Princes graced this park

Austadiums   |  Thursday 19th May 2005

After hosting champions and hard men, Carlton's much-loved, and feared, home ground is to be consigned to history. And with it, the old days of suburban football.

Princes Park hosted only three of league football's 108 grand finals, but one of them, the 1945 "bloodbath" between Carlton and South Melbourne, remains among the most famous.

The Swans had finished on top of the ladder, the Blues reaching the play-off from fourth. An already fiery game erupted in the second quarter when Carlton captain Bob Chitty floored Swans' star Ron Clegg. In the ensuing mayhem, South's Billy Williams was decked, Carlton's Ken Hands was knocked unconscious, Chitty was dropped, then Clegg again.

Police moved in to break up one of the brawls, officials, spectators and ambulance men became involved in others, and Carlton's Fred Fitzgibbon, already suspended for four games from the preliminary final, was ushered from the ground after running on to join the stoush. The post-game repercussions were savage - 16 charges laid against 10 players, suspended for a total of 69 matches.

Carlton's Chitty and Ron Savage were each outed for eight games. South's Ted Whitfield was the most severely punished with a 21-game penalty, teammate Jack "Basher" Williams was outed for 12 matches, Don Grossman eight, Jim Cleary four. Fitzgibbon copped a further four weeks for his brief cameo.

But Carlton won the premiership, on its own patch of turf no less, and perhaps it was that moment that helped cement the image of both club and the patch of North Carlton it inhabited. Sadly, AFL football will grace the ground for the last time this Saturday when the Blues play Melbourne.

The Blues were tough, focused and bloody hard to beat at home, even in the largely barren 20 years that followed their 1945 triumph, particularly during the glorious 20 seasons from 1968 to 1987 during which they won seven premierships.

And perhaps even more so in the 1990s, when other clubs had already forsaken their suburban homes, and the newly named Optus Oval became an even bigger advantage - Carlton winning 21 consecutive home games between 1993 and 1996.

David Parkin, who coached Carlton and Hawthorn in 202 games at the ground, more than any other coach, recalls the ground as a "little cauldron" that throbbed with the intensity of support for the Blues, his players often asking him if they could contrive to kick to the Heatley Stand end in the final quarter.

From where the coach's box was positioned in the 1980s, Parkin had a perfect view of famous moments such as Peter Bosustow's spectacular mark in a forward pocket. Etched also in his memory is ruckman Justin Madden's dominance at the centre bounces and the havoc it wreaked on opponents.

But also a moment several years earlier. "I'd come back (to the box) after half-time having given the midfielders, and Rod Ashman in particular, a real dose about not going back into defence to help out," he recalls.

"The first instant of the third quarter, they attack, and there's Ashman standing out on the wing. Well, I let fly on the phone with: 'Tell Ashman if he doesn't get down there, he'll be off the ground and sitting up here with me.' But unbeknown to me, they used the microphone in the box for half-time announcements, and it had been left on. Unfortunately for me, that message went right around the ground. I can still see Rod standing there giving me a wave."

By the mid-1960s, the Blues were taking in tenants. Fitzroy used Princes Park as its home in two different eras, from 1967-70, and then 1987-93. Hawthorn spent nearly 20 years there from 1974-91, which happened to coincide with the Hawks' greatest era, in which it won seven of its nine premierships. The Western Bulldogs played three seasons there from 1997-99.

The "interlopers" would provide their share of memorable moments, too, Hawthorn and Geelong featuring in both a highlight and lowlight of the more than 1000 games of league football played at Princes Park.

There was the classic "shootout" in 1989, when Malcolm Blight's free-wheeling Cats stacked on 17 first-half goals to lead by more than 50 points, before Hawthorn stormed back in the second with 17 of their own to get up by eight points. The two would play out another classic in the grand final a few months later.

Four years earlier, a darker chapter was written, when a clash between the Hawks and Cats exploded into violence, skipper Leigh Matthews belting Geelong's Neville Bruns behind play. The ugly incident that not only led the Hawk champion to be deregistered, but charged and convicted of assault, a decision later overturned.

But even during the Hawks' successful stay, and despite constructing in the mid-1970s its own grandstand (the funny-looking one with the slippery-dip roof), this was always Carlton's turf.

Greats the likes of champion ruckman John Nicholls, whose supreme ruck skills and physical presence made him one of the game's most feared competitors over 328 games and 18 seasons. Or Ron Barassi, whose move from Melbourne to the Blues as captain-coach in 1965 helped move the club into a new era. Or modern heroes such as the "mosquito fleet" of the early 1980s - featuring Ashman, Ken Sheldon and Alex Marcou - or Carlton's surges to the Heatley Stand end, inevitably accompanied by the whistling of Blues' fans as another goal sailed through.

For a ground so close to the central business district, Princes Park could be a bugger to get to, whether squeezing on to a packed tram up Royal Parade or searching for a rare car parking spot.

But it was a place full of character, the old Gardiner Stand reeking of history and the ground retaining a sentimental status as the last truly suburban home for league football in this city. Now, Princes Park, too, is gone.

By Rohan Connolly

Ikon Park

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