Story by Paul Mavroudis
Photos by Mark Avellino and Paul Mavroudis
The Second Last Time
On the afternoon of Saturday August 27th, Sunshine George Cross played its final senior match at Chaplin Reserve – ending their 35 year stint at that venue, but also signalling the end of about 100 years of sport at a ground variously known as the Railway Reserve, Gardens Reserve and even ‘McKay’s ground’.
That 35 year stint, give or take the odd game or season which was played at other venues such as Skinner Reserve in Braybrook or Knights Stadium in North Sunshine, saw the ground become synonymous with George Cross – so much so, that it was easy to forget that prior to 1981, the year George Cross moved into Chaplin Reserve, the Maltese-backed George Cross had wandered for the previous 34 years across Melbourne, never being able to settle.
It’s also easy to forget that other soccer clubs and other sports had also used the park before George Cross. Aerial maps and archival newspapers show that the Railway Reserve was used in much the same way as many other open parklands were in Sunshine. Most relevant to this is the case of the Sunshine City Soccer Club, which had played at the park since the end of World War 2, and who allowed George Cross to share the venue in the early 1980s; a relationship that eventually turned into amalgamation between the two clubs at the end of 1982.
Sunshine City effectively disappeared from public memory, barring the retainment of their yellow and black as the away colours of George Cross. Sunshine George Cross and Chaplin Reserve became part of the National Soccer League together in the 1980s, fell out of it together in the 1990s, and gradually fell into decline together. George Cross almost went broke in the early 2000s, and despite recovering could never sustain success within the Victorian soccer pyramid. The ground and its facilities, never much more than utilitarian at the best of times, also deteriorated over time.
By some machination, the ground was owned by George Cross itself, and they sold it off to developers in 2009, intending to move to who knows where. They played what was then intended to be their final game at the ground against Preston Lions, losing 1-0, and moving temporarily to Knights Stadium. But the sale got complicated, and in 2011 they were back playing senior soccer at Chaplin Reserve. Seven years after the sale, it seems they’re finally leaving for good, probably to somewhere nicer further north and west, but with undoubtedly a lot less character.
So after farewelling the venue in 2009, on Saturday they did it all again, this time against Werribee City; the result was the same, a 1-0 loss, a young side possibly overwhelmed by the occasion and the pre-game speeches of former George Cross greats conceding early – and while they came to eventually dominate the contest, the sentiment which permeated the reminiscences of the old boys who had returned for one last gathering, did not translate onto the pitch.
The fact that no one had bothered to work the scoreboard on Saturday probably says a lot about how the day went, but also about a decline in general of the club, like so many others of its ilk struggling to deal with the transition from relying on first and second generation migrants towards a less than certain future.
The metal cases with the scoreboard numbers lay there on the grass adjacent to the simple scoreboard with its one time sponsor scrubbed out. The scoreboard itself had been relocated from the hill on the south-west corner of the ground, to a lower point at the south-east corner of the ground, thanks in part one assumes due to the construction of the regional rail link project which also took with it the outer terracing.
As a young South Melbourne Hellas fan, I missed the best years of the venue – but in 2007, I was lucky enough to be at a game at Chaplin Reserve between the two clubs that I hold as one of my dearest soccer memories. Here were two former giants of the game, that in the 1960s had managed to pull in crowds in excess of 20,000 at Olympic Park; now playing in a forgotten suburban competition in front of a few hundred hardy souls. The rain was pouring down, with the Hellas fans huddled on the hill at the Anderson Road end. South had managed to wrangle a 2-0 lead at a ground where its record was poor.
On came George Cross captain-coach John Markovski, one of the great wasted talents of Australian soccer and figure of hatred of South Melbourne’s fans, back where it all began for him in the 1980s. Typically less than fully fit, Markovski managed to hit a sweet left-sweet volley that seemed destined for goal, only for a then unknown goalkeeper named Mitch Langerak to somehow keep it out. 2-0 the game finished, the rain, cold and wind forgotten as we South fans celebrated a hard fought win.
On that day, too, there was no scoreboard attendant from the home side – and who can blame them for not wanting to sit out there in the rain all day, when they could huddle under the limited shelter in front of the pavilion? That didn’t mean the score wasn’t updated though; a South fan known as The Agitator, having had perhaps a little too much to drink before the game at the Derrimut Hotel down the road, took matters into his own hands. The scoreline he provided may have embellished the result somewhat, but I’d argue that he got the feeling right.