Sherrin memories from our sacred footy grounds
I recently visited Simonds Stadium at Kardinia Park to see the progress of construction of the new Players Stand. This joint project by the Federal and State Governments and Geelong Football Club will take capacity of the Cattery to 33,000.
I have been visiting the home of the Geelong Cats since I was a small boy. My first memories were of a suburban ground, mostly surrounded by a terraced embankment with a few rows of wooden benches on the fence.
In the 1970’s, going to the footy came with the expectation of standing up. For a big match people packed into the terraces cheek by jowl. As kids, we went hunting for empty beer cans that we arranged as a platform to give us more height so we could see. But for a less important game the ground could be empty allowing us to play kick to kick in the terraces while the game went on below.
At the end of the game, the sovereignty of the turf returned to the people as thousands of fans ran onto to the ground with footies in hand to test their own skills in front of goal or in the centre circle.
At the age of twelve I remember my Mum dropping me and a mate at Victoria Park. Without any fear of our safety, and without any supervision, the two of us walked into the ground and happily watched a game of footy for two and a half hours ... at the home of Collingwood. Naturally a fight broke out, but in truth it was the Collingwood fans themselves who were in most danger. Crowd conflicts at Victoria Park were always blue on blue affairs as the Magpie Army contested the appropriateness of their self-criticism. But since teeth have been considered a luxury among the Collingwood faithful, most stoushes amounted to little more than a harmless prod by a tattooed knuckle against a soft rubbery gum.
Having safely enjoyed an entire childhood of watching the footy at Kardinia Park and across Melbourne, I visited England in the mid 80’s and watched in horror the tragedies of Bradford, Heysel Stadium and Hillsborough where going to watch their team cost many fans their lives.
As I look back, I am amazed at how well behaved Australian Rules footy crowds really were. There were cheers, shouts, and taunts. There was colourful language. But kids were safe in the embrace of the footy fraternity. Because a footy match was fundamentally a family affair.
Footy grounds are not just venues. They are repositories of memories. For me it is the memory of the collective gasp as Gary Ablett Senior approached the ball and the crowd knew it was about to witness a miracle; or the memory of Larry Donohue’s hairy arms. It is also the memory of times spent with my Dad, as I ferreted my way down to the fence line so I could see and then checked in with him at the end of every quarter to compare notes.
A large part of my childhood lives at Kardinia Park as it does for tens of thousands of other citizens of Geelong.
As I stood in the centre of Kardinia Park admiring the new stand as it nears completion, it was impossible not to marvel at the change. There are almost no terraces left. The vast majority of the stadium is seated. Lights will soon be erected. It is starting to look like a genuine arena where major events happen in a very modern city.
Just as I’ve grown up, so has the stadium. Yet, whereas I look older and more crumpled, Kardinia Park looks newer and shinier. That said the level of comfort on offer for watching the footy is certainly more conducive to my middle age.
For all the sentimentality of the past, Kardinia Park today is infinitely better. It can now claim to be the most important piece of sporting infrastructure in regional Australia.
The new stand contains a state of the art classroom which will be used to teach local school children about sports science and in the process excite them about maths and sciences. It is testament to a club that knows its roots are in the community and that its future belongs to these kids.
Throughout Australia, footy grounds are the great meeting place. From the MCG to the Lara sports ground they are the places where people gather to watch their region on display and identify with their community. In most towns and cities it is the footy ground which is the heart and soul.
In Geelong that place is looking fantastic. And it is a reflection of a city and a community which feels very much the same.
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