In 1955, Melbourne University, which already fielded two highly successful senior teams in the VAFA, applied to have another team admitted. The application was accepted, and the new team, University Reds, began life as a member of the Association’s E Section, which in 1955 was entering its second year. The Reds showed initial promise, finishing fourth on debut, and third in each of the next three seasons, but thereafter their performance level dropped.
In 1965 the side crossed to the Melbourne Metro League where it spent eight seasons. On returning to the VAFA in 1973 it was placed in F Section, the Association’s bottom tier where, with the exception of a fourth-place finish in its second year, its performances over the remainder of the decade were undistinguished. The 1980 season brought a sudden, seismic improvement, however, and the Reds, having surged to the first senior grand final in their history, produced a memorably domineering display in overwhelming Thomastown to the tune of 10 straight goals, 21.18 (144) to 11.18 (84).
The 1981 season brought another grand final appearance, this time in E Section, and although the Reds performed poorly on the day in losing by 47 points to North Brunswick, the mere fact of having made the grand final was enough to secure promotion to D Section. The side proved unable to build on this success, however, and by the end of the eighties it was back in F Section. One major problem it faced was the lack of any readily identifiable home territory, a concern that was augmented during the 1980s by its frequent need to change home grounds.
The 1990s proved to be a highly significant decade for the club, not so much on the field, where performances remained unremarkable, but in terms of an evolving relationship with the famous old Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. In 1990 the team had started playing home matches at Brunswick Street Oval, the former long-term home ground of the Fitzroy Football Club. After Fitzroy played its last AFL match in 1996, University Reds became, in a sense, the once great club’s spiritual heirs, and however fanciful that notion might at first seem, there is a sense in which such things actually do exist in terms of the reactions they provoke, and in this particular case those reactions have been significant and far reaching.
In the first place, in 1998 the University Reds became the Fitzroy Reds, a change which both recognised and endorsed the fact that the club had fundamentally shifted its orientation and was now a community football club representing the district of Fitzroy, rather than one of Melbourne University’s three teams. Secondly, judging by the side’s on-field performances in the decade following, the altered identity appeared to have provided a genuine shot in the arm for a club that had spent most of the previous two decades treading water.
In 2001, the Reds enjoyed far and away the best season in their history to date to win the premiership of Section D3 without losing a game. Their 12.13 (85) to 5.15 (45) grand final win over Bentleigh was indicative of the level of superiority they consistently managed to achieve throughout the year. Two seasons later, the team gained promotion from D2 Section as premiers, before trouncing Ormond in the 2005 D1 Section grand final to enter the hitherto undreamed of territory of C Section. The Reds’ initial C Section foray only lasted a couple of seasons, however, as they succumbed to relegation in 2007 after managing just 4 wins from 18 matches for the year.
Despite this setback, ties with the local community continued to be strengthened, and the club could count among its growing supporter base a large number of former Fitzroy fans from all corners of Victoria and beyond. In 2008, the seniors showed considerable promise as they claimed 11 wins from their 18 matches for the year to come within an ace of making the D1 Section finals. At the end of the season, capitalising on their new-found role as "Fitzroy's team", the Reds became incorporated under the original Fitzroy Football Club by transferring their assets and playing license to the former AFL stalwarts.
From the 2009 season onwards, the Reds players and administration have existed under the Fitzroy Football Club banner, facilitating a successful return to playing operations for the once dearly departed Lions while ensuring the spirit of the University/Fitzroy Reds lives on.
John Devaney - Full Points Publications