It was a day that Fitzroy fans will never forget. On Sunday 1 September 1996, 25 years ago today, the Fitzroy Football Club played their last game of AFL football.
But while 21 young men and an accidental coach did their job one last time, it wasn't a day about kicks, marks and balls, or goals and behinds as the AFL’s youngest side at the time farewelled one of the oldest.
In one of the great ironies, Fitzroy played their last game at a ground located on Haydn Bunton Drive, named after their triple Brownlow Medallist of the 1930s and home to the Subiaco Lions. Afterwards, players, official and supporters gathered for the official wake at the Brisbane Hotel, owned by ex-Fitzroy ruckman Ian McCulloch.
At least 1000 people were on hand to pay their last respects, many of them spilling out onto the streets on an occasion that Alan McConnell, coach of the Lions for the 11th and final time on that ill-fated afternoon, will never forget.
“The supporters were sensational,” McConnell said later. “There were a lot of very sad people but there was quite a good feeling about the place. It was quite uplifting and positive, and I think they were generally happy and comfortable to enjoy the moment in each other’s company. There was a feeling that it was good to be in it together.”
For the record, Fitzroy had played 1928 games for 869 wins, 1034 losses and 25 draws after launching the then VFL competition with Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St.Kilda.
They’d won no less than eight premierships in 1898, 1899, 1904, 1905, 1913, 1916, 1922 and 1944, plus a VFA premiership in 1895 when that was the equivalent to the VFL. And they’d been runners-up five times in 1900, 1903, 1906, 1907 and 1923. Only Carlton, Essendon, Collingwood, Melbourne, Richmond and Hawthorn had won more flags at the time.
They’d won Brownlow Medals – the exquisitely-skilled Bunton in 1931, 32, 35, Wilfred “Chicken” Smallhorn in 1933, Denis “Dinny” Ryan in 1936, Allan “The Baron” Ruthven in 1950, Kevin “Bulldog” Murray 1969 and Bernie “Superboot” Quinlan in 1981.
Murray, whose nine Fitzroy B&F awards was a League record he shared with South’s Bobby Skilton, had played most games for the club at 333. Paul Roos wasn't too far behind with 269 games, while Garry Wilson was just one shy of Roos with 268. Jack Moriarty was Fitzroy’s leading all-time goal-kicker with 626. Behind him were legends Bernie Quinlan on 576 and Garry Wilson with 462.
A total of 1156 players had worn the Fitzroy jumper in VFL/AFL football, including 110 who had played 100 games and 11 200-gamers. Originally but unofficially they’d been known since the club’s formation in 1883 as the Maroons because they were an all-maroon jumper. Briefly and unofficially from 1938 they were the Gorillas. And in 1957 they officially adopted the nickname Lions.
They’d had five different home grounds. From the birth of the VFL in 1897 until 1966 they’d played at Brunswick Street Oval, their long-time spiritual home. In fact, this was home from the club’s inception in 1884. Thereafter, it was Princes Park from 1967-69 and again from 1987-93. In between there was Junction Oval (1970-84) and afterwards Victoria Park (1985-86). And finally “home” was Whitten Oval from 1994-96.
They’d been a wonderful part of the football evolution. One of eight foundation clubs and one of just three to play in each of the 100 seasons of the VFL/AFL competition. At least they’d lasted long enough to celebrate with the other seven original clubs the Centenary re-enactment matches in Round 7, even if they did lose to Carlton by 63-points at Optus Oval.
But finally, in an era where dollars and cents were becoming almost as important and kicks and goals, time had caught up with them.
“It was a grieving process and so many went through it. For the people who had the responsibility of the merger, and football in general, the most important thing was that the emotions and feelings of these people was understood and that they were looked after. It was important that people who had given their lives to the club, people like Kevin Murray and Bill Stephen, still had somewhere they could acknowledge as home, and that their efforts and achievements were not thrown out the window.”
At selection for the last game, coach Alan McConnell made four changes to the side which had suffered the club’s second-biggest loss ever against Richmond at the MCG in Round 21. Shane Clayton, Peter Doyle, Jeff Hogg and Danny Morton replaced Jason Baldwin, Brad Cassidy, Matthew Manfield and Anthony Mellington.
As each player boarded the Ansett flight at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne bound for Perth they received a boarding pass which carried the words “Fitzroy Forever”. It was an occasion that extended far beyond football. This was something that engrossed the entire community.
There was a massive build-up. After all, not since University quit the competition in 1914 had anything like this happened, and the ‘Students’ had only been in the competition seven years.
It didn’t get any easier on game day. “Collectively there was a very strong desire to have a win for ourselves and our supporters, but as expectations went up perhaps our deficiencies were exposed more in a playing sense,” said McConnell. “Unfortunately circumstances didn’t allow us to achieve what we wanted and at the end of it all I think some of the players were glad when it was over. It had been a very, very difficult period.”
Fitzroy’s last premiership flag of 1944, faded and tattered, was unfurled by Murray, Quinlan, Haydn Bunton Jnr and Ron Alexander was presented prior to the game. Each player wore a Lion temporarily tattooed on their arm. And the Dockers players wore black armbands.
In their last quarter of football Fitzroy out-scored Fremantle five goals to four, with Simon Atkins kicking the last goal – a running effort 20 minutes into the final stanza – at 4.37pm Melbourne time. But they were never going to win. And yet still they left the ground through a guard of honor as the club song played one last time.
“There are no words to describe what we’ve just been through,” McConnell said at the time. “We came off the ground and spent a few minutes together and no-one said anything.”
Eleven days later Fitzroy CEO John Birt wrote one last letter to Fitzroy members on FFC letterhead, strongly urging Fitzroy members to support the Brisbane Lions.
“There is no doubt that to retain the colors and the jumper of Fitzroy is a most important reason to join the Brisbane Lions, as I’m sure you will agree the colors of Fitzroy are the most recognisable of all clubs in the AFL and to have retained them in the new jumper is something al Fitzroy supporters should be proud of,” wrote Birt.
With the letter was a Brisbane Lions Newsletter, written by Brisbane Lions CEO Andrew Ireland, which began “It’s your club … be loyal to yourself and 113 years of history … be a part of it!”
“The Brisbane-Fitzroy merger is a true merger – not a takeover. It is a “marriage” via which the wonderful tradition of Fitzroy FC will be preserved in its own right, not swallowed up by a rival Melbourne-based club,” Ireland wrote.
“The birth of the Brisbane Lions, effective from 1 November 1996, is about continuing the 113 years of the Fitzroy Football Club and providing a winning football team for all to enjoy. We won’t let this wonderful AFL foundation club die. But we need the support of the people who are the heart-beat of the club – the members and supporters. Be true to the people who have been such a part of the Fitzroy Football Club in the past, and be a part of the future. You’ll be glad you did.”
Twenty-five years, three premierships and three Brownlow Medals on it is that and more as the Lions prepare for a semi-final against the Western Bulldogs at the Gabba on Saturday night.