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    When the Lions Almost Became Bulldogs

    When the Lions almost became Bulldogs

    It was sitting there wedged in the box, sliced between random papers, its black plastic binder half -broken, the transparent cover a window on what was inside and what might have been in football.

    Matt Rendell was working through the old box at home throwing stuff out when he came across the folder.

    The Victorian Football League letterhead was a moment of jolting nostalgia.

    “Background to the Fitzroy Bulldogs” the title read. It is dated October 3, 1989.

    It was the document confirming the official merger of the Fitzroy and Footscray football clubs. It is an aggressively bullish outline of the rationale of the merger and scopes out in detail how this merged entity will work and why it must work.

    The muscular language now sounds all the more verbose with the knowledge that it was the merger that never happened.

    It was the merger the VFL wanted and bullied Footscray into signing up to, albeit through gritted teeth and only before immediately rushing to court to have it overturned. The document is a football artefact.

    Rendell didn’t know he had it or how he got it. He doubts they handed them out, so figures he might have slipped one into his tracksuit top on the way out. It was a chaotic time.

    “I was shocked that I actually had this at home, I can’t believe they let us walk out with it. I was surprised when I found I had it,” he said.

    Now at Collingwood in recruiting, Rendell was then the Fitzroy ruckman and recalls being rung that day (on his home phone, this was pre-mobile phones) and asked to come down to the club to support an announcement.

    “They needed some players to represent the club and they rang a few and couldn’t get any. 'Roosy' [Paul Roos] and 'Perty' [Gary Pert] would always go on holidays straight away so they wouldn’t be around. Lynchy [Alastair Lynch], too. So I got a call to go to it," Rendell remembers of that time nearly 30 years ago.

    “They had some Bulldogs players there, I remember Dougie Hawkins was there.”

    For the Fitzroy players a merger was not a surprise, nor an unwelcome move. They were the VFL’s struggling itinerant club and had been close to merging several times before.

    They had long left Brunswick Street Oval and the Junction Oval and even Victoria Park. They had trained for a time at Northcote Park though training was regularly cancelled because the ground was so soft the players would sink in the turf.

    “At Northcote we had to put all our weights in this little room then bring them out and do our weights in the open air then put them all back again every session,” Rendell recalled.

    By 1989 they were training at Lakeside Oval in Albert Park (now the athletics track) after South Melbourne decamped for Sydney, and were playing their games at Princes Park.

    There had been a push to move them to the Gold Coast, which they resisted, and then they were close to merging with Melbourne.

    The Melbourne Lions deal only fell over at the death after a last-minute change to the composition of the new board. Melbourne insisted the Melbourne Cricket Club also have two board members though coincidentally those two cricket club members were also football club members. It was untenable for Fitzroy to be outnumbered on the board.

    Hawthorn, too, had proposed a merger, though former Fitzroy president Leon Wiegard recalled this week that the only sop to the Roys was that the Hawks would put a Lions emblem on the leg of the shorts … of the seconds team.

    “I went through the end-of-‘86 one, when we were going to the Gold Coast, so after that I thought something is going to happen to Fitzroy,” Rendell said.

    This time it was different. Footscray was in a parlous financial position – Fitzroy might have been offered around for sale by the VFL but they were still financial – and so the structure of the deal was heavily weighted in Fitzroy’s favour.

    The document spells it out. It is a window on the aggressive culture of the VFL at the time. It does not pull a punch describing Footscray Football Club’s choice as stark: ''extinction or merger’’. In the end they got both wrong.

    The document is interesting for its detail and why it was that the offer was persuasive for Fitzroy - it was more takeover than merger - even if there were doubts that two weak clubs could make a strong one. Still they were to be the dominant partner and if a merger was inevitable then being the dominant partner was the preferred result.

    Now living in Hong Kong, the then Footscray President Nick Columb remembered this week the period vividly.

    “They rang me on the Monday after the grand final and said we want you to come in for a meeting. And look they had had this conference down in Tassie where they decided they had to cut the number of teams so I would get these calls saying ‘We want you to meet with the president of North Melbourne, or Melbourne or Fitzroy. It was constant,’ ” Columb said.

    “They felt at the time Footscray was trading while insolvent so they thought they had an axe to hold over our head.

    “So when (Ross) Oakley rang I said, 'look, if you want to talk mergers then I can’t be there on my own, the whole board has to come.' So we did. The whole board went in and saw Oakley and Albert Mantello and Graeme Samuel and they said: 'You are trading while insolvent. We demand that you merge with Fitzroy and if you don’t do so by the end of today we will withdraw your licence to be part of the VFL and we will do that at the end of today.' ”

    With this gun to their heads, the club signed. Columb said it was the smartest move they made for had they not signed they would have lost their VFL licence and with it their standing to be able to challenge the merger in the courts with the action that was subsequently successfully taken with Irene Chatfield.

    Of course, history confirms that the merger did not go ahead and the blowback at the VFL was vicious. It also galvanised Footscray in a way that it never did Fitzroy. Footscray staved off execution, unearthed a young leader in Peter Gordon and ultimately not only stayed in the competition but as we know has since won a flag.

    Fitzroy, in contrast, soon after merged with the Brisbane Bears, but for those involved the merged Lions never felt the same.

    “I’ve always felt that after Fitzroy merged (as the Brisbane Lions), it was not like barracking for your son,'' Wiegard said. ''It’s like barracking for your cousin’s son. There’s a connection there, but it is not the same.”

    Wiegard is wistful now that had Fitzroy been able to hang on another two years the broadcast dollars might have saved them.

    The Lions play the Bulldogs in Melbourne this Saturday but Wiegard will show only passing interest. At his age, golf and his grandkids’ sport draws more of his time.

    The document raises that idea of what might have been had it gone through.

    “It would have been a good team,” Rendell said. “They had just come off a bit of success with Mick Malthouse coaching. (Malthouse left at the end of 1989 at the time of the merger talks to join West Coast and was replaced for the next season by Terry Wheeler).

    “As a player you got enthused about it, oh yeah definitely, considering we were going to be the major partner. The only question mark you had was ‘I won’t survive here’. Because I was near the end and Scotty Wynd was their ruckman and he would have been in front of me.”

    Rendell retired at the end of 1991 then was enticed out of retirement by his old coach Robert Walls, ironically to join Brisbane.

    “The merger sparked the fans, more so the diehard Bulldogs, it wasn’t us at Fitzroy. I think our people were resigned to the fact we were merging with someone. It was like we had had enough. It was the Bulldogs people who kyboshed it.

    “They have done a super job (at the Bulldogs). They were the junior party in the merger and they have survived where Fitzroy couldn’t. They flourished enough to win a flag."


    THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

    The VFL document is blunt.

    The Bulldogs faced two choices: ‘‘extinction or merging’’. The VFL said the Dogs at that point in 1989 were $2 million in debt and facing another $700,000 loss that season. ‘‘As of today the Footscray Football Club is insolvent’’ the document said.

    The new entity was to be debt free, play home games at Princes Park and train – at times, according to Leon Wiegard – at Western Oval (now Whitten Oval).

    A playing list of 52 would be drawn from a possible 125 players on the combined clubs lists of senior and under-19 players. The club would keep both clubs existing recruiting zones.

    Most critically, the jumper was to be a hybrid with ‘‘the Fitzroy colours to be used in a new configuration to be developed by the VFL (not, it may be rightly oberved, by the club itself) to
    reflect the nature of the two previous jumpers’’.

    The Bulldog was to be retained as the insignia of the new club.

    The board was to have four members from each club and Leon Wiegard as its president.

    Then Fitzroy coach Rod Austin, who had just finished his first year in charge of the Roys, was to be retained as senior coach. Foootscray’s coach Mick Malthouse moved to West Coast as senior coach at the end of that season.

    The document also insists that there is a ‘‘realisation that one-team venues are not viable’’.
    Having lived the experience since then of the ground rationalisation that was to come, clubs are skeptical of that VFL/AFL logic.

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  3. #2
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    Re: When the Lions Almost Became Bulldogs

    Great read. Poor old Fitzroy. What a terrible time all that was.
    One of the great moments in life is the sense of space and time you feel between taking a hanger and touching back down.

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    Re: When the Lions Almost Became Bulldogs

    “The merger sparked the fans, more so the diehard Bulldogs, it wasn’t us at Fitzroy. I think our people were resigned to the fact we were merging with someone. It was like we had had enough. It was the Bulldogs people who kyboshed it."
    This was the line that really resonated with me. It seems Fitzroy had virtually given up ten years before they finally went under.

    It was a sad end.

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    Re: When the Lions Almost Became Bulldogs

    Quote Originally Posted by westdog54 View Post
    This was the line that really resonated with me. It seems Fitzroy had virtually given up ten years before they finally went under.

    It was a sad end.
    That makes me think of the Hawthorn-Melbourne proposed merger 20 odd years ago. The Hawthorn members voted to stand alone and have gone on to win flags and be a strong club, the Melbourne members actually voted to merge and have been a rabble and a shell of a club ever since.
    Smokey this is not 'Nam, this is bowling. There are rules.

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  8. #5
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    Re: When the Lions Almost Became Bulldogs

    I have a copy of that too somewhere in my garage. I received from a good friend of Weirgard..the Fitzroy President. Very enlightening.

  9. #6
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    Re: When the Lions Almost Became Bulldogs

    There are so many outright lies in that document not to mention some of the lousy assessments leading to ridiculous assumption based predictions of what would happen.

    Football. It's full of professional footballers that can't kick and professional administrators who are so clueless they couldn't organise a root in a brothel with a fist full of fifty dollar bills shoved down the front of their jocks.
    AFLW Premiers 2018




    After speaking to Obie for about fourty-five minutes on the telephone we
    Finally arrived at the truth of the matter and said that we had to go down
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    Now friends, there was only one or two things that Obie coulda done at
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    Which is what we expected, but when we got to the police officer's station
    There was a third possibility that we hadn't even counted upon, and we was
    Both immediately arrested. Handcuffed. And I said "Obie, I don't think I
    Can pick up the garbage with these handcuffs on. " He said, "Shut up, kid.
    Get in the back of the patrol car. "




    Arlo Guthrie

    WOOF NUMBER 6

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