Home Australia Twenty-five years on from the highs and woes of Waverley, a new stadium sparks political football

Twenty-five years on from the highs and woes of Waverley, a new stadium sparks political football

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When the final siren sounded in the Round 22 clash between Hawthorn and Sydney in August 1999, fans from all corners of the field stormed the field.

Not because Tony “Plugger” Lockett had broken another scoring record, or because Dermott Brereton had crushed someone in an all-in brawl.

But because it was his last chance to do so.

The grand old Waverley Park stadium, once destined to become one of the world’s largest sporting stadiums, emptied its multicolored wooden stands for the last time as people flocked to the soggy, muddy grass.

The Hawks prevailed by 85 points that afternoon in front of a crowd of 72,130.

The Hawks were victorious when the final siren sounded at Waverley Park in 1999. (Getty Images: Stuart Milligan/Allsport)

Plugger kicked four for the losing side, and the frozen benches of “Arctic Park” in Melbourne’s northeast would never see an official AFL match again.

This year marks a quarter of a century since that last siren, but in many ways the lessons of yesteryear are still at the forefront of the sports media landscape.

The AFL is once again on a mission to build a new stadium, this time in Tasmania.

So has the league learned its lesson from the demise of the much-lauded “VFL Park”?

Dermott Brereton and Bill Duckworth fight

Essendon’s Dermott Brereton and Bill Duckworth enjoy a friendly exchange during a match at Waverley Park in 1986.(Getty Images: Tony Feder/Allsport)

Born in a dream

Waverley Park holds many records: among them, it was the first stadium designed and built specifically for Australian rules football.

Original plans were for a stadium with a capacity of approximately 160,000 people, which would have made it the second largest in the world.

The master plan was bold and included a motel, indoor sports fields, a helipad and even a lake.

An aerial image of Waverley Park with a VFL match underway.(Supplied: flikr/Monash City Archives via Waverley City.)

However, the dream never came true.

Stadium capacity stalled at just over 100,000 (72,000 seats plus standing room), amid ongoing conflict between the VFL (as the AFL was known before 1990), the state government and Melbourne Cricket Club.

For all its ignominies, Waverley Park brought a fair amount of innovation to the league.

It hosted the VFL’s first knockout final in 1972, the first interstate clash, the first Sunday game and the league’s first night game, even if the bounce of the ball was delayed almost an hour due to a broken wick.

It hosted the World Series of Cricket, concerts by the likes of David Bowie and U2, and even a Grand Final – the first outside the MCG and the only one with a sky blue Batmobile.

But despite this, Waverley Park quickly turned from hero to scapegoat.

The complaints were endless: it was too cold; the seats too hard; the surface too muddy; The sepia-toned dialer, although revolutionary when installed, is too old-fashioned.

Fans throwing dirt at Waverley Park's final match.

Fans take to the muddy field after the last AFL game at Waverley in 1999. (Getty Images: Jack Atley/Allsport)

And the less said about parking, the better.

A mooted train line to the stadium never came to fruition, causing a migraine-inducing bottleneck from the parking lot to the highway after each game.

“The course is well known for its perceived deficiencies, reflecting the controversies and negative opinions that ultimately prevented the stadium’s extraordinary design and broader master plan from being completed,” the course’s report reads. Statement of significance in the National Trust database.

Protesters at the last AFL game played at Waverley Park

Waverley Park was a flashpoint within political circles for some time. (Getty Images: Stuart Milligan /Allsport)

Urban legend has it that some spectators are still trapped in their cars, looking for a way out.

The cost and controversy

In December 2001, the AFL sold the land and surrounding area to developers Mirvac for $110 million.

Waverley Park’s replacement, Docklands Stadium, was completed 10 years later at a cost of $460 million.

Helmeted Steve Bracks kicks a football at Waverley Park.

Victorian Premier Steve Bracks kicks the deck at the opening of the Hawks’ administration and training headquarters in Waverley in 2005.(Getty Images: Robert Cianflone)

After securing freehold ownership of Docklands in 2016, the AFL set its sights on its next stadium, this time outside the mainland, for the league’s latest addition, the Tasmania Tigers.

But instead of being a boon for football fans, the proposed stadium has become a political football.

The AFL is adamant the stadium will be built as promised, despite concerns about the appropriateness of spending, location and even the need for a new stadium.

A generic image of a stadium full of customers behind the Waverley Park goals.

Waverley Park was a neutral venue and used by all Victorian VFL/AFL football clubs in Mulgrave.(Supplied: Getty Images)

Lionel Frost, associate professor in the Department of Economics at Monash University, said the AFL should learn lessons from past failures at Waverley.

“The lessons learned (from Waverley Park) are that the cost of building stadiums is so high that unless they are used efficiently, it imposes a really heavy economic burden,” he said.

Frost has crunched the numbers behind league-owned stadiums like Waverley Park and Adelaide’s Football Park.

He found that while they certainly brought more fans through the gates, the stadiums were not used to their full potential.

“Because (Waverley Park) was owned by the league, the financial burden fell on the VFL and its clubs at a time when many of them were in great financial difficulty,” Frost said.

“The Tasmanian stadium would be owned by the people of Tasmania, so I think it’s imperative that we get it right and ensure that it creates an asset that will increase economic activity, that will increase community engagement and, at the same time do it, … create lasting benefits.”

What’s next for Waverley?

Hawthorn Football Club’s residency at Waverley Park will end in the coming years.

The club spent big on a huge piece of land in Dingley Village, about 20 minutes south-west of their current home, in 2016, and a large new training center was in the works.

Hawthorn footballers run laps on the Waverley Park oval with the stands in the background

Hawthorn Football Club has long had links with Waverley Park, including using the ground as a training base. (Getty Images: Kristian Dowling)

Construction is expected to be completed by the end of next year, although a move-in date has not yet been confirmed.

As for what happens when hawks fly from the nest? That’s not clear either.

Monash Mayor Nicky Luo said the council wants the oval to remain open to the public.

While Hawthorn Football Club chief executive Ash Klein said the club was still assessing how it will “optimize” the future use of the stadium following the club’s departure.

Meanwhile, the remains of the stand and its VFL mural receive some protection from Victorian Heritage Listing.

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