Imagine being told that your employer’s business, an iconic 100-year-old Australian company, was closing down and that you would lose your job. And then having to work as normal for the next nine weeks in the spotlight of the national media as if everything was normal.
It would be tough. Very tough. But that was precisely the unenviable scenario faced by the Fitzroy players ahead of Round 14 1996.
On 4 July they learned their club, foundation members of the then VFL in 1897 and eight times the premiers, would no longer exist in its own right. That instead Fitzroy would merge with the Brisbane Bears, newcomers to the competition in 1987, to form the Brisbane Lions, playing out of the Gabba.
There would be the opportunity for eight Fitzroy players to join the new entity, but for the other 36 listed Fitzroy players, regardless of their contract status, it was “thanks – see you later”. And the so-called ‘chosen eight’ wouldn’t be named until after the end of the season anyway.
There had been months of speculation as a Fitzroy young side, coached for the first time by South Australian football great Mick Nunan, battled through the first 13 weeks of the season as the extent of the club’s dire financial problems became evident.
It was a torturous time, with the uncertainty of it all driving a dagger through the hearts of not just the players and coaches but the entire Fitzroy family.
It is debatable whether things got better or worse when finally there was a resolution, and at least there was a degree of certainty, but the enormity of the challenge facing the players in the last nine rounds is indescribable.
Confirmation of the merger happened on a Thursday night. And on Saturday afternoon, barely 40 hours later, Fitzroy had turned out at Princes Park to play an Essendon side that sat seventh on the ladder with eight wins and a draw from 13 games.
It was to be Nunan’s last game. As he had always planned to do if there was a merger, he resigned before the game.
In his final selection meeting, Nunan made three changes to the side which had copped a 127-point hiding from Geelong the week before – John McCarthy, Mick Dwyer and Danny Morton replaced Brett Chandler, Simon Hawking and Adam McCarthy.
According to Kevin Bartlett in commentary, the bookies had Essendon 66-1 on to beat Fitzroy in their 197th and last meeting.
There may have been a few nervous jitters when Fitzroy started well enough, but in front of a crowd of just 12,748, Essendon led by seven points at quarter-time and went further away. A halftime lead of 20 points became 41 points at three-quarter time and 17-16 (118) to 7-10 (52) at the end.
Essendon rover Sean Denham took the three Brownlow Medal votes after a game-high 34 possessions, while the minor votes went to the Bombers’ Michael Symons and David Calthorpe and Steve Alessio and James Hird kicked three goals apiece.
For Fitzroy Simon Atkins (21), John Barker (20) and Matthew Dent (20) led the possession count, and Martin Pike was the only multiple goal-kicker with two.
TWO HUNDRED FOR ‘THE BARON’
Forty-three years earlier Fitzroy celebrated a more pleasant occasion when one of the club’s all-time greats, Alan Ruthven, played his 200th game.
In the second of three years as captain-coach, Ruthven became just the second Fitzroy player to 200 after Frank Curcio in 1946 as they hosted South Melbourne at Brunswick Street in Round 14 1953.
Both were in finals contention, and although neither would make it the Lions climbed to fifth, a game outside the top four, when they came from 11 points down at quarter-time to win 12-18 (90) to 7-19 (61).
Ruthven, with a 59.7% win rate at the time, was the most successful of what would be only 11 Fitzroy 200-gamers. And with 409 goals, he was the most prolific through 200 games.
Although born and raised in Fitzroy, Ruthven could easily have slipped through the club net. He was the nephew of Victoria Cross winner William Ruthven, a First World War hero and later a Victorian politician who was a State politician. And a big Collingwood supporter.
He took a very young Alan to trial at Collingwood, and it was only after the Magpies rejected the under-sized rover that he joined Fitzroy as a 17-year-old schoolboy star in 1940.
Only 173cm and 73kg, he made up for his lack of size with skill, fitness and flawless left-foot kicking. Tough and tenacious, he was arguably the game’s No.1 rover through the 1940s and early ‘50s and was instrumental in Fitzroy’s 1944 premiership.
Known as ‘the Baron’ for his dapper dress sense, Ruthven boasted an extraordinary career record. He won the 1950 Brownlow Medal and finished in the top dozen four other times - 5th in 1946, 6th in 1948, 11th in 1949 and 12th in 1951.
Inducted to the AFL Hall of Fame in 1998 and named in the Fitzroy Team of the Century in 2001 before his death age 80 in 2003, he won the Fitzroy B&F in 1944-45-46-48-49, was captain in 1948 and from 1950-54, was the club’s leading goal-kicker in 1944-45 and 1954 and represented Victoria 17 times. With career totals of 222 games and 442 goals, he is sixth on the Fitzroy games list and fourth in goals.
And all after he spent three months in hospital recovering from a serious back injury and missed the entire 1942 season, and despite two attempts in 1949 to lure him to clubs in lesser competitions.
First he accepted an offer of £18 a week to be Imperial captain/coach and was set to become one of the highest paid coaches in Victoria until Fitzroy refused him a clearance. They claimed Imperial had approached Ruthven after they had denied permission to interview him and won a protracted battle to keep him.
Soon after Broken Hill offered Ruthven £36 a week - £20 as a player, £8 as coach and a weekly bonus of £8. But again Fitzroy refused to clear him and again they prevailed.
The Ruthven career included two contrasting scoring highlights. In 1952 as captain-coach he steered Fitzroy to a famous one-point semi-final win over Carlton, when he was best afield and snapped the match-winning behind in the closing seconds. And in 1953 his late goal against Footscray spared Fitzroy the ignominy of being held scoreless. It was their only score and remains the club’s lowest score all-time.
A popular panellist on Channel Seven’s World of Sport in retirement, Ruthven was a strong supporter of the Brisbane-Fitzroy merger and was involved in the official unfurling of the Lions’ 2001 premiership flag in MelbRemember When... Round 13