A glue-pot, surrounded by a dog track, in the shadows of the Gasometer. One little grandstand, some covered terraces on the Gasometer wing. The most unglamourous of settings, over in the light industrial section of a working class inner suburb.
I’m too young to remember the dog track, removed in 1962. I just barely remember the Gasometer, but I was fascinated by it. An ingenious device where the weight of the free-floating top half pressured the coal gas for delivery to the surrounding area. I certainly do remember the glue-pot of a playing surface. Arden St wasn’t alone in that in the pre-AFL era.
It didn’t matter that the surroundings were so unglamourous, because by the time I started following footy the Kangas were thrilling. The mercurial Kekovich and Crosswell and Snake Baker, Malcolm Blight and Barry Cable electric at ground level. David Dench inventing a new way to play full back full of run and dare, the sublime Keith Greig and indomitable Schimmelbusch roaming the wings. Even lesser lights like John Byrne, Xavier Tanner and Darryl Sutton had a dashing air about them, while Mick Nolan, Crackers Keenan, and Crazy Horse Cowton were the lovable larrikins.
Dad was (still is) the rarest of Essendon supporters, one with a soft spot for North. Took me to more North games more often than he forced me to Essendon ones. It may have helped that in those years there was no on field rivalry to speak of. The Bombers were a nothing middle-of-the-road side in the ‘70s and by the time they got good in the ‘80s North’s era was done. We weren’t die-hard weekly stalwarts but we did go a handful of times a year, walking up Dryburgh St from North Melbourne Station and staking out a spot in the pocket under the scoreboard. I suspect this was because it was the closest spot to the Arden St entry gate and the easiest escape route. I won’t pretend I had to stand on steel beer cans to see—I was tall as a teenager—but standing room didn’t always afford the best view of the play even in such an intimate setting. But we loved it. It was home.
Despite importing stars like the Krakouers, Glendinning, Dempsey, Hodgeman, Abernethy and Jonas, North slid down the glamour table in the ‘80s, while the game started taking a different direction. Fans started to demand more creature comforts. Waverley was the marquee neutral venue. You couldn’t make money playing in front of a crowd of 10,000 and sometimes they didn’t get that. North abandoned Arden St as their playing home and became a co-tenant of the MCG at the end of 1984, with one symbolic farewell game late in 1985. Living out in the Eastern Suburbs handy to VFL park, and a family of MCC members, the new arrangements suited us pretty well. We didn’t miss Arden St much in the ‘90s, as Carey and co strutted their stuff on the ‘G on Friday nights.
North weren’t the first club to leave their traditional home—Fitzroy, Hawthorn and St Kilda had all moved in the ‘60s and ‘70s—but it was the beginning of the ground rationalisation that took place over the next 15 years until only the MCG and Docklands remained. They’re clean, well lit, well serviced by public transport and parking, and honestly we wouldn’t want to go back, the occasional game in Hobart (or Launceston, or Alice Springs, or Cairns, or Wellington, or Ballarat) notwithstanding.
The last few years though, I’ve really liked the approach of the pre-season competition (should I have scare-quotes around “competition” there?) in taking the game to places that don’t get to see AFL footy. The North-St Kilda game in Wangaratta last year was lots of fun, the country atmosphere, low stakes and the chance to see some new kids run around all adding up to a great day. So when North announced late last year that there would be a pre-season game at Arden St I was thrilled. As it seems were practically the whole North Melbourne supporter base.
The new Arden St is a symbol of the new North Melbourne. With the club rescued from near oblivion in 2007, work started on a new facility that would open in 2009. The ground has been resurfaced, resized to match the dimensions of Docklands, and thanks to the miracles of modern groundskeeping and drainage technology, glue pots are a distant memory. Instead of being ringed by shabby old stands, now it’s gum trees. The distinguishing vista is not of a gasometer but peaks of the city skyline over the trees at the swimming pool end. It’s an open park, integrated with the suburb that has been dragged along with gentrification but also still includes immigrant communities. If you’re there on a weekday evening you’ll see Melbourne Uni women’s teams training after the AFL boys are done for the day. The Huddle and the African kids from the Kensington housos and the students and the dog walkers are as much a part of it as the elite sporting environment.
Like 30-odd years ago, the boys and I take the train to North Melbourne Station. In the hot weather though, we decide to take advantage of the shuttle bus rather than walk up Dryburgh St. Even an hour before the first bounce the place is humming, everyone excited to be here. I catch up with my buddy Nate, and while the kids go and get ships from the fast food van we chat about injuries, hamstrings and metatarsals, how the new kids have been looking, how far Braydon Preuss has come since this time last year, when we weren’t even sure whether he’d start the year in the VFL seniors or dev squad.
The pocket on the Macaulay Rd side looks like a prime viewing spot at ground level just metres from the action, but sunsmart discretion is the better part of valour and we head for the hill behind the goals at the Fogarty St end, in the shade of some trees and elevated enough to see the whole ground. They sold 5000 tickets but there’s plenty of elbow room. The whole atmosphere is relaxed and happy.
Predictions for this year for North have ranged from dire to depressing, but last week’s showing against the Swans (who admittedly seem to tank every preseason) was encouraging, especially given how much of the play was driven by the younger brigade. It continues as this game gets underway, with North having the better of the play but unable to convert. Shiels breaks the duck for Hawthorn and we wonder whether they’re just going to rope-a-dope this one until they can pull away.
But North hang on, answer through Hrovat and then Dumont, and after a couple more goals apiece go into the break two points up. O’Meara has been especially impressive for the Hawks and it’s great to see Roughy looking like his old self. For North Dumont, Hrovat, Clarke and Wagner have been busy.
Just like different clubs aim to get different things out of preseason, so do different players. The old hands know they’re playing round one, want to get some touch and some run in their legs. The kids on the fringes want to impress, press for a spot, show the coaches they know the game plan and can handle the pace. And the new draftees get to pull on the jumper, play with and against guys they’ve been watching for years.
Hawthorn look like their old selves in the second quarter, drawing away to a 3-goal lead before North hit their straps again. Young Zurhaar, Preuss and Higgins all goal and we go to half time a point better off than quarter time’s 2-point margin.
At half time they brought out an elephant. Obviously. We would have been disappointed if they didn’t. At least they didn’t set a hot dog stand on fire.
In the second half the Hawks put the cue in the rack a bit, running with a 22-man squad for a half while North keep using about 24. It’s only inaccurate kicking that keeps it from being a blowout. Jy Simpkin comes on having only had a couple of weeks’ full training after last year’s broken leg and shows the fancy footwork we’d been hearing about, an extravagant baulk and sidestep of Hodge, a neat blind turn out of trouble on the wing, then a spoil and gather in the pocket that managed to bring the house down despite the shot going out on the full. Cunnington takes a screamer higher than he’s ever been. Atley barges through traffic to slot one. All adds to the carnival atmosphere. By the end it’s North by 21, having managed 30 scoring shots to 19.
For those looking for something other than dire and depressing, there was plenty to like for North fans. Nathan Hrovat is slotting into the creative midfielder-forward role vacated by Boomer beautifully. Ed Vickers-Willis looks an ideal replacement for Firrito, though a different sort of player. Sam Durdin could do with surer hands but reads the play nicely and is a smooth mover for his size. Marley Williams looks happy to be away from Bucks. Declan Mountford looks at home at the level. Mitch Hibberd found plenty of the ball and looked less nervous with it as the game progressed. And man-mountain cult figure Braydon Preuss snagged 3 and laid a textbook bump on Shiels.
Best of all, the ground looked a picture, the weather was perfect, and whether you were here for the first time or making a long awaited return, it was the perfect time to reflect on how marvellous it is to have our club still here and thriving.