If you ask a person if there has ever been a team to finish last and win the premiership in the same season, they will most likely laugh at you, not realising that the extraordinary feat occurred in the 1916 VFL season.
In the midst of the First World War, Fitzroy achieved the unthinkable by finishing last and winning the Grand Final.
Debate raged in Victoria as to whether football should be played during a time of crisis, with advocates of a ban to football arguing that men deemed fit to play sport should be on the battle front defending their country.
But despite the outrage of the public and the fury of five VFL teams, the Victorian Football League board decided to go ahead with the season. VFL President O.M Williams quoted by The Argus as saying; “Personally I can see no objection to carry on football unless we are to give up every form of recreation.”
Essendon, Geelong, Melbourne, South Melbourne and St Kilda refused to compete, leaving Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond as the competing teams. Each team would play each other four times over a 12-week season and all four teams would qualify for the finals.
Fitzroy list was decimated by the war and were forced to field 11 debutants during the season. One of the players shipped off to war was Jack Cooper, a two-time Best and Fairest winner, who was enlisted by his teammates.
As a sending off gesture, Fitzroy presented Cooper with a gold mountain fountain pen and a shaving kit.
Despite losing key members of the team, Fitzroy began the season with consecutive wins over Carlton and Richmond.
Sitting on top of the ladder, The Maroons season took a turn for the worst in round 3, when they could only manage a draw against Collingwood.
The draw was further soured by the immediate retirement of club great Harold ‘Lal’ McLennan. At 28 years of age, McLennan was forced to end his 134 game career due to persistent back pains. A centre-man with limitless determination and dash, McLennan would later become Fitzroy’s president and devout 70 years of service to the club.
Fitzroy endured a nine game losing streak to end the season as wooden spooners, while Carlton would only lose two games for the entire season and finish on top of the ladder heading into the finals.
In the first week of the finals, Fitzroy took on Collingwood and won by a goal to book a place in the Grand Final against Carlton.
The Grand Final saw Fitzroy comfortably defeat Carlton by 23 points. But by finishing on top of the ladder, Carlton could challenge the result and play a rematch the following week.
With star forward Jimmy Freake injured, Harold McLennan was coaxed out of retirement for the Grand Final.
The moved proved pivotal as McLennan starred and helped Fitzroy cruise to a 29-point victory, completing football’s most unlikely premiership victory.