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Eternal: The Legend of the Suburban Ground

Tony De Bolfo, Carlton Media  February 1, 2018 9:48 AM

Bloodlines | Darcy Vescio Carlton star Darcy Vescio embarks on a journey of exploration to Hong Kong and Italy to trace her family roots.

RECENTLY taking the Ghosts of Princes Park Tour with her aunt Penny was the 16 year-old aspiring sportswriter Anna Pavlou.

So taken was Anna by the experience that she resolved to pen the following story about the tour, beneath the headline ‘Eternal: The Legend of the Suburban Ground’.

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Anna Pavlou with her aunt Penny at a recent Ghosts of Princes Park Tour. (Photo: Supplied)

Over the past six years, Anna has contributed a series of articles to The Footy Almanac and has now established her own sports blog, www.annalyst.weebly.com. A short memoir of her childhood, entitled ‘My Place’, was recently published in The Age. 

Thesedays a member of the Victorian Amateur Football Association’s media team, Anna recently completed work experience at Radio 3AW, during which time she joined the fourth estate at the press conference called for Robert Murphy’s retirement.

This is her story.

ETERNAL: THE LEGEND OF THE SUBURBAN GROUND

By Anna Pavlou @annalyst_sports

Something about the prospect of a historical tour of one of Australia's most famous sporting venues . . . the white picket fence, the houses lining the outskirts, the home ground advantage and the great suburban rivalries . . . intrigued me.

This is Princes Park - home to one of Australia's most famous and most successful football clubs.

Carlton. The old dark Navy Blues.

I wanted to know more. I wanted to experience the AFL before it became a TV game, a sponsor's game. Before it was taken away from the people.

I look around me. It's all Carlton people here.

There's an old man in a walking frame, daughter shuffling next to him. He played alongside Dick Pratt in the 1954 Under 19s Grand Final. There is a father and son, both clutching old woollen jumpers as if it’s the last item they have from this place. There’s three generations of Bluebaggers, sharing stories of years gone by, together. And there are dozens more, all here to feel at home again.

They're all drawn to this place.

It's more than a stadium, however. It's memories and stories that shaped these people and bound them by blue. 

The heart of the game is right here, in the heart of suburbia. 

These memories that I have only ever heard of are now brought to life through stories that are shared within this small part of Carlton’s memoir.

This place; this history. 962 matches through 109 winters begins to unravel right before my very eyes. 

The tour commences at the site of what was the Robert Heatley Stand, the old red brick grandstand where the heart of Carlton congregated. Thousands of true supporters sat there, cried there and became one, while watching phenomenal and unbelievable moments stamp their memories so profoundly.

It was in front of this stand that Peter Bosustow took THAT mark against Geelong in 1981, which almost brought the Heatley Stand tumbling down.

The tour advances to the Ald. Gardiner Stand – the oldest in the precinct, built more than 100 years ago. It’s lined with peeling wooden seats and the alternating crests of the Carlton Cricket and Football Clubs.

On the top of the roof, the middle of the three flagpoles has snapped off. The day it did, a man was hit directly underneath. But he survived and to this day continues to watch his beloved Blues play.

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Club historian Tony De Bolfo and intrigued Bluebaggers reminisce at the iconic Gardiner Stand. (Photo: Jonathan Di Maggio)

We find ourselves in front of where the old press box once stood, which became the hub for sportswriters alike for 50 years. Following its demolition in May 1986, each journalist of the time was gifted a piece of the box’s remaining weatherboards, with an inscription that read: 

“In memory of the Carlton Social Club Press Box.

Born 1934 - Departed 1.17pm Monday May 19th, 1986.”

Next was the Heroes Stand where accounts were shared of Geelong’s Darren Milburn’s hit on Steve Silvagni in 2001. The recollection was intense, with those fans still feeling that anger pulsating within to this day.

They will never forgive Milburn - yet it remains an encounter with the common enemy that continues to unite them all.

The Legends Stand comes next, with vivid encounters of Craig Bradley’s special goal against the Eagles in 1994. Silvagni kicked the ball out of the backline, where it was crumbed by Bradley, who ran and ran and ran. He took the game into his own hands and dashed along the boundary line, booting a banana from just inside the 50 in full flight. Magical. 

Princes Park morphed into a physical being at that very moment.

At tour’s end we find ourselves back where the Heatley Stand once stood, where John Nicholls - ‘Big Nick’ - held the ball aloft in May 2005, the final game at Princes Park. Emotions run high and you can see the memories flood back, as Bluebaggers ponder the thought of the curtain coming down. 

It’s the routine that so many of them miss today - the same parking spot, the friendships forged, the same seats and the same old walk, week in week out to their home territory. A place where the enemy was loathed and hometown heroes were paraded.

This was their one constant, their suburban football club, where they watched in awe as their idols performed gallant deeds - from ‘Big Nick’ and Jesaulenko, to Bruce Doull and Wayne Johnston; and from Geoff Southby and Stephen Kernahan to Stephen Silvagni and Anthony Koutoufides.

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A recent Ghosts of Princes Park Tour group uses lanterns to navigate the old stands at Ikon Park. (Photo: Jonathan Di Maggio)

People came back to Princes Park for reasons they couldn’t even fathom.

But they came longing for the past. Their past.

They came to find peace again in the familiar roaring of the crowd and the sense of family built over more than 100 years of Carlton history. 

They ventured back to the place where they cheered their heroes and lived out their fantasies of premierships and past glories.

But, most importantly, they came back to reminisce on all that was once good.