….and we’ll call them “curtain raisers”.


I didn’t have an AFL membership in the last couple of years, for a few reasons.  Chief amongst them was the fact that following Carlton I was worried I might develop a twitch or some other psychosomatic symptom of the volcanic levels of frustration they produced in me.  In the knowledge we were years away, I’d chased glimmers of our future players by instead opting for a VFL membership to the Northern Blues, Carlton’s “affiliate”. Saturdays were now walks through the leafy inner-north suburbs to Princes Park, or a pre-game lunch amidst the bustling diversity of Preston Market.  For me were the solemn pastures, set in grounds which hadn’t seen a lick of paint in a generation and were all the more charming because of it.


After a couple of years living up in Eltham, I’d followed the local NFL side there and instantly got the bug for the local version of Australia’s indigenous game.  It’s a different animal entirely, a salt-of-the-earth version that immediately reminded me of the Gaelic football clubs I’d grown up around.  Local footy’s a treasure and is clearly cherished by many who chip in their time or patronage to keep it all ticking over.  The standard is really good too, and a close, committed contest in sport is a joy to behold no matter how famous the competitors are.  If you like to get up and out on a Saturday morning for a run or a cycle in suburban Melbourne, you are a good chance to come across an oval awakening for the day.  High-pitched voices, mum’s with strollers, keep-cups and labradoodles, texting on the boundary while little Lachlan or Poppy dances after the mob surrounding the footy.  These communities flow through local ovals and they, in turn, become hubs for people to gather, meet, and maybe come home one day with a medal or a memory.  In the arvo at VFL grounds, local characters bay and yell, families touch base, kids wear scarves that nanna knitted, and big-bellied men stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their mates, all VBs and bootcut jeans. You get to love this. The familiar faces of folks sizzling the snags, the dad and his little boy who high-five after every goal, the guttural noise of the players firing each other up before they leave the rooms, and the unfailing homespun comedy of the quarter-time kick to kick.  I now know where the sun will hit your eyes come the 2nd quarter at Princes Park, and that if you’re kicking from the pocket at the Cramer Street end towards Preston Market, you HAVE to aim for that near post or you’re buggered.


The spectacularly positive addition of AFLW to the footy calendar in recent years is only further enhanced by it’s link to suburban grounds, bringing progressiveness and nostalgia together into a sublime mix.  In men’s senior football, the VFL is the highest-level bastion of local footy in these parts.  However, an open secret stalks it.  Increasingly it is becoming an AFL-reserves league and plans are in play which will – it feels – inevitably lead to that express outcome.  The majority of it’s clubs are now “affiliates” and those who are not are struggling.  Some, like Frankston, are hanging by a thread.  The looming spectre of VFL being gobbled up as ‘added value’ for AFL clubs is becoming more and more visible with each passing year.


An indicator of this was when I went to renew my Northern Blues membership for season 2019.  The link on the Northern Blues website now took me to the Carlton website where a VFL package was now being offered (at a 75% premium to last season’s price).  In March – and with their customary misguided sense of pride in a decision they’ve made – the AFL announced that they were treating ‘footy fans’ to ‘curtain raisers’ (canned applause).  My Northern Blues were honoured with 3 of them, cutting my much-loved VFL days-out among the sights and sounds of Princes Park and Preston City Oval to 7 for the entire season.


And so it was that I sat with only a few hundred others at Marvel Stadium on Sunday as the opening siren blew in the Northern Blues v Collingwood curtain raiser. I knew I had to write something down and put it out there.  Marvel Stadium is a very alien place when empty – the closed roof giving the feeling of a gigantic aeroplane hangar or other vast industrial space. I sat close to the play and, looking up, saw tiny pigeons flutter around the beams and girders of the dark grey metallic structure.  Someone a few bays away coughed.  The ubiquitous flashing adverts still flashed, the in-house TAB on the stadium concourse was very busy, and while I looked on for some hope that the Blues were bringing some decent effort this week, the West Coast Eagles cheer squad carted their bags of flags and pompoms down past me to behind the goal that the Collingwood forwards were already peppering.  Music blared during the breaks.  It blared.  For most of the people already there, this game was frankly incidental, it may have seemed like a good idea to come early – but now they were here they preferred to be on their phones.  I longed for the grandstand at Preston with it’s chortling magpies and blue-collar soul.  This gift from Gillon landed as flat as anyone could only have expected it to (except Gillon).  Of course these decisions will never come back to bite anyone.  They’re not big or important enough, much like the people they might effect.  Sitting there, watching a spectacle devoid of charisma, I was left only to worry that if the VFL increasingly goes this way, it’ll be a travesty.  Would AFLW follow one day too?  I desperately hope not.  Many local footy fans don’t want to be stuck fluttering under the AFL’s big grey roof.


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About Joe

Born and raised in County Derry. We had a crackly video of the 1986 International Rules Series in our house, and my brother and I watched it over and over. Saw my first footy match in 2005 when Fraser Gehrig destroyed Carlton at the Telstra Dome. Been hooked since. Celtic fan.


  1. Joe, you’ve nailed it here. The disconnect between administrators at the top and your average punter seems to be getting bigger. Among your comments, I identify particularly with your distaste for the egregious noise that blares incessantly at the concrete monoliths. FFS, let us enjoy the footy and the people around us in peace!

  2. John Butler says

    Joe, the then VFL (now AFL) and the then VFA (now VFL) fought a pitched battle for over a century. The AFL finally forced a meek capitulation from its opponent by sheer commercial might.

    It’s a shame clubs like Port Melbourne, Williamstown and Frankston are so up against it. There’s an entire history of the game contained in the old VFA clubs. But empires only pay heed to the needs of empire.

    Having trained a generation of fans’ expectations to the dubious attractions of the “match day experience”, the idea of a curtain raiser seems token at best. Most people now plan to turn up at the last minute. Having watched a couple of similar exercises at the Docklands Hanger, I concur completely with your description.

    I am, however, heartened by the decision to play the AFLW and VFL GF’s at Princes Park. Both events will be the better for it.


  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Joe, that second paragraph especially is a cracker, “ovals awakening”. I hate the Docklands for all of the reasons that you’ve mentioned.

  4. joehuddler says

    Thanks fellas!

    Ian, I swear I think the 2nd quarter bounce was delayed so a song could finish.

    John, that is indeed a positive decision. I don’t mind Princes Park at all in it’s current shabbiness, but obviously it’s been earmarked for funding and upgrades too. Hopefully that project is characterised by a spirit of restoration, and not just seen as an opportunity for more of those god-awful moving advertising hoardings.

    Blow-ins like me are probably largely unaware of the tectonic history of footy, and the events which culminated in the AFL. The driver was clearly money though, rather than custodianship of the games heritage. That much is abundantly obvious even to the likes of me.

    Thanks Mark, it’s a funny ground isn’t it? Many cities around the world would dearly love such a facility, but it just sits uneasily here. Whilst the G is the G and it’s heritage and grandeur fit footy (and Australian sport in general) to a tee, this ground instead symbolises the AFL organisation. I know it’s always had a sponsors name, but for some reason Marvel fits best. A ‘brand’ with a much-loved heritage, having endeared itself to grassroots fans due to the depth and substance of it’s content – now elevated/reduced to a brash, money-making machine, cos it’s all about that ca$h-money. When they made the Doggies wear Thor jumpers there for Rd1, the shark was well and truly jumped!

  5. Outstanding observations, J Huddler.
    Eyes open.

    In borrowing that line: “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept,” I have not returned to Docklands for footy since about 2013. But I love a quarter time sausage at the local ground.

  6. joehuddler says

    Thanks David, and kudos for the principled stand.

    I guess to a large extent it’s not really footy if you can’t smell sausages hey!

  7. Rick Kane says

    Good stuff Joe, agree with your observations and sentiment and not just because PCO is the Preston Bullants JFC footy ground as well. Son is playing there on Sunday in the final round of the YJFL Colts Div 4 comp. It’s a great ground to watch a game and the more moneyed clubs of the Yarra JFL do like traversing out to Preston to have a run on this historic ground. The Silvagni’s have stood under the grandstand’s shadow cheering on their youngest son playing against the Bullants. (By the way, the Bullants jumper is about my fave footy jumper and it was worn by the senior team when it was a VFL side prior to being swallowed up by the Northern Blues).

    One point I think should be noted. That is, I do like that these VFL players do get a chance to run around on the same ground where many AFL games have been won and lost. Notwithstanding your bigger argument, I think there’s something special in that.


  8. joehuddler says

    Thanks Rick. Yes, the Bullants pride was there for all to see when we took on Coburg a month or so back. The red jumpers were on and the beanies were out in numbers. It tells it’s own localised story of loss for that community, and I don’t wish to forget that. Among many many other things I wish Carlton had handled far better was the link with, which sadly became the veritable consumption of, the Bullants.

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Joe, Preston was my VFA team as a child, albeit following on TV (ABC TV weekly VFA broadcasts) only throughout the late 80’s and 1990’s as a country Victorian.. As a Collingwood fan, they very sadly are dead to me as the Northern Blues. I miss the VFA and having a team to follow in that competition.

    Given the long break required between the games, I think curtain raisers before AFL games are a waste of time. My favourite experiences in recent times have been to take my boys to an afternoon VFL game at Victoria Park followed by a night game at the MCG.

    As for Marvel Stadium, my Collingwood reserved seats are for an MCG only membership. Don’t miss going to that sterile venue west of the CBD.

    Go Bullants!!

  10. joehuddler says

    Hi Luke. Completely understandable!

    I have a secret fondness for Victoria Park. I live just over the footbridge in Clifton Hill and walk past it everyday. It’s a great community space now, as well as being a footy heritage landmark. As it’s so close to my door, I do tend to dander down when there’s a game on – although I normally find myself barracking for the visitors for some reason.

    Last week for the first time, I stopped in for a pint at the Yarra Hotel. Apparently when they played the first game at the ground the players all got changed at the back of the hotel and jogged across Johnston Street in their boots. I love stuff like that.

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