Nostalgia always runs the risk of becoming self-serving drivel.
Take the X-Files reboot. One of the great TV shows of its time, adored by millions, reduced to seeing how many times writers can work the catchphrase “the truth is out there” into the formerly fiery exchanges between Mulder and Scully.
But, as anyone who attended the packed Princes Park pre-season friendly on Sunday can attest, it doesn’t have to be like that. A February practice match has never felt so proper.
Yep, the queues were too long; there’s no doubt the joint needed far more than a lick of paint. And sure, stadium politics is a complicated business, with existing deals intricately positioned by negotiators.
But what price for an investment in the game’s soul, to turn this welcome one off into an old-meets-new component of home-and-away footy into the future?
Let’s be clear: the argument for Princes Park being brought up to AFL standard again isn’t well made by sledging the Docklands. That’s a tired case that no longer compels as it did in the stadium’s protracted teething years.
Photo: Adam Collins
Nor is this an exercise in saying that ground rationalisation hasn’t been a positive for the AFL, and in turn the game; footy’s relative footprint has never been bigger. It has more cash swirling around now, and trumps all games before it.
Does this commercial primacy guarantee maximum emotional buy-in from fans, though? That’s less clear, with evidence of how it’s possible to fall out of love just down the road after the last few horrible years at Essendon. At the very least, attachment can’t be taken for granted. Like a romantic relationship, it requires constant attention and curation.
The passion at Princes Park on Sunday was palpable, the smiles contagious. Granted, mainly from us over-30s who grew up with suburban stoushes. But why shouldn’t the formative years of today’s Melbourne kids going to the footy include the palm trees of Carlton North as well?
To adopt the first-do-no-harm principle, would returning some league games at Princes Park make what we have worse? To answer that, let’s go through the reasons that were cited for decommissioning the ground; some were more understandable than others, all were very familiar.
First, the car parking. What a struggle it used to be! ‘
Photo: Adam Collins
But has anyone ever driven to the Docklands to watch a game? Of course not, because unless you’re a corporate, you can’t. People are used to getting a train to the footy now. That’s a good thing.
Oh wait, there’s no train station in Carlton right? Right now, true. But when the Melbourne Metro rail project is complete by the middle of next decade, Parkville mega-station will be a gentle saunter down Royal Parade past the university.
How about the wooden seats in the Hawthorn Stand? Let’s make them a virtue; a part of the re-born experience. Besides: if you don’t fancy sitting on benches the way everyone did for so long you need to revaluate your rugged individualism. Or sit in the Legends Stand.
It’s instructive and welcome that Carlton are in the cart for this conversation, albeit gently-gently. Their CEO Stephen Trigg made some fair points on radio, namely that it would cost a lot more money to upgrade than appears immediately obvious and that their deal with the Docklands is crucial to their balance sheet.
But he also acknowledged the “love and affection” for a place that hosted league football for over a century as he kept the door ajar. Not a couple of years. Not a couple of decades. A century. That’s not for nothing when trying to forever marry old and new, one of our game’s great aces.
To get this job done is to be agnostic about the details in the first instance. It’s a bit like wanting to see Australia become a republic; if you care enough, you’ll be open-minded to compromise. To make this work would take leadership (and cash) from the league. They’d need to get resourceful and we’d need to be patient.
But if they can start new clubs in places that were less interested in footy than we are in rugby league, and made them work, surely this isn’t something beyond their all-encompassing powers.
One Saturday afternoon a fortnight, a few times a season, one super-weekend? Any combination would be a good starting point in the lead up to the Docklands becoming a fully-owned asset of the AFL nine years from now.
Photo: Adam Collins
Including other clubs beyond Carlton would be sound if serious about rekindling the suburban experience. With more teams in the competition than ever before, there are no shortage of fixtures that would comfortably classify as boutique.
The point is, as The National sung, you need not try to figure out everything at once.
Instead, like any good campaign, for starters we need people talking. It can’t be forgotten about when the real stuff starts in a couple of weeks. As footy people – as Melbourne footy people – we need to keep this on the agenda.
That we want this back. That we value suburban footy. That we always did. That we always will.
That isn’t nostalgia; it’s culture. And when it comes to our game, this is why it wins out every time.
Adam Collins is a cricket writer and radio commentator, mostly with the ABC. When not following the sun he can be found carrying on in standing room watching Hawthorn win. You can follow Adam on Twitter @collinsadam