Erskineville Oval – a famous old Sydney Australian Football Ground

Dr Rodney Gillett continues the series on famous football grounds in NSW with a look at Erskineville Oval which was the venue for grand finals and interstate fixtures and the home ground of the extraordinarily successful Newtown club from 1903 until 1986.

Newton captain coach Sam Kekovich, who led the
    Blood-stained Angels onto Erskineville Oval
  in 1980-81, storms forward in the preliminary
          final against North Shore at the SCG.

Erskineville Oval hosted fifty Sydney AFL grand finals in the period 1908 until 1990 during which time it was the major ground for local and interstate fixtures.

It was the home-ground for the Newtown football club that was a powerhouse in the Sydney competition from its foundation in 1903 until its demise at the conclusion of the 1986 season.

The Blood-stained Angels won nineteen flags – of which 15 were accrued from 1928 to 1950 including six in consecutive seasons from 1945-1950.

NSW beat Victoria twice in the 1920s – playing on Erskineville Oval.

In 1923, in front of 8000 spectators, NSW beat Victoria 15-15 (105) to 11-19 (85) with Paddington full forward Stan Milton (after whom the AFL Sydney goal-kicking medal is named) booting three goals. Then in 1925, NSW again beat the Vics, this time by one point, 13-10 (88) to 13-9 (87) with three-time Phelan medalist Billy McKoy of the Sydney Club, starring on the wing.

Long-time Newtown official and NSW league administrator Jim Phelan in a 1930s article in the NSW ANFL Football Record explained that the fundamental reason for Erskineville Oval hosting the Sydney finals and interstate fixtures was financial. A better result was obtained from Erskineville than either the SCG or at the R,A,S., Showground, Moore Park (now FOX Studios)

Further, that the “whole atmosphere is, on the whole, more congenial in a football sense than that of any other playing ground controlled by the League” (NSW ANFL Football Record, 21 September 1935).

Erskineville Oval was originally developed and opened in 1885 as Macdonaldtown Park, however, it was later renamed in 1892 to its current title following the change of the name of the municipality.

The original ground (pictured below in 1935) had an east-west orientation and was located further west than its present position, more near Binning Street, but in 1937 construction started on Department of Housing flats with the ground relocated further east to its present location, adjacent to Mitchell Road.

The ground was enlarged specifically to cater for Australian football and was reconfigured to run north-south. A new grandstand was also constructed. The new oval

1935 Erskineville Oval (old)
Places

was first used for by the Newtown club in season 1940, and it was the venue for the grand final in the same year, won by Newtown.

From a player’s perspective it was a good ground to play on because it was specifically developed for football, according to champion Newtown full-forward Denis Aitken, who won the league’s goal-kicking in 1962 with 96 goals and played in the 1967, 1968 and 1970 premiership teams.

“It was a good-sized ground and provided for more open play, it was also good from a spectator’s point of view and the ground had a good atmosphere with a grandstand as well as good vantage points around the ground” Denis told me in an interview for this article.

“Because the ground was open to the elements, the wind was always tricky. I mainly used a torpedo punt to kick for goals but at the southern end when it was windy I used a drop-punt”.

Denis like so many of his team-mates at the time like key defender Dennis O’Connor, back pocket Greg Schroder, famed boxing trainer Johnny Lewis, speedy winger Alan Sigsworth, half-forward Johnny Egan, rover Max Dean, centreman Graeme and his brother Reg “Sunny” Sambrook and the Free brothers, Ray, Bill and Harry, all grew up in the area.

Denis’s father, Robert, better known as Bert, also played for Newtown and was a member of four premiership teams – 1936, 1939, 1940 and 1942 as well as playing for NSW.  He was later on the committee and a selector.

Denis remembers going to Erskineville Oval as a young boy with his father, who worked in a factory at Alexandria. They lived at St Peters and took the train to Erskineville station, then walked the half-a-mile to the ground.

History Society President, Ian Granland recalls first going to the grand old ground in the early 1960s to see his club South Sydney play Newtown in a local derby, “Newtown were the best performed and organized club in Sydney at the time, they had strong support, mostly locals who would walk-in from all around the neighborhood, as well as catch the tram from Botany Rd and get off in Mitchell Road”.

“The Newtown supporters were very parochial, they were used to success. After games, which they usually won, they’d stream into the nearby Kurrajong pub to fraternize with the players”.

Newtown won its last premiership in 1970 when it beat North Shore in the grand final at Trumper Park, which became the venue for grand finals from 1956 until 1978.

Newtown’s last “hurrah” was the 1981 grand final under North Melbourne premiership star Sam Kekovich, when they beat traditional rivals East Sydney in the 2nd semi final but two weeks later, lost to Easts who were under first-year captain-coach Greg Harris by 89 points in the decider.

After not winning a game and suffering demoralising defeats in the 1986 season the Newtown club folded.

Erskineville Oval had again become the venue for Sydney league grand finals in 1981. This was after respective grand finals at the Showgrounds (1979) and the SCG (1980) for the same reasons that Jim Phelan outlined in 1935. It continued to host the grand finals until 1990.

However, with no permanent tenant the lease on the ground was taken over by the South Sydney Rugby League Club for training, thus ending over eighty years association with Australian football.

1966

19661966 could be judged as just another year in Sydney football.  The footy system went on as normal but we take a deeper look at the season which is just 48 years ago.

Wests won the flag before a crowd of 7,000 at Trumper Park, Sydney Naval’s Norm Tuxford took out the Phelan Medal, Don McKenna an army recruit from the St George club booted 71 goals to win the first grade Leading Goalking Award, the league returned a (never to be repeated) profit of $2,575 on the Football Record, Eastern Suburb’s Roy Hayes, was made life member of the league, a junior competition was started in the Balmain-Ryde area which included North Ryde, Ermington, Pennant Hills-Normanhurst as well as a Balmain junior club and long term league secretary, Ken Ferguson once again took the reigns at the league, this time in a fulltime capacity.

The league consolidated their newly acquired premises at 64 Regent Street Chippendale, (a photo of which now adorns the website front page in a rotating banner) and again recorded their recognition and appreciation for its purchase to the Western Suburbs Licensed Club.  Sydney Naval and Eastern Suburbs clubs, separately, had their applications for a licensed rejected by the Licensing Court.

A direct and live broadcast (albeit of the second half) by Channel 7 of the Western Suburbs v Sydney Naval game on June 4 game gave the code a lift while East’s captain-coach, Alan Gray was transferred to Wagga prior to the end of the season, upsetting the club’s plans for the finals  Souths had a foreign legion in the senior side which only contained three locals.

Junior players in the state’s Under 15 training squad included Jack Slade (Newtown), Phil Fenny (Wests), Paul Paitry (Easts), Chris Bucko and Paul McCook (St George) were some who would go on to play senior football in Sydney.  Peter Hastings, SC, QC, former Tribunal Chairman who now heads the NSW Crime Commission, was president and player of the Sydney University Club.

Forty-two year old, Jack Armstrong, The Black Fella, retired from umpiring.  Incidentally the Society is working on a story of this once legend of Sydney football which will be published soon.  Ellis Noack was captain-coach of the Southern Districts club.  St George moved to their new home on the site of a former quarry which became Olds Park.  In the rules of the game, the flick-pass was ditched.

History Society president, Ian Granland, began his long journey in football administration when elected secretary of the South Sydney club at age 17 and Vice President, Bill Carey, played his 100th consecutive first grade game for Balmain.

Former VFL umpire and Sydney Naval Coach, Bill Quinn, who went on to become a wonderful supporter of the Sydney Swans club, was appointed coach of the NSW Umpires Assn.  And who could not forget the appointment of Ray Catherall as Sydney Naval’s coach.  Ray, a restauranteur,  had Mother’s Cellar and Moby Dicks restaurants at Kings Cross in his stable.  He gained international notoriety by playing ‘soothing’ music to his players in the change rooms at half time breaks.  He only last one season at the club only to move on to coach Sydney University the following year.

However one of the biggest and least remembered events of the season was the umpiring furore at Trumper Park on July 10 when NSW played North Melbourne.

Our last featured photograph prompted a few memories when, in the days of one (central) umpire, the then Umpires’ Assn secretary and the 1965 Sydney grand final umpire, Len Palmer, was ‘unappointed’ from the game and replaced by VFL umpire, Stan Fisher.

We contacted the Ettalong based Palmer to get the real story.

KilligrewHe said he was at the ground and had begun to change into his umpiring attire when Kangaroo’s coach, the 168cm former St Kilda dynamo, Alan Killigrew (pictured) told officials that “he would not let his boys be umpired by someone from a football outpost like Sydney.”  When asked to be reasonable about the matter and that the 31 year old Palmer, who was after all,  was straight off the VFL Reserves Umpiring list in 1964 and quite competent of handling the match, but the volatile Killigrew refused and stood his ground.

Minutes before the start of the game, Sydney officials had no choice but to capitulate.

Palmer said he had been told before the match that a VFL umpire was at the ground but he did not know his identity.  North Melbourne had brought Fisher to Sydney for the game but there appeared to be no prior communication on the appointment between the two organising parties.

Fisher, who began his VFL umpiring career in 1963 and by then had umpired over 40 league games, was embarrassed about the controversy and suggested to Palmer that they eac do one half.  Palmer could see the problems this could cause and declined his offer.  He then sat on the sideline as the reserve umpire but joined in the after-match hospitality at the Wests Club.

NSW was soundly beaten 20.17 (137) to 7.11 (53).  And incidentally, several current members of the Society were in that NSW team including Brian Tyler, Denis Aitken and Peter Burgess.

As a show of their support for Palmer, the league had sent him to Canberra only weeks before to umpire the Queensland v ACT game at Manuka Oval.  He 1966 NSWANFL 1st Semi Final 1 smallalso umpired the 1966 Sydney Grand Final before he retired from umpiring due to his work in the TAB.

When asked if he had any regrets he said no, “Football gave me a great journey through life and I have made some wonderful friends.  I wouldn’t change a thing” he replied.

Our photograph shows Len Palmer taking the field for the 1966 Sydney Grand Final at Trumper Park.  Note the crowd.  The footballs the umpires had in their hands were used for bouncing and throw-in practice.  None was the match ball.