TRUMPER PARK – why it is Australian Football’s prime piece of real estate in Sydney

Submitted by Miles Wilks author of Australian Football Clubs in NSW

Trumper Park can lay claim to being the most enduring and important Australian football oval in Sydney. Whilst the SCG has only been consistently used for football in the last thirty years,

Trumper Park has been used as a football oval for approximately 110 years. Other inner-city football grounds, such as Erskineville Oval, Kensington Oval and Drummoyne Oval, have all seen their time, come and go, yet Paddington’s Trumper Park has endured. Trumper Park Oval is the one constant for a sport that has struggled to have continuity and hold its place in the crowded Sydney
marketplace.

For many, Erskineville Oval is the only oval that could rival Trumper in Sydney as a long-term venue for the game. I can remember as a youngster seeing a grand final match in the early 1980s and it was full of life, yet now when you go there it seems as if all traces of previous football action has been erased.

Football ovals have a soul to them, a life, when they are in use, but empty ovals that are past their use-by date have a melancholy quality about them. And this is the case with the former Newtown FC home ground of Erskineville Oval.

The game ceased to be played there in the early 1990s, and today one would never know that the oval was once the home of a proud football club, the Newtown Angels. There is not a skerrick of evidence (not even a plaque on the grandstand) that confirms that Australian football was once played there.

In contrast, Trumper Park has endured and it is the only Australian football ground in Sydney that has been used more or less continuously for more than 100 years.

The first documented match I could find reference to occurred in 1903, and there is perhaps some chance that football was even played there prior to this date. Colossal figures in Australian history have links to Trumper Park, including the cricketer and sporting hero Keith Miller and the Prime Minister and war leader John Curtin was a visitor to the ground. On top of this, footballers of exceptional quality have played at Trumper including the AFL legend Jack Dyer, as well as the Brownlow medalists Bill Morris and Kevin Murray amongst many other star players.

KEITH MILLER- cricketer.
Undoubtedly one of Australia’s greatest sportsmen and a hero to many, Keith Miller is someone whose life is linked to Trumper Park.  Yet before his link to Trumper is discussed, one should know more about the Keith Miller story and why he is an important figure in Australian history.

Whilst our most iconic Australian cricketer Don Bradman was described as a “clean-skin”, Keith Miller was described by some at the opposite side of the spectrum “a rogue, a big drinker, a womaniser.” There were even persistent and “unsubstantiated rumours of an affair with a member of royalty.”

Don Bradman and Keith Miller had an ongoing battle over the years due to their clash of personalities and different lifestyles and this conflect had some role in Miller not being selected as the Australian team captain towards the end of his career.  This though should not override the fact that Keith Miller was a hero to many.

The iconic figure in Australian football, Ron Barassi, was one of the many who considered Keith Miller as a hero.

The Great Keith Miller- Ron Barassi’s hero
Ron Barassi stated:

“When I was a teenager, I began to idolise one special Australian sportsman. As far as I was concerned, he stood for everything that was important in playing sport. He was dashing. He was cavalier. He was handsome. And he could do anything.

“Apart from his marvellous cricketing skills, I was fully aware of his background as a footballer, and a war hero as a fighter pilot, his war exploits being by far the most intriguing to me.

“He was the hero of the common man. Above all else, Keith Miller taught me the importance of being your own man.”

It wasn’t just Australians who idolised Miller, even the English saw Miller as the hero of the common man. Michael Parkinson, the celebrated English journalist who had his own tv chat show for over two decades, stated:

“I mean here was this man who played cricket, hit big sixes, looked like Errol Flynn, broad-shouldered, dark hair, blue eyes, the ladies loved him, every man wanted to be him.”

MILLER – THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE PILOT in WWII.
Of all the quotes attributed to Miller, the one that has received the most recognition is his comment about his time as a fighter pilot flying against the Germans and their Messerchmitt planes in WWII. A few years after flying in fighter squadrons in England, Miller was asked about the pressure of playing cricket at the top level. He replied: “Pressure, mate. In cricket? You’ve got to be kidding. Pressure is turning around and seeing a Messerschmitt flying up your arse.”

Keith ‘Nugget’ Miller also had a target on his back when he settled in Sydney after the war and played football for the Sydney Naval football club, which had its home ground at Trumper Park.

Any high profile player in the Sydney league was a target, and Miller was a public figure who had represented Australia in cricket and was an ex-VFL player as well.  As a sportsman, one couldn’t get more high profile than that.

The newspaper reports from the time verified that Miller was the target for footballers who played the man and not the ball. A July 1947 report from the Sydney Morning Herald stated, “While on the umpire’s blind side a Newtown player picked up Miller from behind and dumped him heavily. Miller received undue attention from a few Newtown players until the final bell.” Suffice to say that Miller’s football career in Sydney was short-lived – one season, as he was then in his thirties and perhaps not prepared for the lawless nature of football in Sydney, but in later years he was a representative on various committees who had the aim of improving the standing of the game in Sydney.

John Curtin
For some, just mentioning the topic of politicians is enough to put them to sleep, yet every so often there are great politicians who do make a difference and this is the case with John Curtin – Australia’s leader during much of World War II.

His most important moment in history came about in February 1942 when he refused Churchill’s request to divert  Australian troops to Burma so as to shore up the collapsing British front in that region. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was furious that Curtin disobeyed him, but Curtin wanted those troops to defend Australia, and not Burma.

The early months of 1942, when the Japanese were bombing northern Australia and seemed likely to invade the continent, were the darkest hours of the war for Australia – and Britain certainly could not help.  Those troops were eventually used on the Kokoda Trail and were vital in the protection of Australia against the Japanese forces.

John Curtin, our wartime leader, was also a passionate supporter of Australian football, and was a regular visitor of matches held at Trumper during the war. In 1943, he was reported to have gone into the rooms after 0ne game to speak to both teams. Curtin’s sad passing towards the end of the war is also linked to Trumper Park as the newspaper report of the Sydney Morning Herald on the 9th of July, 1945 mentions. It states:

Six thousand people stood in silence yesterday at Trumper Park in memory of the late Mr Curtin. The ceremony arranged by the NSW Australian National Football League, of which Mr Curtin was patron, was held before the first grade Australian Rules game at Trumper.

“The Minister for Transport, Mr O’Sullivan said: “We pay our simple homage to a great sportsman and the man that did so much to keep this country free. The president of the League, Mr Norman Joseph, replied that Mr Curtin was one of the game’s greatest supporters.”

The future:
There is no doubt that the history to the ground is immense, but what of the future? The present football playing tenants of the oval, the UTS Bats FC, have been told to move some of their home matches to Waverley Oval by the Sydney AFL.  The future of the oval is in jeopardy as the Sydney AFL consider the ground too short. This transference of matches has occurred despite the fact that Trumper isn’t as short as two grounds that are still in full-time use in the league: the University of NSW’s Village Green and Sydney University’s home ground.

There is a legacy there. Australian cultural heroes, such as John Curtin and Keith Miller, have graced the ground and have an ongoing link to the ground. It would be a shame to let that heritage go by the wayside just for bureaucratic reasons. Perhaps in the years ahead the ground will be lengthened and another 100 years of football history will be added to what has gone before.

Note: In the second part to this article on Trumper Park I will look at some of the legends of the game who have played at the ground.

WHAT THE DOCUMENTS REVEAL

I guess you have to be an absolute footy aficionado to appreciate a lot of what comes across our desk.

We see and read and see lots of stuff from Sydney’s footy history but sometimes we come across some real gems.

In our efforts to include more data on our OCR programme we have almost finished scanning all the NSW Football League’s, or as they are now titled, AFL(NSW/ACT) annual reports.  (We must tell you here that the organisation has had several name changes over the years.)

Reading some of these publications can have a profound affect on those really interested in football history.

For example, skimming through early WWII league annual reports, just shows what a battle it was to conduct the competition in Sydney.

For a start there was a paper shortage so in 1941 the report only consisted of four pages and to conserve paper, the normal page two, where officials were listed, was published on the front cover.  The other pages were printed front to back for the remainder in the roneoed document..

Right up to the 1980s, the league’s annual report began with the greeting “Gentlemen ….”  Not many women in executive positions in those days.

In some of those war year’s issues, there were personal notes written against peoples names and the room would be full on the night of the meeting.

The venue for the league’s annual meeting varied from various locations in the city, all of which have since been demolished.  But they were the times when the vast majority of the attendees (sample shown in photo above taken at the Sydney Sports Club, Hunter Street), club delegates, league officials and umpiring officials would have had to have caught a tram, bus or train home after the gathering – given that the meeting did not begin until 8:00pm.

Competition was fierce to gain a place on the league’s administration and it may have taken several years to be elected to a seat on the board.  A public vote was always taken for life members and there would have been severe embarrassment for those who were voted down, which sometimes happened.  They was not hidden ballots then.

Finding volunteers to administer the game then, as is the case now, was not easy.  Clubs could reasonably rely on ex-players to taken on positions but those who conducted league affairs were few and far between and these honorary officials really had to be dedicated.  There were sub-committees most had to join up to and it was not uncommon for the league secretary and treasurer to attend in excess of 40 meetings a year.

The photograph is of a young Ken Ferguson who was league Secretary for a total of 28 years, 24 of those in an honorary capacity.

The league board met each Monday night during the season right up until 1980.

In 1943 there were some wonderful footballers playing in Sydney having been posted here for training during hostilities.  For the most part they were evenly, but directed,  shared around the clubs and many were from the VFL, SANFL and WANFL.

In 1943 the nation’s prime minister, John Curtin, one of the country’s most outstanding leaders ever in our history was patron of the league.  The former VFA player attended several games at Trumper Park during the season and on one one occasion addressed both teams in their rooms after the game.

This was the year that football first began to play of a Sunday mostly due to the lack of grounds but the initiative saw attendances sky-rocket.

In 1944, Corporal Alby Morrison, former captain of Footscray was the leader of the RAAF club that competed in the Sydney competition during that period.  Although the awarding of the Phelan Medal (the league’s B & F) had been suspended, the talented Morrison, who had represented Victoria and would subsequently be chosen in Footscray’s Team of the Century, was presented with a cup in 1944 for The Best and Most Consistent Player in the Sydney league.

Also in the same year, Collingwood captain, Private Phonse Kyne, who was also stationed in Sydney and captain coach of the St George club, was awarded a cup for Outstanding Fair Play.  Kyne would go on to win three Copeland Trophies at Collingwood and coach the club to two premierships.  Neither of these clubs won the premiership in 1943 or 1944.