The Brisbane Bears came desperately close to a Grand Final in 1996. (Photo: AFL/YouTube)

List manager Scott Clayton was there when the Brisbane Bears won their first and last ever AFL finals in 1996. We speak to the man responsible for putting together one of the great teams of the modern era.

In their short-lived history, the Brisbane Bears only won two AFL finals: both in 1996, their final year.

They entered the soon-to-be AFL competition in 1987 as a brave new venture up north. The AFL had already relocated South Melbourne to Sydney six years prior, but now was the time to make headway in the Sunshine State.

The Bears made finals for the first time in 1995 after languishing at the bottom of the ladder for the majority of their early history. They couldn’t make much of a splash though, going down to Carlton by 13 points at the MCG after getting within a goal at three quarter time.

Next season would see them rocket up into the top four, finishing with a 15-1-6 record, their best ever.

They were a dominant force at at the Gabba, only dropping two games at their home venue for the season.

The man who revitalised the Bears list after some early teething issues was none other than former Fitzroy player Scott Clayton, who would also go on to build the Gold Coast Suns’ inaugural list.

Clayton retired in 1990 after winning Fitzroy’s best and fairest, immediately joining the Bears the year after. It was following in the footsteps of a great man he admired so much that lead him there.

“I went straight [to Brisbane],” Clayton told The Inner Sanctum.

“Robert Walls went there as coach, and I had a strong relationship with him, so that’s where that sort of came from.

“[Sydney list manager] Kinnear [Beatson] was there as well. I was based in Melbourne, then I went and lived in Brisbane for a little bit. When I did that, I employed Kinnear Beatson and started him off. We were both there at the same time for that period.

“He was… running the Western Jets out of the Melbourne Showgrounds, that were in the… now it’s the NAB League.”

With the duo of Clayton and Beatson in recruiting, and Walls as coach, they would go on to oversee a near full scale rebuild of the Brisbane list.

Recruiting hadn’t quite gotten to the level that it’s at nowadays. The open draft was a new concept in a time where zoning selections were rampant.

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The Bears in particular hadn’t yet placed much value in the high draft picks they received as a new side to the competition. While West Coast got off to a flying start, with two flags by 1994, the Bears were still languishing with the AFL’s worst.

“They were old when we got there,” Clayton said.

“They would have the first pick, they would finish last or low. They’d say no to trade pick one or pick two for three pretty ordinary players… and then they’d say yes and throw in a fourth one.

“They got in this cycle that can’t work. At some stage you had to bite it off and go for some youth. That’s what happened.”

And go for youth they did.

The laundry list of talented players that Clayton either traded or drafted in across his time at the Bears nearly goes beyond belief. From Michael Voss to Jason Akermanis to Justin Leppitsch to Nigel Lappin, the youth movement at the Bears was what initially led them to the 1995 Qualifying Final against Carlton.

Despite 10 wins separating the two sides, the Bears gave it a red hot crack. They only went down to the eventual premiers by 13 points.

“That was when first played eighth,” Clayton explained.

“[The result] was a combination of [being] a united club, and Robert Walls. His acceptance that when they were going to win he probably wouldn’t be there.

“He knew he couldn’t coach the oldest team in the comp and be last. You haven’t got any choice. He was selfless. It was exciting, and we were united from the chairman and CEO through to just be bold and make change.”

Craig Lambert led the way with 34 disposals and a goal, while Craig McRae and Roger Merrett kicked two each.

It was that belief that the young Bears could match it with the best that propelled them up in the top four the following season, booking a home final against Essendon at the Gabba.

The game came right down to the wire, the Bears escaping by the skin of their teeth after Brownlow Medallist Gavin Wanganeen hit the post in the dying seconds to hold on by a point.

While the big names all fired, it was former Swan Dion Scott who laid two of his three tackles for the match to keep the ball locked in the Bears’ forward line.

“[I just remember] how big and strong and powerful he was,” Clayton said.

“Didn’t get a go at Sydney… he had a good period. I actually bumped into him a few years ago, he’s still living in Brisbane. He’s from Tassie originally. I think it was at the Story Bridge Hotel and we were both on the way to the footy.”

Justin Leppitsch and Alastair Lynch combined for a massive eight goals between them, leading valiantly from the forward line.

“I played alongside Lynchy [at Fitzroy],” Clayton said.

“That was a huge deal. We did a 10 year deal, it was so much for its time. We really had a good thing going.

“Alan Piper was the president and Andrew Ireland was the CEO and I was in charge of the list. We were prepared to be bold. Lynchy, that was an amazing deal.

“Leppitsch, that was basically my first draft. That actually changed the way that footy team had done stuff. They’d continually traded away their draft picks. When I went there, I was new and I’d never done it before.

“I thought ‘none of them are any good enough, we have to go to the draft for some youth.’ Wallsy backed it 1000 per cent. That was the first draft, there was Leppitsch, [Nigel] Lappin, Chris Scott.

“It’s not a bad draft is it? [Daniel] Bradshaw was a good pick.”

The Bears, riding the swell of momentum from defeating the Bombers, found their revenge against the reigning premiers. They dismantled the Blues to the tune of 97 points in an unprecedented semi final smashing at the Gabba.

It would once again though be the eventual premiers who would end their fairytale, with North Melbourne handing the noble Bears a 38 point loss at the MCG with the help of some Wayne Carey magic.

Just one year later, and the Bears would be the Lions after the Fitzroy merger. 1996 would be the year that the Brisbane Bears won their first, and last, AFL final.

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