This is the document that reveals how close Parramatta and Penrith came to merging.
The Eels, headed up by long-time former chief executive Denis Fitzgerald, were pushing for the two western Sydney clubs to enter into a joint-venture before the 2000 premiership season.
The document obtained by the Herald shows the Eels and Panthers almost became one club for the 2000 season.
The Herald has obtained a confidential written proposal, dated July 31 1999, that was addressed to then-NRL chairman Malcolm Noad asking for the governing body to provide an $8 million incentive to help fund the marriage. The submission, made public for the first time after more than two decades just as the neighbouring clubs prepare for a local derby on Friday, bore Fitzgerald’s signature on behalf of the Parramatta District Rugby League Club Limited.
All that was required, pending NRL approval, was the signature of a Penrith offsider to seal the deal. It never came.
This was despite pressure on Sydney clubs to amalgamate amid fears they could be squeezed out of a streamlined competition at the conclusion of the Super League War. At the time, St George had just merged with Illawarra to form the St George Illawarra Dragons, while the Eels briefly explored the prospect of a merger with the Balmain Tigers, who instead combined with Western Suburbs Magpies to create the Wests Tigers.
Eels chief executive Denis Fitzgerald had signed the document, but there is no Panthers signature to ratify the deal.
It prompted Fitzgerald to pursue a Penrith partnership with a view to creating a western-Sydney power alliance that would stretch from Rydalmere to Emu Plains. Had it come to fruition, the entity would likely have been branded the Parramatta Panthers.
“This is a submission by Penrith District Rugby League Football Club Limited (ACN 068 820 511) and Parramatta District Rugby League Club Limited (ACN 000 254 980) requesting the NRL’s approval for a Joint Venture of our 2 clubs for participation in the NRL competition from 2000,” stated the merger manifesto addressed to Noad.
“This submission seeks funding from NRL for the Joint Venture entity equal to the funding provided by NRL to the Wests/Balmain Joint Venture [of $8 million in total] …
“NRL approval of the Joint Venture would entitle the Joint Venture Entity to a 6 year club agreement for the participation in the NRL competition for the years 2000-2005 … Please ensure that this submission is treated as strictly confidential.”
The Penrith board was divided 5-4 over the issue, with the majority in favour of standing alone dubbed the “Footy Five”. An influential figure outside the boardroom, Penrith patron Ron Mulock, used his considerable weight to swing the numbers required to quash the merger.
“It was certainly worth discussing with the dollars involved,” Fitzgerald told the Herald. “It got knocked on the head. The Penrith thing, my recollection is it didn’t get all that far.
“It would have been hugely strong, with the junior leagues and Panthers in those days doing really well with their licensed club.”
Fitzgerald said he wasn’t a big fan of the Eels logo and would have been prepared to sacrifice it had a merger with Balmain or Penrith eventuated. The self-proclaimed “Emperor of Parramatta” said the merged entity would likely have been branded Parramatta Panthers.
“There was some alliteration there, it would have been good,” he said. “And you have to be seen to be giving up something.”
Now that more than two decades have passed, Fitzgerald said he was happy that both clubs ultimately stood alone.
“Yes. It was a war and there were victims,” he said of the fallout from the Super League war.
“Looking back now … I’m happy with where Parramatta is at the moment.”
Former Panthers director Greg Evans, a member of the “Footy Five”, believes the decision not to merge was the right one.
“There was a group of five of us on the board who thought we were very close to merging. We did [our utmost] to block that,” Evans said.
“That was the document that caused the 5-4 split. We didn’t think it was appropriate to sign the document.
“It seemed like a ridiculous scenario that the two largest junior leagues would wed together. There were a lot more sensible mergers outside of Penrith and Parramatta.
“We always said Penrith should be standing alone. It wasn’t very sensible for it not to be standing alone.
“Ron Mulock was the leader in that push, he was very keen on keeping Penrith as a premier team in the competition.
“It would be so sad to not have the opportunity to see [the Eels and Panthers] in a grand final at one stage in the future. To not see those fantastic sides [square off] would be such a shame.”