Throughout the 80's and early 90's Melbourne were linked as potential merger partners for a number of partners. Before 1987 most of the proposals involved the Demons fast-tracking their way back to the finals, whereas in the AFL era it was more about finances.
The first discussion of a merger came in 1861 when it was suggested that the Melbourne and Richmond clubs should amalgamate. The motion was not successful.
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.
In 1915 Melbourne amalgamated with University club, but rather than a merger it was simply an excuse to ransack 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 1981 in the fallout from South Melbourne's proposed move to Sydney there were unofficial discussions between Melbourne and North Melbourne officials regarding a merger. Demons 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 the Age reported that Melbourne and Fitzroy had engaged in discussions about a merger. President Stuart Spencer explained Melbourne's position as "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". The matter came close to being proposed to go before the members for a vote but on the eve of the merger being announced Fitzroy pulled out and asked for more time so they could hold a fundraiser. The Demons pulled out of the deal.
That year the club had also sat down for serious discussions with North Melbourne, with Bob Ansett to be president and John Kennedy coach of a side with the front of North's jumper and the back of Melbourne's. It smelt too much of a takeover and when Ansett refused to compromise on the deal it 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. Despite initial talks the two sides couldn't come to an agreement on something as simple as a name and the talks fell over.
In 1992 the Sunday Herald-Sun reported that Melbourne and Richmond officials had again engaged in high level talks regarding a merger. Both clubs denied the story and the newspaper was forced to retract the story when Richmond's solicitors became involved. The two clubs had engaged in a meeting during the late 80's where it was discussed that whatever name the team took it would play in the other side's colours. 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 August of the same year 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 Lions were 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. Other clubs also complained that Melbourne would be able to boost their list with the best six Lions players.
In 1995 St. Kilda were expected to go to their members and offer a merger with the Demons if the Save Our Saints campaign failed. That year the AFL had offered $6 million for any teams that merged. Weeks later Crown Casino magnate Lloyd Williams offered to help broker a Melbourne/Hawthorn union, but 1996 would be the first time a serious proposal was put on the table.
The Melbourne Hawks
With the AFL dangling an $6 million carrot in front of clubs it was no surprise that several clubs seriously considered amalgamating that year. Fitzroy and North Melbourne almost came together before the Lions were sent North to join with the Bears instead.
In 1996 the contrasts between Melbourne and Hawthorn seemed to provide the perfect set of circumstances for a league brokered marriage. Hawthorn were an on-field powerhouse with a $1.7m debt threatening to send them into liquidation, while the Demons were relatively strong off-field but hadn't won a flag since 1964 and had limped to 14th place in 1996.
The Hawks also had a home base and social club at Glenferrie Oval. In contrast Melbourne, 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 supposedly bring the best of both clubs together, as well as a list of 44 players which would unite legends like Jason Dunstall and Garry Lyon.
Discussions within the club had thrown up North Melbourne, St Kilda and the Hawks as potential partners, and Hawthorn had made overtures before so when a party acting on their behalf made an approach to directors Bill Balcam and Ian Johnson it set in motion a series of events which nearly ended the club's history. The clubs had previously spent the second half of 1995 denying that they were in merger talks.
Negotiations between the two potential partners, codenamed 'Project Sweet' decided on a jumper (pictured left) 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 were considered to have negotiated from a weaker position due to their perilous financial state, which many believe explains how Melbourne were able to take 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.
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, mainly because many believed 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.
However "NO MERGER" signs were still a prominent feature at games for the rest of the year. Dixon and Robert Flower had been the most prominent opponents of the union, and all of Barassi, Tunbridge and Wells changed their mind and spoke out against the merger before the vote.
Amazingly the two clubs were drawn together in Round 22, 1996 for what could have been the last match ever for both clubs. Hawthorn were a chance of making the finals if they won, and results elsewhere went their way, but a Melbourne win would mean fans would spend the next week not knowing if they'd ever see their side in its present form again.
The Hawks won by a point in one of the most emotional games of all time. They snuck into the finals after Richmond lost heavily to North Melbourne
After a Demon Alternative attempt to block the meeting in the Supreme Court failed both clubs held meetings on 16 September to 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. Hawks members voted against the proposal 5241 to 2841 and the Melbourne Hawks were dead.
Aided by a large number proxies, the chaotic Melbourne meeting at Dallas Brooks Hall endorsed the merger by a vote of 4679 to 4229 amongst angry scenes directed at President Ian Ridley. However with the Hawks rejection the proposal was dead in the water. The meeting had originally been scheduled to be at Melbourne Park but the venue was already booked by the Dalai Lama and the club were forced to hold it amongst chaotic scenes in the much smaller 2100 capacity hall. It should have been ok, in the history of the club there had never been an election with a higher turnout than 30%. Dallas Brookes Hall allowed for 50% to turn up, but many more stacked into the hall and it was almost midnight until a verdict was announced.
Demon Alternative leader Joseph Gutnick flagged a legal challenge to the vote in the days after the meeting but it did not eventuate. Controversy had erupted before the vote over director Bill Guest signing up members of his family and staff before the cut-off vote for memberships so they could vote in favour of the merger. Despite the claims 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 vote the night before 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.
In 2002 Ridley released a book The Urge To Merge to tell his side of the merger negotiations and vote.
The Argus - 29/04/1861
The Argus - 27/03/1889
The Argus - 26/02/1915
The Age - 02/07/1981
"Demon chief's merger ultimatum" - The Age 26/06/1986
"Stars appears as Melbourne's light dims" - The Age 27/06/1986
"Swans switch only the first" - The Age 03/07/1981
"Lions and Demons talk merger" - The Age 26/06/1986
"Melbourne 'no' to Fitzroy merger" - The Age 05/08/1986
"No merger, say Demons" - Canberra Times 19/12/1992
"No lion's share of players for the Demons" - Canberra Times 09/08/1994
"Demons concentrate on footy, not mergers: Lyon" - Canberra Times 13/08/1994
"Demons deny reports of a merger with Hawthorn" - Canberra Times 05/07/1995
"Demon greats endorse merger" - The Age 13/08/1996
"Gutnick tips landslide win" - The Age 12/09/1996
Mike Sheahan article, 19/9/1996
"Thank your mother for the rabbi" - The Age 20/09/1996
"Hawk talons sink deep" - The Sunday Age 22/04/2001
"Urge to Merge" - Herald Sun 27/03/2002