Last week I attended a function at Windy Hill. From behind the glass of the old stand I looked over the ground and sipped my beer, letting awe wash over me as I viewed the hallowed turf. An Essendon fan since birth, this is where some of my earliest footy memories live. Piling into Dad’s old Datsun Sunny and driving across to Essendon from Greensborough. We’d park in a leafy suburban street or sometimes in the Primary School. Then we’d walk, talking excitedly about the game and bouncing the footy as we went. My pocket money of 60 cents would secure a Footy Record. The rusty old turnstiles would creak as you went through them and then you entered another world.
A buzz of noise hovered over the outer. The buzz of fans talking animatedly about their lives, their family and the game that would soon commence. The smell of hot pies wafted across from the food stand. The opening of beer cans pierced the air and was followed by the greedy gulping of amber relief. Soon the smell of stale beer would ooze out of the empty cans strewn across the terrace. The crowd stood shoulder to shoulder. Lack of height was a serious disadvantage in this setting. As a Primary Schooler, I had to improvise if I wanted to see the game. Sitting on shoulders, standing on tippy toes or snaking my way forward to the fence that was ringed by a couple of rows of seats. You could smell the grass and earth on the field of play. It was a sweet sweet smell. Rich and full.
On that field of play, men with day jobs would run around and test themselves against each other. Daniher, Vander Haar, Duckworth and Madden. One day Sheeds tied down the windsock to play with the visiting West Coast minds. The most remarkable thing about this incident is that an AFL ground had a windsock. A main sponsor behind the goals was Blue Sea Pools. The Essendon jumper sponsor was a brick company.
Yes, the game has changed. The Bombers now play most home games in a 12-year-old stadium that has a retractable roof and is named after an airline from the Middle East. Footy Records now cost $5 each and mid-strength beer is served in flimsy plastic cups. The jumper sponsor is now a Korean car company. Even as a traditionalist I have to admit that not all of these changes are for the worse. Suburban grounds are no longer suitable to host AFL football, except maybe Princes Park for smaller fixtures. And more money in the game has allowed professionalism to raise athleticism to new levels. The game still has charm and continues to grab the attention of its fans.
But I did take comfort in the fact that my team still trained on the old turf of Windy Hill. This gave a tangible link to the past. I like to think that the relatively pampered and mothered players of today would somehow be forced to keep their feet on the ground because they knew they were part of something bigger. The red and black wasn’t all about them. It had been here for many years before them and would be around for many years after them. Even as they walked towards the ground along the Napier Street footpath they could look down and see the names of those who had come before them. It was up to them how they would make their mark on this grand old club’s proud history.
The recent commencement of training at our new ‘state-of-the-art’ training complex has done little to dampen my lament at the Bomber’s approaching abandonment of Windy Hill as a training venue. Like many aspects of modern footy it appears to emphasise aesthetics more than character. And this obsession with having an MCG-sized training ground is a bugbear of mine. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned (if I haven’t already), many a club has won premierships training on their old suburban grounds. The size of the ground is not as important as what you do on it. Geelong seems to have fared okay in the last few years on their odd shaped ground. Ten metres longer and 26 metres narrower than the MCG. Shock horror. The era of salary caps and equalisation policies has created a keeping up with the Joneses approach for many clubs.
Naturally I want the Essendon players to have access to the best possible facilities. And as a fan I hope that the move to Tullamarine is a successful one. Let’s just hope Windy Hill is maintained as the important site that it deserves to be and doesn’t stumble into a state of disrepair like Victoria Park did for most of the last decade until its recent facelift.