Someone in the AFL in 1996 must have been obsessed with the idea of wholesale dispensing of history by brokering unions, takeovers and mergers of Melbourne clubs, presumably to ease the load in supporting loss making teams in Sydney and Brisbane where the bid was to grow the national game in hostile markets was going pear shaped. South Melbourne had long been sent North. Before the merger proposition for Melbourne and Hawthorn that year , the Fitzroy and Brisbane clubs had been merged by the directive of the AFL commission to become the Brisbane Lions on 1 November. The AFL had kiboshed a club lead proposal to bring together North Melbourne and Fitzroy that would retain a Melbourne connection for the Roy Boys. Once however, the ‘Roys major creditor – the Government of Nahru, who lacked the inner suburban cultural connections and themselves under pressure from a world wide guano downturn, called in their debt with bankruptcy proceedings, the clubs fate was out of their hands.
Why the proposal? Off field the Demons were strong, but on the ground an essential basket case since their last flag in the black and white era of 1964. Stuck at Junction Oval during pre-season and kicked off the MCG for six months of the year due to cricket. The Hawks had been the on field benchmark in the 70’s and 80’s who’d waned during the ’90s. Despite their success, a $1.7m debt threatening to send them into Government of Nahru territory however they brought to the table a success ethos along with a home base and social club at Glenferrie Oval, assets sorely lacking by the Melbourne blue bloods.
The market view was that Hawthorn and Melbourne would merge to become the Melbourne Hawks. With the vote by both clubs members on the fate of the merger to take place two weeks after the season concluded, the narrative for the final home and away game of 1996 could not have been scripted. To add to the drama, the Hawks were just outside the eight and had to win to keep their final’s hopes alive with a place there contingent on North overcoming Richmond the next day. Hawk full forward Jason Dunstall started the game with 90 goals for the season.
We headed to the G that glorious warm August night wondering if this was the last time ever. From a distance, smoke seemed to pour upwards from the giant club like an early funeral pyre laying to rest the spirit of these great clubs. 63,000 people however require the chip fryers at full tilt and at that time you could puff on as many gaspers as you liked once inside the ground. Many were chain smoking. My own PJ’s got a workout. Outside, petitions were to be signed, posters to be raised, chants to be joined and speeches to be cheered. Not much different inside. Yet the atmosphere was more Russia 1917 than AFL match day 1996. Prominent Demon star Brian Dixon conducted a series of speeches at half time around the ground that punctuated the little league with cheers, boos and shouting. The famed Hawk “No Merger” posters pixellated the crowd scene. “Peace Bread Land” morphed into No Merger! Prior to the game Hawk “Operation Payback” leader and Hawk legend Don Scott held a rally at Glenferrie.
The game was close. Intense. Beyond routine. Dunstall kicked an astonishing 10 goals, the last bringing up his ton for the season and a massive crowd invasion that delayed the final quarter for 6 minutes. The Hawks hung on by a point, their potential stint on death row extended for a further week. Chris Langford Hawthorn’s full back, future AFL commissioner and father of present Hawk Will Langford, took off his Hawthorn jumper and proudly held it above his head as the Hawks left the field.
When the Kanga’s won we were off to Sydney the following week on the Greyhound for the elimination final. Burger with the lot at 2am at that crazy edelweiss themed servo somewhere out of Albury followed by witching hour instant coffee at West Wyalong. When we kicked our first goal, I was up on my feet before sensing the silence around me. A hundred yards away on some distant terrace I was mirrored in one of the other few Hawks supporters there that night. Dunstall’s knee collapsed on him in the third quarter and our hopes snapped with that ligament. Had we now seen that last fateful game?
Like bees round your orchard, I’d gorged free at the buffet of the “all you can eat” Hawk successes of the 1970?s and 80?s. I became, and remain a member that year, purely so I could vote down that merger proposition via proxy when the proposition was finally put to members. On the day of the vote I – like most members – took 3 calls from various factions of the club seeking to influence my proxy.
The votes at both clubs were held on the same night. Over at the Demon’s members meeting, they voted FOR the merger. At Hawthorn, Scotty held up a of knock off of the proposed Melbourne Hawks jumper ripping off a Velcro hawk and yellow V-neck to reveal a Melbourne jumper underneath with the immortal words: “What have you got? A velcro Hawk and a Melbourne guernsey!”. The merger was killed at that moment for no-one had so succinctly surmised that final ending of identity and culture that merger would bring. Scott’s role in galvanlsing opposition and reminding the club the debt we all – fans, players and administrators – owed the club, was primary. He had two careers at Hawthorn, one that celebrated his on field leadership in 3 flags in 71, 76 and 78; the other off field during these most difficult days that ultimately lead to rebuilding and success again in 2008 and 2013 for which he can rightly claim foundation credit.
One of the Melbourne players the night of that fateful game was Alistair Clarkson, now Hawk coach.
The pro merger protagonists within both clubs had even come up with a song for the hybrid club – a pastiche of existing club ditties that never echoed a victorious club rooms:
We’re the mighty Melbourne Hawks
We play each game and we play to win
Watch us, we play with a grin
Every heart beats true, for the gold red and blue
As we sing this song for you (Whadda we sing – presumably!)
One for all and all for one
Two will make you stronger
Keep your eye on the mighty Melbourne Hawks
Hawthorn 3.5 10.6 12.10 15.12 (102)
Melbourne 5.4 7.6 12.8 15.11 (101)