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Belmore Oval, the greatest suburban ground

It’s a short walk from the train station down to Belmore Oval. A nice stroll alongside a lush, green park leads to the entrance gates where, for generations, Bulldogs supporters have paid their hard earned to enter the coliseum that is Belmore.

 

The structure has hosted epic encounters, themed days, local community events such as kid’s carnivals and the like and served the local community for near on a hundred years.

 

Opened in 1920, the ground sits on space originally labelled Belmore Park. Only the SCG, Leichardt and Brookvale have hosted more rugby league matches than Belmore.

 

In all, 661 matches – which is a hell of a history, but it’s not only the Bulldogs who have called it home throughout the years.

 

Parramatta and St George have used the ground as a base while waiting for their home venues to be upgraded and Sydney Olympic currently use the ground in the NPL football competition.

 

That short walk is one I have taken many times. Thankfully, most of those walks have been enjoyable. A remarkable home ground advantage developed over the years and the ‘Dogs were tough to beat on their home strip.

 

When the blue and whites entered the comp in 1935 Pratten Park as well as Marrickville Park were used, yet by their second season, Belmore became their home.

 

I’d sacrifice quite a bit to have been there in those days, unfortunately, my parents weren’t even born. Seeing the ground being used more frequently in the financial and commercial beast that is modern rugby league is wonderful.

 

Moments stick with you in life and Belmore provided more than its fair share. The sight of the train sweeping its way past the ground while a game took place wasn’t unique, but certainly rare.

 

The golden bulldog that stood proudly at the other end of the ground overseeing the action is as vivid in my mind as anything from my youth.

 

One of my friends at school, Seamus Whelan was his name, was employed by the club and charged with the task of sitting atop that structure, somewhere near the bulldog and catching goal kickers attempts and subsequently returning the ball.

 

His task would often extend to fence jumping in order to retrieve balls from the backyards adjoining the ground. The owners of those backyards were a source of my envy.

 

To live with the ‘Dogs through training sessions, trials and the excitement of game day at such close quarters would have been astonishing.

 

Seeing Geoff Toovey knocked out at least three times on a Monday night still lingers with me.

 

The ‘Dogs had targeted him, in the days when more obvious physical intimidation still took place and the monster pack laid him out time after time.

 

At full-time, Toovey was flat on his back as the throng headed for the exits. I can still remember standing there with a Big League magazine in hand, unable to take my eyes off him, feeling ashamed that my boys had assaulted him in such a way.

 

It took a few more years of growth and experience to realise that footy was sometimes like that. Not something the game should be terribly proud of but certainly part of its storied history.

 

Watching a backline move in 1985 that went through the hands of all three Mortimer brothers and finished with Peter scoring in the corner, still pops into my head now and then.

 

Images of a Steve ‘turvey’ Mortimer kick, chase and regather while alluding a hapless fullback still make me smile, all done with a football dressed in horizontal stripes mind you.

 

Seeing wild-man Geoff Robinson released from the confines of the bench and launch himself into a contest in his chaotic and violent style as a supporter screamed ‘let him out of his cage’, still pumps me up.

 

The all-conquering team of the mid-eighties, under the stern and conservative leadership of Warren Ryan, bashed, barged and gang tackled their way to back to back premierships and the venue became a fortress.

 

Attending a game and walking out a loser was such a rare occurrence through that period. I will always feel blessed that I supported a team that was incredibly successful throughout my youth.

 

Those are the days when you dream as a supporter and following perennial cellar dwellers might have negatively impacted my involvement in the game.

 

As a hardened and cynical adult, you know when your team isn’t up to it. It’s disappointing, but not a total loss.

 

Those days at Belmore were different. It did feel like life or death and when your boys won you walked with pride.

 

Through the nineties, the club experimented with themed days such as multicultural day, where the local community came together under a common banner and showed everyone just how diverse and powerful the inner west could be.

 

The people flocked and the ground was full. It was brilliant.

 

Of all the memories of this great place, 1995 stands above them all. After playing home matches out of Parramatta Stadium for much of the year amidst the uncertainty of the pending Super League and attempting to broaden support and meet the stadium demands of the new competition, the Dogs lost their soul.

 

They had an average year, yet returned to Belmore for the final game against the hapless Cowboys. I missed the match, yet was returning via train from somewhere I can’t recall and was bombarded by ‘Doggies fans as they boarded.

 

I was quickly informed that a 66-4 drubbing had taken place. It was a magical train trip. The ‘Dogs were back.

 

So much so, that they peeled off wins against St George, Brisbane, Canberra and the form team, Manly to take the most unlikeliest of titles from sixth spot on the ladder.

 

One wonders whether that trip to Belmore on the final weekend bled into what followed. It certainly felt like it.

 

A few sour memories also exist. Watching the mounted police clear hooligans from the hill in a match against the Hunter Mariners in 1997 was shameful and kept me away for a while.

 

As did some stupid buffoons who appeared to be attending matches in search of a fight rather than a love of the team.

 

After 1998, the ‘Dogs ventured into new waters with Homebush seen as a more central and accessible location. Initially playing out of the Olympic venue, a short experiment with the Showground proved unsuccessful and eventually the club settled on what is now ANZ Stadium.

 

I am a member of ANZ and despite the criticism of many who use clichés like ‘ghost town’ and the like, the blue and whites have built a decent home there, considering the commercial realities of the modern game.

 

The last two seasons have seen the club play official matches out of Belmore. It is a spiritual homecoming.

 

As the current crop thunder across the turf, I swear I see a nuggetty little champion named Terry Lamb loom up in support on the inside.

 

I can see Greg Brentnall launch a towering bomb that threatens to bring the proverbial rain and a utility named Steve Folkes slice down opponents with relentless precision.

 

Unfortunately, the record hasn’t been too impressive over the last couple of years in matches played at Belmore. Still, there are no regrets.

 

Well, perhaps one, the sight of a short little Lebanese fella slotting goals from either sideline is something that the Bulldog faithful would have loved to see at Belmore Oval.

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