At the conclusion of Port Adelaide’s round 23 home game against Carlton at approximately 7:30pm next Saturday evening, AAMI Stadium, the venue formerly known as Football Park will cease to be an active AFL venue after hosting matches for the last 23 seasons.
Of course, the latest mothballing of a major AFL venue continues a trend that took hold in the late 1990’s with the demise of Waverley Park, Victoria Park and the WACA in 1999-2000, and the loss of Carlton’s long time home at Optus Oval in 2005.
However, from a purely personal perspective I have only ever attended one final game at any venue and it was the last ever AFL match played at the home of the Western Bulldogs.
The Western Oval, later known as the Whitten Oval hosted 665 VFL/AFL games from 1925 to 1997 and the very last was in round 21, 1997 on the 23rd of August, against the West Coast Eagles.
Perhaps typically for the Whitten Oval’s AFL finale, it was a cold, gloomy and often wet afternoon, and a crowd over more than 25,000 braved the less than ideal conditions to see the finals bound Bulldogs at their traditional home for the very last time.
Now those that never had the pleasure of attending a Footscray home game at the Western Oval, would be unfamiliar with the unique nuances of the ground.
The eastern side of the ground contained the two major grandstands, named after John Gent and of course the legendary EJ Whitten, while both ends behind the goals were purely what can only be described as the ‘outer’, with often savage winds blowing from the northern Barkly Street end to the southern Geelong Road end or vice-versa.
As a contrast, the western side bordering Gordon Street contained a roofed outer with an elevated coaches box above what came to be known unofficially at first and later officially as the Doug Hawkins Wing, named after the 329 game Bulldogs veteran.
With a team like the Bulldogs in the late 1980‘s and early to mid 1990‘s, often a seven or eight goal tally was enough to secure the points, as Carlton discovered on another cold day at the kennel in mid 1991.
Former Kangaroo Mark Arceri delivered the only goal for the Blues in time-on in the final quarter of the round 11 encounter. That afternoon under gloomy skies, the Dogs winning score of 8.9 (57) far eclipsed Carlton’s dismal tally of just 1.10 (16).
But sadly all those memories are now left to fade into insignificance, as they remain only memories once a venue is taken out of circulation.
On the last day the Doggies enjoyed a true home-ground advantage, they were indeed triumphant. Not by classy, fluent football, but rather with scrappy, tough, contested, hard nosed Bulldog pride footy, that the home fans adored for years, through both the hard times and also the more prosperous ones.
This last game saw the Bulldogs triumphant by 18 points, leading throughout, as the West Coast Eagles became the last ever team to fall victim to the Dogs at their traditional home.
Of course, it was at the end of 1996 that the Footscray Football Club lost its traditional identity, with the re-branding of the club as the Western Bulldogs. The club chose to move to Carlton’s Optus Oval in preparation for the opening of the state-of-the-art Docklands in 2000, and the Whitten Oval was abandoned as an AFL venue, save for that one last farewell match in late 1997.
Nowadays, the modern football fan rarely gets to experience the joy of standing out in the rain, under a leaky poncho, watching a tight, bruising low scoring encounter unless they are at a suburban local game, or perhaps in the one of the many small towns around the country, where the community football club is the often spiritual heart of the town.
However, with the vast majority of stadiums in the AFL landscape now fully seated and providing mostly undercover viewing, the days of getting soaking wet at an AFL game are almost over, especially now with the final matches being played at AAMI Stadium.
The question is, are we really better off as fans? Probably.
But there was truly something in standing out in the elements, cheering your team on, and feeling that just maybe the players out in the middle would lift with the support that your voice could muster, by yelling out encouragement with joy, pride and pure unadulterated passion.
One thing is for sure, there is no going back to the old days of suburban grounds, and in a way that is sad, but it is indeed progress. This progress is something that the Crows and Power fans are going to have to get used to with the demise of AAMI Stadium for the greener pastures of the newly refurbished Adelaide Oval.
Just like the remnants of former league venues in Victoria, the days of South Australian footy fans looking back at the nostalgic days at Football Park will only increase in the future and memories of the last day at home will forever linger in the hearts of those who attended.
It is something you just don’t forget, however, those days are definitely forever missed.