part of a hostile takeover on their terms. They were established, reasonably successful both on and off the field, and did not wish to have their place within the league challenged by an upstart North Melbourne.

 

 

Then there were the four financially weaker clubs – Hawthorn, Melbourne, St Kilda, Footscray – each a potential merger partner themselves. Indeed, neither Hawthorn’s president, Brian Coleman, nor his Melbourne counterpart, Ian Ridley, would remain as chair of their respective boards in 1997, due to the acrimonious fall-out of the failed ‘Melbourne Hawks’ merger. This was despite both being longstanding servants of their clubs. Mergers, particularly failed mergers, often took no prisoners.

 

 

Any thought that Footscray’s president, Peter Gordon, would have sympathy for a fellow struggling club was mistaken. Having come to prominence during the abortive ‘Fitzroy Bulldogs’ merger of 1989, the senior partner at Slater & Gordon was, in fact, late to the meeting due to an appearance in the Supreme Court. The Dogs had filed a writ seeking an injunction against the North Melbourne/Fitzroy merger to enable a claim against the Lions to be resolved: Footscray was looking for over $1 million in damages due to Fitzroy’s impended breach of its Whitten Oval tenancy agreement.

 

 

Finally, there were the four remaining interstate clubs, only one of which, Adelaide, had their president in attendance (Bob Hammond, a multiple SANFL premiership player and coach). Instead, Sydney and West Coast were represented by their CEOs,  former Brownlow medallist Kelvin Templeton for the Swans and Brian Cook for the Eagles. Lastly neither Fremantle’s president nor its CEO could attend, and so director Grant Donaldson stood in. For its part, the newspapers considered Fremantle the most supportive of the Lions’ predicament.

 

 

Each of these men now had Fitzroy’s fate in their hands.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

At approximately 3:05pm Daphne called the meeting to order. Before the main issue was debated, the AFL’s CEO, Ross Oakley, took the opportunity to ask the group whether the league should, if the merger was not completed by Friday, support Fitzroy to play out the season. While this would be a significant financial burden, it would actually be less than the total amount individual clubs would lose if the fixtures did not ahead. Besides, Oakley added, in the AFL’s centenary season, having Fitzroy, a foundation club, fold mid-season would be a huge embarrassment. When the vote was taken, the presidents agreed unanimously the AFL should, if required, underwrite the Lions’ remaining games.

 

 

Oakley departed just before 4:00pm, around the time that Peter Gordon arrived. At the Supreme Court, the presiding judge had dismissed Footscray’s claim and effectively told them to wait in line behind Fitzroy’s other creditors. With a full house, the debate could begin.

 

 

As expected, the other clubs rejected the current iteration of the North Melbourne/Fitzroy merger. It was pure short-sighted calculus: the Kangaroos were a strong on-field club and their competitors did not want them to get stronger. For the big and traditionally successful clubs, it would be a challenge – for the weaker clubs, it would be a signal that they had been left behind. Miller tried to argue on principle: the previous year, the clubs – indeed many of the very same people in the room now – had agreed to give two merging clubs similar concessions. Was this so different? That argument got nowhere. Pragmatically, he also argued that the on-field benefits would be short-term, and the important thing was that two financially weak clubs had the opportunity to merge on their own terms. This proved less than compelling. When a poll was taken, the merger proposal was voted down 14-1 (Brennan did not vote).

 

 

Unexpectedly, at least for the North Melbourne delegation, the discussion now turned to a possible Fitzroy/Brisbane merger.

 

 

Noel Gordon had been a busy man since arriving from Queensland the previous day, talking with Brennan and, evidently, Daphne. As a result, the Bears were now on the agenda. The Brisbane deal, which had been worked through with Fitzroy and the Commission earlier in the year, only asked for a 44-player list and the opportunity to recruit eight players directly from Fitzroy.

 

 

North Melbourne’s representatives interjected, declaring that they were willing to drop their preferences and adopt a deal identical to Brisbane’s, at least in terms of the on-field concessions. Daphne ruled this out of order, however, not letting the meeting consider it. North had had their turn and brought their best offer to the presidents, now Brisbane were getting the chance to present theirs. For North to recalculate their position after hearing Brisbane’s, determined Daphne, would be unfair to Gordon.

 

 

Despite this, the meeting did not actually vote on whether it would accept a Brisbane merger. After all, that was not the question they would be addressing with the Commission at 5:00pm. At some point, Andrew Plympton suggested they go to the Commission and let them decide which offer to put before the clubs. The others agreed, and at 4:45pm the meeting was adjourned. In the greying winter’s afternoon, the club presidents left Punt Road and headed across to the MCG.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

For such an indecisive meeting, its outcome left no-one in doubt as to what had occurred and what would occur once the presidents reached the MCG. The North Melbourne/Fitzroy merger was effectively finished, the clubs had consigned it to a footnote in history.

 

 

They had rejected North Melbourne’s initial proposal and did not want to consider their revised proposal based on reduced concessions. With Brisbane presenting a viable option, consigning Fitzroy to Queensland was clearly preferable to strengthening a Victorian rival.

 

 

It said something about the AFL’s lingering Victorian focus that the other clubs treated a merged North Melbourne as a greater threat than a similarly reinforced Brisbane. To some, Brisbane were likely still the ‘Bad News Bears’ and were never going to make serious inroads into the AFL – they seemed destined to be a peripheral irrelevance.

 

 

When the AFL Commission met later that evening, it knew that the clubs were hostile to North Melbourne and that, as a result, Brisbane’s offer stood a better chance of avoiding a veto. As such, the 13 clubs effectively created the Brisbane Lions. They did not make the final decision, but they set the course of events such that the decision-makers could only come to one conclusion.

 

 

It begs an interesting question: what if more clubs had supported North Melbourne, making a two-thirds veto was unlikely? Would the AFL have allowed the original merger to go ahead or would they have pushed through a Brisbane/Fitzroy merger regardless? A Brisbane merger was probably the AFL’s preferred solution, given the league’s desire to strengthen the game in the northern states, but it was not a deal breaker. The Commission had, after all, given North Melbourne and Fitzroy the green light on Monday and their merger would also have fulfilled many of the AFL’s objectives.

 

 

The clubs could even have done the right thing and endorsed the North Melbourne merger in its original form, accepting that this would make North stronger over the next few seasons, but looking past that to see that the longer-term implications. Had they all endorsed the original North Melbourne deal, there was no way the AFL Commission would have considered the Brisbane Bears’ proposal.

 

 

Unfortunately, the clubs still had a very parochial mindset and they did not appreciate that their decision had generational consequences. Decades after 1996, children would be born into families supporting Brisbane, not North-Fitzroy. It is very doubtful the clubs were thinking that far ahead. Their concerns were about North Melbourne gaining players who would, within a decade, most likely have retired. Ultimately, short-sighted and narrow reasoning was behind one of the most momentous decisions in VFL/AFL history.

 

 

Finally, there was a question of whether these elected club presidents really reflected the will of their members. Would the average rank-and-file supporter wish to see Fitzroy merge with Brisbane against its will, even if, as their presidents claimed, this would have been to their club’s advantage?

 

 

We will never know. The die was cast at Punt Road.

 

 

 

William Westerman is the author of ‘Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996’, published by Melbourne Books. You can order a copy HERE

 

 

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About William Westerman

Canberra-based historian. Author of 'Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996' Available here: https://melbournebooks.com.au/products/merger

Comments

  1. Peter Fuller says

    William,
    The extracts have been riveting reading. Congratulations on your superb research on one of the most important developments in modern football history.

  2. Dr Rocket says

    Good work William, I’ve been enjoying this read immensely.

    North weren’t going to give Fitzroy much recognition – just feed of the carcass.

    Brisbane have honoured the Fitzroy traditions on the jumper, the song, and the team-name.

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