Former AFL chief executive and chairman Ross Oakley. Photo: Getty Images
Amid the turbulence and mergers debate of football in the 1980s, former AFL chief executive and chairman Ross Oakley has spoken of the death threats he received and has revealed there were discussions about the possible birth of a "United" Melbourne club and the Crocodiles of Los Angeles.
Oakley, the league's most powerful figure for a decade from October 1986, said former AFL commissioner Peter Scanlon had secretly worked on a merger between North Melbourne, Fitzroy and Richmond in the early 1990s.
"Peter Scanlon was working quietly and secretly on a super merger, a deal that would create 'Melbourne United'," Oakley said.
"That was his dream; a meld of North Melbourne, Fitzroy and Richmond into the Manchester United of Australian football. But in true form the deal could not be made because the respective parties could not decide on colours, a jumper design and who would be president."
At the time, Ron Casey was the Kangaroos' chairman, Dyson Hore-Lacy led the Lions and Neville Crowe presided over the Tigers.
In his autobiography - The Phoenix Rises - to be launched on Tuesday, Oakley recalled the plan with Scanlon in an interview this year.
"Because they were all inner-city clubs, they were all to be equal partners, and no one was taking anyone over. I nearly got it there," Scanlon recalled. "They were all here in my office talking about jumpers and other very important matters."
Oakley presided over a 12-team competition that, in his early years, had six that were "little more than bankruptcies in waiting" with some already under investigation by state authorities.
There was plenty of merger debate, and in 1987 he introduced the Eagles in Western Australia and the Bears in Brisbane. Or, in Carrara, to be exact under then flamboyant - but soon to be broke - businessman, Christopher Skase.
He also awarded the Swans' licence to another colourful businessman, Dr Geoffrey Edelsten, a move that then VFL lawyer Jeff Browne maintains was the right call despite what appeared to be a more steady plan delivered by a group led by businessman Basil Sellers.
During a time when the league was open to private ownership, there was also a radical proposal mentioned in the VFL's October 1987 board minutes.
"Chairman made reference to a proposal forwarded by the League by a Western Australian entrepreneur, which called for the re-location of an existing VFL team to Los Angeles and that such a team be known as the Los Angeles Crocodiles. It was resolved that no further action be taken," Oakley said.
In researching his book, Oakley was unable to discover who made the proposal.
In setting the scene for the uncertain times, Oakley also details the "clandestine" meeting former Carlton president John Elliott held in Mt Macedon in September, 1984 in a bid to establish a breakaway Super League.
It was the emergence of an era of what former commissioner Dick Seddon said were presidents with "business backgrounds and who resented what they perceived to be the 'Big Brother' approach by the VFL to the conduct of the league". And Elliott, then a bustling business and political figure, was at the height of his powers.
"He was planning a breakaway league of 10 clubs that would include the five most powerful Victorian clubs - Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond, Geelong and, of course, his beloved Carlton - and would introduce non-Victorian teams (two from NSW, two from SA) with the potential of abandoning a parade of underperforming Victorian clubs," Oakley said.
"The Elliott plan was grand: a mix of purging and restructuring, all leading towards a new national competition. It was economic rationalism at its finest.
"He also saw the need for an administration that was at arm's length from the clubs: his vision favoured a completely independent commission responsible, as in business, for governance.
"He had a completed constitution for the new league and, with co-antagonist Ian Wilson, president of Richmond, had garnered support for the concept from the Melbourne Cricket Club, through secretary Ian Johnson, to use the MCG along with Kardinia Park and, of course, his beloved Princes Park. This new league was ready to go."
To that point, the VFL had maintained a "she'll-be-right" view when it came to most matters. With crowds dropping in 1985, Jack Hamilton, then the league chief, blamed it simply on the Tigers' on-field woes leading to a dip in attendances.
Elliott would soon allow all 12 clubs to remain but insisted they break away from a system where clubs put their own interests at the forefront of all decisions. This helped lead to the formation of the AFL Commission in late 1985, although it initially was still answerable to the VFL board.
Elliott's grand plan, as Oakley points out, for an independent four-man board and a national competition, with matches played on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and even a Monday night, would "all but describe the current AFL".
As some clubs fought for preservation and others looked to add to their wealth, the struggling Tigers proposed they play 11 matches in Brisbane in 1987, while Carlton, in 1992, suggested it play its away games in Sydney. That deal, which would have secured the Blues $2 million a year, was scuttled by Collingwood president Allan McAlister.
Ahead of the salary cap being introduced in 1987, clubs were offered a moratorium to reveal their individual total player payments. It was expected most clubs would fit under $750,000. While the Blues and Essendon - expected to crash through that - came in at $1.1 million and $1 million respectfully, Hawthorn, dubbed the "family club", provided the shock, revealing payments totalling $1.3 million.
Oakley details the birth of the AFL's rich television rights deals and also the stress he and his family were under which heightened during the proposed merger between Fitzroy and Footscray (to be called the Fitzroy Lions) in 1989, memorably sparking the "Up Yours Oakley" stickers.
"I had guards on my home at Wheelers Hill for nigh on three months, and there were death threats," Oakley said. "One night the guards removed a guy who was trying to climb over the fence. My children were escorted to and from school. It was a highly charged environment, a really big concern. I tried to keep things calm for the family, but it had an impact."
A then young lawyer Peter Gordon worked feverishly to ultimately save the Bulldogs, commencing, as Oakley says, "a wonderful stewardship of his club that continues today".
The Bulldogs needed to raise $2 million to initially remain in the league. In the book, Gordon reveals that McAlister offered him a secret deal. If the Bulldogs fell about $200,000 short in raising the necessary funds, the Magpies would provide the money, but only if the Bulldogs handed over their star player, Tony McGuinness. The deal was not needed.
"The one thing we did learn, the big and positive message from the whole affair, was that we should never underestimate the passion and loyalty of ordinary fans," Oakley said.
* The Phoenix Rises Ross Oakley with Jonathan Green and Geoff Slattery. RRP $34.95. The Slattery Media Group. Launches Tuesday.