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The Fitzroy Football Club (1883-1996)

The Fitzroy Football Club was born on 26th September 1883 at the Brunswick Hotel as a result of a meeting by business man George Toms and former Fitzroy Mayor John MacMahon. The meeting elected a provisional committee who quickly decided that the colours of the club were to be a blue cap and knickerbockers, maroon jersey and hose.

Fitzroy was admitted to the VFA in 1884 as the Fitzroy Senior Football Club and played from the Brunswick Street Oval. It took 11 years to win their first flag which occured in 1895.
Two years later, Fitzroy joined seven other VFA clubs, Melbourne, Geelong, Collingwood, Carlton, South Melbourne, Essendon and St Kilda in breaking away from the VFA and forming a new league that named itself the Victorian Football League. (VFL)

Fitzroy quickly had success winning the second VFL premiership in 1898 against Essendon. Fitzroy was the most successful team in the first ten years of the VFL, playing in the finals for nine of those first ten - for four premierships. Three times in that period Fitzroy was runner-up. Fitzroy also won the 1899 Premiership, lost by 4 points to Melbourne in the 1900 Grand Final and won the Premiership again in 1904, after losing by two points in the Grand Final in 1903. Fitzroy won their second back to back Premiership in 1905, with Percy Trotter being named Player of the Year, an award which was essentially the equivalent of the modern Brownlow Medal.

Fitzroy changed their uniform in 1911 to a maroon guernsey with blue collars and cuffs and white shorts. They won their fifth premiership in 1913. World War I broke out the following year and by 1916, 15 Fitzroy players and former players had enlisted. Two new clubs Richmond and University had joined the league by 1914. While football continued during the war, five VFL clubs went into temporary recess and University disbanded permanently. Only Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond and Carlton continued to play on, their teams mostly filled with older men and those who remained at home in "essential services." In 1916 Fitzroy became the only League team in history to go from last at the end of the home and away season to win the Flag, an unusual occurence that is never likely to be repeated in VFL/AFL history.

After the war ended in 1918, Fitzroy had mixed success until 1922, when led by Jimmy Freake and Percy Parratt it defeated their arch-rival Collingwood to win their seventh flag. After 1924, Fitzroy did not figure in the finals again until 1942, a period of 18 years. This was somewhat surprising considering that during that period Fitzroy had at its' disposal some of the all-time greats of the club including Haydn Bunton who won three Brownlow Medals in 1931, 1932 and 1935, Dinny Ryan who won the Brownlow in 1936, and Wilfred 'Chicken' Smallhorn in 1933. Fitzroy players won the Brownlow in 1931, 1932, 1933, 1935 and 1936 and yet could not figure in the finals in any one of those years. Haydn Bunton believed that 1934, the only one of those years where a Fitzroy player did not win the Brownlow was his best year ever, but the Medal that year was won by Essendon's Dick Reynolds.

Fitzroy which had been nick-named the Maroons for a number of years, wanted a more aggressive mascot and decided, on the suggestion of a certain Dr. Cec Raphael, to adopt a new moniker, that of 'The Gorillas' in 1939. In 1941 for the first time they added a blue FFC monogram to the front of the guernsey, which has to this day remained, although it has changed colour several times!

In 1942 Fitzroy made the finals for the first time since 1924. They followed this up with a Grand Final appearance in 1943 which they lost against Richmond. However the following year on 30th September1944 they turned the tables defeating Richmond by 15 points in the Seniors. The Reserves also won the premiership, (the only double ever achieved by Fitzroy) defeating Collingwood also by 15 points, the week before. The 1944 flag remains the eighth and final VFL/AFL premiership that Fitzroy achieved. It was also the last VFL/AFL Day Grand Final they were ever to appear in, although there were to be many subsequent finals appearances.

Frank Curcio became the first Fitzroy player to play 200 senior games for the club in 1946. Fitzroy contested the Preliminary Final in 1947, but lost to Essendon. The 1948 season was a disaster with the biggest fade-out in the history of the VFL. After the first 11 matches, Fitzroy was leading the ladder with nine wins and two losses. The club did not win another senior match for the season.

Allan 'Baron' Ruthven won the Brownlow in 1950, but Fitzroy finished in fifth position, just outside the then Final Four. They repeated this effort in 1951, finally making the finals again in 1952. Unfortunately after a hard one point win over Carlton in the 1st semi-final, Fitzroy lost to Collingwood and finished fourth. In 1956 Kevin Murray won Fitzroy's Best and Fairest Award for the first time at the age of 18. 1956 was also notable as the year the Club changed the colour of the FFC monogram from blue to white. A year later in 1957, Fitzroy discarded the Gorilla mascot, which had become the subject of some ridicule from opposition supporters and adopted the now familiar Lion mascot to reflect "the never say die spirit of the club" and also to provide a more aggressive and noble image.

Fitzroy again reached the finals in 1958, but unexpectedly in the last round of the home and away season, lost their game against Hawthorn and forfeited the double chance and possibly the premiership. In 1959 they missed the finals by two Premiership points. However in the same year Fitzroy won their first night premiership, defeating Hawthorn by 30 points. 1960 remains one of Fitzroy's most successful years, where they reached the Preliminary Final and finished 3rd. The Second Semi-Final that year between Fitzroy and Melbourne saw the first and only occurence of brothers coaching opposing sides in a final. Unfortunately Melbourne's Norm Smith triumphed over Fitzroy's Len Smith winning by 62 points. There was no chance of a re-match as the following week Fitzroy lost the preliminary final to Collingwood by five points.

Fitzroy again missed the finals by two points in 1961 and then slipped to tenth in 1962. The next few years were forgettable ones with Fitzroy continually on or close to the bottom of the ladder. They finished last in 1963, 1964 and 1966, failing to win a game in 1964. 1966 also saw the last VFL match at the Brunswick St Oval after Fitzroy was unable to achieve a satisfactory lease from the Fitzroy council. After considering offers from Preston and St Kilda, Fitzroy elected to share Princes Park (now Optus Oval) with Carlton for the 1967 season. This ended Fitzroy's 83 year association with the Brunswick St Oval. Two years later in 1969 the club moved to the Junction Oval at St Kilda where they stayed for a number of years.

Moving grounds did not help Fitzroy to become successful. Kevin Murray became captain in 1967, under coach Bill Stephen. The Lions altered their uniform again by adding a small Lion to the left breast of their guernsey in 1967 and again in 1974, when they changed the maroon to red and the white FFC to gold in readiness for colour television. They even wore gold shorts for away matches. From 1960 to 1979, Fitzroy did not contest a VFL final series, with their highest position in that time, a respectable 6th in 1971, in a year that John Murphy won the club's best and fairest. However in that nineteen year period the club was blessed with some fantastic players including the lionhearted Kevin "Bulldog" Murray who in 1969 at the age of 31 became the oldest player to win a Brownlow. Fitzroy also made VFL/AFL history in 1970 becoming (with Richmond) the first club to play on a Sunday and in the same match to play before the monarch Queen Elizabeth II. This second occurence has never been repeated by any other club since. Fitzroy also played Geelong in the first ever match at Waverley (VFL) Park in the same year. Fitzroy's gradual improvement through the late 70's after such a long unsuccessful period was capped off in 1978 when Fitzroy shocked the football world by defeating a highly fancied North Melbourne (the reigning day premiers) by 76 points to win the Night Premiership.

In 1979, Fitzroy with the aid of some big-name recruits, such as Robert Walls and Bernie Quinlan and also some home-grown talent made the finals for the first time since 1960, under new coach Bill Stephen (who had also coached the club previously from 1965 to 1970). It was a record-breaking and momentous year. Courageous rover Garry Wilson was one vote from winning the Brownlow Medal. Fitzroy won nine games in a row (a club record). Fitzroy thrashed Essendon by 81 points in the Elimination Final, their largest winning margin. Fitzroy kicked its highest ever score (and VFL score) against Melbourne, a whopping 36.22.238 to 6.12.48 winning by 190 points. While the 238 points is not a VFL/AFL record any longer the winning margin of 190 points still stands.

It was now Fitzroy entered their last period of sustained success in the VFL/AFL. Widely regarded as the glamour team of the nineties they came agonizingly close to tasting the ultimate success twice, but fell at the final hurdles. Fitzroy under new coach Robert Walls reached the finals in 1981 (its season ended by a 1 point loss to Collingwood), 1983 and 1984. Bernie Quinlan won the Brownlow Medal in 1981, sharing it with Barry Round of South Melbourne, (soon to become the Sydney Swans). It is perhaps 1983 that is rued by those associated with the club as the one that got away. For the first time ever for Fitzroy, all three grades (Seniors, Reserves and U/19's) played off in the finals in the same season. For the first time a Fitzroy player (Bernie Quinlan) kicked over a 100 goals in a season, finishing with 116. Fitzroy also defeated top of the ladder North Melbourne by 150 points. Fitzroy also scored their highest ever aggregate score for a quarter 12.6.78. It was the year they also unearthed three players who were to serve Fitzroy with distinction for much of the club's final years in the VFL/AFL competition. They were of course Paul Roos, Gary Pert and Richard Osborne. Unfortunately the hugely successful and centenary year 1983 was ended by a heartbreaking and controversial four point loss to eventual premiers Hawthorn in the Qualifying Final.

At the end of 1984, Fitzroy moved from the Junction Oval to a ground-sharing arrangement with Collingwood at Victoria Park. After a chaotic 1985, Fitzroy now in considerable financial difficulty, started off slowly in 1986, but eventually managed to win 13 straight to claw their way into the finals. Fitzroy and Essendon fought the closest Elimination Final in VFL/AFL history when Fitzroy, courtesy of a Micky Conlan goal in the dying minutes, clawed their way to a 1 point victory. A 5 point victory over the Sydney Swans followed the week after and Fitzroy reached the Preliminary Final for the first time since 1960. Unfortunately injuries to Michael Reeves, Matt Rendell and Gary Pert took their toll and as in 1983 Hawthorn ended Fitzroy's dream to the tune of 56 points. It was Fitzroy's last senior finals appearance.

In 1987, Fitzroy in acute financial difficulty decided to leave Victoria Park for Carlton's Princes Park, their former home from 1967-68. Financial matters were so bad that the players and most of the Board voted for the club to relocate to Brisbane, as the Brisbane Lions. However a 'savior' was found and the club president Leon Wiegard determined on the basis of this that the club would stay in Melbourne. There was increasing pressure behind the scenes to keep the club viable and to pay the players who were vital to Fitzroy achieving success.

Despite a desperate struggle at long last the deteriorating financial situation at Fitzroy began to bite deeply. In 1989, a Fitzroy team appeared in a day Grand Final for the last time, when the Reserves led by retiring players John Ironmonger, Grant Lawrie and Leon Harris defeated Geelong by five points in a stirring come from behind win. The coach that day Robert Shaw, would later coach the club's senior team for a number of years. 1989 was also the year that Fitzroy negotiated a merger with Footscray to become the "Fitzroy Bulldogs", but was upset by the members and supporters of Footscray who saved the club and allowed it to continue on in it's own right.

In 1991, financial matters were so grave that the club launched a 'Save the Lions' appeal, which raised $800,000 and managed to give the club a breathing space. However on-field in 1991 Fitzroy were at the end of some very large defeats. However they won three out of their last four matches for the 1991 season including an amazing and quite unexpected victory over top of the ladder West Coast Eagles in the last round.

1992 saw the club's last ever appearance in a VFL/AFL Grand Final of any description when they lost by 65 points to Hawthorn, (the powerhouse side of the 80's and early 90's) in the Grand Final of the pre-season night series. A reasonable year in 1993 and the formation of the nucleus of a good young team brought hopes that Fitzroy would revive on the field, which in turn would result in an financial turn-around. However the poor financial situation and the AFL's priority draft rules saw the exodus of many fine Fitzroy players at the end of 1993 including Alistair Lynch, Paul Broderick and Michael Gale. Club stalwarts Paul Roos and Matthew Armstrong departed at the end of 1994. In an effort to improve their financial situation Fitzroy took advantage of a much more generous offer from Footscray and moved their home base again, this time to the Western Oval for the start of the 1994 season. It was here that Fitzroy would see out their final years in the AFL. Rumors also flew regarding the possibility of merging with other clubs, including definite talks between Melbourne and Fitzroy which eventually came to nothing.

1995 and 1996 were sad years. Berefit of many senior players and experience (many of whom were playing at other clubs) and mired in a debt estimated at over $2 million, Fitzroy struggled on the field, winning only one game in 1995 and the same in 1996. At last the Board of Fitzroy led by Chairman Dyson Hore-Lacy bowed to the inevitable and despite offers from many other clubs sought a merger with North Melbourne.

Fitzroy's last win in the AFL came against Fremantle on May 18th 1996. Having struck an agreement with North Melbourne, Fitzroy was on the verge of merging to become the North-Fitzroy Kangaroos, when Nauru, Fitzroy's main creditor appointed an administrator which removed any power that the Fitzroy Board had to make decisions and conclude the merger with North Melbourne. The administrator Michael Brennan favored a merger with Brisbane, which was endorsed by the AFL Commission and the other club presidents on 4th July 1996. This merger of the club operations of Fitzroy and the Brisbane Bears, formed the Brisbane Lions.

Fitzroy said goodbye to the city of Melbourne in Round 21 1996 in front of 48,884 people, against Richmond, which they lost by 151 points. It has been called by many as "the saddest day in 100 years of AFL football". A lap of Fitzroy's past players and heroes from their long and distinguished history took place before the match, before the team ran through the banner followed by masses of children in a sea of Fitzroy colours.

The following week September 1st 1996, saw Fitzroy's last and 1,928th match in the VFL/AFL after 113 years of competition in the VFA and the VFL/AFL. The players with the club emblem tattoed on their arms entered the ground through a banner displaying the names of every player who played 90 or more games for Fitzroy. Fitzroy lost by 86 points. Brad Boyd was the last captain, Simon Atkins kicked the last goal and Martin Pike was later voted the last Fitzroy Best and Fairest. A lone singer sang "Auld Lang Syne" as the last ever Fitzroy team departed the VFL/AFL competition, in which their club had been a participant in for the last 113 years.

Fitzroy Football Club still exists as a legal entity, but is berefit of any any playing operations. Their days as an independent entity in the highest football competition in the country sadly look to be over forever.

For more information on what Fitzroy have been doing since 1996, click here.

The VLSG will be running a series of interviews with various Fitzroy players on their time with the mighty Fitzroy Football Club. Click on the player's name below to read the interview.

Laurie Richards Laurie Richards was a highflying forward and on-baller, who joined Fitzroy from Perth in 1971 & went on to play 80 games and kick 69 goals for the Lions, before returning to the West at the end of 1974. He represented Victoria in 1973. Here he recalls his days with the mighty Fitzroy Football Club.

Last updated on Saturday 23rd February 2002