Roy Boys Rebooted

As published in Inside Sport

The advent of the Brisbane Lions should have consigned them to football’s faded annals, yet this year Fitzroy Football Club is again hoofing the pigskin around its spiritual home ground. For the Roys, there is a light that never goes out.

Located within the tranquil Edinburgh Gardens, it seems implausible the W. T. Peterson Community Oval used to shoe horn over 30,000 citizens engaged in mild urban warfare.  Unlike most decommissioned Melbourne fortresses, this old girl (aka Brunswick Street Oval) has aged with the style and beauty of Catherine Deneuve.  Stately red oaks encircle a playing surface that provides aerialists a soft landing, even if alpacas appear in charge of turf maintenance.  The 112 tram rumbles past neighbouring terrace houses which gifted residents a bird’s eye view of 616 League matches here.  The superbly restored Victorian grandstand had a twin until it burned down in 1977.  No one loved the place in the ‘Seventies, not even Fitzroy.  Having departed in 1966, the club tried on home grounds like over-sized shoes.   Ultimately, not enough people loved Fitzroy, at least not enough to keep them afloat in the AFL.

As Rabbitohs’ fans could attest, losing a major source of one’s energy and purpose, whatever that might be, is a life changing event.  Hard core Roys have tried filling the void for a dozen nuclear winters.  The ignorant and mean spirited deride them; tell them to ‘just get over it’.   They don’t understand – how can they?

More than just reliving the olden days via its memorabilia shop, Fitzroy Football Club Ltd.’s shareholders sponsored living, breathing footballers.  The Fitzroy Reds (formerly a university team) and the Fitzroy Juniors became ensconced in the Roys’ traditional heartland.  In April 2008, the Reds proposed to formalise what they’d ostensibly come to represent.  Their key benefactor shouted ‘I do’ and officially, as of last December, the teamless former AFL entity had a couple hundred footballers at its disposal.  This year Fitzroy (incorporating the Reds) is fielding teams in the Victorian Amateur Football Association’s D Grade (a 117 year old Melbourne metropolitan competition), appropriately calling the Brunswick Street Oval home.

Standing with his son in front of the old grandstand c.1888, Glen Murray is beaming.  “As a nine year old I kicked the footy here with Fitzroy players when my Dad was playing.  Dad’s father played here too.  Hopefully this will revitalise something we’ve missed over the years”.

Glen’s dad is nine times club champion Kevin Murray.  Speaking at the round one pre-match luncheon celebrating Fitzroy’s reawakening, he uncharacteristically struggles for words.   ‘Bulldog’ strongly advocates the Brisbane Lions but this is where his heart and soul resides, where so much sweat and blood was shed toiling away in a back brace over a career spanning three decades.  Thankfully for Kevin and his progeny, Fitzroy, and all he helped build, matters still.

Notwithstanding the day’s significance, a return to the 2pm Saturday ritual with the familiarity and freedoms of suburban footy is an attractive old world concept.  In the liniment infused player confines, the team is resplendent in authentic garb.  A true legend of Australian Rules, Murray’s 1969 Brownlow is pinned to his chest like a war medal.  Harbouring no pretence, Murray’s spirit lifts the mood of any room.  Presenting jumpers before battle, his rapid fire repartee is humorous and inspiring; the young men are transfixed.  Lucky the walls are heritage listed, lest the players run through them.

With the eyes of the generations bearing down, Fitzroy slam on the first five goals.  As if by divine intervention, Isaac Hughson, great grandson of 1944 Premiership captain-coach Fred Hughson, nails the first two.  This is the field of dreams after all.  The Roys’ ball movement is slick and instinctive, players surge forward to create.  Prahran are continually outmarked, outpaced and outmuscled for the contested ball.  Only Fitzroy’s latter waywardness saves the Two Blues from early annihilation.

What the Amateurs’ lacks in saturation media coverage and blockbuster crowds is countered by free flowing, attractive football.  Robert Harvey and Glenn Archer headline a growing band of former AFL players giving back to grassroots via the VAFA, doubtless attracted by the absence of two-bit thugs.  Reasonable alcohol restrictions have also made the reputation of the ‘Ammos’, a competition AFL Hall of Famer David Parkin fondly refers to as ‘music without words’.   The phrase ‘best kept secret’ also comes to mind.

Despite time, despite everything, Fitzroy the football club and Fitzroy the suburb still share common traits.  Neither suffers bogans or big heads. Melbourne’s first suburb is historically working class, known for its charitable institutions and social activism.  In recent times, an influx of left leaning bohemians has continued the trend. The daggy cool chic of Brunswick Street and local pub culture mirror a club that was always pretty daggy, but cool enough to be popularly regarded as other supporters’ ‘second’ team.

By the quarter time juncture in the League’s history, Fitzroy’s sepia toned salad days entailed unrivalled success.  Post WW2; zippo.  Not even one turn at the big dance – only a bric-a-brac collection of wooden spoons and night series trinkets.  Sure they put up some brave campaigns (anyone recall ’83 or ’86?) and had a knack for upsetting fancied rivals, but missing was the ruthlessness and wherewithal required to translate courageous afternoons into September glory.   “Most supporters can draw on memorable seasons; we can only reminisce about memorable games”, an onlooker laments.

Fatigued by their early onslaught, Fitzroy face a more committed and composed Prahran in the second term, now uncomfortably close by the long break.  There’s work to be done ensuring this game is memorable.

The lost years might hamper recognition, but supporters identify old comrades with whom they might have shared a bleak wintry afternoon at Whitten Oval.  A random selection of guernsey designs are sported by all demographics.  Today, even the baby boomers are forgiven for donning mothballed relics, best kept behind glass.  And whether fans yell for the ‘Gorillas’, ‘Maroons’, ‘Lions’ or ‘Roys’, such aesthetic variances haven’t diminished Fitzroy’s character.

Lifelong supporter Kevin Walker knows a thing or two about the club, and character.  “Win, lose or draw, we’re Fitzroy.  We don’t go home at half time if we’re getting beat by 12 goals”.

As a boy in the 1950’s, Walkerwas club mascot for four years (every kid’s dream gig).  Team of the Century coach Len Smith allowed him in the coach’s box on the proviso he ‘sit down, shut up and try and learn something’.  Walker was pragmatic enough to take up with Brisbane, but this is his first, true love.

“It is a big day; I’m rapt to be down here.   It’s terrific.”

A self confessed cold blooded accountant, club secretary Bill Atherton concedes a return to the Victorian Football Association (a level below AFL) would have seen Fitzroy thrive – or perhaps more favourable relocation and merger opportunities left on the table.   As much as the AFL and various landlords did them no favours, turning sausages and lucky wheels were no longer compatible with the booming business of football.

Fitzroy’s complicated saga dominated Melbourne’s media in 1996 – the impending loss of a founding club muffling the League’s centenary celebration.  When the AFL guaranteed Fitzroy funding to play out the season on the proviso it merged, talks with Brisbane progressed.  Then the North Fitzroy Kangaroos appeared set, but there were interminable diversions ahead.  Having saved them, Fitzroy’s financier, Nauru Insurance Corporation came after its $1.25m.  Administrator Michael Brennan was appointed; a powerless Fitzroy losing any control of its destiny.  The North agreement was scuppered by Brennan’s Brisbane recommendation, AFL manoeuvring and competition fears of a ‘superclub’.  Conveniently, Fitzroy would play organ donor to the League’s failing interstate project.  The method of execution, encapsulated by the cheer squad’s banner following the announcement, left supporters feeling marooned and talking blue;

Seduced by North,

Raped by Brisbane,

F***** by the AFL

Not a firecracker was spared for the 113 year old club’s last rites – a dignified farewell at Subiaco kindly facilitated by Freo.  In his scathing account of Fitzroy’s demise, then president/now chairman Dyson Hore-Lacy recounts being ‘obliterated by the stroke of a corporately driven pen’ in ‘one of the most cynical and insensitive acts ever perpetrated in the history of sport’.

Perched in the grandstand, gazing out to the postcard panorama of Melbourne’s skyline, Kevin Walker simply articulates the messy affair as ‘criminal’.

Whether it’s the AFL, NRL or West Wimmera League, mergers are a delicate business.  Former Bears’ Chairman Noel Gordon’s infamous bout of televised smugness and an ill equipped Melbourne office was certainly no template.   Nor was the code’s governing body failing to properly recognise the union.  Instead of beginning a new page in 1997, official AFL records for the Brisbane Lions include the Bears, but not Fitzroy.

On this point, Brisbane Lions’ Chief Michael Bowers actively supports aggrieved, old school Lions.

“We continue to push.  It’s a complete and utter nonsense. Hopefully sanity will prevail.”

Conversely, Atherton is over it.

“Who cares?  They’re only reflecting reality. Fitzroy did not merge with the Brisbane Bears.  It was an acquisition by the Bears of Fitzroy bits and pieces.”

Fitzroy’s small mercy was that liquidation allowed them to discharge their debt, slip the noose and continue as a going concern.   Without Atherton’s determination the Roys’ flickering candle might have been snuffed.  Used to scrapping for morsels, for a decade he’s endured a ‘15 round shirtfront, bump and bash’ ensuring the AFL fulfils the legally binding agreement to fixture six Brisbane games in Melbourne each year.

The ‘Brions’ have gradually won acceptance, even if, according to Atherton, some like revered former player Bernie Quinlan ‘wouldn’t piss on them’.  A straw poll of punters reveals most believe they have the best of both worlds – an elite fix with the Brisbane Lions and a local hit with Fitzroy.  Aside from Brisbane’s clubroom honour boards, the Merrett-Murray Medal and other nods to the Roys’ heritage, a likeness to the old jumper worn in matches played inVictoria also fuels a growing northern fascination for Fitzroy.  Most decisively, success requires no explanation. Brisbane’s three-peat was a gift too tempting to ignore for a majority whom 1944 was but a bedtime story.

Meanwhile, Bowers isn’t convinced about Fitzroy’s’ second coming. Whilst supportive, he believes people are deluding themselves, dismissing it as a Reds’ gimmick to attract players and support.  Fitzroy, by his estimation, was purely an AFL club that is singularly no more, but part of a new whole.

“Personally, I can’t see it and people can spin it any way they like.  It’s not for us to say what they can and can’t do.  If it makes them happy and more people are involved in community footy, fantastic.”

With 1.5 million supporters Australia wide and a solid Melbourne based membership, Bowers is yet to lose any sleep over notions of parallel Lions.

“I never cease to be surprised but I very much doubt it.  I don’t think anyone’s confused – there’s no reduction in the value of the brand.”

Therein lies an instructive point of difference – old Fitzroy would never describe themselves as a ‘brand’.  Nonetheless, how does the ‘Brisbane Bears-Fitzroy Football Club Trading as the Brisbane Lions’ realistically relate to the Fitzroy anomaly?  It begs the question ‘what really constitutes club identity?’

“The most important thing that defines a football club is not the jumper but the heritage and culture – that is the families and the generations that have been involved”, contends Atherton.  To borrow from The Castle, Brisbane filled their pool room but they couldn’t buy ‘the vibe’.

As long as Fitzroy are living in a minor key, Headquarters will play a straight bat.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the Reds and we have them up here each year.  They’re a great, eclectic bunch.  There’s no issue to increase or decrease support”, says Bowers.

If the first outing is anything to go by, this year’s posse, led by coach Simon Taylor, have embraced the Brisbane sun and knowledge.  After a half time spent navel gazing, Fitzroy gradually regain the ascendancy, the game appearing to be in hand.

“We haven’t beaten Prahran since 1896”, Jim Poulter advises over the fence to Hughson walking past, in mock seriousness.

“Today’s the day” he responds, bemused.

Poulter is a virtuoso who epitomises the Fitzroy ethos; self deprecating yet fiercely proud, and a shit stirrer armed with innumerable football anecdotes, trivia and jokes to impress, or depress.  Popular targets are lowly Collingwood types and Carlton silvertails, clubs by which Fitzroy is socially and geographically flanked.  Following the ‘44 flag, his mother knitted three year old Jim a Fitzroy jumper, at the behest of his war serving father.  Triple Brownlow superstar Haydn Bunton boarded with Poulter’s family, yet the torment of his dad accidentally bursting a second hand football left a more indelible impression.  “Ever since then I’ve been conditioned to the tragedy that is Fitzroy!”

Polidoras, Dlabik and Kelleher may not leap off the page like Wilson, Conlan or Pert, however familiarisation with the local boys shouldn’t take long, given one can wander onto the field; hear the coach rip into the team, then share a drink with them after the game.

“As much as I love Carlton, you can never get as close to a club as you can here”, affirms Fitzroy President Craig Little, formerly the Reds’ supremo.  “You have blokes who live in Fitzroy; they throw their bag over their shoulder and walk down to play – like it used to be.  Footy used to define a suburb.”

The Roys’ heritage is a valuable commodity – to wit so many latter day professional franchises’ soulless, ill-conceived genesis underscores a forgettable demise.  Indeed, Fitzroy satiated the no-care Bears dire thirst for a football pedigree.  If there was a degree of self interest in the Reds’ association, as Bowers proclaims, they’re not alone in coveting a slice of the Fitzroy mystique.

Coincidentally, Prahran (a VFA stalwart also formed in the 1880’s) was a victim of 1990’s football rationalism, only to resurface by history’s pull.  The Fitzroys and Prahrans paid heavily for denying the game’s imminent new order, but as AFL clubs shed their unique, humble origins, there’s a growing niche market on offer.

At least the VAFA’s amateur status won’t have this generation of players wondering whether their cheque’s in the mail, although other suburban competition clubs offering up to $500 a game can test loyalty.

“I don’t think anyone would be interested”, captain Jimmy O’Reilly innocently suggests. “It’s just a really good culture to be a part of.”

What they can’t offer is a legacy and location which have helped secure unsurpassed player numbers in a competition comprising 72 clubs (Australia’s largest).

“Playing on the Brunny Street Oval in the Fitzroy gear does give me a very special feeling” says team-mate Sam Buckley, who once dreamed of emulating hero Paul Roos.

Now, in a way, he has.  Buckley started playing when the junior club did in 1993, kicking the sole team’s only goal for the year.  Now the feeder club gainfully occupies over 400 local kids.  Natural resources should see an ascent to A Grade but the welfare of players and members is Fitzroy’s primary concern.  If that’s taken care of, an upward trajectory will look after itself.

Len Smith once said the ‘Roys had little going for them but ‘goodness’ and that the goodness of its people would see them through.  And it’s the people who’ll determine whether this is the same Fitzroy their forebears held so dear.  In raising their own local players, involved purely for the love of the game, the club has come full circle and are truer to their identity than their nomadic years on death row.

Those anticipating a cliff-hanger finish will be disappointed, but IS have no control over the game’s script.  What actually happens is the stuff of sports melodramas anyway.  Midway through the final term, two players in Fitzroy colours clash heads, leaving one reeling on the deck.  A red jacketed trainer helps the stricken player rise to his feet.  Then, through obstinate clouds, the sun finally breaks through, projecting a warm glow onto the field as if to say, ‘Fitzroy, this is where you belong – soak it up!’  The final act is played out by Isaac Hughson, he of impeccable lineage.  The elusive goal sneak puts a full stop to the contest, booting his seventh major.

Bereft of cheesy metaphors, the game ends with Fitzroy eight goals to the good of Prahran. The sparse crowd gathers to become a rowdy throng, greeting the victors and a new beginning with a prolonged cheer.  A typical autumn day subsides and fathers take their sons and daughters onto the hallowed turf for the obligatory post match kick-to-kick, sadly spurned by football’s upper echelon.  It’s been a long time since the most regal of club anthems has been sung in victory.  In the changerooms the boys belt out the song with enough gusto to rouse the ghosts of ‘Butch’ Gale and ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn.

We are the boys from old Fitzroy;
We wear the colours maroon and blue.
We will always fight for victory;
We will always see it through…

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