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Premier's will be this year? 'Roys' take on season 2021

By Charlie Gill


There are not many football clubs in Australia with a more storied history than Fitzroy. From its eight VFL premierships, to its merger with the Brisbane Bears, to it’s introduction to the VAFA in 2009 – the club is no strangerto change and adversity. While COVID-19 presented its challenges, Fitzroy persevered as it always has.


“The thing that we focused on really quickly was keeping the Fitzroy football community engaged,” says Joan Eddy, in her eleventh year as president. “As well as making sure the players still felt connected to each other.”


The players did gym and pilates classes online. This paid off, according to the seniors men’s coach Luke Mahoney: “The majority are fitter than what they would be during preseason last year.” This enthusiasm proved contagious, with the club having almost 100 more than the average number of players they usually would in January.



Photos supplied by the Fitzroy Football Club

“You don't realise how much you do love it until it's taken away from you,'' says Luke.


This year, both the senior men’s and women’s teams are playing in the second division from the top in their respective competitions. In 2019, the men’s side narrowly avoided relegation by winning its last game of the season.


So where does it hope to finish this year?


Mahoney says he is “certainly not ruling anything out”, citing the team’s younger players ready to blossom: “The really exciting thing about us as a group is that we have a real core of players in the 21 to 23 (years) bracket.”


Those youngsters include Bill and Ted Clayton, Donovan Toohey, Harrison Grace and Jack Hart, amongst others. More experienced players include full back Max Ellis, who has won the last three Best and Fairests. Midfielder Julian Turner – who has played for the ‘Roys’ from the age of 10 – is captaining his fourth season.


As of round seven, the men’s team is sitting third-last on the ladder, though after round five they had the competition’s third-highest percentage. “So we’re still every chance to make finals,” says Joan.


Last week, they played a twilight match under lights on Brunswick Street Oval. They were 15 points down going into the final quarter, but won by three points thanks to a goal after the siren by Donavan Toohey.

 

“You don't realise how much you do love it until it's taken away from you''

 

Meanwhile, this season is Bronte Ryan’s first as coach of the Fitzroy-ACU Women’s team, which began in 2015. It was one of the first VAFA clubs to have one. Joan says “it was welcomed with open arms”.


“Our male players were like, ‘yeah, bring it on, about time’.”


Stars of the women’s team include defenders Lucy Kerr and Jess ‘Lenny’ Hayes, ball-magnet Erin Gogerly and captain Cass Blake.


The pool of players for the team to choose from is growing larger as women’s football becomes increasingly popular.


“More and more people that were kicking footies around with their dads and their brothers at a young age are coming and giving footy a try,” says Bronte.


She cites Rising Star-nominated Ellie McKenzie, who played for the Fitzroy juniors before being drafted to Richmond with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft.


“She's not going to be the only one. Females have their whole pathway ahead of them now. They can play Auskick right up to AFLW with no break.”



As of round 6, the women’s team is also second-last on the ladder – though Joan remains optimistic: “We’ve been in every game and we’ve been close. We just haven’t been able to quite stay the course. So again we just need to win 3 or 4 more and we could make finals.”

Last year allowed the club’s administration to fast track initiatives such as a formal leadership program. “Not just leadership in your playing group, but leadership more broadly – in terms of what culture we want to develop at the club,” Joan says.


The club is also developing a respectful relationships program aimed at “taking on the issues around gender equity and violence against women”.


“Community sporting clubs can be incredibly powerful influencers.”


But such initiatives were compromised by the Yarra Council’s sudden announcement in late March that they were dramatically hiking up ground hire fees, with potential increases of more than 300 percent.


The community clubs were informed on a Friday evening and were told it was going to a council meeting the next Tuesday. “It was not something we could absorb easily in four days. We’re all volunteers.”


The Edinburgh Cricket Club’s programs – such as the one encouraging the participation of immigrants from the Atherton Gardens housing estate – would be unable to continue due to price hikes that were meant, according to the council, to promote “inclusion and diversity”.


The fee increases were reconsidered following widespread outrage. The policy is still up in the air, but Joan is “feeling hopeful we can get it back on track.”


“The community response was extraordinary.” It resulted in a membership boost and greater attendances; more spectators sitting up on the grass slope next to the grandstand.



“We call it “Hipster Hill”. The opening round wasn’t great weather, but we still had seventy people sitting up there.”


Joan, Luke and Bronte are in agreement on what makes the Fitzroy Football Club special. “We are really conscious of how privileged we are to have the legacy and history of this football club. We have to carry that into the future and keep this football club going forever, hopefully, whatever that means,” says Joan.


As Luke puts it, “the unique thing about it is you've got people that come down to barrack for the jumper and the club”.


“I’ve been stopped a couple of times just wearing a Fitzroy shirt out and about,” Bronte says.

 

“We call it “Hipster Hill”. The opening round wasn’t great weather, but we still had seventy people sitting up there.”

 

But can the beauty of running onto Brunswick Street Oval also be a burden? Many of the club’s lifelong supporters can remember watching the Roys play Carlton or Collingwood on the MCG. Is there an extra level of responsibility to honour that legacy?


“I do think it is an added layer,” says Joan. “Our players soon realise what the importance of the Fitzroy jumper is. We get crowds that a lot of other amateur footy clubs could only dream about.”


So what is the club’s trajectory? To be playing at the highest level with its flagship teams? Soon, they will begin community consultations to determine expectations. “As the president, I might say I think we should be aspirational for Premier.”


The Roys have been playing football for nigh on 140 years and don't look like stopping anytime soon. This club we hold so dear has had an eventful history: of glory, turmoil, ecstasy, tragedy – but in many ways, not much has changed. In 2021 a bunch of young men – and now women, too – are running out onto Brunswick Street Oval to play football; the community watching on as it always has.


This Saturday the 29th of May, the men’s team are playing away at Williamstown, while the women’s team is playing a twilight match under lights. Brunswick Street Oval, 4.45 PM.


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