Growing up in Melbourne during the 1980s, Princes Park was one of the regular grounds I attended with my father and brother. I was an Essendon fan (I have long-since renounced them) and my brother was a Carlton fan: he has renounced them too, along with Australian rules. And so, my father would alternate taking us to Windy Hill and Princes Park to watch our teams play. My pleasure in footy barely depended on which team I watched. If we watched Carlton, I would adopt them for the day. But, it was only Essendon who I would shed tears for upon their losing. We had our favourites: The Big Fish, The Flying Dutchman, The Dormat, The Dominator and Sticks. Their other names would appear in the Record.
We would sit near the player’s race, so at the end of the game, we could jump the fence and pat the players on the back, or, if lucky, ask them for a signature. We would pick up blue and white fragments from the banner and keep it with our collection of footy ephemera. Physical objects with traces of the game. We would wait in the semi-darkness outside of the players’ change rooms and they would come out showered and in tracksuits or suits and they’d be pestered again for more autographs. Afterwards, we’re write our translations of the scrawl; stating which player had signed his name within our autograph books.
Going to the MCG was a rarity; while going to VFL Park, although on our side of the city, was time-consuming, dull and cold. My strongest – or only – memory of the MCG in the 80s was being at the 1987 Grand Final, played on a hot spring day and seeing Carlton – who we regarded as the good guys – defeat the perennially victorious Hawthorn. As for VFL Park: I remember the 1986 Elimination Final (and leaving in tears) and the 1993 Pre-Season Grand Final, which Essendon won (75,000 in attendance). The last game I attended with my father was in the early rounds of 1994 when the Fitzroy Lions upset the premiership-hang-overed Baby Bombers. My father was bored and distracted; I left angry and disappointed.
The use of new stadiums is one of the easiest ways to establish a difference with an earlier league. The AFL-era in Melbourne is marked by the dominance of MCG and Docklands stadia as venues. In the A-League, venues such as Olympic Park and Lakeside Stadium have been demolished (in the former’s case) or not used for top-flight games, in the case of Lakeside Stadium. Instead, attending a game in the A-League means going to the soulless, characterless stadium in Docklands – or, going to the beautifully designed Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (MRS), which despite its grace, is probably too recent to evoke strong feelings upon its supporters. Moreover, MRS’s highly policed and surveilled qualities has caused much friction with the easily risible would-be ultras of Melbourne Victory who congregate at the Stadium’s northern end.
While in Adelaide, a new era has been marked by the return to the re-designed Adelaide Oval. This ground, however, rejects the philosophy inherent in the design of stadia such as Docklands/Etihad Stadium. Adelaide Oval, re-developed by Cox Architecture, retains the ground’s historical attributes of the scoreboard, Moreton Bay Figs and the Victor Richardson Gates. While sitting in the Adelaide Oval one is always capable of placing oneself spatially: in reference to the scoreboard, or particular stand. Try doing this at Etihad Stadium: what is the difference between the Lockett and Coventry ends? Indeed, what is the connection of these players to the stadium? East, West, North, South means as good as nothing in the stadium. And that is part of its point in its design: all fans should feel like they have an equally good view of the game. But, in the end, what dominates is the feeling that all fans have an equally bland, alienating and removed experience of the game.
If I think of Etihad Stadium, I think of its confusion over its identity. From Docklands, to Colonial, to Etihad. With this stadium, the AFL has worked hard to create an in-door version of Australian rules: a game played without the influence of wind or a muddy surface or a slippery ball. What, they created though, was a slippery surface: where the land beneath players feet would shift unexpectedly and where nasty knee injuries just seem to happen more regularly. The siren is high-pitched and tinny; its echo doesn’t match with the booming sirens reminiscent of ship horns heard at other grounds. I remember Docklands for its inglorious moments: Danny Frawley being spat-upon by angry Richmond fans; and the embarrassing keepings-off win by Richmond against the Crows in the Terry Wallace-era.
It is no co-incidence that the fan bases of both Adelaide and Port Adelaide Football Club have been equally re-energised with their taking up of residence at the aesthetically beautiful Adelaide Oval and their departure from the bland, placeless stadium of Footy Park. On the other hand, Etihad struggles to attract big crowds, and when it does, it can’t cope with them: fans queue for tickets well-past the start of the game and bottlenecks form on the bridge to Southern Cross Station before and after games.
Travelling to the suburban grounds of Princes Park, Windy Hill, Victoria Park, Arden Street took fans out of their own suburbs and into the familiar, homely spaces of others. The economic rationalisation of football grounds used within the top-flight of Australian rules in Melbourne, means Melbourne fans mainly only travel to two destinations: MCG and Docklands. Convenient, well-known, easy on one hand. Boring, repetitive, sterile on the other. The sudden emergence of the women’s competition within the AFL provides a reason for some fans to re-visit the ‘old VFL grounds’. Perhaps this will further strengthen the fan’s knowledge that going to a game is more than just about watching one’s team play: it is also about ritual and the enjoyment of the aesthetics of place and the kinds of socialisation it facilitates.
My memories of Princes Park are blurry.
*photos by Andy Fuller