Skinner Reserve, Braybrook (Sunshine VFA), Victoria

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In the foreground of the picture above, Sunshine players John Potter and Bob Baird fly for the ball in a VFA First Division match against Caulfield at Skinner Reserve in 1974. Half hidden behind the players, we get a glimpse of the imposing black scoreboard that graced the outer wing of the ground. Actually, Skinner Reserve was a pretty imposing venue. Despite the massive playing area, high grassy embankments gave the ground an enclosed feel.

The Jack Chigwidden Stand, named after a long-serving secretary of the club, stood on the northern wing. This was one of the taller VFA grandstands, and it provided a good view over the inner west all the way back to Melbourne.

Sunshine moved to Skinner Reserve from Selwyn Park in 1966 and remained there until the club folded eight matches into the 1989 season. My first trip to the ground was in 1981 for a Sunshine-Oakleigh game. This involved a train trip to Tottenham (a few hundred metres short of the soon-to-be-closed White City station) and a long walk north westwards along Ashley Street and Churchill Avenue to get to the ground (taking the train to VFA grounds at Kilsyth, Caulfield and Berwick also involved decent hikes).

For a supporter accustomed to the allure of attractive venues such as Camberwell, Northcote and Sandringham,  and the gritty history of the Brunswick, Williamstown and Port Melbourne grounds, Skinner Reserve impressed with its windswept barrenness. Almost perversely, it became one of my favourite opposition grounds to visit, and the austere black scoreboard was one of the better VFA boards. The tiny Second Division crowds didn’t make much of a dent at Skinner Reserve; the ground seemed to have been built for a much bigger club.

Sunshine had won the 1971 Second Division flag and spent the next three years in the top grade of the VFA. The club was unlucky to finish last in 1974, suffering several close defeats during the year. Sunshine defeated eventual premier Port Melbourne at Skinner Reserve that season. The Crows were already in some financial trouble by this time, and a return to Second Division didn’t promise much assistance on that score. By 1981 the club was at a low ebb and famously suffered a 290 point loss at Waverley in round 1. Sunshine dragged itself out of the mire in 1985 and had four excellent seasons under the coaching of Ron Brown without quite winning the flag. The failure of Second Division meant that Sunshine got a crack at playing against the big boys of the VFA again in 1989. A 255 point loss to Brunswick in the opening round was the signal that Sunshine wasn’t going to be able to make the grade. The loss of Brown as coach hadn’t helped, as it had led to an exodus of players.

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I took this photo at the Sunshine v Oakleigh game that was played on 10 July 1988. Oakleigh won, 18.9 to 4.9 in front of an official crowd of 800. I say ‘official’ because VFA crowds published in newspapers often seemed to be surprisingly high! But there does seem to be a decent gathering of spectators in front of the grandstand here. I know its not much of a photo, but it gives some impression of the atmosphere of Skinner Reserve during the latter VFA days.

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The same view a quarter of a century on. People out, phone towers and rust in.

Skinner Reserve today is even bleaker than it was thirty years ago. The Chigwidden Stand  has a desolate look about it, while the encircling mounds have been cut down to size in places. A turf wicket shows that cricket is still played at the ground, but I don’t know about its status in the winter. The FDFL had a crack at it, as did soccer. The scoreboard is long gone, and no trace of it remains. If anyone does have a better picture of it, I would like to see it.

As far as the Sunshine FC was concerned, at least the Crows supporters never saw their club’s classy navy and white woolblend guernseys replaced with shiny, advertisement-ridden, screen printed abominations, or with bland and anonymous white away jumpers. Sunshine was never forced to modify its tough western suburbs style of football to appease an overregulating central body; its supporters never had to witness their players playing a dull and cynical possession brand of football. Most importantly, the club never became a zombie arm of an AFL club and was able to stand on its own two feet until the end. Looking at the fate of some of the VFA clubs that did survive the ‘90s, the quick and clean end of the Sunshine FC seems preferable.

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Oakleigh champ, Michael Owen drives the ball forward against Sunshine at Skinner Reserve on 10 July 1988. Owen played 203 games for Oakleigh from 1981-94. If I’d had any sense, I would have taken a shot of the scoreboard instead. After all, you can take a photo of blokes in blue jumpers chasing a chap in a purple jumper anytime.

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Photograph courtesy of Sunshine Historical Society

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Sunshine v Sandringham at Skinner Reserve in 1974 (photo courtesy of Sunshine-St.Albans-Melton Advocate)

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A shot from Sunshine’s great win over Port in the mud, 1974 (photo courtesy of Sunshine-St.Albans-Melton Advocate)

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Sunshine v Dandenong, 1974 (photo courtesy of Sunshine-St.Albans-Melton Advocate)

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Skinner Reserve in 2014

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The Jack Chigwidden Stand looking forlorn, 2014

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A view of Melbourne from the Chigwidden Stand

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