Angry Hawk fans at Camberwell Civic Centre for the merger meeting in September 1996.
Angry Hawk fans at Camberwell Civic Centre for the merger meeting in September 1996.

The footy mergers that almost happened

WHEN the beleaguered Fitzroy Lions merged with the Brisbane Bears in 1996, it put to rest 10 years of rumoured mergers between Fitzroy and several other clubs.

Some gained the notoriety of the Fitzroy-North Melbourne proposal, which was famously rejected due to fears it would produce a powerhouse Victorian club.

But Fitzroy wasn't the only club to consider merger proposals over the years.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Hawthorn, North Melbourne, St Kilda, and Footscray battled economic uncertainty that threatened their viability.

This saw a revolving cycle of merger rumours circulate, leaving us with a series of sliding doors moments that could have altered the future of the VFL/AFL.

Some mergers progressed far enough to see amalgamated club names trademarked or jumper designs mocked up, while others were borne of outspoken club officials with a pipe dream.

Foostcray fans protest the merger. Bulldog fans felt their club was being hijacked by the inner-city silverspooners.
Foostcray fans protest the merger. Bulldog fans felt their club was being hijacked by the inner-city silverspooners.

1989 - Footscray and Fitzroy

THE PERFECT MATCH: The Bulldogs had battled financially since the 1980s given its traditionally working class location and decrepit facilities making them an a unappealing prospect for sponsors. Declining performances on the field compounded their dire financial straits, making a merger with another club the most obvious solution.

HOW CLOSE DID IT GET: The merger was all but set in stone when it was announced to the public on October 3, 1989. Footscray had terminated their VFL license the same day and a deal had been made pertaining to club colours, club name, home ground, and training facilities.

The front page of The Sun on October 4, 1989.
The front page of The Sun on October 4, 1989.

 

WHAT STOPPED IT: The deal ultimately fell through after Footscray fans channelled their dissatisfaction with the proposed merger into both launching legal action and a fundraising drive that saw over $2 million raised to prove Footscray's viability. A narrative of class warfare had been constructed by the working class Footscray fans, who felt their club was being hijacked by the inner-city silverspooners from Fitzroy. Led by prominent lawyer Peter Gordon (later to become president), Footscray members took the matter to the Supreme Court of Victoria where they won a stay in proceedings against the merger. Grassroots fundraising and fan-solicited commercial sponsorship deals generated enough money to renew Footscray's VFL license. Fitzroy supporters were in favour of any deal that saw their future in Melbourne secured, and thus did not protest the merger to the same extent as Footscray.

 

1994 - Melbourne and Fitzroy

THE PERFECT MATCH: This potential merger has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by both the eventual Fitzroy-Brisbane merger, and the oft romanticised North Melbourne-Fitzroy merger. The Presidents of both Fitzroy and Melbourne presented their proposal for a merger to the AFL commission in August 1994, a deal that would see Melbourne take on Fitzroy's $2.6 million debt. Melbourne's healthy financial status meant that it could make such a charitable move.

A Herald Sun mock up of a potential Melbourne Lions jumper.
A Herald Sun mock up of a potential Melbourne Lions jumper.

HOW CLOSE DID IT GET: Rumours ran rampant in the press in August 1994, as reporters discovered that an official amalgamated club name had been registered. To be known as the Melbourne Lions, the merged entity was eligible to begin operating on the 5th October 1994 - four days after the grand final. Most tellingly, the AFL instructed its official guernsey manufacturer to slow down production of both Melbourne and Fitzroy guernseys, leading the Herald Sun to mock up a Melbourne Lions guernsey featuring elements from both designs.

WHAT STOPPED IT: Melbourne held the upper hand, and were unwilling to give up elements of their identity to a club that didn't bring much to the table. Fitzroy had no money, no training facilities, a small fan base, and a huge debt. Ultimately, it was the inability of both clubs to agree on a club name and colours that brought the deal to a screeching halt.

 

1996 - North Melbourne and Fitzroy

THE PERFECT MATCH: It could have been a romantic story for the ages - two struggling inner-city Melbourne football clubs uniting to become a Victorian powerhouse. Both clubs were geographically flanked by the powerhouses of Collingwood and Carlton, whose supporter bases dwarfed those of North Melbourne and Fitzroy. A merger between the two would have dramatically changed football in Victoria, a prospect that threatened the other AFL clubs and eventually led to the proposed merger's collapse.

HOW CLOSE DID IT GET: The romanticism of the North-Fitzroy merger is how agonisingly close the deal came to fruition. Nearly every detail had been worked out over a four month negotiation period. A finalised merger agreement was to be signed on the 5th of July 1996, contingent upon approval from the AFL Presidents Meeting held the day before.

A composite North Melbourne and Fitzroy logo.
A composite North Melbourne and Fitzroy logo.

WHAT STOPPED IT: The merger fell at the final hurdle. The AFL Presidents Meeting voted 15-1 against the merger, fearing that the resultant North-Fitzroy club would be too powerful and threaten the other Victorian clubs. Fitzroy was immediately placed into administration, and the administrator accepted a deal to merge with the Brisbane Lions that very afternoon. In one day, the Fitzroy Football Club and ten years of merger rumours were finally put to rest.

 

1996 - Melbourne and Hawthorn

THE PERFECT MATCH: It was a case of opposites attracting: Hawthorn were successful on-field but carried a debt of $1.7 million, while Melbourne were performing poorly yet were in a healthy economic position. The merger also made sense in other respects. Both fanbases were inner-city and middle-class without any traditional rivalry, and it would give Melbourne a place to train in summer when they were unable to use the MCG due to the cricket.

Hawthorn fans holding banners protesting against the merger.
Hawthorn fans holding banners protesting against the merger.

HOW CLOSE DID IT GET: This proposed merger stood strong where previous proposals had faltered aesthetics. A jumper design had been widely circulated featuring the Melbourne colours and a stylised hawk, and a club song combining elements of both the Hawthorn and Melbourne club songs had been recorded. A name and nickname had been finalised - the Melbourne Hawks - and a merged best and fairest award had been named the Crimmins-Truscott Trophy.

Don Scott addressing Hawthorn members at meeting to vote on the merger.
Don Scott addressing Hawthorn members at meeting to vote on the merger.

In theory, the merger was all but set in stone. Poetically, the final round of the 1996 AFL season saw the two teams play against each other in what had the potential to be their last game as stand-alone clubs. Dubbed the "merger game", the game was full of fire and fury as both teams - and their supporters - fought for the final word. Hawthorn emerged victorious by a single solitary point.

Dermott Brereton and Robert DiPierdomenico at the Hawthorn merger meeting.
Dermott Brereton and Robert DiPierdomenico at the Hawthorn merger meeting.

WHAT STOPPED IT: Supporters from both teams formed campaigns opposing the merger, with Hawthorn's protest led by club great Don Scott. Both clubs held meetings where their membership voted on the proposed merger. Hawthorn overwhelmingly voted against the merger, while Melbourne voted marginally in favour. And with that, the Melbourne Hawks ceased to exist. It's just a shame that no one got to sing the proposed team song.



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