One of the Victorian Football League (VFL)/AFL founding clubs, Fitzroy Football Club was formed in 1883. Known for most of their lives as ‘the Lions’, the club struggled to survive through the 80s and 90s. The lion mascot was meant to reflect the ‘never say die’ spirit of the club – a spirit that was squashed in 1996 when the club met an untimely end.
The club started its life at a meeting at the Brunswick Hotel on 26 September 1883. At the time, Melbourne’s population was on the rise. The team played in the maroon and blue colours of the local Normanby Junior Football Club, giving them the name ‘the Maroons’.
In 1897, Fitzroy broke away from the VFA to form the VFL – one of eight clubs to do so – winning the premiership the following year. In the first ten years of the VFL, it became the most successful club, winning four premierships and finishing as runners-up on three occasions. For a while, its success led to its nickname at the time – the ‘Unbeatables’.
The club’s luck started to change in 1916 when World War I led to player shortages that heavily impacted all participating clubs. In 1922, they won their seventh premiership, and from 1925 to 1942, they didn’t make the finals at all. During this time, the Maroons became known as the Gorillas, which then became known as the Lions in 1957.
By the mid 1960s, the Brunswick Street Oval (Fitzroy’s traditional home ground) was in desperate need of upkeep and repair. The oval’s groundkeeper was the Fitzroy Cricket Club, which the Fitzroy Football Club had to pay to use. Despite pressure from the Lions and other VFL clubs, the Cricket Club refused to make the necessary upgrades. The Fitzroy Football Club went to Fitzroy City Council asking for a $400,000 loan and 40-year lease so they could make repairs – but the Council refused. The football club kept putting forward ideas, including the amalgamation of the football and cricket clubs to create a club like the Carlton Social Club. The Cricket Club rejected the idea, so the club appealed to Preston Council for a 40-year lease of the Preston City Oval. This appeal was also refused.
After a chaotic 1985 and moving training grounds multiple times, the club was experiencing considerable financial difficulty and, in 1987, left Victoria Park for Carlton’s Princes Park. Financial matters were so dire that the players and most of the board voted for the club to relocate to Brisbane. After a failed merger with Footscray in 1989, a successful ‘Save the Lions’ appeal in 1991 and their last ever appearance in a VFL/AFL Grand Final in 1992, the club was on its last legs.
After 100 years of competing, Fitzroy said goodbye to the city of Melbourne in 1996 in front of 48,884 people. They lost to Richmond by 151 points – this day has been called by many the ‘saddest day in 100 years of AFL football’. A week later, on 1 September 1996, they had their last (and 1928th) match in the VFL/AFL. They left the competition, accompanied by the trembling last notes of a lone singer singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Pictured is Fitzroy Football Club by Charles Edward Boyles, 1920