In 1963, Melbourne football attendances hit record levels, averaging more than 150 000 diehard fans each week. Inner suburban football grounds were the game’s tribal heartlands, with only 13 matches a year played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the 1960s. On Saturday afternoons, supporters headed for Arden Street (North Melbourne), Princes Park (Carlton), Glenferrie Oval (Hawthorn) and other grounds – criss-crossing Melbourne on trains, trams, on foot and by car. In 1966 it cost just fifty cents to go through the turnstiles. There was concern from the League that the advent of television might have a negative impact on attendances, which did drop slightly during the late 1950s. From 1961 the VFL banned live telecasts to combat this fear, but while attendances did decline again by the late sixties, the enthusiasm for ‘being there’ was not dulled for the majority of supporters.
St Kilda fans riveted to the match, watching from the old perimeter picket fence at their home ground, the Junction Oval in St Kilda, 1961. Caption reads: St. Kilda in danger – their fans are tense! Oh, the Agony! But what a yell there'll be when the Saints break free!
Source: Geoff Slattery Publishing
The local footy ground provided a site of identity and belonging for supporters. Grounds such as the Lake Oval, Victoria Park and the Junction Oval were going strong from the 1890s and provided a focus for community leisure, rivalry and identity for many decades to come. Australian Rules has no definitive ground size, so ovals varied from small and intimate to the more spacious. During the nineteenth century, there was no rigorous separation of spectators from the players – crowds could run on to the field when play became exciting and vendors took short-cuts across the ground. It is only recently that crowds have been banned from running onto the field after a match for a game of kick-to-kick. By the 1870s and 1880s (the game having officially commenced in 1858), crowds of more than 10,000 Melburnians of all classes and genders gathered in inner-city parklands on Saturday afternoons from May to October every winter.
Depending on who you barracked for, local grounds were either sites of comfort and intimacy where fans could surround themselves with reassuringly like-minded people be-decked in the same colours; or tense and hostile enemy territories, where the interlopers stuck together to find safety in numbers. Saturday afternoons (Sunday football matches did not commence until 1970) were defined for many by the sound of the siren and the roar of the crowd echoing along suburban streets.
Bomber fans brave the elements at Windy Hill, their home ground in Essendon, 1964.
Source: Michael Roberts
Each ground had its own character, but by modern standards they were no-frills – wooden benches and standing-room terraces, exposed to the wind and rain. Kids would take wooden boxes to stand on in the ‘outer’. Slender Glenferrie Oval was known as the ‘sardine can’ due to its hemmed-in position next to the railway line. The floor boards at Windy Hill rattled with the enraptured stamping of the feet of supporters in the stands, before concreting made them much more practical but far less atmospheric. Moorabbin was vast and muddy and car parking seemingly miles away from the ground. Victoria Park was known for its antiquated toilets and rabid partisan crowd.
Football barrackers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1960s.
Photographer: Mal Thomson, Source: Peter Thomson
The demand for upgraded ground facilities, the decline in the direct connection between club allegiance and geographic locality and, eventually, the nationalisation of the game, saw the local grounds gradually closed. There are now no AFL games played in Melbourne suburbia (although Geelong’s home ground at Kardinia Park is still going strong). The gradual move to replace terracing with seating was a significant cause for the loss of the suburban grounds – grounds that once held 45,000 people could barely manage to accommodate the home fans, let alone the away visitors. While post-war immigrants in the inner suburbs were adopting the game with a passion, football’s traditional supporters were moving to the new outer suburbs. This shift in Melbourne’s population resulted in a growing imbalance between the location of the clubs and the distribution of their supporters. There was no longer necessarily a connection between where you lived and who you barracked for. From 1965, with the move of St Kilda from Junction Oval to Moorabbin, teams began to relocate to larger grounds (such as the MCG) or shared situations such as Hawthorn’s move to Princes Park.
However, it is easy to romanticise the old grounds today. Overcrowded and unhygienic conditions could make for an uncomfortable afternoon. Turnstiles and numbered ticket rolls were not introduced until after 1953 with health commissioners demanding a system to calculate when grounds were full to capacity and the gates closed. Toilets overflowed, visibility was difficult and exposed stands could mean arctic conditions for shivering fans. Nevertheless, for those who remember emitting cheers and shedding tears at the old suburban footy grounds, where the action was close and the players in touching distance – there is a sense that some of the local magic of the game has been lost.
Home Ground Advantage – Melbourne’s suburban footy grounds
(dates indicate duration of clubs’ use of the ground for VFL/AFL home and away games)
Arden Street Oval: North Melbourne’s home ground from 1925-1985
Brunswick Street Oval: Fitzroy’s home ground from 1897-1966
Glenferrie Oval: Hawthorn’s home ground from 1925-1973
Junction Oval: St Kilda’s home ground from 1897-1964
Lake Oval: South Melbourne’s (now Sydney Swans) home ground from 1897-1981
Melbourne Cricket Ground: Melbourne’s home ground from 1892-present day
Moorabbin: St Kilda’s home ground from 1965-1992
Princes Park: Carlton’s home ground from 1897-2005
Punt Road Oval: Richmond’s home ground from 1908-1964 (the club then moved its home games to the MCG)
Victoria Park: Collingwood’s home ground from 1897-1999
Waverley Park: Hawthorn’s home ground from 1990-1999 and St Kilda’s home ground from 1993-1999
Western (now Whitten) Oval: Footscray/Western Bulldogs home ground from 1925-1997
Windy Hill: Essendon’s home ground from 1922-1991
Kardinia Park: Geelong’s home ground since 1941
Alomes, Stephen, ‘Tales of a Dreamtime: Australian Rules Football as Secular Religion,’ in Craven Ian et al (eds), Australian Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Alomes, Stephen and Stewart (eds), High Mark. Australian Rules Football and Australian Culture: Contemporary Studies of the Great Australian Game, Maribyrnong Press, 1998.
Hess, Rob and Stewart, Bob, More Than A Game: An Unauthorised History of Australian Rules Football, Melbourne University Press, 1998.
Hogan, Tim (ed), Reading the Game: An Annotated Guide to the Literature and Films of Australian Rules Football, Australian Society for Sports History Inc., Melbourne, 2005.
Pascoe, Robert, The Winter Game. Over One Hundred Years of Australian Football, Mandarin, Reed Books Australia, 1995.
Sandercock, Leonie and Turner, Ian, Up Where Cazaly? The Great Australian Game, Granada Publishing Ltd, 1981.
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