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.
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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.
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.