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On Sunday 1st September 1996 a group of players representing the Fitzroy Football Club took the field for the last time. The fact that the venue for the match was Subiaco Oval in Perth was both significant and, in a perverse way, appropriate; the Australian Football League, which, within the space of a mere decade, had moved from being a suburban to a national competition, had no further use for financially non-viable propositions like Fitzroy. Football in the closing years of the twentieth century had much more to do with finance than sport and in this context Fitzroy's main problem was that, while its performances as a football club occasionally reached great heights, its business achievements - compared to the likes of traditional heavyweights like Carlton and Essendon, not to mention well-heeled newcomers such as West Coast and Adelaide - were negligible. Paradoxically this meant that, after the winning of premierships ceased to be the primary objective of the game, Fitzroy stopped winning premierships. Its demise, whilst poignant and unfortunate, was arguably inevitable.
Fitzroy's on-field achievements, particularly during the early years of the VFL, were considerable. During the first decade of VFL competition the Maroons won no fewer than four flags - more than any other club - and were runners-up three times. Further premierships followed in 1913 and 1916, but after world war one the side tended to struggle. Paralleling this, the VFL began to take on more and more of the characteristics of a business: payment to players was officially recognised as taking place in 1909, and professionalism gradually became more and more overt. Peripheral marketing also burgeoned, eventually reaching the point were it accounted for the majority of the sport's revenue. The image of the die-hard barracker braving the elements in the outer every Saturday afternoon to support his team may well have represented the popular perception of what the VFL was all about but it is doubtful if it ever genuinely held any credence; certainly by the 1960s it was no longer even remotely valid, if indeed it ever had been. However, the fact that such a romanticised perception existed - indeed, to a certain extent still exists - is undeniable, and the series of developments which ultimately led to Fitzroy’s demise in 1996 only served, in the minds of some, to reinforce and embellish it.
The choice of the word 'demise' is perhaps controversial. After all, 'officially' the merger with the Brisbane Bears did not herald the end for Fitzroy, but rather ensured the club's continuance. As far as the AFL is concerned, the evolving history and traditions of the Brisbane Lions Football Club should be seen as representing a seamless continuation of the history and traditions of both merger partners. This sounds all very well in theory, but ultimately such matters are not decided in the committee room but in people's hearts and minds.
The Fitzroy Football Club played its first season in 1884, having been officially formed in September of the previous year at a meeting organised by businessman George Toms at the Brunswick Hotel. The citizens of Fitzroy were keen to see a football club representing their district having witnessed the positive impact which the neighbouring Carlton club had had on that locality for many years. The VFA, discerning that the new club was capable of attracting significant support, swiftly made a number of rule changes to expedite its admission for 1884, and although there was a measure of scepticism among the football watching public regarding this decision it was rapidly shown to have been entirely warranted.
From the outset, Fitzroy attracted healthy crowds of up to 3,000, and it was not long before it proved capable of giving these supporters a team worth watching. By the 1890s the Maroons were indisputably one of the VFA’s top clubs, consistently finishing in the top four. In 1892 it finished runner-up to an all powerful Essendon combination which would go on to complete four successive flag triumphs. However, it was Fitzroy which, in 1895, brought the sequence to an end.
In those days, premierships were determined on the basis of matches won during the home and away season, as remains the case for example in European soccer leagues. With 3 matches of the 1895 season remaining the Maroons were in a strong position but still needed at least 2 wins (or a win and 2 draws) to be entirely sure of taking out the flag. All three of the side’s remaining fixtures were against teams from the top half of the ladder, beginning with Geelong, which would ultimately finish runners-up. Fitzroy were too good for the Pivotonians though, and when they tied with Essendon in their penultimate match it left an intriguing scenario for the final week of the season.
Quite simply, if Fitzroy defeated or tied with South Melbourne the premiership would be theirs. Geelong, which was playing Port Melbourne, had to win and see South topple the Maroons in order to force a play-off. Perhaps because a play-off would have been an exciting way of ending the season, many observers felt constrained to tip against the Maroons, and for much of the game the Fitzroy players appeared to concur with this view. Finally, however, after trailing at every change, a late goal from Mick Grace secured a tie, and Fitzroy had secured a premiership by, if the cliché is allowable, ‘the narrowest of margins’.
Two seasons later Fitzroy were one of eight clubs to break away from the VFA and form a new ‘super’ competition, the VFL. The circumstances leading to the breakaway are discussed in detail elsewhere. The Maroons struggled during their initial season in the new competition, winning just 4 of 14 matches to finish sixth. However, in 1898, helped partly by a curious new way of deciding the premiership, Fitzroy rose to the top of the tree.
In the VFL’s first season of 1897 the destiny of the flag had been determined by a round robin series between the sides occupying the top four positions at the end of the home and away rounds. However, something more climactic was deemed desirable, and for 1898 the system was overhauled. The format decided upon though has to be one of the strangest and most illogical ever conceived. At the end of the home and away series the eight clubs were split into two sections. The teams occupying the odd numbered positions on the ladder were placed in Section A with the remaining four teams comprising Section B. The 4 teams in each section then played each other once, with the two section winners meeting in the final. There was a proviso, however: if the team which had finished the home and away rounds at the top of the ladder did not qualify for the inter-section final it would be permitted to challenge the winner of that match for the flag. (Interestingly, this would prove to be the only feature of the system to be retained - albeit in slightly modified form - in subsequent years.)
Predictably, events panned out more or less as anticipated. Essendon, which had proved to be the best team over the course of the 14 match home-and-away season, and which had thereby guaranteed itself a premiership-deciding match, clearly had little incentive to prove itself in the section matches. The sections were duly won by Collingwood (second after the minor round) and Fitzroy (third), with the Maroons scoring a 2.10 (22) to 1.5 (11) victory over their local rivals in the play-off.
The destiny of the 1898 VFL premiership would thus be determined on the basis of a single, decisive match - in effect, the VFL's first ever 'grand final'. Essendon, having proved themselves marginally the best side over the course of the entire season, were slightly favoured, but Fitzroy, having finished the season strongly, also had their advocates. In the event the match, which attracted a crowd of 16,538, was dominated by Fitzroy, which eventually won by the comparatively comfortable margin for the era of 15 points after leading all day. Fitzroy ruckman Mick Grace, who had taken numerous marks, some of them spectacular, and whose long goal in the third term had effectively snuffed out the last hopes of an Essendon recovery, was awarded a gold medal as the best player afield.
A year later Fitzroy repeated its success, but only after an absorbing grand final tussle with South Melbourne. (Had the Maroons lost, however, they would nevertheless, as minor premiers, have been able to invoke the right of challenge.) The match was played in atrocious weather conditions and attracted a meagre crowd of just 4,823, but those who did brave the climatic vicissitudes were rewarded with a thrilling game. Aided by a strong breeze South controlled much of the opening quarter and led 2.3 (15) to 0.1 (1) at the first change; however, by half time the Maroons had edged in front by a point. It was probably the southerners' failure to trouble the scorers in this second term which ultimately proved decisive as after the long break both teams managed precisely the same score, leaving Fitzroy victors by the narrowest of margins. Pat Hickey, who was indefatigable at centre half back all afternoon for the premiers, was most observers' choice as the best player on view.
Between 1900 and 1906, Fitzroy enjoyed the most successful overall record in the VFL, contesting the finals every year for flags in 1904 and 1905 and runners up slots in 1900, 1903 and 1906. Indeed, Fitzroy's achievements over the course of the VFL's entire opening decade were second to none, as the Maroons won four of the ten premierships on offer, twice as many as their closest rivals, Collingwood.
Sadly, success for the 'Roys would never again prove anywhere near as accessible, with the remaining 90 years of the club's existence yielding only a further four flags. Meanwhile, clubs like Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon and Richmond went from strength to strength.
After suffering an annihilation at the hands of Carlton in the 1906 grand final Fitzroy was beset by internal administrative wrangles which in turn precipitated the departure of several key players. Among the champions lost to the club over the next half a dozen seasons were Jim Sharp, regarded as Victoria's finest backman, who went to arch rivals Collingwood, and Herbert 'Boxer' Milne, a graceful and highly talented follower, who joined South Melbourne.
Despite such setbacks, however, Fitzroy returned as a force in 1913 with arguably the greatest combination ever to represent the club. Nicknamed 'the unbeatables' the Fitzroy team of 1913 took all before it during the home-and-away rounds, winning 16 games out of 18 and finishing a game and a half clear of the next best side, South Melbourne. An effortless 11.14 (80) to 6.7 (43) semi final defeat of Collingwood then set up the 'formality' of a premiership clinching final encounter with perennial easy beats, St Kilda, but unfortunately for Fitzroy no one thought to send the Saints a copy of the script. Consequently, after trailing by 2 points at the long break the archetypal 'no hopers' of the League exploded into action, rattling on 5 goals to 1 in the second half to win pulling away. The record crowd of 54,747 in attendance at the game had witnessed St Kilda's open, free flowing style of play triumph over the vigorous, intense, 'pressure football' favoured by the 'Roys.
It was at this juncture that the Maroons' supreme performance during the home and away rounds came to their rescue; afforded the safety net of the right of challenge, they obeyed their captain Billy Walker's injunction to "match the St Kilda style and avoid rough play" to a tee and set up a seemingly match winning lead of 27 points by half time.
Indeed, the Saints did not manage to register their first goal until the third term, leaving the new record crowd of 59,479 mute with disappointment. The final quarter, however, was another matter entirely. In a supremely ironic twist the St Kilda players, in desperation, began to throw their bodies around indiscriminately in a style normally favoured by their opponents - and, what is more, it worked. In the opening minutes of the final term St Kilda goaled 4 times without reply to cut Fitzroy's lead back to a single point. All of the momentum seemed to be with the Saints but try as they might they could not make their supremacy count. In the final few minutes Fitzroy managed 2 decisive breakaways for goals to Martin and Shaw, thereby securing a 13 point win. Overall, victory had been deserved, but the last quarter disintegration had made it a close run thing. Best for the Maroons were wingman George Holden, playing coach Percy Parratt, who lined up on a half forward flank, centre half back Wally Johnson, a Collingwood reject, centreman Harold McLennan, and half back flanker Jack Cooper, who would later die in action in world war one.
Fitzroy still had one further fixture commitment to fulfill: a trip to Adelaide to contest the premiership of Australia. Unfortunately, the Maroons' erratic late season form continued, and they lost to local team Port Adelaide by 9 goals.
If ever a VFL flag came close to being meaningless it was in 1916. Against a backdrop of intense criticism from those who felt that competitive sport should be suspended while the nation was at war the VFL had chosen to continue. However, it was very much a reduced competition, in every sense, and never more so than in 1916, when only Collingwood, Carlton, Richmond and Fitzroy participated. With the majority of able-bodied men away on active duty the teams comprised a mixture of older players and members of vital home services. The standard of play was, needless to say, significantly inferior to a full-blown, peace time competition, but football's proponents argued that it was 'good for morale'. Certainly, as events panned out, few involved with the Fitzroy Football Club would argue.
With only four participating clubs the twelve round home-and-away series in 1916 served only to determine the draw for week one of the finals. Fitzroy, with just 2 wins, thus 'qualified' for the finals in fourth place, its only penalty for its ineptitude compared to minor premiers Carlton being that it would need to win three finals matches rather than two to clinch the flag. (This also applied to Collingwood and Richmond.)
Fitzroy duly beat Collingwood in a semi final and Carlton in both the final and challenge final to clinch a premiership pennant to hang, wholly paradoxically, alongside the 1916 wooden spoon.
Geelong and South Melbourne returned to the fray in 1917, creating a six team competition. Fitzroy performed slightly better during the home and away rounds this time (won 6, lost 8, drew 1, placed fourth) and went very close to carrying off another flag. In the semi final the Maroons downed Carlton 6.17 (53) to 6.8 (44) and then caused something of a boil over by overcoming minor premiers Collingwood by a goal in the final. In the following week's challenge final, however, the teams reverted to their true form, and the Maroons were never in the hunt, going down in the end by 35 points, a margin which, frankly, flattered them.
As football gradually got back into full swing again after the war Fitzroy found the going difficult at first, but by the early 1920s the side was beginning to flex its muscles. Renowned for its 'win at all costs' mentality which manifested itself in what some saw as an overly robust style of play, Fitzroy's clashes with Collingwood during this era were particularly noteworthy (or perhaps that should be notorious). This was never more so than in 1922 when the teams staged four all out wars of attrition culminating in one of the most intense, and arguably one of the best, grand finals for years.
During the home and away rounds it appeared that the Magpies 'had the wood' on Fitzroy as they won both encounters between the teams, by 32 points at Victoria Park and 17 points at Brunswick Street. In August, with the finals just around the corner, the Maroons attracted a good deal of criticism when they undertook an exhausting trip to Perth. While there they risked injury to key players by engaging in four bruising trials of strength against a Goldfields combination (lost by 20 points), eventual WAFL runner up West Perth (a 1 point win), third placed East Fremantle (won by 11 points) and a WAFL combined team (a 16 point loss). Fitzroy won many new friends during their trip, but it was hardly an appropriate way to tune up for the finals, critics argued.
As events materialised, however, it would seem that the trip may well have been the catalyst which enabled the Fitzroy players to find that extra performance level necessary to beat Collingwood, which is precisely what they did, not once, but twice, shortly after their return. In the second semi final the Maroons came from 2 goals down at the long break to win by 4 points and, after downing Essendon in the final, they successfully overcame Collingwood's challenge a week later to secure a seventh league flag, an d their eighth in all.
In a tough but thoroughly engaging tussle, Fitzroy effectively won the match when it added 6 third quarter goals to the Magpies' 3 to establish a 15 point advantage. Thereafter, although Collingwood battled strenuously, the 2 goal plus margin was maintained until near the end, with Fitzroy eventually triumphing by 11 points, 11.13 (79) to 9.14 (68). 'Roys back pocket Gilbert Taylor, playing his 50th and last VFL game, was best afield, with strong support coming from fellow defenders Stan Molan, Horrie Jenkin, and James 'Snowy' Atkinson, speedy rover Clive Fergie, and ruckman Gordon McCracken. Fitzroy continued to approach the game with ferocity rather than finesse in 1923, and the formula continued to prove effective. In a semi final, Fitzroy comfortably accounted for Geelong, and then held off a strong attempted come back by South Melbourne in the final to edge home by 12 points. However, minor premiers Essendon, which had earlier lost to South Melbourne, had still to be beaten if the Maroons were to claim the premiership. After a closely fought first half, however, it was all Essendon, the Same Old eventually winning by 17 points, 8.15 (63) to 6.10 (46).
Fitzroy was still a force to be reckoned with at this point; indeed, the club qualified for the finals again in 1924, finishing third, but the local talent on which it had long relied was beginning to dry up. For eighteen seasons between 1925 and 1942 the side failed to contest a finals series and managed a success rate of just 37.8%. This is not to suggest that the club rested on its laurels. In fact, it tried hard, and repeatedly, to arrest the decline, on at least one notorious occasion flouting League rules to do so. That occasion was in 1929, when it made an illegal payment of £222 in order to procure the services of a promising recruit from Albury. This recruit was on the 'wanted' list at virtually every VFL club, but ultimately it was Fitzroy's willingness to pay 'over the odds' which won them the day - at least eventually. In the short term, both the club, and the recruit - one Haydn Bunton esquire - lost out, as for the entire 1930 season the VFL refused to issue a playing license. Bunton had to bide his time, watch, and learn, before making his debut, aged nineteen, in 1931.
In the entire history of the game few players have made so pronounced and immediate an impact as Haydn Bunton. In an extremely poor Fitzroy team he stood out like a sparkling jewel pinned onto plain black velvet. Week after week he produced performances of iridescent quality which impressed spectators, opponents, interstate selectors and umpires alike. In both of his first two seasons of VFL football he won the Brownlow Medal, repeating the success in 1935 after having been runner-up in 1934. He represented the VFL in all seven of his complete League seasons. In the only two years during his VFL career when Fitzroy awarded a best and fairest trophy, Bunton won it.
Surviving film of Bunton at training shows him to have been tall, elegant and poised, swift of foot, and able to gather and dispose of the ball with elegant ease. His virtually unparalleled success as an elite footballer suggests that he had little difficulty in maintaining these skills when real pressure was applied. He was also, by all accounts, extremely hard to get hold of, leading Jack Dyer to dub him "the elusive Pimpernel of football".
Sadly, despite winning three Brownlow Medals and three Sandover Medals (with Subiaco), Bunton never played in a premiership side, and only once, with Port Adelaide in 1945, his last ever league season, did he even so much as participate in a finals series.
World war two had somewhat less of an impact on organised sport in general, and football in particular, than had the 1914-18 conflict. With the lessons of the previous war still at the forefront of many people's minds the VFL was extremely careful to cultivate a supportive, war conscious image, whilst at the same time it is arguable that the general public's attitude to recreational activities during wartime had matured. Whatever the reasons, the VFL was able to maintain a viable if not exactly vibrant competition for most of the war years, with only Geelong, in 1942 and 1943, being forced to suspend operations.
Needless to say, the standard of football on display was nowhere near as high as in the years immediately prior to the outbreak of war, and attendances overall dropped by up to 60%, but by 1944, with victory in Europe seemingly imminent, life slowly began to return to something approaching normality. For a substantial proportion of Melburnians, of course, this meant a re-awakened interest in football.
Fitzroy, having finished third the previous year, were one of several sides with genuine premiership ambitions in 1944 and, after an evenly contested home and away season, the Gorillas as they were now known qualified for the finals in second place with 13 wins and a draw from their 18 matches. Fitzroy's opponents in the second semi final were Richmond, who had only won the minor premiership on percentage, and whom Fitzroy had trounced by 50 points at Brunswick Street in the sides' last meeting. This time 'round the game was closer, but the result was ultimately the same - victory to Fitzroy, and a berth in the club's first grand final for 21 years.
Grand final day saw Melbourne beset by a tram and bus strike - further evidence that 'normality' was returning - but despite this the St Kilda Cricket Ground was choked to the rafters with 43,000 spectators, many of whom would have been surprised to see Fitzroy captain-coach Fred Hughson, on winning the toss, confer what was a not inconsiderable wind advantage on the opposition. His reason for doing so, he later disclosed, was his perception that his charges were so focused and energised that they would be comfortably capable of handling anything that Richmond could throw at them. Easy to say in hindsight, perhaps, but the fact is that Hughson took what might be considered a gamble (it was certainly a decision which would have attracted criticism had Fitzroy lost), and his judgement was consummately vindicated.
In hot, blustery conditions, the Gorillas drew first blood with a goal to Ken Sier, who later, ironically, transferred to Richmond. For the remainder of the term, although the Tigers dominated they were only able to convert twice, and at quarter time the scoreboard showed a margin of just a goal: Richmond 2.2 (14); Fitzroy 1.2 (8).
Early in the second quarter Richmond extended its lead to 12 points but thereafter the Gorillas gradually acquired a stranglehold on proceedings, adding 3.6 during the rest of the term whilst keeping their opposition scoreless.
The Fitzroy players, to a man, were applying intense, inexorable pressure whenever a Richmond player got hold of the ball. This flustered the normally polished Tigers into making numerous mistakes, a trend which was never more evident than in the third term when, with the aid of a substantial 3 to 4 goal breeze, the Tigers only outscored the Maroons by a point.
In the final term, Richmond tried to emulate Fitzroy's stifling tactics, and to some extent it worked, leading to a scrappy, disjointed spectacle. Only when Sier snapped truly for his third goal of the game just before the final bell was the issue truly settled: to much jubilation, the 'Roys had won their ninth, and last, senior flag by 15 points.
The Fitzroy gold cup for best afield went to centre half back Norm Hillard, while other club trophies were bestowed on wingman Bruce Calverley, the 1938 Gardiner Medallist for best and fairest in the VFL reserves competition, and ruckman Bert Clay. Half forward flanker Noel Price and captain-coach Hughson, playing at full back, also performed well.
This does not mean that the remaining 52 years of the club's existence were meaningless, or even that they were devoid of success. Football has never, for varying reasons at varying times, simply been about the winning of premierships, and without in any way intending to seem patronising the Fitzroy Football Club, over the final half century of its existence, epitomised this more than most. After making sporadic finals appearances up to 1960 the Lions as they became known embarked on probably the longest sustained period of what politeness constrains one to term 'under-achievement' in VFL history. In the 8 seasons between 1962 and 1969 Fitzroy claimed the wooden spoon on 3 occasions, and finished either second or third from bottom every other year. In 1964 the club was winless, and overall it managed a 'success rate' for the period of just 17.6%.
After a promising start the 1970s, with the exception of a surprise 1978 night premiership, were little better, and yet throughout these decades the club continued to inspire intense loyalty and devotion among its aficionados, and to attract and produce individual players of the highest order, such as local recruit Alan 'Butch' Gale (213 games between 1948 and 1961), Tony Ongarello (247 goals in 131 games between 1952 and 1960), Kevin Murray (1969 Brownlow Medallist, and more than 400 games in 2 states), Bernie 'Superboot' Quinlan (a Brownlow in 1981 and 576 goals in 9 seasons), livewire rover Garry 'Flea' Wilson, formidable ruckman Matt Rendell, and redoubtable defenders Gary Pert and Paul Roos.
Quinlan, Wilson, Pert and Roos were still at the club when it began to show signs of emerging from the doldrums during the early 1980s. In 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1986 the Lions, playing an exhilarating brand of football under, first, Robert Walls (1981-85) and then David Parkin (1986-88), contested the finals, and did so with credit. Under Walls the team played a free-wheeling, attacking style of football which sometimes fell down when pressure was applied, but in Parkin's first season efforts were made to tighten things up, and as a result the club went as close as at any stage in the final half century of its existence to reaching a grand final.
After finishing 4th after the home and away rounds Fitzroy drew reigning premiers Essendon in the elimination final. The Bombers were warm favourites, but two things conspired to swing things Fitzroy's way. The first, paradoxically, was the unavailability through injury of two of the Lions' genuine stars in the shape of Rendell and Quinlan; the second was the heavy, persistent rain which fell on the day of the match, and which would probably have limited the impact of the two absent stars, but which, more to the point, significantly undermined a key Essendon strength, which centred in the aerial prowess of players like Madden, Salmon, Van Der Haar and Daniher.
With Fitzroy's running brigade very much to the fore the game was a tight, tense, grinding affair with no side able to gain a decisive break; in the end, Lions half forward Micky Conlan, who had been held virtually kickless all afternoon, scored what proved to be the winning goal 45 seconds before the final siren. Fitzroy won by the scantest of margins, 8.10 (58) to 8.9 (57), and the club's dwindling band of supporters rejoiced.
The 1986 first semi final was a classic confrontation of cultures, with the arch traditionalists in the shape of Fitzroy pitted against the privately owned Sydney Swans, the so called 'club of the future'. To the rejoicing of many, it was the traditionalists who, much against expectations, won out, with Fitzroy edging home by five points, 13.16 (94) to 13.11 (89). It was, in many respects, the Lions' last hurrah; the club never again qualified for the finals, and the following week, after only six days rest compared to their opponents' seven, they lost the preliminary final heavily to Hawthorn after tiring badly in the second half.
The remaining ten seasons of Fitzroy's existence constituted a sad tale of rapidly declining fortunes, both on and off the field of play. The club's enforced nomadic lifestyle - between 1984 and 1996 it called four different grounds 'home' - was a major contributory factor to its demise as it gradually stripped the club of its identity, and made it harder and harder for it to attract new members. In the end, a merger of sorts with Brisbane may not have been the best possible resolution of Fitzroy's woes, but at least it ensures that the history and traditions of the club have been preserved, albeit in submerged form. Whether anyone genuinely remembers, or cares, in half a century's time, though, is questionable.
The Fitzroy Football Club Ltd. still legally exists and, although it is not actively and directly undertaking any football operations at the moment, it has sponsored a number of football teams, most notable of which was Coburg in the VFL between 1999 and 2000. For a time during the 2000 season, Coburg was re-named Coburg-Fitzroy, but for economic reasons the partnership came to an end; Coburg now aligns itself with Richmond.
The possibility of Fitzroy re-emerging as a senior football club in its own right at some time in the future is slim, but nevertheless, in theory, achievable.