|Pre-VFL||Pre-national competition||The 80s||The 90s||Melbourne Hawks|
The first suggestion of a merger came in 1861 when a motion to amalgamate the Melbourne and Richmond was defeated. In 1899 there were discussions of a merger between Melbourne and the Melbourne University club. It was agreed that there could be a merger but that there could be no change to the club's name or colours, and the plan failed.
In 1915 Melbourne absorbed University, entirely retaining its own identity but ransacking the Students' best players and make a run at the finals for the first time in a decade.
During the Second World War the Demons were linked with Collingwood as both sides had been hit hard with player losses from the conflict.
During the fallout from South Melbourne's proposed move to Sydney during 1981 there were unofficial discussions between Melbourne and North Melbourne officials about a merger. Demon officials had also considered a union with the Swans, but had been rebuffed by South who wanted to retain their identity despite the move to Sydney.
In 1986 serious merger talks were held with Fitzroy. President Stuart Spencer said "There is no point in Melbourne merging with anyone unless it becomes an immediate finals side. That would be the only reason we would consider a merger". Ironically, the week the proposal was revealed to the overwhelming disapproval of players Melbourne beat future finalists Fitzroy by 44 points. Spencer later said the union "it was very close to agreement", but on the eve of a proposal being announced Fitzroy asked for more time to hold a fundraising event to try and survive in their own right.
With the realisation that many of Fitzroy's best players were coming out of contract and might not be available, and letters of protest piling up on the desk of the President, he pulled the pin. The Demons then cancelled talks and the matter never went to a fan vote.
That year the club also had discussions with North Melbourne. The proposal involved Bob Ansett as president and John Kennedy coach of a side wearing the front of North's jumper and the back of Melbourne's, with the club training at Arden Street. The club was to be called Melbourne-North Football Club. The terms were not favourable to Melbourne, and when Ansett refused to compromise on what looked more like a takeover the deal was cancelled.
Talks had also taken place with Richmond. The union seemed sensible given the two clubs were located next door to each other and would be able to use the Punt Road Oval as a training facility. Discussions lasted one meeting, where Richmond suggested the club would either be called Melbourne and play in yellow and black, or Richmond in blue and red. With no common ground to continue discussions, the proposal fizzled out.
In 1992 Melbourne and Richmond officials reportedly engaged in high level talks regarding a merger. Both clubs denied the story and newspapers were forced to retract their story when Richmond's solicitors became involved. In December of that year Melbourne were forced to deny an interest in merging with Fitzroy.
In 1994 outspoken Collingwood president Allan McAlister called for a three-way merger between Richmond, Melbourne and North. In early August it was revealed that the name "Melbourne Lions" had been registered and speculation continued that the Demons would amalgamate with Fitzroy, despite the Lions continually vowing to go it alone. The clubs initially denied that talks had taken place, with President Ian Ridley pointing out that Melbourne's policy was never to seek a merger but to be option to proposals from others. The Lions were also suggesting they only spoke to clubs that approached them, but whoever had initiated talks it was revealed soon after that the AFL warned its guernsey manufacturer to scale back production of the two club's jumpers so there wasn't an oversupply in the event of a merger.
As an inducement for struggling Victorian clubs to unify, the AFL offered financial assistance, fixture and draft concessions, and even underwriting of membership levels and gate receipts to guard against supporter backlash. Any potential union would have to work out the conflict between the clubs being sponsored by rival beer companies. There were also complications with Footscray over Fitzroy's 20 year lease to play at the Western Oval.
When it seemed that the deal was progressing towards a members' vote, the next controversy was over how the club's list would be formed. Fitzroy supported a plan for Melbourne's best 11 and Fitzroy's best 10 players to be ceded to the new club and the rest put up in a draft, with the merged club having two choices per round. The concern from opposition clubs was that Melbourne would replace the bottom eight players on its list with Fitzroy's best eight and instantly become a premiership contender. The Demons favoured retaining as much of their senior list as possible, and threatened to pull out of negotiations if their terms of retaining at least 30 players were not met. On the other hand, they had their eye on Fitzroy's social club, which would provide the same financial injection as a new major sponsor.
Fitzroy was in massive financial trouble but still demanded the club be known as the Fitzroy-Melbourne Football Club. They were preciously short of bargaining chips and couldn't bring financial benefits, a large fanbase or a training ground to the union. The deal was never officially presented to members for approval.
The AFL offered a $6 million incentive for teams to merge in 1995, and St Kilda was expected to go to their members with a proposal for union with the Dees if their 'Save Our Saints' campaign failed. The first signs of a Melbourne-Hawthorn deal were seen in the same, with gambling magnate Lloyd Williams offering to help broker a merger between the sides by proposing a 10 year multi-million dollar sponsorship deal from Crown Casino. The clubs denied they had entered merger talks in May 1995, suggesting that they were not seeking a merger but were happy to listen to offers from others.
With the need to reduce the number of teams in the league so Port Adelaide could enter, 1996 saw the AFL's first mergers. Fitzroy and North Melbourne nearly came together before the ailing Lions were instead sent for a union with the Brisbane Bears.
The Melbourne Hawks were designed to bring together Hawthorn as an on-field powerhouse with a $1.7m debt, and the relatively strong off-field but success starved Demons. The Hawks also had a home base and social club at Glenferrie Oval. In contrast Melbourne were forced off the MCG during cricket season, trained at the Junction Oval, had a small administrative office in Jolimont and a social club in Sandringham. The Melbourne Hawks would have a list of 44 players uniting club legends like Jason Dunstall and Garry Lyon.
Discussions within the club had thrown up North Melbourne, St Kilda and the Hawks as potential partners, but the first official contact came from a party acting on Hawthorn's behalf to directors Bill Balcam and Ian Johnson.
Negotiations between the potential partners, codenamed 'Project Sweet' decided on a jumper based on the MFC playing strip, but with yellow stripes and a Hawk logo. The team would take the Hawks nickname, and use a theme composed with parts from each existing song (ironically written by the same man) to the tune of It's a Grand Old Flag.
Hawthorn negotiated from a weaker position due to their perilous financial state, allowing Melbourne to take across most of their name, colours, song and jumper with only token additions to represent the Hawks. The AFL signed off on the details of the merger on August 16 and the vote was set for a month from that day. Hawthorn's attempts to enlarge the Hawk or add extra brown to the design were rebuffed.
The first prominent anti-merger pressure group was Hawthorn's "Operation Payback", led by Don Scott. A similar Melbourne version began soon after, led by former player Brian Dixon in conjunction with mining magnate Joseph Gutnick who pledged a million dollars to the club if the merger was defeated. Dixon's campaign did not generate as much passion amongst supporters as Scott's, with many believing Melbourne were effectively 'taking over' Hawthorn rather than merging with them.
26 former Melbourne players and officials signed a document endorsing the merger. The players were Frank Adams, Ron Barassi, John Beckwith, Ray Biffin, Barry Bourke, Colin Bradley, Jim Cardwell, Ken Carlon, Ted Carroll, Geoff Case, Don Cordner, Frank Davis, Ken Emselle, Gary Hardeman, John Hamilton, Peter Keenan, John Lord, Peter Marquis, Ken McKaige, Noel McMahen, Phil Rhoden, Stephen Smith, Ian Thorogood, Geoff Tunbridge, Barrie Vagg and Greg Wells.
Dixon and Robert Flower were the most prominent opponents of the union, and all of Barassi, Keenan, Tunbridge and Wells changed their mind and spoke out against the merger before the vote - although in Barassi's case that was only a couple of hours before the meeting. 'NO MERGER' signs were a prominent feature of the remainder of the season, before the clubs played a timely Round 22 game which may have been the last or both clubs in their original form. Hawthorn had to win to stay alive in the finals race, but even victory required results to go their way elsewhere to stay alive for at least one more week. The Hawks won by a point, and snuck into the finals after Richmond lost heavily to North Melbourne
The anti-merger Demon Alternative group tried to have proxy votes removed from calculations due to claims of vote stacking. When that move was rejected the path was clear for both clubs to hold meetings on 16 September and vote on the merger proposal. Hawthorn's meeting at Camberwell Civic Centre was famous for Scott tearing the Hawk off the new team's jumper and giving an impassioned speech against the union. Despite similar claims of vote-stacking in the Hawthorn count, their members voted against the proposal 5241 to 2841 and the Melbourne Hawks were dead.
Melbourne's meeting was supposed to be held at Melbourne Park, but as the venue was already booked by the Dalai Lama the club was forced to hold it amongst chaotic scenes in the much smaller 2100 capacity Dallas Brookes Hall. No election in club history had ever had a higher turnout than 30%, and the Hall allowed for 50%, but many more turned up and were unable to gain access. The club had 12,964 members - up 3400 from the previous year despite a worse on-field performance - and aided by a large number of proxies, including as many as 60 staff from the business of pro-merger Vice-President Bill Guest the merger was officially endorsed by a vote of 4679 to 4229.
There were just 800 late membership purchases, and it was widely acknowledged that they came from both sides of the argument. In addition to the final vote 200 "yes" proxy votes arrived the day after but couldn't be counted. It was estimated that up to 1000 votes were cast by 'sponsors' rather than real fans. Those in the room voted 1455 - 497 against the vote, while it was carried on proxies 4182 to 2774.
With lengthy queues of people trying to get into the building, there was a suggestion that the meeting be adjourned. During the chaos the club booked the Sports and Entertainment Centre for the following Monday in case they needed a new venue, but eventually after multiple delays 3500 people squeezed into the 2100 capacity room and the meeting commenced. Amidst wild scenes in the hall, Directors and President Ian Ridley faced a hostile crowd to sell their message. Ridley's wife had been admitted to hospital earlier in the day, and he faced the barrage of abuse with dignity. The hall broke into a rendition of the theme song when the directors were introduced to the stage. After the meeting Ridley said it was: "like 10 rounds with Kostya Tszyu". During the night security had to remove several people, including one who attempted to storm the stage.
When the result of the vote was announced near midnight there was still no confirmation of the result from Hawthorn. The indications were that the proposal had lost. In the end it had, falling in a landslide. It was estimated that the Hawks' vote narrowly saw 'no' proxies win, with 'yes' losing 90% - 10% in the room.
Demon Alternative leader Joseph Gutnick flagged a legal challenge to the vote in the days after the meeting but it did not eventuate.
In 2002 Ridley released a book The Urge To Merge to tell his side of the merger negotiations and vote.
Some sources say the Demon Alternative demanded the Dallas Brookes Hall meeting go ahead, but in Ridley's book he said Dixon and Gutnick asked him to cancel it but he refused.
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