Uncaged animals

A road trip for a home game is an unusual concept. In the Serie A, Cagliari supporters travelled 1000km across land and sea to see their team play home games in Trieste while problems with the Cagliari stadium were sorted out.

Obscure American troubadour Bruce Springsteen was playing at Melbourne Victory’s home ground, so Victory had to decamp to Kardinia Park in Geelong, in theory an hour down the coast, for the Asian Champions League qualifier against Muangthong United.

The Princes Freeway between Melbourne and Geelong is still known locally by its full title, “Roadworks on the Princes Freeway”. The train seemed like a good option.

A mulleted man who had flown from Perth for the game regaled the carriage with talk of a multi-division league. “Then you could have promotion and demotion,” he said. “You mean relegation?” asked one of the captive audience. Alas, there was no further discussion on which of the two synonyms is more appropriate. (A demotion dogfight does have a certain alliterative quality to it.)

Let’s get to the scandal: the food at Kardinia Park. I took the earlier train so that I could dine at a cafe supposedly famous for its hamburgers and milkshakes. After five minutes in the queue observing the gormless teenager manning the griddle, I worked out that my food would arrive moments before kickoff.

So it was that I set off, back across the grassy car park, to sample the cuisine of Kardinia Park (as Simonds Stadium will remain known to us who can never remember which company paid for the naming rights).

This is what was on offer:

The multitude was to be fed with these loaves and fishes.

The multitude was to be fed with these loaves and fishes.

Seriously.

So I went to the food outlet on the wing. Famine reigned there as well. I was regretting not packing an emergency supply of Cherry Ripes.

I bustled to the city end of the ground, fighting a growing sense of panic. There, just inside the gates, was a food van selling a range of burgers and fried food. I purchased an edible beef burger (including a slice of cheese and something green) and chips, a far cry from the gourmet burger with the lot and milkshake that had occupied my thoughts for the entire train trip to Geelong.

A champion must put disappointment behind them, or at the very least write a mildly-interesting blog piece about it. And so, swallowing the last of the chips – which were passable, by the way – I headed up the stairs to the Gary Ablett Terrace.

It was odd seeing a rectangle marked out on the oval playing surface. There were certainly many less redheads mooching about than on the damp winter afternoons that I’d spent standing in the outer years ago. Modern stands have replaced wooden constructions. And the scoreboard – what happened to the hand-operated scoreboard? An empty hole marks the spot, with a fancy new screen erected in a forward pocket. Or back pocket, depending on your perspective.

Ground stewards twitched when there was a roar from outside the stadium. The 6pm train from Spencer Street Southern Cross had arrived, more or less on time, and with it a trainload of singing supporters.

Home and away supporters arriving at the stadium in an orderly fashion.

Home and away supporters arriving at the stadium in an orderly fashion.

The column of fans – home and away intermingled – was escorted by six mounted police who seemed happy just to get out of the office.

After the ground announcer had mangled almost every player’s name, the game started.

And what a game, featuring moments of farce and great skill.

During the second half two banners were displayed at the city end – “More club less franchise” and “Robson out!” – both written in English, using the modern Latin alphabet. How boring. The crowd took the banners down of their own accord.

One North Terrace regular said after the game that there were no issues at all with police or security the whole night. It was a pseudo-away game and the travelling home support had a ball.

Kardinia Park by night.

Kardinia Park by night.

Melbourne Victory won, scoring two second half goals after conceding a ludicrous first half goal direct from a corner.

A frenetic final few minutes saw a headbutt, a red card and a pantomime villain-type sarcastically applaud the booing crowd as he was marched off the pitch.

At South Geelong station, the PA crackled into life: “The next train to arrive will be the 10pm soccer special.”

A voice yelled out, “It’s not soccer, it’s football!”

Station staff sensibly ignored this hair-splitting, and the train did arrive, well, once the driver had been woken from his little nap.