Princes Park Days: Blue Reflections

By John Butler

Nostalgia is said to be a sure product of advancing age. It is equally sure that those of us old enough to remember the days of suburban footy grounds are susceptible to rose coloured remembrance. Like favourite songs forever linked to formative life experiences, each tribe has a repository of memories held dear; elements essential to the identity of each club and individual.

My tribe wears Navy Blue, and our spiritual home will always be Princes Park. Please excuse me if I indulge in a little nostalgia of my own. Sentiment will be evident, for objectivity is the luxury of the unaffiliated, and this is a tale of rise and fall.

My home game ritual usually favoured a leisurely stroll up tree lined Royal Parade. Whether the setting was autumnal glory or winter barrenness, it provided a respite from the concerns of the week; a chance for reflection before plunging into the pressure-cooker events which beckoned.

The old metal turnstiles always clanked with a familiarity which became reassuring as the years past. I usually preferred to enter some distance removed from my intended viewing spot. A partial lap of the ground enabled the mood of the faithful to be sampled, the likely temper of the afternoon to be assessed. This being a generally prosperous time for the Blues, the mood was usually expectant.

In early days, the outer was my regular destination. A bayside resident in these times, I had frequent exposure to the gravel terraces of Moorabbin. Whilst they were similar in amenity, the Linton St Wing often felt like the periphery (despite the best efforts of the Animal Enclosure). The Lygon St end rarely felt far from the centre of events.

Always a gangly lad, sightlines were not a problem. This was a relief, as the beer can pedestals often utilised in those days never appealed. Consumption of the foundation material always seemed inimical to the balance required once assembled.

Russian roulette was often played with both the weather (it rained in those days) and the pies (ranging from barely defrosted to scalding hot). Looming over all was the scoreboard, which had the uncanny knack of posting the latest addition before your eyes could be raised toward it.

These were glory days indeed to be a Carlton fan. My personal pantheon is filled from these times.

I can still remember the slap as Jezza knocked Keith Greig over the boundary line in a crucial last quarter contest; ending an impertinent Kanga comeback which threatened the afternoon’s enjoyment. Soon enough, Jezza led us to triumph over the hated Pies. George Harris’ “the only thing better than beating Collingwood by 100 points…” was ungracious but true. Who knew both would be gone before summer properly arrived?

The club seemed to barely skip a beat. We even made the finals with Percy as coach. Professor Parkin took over and more triumph followed. The Mosquito Fleet buzzed, as did the Buzz. Kenny Hunter flew with reckless bravery; the implacable Doormat never lost his footing. The Dominator always knew when it was time to put on a show.

The mid Eighties saw a new crop of interstate bounty. Sticks arrived and has never really left. Black mullet hair and vice-like grip; the collective intake of breath as he helicoptered another shot towards goal. Braddles, the eternal energizer bunny with silky skills. The tragedy of Peter Motley.

And still the champs kept coming. Diesel arrived amid controversy that remained a constant companion. Ruthless determination and a mystic’s ability to read the play proved a powerful combination. Kouta announced himself colossus arrived one day against the Eagles; the same day Diesel showed he could bamboozle goal umpires as well as opponents.

After the dream that was ’95, it seemed the dynasty was eternal. In hindsight, Carlton’s grip faltered around the time Sticks’ loosened.

The outer was sacrificed to the Legends Stand, as Big Jack’s fatally compromised dream of a boutique stadium was pursued. It soon enough transpired that all of Jack’s dreams contained fatal flaws.

The electronic replacement for the old scoreboard now seems emblematic. While its predecessor rarely erred, this new contraption could barely pass an afternoon without some comic-opera catastrophe.

Now an outer refugee, I ended up on the concourse in front of the Jack Stand. A motley collection of devotees was soon formed. We congregated each week, and if the team’s fortunes fluctuated, we entertained ourselves. We had little common ground in the outside world, but footy is a powerful bond.

The first half of ’98 saw us languishing; the sight of a young Tredrea standing on Peter Dean’s shoulders now a harbinger of the future. The ’99 Prelim was one glorious last hurrah, but in the larger picture it served more as a mirage to deceive.

The Long Dark Night closed in, to the sound of Kouta’s knee snapping. What once came naturally to Carlton now deserted it. Jack made one last desperate roll of the dice, but no saviour arrived. This Pagan import lacked that most essential attribute of sporting success: timing.

Boards now quarrelled and the team set historic lows. Spoon waving acquired a sudden popularity. The faithful struggled to adjust to a new reality. Scapegoats were found, but still no messiahs.

Eventually, the unthinkable became reality. We were leaving home to play at another, larger, boutique stadium by the water. Jack wasn’t the only one dreaming big, apparently. The arguments seemed compelling, but the heart isn’t obliged to like what the head tells it. Carlton had grown used to dealing on its own terms; this turn of events was bitter indeed.

The final home game seemed all too appropriate to the time. The handover from Big Nick to Kouta brought a tear, but so did the team’s effort; against the Dees no less. The price of hubris never seemed higher than that day.

So it was off to the Docklands BattleStar to co-habit with many foes. No more tree lined walks here. From the city side, the crowd seems disgorged through a long concrete digestive tract. As to the waterside approach, it is hard to stroll through Docklands on a winter’s day without the mind drifting to one of those Antonioni films about modern alienation.

To be fair, the BattleStar has some consolations. I’m now old enough to appreciate the roof’s shelter, when they can decide to close it. And, when the game warrants, the atmosphere can certainly cook up. Sadly, it was quite some time before Carlton generated any heat.

I still like to stand when I can, but the new environment seems less accommodating, horizons more restricted. That motley group has been cast to the winds of members sections and reserved seating; we rarely assemble now.

At last, a cardboard messiah came to the rescue. Though the gods didn’t smile on him much longer, he brought stability and, through this, a new champion was acquired. Just like the old days, we got him from someone else.

The only consolation of modern cellar-dwelling is the hope you might gain new champions. We think we may have done so, but they are largely unproven. Slowly, a team that can win is being re-assembled. We think we’re coming, but there’s still no guarantee where we’ll end up.

I’ve now moved out of town. Like the club, I’m still to fully adjust to the modern arrangement; match day routines are not yet settled. The past is still important; for it helps you know who you are. But you can’t live in it. Carlton took too long to realise this.

In our heyday, we were not notable for our charity to others. Football has never really been about charity; nor sympathy. Sentiment nowadays usually finds itself in the same display case as the lace up guernsey. This is the language of professional sport.

Carlton need not fear this. We have mastered this language before.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World’s Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Good article John.
    Is there any truth to the rumor that Tony Robinson and Andrew Demetriou are making a joint announcement to day that in season 2010 Ethiad Stadium will be known as “The Tank”

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