Paul Amy, Leader August 14, 2020 6:00am

Josh Fraser describes it as a “couple of beers over a lot of disappointment’’.

Steve Papal remembers beer and pizza and a feeling of “utter devastation’’.

“We were commiserating,’’ he said.

Northern Blues president Papal and his coach, Fraser, as well as club life member Darren Bassett, had gathered at Fratellino Pizzeria in South Yarra a few weeks after Carlton ended the VFL alignment between the clubs in March.

On the day Carlton made its announcement, Papal said the Blues would have to fold.

When he, Fraser and Bassett met, it was to sip over sorrows.

“We were just devastated about the Ants going under. Didn’t see it coming,’’ Papal said.

But as the night wore on they got talking about the possibility of the club coming back as a stand-alone and embracing its great history as the Northern Bullants.

Papal whipped out a pen and paper and they wrote down what would need to happen, and who could be involved.

After closing time restaurant owner Simon Liston joined them in the think tank.

Passionate: president Steve Papal.
Passionate: president Steve Papal.

On Monday, Papal confirmed the club was planning a comeback as the Bullants. The response to the story left the president staggered.

“That’s where it all started, that pizza place in South Yarra, between the three of us,’’ he said.

“We just tossed the whole thing around, if it could be possible to go stand-alone. Just thrashed it around and wrote things down, how we would structure it up, how we would do it as a stand-alone. So that’s where we really decided to have a go at doing it.’’

Two of the key people Papal approached to become involved, Steven Icke and Bob Tregear, had 13 years earlier given the club rope when it was sinking under a weight of debt.

Tregear was chairman of AFL Victoria and Icke the football operations manager at Carlton. Papal had taken over the presidency and discovered the Bullants, as they were operating as then, were “completely broke’’.

“We owed a bomb. We had four years of debt,’’ he said.

“Bob Tregear and his board that came to us and said, ‘Listen, we can’t let you continue to operate as you are’. I had to front the board at the MCG to keep our licence and then I had to front Carlton, because Carlton wanted to let us go as well. Steven Icke was at Carlton then and he was about to cut off the alignment. And Bob Tregear was about to pull the licence.’’

Papal, who had been a long-serving president at Bundoora, pleaded for them to hold off and give him six months to see if he could turn the Bullants around.

He did, securing key sponsors including the NAB and Crazy Johns.

The famous Bullants logo.
The famous Bullants logo.

“We turned $38,000 in sponsorship into $270,000,’’ Papal said. “They couldn’t believe it.’’

With his club chopped by Carlton and staring at closing the doors after 138 years of football, the president called on Icke and Tregear again. And the two men who decided the Bullants’ fate in 2007 are now part of the effort to keep them going.

“Why don’t you give me a chop-out?’’ Papal asked Icke. He is now chief executive officer.

Tregear had phoned the president to commiserate when Carlton dropped the axe, and said he was prepared to help in any way. Tregear is now on the board.

“How’s the irony of that, hey? Is that a great story or what, the way it’s played out?’’ Papal said. “They determined our future back then and now they’re part of our future going forward, trying to save a great footy club.’’

Bassett, David Zonta, Kirk Webster, Serge Romano, Vanessa Kenos, Scott Inglis, Kirk Webster and former juniors president Whitlam Malkoun are also on the board.

Zonta, the director of the Zonta Group, of one Melbourne’s biggest concreters, is vice-president. Kenos will oversee the function centre. Romano is a sales coach and heading up sponsorship.

Webster is a financial controller with his own business. Inglis operates Crumpet Creative Media. Malkoun, a consultant for Aussie Loans, will act as a conduit between the Preston Bullants juniors and the Preston Bullants, the VAFA club that started as the Northern Blues in 2013.

Malkoun and Zonta will also assist with sponsorship.

Daniel Harford digging in for the Ants, where he won the 2006 best and fairest.
Daniel Harford digging in for the Ants, where he won the 2006 best and fairest.

Papal said juniors president Suki Styant-Browne and VAFA president John Carter had given great support.

If the Bullants do return – and Papal said the club had received tremendous backing from AFL Victoria and AFL state leagues manager Tristan Salter – it will be able to offer players a pathway from juniors, to the VAFA and the VFL.

Papal said sponsors would get excellent exposure at Cramer St.

“We’ll be there three times a week. We can give them more bang for their buck … our club, the amateurs, the juniors and we run the Northern footy league finals,’’ Papal said.

“That’s exposure from Preston to Kinglake. It’s the biggest growth corridor in Australia.’’

But he said it wouldn’t be easy in a “COVID environment’’ and all football supporters who believed in keeping such a historic club going could help by buying a membership.

Papal, who operates Advanced Stone at Campbellfield, said Fraser’s role in keeping the club together since March had been crucial.

He said the five-year coach was the best person he had met in all his years in football.

Former Collingwood and Gold Coast ruckman Fraser spoke of his passion for the Ants in an interview with radio station RSN on Tuesday.

“We don’t want to see the footy club drift off into the abyss,’’ he said. “We’ve been able to assemble a really passionate, impressive group of people and we’re doing everything we can to try to keep the club alive, and the ambition and goal is to play in the VFL next year.’