“Where they’re coming from, their football is a bit of a joke.”
–Geoff Cross, East Warrnambool coach, 1995
“Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
AS YOU DRIVE into Warrnambool from Melbourne, to your left you’ll pass Premier Speedway1, the turnoff to Allansford Cheese World (which is not nearly as fun as it sounds – there are no rides, just cheese) and The Pond – home to the Deakin University2 Sharks.
The Pond is on the right as you turn into Aitken Drive and the University grounds, which includes a number of lecture theatres and one of Warrnambool’s two nine-hole golf courses3.
Unlike those who have called the ground home, the Pond itself is inconspicuous as football grounds go, apart from its second-rate drainage and first-grade mud. I didn’t realise that mud had a smell before I first walked into a Shark rooms plagued with dried clods of it, the size of a midget’s fist. It is how I’d imagine a rotary dairy in Panmure would smell.
A former teammate, Chris ‘Bear Large’ Sullivan believes there is a number of football boots, mouthguards, a Holden Commodore and the Mahogany Ship4 buried in mud on the outer wing – along with a fair bit of pride.
In the mid 1990s the rooms were made of dank-country-football-cement, Boral plasterboard and a roller-door that on match days separated the home team from the visitors. There were no lockers, no honour boards and no team photos. Everything had a slightly off-kilter undergraduate look, where it’s all familiar looking but at the same time off. Not unpleasant, but different.
On Thursday nights there were usually two or three dogs5.
Once in the depths of winter, The Pond was unfit even for a team of misfits to train. As the Sharks were one of the less wealthy clubs6 in the Warrnambool and District Football League (WDFL7), we were unable to afford an alternate training venue indoors. As a result, Thursday night training was rescheduled to the Kmart car park. It was cancelled due to late-night shopping.
Dr John Sherwood in front of the rooms named in his honour
The rooms provide the ground with its only shelter, and little of it. When the wind and rain lash across the Hopkins River, The Pond tolerates the brunt of it. As it did on a less-than-memorable day when the ground was buffeted by hail, Shark Captain-Coach and member of the club band, the Gutted Rabbits, Ken ‘Boo’ Radley got the runner to bring him a cup of tea when the Sharks were kicking against a gale in the second quarter. His opponent refused a drink, as he was ready for the ball to come into the Sharks forward line. It didn’t. Last quarter, same conditions, and Boo’s opponent, having learnt his lesson, asked his runner for a coffee. He was dragged for being a ‘soft cock’ and Boo kicked two against the tide to reduce the margin to 100 points. Nothing brought out the best in the Sharks like a twenty-goal three-quarter-time deficit8.
My last game at The Pond was Round 18, 1996. The Sharks were 0-17, and as it was our last chance to ‘shuffle’9 the game was treated as a Grand Final. We hired a helicopter for some pre-match entertainment. The helicopter was to take Shark Reserves player Mark Gercovich (whose skin was so white it appeared in Michael Jackson’s dreams) to a height where he could parachute onto the ground. For $5, punters could guess just how far he’d land from the centre circle. Already in the helicopter was an identically dressed mannequin with a backpack. When the helicopter reached the requisite height, the mannequin was pushed out, free-falling all the way to a THHWAAACK!! in the centre square mud. Not everyone was in on the ruse.
We had some explaining to do.
“Where we were coming from, it was a bit of a joke.”
1. The Premier Speedway is a local institution. There is no one who grew up in Warrnambool in the 80s who is not familiar with sprintcar driver Max Dumsney.
2. Up until the early 1990s the University was less grandly known as the Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education. It celebrated its makeover to a ‘University’ with a live (and not inexpensive) satellite link to the mother campus in Geelong. The Geelong campus was a portrait of austerity, well represented by leading faculty and students who didn’t skip Business Law 101 lectures to watch the final season of Knots Landing. In contrast, Warrnambool campus life was conveyed through browneyes, nudie-runs and simulated masturbation.
3. The other is situated on the grounds of the Brierly Mental Hospital (those who follow the May Racing Carnival in Warrnambool may recognise the name ‘the Brierly paddock’, where the horses leave the course proper during the Grand Annual Steeplechase). More than once at Brierly I ripped a drive smack down the middle of the sixth fairway, only to have it grabbed by a nomadic, low-security patient. The hospital no longer exists, nor do my smack-down-the-middle-of-the-fairway drives… for that matter, the golf course may also no longer exist.
4. The Mahogany Ship is a supposed shipwreck, possibly a Portuguese caravel, purported by some to lie beneath the sand two to four miles west of Warrnambool. If the ship were buried on the outer wing at the Pond, Dr John Sherwood, Honorary Associate Professor, part-time goal umpire and Mahogany Ship enthusiast would’ve discovered it. This footnote, deserves its own footnote. John Sherwood is a legend of the Sharks. So much so, he has the rare honour of having a pavilion named after him. Since arriving in Warrnambool in 1979, he has held every position at the club.
5. One of these dogs was ‘Frank’ who’d also join us on a lap of The Pond to close Thursday night training. When we reached the far wing, anyone with a Sherrin in their hands would aim a kick at Frank’s arse. The dog had an innate ability to swivel at the very last moment, and was not hit once during the 1996 season.
6. The Sharks were once barely able to manage the funds to place a ‘For Sale’ in the Warrnambool Standard classifieds for its unused salary cap.
7. The competition is now the WDFNL – Warrnambool District Football & Netball League. In country footy, the netball club is intrinsically linked to the football club. Case in point, between rounds 1-11 and 15-18 in 1996, I dated the captain of the B-Grade netball team (I was a late withdrawal in Round 12 due to the break-up) – that, however, is a story the size of a Russian novel.
8. This may have been the same game where the Sharks offered to forfeit and share a barrel in the rooms with the opposition. They turned it down in preference to a percentage boost.
9. The Shark Shuffle was a club ritual following a (rare) win, where you dive to the ground, cock one hand behind the head and the other behind the back and wriggle.