In 1986, Paul Roos played in Fitzroy’s last finals series after a bombshell changed the course of its season and led to two memorable finals.
The Lions were sitting outside the top five after Round 16, 1986, and looked unlikely to feature in that year’s finals series.
But seven weeks out from the 1986 finals series, a bombshell was dropped on the playing group by the president at the time, Roos recalled.
“Our president, Leon Wiegard, came into a training session on a Sunday morning and said ‘we’re gonna sell, we’re gonna relocate, we’re gonna move up north, we’re broke,’ that sort of thing,” he said.
“So the player group voted at that particular time to try to stay together. And over the last six or seven weeks, we won six of our last seven to make the finals, so it sort of galvanised the playing group, which was very close anyway.
“There’s a lot of significant moments through the back end of that season, absolutely.”
The season restarts
Fitzroy may have picked itself up to make the finals of 1986, but there was a big task awaiting it in the elimination final.
Essendon, the back-to-back reigning premiers, was the Lions’ first challenge and were red-hot favourites going into the match. Their run home gave them a world of confidence and excitement when the finals began.
Roos discussed the confidence and energy they carried into a wet and miserable day at Waverley Park.
“I guess there was some sort of excitement and belief in the finals, but we also knew Essendon had a really talented side, so we knew it was going to be difficult,” he said.
“It was a wet and windy day down at Waverley, which suited us a bit more, but again, it doesn’t really matter who you play, you’re just excited to get into the finals.
“That was probably my main recollection because things were looking pretty grim with seven weeks to go, not just from a finals point of view but from a club point of view.
“To play in the finals, and to win the way we did, was probably one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been involved in.”
Conlan’s clutch goal
One of the most memorable moments of the finals series took place in the dying minutes, when Mick Conlan, who had been well held all day, managed to break away from his opponent to kick the winning goal.
Roos was confident in his ability to kick a clutch goal, as Conlan was one of the Lions’ hardest-working players.
“We’d always practice goals from the boundary line, running bounces, handballing the ball along the ground picking it up, and kicking the goal so his work ethic was exceptional,” he said.
“I think I made a tackle in the middle of the ground, got a free-kick but Leon Harris got the advantage so picked it up, and kicked it to Micky, and Micky was like miles free and kicked it from about 25 metres out.
“If you wanted someone to kick it was probably him or a Garry Wilson type or Bernie Quinlan. But Micky worked so hard on his craft that I was pretty confident when he got hold of the ball.”
Underdogs on top of the world
Fitzroy had won an incredible elimination final by a point against the reigning premiers, and had a date set with Sydney at the MCG.
And despite being underdogs yet again, Fitzroy kept the most unbelievable finals run going with a five-point win.
The Lions were on a roll at this point, and it was this confidence that Roos thinks helped kept the ball rolling for another week.
“I think sometimes you just get on a roll and play really good footy; I think on the back of winning six of our last seven, we were obviously playing well,” he said.
“We still went into that final against Essendon as underdogs and we beat them, and they were extremely talented, so you just get confidence as you’re moving through.
“And we were a team that didn’t necessarily need weekends off, we were a team that just seemed to play well week after week after week.
“We had guys like Bernie Quinlan who I think kicked four goals in the last quarter in the game against the Swans. So, we had some really talented players.
“I think we were just really confident going into that game, even though we knew we were coming up against another really talented team in the Sydney Swans.”
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According to Roos, the mental edge of running two favourites close was another factor in the Lions’ back-to-back upset final wins.
“It’s funny because when you are an underdog, you don’t get nervous in close games. It’s more the fact that it’s actually close and you’re excited about it being close,” he said.
“I suspect for Essendon and Sydney being the favourites for one of those games they were probably more grueling games.
“Mentally, if you’re favourite, you want to get a lift, three or four goals, you want to be up with ten minutes to go.
“In a sense, the pressure is on both teams because both teams want to win, but there’s a bit more pressure on the team that’s favourite.
“All games are grueling once you get to finals, but [it was] more that we were just playing good footy, and we were confident in each other at that particular stage.”
A disappointing end
Unfortunately, the fairytale was over the following week when eventual premiers Hawthorn easily dispatched the Lions by 56 points, ending their 1986 season.
That was the last time Fitzroy ever made the finals before merging with the Brisbane Bears in 1996.
35 years on, Roos explains what taking part in that piece of history means to him.
“When I’d went to Sydney and I ended up coaching, I probably had more respect for how difficult it was to be a Fitzroy player… worrying about wherever the club is going to survive, wherever you were going to get paid,” he said.
“Because when you are dealing with it, you don’t really think about it, and when you’re not dealing with it… when you’ve gone to another club you go, ‘hey most of the clubs weren’t dealing with the same things that we were dealing with at Fitzroy,’ but it’s not until you actually leave that that happens.
“[When] I think back on that particular time [I think of a] really close group of players, who really worked hard together.
“As it turned out 86 was the last finals series so it probably means more now than it did in 87, 88, 89, 90, [that] sort of thing.”
1986 may have been Fitzroy’s last finals series, but it wasn’t Roos’.
In part two, Roos recalls his second memorable finals campaign when he talks about how he was there when Sydney made its first grand final in 51 years.
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