Sport AFL Much loved but unmourned, it’s curtains for ‘uncomfortable’ Subiaco Oval

Much loved but unmourned, it’s curtains for ‘uncomfortable’ Subiaco Oval

Fremantle trudge off Subiaco after a disappointing defeat. Photo: Getty
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Subiaco Oval has been showing its age for some time. And at 109, it is no wonder.

It will soon be replaced by a shiny, new stadium, capable of housing 60,000 fans and boasting state-of-the-art facilities that ‘Subi’ could only dream of.

At Perth Stadium, it will be far quicker to get a drink, visit the toilets or pay for an overpriced pie – but it will, initially at least, lack the character of its predecessor.

Character is something Subiaco Oval has in spades.

Yes, it could be uncomfortable, and certainly unpleasant for travelling players and supporters, but it was home for West Australian football.

Subiaco has hosted rock shows by icons like Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses , while other codes have also had their time in the sun, namely rugby union and soccer. But its primary association always will be Australian Rules.

On Sunday, Subiaco Oval hosts its 545th and final VFL/AFL fixture, when the West Coast Eagles play the Adelaide Crows.

Don’t expect too much emotion from the man who is West Australian footy, though, in Dennis Cometti.

Subiaco Oval was the scene of the legendary broadcaster’s fondest football memories, but despite having played, coached and called footy at the venue, Cometti acknowledges the venue’s time is up.

“It’s not a great facility now,” a frank Cometti told The New Daily.

“For a long time it’s been playing catch-up, and once they decided on a new stadium nothing’s been done to it.

“I don’t think I’ll be emotional about it – probably there’s going to be optimism for the new stadium and what lies ahead.”

Cometti has a point – for a long time Subiaco has been left to age disgracefully. Surely it’s the only major venue in the country still using long wooden benches, your ‘seat’ demarcated only by a number painted in white.

If your row is full of people, your adductors — that’s your thigh muscle, for those not into anatomy — can cramp by quarter time simply by trying to keep your legs together.

The last major piece of infrastructure added was the second two-tier stand, completed in 1995.

Then-prime minister Paul Keating turned up to see it get unveiled, sitting like a bemused Caesar in an Italian suit as John Worsfold used his body to inflict blunt-force trauma on Winston Abraham in the first ever Western Derby.

But for all its shortcomings in comfort, the ground makes up for it with its stories.

It has hosted every WAFL grand final since 1936.

Interstate games through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s would pit the best players in the country against each other in front of 50,000 people and, since 1987, it’s been the home ground of the West Coast Eagles and, from 1995, the Fremantle Dockers.

Subiaco Oval hosted its first final in 1991, its first preliminary final in 2005 and in 2015 it held both prelims in one weekend.

West Coast played Hawthorn in the venue’s first final. Photo: AAP

Along the way there have been enough magical moments and great games to fill a tome.

Who could forget the night umpire Peter Carey marked the ball during a clash between Freo and the Saints?

Or the night Dustin Fletcher lost his teeth and Essendon club doctor Bruce Reid sent the ground manager for some milk to put them in so he could have them replaced after the game?

There have been glorious after-the-siren goals – Justin Longmuir’s and Nic Naitanui’s the most memorable – and moments of chilling violence, like the time Peter Sumich blacked out in a Danny Southern headlock in 1994.

One moment that fused both the magical and the macabre was the night in 2001 when Docker Shaun McManus was knocked out in a marking contest by a full-tilt, full-chested David Wirrpanda.

McManus, amazingly, got up and kicked the goal.

He played 114 of his 228 AFL games at Subi, and said the ground, and the fervid Fremantle support that came with it, made him fearless.

“You had an enormous amount of support,” he told The New Daily.

“The people were always urging you on.

“It was always a great place, the support. Even thinking about it now, you just think, ‘What a great time of my life’.

“I’d run out on that oval in a heartbeat, in front of that crowd.”

The home fans at Subiaco were always passionate. Photo: AAP

AFL games record holder Brent Harvey knows the other side of the equation – how daunting it could be as a Victorian coming to Subiaco with no one behind you. In 28 games there, Harvey tasted victory just 10 times. But the former Kangaroo said he loved the oval.

“It’s probably the hardest ground to play as a Victorian club, just because of the travel,” he told The New Daily.

“West Coast made it a bit of a domain, and Fremantle did too.

“I loved the ground, because the bigger the ground for me the better.

“But the crowd … they were nice and loud, and never behind you.

“It feels like everyone’s on top of you.”

Cometti first went to Subiaco as a young boy with his father, barracking for East Fremantle.

“Footy was king in those days,” he said.

“The big thing in town was the WAFL, Victorian football wasn’t very important and Subiaco was the mecca.

“I think most of our memories with football are strongest back when we were kids.

“It’s harder to have people you idolise when you grow up.

“Generally the highlights you remember most are the big games, the finals, the interstate games.

“East Fremantle were perennially in the finals.

A 1979 WAFL final between East Fremantle and South Fremantle. Photo: AAP

“They played in four consecutive grand finals when I was at high school. That was a good time, that’s an impressionable time.”

While the Western Derbies evolved from their initial one-sidedness to offer fevered intensity, Cometti felt State of Origin was the pinnacle.

“That was the purest football I ever saw,” he said.

“As much out of curiosity as anything else you went to see who was Barassi, who was Whitten – that was a great thing.

“They flew over to Subi – very little coaching, hardly any tactics – and the players just went out, the best against the best, with very little constraints.

“That’s as free-form football as I’ve seen, played by champions.”

It’s easy to romanticise the past, especially when a key plank of it is removed.

But don’t be fooled by some of the rose-tinted reflections published this week.

Like Waverley Park and Football Park before it, Subiaco’s passing is not being widely mourned.

Yes, it has been the setting for the biggest stories in WA footy for more than a century.

But it is time. Time for a new setting and new stories.

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