This year the Australian Football League is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Australian football. Media reports highlight the overwhelming sporting and financial strength of the national competition, and particularly the inspiring achievements of numerous Indigenous football stars.
The competition is so successful that the AFL is even planning the addition of two new teams from the Gold Coast and Western Sydney. But there is one event which continues to be the cause of mourning rather than celebration, and that is the premature demise of the Fitzroy Football Club in 1996.
Today we live in an increasingly individualistic society in which the old communal ties of class, workplace, geographical proximity and religious affiliation have broken down.
But supporters of Victorian football teams are bound together by a tribal code of allegiance. Many of the original residents of inner city suburbs such as Collingwood, Richmond and Carlton now reside many kilometres from their birth place. Yet they continue to pledge their loyalty and often that of their children and grandchildren to their team of origin linking generations in a common passion.
Football in Victoria is one crucial aspect of the communal social fabric. Many supporters view their football club as one of the few concrete links to their own childhood memories and experiences. Supporting a football club is one activity that still allows individuals to combine with others in search of a collective purpose. For many people, their football team is crucial to their sense of identity.
For Fitzroy supporters, the demise of their club ended their association with others in a collective experience. Some felt a serious sense of grief and loss, almost like losing a close family member. It is not just a matter of having nothing to do anymore on cold wintry Saturday afternoons. Supporters may suffer from withdrawal symptoms, social isolation, and even depression. The major source of passion and energy in their life had gone for ever. Many fans have never forgiven the AFL.
According to Adam Muyt’s 2006 book, Maroon & Blue: Recollections and tales of the Fitzroy Football Club, some chose to support the merged Brisbane team, others adopted new Melbourne-based teams, and many abandoned the AFL together. Most believe the AFL did everything in its power to destroy the proud 100-year-old club: a club that won eight premierships, and produced champions such as Hadyn Bunton, Kevin Murray, Gary Wilson, Bernie Quinlan, Laurie Serafini, Michael Conlan and many others.
To be fair, the AFL was not the only problem. Successive Fitzroy administrations eroded the credibility of the club with constant shifts to new grounds, and a failure to retain key players such as Gary Pert, Richard Osborne, Alistair Lynch and Paul Roos. And the supporters also failed to support the club in its time of need. A number of the home games in the club’s final years of competition attracted less than 10,000 people. Many of the 48,000 strong crowd who attended the last Melbourne-based game against Richmond in Round 21 1996 admitted that they had not been to a game for years.
Most of the other teams also did little to help. Powerful clubs such as Collingwood and Carlton negotiated Scrooge-like ground share arrangements with Fitzroy that did little to assist the struggling club. And when it came to the crunch in 1996, the majority of clubs opposed the proposed merger with the North Melbourne Kangaroos (that was favoured by most Fitzroy supporters and supported by the Boards of both clubs) on the self-interested grounds that it would create an overly powerful team.
But the AFL bears the key responsibility. They publicly undermined Fitzroy at every opportunity, they discouraged potential sponsors, and they actively prevented the preferred merger option with North Melbourne. Yet today they provide millions of dollars in assistance to struggling clubs such as Melbourne, the Kangaroos and the Bulldogs. Such support might have saved the Lions.
The AFL continues to propagate the self-serving myth that Fitzroy lives on in the form of the Brisbane Lions. Yet the former AFL Chief Executive Ross Oakley admitted in 1996 that the Brisbane-Fitzroy alliance was actually a “corporate takeover” rather than a merger. And the official AFL statistics today tell the real story: the Brisbane Bears and the Brisbane Lions are combined as one club, whereas the proud history of Fitzroy is counted separately.
The AFL would prefer the thousands of former royboys and roygirls to just forget how they railroaded Fitzroy out of existence. But the forced demise of Fitzroy will always remain a stain upon the competition. Twelve years after Fitzroy’s last victory over Fremantle on 18 May 1996, its time for the AFL to say sorry to Fitzroy.
The author supported Fitzroy for 27 years from 1970-1996.
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