Memoir: Melbourne’s good fortune

I live in Yarraville, work in Parkville, and study in Hawthorn. I ride my bike, drive a car and use public transport. On any given day, it is not unusual for me to travel past half a dozen footy grounds ‘home’ to current AFL clubs. On a welcome spring day, with only one lecture scheduled in the mid afternoon, I set off on my bike to stop and visit these places.

A short pedal down Williamstown Rd and I am at Whitten Oval. The old outer shed is gone. On the handful of occasions I watched the Cats play there, I remember hiking from one end to the other, via the concrete verandah that scaled the wing. It was one of the few grounds in the early 90s where you could traverse unimpeded through the stands without three different passes, and that meant following Gary Ablett from end-to-end was possible. I have a great deal of fondness for the old Western Oval. It is a proud ground, and I never saw the Cats lose there. I remember in 1996, after the Cats beat the Lions, wandering out onto the oval towards the interchange benches where the Fitzroy fans had gathered, and watched as some bloke climbed up and chanted “Fitzroy! Fitzroy!” as tears streamed down his face. I chanted, and I cried. As a twelve year old I didn’t really understand what had happened during the week that lead to such an outpouring of emotion, but I understood the emotion. It was a sad day in a sad year for AFL.

The Whitten Oval is Footscray’s though, and she remains. The wooden bench seats remain along with the plastic, and the EJ Whitten stand has been rebuilt. I figure she might seat 10,000. I’m sure it was part of some vote grabbing scheme, but I like to imagine the justifcation for re-builidng a grandstand that will never see any substantial action is so that the Bulldogs have a ground to fill when they win a premiership.

Whitten Oval container and skyline

Whitten Oval bench seats

I jump back on the bike and head down Barkly St towards North Melbourne. Arden St. It has another, instantly forgetable name now, but I don’t resent the Roos for selling the naming rights. They need the cash. When North last played footy at Arden St, I was two, so it doesn’t hold any childhood memories for me other than from the telly. Today, the only distinguishing structure is the Metricon style “centre” on the Arden St wing. It is nothing memorable. I can imagine fans clamouring from the rafters to catch a glimpse of their boys at the open training session before a Grand Final. What did take me, however, was the steel pole bench that hugged half the ground. It looks recycled from something. I can only imagine what. The Gasometer? The stand that half burned down? The old players race?

Arden St is a humble ground in a quiet suburb of North Melbourne. It makes me wonder if Football clubs are like fish that can only grow to their surroundings. It is a modest ground, and as I stroll up and down the wing, is that anger I feel towards this club? Have they let their home dwindle? Seneca said that modesty, once extinguised, knows not how to return. I believe in Shinboner spirit, and I hope that it has a home. I am not sure what they are building during this next phase of redevelopment, a grandstand, a terrace, but without a place for the people that love the club to sit or stand at their home ground, I sense there is nothing to keep that mysical spirit in.

Arden Street bench

Further along my path today is Princes Park. I went to many games there as a child, played against many clubs. North Melbourne, Melbourne, Fitzroy, but mainly Carlton. My mother was loathe to go anywhere near it before the Legends Stand was erected. For almost half its circumference, the grandstands undulate, not knowing whether they are great monoliths or scant overhangs. Princes Park is cluttered, like a widowers lounge room. It still would hold a sizeable crowd, so it is in demand from various sporting associations, but to me, it feels like it wants to die. Not that I would want to see it go however. My view has always been that Princes Park held huge potential for the AFL. A facility with large amounts of surrounding land to expand, near the heart of Melbourne. As the Dome bleeds clubs dry, Princes Park sits empty, stuck between dimensions. Wasn’t Ian Collins in charge of Carlton and the Dome at some point?

The Ald Gardiner stand is beautiful, a dame. Like her wooden sisters laden sisters that still stand at Lake Oval, North Port Oval and Brunswick St Oval, she creaks and sags, like a bride forever left standing at an altar in an ever-darkening white dress.

Princes Park Ald Gardiner Stand

The Legends Stand was perhaps a foray into a new world of AFL, and although it is a flawed structure, I always savoured it’s boldness. Carlton is a club that believes it has the enduring inalienable right to be great, even when it plainly not. I wish this ground could be something more, but in my heart I know that, like modesty, hubris is also mutable.

Princes Park Pratt Stand

Victoria Park is, I can state with no hesitation, my favorite visit. As I turn into Lulie Street the open vista, some may say ironically, welcomes me in. It exists now for the people, and today there may be 50 people variously excercising, enjoying smoko, picnicing on the wing or just being. One bloke sits in the Sherrin Stand and looks out onto the green grass. Perhaps he is thinking about football, perhaps he is not. It is quite possible he does not even like football. He may be happy, he may be sad. I do not know whether he is peaceful, but Victoria Park is a home for him this afternoon. I commend the Collingwood FC and the Yarra council for what they have created. It is a deliberate and well executed attempt to turn an old football ground into a community space. The residents of the old terrace houses that used to gaze at the back of the outer are truly blessed to live next such a magnificent part of Melbourne. I plan to go back to Victoria Park as often as I can, as today time has become a factor and I must get to class.

Victoria Park

 

Terrace houses surrounding Victoria Park

I have walked up and down the wing of Glenferrie Oval many times. The sight of suburban trains bustling past the trees that are now the only spectators on the terraces is one of my favorite things about Melbourne. It is difficult to grasp the size and shape of the old Glenferrie Oval Stand, now the Michael Tuck stand. The ground around the Art Deco stand rises and falls as you walk around it, and the sides do not betray any convential form one might expect in a grandstand. Of all the grounds I will never watch a game of VFL football at, I regret not seeing Glenferrie Oval in full flight the most. It is poorly situated, designed and it was not known as a “Sardine Can” for no reason. At its finest point, the road that flanks the ground is only metres from the actual playing surface, and the trains run no more than a good handpass from the boundary lines. Today, we build only things that have “design principles” and “future proofing,” and that Glenferrie Oval is such a deeply flawed endeavour makes it, for me, enduringly beautiful. These are the grounds they will play football on in my Heaven.

The Tuck Stand

Glenferrie Oval wing

Glenferrie train

Punt Road is undergoing significant redevelopment. It is going to be something special, just you wait. I can only peak through tornado fencing at the grandstand, that would’ve once been amoungst the most commanding in all the land. Today it seems to me as if it still believes that, and from afar I wish to clutch it in my hand like a stolen treasure.

Punt Road Oval

I imagine an afternoon such as this, many years ago. North Melbourne plays Geelong, Collingwood plays Essendon, Hawthorn plays St Kilda, Footscray versus Fitzroy, Carlton against Melbourne and Richmond host South Melbourne at Punt Road Oval. The people fill the terraces and the stands, and they pulsate. They swear at players, each other and the umpires, and wear colours blue, black, red, yellow and white. The beanies all have pom-poms, and the people are connected. By weather, by a skyline, by letters on a scoreboard. “Who is J and which one is K? Who’s got a radio?” These afternoons have passed us now, these grounds are mostly no more than long evening shadows. They still tell a story through their proximity, their character, and they echo breathlessly in the din of an international city that happily forgets them.

One afternoon every year, we are once again connected at a ground which reaches back into the very birth of our game. She has changed throughout the years, as she had to, but a city’s spirit, and I believe the spirit of these great grounds still resides in her walls.

The MCG

The story of the evolution of a parochial VFL into the national AFL  is one of vision, cunning, but most of all, blind-faced luck. As these grounds fell about Melbourne, no one could know which paths the roads would cut. Some clubs and grounds benefited from their surrounds, and grew with the times and some have faltered, and through them, I hear a story of a city and it’s people, and their luck.

About Edward Harcourt

I’m 31 and I love the Cats!

Comments

  1. Edward this in my mind is the most beautiful piece of football writing I have read all year. Amazing. Simply the best.
    Reading this was a great way to come down from a big day.
    You captured the heart of our city in a way that few can. Martin Flanagan and Paul Kelly come to mind as those who are able to capture the game and the city in a similar way.
    I have been to a number of open trainings and games at these old suburban games but have never looked these grounds in the way that you observed and captured them in this piece.
    It has inspired me to set out on a similair journey. One day.

  2. Stephinboots says:

    Beautiful piece.
    Thank you!

  3. Andrew Ramsey says:

    Great peice Ed. You should also visit Windy Hill, the Junction Oval and Brunswick Street Oval. These grounds are the graves of a semi amaetur era of Aussie Rules football. The survival of a football club does however require a place, a home. Many of the clubs that lived in these places have managed to maintain a sense of place and home, Essendon, Carlton and Hawthorn are the most successful examples. By way of contrast, Melboure lost the exclusive use of its home to Richmond in 1965 and has wandered in the wilderness ever since. The loss of home became final when Collingwood became a co-tennant of the ‘G and the MFC failed to accept an invitation to occupy the swimming staduim Collingwood not call the Lexus Centre. The places you have eloquently described remain an intrinsic part of our general and sporting culture.

  4. Judy Sobey says:

    Great writing Edward, a lovely tribute – one that Gary Senior would appreciate too – today -on his birthday!

  5. Judy Sobey says:

    Great piece of writing Ed ! Also moving that it’s Gary senior’s birthday today!

  6. Peter Fuller says:

    Loved your article, Edward, which revives the memories that older readers have of experiencing football in an earlier era.
    When I’m struggling with insomnia, I list the football grounds where I’ve watched, played or umpired. It’s my good fortune to have had the opportunity to play at a number of the venues you mention, although I was a quite moderate player and had an undistinguished career. It was just a function of a stage in Melbourne history, when the major grounds weren’t the exclusive preserve of the elite players of the era.

  7. Great piece Edward – really enjoyed it. I am glad that I got to experience a few games at Princes Park before the Blues stopped playing there. Although the number of games was limited – I have some great memories of being there. Next time I am visiting Melbourne again I will be sure to try go and visit some of the other grounds.

  8. Adam Muyt says:

    Lovely writing Edward, thanks!

  9. Loved your article Edward. As a boy went to many games at Victoria Park. Have been to few VFL games there in recent years and have been thrilled to see the work that has been done at this great ground. I hope Collingwood always will have a presence at Vic Park.

  10. Your writing is so captivating that I feel like I was really there with you during your childhood days visiting some of these ovals. I practically remember buying peanuts from a seller strolling the boundary line at Princess Park and eating them with you.

  11. I look forward to your next piece on moderate football players.

  12. Thanks all for the nice comments. Thanks Mum.

    Andrew, the MFC diaspora has the worst in the league, sadly. There have obviously been many poor decisions that led to them not being home at their ‘home.’ If they could only manage to put it together on the field…or just beat the Pies on Queens Birthday.

    Bruz, what esteemed company! You should get around to these grounds if you can. All of them are special for the history and what they mean to Melbourne, but I’d particularly recommend Victoria Park on nice summer’s day. And If you can manage to hop on your bike you can get around pretty easily. The Arden Street/Princes Park/Victoria Park loop is pretty straightforward for beginners.

    Peter, I was lucky enough to play on the MCG when I was about 9 at a halftime game. I kicked two goals, and on the way home at the Laverton servo, a bloke said to me “Oh I had money on to kick the first goal. Cheers kid!” I had that Plugger look about me.

    Luke, I went to Vic Park once in ’93. It was a good game & the Cats went down by 10. I can’t remember a heck of a lot except it reminded me of Kardina Park, and Collingwood seemed like a very long way from Geelong.

    Jamie, Good memory. Princes Park was an oddity at times. Even before the Legends Stand was built it was an unusual ground. A bloke at work told me once how the Doctors used to come to his department each week to get Foley’s Catheters to make their trips to Princes Park a little more ‘convenient.’ The piece on moderate football players will commence with an essay titled “Geelong ’96-2003′ from Menschy to MacKinnon.”

  13. Scott Nelson says:

    So eloquently captured Edward. Something a newspaper would appreciate the opportunity to publish in one of their weekend magazines perhaps?

  14. Well written Edward, some memories come back. Without being pedantic, it would be nice to recall Footscrays old ground by its previous name, the Western Oval. I;’m glad you watched Geelong do well there. I was not that lucky as in my 30 years barracking for Geelong it was not always a happy hunting ground. No wins for 1969 until 1978, then barren again from 1982-1989, but as they say, ‘that’s history’.

    Glen!

  15. Great stuff Edward. And some nice photography too.

    For some reason I find the pipe bench at Arden St most intriguing. If the Mayan prophecy came true I reckon there would still be the pipes at North Melbourne!

  16. Beautiful, Edward just beautiful.

    Makes me more determined to keep Freo at their home in the middle of Freo, flanked by the prison, South Terrace and the John Gerovich statue rather than the flat, featureless non-descript Cockburn. Would do one of WAFL grounds except they’re so widespread that I’d do Freo Oval and Moss St (East Fremantle) and then collapse with exhaustion.

  17. Wow – what a beautiful evocative piece of writing.

    As a Sydney-sider and rugby League tragic I envy Melbourne and the AFL for the history and heritage your footy clubs carry. However we are lucky on one count – we still retain many of the suburban club grounds…particularly Brookie and Leichhardt. But there are two grounds I can recommend you visit when up here – both of which have lost their NRL teams, but remain in full use and as they were when last used at the top level – Henson Park in Marrickville (still home to the Mighty Newtown Jets in second tier RL and the SFL) and North Sydney Oval. Henson is original art-deco and hosted the 1936 Empire games cycling and closing ceremony. I can fully recommend a beer at the Henson Park Hotel before strolling down Woodland Street and thru the gates of the old ground.

    Cheers and thanks for the read!

  18. Thanks all for the nice comments.

    Glen,
    Western Oval does get a mention, but unlike Asdoc Oval / Ipsus Centre / Mastoid Park etc, Whitten Oval is a comfortable name too. There would be a lot of supporters who have comparable memories about Kardinia Park in this era of home ground domination.

    Scott,
    Very kind, but I am just a mug with a keyboard and no lofty ambition. I think you have to know people for that sort of thing.

    Jeff,
    Seriously what is the deal with that bench? Has it always been there? At one point it looks like a car has come over the embankment on the other road (is it Macualey road) and smashed into it. By the looks of the bench, the car would’ve come off pretty poorly.

    Jonathan,
    Good luck with the Perth circuit. I hope your club stays at its home, and if they have to move, hopefully they do a Collingwood and make a win-win for everyone. That name lends itself to some nice banners too. As you (and Alan) point out, our capital cities each have a unique story to tell with their sporting grounds.

    Alan,
    I will make sure to set aside some time to visit those two grounds. We do have Kardinia Park in the AFL, but it is slowly on it’s way to being unrecognisable from what it was when I first went there in 1990. That’s change though, and it means Geelong is in an enviable financial position.

    Also if anyone is yet to see the 1909 Grand Final footage on youtube, check it out!

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