The SportingJournal

Pride of the Lions

Fitzroy 1905 Team Photo Source: Picture Victoria

There’s something about the Brisbane Lions.  In their last three outings they have beaten flag fancies the West Coast Eagles, pushed Hawthorn for a half and then travelled to an icy Melbourne to rout the Bulldogs.

The Lions started the match rank outsiders, but we should have known better.

This game was the prelude to the Brisbane Lions inaugural hall of fame.  The team ran onto Etihad Stadium in a guernsey worn with pride by Fitzroy many moons ago.  Word is Johnathan Brown made mention of all of this before the match as he implored his young brigade to leave nothing in the rooms this day.  Who could imagine facing the greats of the Brisbane Bears, Brisbane Lions and Fitzroy having done anything less?  Moreover, who could imagine facing Brown after the game?  They did it for the old heroes watching on in the stands.  They did it for Brown.  They did it for themselves.  They announced themselves.  At the final siren the margin would be 58 points, they earned the right to belt out the song afterwards.  Like Fitzroy and Bears of old.

We must forget that Michael Voss is coach of this team, that Simon Black and Brown are still on the field, fighting with pride for this club. We must forget the canny recruiting that has won the Lions a formidable crew of youngsters.

It’s not in the D.N.A. of Voss, Black and Brown, and apparently not in the script of this club to dwell at the bottom for long.  Many had written this mob off only weeks ago after a horror start to the year and a miserable few seasons.  Voss had to go, he was hopeless.  Already dawn seems to have come for this group.  Expect big things.  The match on Saturday afternoon was about the future, the evening that follows will be about the past.  Brown and the his team can hold their head high when they enter the Hall of Fame function, they can look the greats in the eye.  Some of those greats would have been in the stands, adding voice to the cry of Fitzroy that rung out in the final term.  They will be eager to shake the hands of the boys who did their jumper, their clubs and their history proud.

Looking back as we do at such a time, it is worth noting that we are approaching an anniversary of sorts.  July 4th, 1996 is the date the Brisbane Bears and the Fitzroy Lions merged.  Sure they played out the rest of that year as the Bears and the Lions, Fitzroy waved goodbye to their fans at the MCG on August 25 and shamefully ceased to be over in Perth against Freo, but for many their footy clubs died that day in July.

Living through the final years of the Fitzroy Football Club was heart-wrenching, it was a slow and painful demise.  It was something close to me, particularly:  I barracked for them for a while, before I disgraced myself and switched alliances.  Still, Dad and a footy-mad brother followed the Lions so I saw more Fitzroy games than any other team as a child.  We travelled up to Princes Park, then out to the Western (Whitten) Oval to watch them.  They usually lost.

When they were gone, fans were left with memories, broken hearts and a decision to make: to follow the Brisbane Lions, pack in following the AFL altogether, or find someone else.  I know of people who started following North Melbourne at the end of 1996.  Oh, my.

The Bears were never really given a chance.  They were a basket case, slapped together by the VFL haphazardly.  They were only just starting to forge an identity by 1996.  Three premierships at the turn of this century have probably dulled the ache for fans of the merged teams who stayed with the new entity.

Fans of the Lions particularly hurt for a good while after the merge.  Many memories of their club are sad ones.  Who could forget the thumpings, the shame and the embarrassment?  This was such a proud club.  Who could forget the dismantling of a merger with North Melbourne, agreed to by both the Kangaroos and the Lions, but voted down by the other clubs?  Who could forget Ross Oakley and Noel Gordon on the night of July 4, 1996 sat at a press conference all Cheshire smiles having just killed off a club with 99 years of history?  For me these are stone etched memories, still raw and painful at times and they weren’t even ‘my’ team.  But these memories are too many, and a waste of energy now.

As a tribute to the Fitzroy Lions, on their Hall of Fame and anniversary, I want to share two of my better memories.

Round 1 1993 was a late March afternoon, the sun bathed Princes Park and I was treated to a stirring comeback.  The Carlton fans were into us, cocky and full of pride all afternoon.  My father asked one of them how it felt to follow a team who had paid and cheated their way to so many of their premierships.  Not long after this, heavily outnumbered we moved to the north-eastern half forward flank on the opposite side of the ground.  The hopeless, down-beaten Lions were 4 majors adrift at the final turn that day, and got up by a goal.  It was the sweetest of victories for the small but loyal group of Lion faithful lucky enough to have been there that day.  We streamed onto the ground at the final siren, got amongst the players and strode with them down the race and into the rooms.  These were things you could do back then, only 20-odd years ago.  I’d urge anyone to look for footage of this game, as it records the beating heart and soul of a lost club.

The other match-day memory that still brings me a smile was when the Lions rolled the Crows over at Footy Park, Saturday night on the 20th of May in 1995.  Dancin’ Douggie Hawkins starred, outshone only by the mercurial Andrew Jarman and the scale of the upset.  Once again the Lions were down at the final break, this time by 8 points having led much of the night.  This was an improbable victory.  Against the crowd, far from home, towards the end of their fight.  Fitzroy would kick 9 goals to two in the final term.  The images on the television that evening were such that you could have believed it was a grand final win that had just been accomplished.

A little over a year later the ink was drying on the death warrant.  But did those Roy boys ever rouse the heart.

The win a few weeks ago over West Coast was familiar.  It was the sort of win that the Fitzroy fans who kept with the Lions name would have gotten emotional over.  It would have brought back all of those memories.  Johnathan Brown is the greatest Fitzroy player never to have played for that proud old club.  He more than any other seems to carry their past onto the field, this week again he ran out in the famous guernsey  of the club his father represented.

The win over the Doggies was professional, they did everything well.  They looked tough, and played with heart.  This win was as much a nod to the Brisbane Lions circa 2001,2 and 3 as it was to Fitzroy and the Bears.  Lets hope they get to enjoy the night, celebrate the victory and their proud history.  And lets hope the Brisbane Lions powerbrokers have some nostalgia and sense knocked into them by the event to do something about the disgrace of a jumper they’ve been decked out in the last few years.

Nick Ashenden.

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