Suburban fortresses no more?
I have been fortunate to coach at two clubs which had such hostility towards opposition teams and referees that the term ‘fortress’ was justified.
Mt Smart Stadium, home of the New Zealand Warriors, is a great place to be a home coach. Firstly, teams have to travel across the Tasman to play and then arrive at a cold, uninspiring venue with a few speckled jerseys representing them in a sea of black and silver (nowadays that could include red, white and green).
Knowsley Rd is a skinny road with a field ("stadium" would be an embellishment) that was home to St Helens. Their home ground since 1890, it was held together by the flotsam that arrived via different weather conditions but housed some of the more manic ‘speckees’ that I have had the privilege of knowing.
Suburban grounds such as Leichhardt Oval, Shark Park, Penrith Stadium, Campbelltown Stadium, Brookvale Oval and Kogarah Oval were always greeted upon checking the season draw with a cringe because you knew that dressing rooms were small, warm up facilities were an old school oval across the road (before main field availability), tickets for family members would be capped at one each and the coach's viewing box would either be in the stand with the home season ticket members, at an obtuse angle to the field or at a height that birds rarely ventured. These were difficult venues to win a game.
In season 2012, 66 per cent of all victories have been away from home. I love the new ‘boutique’ stadiums that are available at most venues. I realise that the corporate dollar is extremely valuable and the comfort of patrons paramount when rugby league is vying for support against many other winter sports, but is it easier to win an away match now than when I first started in 2001?
Imagine what the coaches from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s are saying about how soft I am when they read this.
The new Hunter Stadium is wonderful, WIN Stadium salubrious, Lang Park magnificent, Skilled Stadium plush, SFS and Olympic Stadiums my favourite grounds for playing footy, but do they invoke any aura or apprehension from visiting teams?
The old Newcastle Stadium (same location) was notorious for some match day shenanigans. The away dressing room was ‘washed out’ just prior to your arrival so it was wet, small and you couldn’t put any gear on the ground. Warm up was next to the squash courts on a 10m x 20m undulating patch of grass, and the coach's box in line with the tryline at 45 degrees (many times I lent forward to look at the right corner at the far end of the field only to smash my head on the perspex window. I’m sure this was replicated by other coaches… or at least I hope).
In England, Castleford’s home ground is known as ‘The Jungle’. As the opposition team, you got dressed in a room that could comfortably house six players, get strapped in the showers and then are invited to sit in row 23 of the most parochial section of ‘the jungle's finest’. If a bomb was put up higher than your seven-year-old son could kick then you just had to wait until it came back into view.
When I first arrived at St Helens, I sat in a seat that had a view of 60 per cent of the field because of a pole (and I was the home coach). The next week I sat in every seat in the stand (about 1500 of them) to identify the best view of the pitch. I found one and the CEO slapped a sticker on it saying "Home Coach". Next game, the late great Eric Ashton saw me in his seat and whispered, “I’ve sat in that seat for 27 years”. “Sorry” was my reply, as I didn’t realise its significance, but I cheekily replied, “you’ve had a good run.” As an ex-coach of Saints he very graciously gave it up when I explained I needed a good view of the ground.
Away game apprehension (or lack of it) makes it very difficult these days to tip winners with any conviction, but let’s not kid ourselves, I do like the comfy chairs and 700" replay screens.