From the pressbox: nothing beats seeing a game on the old turf

THERE was an element of heroism emanating from Richmond captain Trent Cotchin as he led the Tigers into battle at Punt Road yesterday.

Photos quickly appeared online.

The best used a sepia wash.

Cotchin appeared like a Tiger of old in the Tiger faithful’s heartland.

Barrack for the Tigers or not, this created an emotive sense of nostalgia, particularly being a battle against old foe Essendon.

It was only a practice match, but it still hit a capacity crowd of 2100 people on a weekday.

What is it about these old suburban grounds? Why do we keep hanging on?

AFL clubs outgrew them long ago – with the exception of Geelong’s Kardinia Park fortress.

Surely it is time for supporters to let these grounds go, just like they might toss away old footy boots with the stoppers worn down, that feet no longer squish into.

We should be demanding the best state-of-the-art facilities for our elite heroes, upgraded moves like Collingwood made to its Olympic Park base.

It is true that some clubs – Richmond, Carlton, Western Bulldogs – have undertaken renovations at their spiritual grounds to create impressive training hubs and offices.

What if, funding issues aside, Princes Park could be levelled completely and rebuilt into a classy boutique training ground – one without “I <3 Kouta” scratched into all the toilet doors?

That suggestion made one office Blues’ supporter turn pale.

Diehard fans cannot fathom it.

You are watching football at these grounds where the heroes of yesteryear took flying speckies, launched thumping torpedoes and showed courage of near mythical proportion.

This weekend is something of a trip down memory lane with final practice match hit-outs staged at Punt Road, Carlton’s Princes Park, Kardinia Park, and Port Adelaide’s Alberton Oval.

Only it is more a history lesson for modern AFL fans, many of whom will have never watched a home-and-away game from the outer at a spiritual home.

A trend in the Victorian Football League for the state’s AFL clubs to revert back to unaligned teams is bringing the old colours back to these suburban grounds.

AFL clubs need somewhere to play their athletes not required for AFL duty each week and they play on fans’ deeply entrenched emotions by taking them back to traditional playing venues.

It is not always pretty – North Ballarat Roosters played their first game against Essendon at Windy Hill last year, and their rooms featured the cricket club tenant’s bar.

But they were playing Essendon at Windy Hill with Bombers’ faithful strong in the outer.

There are plenty of grounds in the Ballarat region that have the same appeal.

Clunes looks amazing, cut into a hill face, and will sport a big screen beaming live action this season.

Hepburn has the tribal crowd vibe and is small enough to make you feel on top of the action, right in the thick of Burras’ fans.

Carngham-Linton played at its revamped Snake Valley base for the first time in nine years last season, splitting its games between Linton and Snake Valley.

In the Ballarat Football League, supporters are polarised between whether City Oval or Eastern Oval should be the marquee ground (this columnist would pick the Eastern every time for its amazing surface, atmosphere and viewing).

Both have beautiful old grandstands and trees circling the boundary; it’s easy to imagine they would have witnessed some spectacular football over the years.

Even in Stawell, Central Park is where you want to be – in football, cricket or running.

These hallowed grounds are steeped in history and all carry a tangible sense of belonging.

In the United States there is a NFL team Oakland, in outer San Francisco, where hordes of Raiders fans converge for home games in an old concrete stadium – a far cry from Superbowl stadium glamour.

Diehard Raiders fans from across the US make pilgrimages there each year to watch a game.

Ask them why, when they could go to a modern high-tech ground with plusher seats, and they will tell you it is because Oakland Coliseum is home.

VFL football will bring Richmond and Western Bulldogs’ Footscray outfit back to their spiritual homes this season – the Roosters will make the trek to the Bulldogs’ Whitten Oval on June 28 and have a practice match against Richmond next week.

Roosters coach Gerard FitzGerald said a pre-season hit-out at Punt Road, and one against Geelong at Kardinia Park last night, would take his players out of their comfort zone.

It should set the Roosters in good stead.

Their first two matches are Collingwood at Victoria Park, featuring a parochial Magpie Army, and Essendon at Windy Hill.

Expect a bumper crowd both game – with the AFL arm of each rival interstate for each fixture, there is nowhere for fans to turn but their spiritual homes for a footy fix.

melanie.whelan@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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