In a word, it was an injustice. A foundation club of the VFL turned AFL, an eight-time premier for which 1157 players played a total of 1928 matches over 100 years from 1897-1996, allowed to fade into football oblivion 3400km from home. A virtual outcast.
No wonder there were tears as Fitzroy played their last game in the AFL against Fremantle at Subiaco Oval in Perth in Round 22 1996.
Fitzroy’s fate had been sealed on 4 July 1996 with confirmation of a merger with the Brisbane Bears that would give birth to the Brisbane Lions.
But there were still nine rounds of the season to be played. And they would be nine very tough and very long weeks for a Fitzroy football family that was feeling an extraordinary range of emotions – none of them good.
Fitzroy sat at the tail of the AFL ladder with a 1-12 record when the merger was announced and the countdown to their last game began.
Ironically, the opposition they would play in their last game was the same opposition against which they had posted what turned out to be their last win – against Fremantle by 31 points at Whitten Oval in Round 8.
On a day the Fitzroy faithful still remember fondly, they led at every change and by as many as 51 points at three-quarter time on route to a 16-11 (107) to 10-16 (76) triumph.
Chris Johnson, later to become such a favorite with Brisbane folk and a flagship for the merger, had 24 possessions and kicked three goals to collect what would be Fitzroy’s second-last three-vote rating in the Brownlow Medal.
Anthony Mellington picked up two votes for his six goals, and Scott Bamford, also later to head to Brisbane, received one vote for 20 possessions.
Nick Carter, yet another member of the so-called ‘Chosen Eight’ that would head north, topped the Fitzroy possession count with 31, while Martin Pike, overlooked initially by Brisbane but later to join the Lions for the 2001-02-03 premiership hat-trick, had 26 possessions.
Fitzroy’s last winning side on 18 May 1996 was:-
B: Frank Bizzotto, Jarrod Molloy, Stephen Paxman
HB: Martin Pike, Anthony McGregor, Shane Clayton
C: John Barker, Brad Boyd (capt), Nick Carter
HF: Mick Dwyer, John McCarthy, Chris Johnson
F: Simon Hawking, Anthony Mellington, John Rombotis
R: Matthew Primus, Matthew Dent, Scott Bamford
INT: Darren Holmes, Brad Cassidy, Danny Morton.
Coach: Mick Nunan
It was an excruciating countdown thereafter, with 14 losses in a row. It started with a 105-point loss to eventual premiers North Melbourne in Round 9 when Primus collected one Brownlow vote, and was followed by a 70-point loss to Sydney, a 63-point loss to Melbourne and a 31-point loss to Hawthorn when Primus picked up another Brownlow vote.
In Round 13, five days before confirmation of the merger, they lost by 127 points to Geelong.
By then already eight members of the 42-man 1996 Fitzroy playing list had played their last game for the club. Wayne Lamb was finished in Round 3, Brett Cook, later to play 18 games with St.Kilda, played his last Fitzroy game in Round 5, and Brent Frewin did likewise in Round 7.
Mark Zanotti headed the others not to play. He’d been runner-up in the 1995 Fitzroy B&F in what turned out to be the last season of a career which included 36 games with West Coast (1987-88), 64 with the Brisbane Bears (1989-92) and 57 with Fitzroy (1993-95).
Completing the list were Nick Mitchell, who had played nine games with Fitzroy in 1994-95, and Andrew Cavedon, a Fitzroy five-game in 1995 after 23 games with Carlton from 1991-94.
As the season wore on one by one the players bid farewell to fans who had adored them.
Frank Bizzotto, Darren Holmes and Anthony McGregor played their last game in Round 9, followed by Peter Bird in Round 12 and Adam McCarthy in Round 13. Jason Ramsay, who had played his first game in Round 13, played his second and last game in Round 14.
Holmes, a 42-gamer with Sydney (1993-94) before 21 games with Fitzroy (1995-96), left a huge legacy if only for football trivia buffs. Playing with the Swans in 1993, he was the player who tackled a piglet with was set loose during a game against St.Kilda at the SCG. And he holds the unwanted distinction of playing in a record five consecutive wooden-spoon teams – Sydney (1992-93-94) and Fitzroy (1995-96).
The pain continued. After a 66-point loss to Essendon in Round 14 coach Mick Nunan, brought in from South Australia on a platform of rebuilding the club, stepped down.
This prompted the appointment of Alan McConnell as caretaker coach for the second year in a row after he had been in charge for the last three games of 1995 following the dismissal of club favorite Bernie Quinlan.
Nunan and McConnell, too, are football trivia A-listers.
Nunan, a SA champion and inaugural inductee to the SA Football Hall of Fame in 2002, might just be the only player in AFL history to have 21 possessions and kick three goals in a 94-point win on debut and never play again.
He did exactly that for Richmond against South Melbourne at Lake Oval in 1971 while temporarily based in Melbourne on National Service. He had played in the Richmond reserves the week before but returned to the SANFL the following week.
McConnell, a 37-gamer with Footscray from 1980-82, coached 11 AFL games without a win to sit fourth on this unwanted list behind 1913 University coach Vic Upton-Brown (0-18), 1928 Hawthorn captain-coach Bert Sutton (0-18) and 1926 North Melbourne captain-coach Gerry Donnelly (0-1-13). Donnelly coached one draw in 14 games.
McConnell later served as a long-time assistant-coach at Geelong before becoming the first employee of the GWS Giants. He filled various key roles with the League’s 18th club before becoming the first senior coach of the Giants’ AFLW women’s team in 2018-19 and the first person in AFL history to coach an AFL side in men’s and women’s football.
Still the pain continued. A 40-point loss to Collingwood in Round 16 saw Trent Cummings, later to play two games with West Coast, make his last Fitzroy appearance and Pike, after 31 possessions, pick up what would be the club’s last Brownlow votes. Three of them.
A 99-point loss to Adelaide in Round 17 followed, and then it was 15 points against Footscray, when Robert McMahon became the 1157th Fitzroy player. And the last.
In Round 20 Fitzroy hosted the Bears, coached by John Northey, at Princes Park. It was positively bizarre as Fitzroy players wanting to be part of the merger were playing against would-be teammates.
McMahon played his second and last game, Stephen Paxman became the last Fitzroy 100-gamer and the Bears prevailed by 87 points. Michael Voss, Matthew Clarke and Shaun Hart picked up the Brownlow votes as Jason Akermanis kicked five goals and Craig McRae and Clark Keating four apiece.
In Round 21 it was Fitzroy’s last game in Victoria. A 151-point loss to Richmond at the MCG was irrelevant. It was all about the sad, empty feeling that engulfed the many Fitzroy fans among the MCG crowd of 48,884.
Prior to the game there was a motorcade of past Fitzroy champions and afterwards, as the club song roared out over the PA, the players almost reluctantly did a lap of honour. It wasn’t for them or about them It was about those who had been before them. Fitzroy folk for 100 years.
The final Fitzroy side, comprising the last 21 active players in Fitzroy history, was:-
B: Brett Chandler, Jarrod Molloy, Stephen Paxman
HB: Martin Pike, Rowan Warfe, Shane Clayton
C: John Barker, Simon Atkins, Nick Carter
HF: Brad Boyd (capt), John McCarthy, Chris Johnson
F: Marty Warry, Simon Hawking, John Rombotis
R: Matthew Primus, Matthew Dent, Scott Bamford
INT: Peter Doyle, Jeff Hogg, Danny Morton.
Coach: Alan McConnell
It was such a young side. Hogg (29), McCarthy (29) and Atkins (27) were the only players older than 25-year-old skipper Boyd, and 10 were aged 21 or younger.
The average age of a Fitzroy side in its 100th year was only 28 days per player above the average age of a Fremantle side in their second year in the competition.
It was Sunday 1 September 1996. The sad end for Fitzroy was scheduled for 2.40pm WA time.
As the players and staff boarded their Ansett flight from Melbourne to Perth their boarding pass carried the words “Fitzroy Forever”.
Before the emotion-charged farewell game was played in front of a crowd of 22,574 the 1944 Fitzroy premiership flag, faded and tattered, was unfurled by Kevin Murray, Bernie Quinlan, Haydn Bunton Jnr and Ron Alexander. And in the game each Fitzroy player wore a Lion temporarily tattooed on their arm.
The result was a forgone conclusion and immaterial even before the first bounce. But the last quarter was significant. The Lions out-scored the Dockers 5-1 to 4-5, with Simon Atkins kicking the final Fitzroy goal on the run 20 minutes into the final quarter.
An elderly lady sang ‘Old Lang Syne’ as the Fitzroy players, many of them crying, left the ground through a guard of honour formed by their Fremantle opponents.
The final score in what was the final home-and-away match of the AFL’s Centenary Year was Fremantle 24-13 (157) to Fitzroy 10-11(71).
Triple premiership Lion Martin Pike claimed the very special privilege of winning the last Fitzroy B&F, named the Perc Mitchell Medal in honour arguably the club’s greatest administrator who gave more than 50 years’ service from the 1930s.
The ‘Chosen Eight’, selected to join the merged club in Brisbane, was big news. It was Boyd, Barker, Johnson, Molloy, Clayton, Carter, Bamford and Simon Hawking.
Pike, who had begun his career with Melbourne, played 81 games at North, including the 1999 premiership, before his fantastic 106-game triple premiership stint with Brisbane from 2001-05.
Of the ‘Chosen Eight’, Johnson was the standout. He played 205 games post-merger, including the 2001-02-03 premierships and the 2004 grand final, was a two-time All-Australian and is a Hall of Famer.
Hawking, a 60-gamer at Fitzroy, never played in the AFL again despite stints at Brisbane, Sydney and Collingwood. And he, too, claimed an A-list spot in football trivia.
He was traded by Brisbane to Sydney with Brett Green for selection #31 in the 1997 AFL National Draft. It was the pick Brisbane used to secure Brownlow Medallist Simon Black.