Leichhardt is old but it’s better than Disneyland

Matt Cleary Columnist

By Matt Cleary, Matt Cleary is a Roar Expert

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    And so to Leichhardt Oval this Sunday for the Tigers-Manly match, and the list of places I’d not rather be includes: New York, London, Barcelona, Tahiti, Thredbo (enough, people, it’s snow), Disneyland, Disney World, Disneyland Paris, the Pyramids of Giza and a roller disco at Pamela Anderson’s place.

    Because Leichhardt Oval on a Sunday arvo in the sun throbs like a party in League Heaven.

    Leichhardt is old. Well, modern Australia old, anyway. It’s not a castle or church or ruin from medieval times like they have in Europe, say, and China.

    Rather, it’s a rectangular sports field that’s hosted rugby league since 1934 and changed only slowly since.

    It’s old school, Old Sydney Town, an urban forest of tiny lanes, wooden cottages and people who cheered on The Don.

    Leichhardt was working class when that meant you rode a horse to a factory that made munitions for the Great War.

    Leichhardt – and it’s usually just ‘Leichhardt’, rarely ‘Leichhardt Oval’, never shortened to ‘Likey’ in the Australian way – has been described as antiquated, quaint, dilapidated, precious, full of ghosts, the suburban soul of rugby league, and Leichhardt.

    Depending who you ask, it’s a great little joint to watch footy or an embarrassment to modern rugby league.

    For mine, it’s old rolled gold.

    Walk through narrow old streets to the ground and people sell sausages on white bread from knock-up backyard barbecues.

    The ground is surrounded by the red rooftops of suburban Lilyfield and by mighty Moreton Bay Figs that tower over baby grandstands named after ancient league men.

    Inside there’s hot chips and humanity. It’s a sausage on a roll. It’s wooden bench seats and a big, grassy hill. It’s a tiny scoreboard and the Keith Barnes Stand, a quaint little edifice with a corrugated iron roof.

    The scoreboard is a literal brick shit-house. But underneath it sells beer which comes cold in a can and costs six bucks.

    The hot dogs are long and boiled in water and placed on a white roll. From there you have a choice of tomato sauce and/or mustard shot out a giant plunger.

    Meat pies come from little multi-tray ovens and not from microwaves, which are to pies as they are to pussy-cats. Perhaps not that bad. But bad, man. Bad.

    Bad things probably happened to Friedrich Wilhelm ‘Ludwig’ Leichhardt, a Prussian explorer and naturalist famous for exploring northern and central Australia, and never coming back; it says so on Google.

    As his bones bleach in the sun somewhere in the Darling Downs of south-east Queensland, you wonder why such a great explorer of the North would have a suburb named after him in Sydney’s inner west…

    And then you pass the beer nuts.

    Leichhardt has the blood of old Tigers in its soil. Junior Pearce, Blocker Roach, Bouncing Backdoor Benny. Footy fans loved these people.

    Robbie Farah on the scoreboard

    AAP Image/Paul Miller

    And they love the footy ground because it is a footy ground. Leichhardt is purpose-built. You can’t play polo there, or run a hot lap, or kick a Sherrin at four sticks. You play rugby league. Seats border a rectangular footy field. It can’t be that hard to get right.

    The fans are diehards: tattooed flag-wavers and Tiger-print pyjama wearers, the ones you could assume get all shouty on the Internet forums.

    I was among the cheer squad a few years. Game 1 of 2012, Tigers versus Sharks. It was 32 degrees. The doughnut and cappuccino caravans did zero business. The line for drinks serpentined like the river Thames.

    Todd Carney warmed up nearby.

    “You’re a piss-pot, Carney!” yelled one fellow to fractious, talented Toddy.

    “So are you, you goose!” yelled his mate next to him, and they laughed themselves hoarse.

    Another bloke took a long draw on his tinnie, exhaled beer fumes, and said contentedly, “Jeez it’s good to be back at the footy.”

    He was bang on. For Leichhardt on a sunny Sunday arvo? It’s a beautiful thing. The grass glows green like radiated Ireland. Up the back of the hill, underneath the mighty figs, people sit on the fence and no-one sits on the fence. Mostly they stand up, and love it.

    For here’s a thing the suits at League Central can’t seem to get about watching footy: some people like to stand up, for there is companionship standing in a loose group of mates, watching the game, enquiring whose shout it is, and telling the ref his eyes are painted on.

    Stand about in a megaplex stadium and a bouncer in a yellow singlet will order you to find your allotted pigeon-hole, or else. Meanwhile, Wati Holmwood will run 200 metres in the nude into the middle of Origin, another story.

    Of course! Money drives games to the mega-stadia, the ANZ Stadiums, the Etihads.

    But the grassy hill at Leichhardt, that, friend, is Soul Town. And people vote with their feet each time Leichhardt hosts a game on a Sunday afternoon.

    Must corporates and the demands of broadcasting trump what the punters, the rank-and-file footy fan, actually wants?

    While we’re having a whinge – for to be a footy fan is to whinge, it is a job lot – do focus groups tell the ground people that you need to ‘entertain’ people with music during breaks in play? I’d prefer no music. It’s the footy; there is no dancing. Best have nothing.

    Or announcements like, “Would the owner of car licence plate KLZ-541 please return to your car as you have left the motor running” (as was heard at Queanbeyan’s Seiffert Oval many years ago).

    Could be getting old. Scratch ‘could be’.

    Anyway! Granted, Leichhardt has its faults. There are scant seats, restricted corporate facilities and at various vantage points you can’t see the scoreboard, big screen or even the game.

    But every ground has its faults. The Soviet-sized mega-stadiums only rock when they’re full. ANZ Stadium with 15,000 has the atmosphere of a sports event in space.

    Leichhardt with 15,000 heaves like Hillsong.

    Said match in 2012 was won by Wests Tigers (who went into that season favourites, if you can believe it) when Benji Marshall launched a pop at field goal that sailed long and high and straight through the sticks.

    And lo did the fans and players leap as one; a small town of 15,000 spawning salmon, high on a drug called rugby league.

    Kids never forget stuff like that. It’s better than Disneyland.

    Matt Cleary
    Matt Cleary

    Matt Cleary is a sports writer from Sydney. He enjoys golf, footy and Four Pines Pale Ale, and spends as much time as conscience allows at Long Reef GC. Tweet him @journomatcleary, or read him at his website.

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    The Crowd Says (59)

    • August 11th 2017 @ 6:57am
      Daveski said | August 11th 2017 @ 6:57am | ! Report

      Matt this is like a beautiful ode to an old friend who’s seen better days ( and I refer to both the ground and frankly the game itself ). Great read.

    • Roar Pro

      August 11th 2017 @ 7:14am
      boonboon said | August 11th 2017 @ 7:14am | ! Report

      I believe I strongly resemble the bloke who yelled at Toddy Carney that day and my mate strongly resembled the bloke who told the 1st bloke he was too 🙂

    • August 11th 2017 @ 8:15am
      Onside said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:15am | ! Report

      Loved the story Matt, and who could ever forget Laurie Nichols

      Taking grandkids there is a bit like visiting a sporting museum.

      ‘If you want to see what Rugby League was about years ago, visit Leichhardt’

      Leichhardt represents the genisis of ALL football codes in Australia, because it is local.

      There was nowhere to park in all the old suburban grounds throughout Australian cities
      because working class supporters did not own cars and walked to the ground.

      Most old houses in Balmain (like all inner city Australia) do not have garages as families
      never owned a car..

      If there is one word , just one , that epitimises Leichhart it is SOUL .

      SOUL, like that great Aussie term, FAIR DINKUM cannot be fabricated.

    • Roar Guru

      August 11th 2017 @ 8:19am
      Con Scortis said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      One of the things that makes me sad about our approach to life in this beautiful country, is our disrespect of our history and neglect of things that are “old”.

      A few days ago it was announced that an old Parra pub, the Royal Oak, would be demolished to make way for the Parramatta Light Rail. Built way back in 1813 but which traces it’s ancestry to the late 1700’s, the fact it has stood in the same spot, serving beer and grub to generations, seems to matter not one bit.

      In July we flogged off the Sydney GPO, one of our great city’s oldest and most historic (and beautiful) buildings, to a couple of Singaporean billionaires, and nobody gives a fig.

      Fig? Oh yes, we rip up 100+ year old fig trees that were planted in 1917 to honour our returning Anzacs, and yes, nobody gives a….fig.

      There are countless other examples of our pollies, bean-counters and suits flogging off our history to the highest bidder (or the biggest donor).

      The old beauties like Leichhardt, Redfern Oval and Henson Park have an important place in the history of our great game and our grand city. To discard them for the giant, soulless stadiums is to abandon where we came from.

      • August 11th 2017 @ 10:27am
        Fred said | August 11th 2017 @ 10:27am | ! Report

        Couldn’t agree more Con. Demolishing a pub from 1813 is disgraceful.

        I’m sure something dodgy has happened behind the scenes with the GPO sale. Why else would it secretly be sold FOR LESS THAN IT’S WORTH, after commissioning a report that recommended against it?

        And yes, we’ll be sure to do the same with footy, rip the soul and history out of it at every opportunity, while those managing the game busily hold meetings about “KPI’s” and the like

        • August 12th 2017 @ 10:51am
          Oingo Boingo said | August 12th 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

          Look no further than the scuumbag that was responsible for a the sale of the Sydney GPO building , him and his kind will do anything for $$$$$ and it’s a bonus to whiteant a bit a Aussie culture in the process ….

      • August 11th 2017 @ 11:29am
        Ray said | August 11th 2017 @ 11:29am | ! Report

        The Tigers were forced out of their club to make way for the announced Inner West light rail and look what happened there.

    • August 11th 2017 @ 8:28am
      Sports Prophet said | August 11th 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      It isn’t hard to get nostalgic and romantic about Leichhardt on a sunny Sunday arvo. In fact add Shark Park, Kogarah, Wollongong, Lottola.. haha sorry, Brookvale, Belmore or any other local Sydney suburban ground.

      Unfortunately Sunday arvo kick offs are the exclusive slot for just one home club per week. If the suburban fields are to remain, the clubs, the fans, the corporates, the NRL, the sport as a whole, need to get romantic with other kick off times too.

      Great article all the same.

    • August 11th 2017 @ 9:14am
      AGordon said | August 11th 2017 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      Great story Matt.

      Hard to forget watching Laurie Nicholls sparing when the Tigers scored or my first sight of Paul Sironen from the hill (god, he was big).

      • Columnist

        August 11th 2017 @ 9:24am
        Matt Cleary said | August 11th 2017 @ 9:24am | ! Report

        Ha. Mate – still is. Remember him tearing away from Brad Clyde in the 89 GF. What a bloke to find on the charge down the middle. Absolute beast.

        • August 11th 2017 @ 12:33pm
          matth said | August 11th 2017 @ 12:33pm | ! Report

          I remember him taking a kick off playing for Australia against France and running to the opposition 30.

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