Life’s all about change, and Youi’s the insurer for all the changes – big and small – that happen to you. That’s why the Brisbane Lions and Youi have teamed-up for the ‘Moments of Change’ series, where each week they’ll look back at some of the defining moments that have shaped the club you know today.
It was lunch time in the heart of Brisbane on Tuesday 2 October 2001. The Lions were the toast of the town as 60,000 fans turned out to salute the AFL Premiers in a tickertape parade like nothing the city had seen before.
Coach Leigh Matthews and captain Michael Voss were presented with the ‘Keys to the City’ by Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley in King George Square at the conclusion of a parade through the inner-city streets.
Council officers confirmed the turnout was at least twice that of a similar parade for the Australian Olympians after their monumental success at the Sydney Games 12 months earlier, while seasoned observers said it was the biggest turnout since the war years, and bigger than when the Queen and the Pope had visited Brisbane.
Decked out in maroon, blue and gold, waving Lions flags and banners, people were packed 10-deep as the cavalcade of open top cars, led by retiring warhorse Matthew Kennedy, made its way up Queen Street, into George Street, and then down Adelaide Street to King George Square.
It was the ultimate moment of change in the history of the Brisbane Lions. The moment when the Lions, representatives of supposed minor sport in Queensland and even a one-time outcast member of the AFL, had become the hottest property in town.
The one-time Brisbane Bears, rebranded the Brisbane Lions in 1997 following a merger with the Melbourne-based Fitzroy Lions, were the new poster boys for AFL expansion. The ultimate success story in the country’s toughest sporting competition.
For the first time in 105 years of a competition which had begun with eight teams in 1897 and grown into the envy of other Australian sports the premiership had gone to a so-called developing state. To Queensland or New South Wales, regions that thrived not on the fanaticism of kicks, marks and handballs but on the rival rugby codes. Where AFL football had to win an identity before it could contemplate winning a flag.
The Brisbane Lions had achieved football’s Mission Impossible, winning the grand final three days earlier 15-18 (108) to 12-10 (82) against an Essendon combination which 12 months earlier had been branded the “best side ever” when they beat Melbourne by 60 points in the 2000 premiership decider.
The bulk of the MCG crowd of 91,482 had got right behind the team from north. Only ardent Bombers fans were on the ‘locals’ and by the time the final siren sounded as Alastair Lynch held the ball aloft on the MCG wing they had either made an early exit or were drowned out entirely.
A live national television audience of 2.6million people saw the code’s greatest hour in Queensland, surpassing for the first time the prime time audience that would tune into the National Rugby League grand final the following day. An average audience of 460,800 in south-east Queensland swelled to 670,600 at 5.15pm as Michael Voss held the premiership cup aloft. AFL football had arrived in Queensland.
Matthews, who had masterminded an amazing transformation of a club that had been wooden-spooners in 1991-92-98, was genuinely overwhelmed as he addressed the masses at the public salute in King George Square.
“Over the last three or four days we’ve been overwhelmed by the support of the Brisbane Lions family. The Fitzroy branch of our family is like a very close relative, and we love them and cherish their support. And Brisbane is our immediate family. It’s where the cup lives,” he said.
“For me as a coach the most special part of the grand final was when the final siren sounded and there was that moment of exhilaration that you’d give anything to experience. But to drive up the Mall and see Brisbane celebrating with us you think to yourself “I love being part of a one-team town”. I’ve been lucky in my football life but this has gone to the top of the tree.”
Matthews, a four-time premiership player at Hawthorn and a premiership coach at Collingwood, said he felt like a proud parent, having watched his players mature and develop over his three years at the helm.
“My feelings would not have altered whether we won or lost – we have a wonderful group of people who represent our club – but a win was the cream on the cake.”
Soorley agreed. “As footballers and as yourselves you are great citizens of Brisbane … you are champions on and off the field. Congratulations and thank you for what you have done for our city,” he said.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, on hand to invite Lions players and officials to a State Reception at Parliament House six days later, was similarly enthusiastic.
“You have helped educate a whole range of Queenslanders like me about AFL. You have made not just Brisbane but Queensland proud,” he said, having attended the North Melbourne Grand Final Breakfast and the AFL Grand Final, and, wearing a Lions cap and scarf, been among a huge crowd in the Lions rooms at the MCG as the celebrations got under way on the Saturday.
The tickertape parade was the last of the public celebrations after the Lions had completed an extraordinary 16-game winning streak that began in Round 10 with Essendon, the defending premiers, and ended in the Grand Final with Essendon, the fallen premiers.
It was a streak that had bettered Brisbane’s previous best of 10 wins in a row in 1999, and even topped Fitzroy’s best of 14 wins in 1898-99. And it put the Lions equal sixth on the all-time list of winning streaks still headed by Geelong’s 1952-53 streak of 23 wins in a row.
The 16-game streak included every side in the competition except Adelaide and Carlton, with the Lions’ three finals opponents - Port Adelaide, Richmond and Essendon – falling twice. The average winning margin was 38 points – 45 points in 10 games at the Gabba and 31.5 points in six games interstate. The smallest winning margin was 21 points against North Melbourne at what was ten Colonial Stadium, now Marvel Stadium, in Round 17.
It was a performance worthy of a special celebration, and the entire club did it in spectacular fashion. Even if they did make a total mockery of a Post-Grand Final running sheet. Indeed, this was a team of many qualities but in the immediate aftermath of victory punctuality was not one of them. And nobody cared.
The running sheet said the team was to leave the MCG at 7pm. Not a chance. The players weren’t off the ground until nearly 6pm after a long, slow and glorious lap of honour. At 8pm many were still in their match gear, surrounded by friends and family in the dressing rooms, located deep beneath the old Olympic Stand.
When finally it came time to leave the players showered and dressed … and promptly put their sweat-stained match jumpers over their official club shirts for two important engagements.
Finally, as they filed out of the rooms and made their way to the team bus they made a detour back to where they had stood several hours earlier to collect the premiership. With only the cleaning stuff and the roar of machinery for company they walked slowly to the centre of the MCG.
It was almost as if they didn’t believe it had really happened. They just wanted to make sure. And there, reflecting on their moment of glory in the dimmest of light, they had a special team photograph taken. One for their private albums.
Then, at last, it was onto the bus and off to nearby Rod Laver Arena at the Melbourne Tennis Centre to meet 5000 loyal fans who had waited patiently to salute their heroes. It was like a rock concert as the players walked up onto the stage for interviews and, of course, a trademark Jason Akermanis handstand.
After a stirring rendition of the club song they signed autographs for those able to get close enough before getting back on the bus for the short trip to the Palladium Ballroom at Crown Casino, where 1600 people were waiting for the official Grand Final Victory Dinner.
Chairman Graeme Downie greeted each premiership player individually on stage to a rousing ovation. Later, he saluted people behind the scenes who had played such a key role in what had unfolded. Like Noel Gordon, founding chairman of the Brisbane Lions, and the late Alan Piper, immediate past president. Like CEO Andrew Ireland and the senior staff at the club, and others who had gone before them. Like former Recruiting Manager and Director of Football Scott Clayton, who, with his recruiting successor Kinnear Beatson, had built the nucleus of the premiership team.
Matthews, only the second person in AFL history to taste premiership success with three different clubs as a player and coach, delivered his appreciation to all concerned, including the players who had not played in the grand final.
And then he let everyone in on a little secret. He told how, when he didn’t have anything especially profound to say to his players just before the game, he gave them a special message right from the heart. “I told them ‘I’m really proud to be with you as part of your group’. It takes a great football club to come to Melbourne and triumph, and this group passed that test with flying colors.”
The night was late and long, but at 9am the following morning, right on time, the bus left the team hotel for an emotion-charged visit to Brunswick Street Oval, long-time home of Fitzroy, where about 8000 Lions fans decked out in club colors waited to pay their own special tribute.
The old grandstand that once rocked and roared behind the likes of Haydn Bunton, Allan Ruthven and Kevin Murray was full of supporters young and old. A couple of speeches, a few interviews, an emotional thank you to the Melbourne fans, and countless autographs and photographs. If there was a special cheer for the ex-Fitzroy trio of Alastair Lynch, Chris Johnson and Martin Pike it was barely noticeable. They were all members of one family.
‘Bulldog’ Murray, an enthusiastic Brisbane Lions supporter from the moment the merger was announced, was there wearing his old Fitzroy jumper, with his 1969 Brownlow Medal around his neck. For once he had to share the spotlight with the club’s new heroes, but even after the team had left he was still there, signing autographs and chatting about the good old days. A great day for a great Lions champion.
Then it was back onto the bus and off to the airport for the charter flight home. Not long after take-off Michael Voss took the microphone and declared: “We’ll have you on the ground in Brisbane in a couple of hours. The air temperature outside the aircraft is a cool seven degrees, and inside it’s around 100 degrees. That’s because we’ve got (Norm Smith Medallist) Shaun Hart aboard – and he’s hot.”
One last bus ride took the team from Brisbane Airport to the Gabba, where about 8000 people were waiting patiently to join the party. And if they’d looked skyward about 45 minutes before the team arrived the fans would have seen their heroes, flying in a Flight West charter jet, send them a salute of their own.
In a sign of the extraordinary public spirit and emotion that the grand final win had generated, the pilot was given special permission to fly over the Gabba. He did it in style, too, dipping the wing as it turned over the famous ground to give players, families and staff members heading home a special view of what was awaiting them.
With the players wearing newly-printed “Premiers 2001’ t-shirts, it was Brunswick Street Oval all over again. More speeches, interviews and thankyous. And countless hundreds of more autographs and photographs.
As one loyal fan suggested, it wasn’t all that long ago that the old Brisbane Bears couldn’t attract as many people to watch a game of AFL football as had turned out to celebrate the 2001 AFL premiership. Yes, AFL football had truly arrived in Queensland.