Just 19 years ago, two-time defending premiers Hawthorn were on the brink of oblivion as a stand-alone AFL club.
The only part of the Hawks’ history that is more remarkable than that failed merger with Melbourne is what has happened since.
Combine their current off-field strength and stability with the football domination and no other club can match Hawthorn.
But late in the `96 season, all this was unimaginable to even the most diehard Hawks fan.
While Hawthorn had dominated on the field with five premierships from `83-91, financially they were a mess and that made them vulnerable.
The AFL then was in a state of massive flux – Fitzroy had folded earlier that year – and the thinking was that if any merger idea would work, surely it was Melbourne and Hawthorn.
But it also quickly became clear many Hawks did not want to share their nest.
Star fullback Chris Langford – now an AFL commissioner – defiantly raised his guernsey to the crowd after they had beaten Melbourne by one point late in the `96 season.
Known as the merger game, that emotional clash also featured a tough Melbourne back pocket named Alastair Clarkson.
A few weeks later, former Hawks captain Don Scott fronted a packed club extraordinary general meeting.
The charged atmosphere at Camberwell Civic Centre was one punch short of degenerating into a riot.
Scott famously held up a mockup of the proposed Melbourne Hawks guernsey and tore off a couple of strips of yellow, to reveal a Demons jumper underneath.
The merger was doomed, with Scott to be forever revered as Hawthorn’s saviour.
But for all the defiance, the Hawks were still a financial basket case.
They needed business nous and as the anti-merger forces gained momentum, Ian Dicker became involved.
Then a club coterie member, Dicker was a passionate Hawks fan who knew next to nothing about football.
But he knew a lot about running a business.
Dicker says that during the anti-merger campaign, he was put forward as Hawthorn’s next president – without his knowledge.
Once the Operation Payback campaign that Scott fronted had succeeded, Dicker indeed became president and the club started the long road back to security.
One of Dicker’s first acts was to organise a strategy for Hawthorn to work their way out of the financial problems.
“It proved to me it wasn’t about football,” he said.
“Hawthorn needed a business base.
“We were good at football – many times – but we were broke.”
Dicker adds that the clear sentiment from AFL House in `96 is that Hawthorn were not wanted in the competition.
But in 1997 they managed to turn a profit and have done so in every year since.
They boosted membership, made the most of their Waverley Park home ground and famously started playing games in Tasmania in 2001.
Dicker often sought the advice of his long-time friend Peter Platten, who was a senior official at the Green Bay Packers in the NFL.
By the time Dicker stepped down as Hawks president in 2005, they had set up their club base at Waverley, which was no longer an AFL venue, and were out of the financial woods.
The bigger problem by then was football, with Peter Schwab gone as coach in late 2004.
Hawthorn went for Clarkson, then an untried assistant coach at Port Adelaide, and it was not a universally popular decision.
It was also a masterstroke.
“I think the most important thing we did, as it turns out, was to appoint Alastair,” Dicker said.
“What Alastair and the football department have done in the last 10 years is absolutely outstanding.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed that here we are on Saturday, playing for our third in a row and our fourth in his time.”
Dicker handed over to former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and it would be an understatement to say that they had completely different approaches to being club president.
But for all Kennett’s theatre, he continued Hawthorn’s off-field growth.
“I can only say that he did a good job,” Dicker said.
“He did it a completely different way to the way I would have done it.”
Dicker remains a coterie member at the club and is patron of the Hawthorn Foundation, which aims to guarantee their long-term financial stability.
Andrew Newbold has been Hawks president since 2012 and he is more in Dicker’s mould as a much lower-profile club leader.
Newbold stresses many people rescued Hawthorn in the mid-90s, but Dicker has left a lasting legacy.
“Without people like him with work ethic, with vision, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Newbold said.