Fitzroy Reds v University Blacks

The Reds and the Blacks

"From the airport, I purposefully got a taxi into the city so I could get a Brunswick Street tram to the ground."
Brisbane Lions committeeman Mac Tolliday

The old Royboys gathered in the pokey rooms beneath the grandstand at the Brunswick Street oval. The Fitzroy Reds, a club of engineering students and finance industry workers and inner-city eccentrics, were about to run on to the old ground in the maroon and blue. The jumper looked a bit funny on top of the red socks and the red shorts of the Victorian Amateur Football Association club but, then, Fitzroy was a hotch-potch club itself. The Roys were jumbled from the moment they left Brunswick Street after the 1966 season. For 30 years, they wandered and battled, always fighting to stave off the creditors, and always looking for a place to call home. The club eventually receded behind a veil of tears after losing to Fremantle at Subiaco Oval, a few blocks from the Indian Ocean. Then it jumped into a lopsided merger with Brisbane, to play on balmy nights at the Gabba. At least now players in Fitzroy guernseys would be fighting for the ball in Merri Creek mud, with the No.12 tram rattling along behind the goals. It might be D2-section in the Amateurs but, for the first time since the departure from Brunswick Street all those long years ago, the Fitzroy guernsey was coming home.

Big Norm Brown was among the Royboys who reminisced in the belly of the Brunswick Street grandstand. Former wingman Ray Slocum rolled up his sleeves to show his muscles for the photo. Bernie Drury was smiling from ear to ear. Drury played six games in the maroon and blue in 1966. His son Stephen grew up watching the Roys at the Junction Oval, when Garry Wilson scooted around packs and Bernie Quinlan kicked goals from the wing. At 18 years of age, Stephen joined the Reds because he wanted to play at Brunswick Street. Now he was standing in the rooms listening to the stories from the days when his father played at Brunswick Street. The old Royboys talked about the flimsy screen that separated the teams in the rooms. Each team was clearly able to hear the opposition's secrets and lies. After the match, the screen would be folded back and players and officials would mingle over beers. Stephen Drury had to stretch his imagination to picture current league players discussing the match over beers. "Now they'd get fined $10,000 if they did that," he said.

A century ago, the Brunswick Street oval was a suburban colosseum. Ironworkers and bootmakers converged from the factories and lanes to cheer Fitzroy against their hated neighbors from Collingwood and Carlton. A group of larrikins known as the Fitzroy Forties required extra police to be stationed behind the Brunswick Street goals. In 1922, the Roys won their seventh premiership and were considered the most glamorous club in the land. The next year, they defeated Essendon before a record home crowd of 35,000. The club slowly declined in the following decades, but it took until the '50s before football was threatened in Melbourne's first suburb.

By 1954, the British and Irish no longer comprised the largest group of foreign-born residents in Fitzroy. Italians outnumbered them. Greeks, Yugoslavs and Poles were also concentrated in enclaves around the suburb. The football club began to feature Italians and Greeks in the senior side, but the Roys' fortunes dwindled as the population of immigrants grew.

Doctor June Senyard, a Melbourne University historian and former president of the Fitzroy History Society, said that by 1966 the proportion of Australian-born residents in Fitzroy was less than 50 per cent. The suburbs of Collingwood and Richmond were also absorbing large numbers of immigrants, but they were a decade behind Fitzroy. The first suburb was known for its progressiveness. Senyard described Fitzroy in the '60s as "the laboratory of Australia". It had advanced welfare programs and the first legal-aid service. Residents cherished the urban streetscapes and the parklands in the Edinburgh Gardens. In 1966, the Fitzroy Football Club applied for a $400,000 loan for improvements to Brunswick Street. A clergyman campaigned against the improvements because he figured that sport led to gambling. "I think he represented the old view of Fitzroy as the working class who couldn't control themselves," Senyard said. The Fitzroy council was unimpressed when the football club revealed that it planned to build a carpark in the Edinburgh Gardens. The car was the transport of the future, the club argued. The loan was rejected and the club decided to play home games at Princes Park.

The Roys continued to train at Brunswick Street during the late '60s, while pushing for plans to refurbish the ground. Its aim was to improve the facilities and return to playing home matches at Brunswick Street, but a strong Fitzroy residents' group opposed the plans. The residents didn't want football fans traipsing through their suburb and they didn't want money spent on sport. They wanted the ground to be a park. Before the 1970 season, talks between the Fitzroy council and the Fitzroy footy club broke down and the footy club set up a new home across the Yarra River. The Roys began training and playing at the Junction Oval.

During the '70s, distaste for football at Brunswick Street received symbolic support when the grandstand that was next to the main grandstand burned down. In 1982, the walls surrounding the ground were knocked down and, for the first time in Melbourne, a park was created from a former league football ground. Four years later, the Fitzroy Cricket Club departed for Doncaster. The football club tried to develop the oval into a training base but the plan was resisted. In 1992, the Brunswick Street oval was renamed the WT Peterson Community Oval. Peterson had pushed for development of sporting facilities in the suburb, but he was not a close friend of the football club. June Senyard said the decision to name the ground after the former Fitzroy council mayor was the final insult for the Roys. She said the council turned its back on history of national significance when it named the ground after a local councillor. She suggested the ground should be renamed after Haydn Bunton, who danced across Brunswick Street on his way to three Brownlow Medals in the 1930s, or Neil Harvey, the Test batsman who was one of six brothers to play cricket for Fitzroy.

While the oval was off-limits to the Roys, its availability for local sport was fortuitous for the Reds. During the 1980s, the Reds were known as the University Reds and played home matches on Sundays at the Melbourne University oval. In 1991, opposition clubs made it known that they didn't fancy playing on Sundays. The Reds wanted to play at the university oval on Saturdays but the ground was fully booked. Their brother clubs, the Blues and the Blacks, shared the ground on Saturdays. As the Reds were a distant third in the pecking order of the Melbourne University Football Club, they were forced to move on. Reds president Peter Hille proposed a move to Brunswick Street.

Hille first went to Brunswick Street in 1954, when he was six years of age. His uncle took him to see the Roys. Hille continued barracking for the Roys in the '70s when they were at the Junction Oval. In 1978, at 30 years of age, he rediscovered the urge to play football. He ended his retirement by going to University Reds' training with three mates. "We doubled the numbers," he said. Hille kicked hundreds of goals for the Reds until retiring at the age of 44. In his final years of playing, Hille was also president. When opponents revealed their displeasure at playing on Sundays at the university oval, he negotiated the move to Brunswick Street. "Taking the Reds there was a bit like taking friends home," he said.

The club came to regard Brunswick Street as home, but so did four soccer clubs and an American football club. The busy schedule forced the Reds to host the occasional home game away from Fitzroy. Some games were held in East Brunswick, or Clifton Hill, or by the train tracks in Parkville. Sometimes the university oval was available. But the soul of the club came to settle in Fitzroy. The drift from the university took the club away from its base of students and graduates. The Reds now attracted comedians, techno disc jockeys and a sculptor. Justin Doyle, a competition best-and-fairest winner, was a skateboard entrepreneur. AFL commentator Anthony Hudson played for the Reds around this time. The change in personnel earned the attention of the Melbourne University Sports Union, the umbrella organisation for sports that receive university funding. The sports union wanted to know the percentage of students and graduates at the Reds. In late 1997, the Reds tired of overstating their proportion of university people and shed their links with the Parkville campus. The decision cost them $10,000 in funding but it attracted more recruits with no university links. Many players were artists or professionals or country exiles looking for a club in the inner city. After shedding the university link, the first step in the new direction was a new name. Fitzroy Reds was the obvious choice.

The Fitzroy identity was strengthened by adopting the Royboys' guernsey, but soon after this decision the club was forced to move from Brunswick Street because of renovations to the oval. The Reds wore the Fitzroy guernsey but they played at Ramsden Street in Clifton Hill, on the western bank of the Merri Creek. Before the 2000 season, the Brunswick Street renovations were completed and the club returned to the oval. The first match would be at home to University Blacks, the former brother club. It would be the first match in which the Roys' guernsey would be worn on its rightful patch since 1966. A ceremony was surely in order.

Reds president Chris Tehan and Fitzroy Football Club members set to work. Fitzroy had ended their AFL days with a small kitty from gaming machines in the club hotel in Northcote. The football club continues to operate, with a membership of 1200, and the money is put towards promoting football in the northern suburbs. For the 2000 season, the Roys sponsored Coburg in the VFL, the Reds in the Amateurs, and Fitzroy Juniors in the Yarra league. Representatives of the three clubs would be invited to the ceremony. A Brisbane Lions representative would also be invited, while the special guests would be the players from 1966, the last Royboys to wear the old guernsey at Brunswick Street.

In the lead-up to the match, Fitzroy Football Club secretary Bill Atherton approached the Yarra City Council, which had replaced the Fitzroy council in the early '90s. He asked for funding for new goalposts. Atherton and Chris Tehan erected the goalposts on a Saturday morning in March before stepping back to admire their handiwork. "This football ground is coming back to life," Atherton said. Two days before the match, the Fitzroy Football Club held its 115th annual general meeting in the bowling club behind the Brunswick Street grandstand. All members were encouraged to get along to the Reds' match.

Chris Tehan welcomed the guests into the pavilion by the grandstand. The president had made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure a smooth ceremony: he'd pulled out of the first match of the season. "Duty calls," said the dogged defender. His reserves side chugged away under a murky April sky. Behind the pavilion, tennis players traded forehands and backhands on the red courts that spread beneath the canopy of trees in the Edinburgh Gardens. Vice-chairperson Elaine Findlay was the guest of honor for Fitzroy. Coburg president Robert Evans represented the VFL Lions; Mac Tolliday was from the Brisbane Lions. Tolliday was a lifelong Fitzroy supporter and a member of the Amateurs executive before he left Melbourne for Brisbane in the late '60s. Now he was back at Brunswick Street as a Brisbane committeeman. "From the airport, I purposefully got a taxi into the city so I could get a Brunswick Street tram to the ground," he said. "I haven't caught one for 30 years. It was wonderful."

Chris Tehan also welcomed leading Reds such as Ben Pickett, who was captain of the 1995 premiership side before taking an agriculture job in Yarrawonga. The heartiest welcome was reserved for the nine former Fitzroy players. Most of them were wearing the maroon and blue at the last game at Brunswick Street in 1966. The Roys lost the match to St Kilda by 84 points. The ceremony was suitably humble.

Over a buffet lunch of meat and vegies, Fitzroy board member Colin Hobbs established the truth about the most memorable incident from the match against St Kilda. Hobbs was a teenage wingman and provocateur when, according to a newspaper story before this ceremony, imposing St Kilda ruckman Carl Ditterich took a swing at him, missed, and hit centreman Daryl Peoples. Hobbs said he backed into Ditterich and trod on his toe. Ditterich grunted threats and shoved Hobbs out of his way. The wingman replied by elbowing the blond Saint in the stomach and commenting on his German heritage. "One was impetuous at 19," he said.

When play resumed, Ditterich cursed and steamed and took out the first player in his path, who happened to be Daryl Peoples. Ditterich was reported and suspended for four matches, denying him a place in St Kilda's only premiership side. "I had a capacity to aggravate," Hobbs said.

Ditterich said during a phone interview from his home in Swan Hill that he remembered little about the incident. "It was a long time ago." But he did recall that Daryl Peoples was the Fitzroy player in his path, and he believed he shouldn't have been reported. "It was a fair bump," he said.

The old Royboys finished their lunch and filed into the dressing-rooms in the belly of the grandstand for the unveiling of the plaques. About 50 guests squeezed into a space that was barely bigger than a Toorak en suite. Light filtered through the thin windows that separate the roof and the brick walls. Chris Tehan invited Bill Stephen to step forward. Stephen was born in Freeman Street, which runs along the southern wing of the Brunswick Street oval. His Fitzroy career began in 1947, when league clubs still had a handful of players who grew up within roaring distance of their ground. He played 162 games for Fitzroy, always in a back pocket. He coached the club in three stints for a tally of 11 years. He also coached Yarrawonga and Essendon. On his 72nd birthday, Stephen spoke of dedicating his life to Fitzroy, the club of his heart. "It was a tragedy - and a travesty of justice - that Fitzroy was eliminated from the league," he said. He made sure that everyone knew he believed the club was eliminated.

The small man with the neat crop of silvery hair peeled off the sheet to reveal an elegant plaque listing the first Fitzroy side and the last Fitzroy side to play at Brunswick Street. The first game was in April 1884, just before trams began rattling past the ground. The Roys kicked no goals and 14 behinds to defeat Richmond Union. The last match was in August 1966, when St Kilda kicked 17 goals and the Roys kicked five. The Fitzroy side for the last game featured Stephen as coach and Norm Brown in the ruck, but few other household names. Only four players topped 100 games. Stephen nodded his head and accepted the applause. The mood in the small, dark room was respectful, even wistful. There was none of the backslapping that accompanies most football ceremonies.

Chris Tehan then revealed the Reds' honor board, which listed the officials and the award-winners in the two years since the club had entered the Fitzroy family. The golden names floated at the top of the board, leaving plenty of room for additions in the decades to come. The boards of the Roys and the Reds hung side by side, one representing a storied past, the other a link with the future. D2-section in the Amateurs is a far cry from league football, but not a galaxy away. All football clubs are underpinned by the desire to have a kick and to belong. It's just that some clubs are more intense than others. Tehan received warm applause as he stepped down from the bench that stretched along the brick wall.

Stephen Drury listened to tales of the partition and the dark years of decline. He looked on as his father joined the old Royboys for the photos. Bill Stephen was in the middle and big Norm Brown held up one end. Ray Slocum laughed and tried to push out his modest biceps while folding his arms. After the photos, the Royboys headed into the light. Maroon and blue streamers swished from the iron lace at the front of the grandstand.

The Reds captain led his side on to the cherished turf under moody skies. A Fitzroy guernsey with a yellow No.33 was draped from his angular frame. After barracking for Fitzroy all his life, Stephen Drury was now entwined in the club's history, in a modest kind of way. "It means everything to me," he said. The Reds took their positions feeling 10 feet tall. Several were playing with the Reds because they liked the ground. Now, in their Fitzroy guernseys, they were guardians of the ground. The visitors wore the traditional guernsey of Melbourne University: black with a blue "V".

The Reds opened the match strongly. Patrick Jackson, the midfielder with frightening sideburns, bullocked his way from pack to pack and Todd Clarke, who had his sideburns shaved off for the big day, was yappy in defence. Up forward, Paddy Haephy provided a target after returning from two years in Warrnambool, his home town, and two years in Queensland, where he mustered cattle. His helicopter kicks suggested he mustered from the air. Haephy's kicking drew good-natured derision from the Reds crowd. Former captain Greg Cook was among the leading culprits. I knew Cook from university. His morning had been spent sitting yet another exam in medical research. Going to the footy proved a worthy way to relieve his stress and the former full-back had plenty of advice for his old teammates.

Most Reds spectators were more interested in the full-forward at the other end. Tony Wilson was playing his first game for a few years. As a teenager, Wilson was drafted by Hawthorn but after four years at the Glenferrie Oval, plus a few more at Prahran and Preston, he became distracted by fame. He won Race Around the World, the ABC travel competition for film-making novices that was almost too groovy for words. He then went on to host public radio shows, write lively features for The Age and settle into the life of a media man about town. But after a couple of years of wine and song, he disliked his flabby tummy. At 27 years of age, he put distractions aside and his goggles on and lined up for the Blacks. He wore goggles because he has a wrinkled cornea. He played with the Blacks to maintain family links. His brother Ned was his fellow key forward. Their father Ray, a Blacks premiership captain, watched from the sidelines. The Wilson brothers, with Tony conspicuous in his chunky eyewear, helped turn the match the Blacks' way in the second quarter. Ruckman Michael Laffy, the former Richmond player, and coach Kane Bowden, the brother of Richmond midfielder Joel, drove the ball forward and the Wilson brothers plucked it from the air.

Ray Wilson was smiling proudly. Not only were his sons thriving in their first game together, but he was able to relive his glory days. Ray Wilson was captain of the Blacks' A-section premiership side in 1965. The next year he joined Hawthorn and, in his only match on the Brunswick Street oval, scored three Brownlow Medal votes. At the end of the year, he won the Hawthorn best-and-fairest. His opponents during the match at Brunswick Street included fellow former Northcote High students. A particular memory of the match was the punishing treatment from John Benison. Wilson smiled and said Benison was the toughest player he came up against. He turned around to see Benison laughing in front of the grandstand.

Benison was telling yarns with the former Royboys. John Hayes, the Fitzroy captain in 1966, said rivals turned up their noses at the Merri Creek mud. "They said it stank, but we couldn't smell it." The former defender pointed across the ground to the terrace houses in Freeman Street. He recalled spectators watching from the balconies.

Elaine Findlay was watching the match just along from the old Royboys. In 1985, Findlay capped a lifetime of devotion to Fitzroy when she became the first woman to be elected on to a league board of directors. Back at Brunswick Street, she recalled jostling through the turnstile behind the grandstand in the '50s. It was a lively era for the Roys. In 1958, they lost the first semi-final to North Melbourne by four points. In 1960, they lost the preliminary final to Collingwood by five points. Butch Gale was throwing his weight around in the ruck and Tony Ongarello was taking the ball from the sky. Ongarello's problem was kicking for goal. In his exasperation, he became the last league forward to resort to place kicks. Findlay recalled the color and verve of Brunswick Street. Her friend Pauline Morant, who in the '80s became the first woman to join the Gold Lions coterie group, recalled standing behind the Brunswick Street goals when a menacing drunk tottered forward. Morant hit him with her umbrella, which drew the attention of the drunk's wife. The Brunswick Street end had never been a place for faint hearts. Morant feared retribution, but she needn't have worried. "The wife came along and said, 'Don't hit him with your umbrella, hit him with your fists'." Morant's boyfriend was so impressed with her gallantry that he proposed that evening.

The stories continued to flow as the match struggled on. In windy conditions, the margin was never more than three goals. Stephen Drury, the key defender and stockbroking assistant, rose to the challenge of matching Tony Wilson, the revived forward and media star. Drury and midfielders Patrick Jackson and Simon Greenwood dragged the Reds into the game, providing a chance of victory over the former brother club.

Some supporters would never have believed that the two clubs were playing each other. By the time the Reds began their humble existence as University Reds in 1955, the Blacks had won nine A-section premierships. The Blacks were renowned for producing the Cordner brothers, who represented all that was good and noble about Amateur football before taking those values to Melbourne. In 1946, Don Cordner became the only footballer to win the Brownlow Medal as an amateur. Two years later, Denis Cordner was rushed into Melbourne's grand final side a fortnight after being captain in the Blacks' premiership side. He played at centre half-back in the tie against Essendon and in the replay, which Melbourne won. The Cordners remain the first family of Amateur football. The Blacks, with 11 A-section premierships, remain the most successful club in Amateur football. They won their last A-section flag in 1974, when the Costello brothers were at their peak. Six Costello brothers played for the Blacks. In the '80s, they watched their club become a B-section club. In the '90s, the Blacks plummeted through the grades until they faced the ignominy of shaping up against the Reds.

The university fraternity always considered the Reds a bunch of ratbags. The club made the E-section finals in its first four years. The lifeblood of this side was Mark Marsden, who in 1956 kicked 100 goals and organised the Olympic torch relay. But the club was known for eccentric parties more than sporting prowess. "The Reds have always had an equal commitment to off-field enjoyment and on-field success," said Peter Hille. In 1981, the Reds lost the E-section grand final to North Brunswick. They lasted one season in the giddy heights of D-section before being relegated. In 1995, the Reds won the E-section premiership but, again, were relegated after one season. A few years later, the grading system was updated. D-section became D1, while E-section became D2, and so on. The change was made because footballers prefer to say they play in D4-section rather than G-grade. Whatever the Reds thought about the grading system, it surprised them as much as anyone when they became foes of the mighty Blacks.

In 1998, the Rouge et Noir Cup was struck to commemorate matches between the clubs. The cup was named after the flamboyant 1836 novel Le Rouge et Le Noir, by French writer Stendhal. Only in the Amateurs could football and French literature be mentioned in the same sentence. The Reds threw themselves into every contest in this match against the Blacks in an effort to keep the treasured cup. With minutes to go, Steve Drury smothered a kick and the ball was whisked away to give the Reds the lead. The Blacks then replied. The final minute was a desperate scramble, befitting a contest between warring brothers, before the siren went with the visitors five points ahead. The thoroughbreds with the Cordner pedigree had defeated the brumbies from Brunswick Street. Players and supporters gathered in front of the grandstand for the presentation.

As the Blacks received the cup, Reds defender Ricky Johnstone was in Sicily preparing to give a talk at a conference on cancer research. His engagement by the Mediterranean Sea put him in two minds. He was proud to be contributing to the international community of medical research, but he was distraught that he was unable to play at Brunswick Street in the match that celebrated the return of the Fitzroy guernsey. Ricky and I studied science together at university. We had opposing views on the merits of test tubes and petri dishes, but we bonded instantly over footy. I once joined him for a season in the Amateurs at Preston Marist Brothers Old Boys, where the dressing-room offered a parade of tattoos. Going to the showers was like stepping into a cartoon show. The club folded the next year and Ricky joined the Reds while I returned to St Bernard's. I lived around the corner from the Brunswick Street oval and sometimes trained with the Reds because it was convenient. If I were more honest, I would admit it was because I loved the ground.

The Brunswick Street oval is among my favorite stretches of turf in Melbourne. I often enjoyed a kick with mates on its lush surface. When going for a run, I always included a lap around its perimeter. The ground offered respite from the tight rows of terrace houses. It also offered a sense of history that I was only beginning to associate with my own city. I grew up in East Keilor, a suburb where nothing was old and the only constructions of note were the parish church and the local pool. At Brunswick Street, there was iron lace on a grandstand that watched over the turf on which Haydn Bunton, Chicken Smallhorn and Dinny Ryan earned five Brownlow Medals in six years. There was the familiarity of football, the only aspect of life I knew in any depth, and the grandeur of iron lace and Brownlow Medals. It was a heady combination for a boy from the suburbs.

My regret is that I never played a game on Brunswick Street. The ground has an allure than can be known only to footballers who spend childhood with stars in their eyes and adulthood trying to get a kick as best they can. Playing at Brunswick Street offers a small link with the big time; it offers a small link with childhood dreams. The Reds felt like keepers of the flame in their Fitzroy guernseys. Stephen Drury felt like he was receiving the premiership cup during the first round of the season. Ricky Johnstone was crying into his lecture notes in faraway Sicily. Those who renamed the Brunswick Street oval after a former mayor never knew such feelings. The ground should be called the Haydn Bunton Oval or the Chicken Smallhorn Recreation Reserve. Maybe it should be the Tony Ongarello Place Kick Park. Whatever the name, it should reflect the familiar and the grand. I doubt that any footballer would argue with that.

The presentation concluded as streamers and balloons swished and bobbed from the iron lace on the grandstand. The University Blacks clutched the Rouge et Noir Cup as the crowd drifted across the turf towards another fine Fitzroy landmark, the Lord Newry Hotel. The No.12 tram clanked along behind the Brunswick Street goals.

The Blacks won the D2 premiership but the Reds finished a distant last and were relegated. Midfielder Peter Caccaviello won the Blacks' best-and-fairest. Tony Wilson discarded his goggles mid-season after an opponent stepped on them. He went on to kick 63 goals and lead the Blacks' goalkicking. Stephen Drury and rover Steve Addicott shared the Reds' best-and-fairest. Ricky Johnstone returned from Sicily and became a rock in defence. During the season, the Reds established a Hall of Fame to provide a link between the club's university years and its reinvention in Fitzroy. Financial problems forced Coburg to drop the link with the Fitzroy Football Club and align with Richmond.