The Brisbane Lions boast a rich and unique history – born from over 100 years of Fitzroy and a decade of the Bears – that lives on through the Club today.
The names of past greats from all arms of the Club are now enshrined in the Brisbane Lions Hall of Fame, while many of the stories from yesteryear are often recounted and have become part of our football folklore.
One of the most significant moments in our Club’s Queensland history came in 1991 when discussions started surrounding the potential move of the then Bears to Brisbane.
The Bears, of course, came to life at Carrara on the Gold Coast in 1987 after a consortium headed by former actor Paul Cronin – who sadly passed in September – and financed by Christopher Skase were awarded the license for Queensland’s first VFL team.
After two years of limited success, control of the Club was transferred to the Pelerman Group (headed by Gold Coast businessman Reuben Pelerman), who soon also became to realise the harsh business implications of owning the Bears.
Crowds were low, the losses continued, and success seemed a long way off.
It was at this time that discussions commenced between keen supporters of AFL in Queensland – future Bears/Lions Directors Alan Piper and Peter Williams – and the Brisbane (Gabba) Cricket Ground Trust, chaired then by John McKnoulty AM.
Piper and Williams had identified that for AFL in Queensland to succeed, the Bears needed to relocate from the Gold Coast into the heart of Brisbane, and specifically, the Gabba.
The two sports catered for at the Gabba back then were cricket and greyhound racing – with the cricket ground (then far too small for AFL) surrounded by a greyhound racing track.
McKnoulty needed little convincing of the proposed redevelopment, and went into bat with the then Goss Labour Government to obtain approval – not just to permit the AFL tenancy rights, but to commit to rebuilding the Gabba to accommodate the Bears with a staged development.
In the winter of 1991, McKnoulty and Williams met in Melbourne with the then AFL Commissioner Ross Oakley and then AFL CFO Greg Durham.
At the meeting, McKnoulty committed the Brisbane Cricket Ground Trust and confirmed he had an agreement with the Premier to the program above. The AFL in turn agreed to the Bears proceeding with negotiations with the current owners to relocate the Bears to the Gabba.
The only condition was that after 12 months, the Bears were to cease private ownership and become a members-run club.
The first stage of the development was to remove the cricket practice wickets on the south-west corner, which enabled the Bears to trial two home games at the ground in 1992 (with the dog-track still in place).
The next stage involved the removal of the dog-track (sizing the ground to the same dimensions as the MCG), rebuilding the Northern Stand (incorporating Gabba Towers), and permitting the Bears to take over the ‘Silks’ Greyhound Club.
With the developments complete, the Bears moved permanently to the Gabba and hosted all home games in 1993 at the venue.
Not only were the Bears now playing in their home city, but the move to the Gabba also resulted in a significant spike in attendances and membership.
Over the ensuing years, there would be further upgrades to the facilities and stands, converting the tired old ground to a state-of-the-art sporting venue.
McKnoulty’s unwavering support of the initiative throughout the months of discussion and negotiation cannot be understated, and many maintain that the move would never have happened without his commitment and endeavor.
Sadly John McKnoulty passed away in May this year, at which time he was recognised with distinction for his enormous contributions to Queensland Cricket, the Brisbane Cricket Ground Trust, the Greyhound Racing Control Board, and as long-standing member of the Queensland Cricketers’ Club.
And although he wasn’t an avid supporter of VFL/AFL, his impact on the Brisbane Lions’ journey won’t be forgotten.