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Crows in the city: past, present and future

Football

New Crows chairman John Olsen next week will empower a working party to find a city home for the Adelaide Football Club – and he has detailed his preferences. Michelangelo Rucci looks at the 30-year challenge to build a Crows’ nest.

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North Adelaide residents in the early 1870s thwarted the original Adelaide Football Club from building changerooms in the city parklands. Folklore has one of the early Adelaide-Port Adelaide derbies needing to be transferred from the city to Glanville to avert a protest.

The powerful North Adelaide lobbyists might have done the same this year with the now mothballed $60 million plan by the Adelaide Football Club to take over the troubled Adelaide Aquatic Centre in the north parklands.

However, any protest from North Adelaide has been overwhelmed by other factors: rising costs to save the pool, the COVID pandemic and the need to cut back on the original million budget (that still can count on a $15 million Federal Government grant), and general belt-tightening across Australian football.

But new club chairman John Olsen will have his stewardship of the Adelaide Football Club charged and marked by bringing the Crows from West Lakes to the CBD or the city fringes within the next two to three years.

At next week’s board meeting on Wednesday, Olsen will seek to appoint a working party charged with finding six-to-eight sites to consider for the new home of the club.

“We will then identify the best option,” Olsen told InDaily. He wants the committee to deliver a verdict within six months.

“We will search within a radius that is close to the city,” adds Olsen who expects the Wayville Showgrounds and Thebarton Oval to be at the far edge of that sweep.

Olsen also concedes there will be heavy negotiating involved when a site is chosen.

“There is no clean, greenfill site – so we will have to compromise,” Olsen says.

Adelaide will aim for a precinct with two training grounds and that allows the football department and administration to co-exist.

“That is preferable, but it is not a necessity that the football office and club administration both be at the same place,” Olsen said.

This leaves the door open for a training centre at Richmond and Thebarton ovals or Wayville and a high-profile administrative headquarters and a social base in the city – a model used by many European and NFL American football clubs.

A social base at the training ground is not the imperative known for decades by SANFL clubs. Few fans today attend AFL training sessions that have moved to workday hours with the game’s progression to full-time professionalism in the 1990s. Major training events – such as the last major run before the AFL grand final – would be at Adelaide Oval.

The real question is can the new Crows hierarchy led by Olsen give their members a meaningful social club – and do they really need one in 2021?

Beyond The Shed

Inaugural chief executive and long-serving chairman Bill Sanders handed the Crows members their first social base with three versions of the much-loved and much-missed “The Shed” at West Lakes from the mid-1990s to the exit from Football Park at the end of 2013.

Then, the traffic snarl on leaving Football Park that had limited public transport options, made it attractive to stay at West Lakes for a post-match drink or two while waiting for the roads to clear.

“I’m not sure you can replicate that today at Adelaide Oval,” Sanders told InDaily.

“First of all, finding a large enough facility within walking distance of Adelaide Oval where the club’s members can mix and mingle is going to be a very difficult exercise.

“And such a site would have expensive overheads that the club would need to cover with hotel-type operations seven days a week and into the football off-season. It is hard to see where and how such a facility can emerge.

“The big AFL clubs in Melbourne – Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon – are more experienced in the hotel game and they are now selling up their hotels. There is a commercial risk to measure against a commercial opportunity.”

By 2013, the last season of AFL games at Football Park with the Crows recording its lowest season-average for home crowds (33,613 after hitting a high of 46,226 in 1993), the Adelaide Football Club was banking less than $60,000 profit from events at “The New Shed” built into its $21 million headquarters extension.

“They were great days – and a great feature of our match days – when we had ‘The Shed’ at Football Park. I am not sure we can replicate those days gone by…,” adds Sanders.

The Crows’ concept for an HQ at the Aquatic Centre in the park lands. The option looks unlikely to be favoured by Olsen’s working group. Image: Adelaide Football Club

Sanders is latching onto the contentious point made almost five years ago by current Crows chief executive Andrew Fagan. He annoyed Crows members soon after his arrival at the end of the 2015 season by questioning the merit of building a social base for after-match functions when there were so many hotels to use as meeting points.

“It is not as important as it was at (Football Park) and to be fair, Adelaide Oval – by its location in the city – offers so much hours before the game starts with what people can do at restaurants, bars and pubs around the city,” Fagan said at the time.

“But we still think it is important for our members that they have a place to mingle and gather before and after a game so that they feel they are part of the inner workings of the Adelaide Football Club. That remains a focus for us.”

In a radio interview in March 2018, Fagan was putting a harsher red line on any new “Shed” in the city by declaring the fans’ plea was “nothing that has ever stacked up for me”.

“If we happened to be born from a social club environment, we’d be nurturing (the push for a city social base for Crows fans),” said Fagan, adding a new “Shed” was not the “best way to spend limited dollars” at the Adelaide Football Club.

Almost three years later, Olsen is determined to make this a major focus of his legacy. He wants to invest in football – and the fans. He insists even in an era of clearing new debt from the COVID pandemic he will not dismiss the members’ wishes for a city-based clubhouse.

The Eagle model

Adelaide is often compared with West Coast, the VFL expansion club formed in Perth at the end of 1986 to be Western Australia’s first entry to a national football competition.

Like the Crows, the Eagles set up their administrative and training base at the state league headquarters – Subiaco Oval in Perth in West Coast’s case. The move of Eagles and Fremantle AFL matches to the $1.6 billion Perth Stadium last year forced West Coast to find a new home while the Subiaco Oval land precinct was redeveloped.

West Coast last year moved to Lathlain Park – home of WAFL club Perth – marking the territory with a $60 million development that includes two training grounds, one replicating the MCG’s dimensions, the other mirroring Perth Stadium.

This puts Thebarton Oval – with its secondary football field on Kings Reserve at the northern end of the ground – in the frame to be the new Crows headquarters, particularly with the City of West Torrens eager to have the area become the base for the Adelaide Football Club, Adelaide Footy League and SANFL umpires.

In question is whether all three entities can cohabitate at Thebarton?

How it all began

In the beginning, there was Football Park at West Lakes.

“Post-match presentations on the steps outside the (SANFL) president’s room,” recalls Sanders.

It was the early 1990s, when the Crows were making do with the southern changerooms under the members’ grandstand on the western side of the now-demolished concrete bowl that was SANFL headquarters from 1974.

Sanders had started from scratch – and with no certain budget – during the summer of 1990-1991 in the so-called “ATCO hut” dropped in the stadium’s car park on the south-western edge. His wife Ann made the curtains to block the glare from the blistering afternoon sun.

A social club was not going to make it to be top of the priority list that still demanded the Crows find a coach, players, on- and off-field staff and sponsors while selling season tickets to a team that still needed a jumper, a nickname and a club song.

There was the option of setting up the club in The Lakes Hotel across the car park and West Lakes shopping mall.

“We considered buying it once,” says Sanders. “We had discussions with (hotelier) Greg Fahey but he would not sell.”

And then – while the Crows were being tagged as the “Chardonnay set” and lacking a “heart and soul” while hometown rival-in-waiting Port Adelaide had its members on the beers at the social club at Alberton – Sanders took advantage of the significant move the SANFL made to control the land parcel around Football Park in the mid-1990s.

“The league bought the land to the east of the stadium, including the two warehouses that were once used by the State Supply department,” Sanders said.

“The Shed”, versions 1, 2 and 3 were launched.

“We came to an agreement with the SANFL to use one warehouse – and when that was not big enough, we tacked on a marquee,” said Sanders, who bought the tent for $25,000 and sold it for $75,000.

“We had a temporary stand, a small stage and a barbecue area.”

Crows players this year at their isolated West Lakes headquarters. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

The 1999 Brownlow Medal count on by Hawthorn midfielder Shane Crawford in the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney gave Sanders the inspiration for the Shed Mark II.

“It was a big barn-like the State Supply warehouse we had at West Lakes; the AFL covered up all the iron walls at the Hordern Pavilion with black drapes and that gave us the concept to do the same with red, gold and blue from ceiling to floor,” Sanders said.

“We had three bars – the premiership bar, captains’ corner and the Crows bar. We put a huge stage on wheels. Rob Gerard gave us a big screen. We renovated the toilets. We leased out food stalls. We could get 3000 people in there.

“We were even leasing out the space for motor shows.

“And we took great pleasure in showing it to visiting clubs. Sydney chairman Richard Colless was amazed. No-one could replicate what we had. We were very, very lucky.”

In 2008, The Shed Mark III emerged as part of the plans for the $21 million extension of the Crows training facility on Football Park’s eastern flank. The red ribbon cut at the grand opening of the “New Shed” had not faded before it was clear football was on its way back to the city at Adelaide Oval …

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan, then the No.2 at league headquarters, shook his head during his tour signalling his bewilderment at how the Crows had misread the play on the future of the old, stale Football Park. A decade later the Crows leaders of that time maintain the $21 million investment in training facilities and member services was an imperative and the capital value of the works has held up to give the club a major asset.

The move to Adelaide Oval

Crows chairman Rob Chapman in 2011 was the last to sign the pact that ended the 40-year cold war between cricket and football to re-establish Adelaide Oval as the home of football in a $535-million redevelopment.

The move to Adelaide Oval in 2014 demanded every football party – the SANFL, the Crows and the eager Port Adelaide – all be better off by taking their games from Football Park.

The Crows lost out.

“The Shed” did not translate to the indoor cricket centre behind the Riverbank Stand, particularly with high-cost drinks ($13 beers then) and concern from cricket authorities about the trampling on their indoor turf. The after-match functions were transferred to the Magarey Room in the Oval’s southern Riverbank Stand.

Adelaide chief executive Steven Trigg and strategic planning manager Trevor Jaques (who had designed all the Crows training facilities at West Lakes from 1990) looked at five of six prospective sites in 2014:

UNIVERSITY OVAL – The birthplace of South Australian football through the 1860s and 1870s, just east of the current Adelaide Oval. Trigg was most eager for developing the club’s base on Park 12, behind the grandstand. There was the concept of major underground car parking – and even moving the club’s administration to the old Bank of New South Wales building on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street to give the Crows a high-profile base in the city.

RAILWAYS OVAL, now KAREN ROLTON OVAL – This was Jaques’ preferred site. It had the bonus of looking at the on-the-market Newmarket Hotel on the corner of North and West terraces as a social club; clientele from the new Royal Adelaide Hospital; access by tram; and the prospect of being on the edge of a new sports precinct in the city. “It had an enormous amount going for it,” says Jaques. So much so that even Port Adelaide considered the option before locking its club to the traditional base at Alberton.

NORTH ADELAIDE – On the oval flanking the Aquatic Centre and at the centre of the $60 million plan presented to the Adelaide City Council before the COVID pandemic put this option in doubt. “It is not off the table yet,” says Olsen. “But the increasing cost of repairing the pool and COVID hitting our original $60 million budget, it could become an unlikely option.”

THEBARTON OVAL – The old home of the West Torrens Football Club that on merging with SANFL club Woodville at the end of the 1990 season moved to Woodville Oval. The Crows repeatedly used Thebarton for summer training from 2015 and started their AFLW adventure here in 2017.

The City of West Torrens is priming itself to “inherit” the Crows.

“Thebarton Oval does go close to ticking all the boxes,” said Olsen. This includes the box demanding a training field that can be marked to the different sizes of Adelaide Oval and the MCG. Adelaide’s preliminary planning at Thebarton includes setting up the club’s offices in the Brickworks precinct on the northern side of the oval.

RICHMOND OVAL – As with Thebarton Oval, this ground is on the western edge of the city an SANFL bastion as the home of the West Adelaide Football Club since 1956. Sharing one oval between one AFL team, one AFLW squad, two SANFL teams and two SANFLW sides is likely to become difficult.

WAYVILLE SHOWGROUNDS – Although it made the final list in 2014, Jaques never made a site inspection. The prospect of being locked out during September AFL finals – by the Royal Show – made the venue (used for SANFL games until 1939) difficult to endorse. The trotting track around the oval also is a concern.

Perceptions matter

Adelaide chief executive Andrew Fagan describes the West Lakes site that is home to the Crows today – now badged by the developer as “WEST” – as “busy and ever-changing”.

One of the lessons from Football Park’s last days as an AFL venue through the 2000s decade is how public perception damages reality. Football Park looked – and felt stale and looked tired with aged concrete – after football fans experienced the 21st century features of the Docklands indoor arena and revamped MCG in Melbourne.

The Crows know prospective recruits value a club’s facilities and training base – and Adelaide cannot afford to have courted players put off by the thought the club is working in a challenging environment.

“We still have world-class facilities that have been expanded for AFLW,” said Fagan.

“The surface at Football Park is world-class. On windy days (with the grandstands gone and no longer offering windbreaks) the players are adapting; they are dealing with it.

“The upside for the fans is they will be able to watch us train. This will be a great place now that the western community can interact with us on a daily basis.”

Adelaide has a “rent-free” lease at Football Park until 2038. The SANFL estimates the value of this lease at $2 million. The Crows have lost the second and third training ovals that were marked on Max Basheer Reserve that is now filled with new accommodation.

Chapman noted in February 2019 – before federal Liberal and Labor threw $15 million in grants to the Crows for their new headquarters – that if you open a map of the Adelaide CBD there is no greenfill space that would be easy to attain. There are parklands, such as those of Bonython Park across from the soon-to-be mothballed SA Brewing site. Olsen expects a land developer to prefer the big returns of high-priced accommodation to an AFL club headquarters and training facility… but the question will be posed.

Victoria Park will draw public attention, particularly while there is doubt on Adelaide’s part in future street circuits for V8 Supercars.

The old E&WS depot on the corner of Port Road and James Congdon Drive on the city’s western edge has appeal, particularly if the Crows acquire the old Squatter’s Arms Hotel for a social base.

Thebarton Oval is the most likely end result.

AFL premierships are tough to win, as the Crows have known since their last in 1998. Finding a home in the city appears even tougher.

For now, West Lakes remains home for three Crows player groups (AFL, AFLW and SANFL). It is headquarters for the staff that remains after the COVID-forced cuts to football and administrative departments. But it is not home any more to the fan base that once savoured pre-game barbecue in the car park and a post-game party in “The Shed”.

Olsen is now cast as Moses needing to lead his people by 2023 to a “promised land” in the city. Or nearby.

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