Australian Football Celebrating the history of the great Australian game



The putative merger between the Brisbane Bears and Fitzroy Football Clubs in 1996 was widely felt at the time to be likely to mark the inception of a new football dynasty. The reasoning was simple: the Bears had been the third best side in the AFL in 1996 and, with the addition of eight or so of Fitzroy's most accomplished players, the merged ensemble could not help but be even more potent.

Such ostensibly irrefutable reasoning seldom appears to hold true, either in life in general, or in football, but after overcoming a start that was anything but imperial it rapidly began to seem that the Brisbane Lions, emphatic premiers in the 2001, 2002 and 2003 seasons, may indeed go on to establish the footballing equivalent of the Ancient Greek or Roman Empires. Such was not the case, the Lions falling to Port Adelaide in 2004 while attempting to match Collingwood's VFL record of four flags in sucession. But the fact remains that the Brisbane team of 2001-04 stands as a worthy contender for the mantle of greatest team of all.

The Queensland heritage

The overall history of Australian football in Queensland followed a similar, if somewhat longer, path toward maturity. The game is reputed to have been played in Queensland as early as 1866, and the first Queensland Football Association was formed in 1880. When an Australasian Football Council meeting was held in Melbourne in 1883, Queensland was one of the colonies which sent representation, and it seems probable that, organisationally at any rate, the Australian code was in a stronger position than rugby at this time.

Queensland's first forays into the intercolonial arena came in 1884 in Brisbane, when two matches were played against New South Wales, with the honours being shared. Over the years, Queensland would meet New South Wales on more occasions than any other colony or state, with the balance of power gradually shifting north with the passage of time. As the nineteenth century wore on, however, fewer and fewer Queenslanders became actively involved in the indigenous code, and indeed it would not be until the second half of the succeeding century that the asphyxiating stranglehold of rugby would begin to loosen.

Football during this time did not die out completely, but it remained very much a minority pursuit, with many Queenslanders virtually as oblivious of its existence as were the inhabitants of Siberia or the Amazon Basin. Queensland competed in the first Australian - or 'Australasian' (^1) as it was termed then - Interstate Championship series in Melbourne, and intermittently thereafter, but its record on the whole was ignominious. In 1908 it lost all of its matches, as it did on each of its next three carnival appearances in 1914, 1924 and 1930. At last, at Sydney in 1933, it broke through for its first ever championship win, defeating carnival newcomers Canberra by 7 goals, a result that was repeated, by 20 points on this occasion, at the Queenslanders' next carnival appearance in 1947 at Hobart.


In 1950, an Australian interstate championship series was held in Brisbane for the first time. The series involved all states and territories other than the Northern Territory, together with an Australian Amateurs combined side, and a representative team from the VFA. Unfortunately, this unique and invaluable opportunity to promote and showcase the game was undermined by atrocious weather, with thirteen inches of rain being recorded over the eleven day period during which the championships took place. Not surprisingly, this had an inimical effect both on attendances (^2), and on the standard of the football, with spectacular high marking and long kicking - the two features of the code most widely considered to be its 'selling points' - at a premium.

Competing in section two of the carnival, Queensland repeated its 1933 and 1947 achievements in beating Canberra, but lost to both Australian Amateurs and New South Wales.

Following the Brisbane Carnival it became the norm for sections one and two of the Australian championships to be conducted separately, with the only exception to this being the 1958 centenary carnival in Melbourne. Queensland continued to compete in section two, with their performances gradually improving in a direct reflection of the steadily improving standard of football in the state (^3).

The missionary endeavour

A major reason for this improvement was an intensification in missionary endeavour on the part of southern states 'football evangelists', many of whom, characterising the burgeoning post-war mobility of the Australian population, were lured north by the obvious climatic attractions of the appropriately named 'sunshine state' (the unpleasant experiences of the 1950 Brisbane carnival notwithstanding). Notable among these itinerants was Joe Grant, who in 1958 was appointed by the QANFL as its first full time secretary, and under whose aegis the code in Brisbane rapidly acquired new levels of both viability and professionalism. (The Joe Grant Medal, which honours him, is awarded to the best player afield in each season's state league grand final.) These developments were exemplified by the fact that, between 1958 and 1963, the number of Australian football clubs in Brisbane increased by more than 40%, while gate takings from top level matches doubled (^4). Of perhaps even greater significance was the fact that more and more secondary schools were adopting the game, meaning that there was now a much more direct and reliable conduit from primary school football, which in the Brisbane area at least had long been fairly robust, right through to the various levels of the senior game.

There were other forms of evangelistic activity, too. In 1952, as part of an experimental so called 'propaganda round', a VFL match for premiership points between Essendon and Geelong was played under lights at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground on Monday 16 June. Originally scheduled for the preceding Saturday afternoon, incessant rain forced a postponement which, in the event, proved to be a blessing in disguise. Motivated perhaps more by the comparative novelty of a football match being played under floodlights, and the sense of occasion this might be expected to generate, than by any genuine interest in Australian football per se, close to 30,000 spectators turned up, with quite a number of these gaining entry illegally after several gates and fences were broken down in the crush. The attendance remained a record for an Australian Rules football game in Queensland for many years.

Whatever reasons the majority of the patrons had for attending the game, what they got was a marvellous advertisement for football, characterised by fast, open play, prodigious kicking, and tremendous high marking. Essendon's John Coleman, then at the peak of his prowess as a player, put in a textbook performance at full forward to net 13 of his side's 23 goals in a 69-point win.

Throughout the 1960s the number of people from the southern states with footballing backgrounds who headed north to Queensland continued to increase, as did the number of locals getting involved in the game. As the 1970s approached the standard of Queensland football had improved to the extent that the idea of competition against teams from the southern states could realistically be entertained. In 1969 in Brisbane, the Queensland state team got within 10 points of a powerful St Kilda combination, while in a match against Essendon in 1970, also in Brisbane, Queensland performed creditably in losing by just 31 points, 9.27 (81) to 15.22 (112).

"..aiming a bit high"

In 1973, a South Australian 'twenty-one and under' side visited Chelmer Reserve in Brisbane and, in front of 8,500 sun-soaked spectators - the biggest crowd at a football match of any code taking place in the city that day - held off a determined challenge from the Queensland state team to win a high standard encounter by 28 points. Former Geelong player Bill Ryan, who had joined Coorparoo that season, was captain-coach of the Queensland side, and was also at the helm a year later when the Queenslanders broke through for their first ever section two carnival success. The carnival was played in Sydney, with Queensland overcoming the host state by 22 points in a semi final, and reigning champions the ACT by 16 points in the final. "It was a great win," remarked Ryan, "and probably the best thing ever to happen to Queensland football." However, reacting to suggestions that Queensland was now ready to challenge Tasmania for a place in section one of the championships, he urged caution, maintaining that "the boys played as well as they could in Sydney and couldn't have done much better. I think they are aiming a bit high challenging southern states and they would be thrashed well and truly. On the other hand, Queensland football can only improve with strong competition." (^5) Ryan went on to suggest that the key to further growth in Queensland football, at least in the short term, was "to make sure that each club has a top player from the south" which "would mean that each club would benefit from his experience and the state side would have a good nucleus to build a side around." (^6)

Ryan's pessimism regarding Queensland's prospects against southern state opposition was soon shown to be groundless. In 1975, a 'return' match against the South Australian 'twenty-one and under' side was held at Football Park in Adelaide, with Queensland once again extending their supposedly more illustrious opponents to the full, before running out of steam late on and going under by just 4 goals, 18.17 (125) to 22.17 (149). Even more noteworthy, however, was Queensland's victory over Tasmania in Brisbane later in the season, the state's first against a traditional section one opponent. Indeed, only woeful inaccuracy on the part of the Queenslanders prevented a massacre, with the final scores being 16.29 (125) to 16.7 (103). Queensland repeated this success in 1978, winning 16.9 (105) to 12.11 (83), while in both 1977 and 1978 they scored impressive victories over the VFA. All of these matches were played in Brisbane.

Encouraged by these performances, Queensland's football administrators took the next logical step: in 1979, matches were arranged against South Australia in Brisbane, and the VFA in Melbourne. Unfortunately, however, this proved to be too big a jump too soon, as both games were lost heavily, by 133 and 156 points respectively. Further losses to South Australia in Adelaide in 1980 (198 points), and the VFL in Brisbane in 1980 (80 points) and 1981 (131 points), only served to emphasise this point.

Queensland's first foray into the state of origin arena came at the 1979 Perth championships when, competing in section two, a 31 point win was achieved over the ACT, followed by a 32 point loss against Tasmania. Actually, the term 'state of origin' is slightly misleading, as the Queensland selectors were allowed not only to pick players who had commenced their football careers in Queensland, but any players based there who were not required by their original home states. As it transpired, however, the evolving strength of Queensland football was clearly demonstrated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the state's 1979 Carnival squad were genuinely home grown.

The 1981 season saw a second VFL premiership match taking place in Brisbane when Essendon overcame Hawthorn by 18 points in a high scoring encounter of considerable quality. The following year, VFL grand finalists Carlton and Richmond played an exhibition game in Brisbane during the Commonwealth Games.

As the 1980s progressed, Bill Ryan's prophecy that, given regular, high-standard competition the quality of Queensland football would inevitably improve was starkly demonstrated. Between 1982 and 1984 the Queensland state team won 9 out of 12 section two championship (or, as it was now known, Escort Shield) matches, winning the title itself three times in a row between 1983 and 1985. The QAFL, which had been revitalised by the admission in 1983 of a highly ambitious Gold Coast-based club in Southport, was going from strength to strength; the "prop and kick" style of which Bill Ryan had been so critical upon his arrival in Brisbane in 1973 (^7) was a dim and distant memory, and more Queenslanders than ever before were venturing south to try their luck in the 'big time' (^8).

The great cash grab...the VFL goes national

It was during the 1980s that speculation began to mount over the prospects of a cash-strapped VFL club, such as Fitzroy or Footscray, following South Melbourne's lead and re-locating north, only to Brisbane on this occasion rather than Sydney. In 1982, "Bulldog fans were rocked to hear the VFL had offered to do a feasibility study of moving the club to Brisbane or the Gold Coast at no charge" (^9). Footscray responded vigorously and defiantly to this threat, as would Fitzroy later in the decade when the focus shifted to that club. In Fitzroy's case, however, the sentence of exile (if not summary execution) was only to be suspended.

Queensland's entry to the 'big league', when it came, was effectively through the back door, with the enormous strides made since the 1950s by the state's football administrators and players having little or no direct bearing on the matter. By 1986, several of the VFL's constituent clubs were in parlous condition financially, and interstate expansion of the competition was viewed as the most practicable means of ensuring their survival. Not only would such expansion elicit extra revenue in terms of increased marketing possibilities, enhanced sale of TV rights, and so on, it was also proposed that each new club would be required to remit a license fee of $4 million as a condition of entry. This license money would, it was believed, be sufficient to ensure the short term survival of the struggling clubs, with their long term viability being aided by the hoped for economic spin-offs of participation in a competition perceived as having a 'national', rather than merely Victorian, profile.

The VFL's preferred options were to have new teams to be based in the comparative football hotbeds of Adelaide and Perth, but when the SANFL - disgusted at being asked to pay an exorbitant license fee simply to participate in a competition it had helped bolster for years - refused to play ball, attention shifted north, to Queensland. Initially, it looked as though Fitzroy might up sticks and move north, but when a benefactor stepped in with sufficient funds to enable the club to consolidate, this idea was abandoned, and the focus shifted to bids from groups willing to develop a fledgling club from scratch. At least three such groups came forward, but it soon developed into a two horse race, with the League Commission favouring a proposal from a consortium led by Australian Tennis Open promoter John Brown, but the individual clubs preferring a bid jointly sponsored by actor Paul Cronin and the QAFL. Ironically (as would soon emerge), the clubs' stance was based on a perception that the Cronin-QAFL bid was more financially secure, and it was primarily on this basis that they were ultimately awarded the license. Thereafter, matters proceeded swiftly, indeed with such indecent haste that it was clear to everyone that the potential on field viability of the fledgling Queensland club was not high on anyone's agenda. Indeed, from the VFL's standpoint, it was probably not seen as desirable that either Brisbane, or the new Perth-based club, West Coast, should prove too successful. All that really mattered was their license money.

..."a ramshackle collection of rejects"

The Brisbane Bears Football Club, with the maroon of Queensland and the gold of the Queensland sunshine as their colours, was officially unveiled to the public on 7th October 1986, with Paul Cronin installed as inaugural chairman. However, the man who really appeared to pull the strings was media magnate Christopher Skase, who was officially listed as Cronin's deputy. Skase it was who had come forward promising to underwrite the $4 million license fee after it became known that the consortium was having trouble raising it. Three years later it emerged that the bank from which Skase had borrowed this money was still awaiting its repayment.

Right from the outset, the Bears had problems establishing credibility. Despite being known as 'Brisbane', Skase insisted that the club base itself at Carrara on the Gold Coast. Moreover, despite carrying the Bears nickname, the club's official emblem featured a koala, which was not technically a bear at all. Even more critically, the club encountered enormous difficulties in trying to assemble a viable team. The attitude of opposition clubs and the VFL was hardly sympathetic or supportive, and whereas West Coast had access to a substantial wellspring of local, WAFL-based talent, Brisbane was forced to pay through the nose to recruit players. In total, the Bears incurred a total outlay of more than $1 million in procuring a team containing barely a handful of household names. Among these was the first player to sign for the club, Mark Williams, who headed north after a protracted contract dispute with former side Collingwood, while perhaps the biggest name on the Bears' inaugural list was Brad Hardie from Footscray, winner of 2 Tassie Medals and the 1985 Brownlow. Originally from South Fremantle, the red-haired, nuggety Hardie combined a straight ahead, no nonsense approach with considerable flair and versatility. Sadly, although he would later become the first man to register 100 games with the club, Hardie's form at Brisbane would seldom reach the same heights as it had with either South Fremantle or Footscray.

Other key figures in the original Bears set-up included coach Peter Knights, a former Hawthorn champion, captain Mark Mickan from West Adelaide, deputy vice-captain Steve Reynoldson from Geelong, Bernie Harris (ex Fitzroy), Geoff Raines (from Essendon, and formerly of Richmond and Collingwood), Ken Judge and Mick McCarthy (both ex Hawthorn), Jim Edmond (from Sydney, having played previously with Footscray), native born Queenslander Frank Dunell (from Essendon), and former Collingwood and Richmond wingman Phil Walsh, who would be the eventual recipient of the club's inaugural best and fairest award.

Almost universally written off as a ramshackle collection of rejects, has-beens and 'failures waiting to happen', the Bears were given absolutely no hope, outside of Queensland at any rate, of winning their first game of the season, away to North Melbourne (^10). In truth, there were probably very few people in Queensland either who gave them any chance, and indeed not that many who even knew about the club or, if they did, who cared two cents for its prospects.

Those prospects seemed immeasurably rosier after that opening game, watched by a meagre crowd of 14,096, because the Bears team, to a man, performed to the limits of their ability in leading at every change en route to a 19.23 (137) to 15.14 (104) victory. Ruck rover Mark Williams was best afield, closely followed by ruckman and skipper Mark Mickan, 5 goal half forward Brenton Phillips, wingman Philip Walsh, and rover Bernie Harris.

If anyone regarded this performance as a fluke they were rapidly disabused of the notion: in round two the following week Brisbane travelled to Kardinia Park to meet Geelong and scored another famous victory. Jim Edmond booted 8 goals, matching the performance at the other end of the ground of Cats great Gary Ablett, while Mark Williams chipped in with 6 majors of his own in another best on ground performance.

Perhaps inevitably, however, the bubble soon burst. A 50 point loss against St Kilda at Moorabbin in round three was followed by the disappointment of defeat against future merger partners Fitzroy in the club's home debut the following week. Brisbane ultimately avoided the wooden spoon only after a 56 point defeat of Richmond at the MCG in the season's closing round.

The infusion of new blood

Prior to the start of the 1988 season the Bears bolstered their playing ranks by signing Queenslander Scott McIvor from Fitzroy, Essendon key position forward and dual premiership player Roger Merrett, and flamboyant Sydney goalsneak Warwick Capper. While most of the initial attention was focused on Capper, who was a proven crowd pleaser, and who, in 1987, had booted 103 goals, it was to be Merrett who would go on to have the greatest impact at the club. When he retired at the end of the 1996 season he held the club records for most games (164) and goals (285), and had been skipper for seven straight seasons. However, it was for attributes not readily submitting to statistical analysis that he is probably best remembered. A quintessential, archetypal on field leader, Merrett placed his body on the line for his team mates time and time again, and seldom can the expression 'leading from the front' have found a more appropriate or deserving target.

Despite this influx of new blood the Bears did only marginally better in 1988 than in 1987, winning seven games, as against six, out of 22, but still finishing second last.

In 1989 Peter Knights was sacked as coach after the Bears lost at home to Geelong by 74 points, leaving them with just 3 wins from 15 games for the season. Knights was replaced by former North Melbourne player Paul Feltham who had been working as the club's sports psychologist. It would seem that psychology was what the players most needed as they promptly proceeded to win five of their last seven games to clamber up the ladder to an all-time high of tenth position.

Behind the scenes, however, affairs were not so healthy. After the season ended the Christopher Skase business empire collapsed, leaving the Bears with debts of $28 million. With the club in disarray, and its survival in serious doubt, it was not until February 1990 that its continued participation in the VFL was assured after Reuben Pelerman stepped in with a rescue plan which involved a Board of Administration, fronted by developer Noel Gordon, overseeing affairs. On the playing side, Paul Feltham was replaced as coach by ex Fitzroy player Norm Dare, and Mark Mickan stood down as captain in favour of Roger Merrett.

None of these measures had any discernible short term impact as the Bears plummeted to the indignity of a first ever wooden spoon, managing just 4 wins for the season. This prompted further change, with former Collingwood player Andrew Ireland taking the reins as CEO on a ticket which espoused relocation to Brisbane as the club's foremost short term priority. With Norm Dare's blessing, Robert Walls was brought in as head coach, with Dare remaining as his deputy.

Back to basics...and to Brisbane

A year later, after another wooden spoon, the club was once again in a critical state, and opted to move from being a privately owned concern to a more traditional, membership-based set-up. In hindsight, this decision not only almost certainly saved the club, but laid the foundations of its future greatness, as indeed did the decision to re-locate to the Gabba in Brisbane. In 1992, the Bears played 4 games at the Gabba on a trial basis, and attendances were encouraging (^11). Also encouraging was the team's marginal improvement in form which precipitated a rise of one place on the premiership ladder.

In 1993, after close to $4 million worth of development work, the Gabba was ready to provide Brisbane with a home base commensurate with the club's status as a member of Australia's leading professional sports organisation. Two years later the magnificent Northern Stand was unveiled, as was Australia's biggest electronic scoreboard; all that remained was for the Bears to put a team out on the field that matched the state of the art facilities.

Under Robert Walls' astute and meticulous coaching (^12) Brisbane's on field progress was steady and measured. In 1993, the club rose to thirteenth (out of fifteen) on the ladder, while 9 wins the following year was a Bears club record that would ordinarily have secured better than twelfth place.

During 1995, however, things seemed to be going backwards. After 15 rounds the Bears were two places off the bottom of the ladder with just 4 wins, and press speculation was rife that Robert Walls, who had already indicated that he would not be coaching the club in 1996, would be prematurely shown the door. Round ]sixteen saw the Bears at home to Hawthorn, which was enduring its worst season for thirty years, but up to three quarter time the visitors played like their recent, premiership-winning predecessors in racking up 13.10 (88) to 5.13 (43), a lead of 45 points. Given the hot, energy-sapping conditions which prevailed, the lead was probably worth even more, but during the three quarter time interval Bears coach Walls, noticing that the Hawthorn team had sought shelter under the shade of the Western Hill Stand, used a classic piece of schoolboy psychology to inspire his players.

"They're tired," he told his troops. "If we just keep persisting we can win it!" (^13)

Over the course of the next half an hour Brisbane staged the greatest last-quarter comeback ever seen in V/AFL football, adding 9.7 to 1.3 to win by 7 points. Property steward Graeme Smart, later to become a Brisbane Bears life member (one of only two to be named by the club, the other being Roger Merrett), was one of many to be overcome by emotion:

"At three quarter time they had no chance. You wouldn't back them even with someone else's money. As things went on and on it was bloody unbelievable. This is the best win we have ever had." (^14)

According to Walls: "We had the faith to dig deep and keep going. With ten minutes to go I knew we would win. We had the momentum." (^15)

During the remaining seven games of the season, this momentum was maintained, with the Bears losing only once, to eventual premiers Carlton, en route to a first ever top eight finish, which as of the 1994 season had also meant finals participation.

Brisbane's finals debut could scarcely have presented a stiffer challenge: away to minor premiers Carlton which had lost just 2 games for the year, and was being widely touted as one of the most outstanding combinations of all time. Perhaps inevitably therefore, the Bears lost, but not before giving the Blues their toughest fight of the finals series. Final scores were Carlton 13.12 (90); Brisbane 12.5 (77), with the Bears clawing their way back into the game after the Blues had exploded out of the blocks. It was a courageous and highly promising performance which, without in any way wishing to seem patronising, was also good experience. Twelve months later, Brisbane would achieve spectacular revenge.

The 1996 season saw Brisbane coach Robert Walls and Richmond mentor John Northey swap places in an arrangement that would ultimately prove to be of considerably greater satisfaction to the Bears. Known during his playing days with Richmond as 'Swooper', Northey "with his judgement, his stern but fatherly approach to his players, his great football thinking, and his ability to put some steel into a team, had the Bears firing in 1996" (^16).

These were qualities that had already served Northey well as coach of Sydney, Melbourne (whom he had steered to the 1988 grand final and two night flags) and Richmond. At Brisbane he probably had more genuine football talent at his disposal than ever before, with experienced campaigners like Roger Merrett, Craig Lambert and Scott McIvor being supplemented by a rapidly improving band of youthful prodigies such as Justin Leppitsch, Matthew Clarke and eventual 1996 Brownlow Medallist Michael Voss.

The challenge of an arranged marriage

The Bears were a force to be reckoned with right from the outset in 1996, and the fans flocked to their games in unprecedented numbers. Six of the club's 13 home games were sell-outs, with a record 22,003 spectators turning up for the historic inaugural home final against Essendon. Midway through the season, on 4th July, it was announced that Brisbane would be merging with Fitzroy at season's end. This was something of a shock as, while it had long been known that Fitzroy as an autonomous organisation was going out of business, only three days earlier the AFL Commission had agreed in principle to the club merging with North Melbourne. Predictably, the sudden about face was made for financial reasons, with Bears chairman Noel Gordon's eleventh hour offer proving more attractive to Lions administrator Michael Brennan than what the Kangaroos had tabled. Equally predictably, the reaction of fans of both merger partners was negative in the extreme but, as with many arranged marriages, time would yield first tolerance, and eventually irrevocable loyalty and affection. Once the merger had taken place, Brisbane supporters could rest easy over their club's long term financial viability, which had always been a cause of concern, while Fitzroy fans could, hopefully, and at long last, have a successful team to barrack for.

In the meantime, however, there was still a good deal of football to be played under the Bears banner. With Northey at the tiller, Brisbane finally overcame its perennial Achilles heel of vulnerability interstate, winning 6 and drawing 1 of its 11 matches 'on the road'. This improvement, combined with the transformation of the Gabba into a virtual fortress (only 2 narrow defeats were sustained all year), was good enough to secure a club record third place on the ladder and the aforementioned home final against the Bombers, which developed into a veritable classic with Brisbane ultimately edging home by a point.

The semi finals brought Carlton to the Gabba, and the Bears produced arguably the most spectacular performance in their short history, winning by the scarcely believable margin of 97 points, 26.14 (170) to 10.13 (73). In the following week's preliminary final, however, premiers-in-waiting North Melbourne proved too formidable, but the Bears had every reason to be proud of their achievement, and to be optimistic over the future, albeit that that future would be a shared one.

It could perhaps be argued that, leaving financial considerations aside, the arguments for a merger, from the point of view of creating a stronger, more vigorously contested competition, were pretty persuasive. In reality, however, most observers felt that, given the undoubted strength of the current Brisbane list, which would be supplemented by the arrival of eight of the very best Fitzroy players, the newly formed Brisbane Lions would have a head start in developing arguably the first genuine dynasty of the AFL era.

Football, like life, seldom conforms to such ostensibly persuasive reasoning, and things would get a good deal tougher for the Lions before they got better.

From the start, it was evident that the marriage of convenience which had spawned the Brisbane Lions was a lop sided affair, heavily weighted in favour of the former Bears. Not only would the new club continue to be based in Brisbane, but the vast majority of its players, together with eight members of its eleven strong committee and coach John Northey, would have Bears backgrounds.

In December 1999 the AFL effectively confirmed the Bears status as senior partners in the merger when it clarified what until then had been a confusing situation regarding player records and statistics:

Players and coaches involved with both the Bears and the Lions will have their records classified as one set for Brisbane. In other words, Marcus Ashcroft has played 222 premiership matches for Brisbane (Bears and Lions) while Alastair Lynch has played 204 matches comprising 120 for Fitzroy and 84 for Brisbane (Bears and Lions). And it means those such as John Northey and Adrian Fletcher will be recorded as being involved at four clubs, not five. This position will also apply to match records (highest scores, lowest scores, club v club records etc)..... (^17)

As time went on, however, the Lions themselves, for perfectly understandable reasons, and with the eager endorsement of the Melbourne media, sought to dilute this view. In 2001, for example, the word 'Brisbane' was unceremoniously erased from the club's name when it played in Victoria; it was known simply as 'Lions' in an unambiguous - and, from a marketing perspective, highly shrewd - affirmation of its Fitzroy heritage. This had a pronounced and beneficial effect on the club's Victorian membership figures, and meant that, when playing in Melbourne, the team was assured of a respectable following. Inevitably, however, some took what was essentially a marketing ploy much too literally: during the 2001 AFL grand final, certain members of the TV commentary team persistently and blithely peddled the delusion that what they were witnessing was a Fitzroy premiership. As far as they were concerned, in football terms Brisbane might as well have been on the moon. (In this connection it is perhaps worth pointing out that, when Brisbane finally broke through for its debut premiership in 2001, victory was achieved with a nucleus of players (twelve in all) who had begun their VFL/AFL careers with the Bears, while Chris Johnson was the only member of the flag-winning team to have crossed over from Fitzroy as part of the merger deal.)

In truth, the eventual success of the Brisbane Lions was a triumph for the broader game in general, and for Queensland football in particular. As Brisbane's most watched football club, the Lions have gone some way towards giving the national game the sort of profile it deserves in Queensland's capital.

In 1997, however, there was still considerable work to be done and, after the exuberance and promise of the Bears' 1996 season, there would be disappointments and apparent backward steps aplenty before the much talked about 'potential' of the new ensemble was fulfilled.

With Alastair Lynch replacing the now retired Roger Merrett as captain, the Lions, wearing maroon, gold and blue, endured an injury-ridden and inconsistent 1997 season which saw them just fall over the line into the finals after drawing 1 and losing 3 of their final 4 games. The draw, significantly, came against Port Adelaide, the club which Brisbane ultimately displaced from the finals on percentage.

It was a brief finals campaign this time around, however, as eventual grand finalists St Kilda cruised to victory in the fourth qualifying final by 46 points, 20.15 (135) to 13.11 (89), bringing to an end a frustrating season of apparent under-achievement.

In the club best and fairest award, won by ruckman Matthew Clarke, it was interesting to note that none of the club's Fitzroy recruits finished in the top ten positions.

If 1997 had been about unfulfilled potential, 1998 was simply a calamity from start to finish. Touted as genuine premiership contenders before the season started, the club lost its first 5 games before lurching from crisis to crisis, and ending up with a totally unexpected wooden spoon. Coach John Northey was sacked midway through the year and replaced by favourite son Roger Merrett, but after overseeing just one win in the club's final eight matches of the year Merrett too was unceremoniously dumped.

A much publicised off field drama involving Alastair Lynch and chairman Noel Gordon reinforced the notion - if it needed reinforcing - that this was a season to forget.

Lethal Leigh to the rescue

The man called in to rescue the Lions in 1999 was former Hawthorn champion Leigh Matthews who, as a coach, had steered Collingwood to the 1990 premiership. Since leaving the Magpies at the end of the 1995 season he had worked in the media, and coached both the Victorian state of origin side (highly successfully) and Australia's 1998 'combined rules' team in Ireland (less so). His impact at Brisbane would be immediate and emphatic.

Tony Shaw, who had won the Norm Smith Medal in Collingwood's 1990 premiership win, offered a cogent and candid appraisal of the Matthews approach to coaching: "... two major things emerged from the way Leigh coaches. He points out things in the smallest areas which can mean the difference between winning and losing. Things like diet, rest and especially alcohol intake, can make that five per cent difference between winning and losing.

"The other point is that decisions have to be made - and not everyone will agree with them - but Leigh has the courage of his convictions." (^18)

In the intervening nine or so years between the above comments being made and Matthews taking over the coaching reins at Brisbane his style had inevitably evolved, but these two factors remained central. The Lions in 1999 were fitter and better prepared than ever before, while some of Matthews' decisions at first appeared almost outlandish or illogical, only to end up, in most cases, looking inspired. A prime case in point was his decision to move both Jason Akermanis and Justin Leppitsch from the forward lines, where they had spent almost their entire careers up until then, into defence; the result was that both players played the best football of their careers, earning AFL All Australian selection, and tying with one another for the club's fairest and best award.

Under Matthews, Brisbane also played with a newfound aggression, frequently laced with overt, systematically applied intimidation techniques, and it was arguably this above anything else that made the side significantly and consistently more successful away from home than it had ever been before. Not that the Lions were a team of thugs - far from it: running players like Michael Voss, Shaun Hart, Nigel Lappin, Simon Black and Marcus Ashcroft gave the Lions one of the most effective and attractive midfield units in the game. Moreover, some of the set plays which Matthews developed in order to disorientate the opposition verged on the ingenious. The Lions under Matthews were unrecognisable from the ramshackle outfit which had spluttered to the previous season's wooden spoon. The team opened the 1999 season with a 23.14 (152) to 10.3 (63) annihilation of St Kilda at the Gabba, and thereafter seldom broke step in a rousing, sustained march to the finals. Some of the performances en route were outstanding, including a league record 21 goal first half haul against Fremantle at the Gabba, hefty wins against both the Power and the Crows at Football Park, and a comfortable win over Collingwood at Victoria Park on the emotional occasion of the Magpies' last game at the ground.

With a percentage of 144.9% - the best by any club in the League since 1992 - the Lions had every reason to feel confident over their finals prospects, and substantial wins over Carlton (73 points) in the qualifying final and the Western Bulldogs (53 points) in a semi final, both at the Gabba, only served to enhance this confidence. In the end, however, the Kangaroos at the MCG in a preliminary final proved just one hurdle too many; clearly Matthews still needed an ingredient or two to complete the recipe.

In actual fact, it soon emerged that perhaps more than a couple of ingredients were needed, with the situation being complicated by the retirement during the 2000 season of a number of key players, notably Richard Champion, Craig Lambert and - surprisingly prematurely - Adam Heuskes. With number one ruckman Clark Keating absent all season long with a serious knee injury, and others like Brad Scott, Matthew Kennedy, Steve Lawrence and Simon Black missing numerous games, the Lions lacked the potency and fluency of the previous year, managing just 12 wins to qualify for the finals in 6th place. A 15.20 (110) to 10.16 (76) elimination final defeat of the Western Bulldogs raised hopes, but the following week Brisbane was execrable in losing to Carlton by 82 points in Melbourne.

Realising that the Lions' biggest weakness was a lack of depth in defence, Matthews made two important recruiting coups during the close season when he brought Mal Michael (Collingwood) and Martin Pike (Kangaroos) to the Gabba. Both were highly accomplished backmen, while Pike also brought invaluable experience, having been a member of the Kangaroos' 1999 premiership side.

The dream machine

Brisbane in 2001 was close to the finished article, winning its final 13 home and away matches for the year to qualify for the finals in second place, behind leaders Essendon only on percentage. Its form in the finals was, if anything, even better: it comfortably overcame Port Adelaide in a low scoring war of attrition in the second qualifying final by 32 points, and then blew Richmond away with merciless ease by 68 points to qualify for a first ever grand final. Both matches took place at the Gabba but, with 8 wins out of 11 away from home, home ground advantage was no longer perceived as being a major crux of the Lions' success.

Reigning premiers Essendon provided the grand final opposition, and the pundits were generally split over who they thought might prevail. Both sides had enormous strength in the middle of the ground, with Brisbane having "won 15 matches in succession by utilising a free-flowing game of controlling the midfield through a dominant pack of runners, including 2001 Brownlow Medallist Jason Akermanis, captain Michael Voss and fellow AFL All Australians Simon Black and Nigel Lappin" (^19). Reigning premier Essendon meanwhile had its own troop of highly talented, tautly cohesive on ballers, such as James Hird, Blake Caracella, Chris Heffernan and Jason Johnson. If the Bombers were to win, these players needed to "control the middle by making every contest accountable; they must stop the Lions from getting a run on" (^20).

This proved to be an uncannily prescient assessment. For most of the first half, the Essendon midfielders contained and occasionally broke clear of their highly vaunted opponents, and as the half time siren loomed the Bombers led by 20 points. Then, a split second before the siren, Simon Black found Alastair Lynch 40 metres from goal, and the veteran forward made no mistake. It was - or so said many of the Brisbane players after the game - a crucial goal:

"They felt a 14 point lead was manageable - and, importantly, they had enormous confidence that they were a fitter and stronger side than Essendon. They were convinced of being able to out run the reigning premiers" (^21).

And so it proved. In energy sapping, torrid conditions, reminiscent of those which often prevailed in the Lions' home state, the second half saw Brisbane, with Voss, eventual Norm Smith Medallist Hart and Lappin irrepressible, running the Bombers into the ground. The finals scores were Brisbane 15.18 (108) to Essendon 12.10 (82), a margin of only 26 points, but in truth the game had been won well before the end by a team playing with a style and conviction that must have sent tremors down the spines of all fifteen of the other AFL clubs' coaches.

In retrospect, Brisbane's march to successive flags in 2002 seems to have been almost a formality. In actual fact, there were occasional moments of uncertainty, such as the loss to Melbourne at the Gabba in round fourteen (in what was officially a 'home' game for the Demons), and the defeats by both the Adelaide teams in finals like atmospheres at Football Park, but overall there was an air of persuasive inevitability about the 2002 Lions - until, that is, Saturday 28th September, and grand final day.

Whereas in 2001 the grand final clash between Brisbane and Essendon was expected to be a closely fought affair, with either side more or less equally capable of taking the honours, twelve months later it was widely believed - away from Victoria Park at any rate - that the Lions' surprise grand final opponents, Collingwood, were merely there for the ride. Man for man, Brisbane was supposed to be immeasurably superior to the Magpies.

Unlike in 2001, on this occasion the notoriously fickle Melbourne weather did not come to Brisbane's aid, with heavy rain creating a slippery playing surface and greasy ball more to Collingwood's liking. Right from the opening bounce it was evident that the Lions were not in for an easy afternoon. The Magpies chased, hassled, impeded and stifled, applying the same kind of naked aggression to the Lions as the Lions had used so successfully for most of the Matthews era. Anthony Rocca's goal for Collingwood at the 26 minute mark proved to be the only major of the lowest scoring grand final first quarter for seventy-five years.

Brisbane's opening goal arrived five minutes into the second term, and although this precipitated something of a Lions surge, the intense pressure being applied by Collingwood induced an atypical profligacy in front of goal. Brisbane added 4.8 in the quarter to the Magpies' 3 straight, to lead at the long change by just 8 points.

Many observers expected Brisbane's allegedly superior fitness to tell in the second half, but this was far from the case as Collingwood kept up the pressure throughout, actually outscoring the Lions (4.6 to 4.2) during a third term in which they often appeared to be the stronger side.

The last quarter was a desperate, titanic arm wrestle, with Collingwood hitting the front eleven minutes in by means of a glorious checkside goal from Fraser. With heavy rain now falling goals were going to be at a premium, but it was at this point that the Lions finally lifted their game to the sort of heights their supporters had come to expect. Three minutes after Fraser's goal, Alastair Lynch netted full points from a controversial free kick, and Brisbane was back in front. Then, with Michael Voss in irrepressible, inspirational form, the Lions kept coming, albeit in the face of considerable pressure from the desperate Magpies.

After twenty-four minutes Jason Akermanis, who had been under something of a cloud with injury all day, snapped a superlative 6 pointer over his head and the Lions finally had some breathing space. The final minutes saw Brisbane retaining possession and slowing the play down to run out bruised, exhausted, but overall deserving winners by 9 points, 10.15 (75) to 9.12 (66). It had been the most absorbing and closely fought grand final since 1989, and it confirmed the Brisbane Lions as one of the truly great teams of the modern era.

This evaluation was brought into serious doubt at times during the following season, with a mixture of injuries to key players and poor form yielding the worst series of results since the wooden spoon year of 1998. However, as all champion teams do, the Lions came good when it really counted. After narrowly procuring the double chance, the side overcame the hiccup of a 15 point qualifying final loss to Collingwood to switch almost miraculously into top gear. Over the next three weeks Brisbane produced football on a par with anything in its, or indeed any other club's, history, scoring seemingly effortless wins over Adelaide (by 42 points), Sydney (44 points) and, on the final Saturday in September, Collingwood by a 50 point margin that, frankly, was flattering to the losers. The Lions' midfield brigade of Akermanis, Voss, Black and co. were simply indefatigable, as were key position players like Leppitsch and Lynch. The suggestion that Brisbane was now the greatest club side in Australian football history was becoming increasingly difficult to refute.

In 2004, the Lions had the opportunity to cast any lingering doubts as to their unsurpassed greatness aside as they lined up in their fourth consecutive grand final, this time against Port Adelaide. However, despite performing gallantly, particularly during a second term that saw them surge back into contention after seemingly being outplayed, they ended up 40 points in arrears, and the dream of matching the league record was over.

Back to the pack

Mediocre performances in the seasons post-2004 heralded the end of the great Brisbane era and the demise of their super coach Leigh Matthews. Follwing another disapointing season in 2008, the coach announced his resignation, followed by the immediate appointment of club great Michael Voss. Under Voss, Brisbane qualified for the finals in sixth place in 2009 before seeing off the elimination final challenge of Carlton by 7 points after kicking the last 6 goals of the match. A week later in the semi finals, however, the Western Bulldogs proved too strong, winning in the end by 51 points, 16.11 (107) to 8.8 (56). After a promising start, the 2010 season brought a decline in fortunes with 7 wins for the year consigning the Lions to thirteenth place on the ladder, their worst finish since 2006.

Even worse was to follow, with Brisbane managing just 4 wins in 2011 to plunge to third from bottom on the ladder. Despite this, Michael Voss was given a contract extension as the Lions believed he was the man best suited to taking the club forward. The 2013 season began promisingly with the Lions winning the NAB Cup thanks to a defeat of Carlton in the grand final. They also showed improvement during the regular season albeit not enough to secure finals qualification. The Lions ultimately won 10 of their 22 minor round matches to finish twelfth and Voss was informed that his coaching contract would not be renewed.

Between 2014 and 2016 former Brisbane favourite son Justin Leppitsch presided over arguably the bleakest era in the club’s history as they finished fifteenth, seventeenth and seventeenth, winning just 14 out of 66 league games. After the 2016 season was over former Hawthorn football operations manager Chris Fagan was announced as the club’s new coach. Overnight improvement was probably not expected, but it was nevertheless disappointing to witness the team enduring another dismal season which produced just 5 wins in 22 starts and saw the team collect its first wooden spoon since 1998. A year later the same win-loss tally was good enough to procure 15th place on the ladder. Finally, in 2018 the Lions began to show more than a modicum of promise, qualifying for the finals in second place but failing thereafter to go on with things, and ultimately being placed fifth. Further improvement followed during a 2020 campaign which included a rousing qualifying final victory over eventual premiers Richmond. After that, to lose comparatively meekly to Geelong in a home preliminary final has to be seen as immensely disappointing, but the prospects of a premiership in the not too distant future seem brighter than for almost two decades.

With Queensland now the fastest growing Australian state in terms of population its importance to the health and well being of Australian football is considerable. The Brisbane Lions Football Club, as prime flag wavers for Queensland footy, have already established a prominent niche for themselves in what remains essentially a rugby stronghold. The restoration of the Lions’ fortunes would surely only be good for the game, not only in their home state, but generally. The impact on Brisbane of the entry of the Gold Coast Suns into the competition, other than the addition of the 'Q-Clash' to the fixture, is yet to be determined.


Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from writers and, more recently, John Devaney once more.

  1. The term 'Australasian' was used because, in the 1908 Championship series, New Zealand competed for the first and, so far, only time, winning 2 matches. One of these victories came against Queensland.
  2. The aggregate attendance over the seven days of competition was 52,524, broken down as follows: DAY ONE - VFA vs. Tasmania (3,350 with receipts of £164); DAY TWO - Queensland vs. Canberra; Australian Amateurs vs. NSW; SA vs. WA (3,857 : £366); DAY THREE - SA vs. Tasmania; VFL vs. WA; Australian Amateurs vs. Queensland (15,755 : £1,837); DAY FOUR - New South Wales vs. Canberra; VFA vs. SA; VFL vs. Tasmania (4,948 : £525); DAY FIVE - Australian Amateurs vs. Canberra; New South Wales vs. Queensland; VFL vs. VFA (10,625 : £994); DAY SIX - WA vs. Tasmania (614 : £57); DAY SEVEN - VFL vs. SA; WA vs. VFA (13,375 : £1,193). Source: '1953 Australian Football Championship Official Souvenir Programme', page 11.
  3. In 1954, Queensland reached the section two final after scoring a first ever Carnival victory over New South Wales; however, Australian Amateurs proved much too strong in the championship decider, winning with effortless ease by 79 points. At the 1958 Centenary Carnival, Queensland again overcame New South Wales, but lost to both Australian Amateurs and ACT, while in 1960 they lost all three games played against New South Wales, the ACT, and the VFA. In 1965 they reached the final after a hard fought win over the ACT, and on this occasion they pushed the Australian Amateurs to the limit before succumbing by just 16 points. In 1968 and 1971, Queensland had to be satisfied with third place in fields of four but, significantly, the 1971 Carnival did at least yield the state's first ever victory over Australian Amateurs.
  4. The source for these statistics is an article by Frank O'Callaghan on the history of Australian football in Queensland, in High Mark, edited by Jack Pollard, page 147.
  5. Quoted in 'Football Life', August 1974, page 38.
  6. Ibid, page 39.
  7. Ibid, page 38.
  8. Examples include Gary Shaw (Western Districts to Claremont in 1981, and thereafter to Collingwood and Brisbane), Scott McDonald (Western Districts to Woodville in 1983), Jason Dunstall (Coorparoo to Hawthorn in 1985), Scott McIvor (Wilston Grange to Fitzroy in 1985), Trevor Spencer (Jindalee to Essendon in 1985), Michael Gibson (Coorparoo to Fitzroy in 1985, and thence to the Bears in 1987), Glen Goss (Mayne to West Adelaide in 1986), and Gavin Crosisca (Western Districts to Collingwood in 1987).
  9. This Football Century by Russell Holmesby and Jim Main, page 206.
  10. Strictly speaking, the Bears' first official outing had already taken place a couple of weeks earlier when they had succumbed meekly to the Sydney Swans in a National Panasonic Cup night series game at the SCG. The Swans won by 76 points, 23.8 (146) to 9.16 (70), and the Brisbane performance only served to reinforce the scepticism of the scribes over the fledgling club's prospects.
  11. The average attendance at the Bears' four Gabba home games was 9,111, compared to 7,399 for the 7 matches played at Carrara. The difference might not seem that much, but to place it in context you need to consider the fact that the league's three biggest draw cards, Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon, all played at Carrara.
  12. Walls, a three time premiership player with Carlton, coached Fitzroy from 1981 to 1985, steering the club to the finals in three out of his five seasons there before returning 'home' to Princes Park in 1986. As coach of Carlton he led the team to the 1986 and 1987 grand finals, winning the latter.
  13. The Clubs: the Complete History of Every Club in the VFL/AFL, edited by John Ross and Garrie Hutchinson, page 35.
  14. The Footy Club: Inside the Brisbane Bears by Ross Fitzgerald, page 111.
  15. Ibid, page 111.
  16. Ross and Hutchinson, op cit, page 37.
  17. From AFL 2000: The Official Statistical History of the AFL by Michael Lovett (ed.), page 4.
  18. A Shaw Thing by Tony Shaw with Daryl Timms, page 64.
  19. Anthony Spargo in 'AFL Record: Grand Final 2001 Edition', 29/9/01, page 51.
  20. Ibid, page 51.
  21. The Official AFL Yearbook 2001 by Michael Gleeson, page 367.


* Behinds calculated from the 1965 season on.
+ Score at the end of extra time.