The Epping line was a train line from Epping to the centre of Melbourne. A suburb of little to no interest to those who didn’t happen to live there, a mention of it is usually met with, “Where’s that?” The line was built originally because locals wanted the city’s sewage for their farms. Instead the lines went out to Werribee; Epping wasn’t good enough for Melbourne’s shit.
Even the first station building was a second-hand import from somewhere else unmemorable: Epping couldn’t even get an original awful-looking building. The next station building had all the charm of a shoebox. The dim sims, a Melbourne Chinese hybrid delicacy, would sit and sweat in the bain marie of the hot box someone had just plonked down outside the station. It was an ugly, hot and depressing station. The trains were often not air-conditioned. They had the requisite tags from wannabe graffiti stars, very few with any artistic merit. Chewing gum helped give the seats more padding. And perhaps most awfully, the trains stopped at every single station every single time. Plus abnormally long delays at Keon Park and just before Clifton Hill (not far from the Maccas with the brothel next door).
On the entire line, there is little inspiring architecture or by way of stunning vistas: It’s largely overcrowded roads, suburban back fences, ghostly football grounds, junkies, and the special Merri Creek. There are 20 stops before the city on the 21.2km journey.
The 20th stop is the important one, perhaps the most special train station in the world: Jolimont. Also known as Jolimont – MCG.
I grew up a seven-minute walk and 21.2km from Melbourne. It felt like 2000km. But the one thing that made us feel special was the direct line to the MCG.
The thrill started with the trip to the station. I would get excited by arriving at the station. By the train arriving. By the train leaving. By each and every station, even Ruthven. By Preston City Oval. By the first sight of the light towers just after Clifton Hill. By the Pies’ Victoria Park. By the apocalyptically empty West Richmond Station. And then as you come out of a short tunnel from West Richmond, you see Jolimont station. It has these two matching awnings that give cover to about 12 people. It’s old, and not without a certain charm. That charm quickly fades when you realise the toilets aren’t always open, and that most of the time the rats outnumber the people.
The station is under the Hilton Hotel, big and red. You queue to leave the station – not to show your ticket, it’s usually too busy for anyone to care – as it seems the whole train has found their stop. There is always one person who gets bumped into because they are staring at the ground. The trees try to cover it, but there just aren’t enough trees in the world to cover something this big.
You walk up, either on the road, or just over the grass of Yarra Park (which is, on this day, and many like it, a quickly filling car park).You head towards whichever gate you want. Towards the part of thick concrete and throbbing steel that will let you in. You will know your side of the ground beforehand; otherwise the trek around it will be longer than a Test match. Members, all in collared shirts, will drift around to gate 1, and the practice nets. You will probably go to the left with the general public. Outside, the ground will be filled with whatever colours are on show that day. It will be packed with people. No matter how many people are inside the ground at any one time, it always feel like more were outside.
Lining up to enter, you will, for the first time, be under a light tower; it will tickle the probably overcast sky. If you look back you can still see the Hilton from a few gates, but once you’re at the ground, you rarely look back at the world. A surprisingly cold metal turnstile will clunk open as you enter. You won’t see many blades of grass at this point; you’re still in the outer ring. You will see a lot of concrete. Then you’ll go past the beer queues and be offered a hot pie by a seat-to-seat salesman until you’re at Melbourne’s best walkway. A walkway that allows you to wander around the thing you came to stare at. That magical sandy grass.
You are there, right in front of it. A kid from nowhere place, in the world’s greatest place.
Melbourne can be unremarkable at first glance. There are no amazing bridges for tourists to look at. No legendary giant rocks to clamber over. And no tropical coral reefs to float around. You don’t get a tan in Melbourne. Godzilla and other Kaiju don’t stomp up Port Philip Bay in their films, they do it in Sydney Harbour, because the Harbour is the proper place for giant film montages. Melbourne’s biggest tourist attractions are clocks out the front of a train station, graffiti walls in the back laneways. And a dirty river. It’s just a city made up of many different kinds of villages that are great to live in.
It is where Melbourne screams at the night. Barks at the day. Spends its wages. Barracks. Sledges. Cries. Laughs. Wins. Loses. And sometimes draws
With one special attraction. A sporting ground. The Melbourne Cricket Ground. The MCG. The G.
A stadium that has had the queen, the pope, Michael Jackson, an Olympics, Betty Cuthbert, Ron McKeown and Sachin Tendulkar all out on it. A stadium that had 130,000 Pentecostal preacher (probably, possibly) patrons in it. That found 121,696 fans watching Carlton run away with the AFL grand final after Peter McKenna was knocked out by one of his own players. Where over 10% of the city’s population would come for just one match. And more than three million times a year do the turnstiles click over.
It is Melbourne’s gathering place. It is where Melbourne screams at the night. Barks at the day. Spends its wages. Barracks. Sledges. Cries. Laughs. Wins. Loses. And sometimes draws.
It is the place with light towers so high they can only be compensating for something. It has legends around it. It builds legends in it. It’s a sporting coliseum that is more than its concrete, more than its size, more than just Melbourne’s.
In 2000 years it will be the MCG that defines the Melbourne of now. Either in ruins, or as a 4D virtual reality construct.
I’ve been there when only a handful of people were there, waiting for the covers to come off for one of its oldest tenants, the Victoria cricket team, to continue a rain-affected Shield Match. And when there were almost 100,000 football fans calling the umpire maggots and singing campy World War I songs as their team beat the team from just down the road. It is special every time. It can make you breathless, with awe or a punch. It has its own feel. A Melbourne superiority complex. It doesn’t need you to know it’s better than somewhere else, it knows it.
As a player, you have to win the stadium. Even as a fan, you have to win it.
The first time I was there, the crowd called Gary Ablett, a man known as god, something far less reverential. The first time I saw the cricket, Mike Whitney fell over and people laughed. I’ve seen players from Pakenham and Pakistan hit with flags. When it hates, it hates hard. Racism, sexism and homophobia spew into the East Richmond air as much as adulation and hero worship do. It’s everything right about Australia one minute, and everything wrong about it seconds later.
The latest AFL grand final was another perfect day at the G with a massive crowd and half the country watching it on their TVs. Out on the ground was one of Australia’s greatest sportsmen, Adam Goodes. He was booed. Goodes is an indigenous star, bred in Victoria, playing the local game and the current Australian of the Year. He has also won two AFL premierships and two Brownlows (AFL’s highest honour). A few years ago, Shane Warne had to walk onto the MCG to stop a near-90,000 crowd piffing VB stubbies and golf balls at English outfielders during an ODI. The G walks the line, and not always well.
That was an ODI I was at. And I remember very little – actually, nothing at all – about the match, but I remember the crowd. I was also there the day a record number were hauled up for bad behaviour. Back in the days of my dad, (the “Lillee, Lillee” days) fans would take a giant foam esky full of beer into the ground. If the play finished, they would continue to sit there until the beer finished.
They call it the people’s ground. It’s a catchy slogan that forgets the rights of the Victorian government, MCG Trust and Melbourne Cricket Club, but it’s also startlingly true. You wouldn’t call Lord’s, with its possessive apostrophe, a people’s ground. And Eden Gardens is owned and run by the Indian Army. The G is part of the people. It’s made of grass, Merri Creek, sand, concrete and metal. If there were to be a revolution in Australia, the MCG would be involved. The noise on a special day isn’t that what crowds produce in other places. You get standing ovations in the other Test grounds; you get screaming ovations at the G. If the G likes you, you become a legend. It doesn’t really matter if you are or not. You could be Dennis Lillee or Merv Hughes, Ricky Ponting or Dean Jones, once they throw their scream behind you, you’re a legend.
You can’t take beer bottles – or golf balls, I assume – into the ground anymore. If you managed to get one in, you’d probably be arrested and put into a bunker under the ground for life. Melbourne, and the G, has changed. It is now a city of rules and regulations. Everything must be family-friendly and sanitised. The people swear less as they leave the ground, and they are often soundtracked by the sound of “Classical Gas” being played by a quality busker.
You can still get beer and pies, but the pies can be purchased gluten-free and the beer is mid-strength. This is because the MCG, at any one time, reflects society at large. Over the years, the seats have gotten bigger, as the people have gotten fatter. Corporate suites are everywhere. There are MCC members and AFL members. There are fewer tickets sold at the people’s ground despite the fact that Melbourne has almost tripled its population since the first time more than 100,000 people were counted.
It has transformed from a place of sport to a place of sport business. A sports marketing masterpiece.
But it is still the people’s ground, their bucket, pulpit and canvas. You don’t have to be a sports fan to go to the G, you just have to be in Melbourne. Chances are, it will suck you in at least once. It’s not part of Melbourne, it is Melbourne.
I was from the outer suburbs of a city few people know much about, in a country in the southern hemisphere several light years away from the rest of the world. But we had a train to the MCG. And to us, the G was the centre of the universe, even if the universe didn’t know it.
At the end of the match, the crowds spilled back into Melbourne, everyone zigzagged towards the Yarra Park car park, pubs, trams, footpaths into town, or Richmond station. We had our family plan: walk towards the right of the Hilton, which had somehow shrunk since we’d last seen it. My dad would tell me, “See the Hilton Hotel, if you ever get lost, walk to right of that. That’s where Jolimont station is, that’s our station”. Our station. The people’s station.
I’m from Epping, Melbourne, Victoria, and Australia. And cricket. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is all of theirs.