It was a love affair that lasted 26,791 days. From his very first day as a member of the “family” until his sad passing overnight, Bill Stephen was a Lions man.
It started on Saturday 19 April 1947 when a 19-year-old Stephen, recruited from the Thornbury CYMS Football Club, made his debut for Fitzroy against Collingwood at Victoria Park.
He got his chance under 1944 premiership captain-coach Fred Hughson, and for going on 73 years thereafter not a day would have passed when he didn’t spare a thought for his beloved Lions. Or the Gorillas, as Fitzroy were known until 1957.
Even when he coached Essendon in 1966-67, or during stints as an assistant-coach at South Melbourne and North Melbourne, he was a Lions man. He never wavered.
In a cryptic sense it was appropriate that Stephen played his first game 177 years to the day after British explorer James Cook first sighted land that became Australia. To Fitzroy people and later Brisbane Lions people he was that important.
Stephen, a nuggety 178cm defender who went on to become a fixture in the Fitzroy back pocket, debuted in a side that included seven members of the ’44 premiership – Hughson, Clen Denning, Bert Clay, Noel Price, Noel Jarvis, Allan Ruthven and Ken Sier.
Playing his 216th game in Stephen’s first was long-time club favorite Frank Curcio, later named in the Fitzroy Team of the Century. He had missed the ’44 flag due to military service.
A 20-year-old Norm Johnstone was 36 games into a 228-game career, while a 25-year-old Ruthven, fifth in the Brownlow Medal in 1946, played his 77th game in a career that would stretch to 222 games and include the 1950 Brownlow.
Stephen inherited the #8 jumper worn by Norm Hillard for the previous seven years, including the ’44 grand final, when he was unofficially named best afield.
It was very appropriate at the time as Hillard later went on to coach the Fitzroy Reserves, was chairman of selectors for more than 20 years and a long-time vice-president during the Stephen era that followed. They were a wonderful pair.
Despite five goals from Ruthven Fitzroy lost Stephen’s first game by 46 points.
Still, for the next year 10 years he was a fixture in the side. He played 162 games, including two finals in 1952, closing out his career in Round 18, 1957 against Geelong at Brunswick Street Oval.
Of his first team only Johnstone was still playing. And it was his last game, too. They had been a powerful duo for more than a decade.
Playing his first game for Fitzroy on the day of Stephen’s last game was Keith Weigard, later to serve at Fitzroy president from 1981-84. And playing his 46th game was a 19-year-old Kevin Murray.
This time the script-writers got it right. Fitzroy sent Stephen and Johnstone into retirement with a 24-point win after they’d been 20 points down at quarter-time.
Stephen, only 29 at the time, was at the end of a three-year stint as Fitzroy captain-coach.
He was replaced as coach the following year by Len Smith, but it wasn’t the end. It was only the end of the first of Stephen’s three stints as Fitzroy coach.
He also coached his beloved Lions from 1965-70, and after taking charge at Essendon in 1976-77 he answered an SOS from Fitzroy to coach the club again in 1979-80.
The story of Stephen’s third exit from the coaching job in 1980 is Fitzroy folklore and identifies perfectly his “club always comes first” philosophy.
It was midway through the 1980 season. He had a contract for 1981 but he voluntarily stood down because he believed it was in Fitzroy’s best interests.
On 8 July 1980, with eight games still to play, he announced he would stand down as Fitzroy coach at the end of the season.
There was no room for sentiment, he decided. With Fitzroy coming off an 88-point loss to Hawthorn and struggling at the bottom of the ladder with two wins and a draw from 14 games. It was time.
His decision was reported by Geoff Slattery and Damien Comerford the following day in The Age under a big heading “Stephen to quit as Lion coach”.
The journalists wrote: “Typically Stephen bowed out with grace. The last of the ‘nice guy’ coaches was not about to criticise his club or his players. Nor was he suggesting he’d been pressured to leave because of Fitzroy’s dismal showing this year.”
More, they wrote, it was a time for people to listen to Stephen’s advice.
Said Stephen: “The building of a strong club, the winning of a premiership and maintaining a level of excellence in play comes from a combination of strong leadership and strong discipline on the field, strong recruiting, which probably comes back to finance, and good coaching.
“These are the areas the club must look to if it is to compete with the successful sides. The whole club must be terribly strong if it is to be in that league.
“The Committee has a lot of very drastic decisions to make and it will be easier for them if my intentions are made clear.
“The club has got problems and needs a lot of help. I can’t say too much really but decisions have got to be made. I’ve tried to be a leader and I’ll go out trying to be a leader.
“This is a time of decision. If I make a decision perhaps other people will make a decision,” he said.
This from a man who in 1970 was sacked while recovering from pneumonia in hospital yet had returned to coach the club again in 1979.
It said plenty about the regard in which he was held when the Fitzroy players found something extra special three days later against a Richmond side that sat 10 points clear on top of the ladder.
So special that they kicked 8-3 to 2-4 in the first and beat the side that would go on to win the flag from third place, belting Collingwood by 81 points in the grand final.
Stephen, who had guided his beloved club to the finals in 1979 for the first time since 1960, coached Fitzroy for the 214th and last time in Round 22 1980. And again, despite still sitting at the bottom of the ladder, his players did him proud without quite getting the job done.
Playing Carlton at Princes Park on 30 August Fitzroy were 51 points down at three-quarter time. They kicked 9-8 to 2-3 in the final quarter against the side that would finish second on the home-and-away ladder to lose by a heart-breaking four points.
Among the side that played under Stephen that day were Fitzroy favorites Bernie Quinlan, Warwick Irwin, Garry Wilson, David McMahon, Chris Smith and Ron Alexander, plus youngsters including Laurie Serafini, Mick Conlan, Leon Harris and Ross Thornton.
It was the end of a Fitzroy career that officially included 162 games as a player and 214 games as coach. Plus 44 games as Essendon coach.
Described on the Australian Football website as “one of the finest defenders and indeed finest players of his era”, he had been Fitzroy club champion in 1950 and 1954, finished equal seventh in the Brownlow Medal won in 1950 by teammate Ruthven and equal eighth in 1956.
Chosen in the Fitzroy Team of the Century, he represented Victoria 14 times and was chosen in the 1952 Sporting Life Team of the Year, the forerunner to today’s All-Australian side.
While 27 players played more games for Fitzroy than Stephen nobody coached the club more often. Next best was Robert Walls’ 115, followed by Hughson (96), Vic Belcher (93), Len Smith (92) and Percy Parratt (91).
He later served on the Fitzroy match committee and in 1996 received the prestigious AFL Jack Titus Award for his outstanding service to the game.
Not quite six years later, by then a sprightly 62, Stephen was introduced to the Brisbane people as the historic merger between Fitzroy and Brisbane came together.
He did not have an official role but there was never any doubt about where his allegiances stood. Or his influence. He insisted the Lions must go on. That the merger with Brisbane was not just the best option but the only option. And with George Coates, another life-time Fitzroy man, he played a key and influential role in the background.
He was an inaugural member of the Brisbane Lions Hall of Fame in 2012. Until his health deteriorated he was an active supporter of the club in Melbourne and in Brisbane, and right to the end his love of the Lions never waned.
Rest in peace Bill Stephen.