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The rise and fall of ANZ Stadium as an AFL venue

The Sydney Swans will not play any more home games at ANZ. (Slattery Images)
Roar Guru
29th February, 2016
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2338 Reads

It began with high expectations, and the early signs were promising. But ANZ Stadium’s history as an AFL venue fizzled out, and after 14 seasons it’s all over.

When Sydney was awarded the hosting rights to the 2000 Olympics, a new stadium was to be the centrepiece. It was to be a stadium far bigger than anything Sydney had seen before, which would remain as a permanent legacy for Sydney.

As planning and construction got under way, the AFL were determined to ensure they would receive a share of this legacy. A determination that saw them contribute financially to making the sidelines retractable, ensuring the ground could be used as an oval.

The stadium was opened in 1999, but it was rugby league that was first to be played there. The presence of the athletics track before the Olympics, and the demolition of the temporary stands at the ends after, meant that the AFL would not access the ground until 2002.

On the evening of 25th May 2002, the Sherrin was bounced at the ground for the first time at AFL level. The Sydney Swans under the coaching of Rodney Eade took on the Kevin Sheedy coached Essendon. There was plenty of hype and publicity, and a healthy crowd of 54,129 was on hand to witness a thriller as Swans ruckman Ricky Mott had a chance to win the game after the siren but missed, giving the Bombers a narrow two-point win.

2002 wasn’t a great season for the Swans, as they finished well short of the finals. Eade was replaced as coach by Paul Roos before the next game at the Olympic stadium. But in a poor season for SCG crowds, the new stadium offered a glimpse of hope with solid crowds as the Swans recorded wins over Carlton and Richmond.

2003 saw the Swans record wins over Carlton and Essendon. But on the eve of the finals, they went down to Collingwood by 18 points in front of a crowd of 72,393. In a season when the MCG had a reduced capacity due to construction work, it was the biggest home-and-away crowd of the season.

The Swans qualified for a home preliminary final against Brisbane that season, and the stadium would host finals footy for the first time. Another blockbuster crowd of 71,019 was on hand, and just three points separated the two sides at the last change. But the Swans’ hopes were extinguished as the Lions kicked six unanswered goals in the last quarter, on their way to completing their third straight premiership.

In 2004, the Swans suffered a shock loss to Melbourne in what would be the Demons’ only appearance at the Olympic stadium. But wins over Collingwood and Essendon in front of over 45,000 maintained their positive record at the ground. And an elimination final win over West Coast in a match that was threatened to be delayed when a wild thunderstorm passed over the ground at half time saw the stadium become a happy hunting ground for the Swans.

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2005 saw the Swans win all three of their Homebush games, defeating Essendon, Collingwood and Brisbane. The Brisbane match was the first daytime fixture at the ground, after the AFL’s original booking was bumped in favour of a Bledisloe Cup rugby clash. It wasn’t a good year for the AFL’s ground bookings, as the Swans versus Geelong semi final was played at the SCG after an NRL booking at the Olympic Stadium took priority.

The Swans were defending champions in 2006 and the ground was again a happy hunting ground, with wins over Geelong and Brisbane during the regular season and Fremantle in the preliminary final. But they went down to Collingwood in front of a crowd of 60,307.

And of more concern was Geelong coach Mark Thompson’s scathing comments about the quality of the surface. Thompson was the first of what would be an increasingly frequent line of critics as the turf in the retractable sections of the ground became more unstable with each passing season.

2007 was the peak for crowds, with all three games during the home-and-away season drawing attendances above 60,000. Narrow losses to West Coast and Collingwood were followed by a win over St Kilda on an emotional evening preceded by a mass breast cancer fundraiser. But that was the high point for crowds, and AFL matches at ANZ Stadium would never draw 60,000 again.

The big 2007 crowds triggered a clause in the AFL’s contract with the ground, and four home-and-away matches would be scheduled there for the next two seasons. Swans’ wins over West Coast and Essendon in 2008 were followed up by losses to Collingwood and Geelong; but the Collingwood game was the only match to draw over 45,000.

The Swans made a home elimination final, but it was a promotional disaster. Over-priced tickets against a low-drawing North Melbourne side, with railway trackwork making the ground a nightmare to get to as the heavens opened and roads were cut by flash-flooding. The Swans won, but the crowd of just 19,127 was more notable than the game.

Four games were played again in 2009, with the Swans defeating reigning premiers Hawthorn and West Coast but going down to Collingwood and Geelong. In a season where the Swans missed the finals, no game drew more than 42,000 and the worsening standard of the surface drew frequent criticism.

The gloss was fading from the venue by 2010, with the Swans going down in all three of their home-and-away games to St Kilda, Collingwood and Geelong. Crowds at the SCG were up as the Swans made the finals, but showed no sign of improvement at ANZ as the surface came in for more heavy criticism. But a semi-final thriller in which the Swans held out Carlton by five points in front of 41,596 made for a much better vibe.

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By 2011, attendances were in freefall as Sydney supporters were openly voicing their disapproval of playing there. The Swans had wins over Essendon and St Kilda while losing to Collingwood by a kick. But the two wins were played in front of sub-30,000 crowds; for the first time other than the 2008 elimination final. And even the Collingwood game didn’t crack the 40,000 mark.

2012 saw GWS Giants make their AFL debut, and a crowd of 38,203 filed in for their opening match as the Giants took on the Swans. It was the first time the Swans were the away team at ANZ but the Swans were too strong for the Giants, the majority of whom were making their AFL debuts, winning by 63 points.

With the Giants playing that home game at ANZ, the Swans hosted only two games there during the home-and-away season; belting the Giants in the return game before going down to Collingwood by eight points. It was the Magpies’ seventh win in a row at ANZ, but the Swans would turn the tables in the preliminary final with a 26-point win in front of a crowd of 57,156 on their way to the premiership.

In 2013 the Giants would again play their home game against the Swans at ANZ, this time going down by 30 points, but the crowd of 23,690 was well down on the 2012 season opener. The Swans would also play home games against Collingwood and Hawthorn there, going down in both amid more concerns about the quality of the surface. But there was better news for the Swans in the finals, as they recorded a 24-point win over Carlton in front of 37,980.

All Giants’ home games in Sydney were played at Spotless Stadium in 2014 and so the Swans reverted to playing three games at ANZ. A win over Hawthorn was recorded, along with losses to Collingwood and Richmond, but no game drew over 35,000 and both Swans’ supporters and officials openly expressed their dis-satisfaction with having to play there. However the ground was locked in as a finals venue, with the Swans defeating Fremantle and North Melbourne in the finals.

The AFL’s contract with the venue was due to expire after 2016, but it was known before the 2015 season that it would not be renewed. The Swans recorded wins over Essendon and Geelong before going down to Hawthorn, with no game drawing over 35,000.

But more significantly in the Hawthorn game, Hawks forward Jarryd Roughead landed on some exposed metal bolts and suffered a serious knee injury. Concerns over the surface had been expressed numerous times, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The ground was clearly dangerous, warnings had been ignored and an injury had resulted.

The stadium’s days as an AFL venue were already numbered, but no-one would defend the indefensible. It was time to leave.

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One more match would be played, a semi final in which North Melbourne would defeat the Swans in front of 31,162.

There was still one more year to run on the contract, and matches were scheduled for 2016. But the AFL and the Swans wanted out, and negotiations were under way to end the contract early and move those games to the SCG. And this week, it’s been announced that these negotiations were successful.

ANZ Stadium as an AFL venue is no more.

It began with such hype and promise. Crowds were big, interest was high.

But the most important asset, the players, were quickly upset by the state of the surface. And so the positive stories became negative. Crowds dropped off, and with that the atmosphere faded. By the end, player and fan alike wanted out. The Roughead injury was the last straw.

The Swans have what they want, all their home games at the SCG. And with that, we have a clear east-west demarcation – the Swans in the east and the Giants in the west.

ANZ Stadium will likely become permanently rectangular in the next few years. Despite the money the AFL tipped in all those years ago, the stadium will no longer host any oval-ground sport.