While it’s hard to imagine now, the AFL was once in financial turmoil.
In the late 1980’s, the club had $20million of debt, a figure which was closely aligned to its annual turnover.
Conventional wisdom was that to have so many clubs located in one city was an unsustainable stretch or resources. Part of the league’s plan for survival was its ground rationalisation scheme, which would see it’s Melbourne clubs move from its traditional suburban venues to just two sites; the MCG and the newly-built Docklands Stadium.
While the success of the AFL’s grand scheme is inarguable, what exactly has the league lost by abandoning its suburban roots?
The most pertinent case study to answer this question is Collingwood. The Magpies were self-sufficient in its spiritual home, Victoria Park, and have also now completely moved its training base. The club’s VFL team plays half of its home games at Victoria Park to be the club’s only remaining link to its original home.
If there are ill-effects felt by the abandonment of a club’s traditional home, it will have been felt by the Pies.
Collingwood was among the last clubs to fully transition to the AFL’s ground rationalisation scheme. The club began to move home games to the MCG in 1993, before fully transitioning in 2000.
Its final match at Victoria Park was a 42-point loss to Brisbane in 1999. The loss resigned the club to its second bottom-placed finish in its history.
Talk about rock-bottom.
The ground was due to be demolished the very next year, but it was saved by its place on the Victorian Heritage Register. The club continued to use Victoria Park as a training and administrative base before moving to its purpose-built facility as the Olympic Park Complex.
A glance at the history books can’t encapsulate the significance of the ground to the Collingwood/Abbotsford area, though some historians have made a good fist of it. Nor can setting foot into the ground itself, which is available for public use and is today frequented by dog owners and families playing a traditional game of kick-to-kick.
To truly appreciate the consequence of this old football ground, one must first understand the history of its most famous tenant, the Collingwood Football Club. Specifically, it must be understood how the club became representative of its suburb and therefore its supporters, who were able to live expressly through it.
The demise of Melbourne’s traditional suburban football grounds.
To borrow the well-worn metaphor, you must speak to those who have black and white flowing through their veins.
Shane Barrie, of the Victoria Park Heritage Committee (VPHC), certainly fills this criteria. His great-grandfather Frederick Trenerry Brown organised the purchase of 12 hectares of land in 1879. The location had previously been known as ‘Dight’s Paddock,’ and was bordered roughly by what is now Johnston Street, the Yarra river, Hoddle Street and the Eastern Freeway.
According to the VPHC’s website, Barrie and the rest of the committee seek to: “represent ordinary people that have a passionate and very personal connection to the ground. This includes people that have sat in the stands or stood on the terraces, players that have toiled and bled for the black and white jumper and those souls that rest in peace on the ground.”
Victoria Park was originally established as a cricket ground and had no respectable football club stationed there. The Britannia Football Club had tried and failed to be admitted into the premier competition, the VFA. The people of Collingwood demanded more.
A meeting at the Collingwood town hall on February 12 1892 led to the formation of the Collingwood Football Club. By Barrie’s reckoning: “it’s the only club in world sport to have been formed by a popular uprising of the people.”
With the support of local council, who allocated £600 for the necessary upgrades to Victoria Park, Collingwood was admitted into the VFA. Its first game on May 7 against Carlton drew an estimated 16,000 spectators.
“We were a big club from day one. We’ve always had the biggest crowds and the biggest following,” says Barrie.
Collingwood, being a working-class, blue collar suburb, was particularly affected by the Great Depression. This emerged a symbol of hope for its down-trodden supporters, as this coincided with the club’s most successful period.
Collingwood remains the only club in the VFL/AFL’s 119-year history to win four consecutive premierships, achieving the feat from 1927-30.
“Collingwood had gone into depression in 1926, the suburb was really struggling,” Barrie says.
“What got us through was that the club won the premierships, ’27, ’28, ’29 and ’30. It took everyone’s attention off the misery that was being suffered here.
“It was a horrible place to exist, but we were winning premierships. We had overtaken everyone in terms of football. We were the premier team by the end of the ‘20s.”
Two more premierships were added in 1935-36 in what was the club’s golden age prior to WWII.
Barrie pinpoints the club obtaining a liquor license in 1942 as a turning point in the club’s history in terms of its relationship to its supporters.
The new license led to the formation of a social club, which had access to the bar at games. The cost of a membership to the social club was out of reach of many supporters.
Collingwood refers to itself as a ‘flat’ club, that is that all supporters are on the same level and that it is classless. Barrie scoffs at this suggestion.
“Collingwood has lost this egalitarian sense, it lost it ages ago,” says Barrie.
“[President Eddie McGuire] and the club still talk about being a ‘flat club.’ We’re not a flat club. That left here at Victoria Club when it became home of the toffs.”
By the early 1980’s, this had manifested into a four-tiered social club, with each level belonging to a different class of corporate member, above the season ticket holders in the main grandstand and general admission patrons on the old hill.
Despite these issues, Barrie believes that the sense of community that was felt by Collingwood fans in its historic traditional home is irreplaceable in the shared tenancy of the MCG.
“I feel it’s part of the reason to turn up and support is not there, it’s been corporatised. Whereas [at Victoria Park], there was a sense of ownership,” Barrie says.
“You were invested in the club. If you were a supporter, you were the club, and the club recognised that.”