Infotainment Factory: The night Eels fans burned down their stadium

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Sunday, 21 April 2019

The night Eels fans burned down their stadium


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Something is missing from Peter Sterling’s glittering trophy cabinet.

Parramatta’s greatest player won four premierships for the Eels, along with a Clive Churchill Medal, two Dally M Medals, a pair of Rothmans Medals and a Golden Boot, yet the souvenir he would have dearly loved is a battered old fence picket.

‘Sterlo’ missed his chance on the night that Eels supporters burned the old Cumberland Oval grandstand to the ground. It was September 27, 1981, with euphoria rife after Parramatta beat Newtown in the grand final to win their first premiership.

It was pandemonium. About 15,000 people were at Parramatta Leagues club and its immediate surrounds. Players were lifted from the team bus into the club by elated fans.

A few years earlier, Sterling had stood in the leagues club peering out a window, getting his first glimpse of Cumberland Oval as he signed with the Eels; a three-season, $9,000 contract. On grand final night, he looked out the same window, drunk on victory and celebratory drinks, and saw the glow of an inferno. He couldn’t resist walking over to look.

“By the time I got there, pretty much everything was in flames,” Sterling, a Channel Nine NRL commentator, told Wide World of Sports.

“By then I was in celebratory mode, so I can’t give you an exact time. But it was later in the evening and the orange glow accentuated the fact that it was pretty dark outside. The fire was there for all to see from miles around.

“If arson can be exhilarating, then it was that night.”

It was madness, it was lawless … but it felt right. Not only had Parramatta won the comp, there had finally been progress with plans to build a new stadium on the site. It was a drawn-out process with stiff opposition from a local environmental group, so fans took the matter into their own hands.

The fence pickets that weren’t souvenired had been piled together to make a bonfire. The wild scene was accentuated by the iconic 2KY broadcaster, Ron Casey, honouring a bet to come and party with the fans celebrating their first title.

The fence pickets went up. The grandstand, a wooden heap built in the 1930s, soon followed. The scoreboard at the southern end was ablaze. It was a fibro structure set on two metres of brick with a clock on top, which a group of men tried feverishly to rip free for a keepsake before giving up and leaving it to burn.

The goalposts were added to the bonfire, after one fan tried to climb to the top of them to get a flag. The man was still atop one pole as they fell, yet ran away and into legend. Advertising hoardings ripped from the fence and torched, taking chunks out of the fence.

Fans looted the dressing rooms and canteen, even as the flames began consuming the grandstand above. The canteen was between the sheds; players used to have to walk through the kiosk to get out to the field.

As they waited for their game, the first-graders would be showered in dirt if Parramatta reserve grade scored a try, excited fans shaking it through the roof. If you stood at the back of the sheds in those days, you could listen to the coaches give their half-time speeches, unfiltered through old louvre-style windows. Sterling remembers it being cold.

It was a barbed wire-ringed fortress. Opposition players had to park on nearby O’Connell Street before games, then cop abuse as they walked across the northern hill to get to the sheds on the western side of the field. The poor dressing rooms were a haven from a rock hard field that skinned knees when it was dry, yet turned to bog in the wet.

Then, there was the fact that opponents faced one of the greatest teams ever assembled, by the late, great Jack Gibson. He may be rugby league’s most mythical icon. The original super-coach was special, as were his players. Sterling, Kenny, Cronin, Price, Ella, Grothe, Edge, O’Reilly. Plenty of history floated into the air as Cumberland went up in smoke, though not before time.

Firemen and police eventually broke up the party. When they returned the next day, Cumberland Oval was a smouldering ruin, the grandstand a charred carcass.

“It didn’t have much going for it, Cumberland Oval, apart from our love for it. We loved it to the same degree that other players and clubs hated to come and play there,” Sterling said.

“It was a pretty ordinary venue, but it was our venue and we loved it. We built up a great affinity with it.

“But after the ‘81 grand final, and the fans taking it into their own hands to get rid of it in readiness for what was to come, I think we all realised at that stage that it was time we moved on to the next phase.

“It was organised chaos, but everybody had a smile on their face. We’d had a long battle to get the OK for a new stadium there and it was just this big release of joy; in regards to what we’d achieved, our first-ever title, but also what we’d been told was coming our way, the affirmation of that [new stadium].

“It was mayhem, but it was good-natured and directed the right way. Nobody got hurt and out of the ashes rose something pretty special.

“I’m just filthy I didn’t have the foresight like a lot of the fans did, to grab a picket fence paling and put it over in my car straight away as a souvenir. Just knowing I had it would make me feel good. I have signed a few of them over the years.”

https://twitter.com/TheParraEels/status/1119877641207607296

There was one small problem with the fire: the new stadium proposal wasn’t entirely over the line. It was not actually approved until 1984, and the Eels spent four seasons playing out of Belmore Oval, home to their arch-rivals the Bulldogs.

It speaks to that Eels side’s greatness that it still won premierships in 1982 and 1983, completing a treble, and the also played Canterbury in the 1984 decider while sharing their home ground.

“We didn’t want to be there and we know Canterbury didn’t want us to be there as well, so that was kind of a Mexican stand-off,” Sterling said.

“For home games at Belmore Oval, ‘home games’ in inverted commas, we still came out of the away sheds.

“We had a really talented football team, so I think that our success was based on the talent and ability there, and the direction we got from the best coach in the business. But I think at that time, we were probably galvanised a bit by what was a little bit of hardship. We ended up moving out to Granville Oval and training out there. Our team meetings were in a school bus.

“I think it kind of brought everybody closer together and helped us with an ‘us against them’ mentality. Not that we ever dwelled upon that, but I think it came naturally. We were put out in regards to what other clubs had at their disposal, to help in their preparation. But I think in the end it was a really good thing for us and it brought us together.

“It was an uneasy truce out there (Belmore), but it was short-term pain for long-term gain.”

https://twitter.com/TheParraEels/status/1120088277246042113

Parramatta Stadium was opened by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in 1986, 11 days before the first game held there on March 16. Costs had blown out to $15 million, a fortune back then, but it all seemed worth it when the Eels hosted St George, grand finalists and minor premiers the previous season.

They smashed the Dragons 36-6, an early warning shot on their way to winning their fourth premiership (the beat Canterbury 4-2 in the grand final, with Sterling man of the match). Steve Sharp, the future Eels chairman, scored the first-ever try at he ground.

The new ground was off to the best possible start, though it was also the beginning of a Parramatta title drought that continues to this day. Perhaps the new Bankwest Stadium will finally change the Eels fortunes.

Having run out for the first game at Parramatta Stadium, Sterling envies the players who will launch the $360 million Bankwest venue on Monday afternoon when the Eels face Wests Tigers.

“I’m really jealous and envious of the 34 players who’ll go out on Monday afternoon and christen this new ground, especially the 17 that will be in blue and gold jerseys,” he said.

“I know what a wonderful thrill it was for me to go out in 1986 and be a part of that. There’s a large degree of expectation and with that comes pressure, so I’m just hoping that they all embrace that, because it just adds to the occasion. Obviously as a Parra fan, I’m hoping we get the right result.

“But I’m just looking forward to going out there and being part of an occasion. I know when I look back, I played 225 first-grade games; there are probably 10 or 12 that really stand out. The opening of Parramatta Stadium and the 36-6 win over the Dragons, on that day in March ’86, is one of those.

“I would expect the same for the guys who have the honour of running out on Monday, that they would have exactly the same kind of sentiment.”

https://twitter.com/TheParraEels/status/1120141997149265920

Sterling took a tour of the venue after it was completed. It is a brilliant modern venue; steep, not a bad seat in the house, superb facilities. But it is something more.

“What I feared when I went out there was that I wouldn’t be able to recognise what had been,” Sterling said.

“You can put a new face on something, but if it doesn’t have soul, it doesn’t have heart, it’s a bit empty. I wanted to be able to see the blood, sweat and tears of all of the players who played in the blue and gold, and all of the people at the club over seven decades. We’ve been there since 1947; I spent 15 years, four days a week, 11 months of the year there.

“It’s our spiritual and physical home … and I could feel that. I could see it in the playing surface. It’s more than just concrete and steel girders holding up the foundations out there.

“I was delighted. I deliberately hadn’t gone out previously, I didn’t want to go out and have a look at it in stages; I was looking for a ‘wow’ factor being out there with it all ready to go, to get the full experience in one go rather than bit by bit. I’m glad I did that.

“The facilities are second to none. Whether you’re a fan, a player, whatever, it caters for your every need. It’s going to be a wonderful source of entertainment for everybody involved.”

Sterling is hopeful that Bankwest, plus impending redeveloped stadiums at Moore Park and Olympic Park, will mean more bums on seats at NRL games. Bankwest honoured the existing stand and terrace names from the old Parramatta Stadium, meaning Sterling, Brett Kenny, Mick Cronin and Ken Thornett take pride of place at the new venue. Sterling calls the tribute “wonderful”.

The bronze statue of Sterling’s 1986 premiership captain, Ray Price, still stands outside the new ground; a throwback to the Parramatta Stadium era. And how far the place has come from Cumberland Oval.

Sterling came to the Eels from Wagga Wagga. His first impression of Cumberland Oval, peering out that window from the sportsman’s bar at the Leagues Club, was of a “s---heap” less impressive than Wagga’s Eric Weissel Oval.

“The dressing sheds were ancient, the wooden grandstand was falling down, it was cold, the ground was hard. Whilst we loved it, we also realised that it wasn’t particularly good for a semi-professional team and club. We felt that it was necessary that the old went and the new came,” Sterling said.

“Parramatta Stadium in 1986, it was kind of state of the art, just the way that Bankwest is in this new era.

“The evolution of it … for someone like myself to have seen it from what it was in 1978 to see what it is now, makes me immensely proud. I’m proud of the fact that all of the people who have been looking to take our club forward over all these years will be sitting back satisfied by what we have at our disposal now.

“The opening of Parramatta Stadium was a wonderful step forward and in keeping with what I think is a big club in the premiership. We should have those kind of facilities available and we deserve this new stadium. It’s time for us to have something like that and to be able to look after our fans better than anyone else.”

All they need now is that first premiership since that landmark season in 1986.

Something is missing from Peter Sterling’s glittering trophy cabinet.

Parramatta’s greatest player won four premierships for the Eels, along with a Clive Churchill Medal, two Dally M Medals, a pair of Rothmans Medals and a Golden Boot, yet the souvenir he would have dearly loved is a battered old fence picket.

‘Sterlo’ missed his chance on the night that Eels supporters burned the old Cumberland Oval grandstand to the ground. It was September 27, 1981, with euphoria rife after Parramatta beat Newtown in the grand final to win their first premiership.

It was pandemonium. About 15,000 people were at Parramatta Leagues club and its immediate surrounds. Players were lifted from the team bus into the club by elated fans.

A few years earlier, Sterling had stood in the leagues club peering out a window, getting his first glimpse of Cumberland Oval as he signed with the Eels; a three-season, $9,000 contract. On grand final night, he looked out the same window, drunk on victory and celebratory drinks, and saw the glow of an inferno. He couldn’t resist walking over to look.

“By the time I got there, pretty much everything was in flames,” Sterling, a Channel Nine NRL commentator, told Wide World of Sports.

“By then I was in celebratory mode, so I can’t give you an exact time. But it was later in the evening and the orange glow accentuated the fact that it was pretty dark outside. The fire was there for all to see from miles around.

“If arson can be exhilarating, then it was that night.”

It was madness, it was lawless … but it felt right. Not only had Parramatta won the comp, there had finally been progress with plans to build a new stadium on the site. It was a drawn-out process with stiff opposition from a local environmental group, so fans took the matter into their own hands.

The fence pickets that weren’t souvenired had been piled together to make a bonfire. The wild scene was accentuated by the iconic 2KY broadcaster, Ron Casey, honouring a bet to come and party with the fans celebrating their first title.

The fence pickets went up. The grandstand, a wooden heap built in the 1930s, soon followed. The scoreboard at the southern end was ablaze. It was a fibro structure set on two metres of brick with a clock on top, which a group of men tried feverishly to rip free for a keepsake before giving up and leaving it to burn.

The goalposts were added to the bonfire, after one fan tried to climb to the top of them to get a flag. The man was still atop one pole as they fell, yet ran away and into legend. Advertising hoardings ripped from the fence and torched, taking chunks out of the fence.

Fans looted the dressing rooms and canteen, even as the flames began consuming the grandstand above. The canteen was between the sheds; players used to have to walk through the kiosk to get out to the field.

As they waited for their game, the first-graders would be showered in dirt if Parramatta reserve grade scored a try, excited fans shaking it through the roof. If you stood at the back of the sheds in those days, you could listen to the coaches give their half-time speeches, unfiltered through old louvre-style windows. Sterling remembers it being cold.

It was a barbed wire-ringed fortress. Opposition players had to park on nearby O’Connell Street before games, then cop abuse as they walked across the northern hill to get to the sheds on the western side of the field. The poor dressing rooms were a haven from a rock hard field that skinned knees when it was dry, yet turned to bog in the wet.

Then, there was the fact that opponents faced one of the greatest teams ever assembled, by the late, great Jack Gibson. He may be rugby league’s most mythical icon. The original super-coach was special, as were his players. Sterling, Kenny, Cronin, Price, Ella, Grothe, Edge, O’Reilly. Plenty of history floated into the air as Cumberland went up in smoke, though not before time.

Firemen and police eventually broke up the party. When they returned the next day, Cumberland Oval was a smouldering ruin, the grandstand a charred carcass.

“It didn’t have much going for it, Cumberland Oval, apart from our love for it. We loved it to the same degree that other players and clubs hated to come and play there,” Sterling said.

“It was a pretty ordinary venue, but it was our venue and we loved it. We built up a great affinity with it.

“But after the ‘81 grand final, and the fans taking it into their own hands to get rid of it in readiness for what was to come, I think we all realised at that stage that it was time we moved on to the next phase.

“It was organised chaos, but everybody had a smile on their face. We’d had a long battle to get the OK for a new stadium there and it was just this big release of joy; in regards to what we’d achieved, our first-ever title, but also what we’d been told was coming our way, the affirmation of that [new stadium].

“It was mayhem, but it was good-natured and directed the right way. Nobody got hurt and out of the ashes rose something pretty special.

“I’m just filthy I didn’t have the foresight like a lot of the fans did, to grab a picket fence paling and put it over in my car straight away as a souvenir. Just knowing I had it would make me feel good. I have signed a few of them over the years.”

https://twitter.com/TheParraEels/status/1119877641207607296

There was one small problem with the fire: the new stadium proposal wasn’t entirely over the line. It was not actually approved until 1984, and the Eels spent four seasons playing out of Belmore Oval, home to their arch-rivals the Bulldogs.

It speaks to that Eels side’s greatness that it still won premierships in 1982 and 1983, completing a treble, and the also played Canterbury in the 1984 decider while sharing their home ground.

“We didn’t want to be there and we know Canterbury didn’t want us to be there as well, so that was kind of a Mexican stand-off,” Sterling said.

“For home games at Belmore Oval, ‘home games’ in inverted commas, we still came out of the away sheds.

“We had a really talented football team, so I think that our success was based on the talent and ability there, and the direction we got from the best coach in the business. But I think at that time, we were probably galvanised a bit by what was a little bit of hardship. We ended up moving out to Granville Oval and training out there. Our team meetings were in a school bus.

“I think it kind of brought everybody closer together and helped us with an ‘us against them’ mentality. Not that we ever dwelled upon that, but I think it came naturally. We were put out in regards to what other clubs had at their disposal, to help in their preparation. But I think in the end it was a really good thing for us and it brought us together.

“It was an uneasy truce out there (Belmore), but it was short-term pain for long-term gain.”

https://twitter.com/TheParraEels/status/1120088277246042113

Parramatta Stadium was opened by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in 1986, 11 days before the first game held there on March 16. Costs had blown out to $15 million, a fortune back then, but it all seemed worth it when the Eels hosted St George, grand finalists and minor premiers the previous season.

They smashed the Dragons 36-6, an early warning shot on their way to winning their fourth premiership (the beat Canterbury 4-2 in the grand final, with Sterling man of the match). Steve Sharp, the future Eels chairman, scored the first-ever try at he ground.

The new ground was off to the best possible start, though it was also the beginning of a Parramatta title drought that continues to this day. Perhaps the new Bankwest Stadium will finally change the Eels fortunes.

Having run out for the first game at Parramatta Stadium, Sterling envies the players who will launch the $360 million Bankwest venue on Monday afternoon when the Eels face Wests Tigers.

“I’m really jealous and envious of the 34 players who’ll go out on Monday afternoon and christen this new ground, especially the 17 that will be in blue and gold jerseys,” he said.

“I know what a wonderful thrill it was for me to go out in 1986 and be a part of that. There’s a large degree of expectation and with that comes pressure, so I’m just hoping that they all embrace that, because it just adds to the occasion. Obviously as a Parra fan, I’m hoping we get the right result.

“But I’m just looking forward to going out there and being part of an occasion. I know when I look back, I played 225 first-grade games; there are probably 10 or 12 that really stand out. The opening of Parramatta Stadium and the 36-6 win over the Dragons, on that day in March ’86, is one of those.

“I would expect the same for the guys who have the honour of running out on Monday, that they would have exactly the same kind of sentiment.”

https://twitter.com/TheParraEels/status/1120141997149265920

Sterling took a tour of the venue after it was completed. It is a brilliant modern venue; steep, not a bad seat in the house, superb facilities. But it is something more.

“What I feared when I went out there was that I wouldn’t be able to recognise what had been,” Sterling said.

“You can put a new face on something, but if it doesn’t have soul, it doesn’t have heart, it’s a bit empty. I wanted to be able to see the blood, sweat and tears of all of the players who played in the blue and gold, and all of the people at the club over seven decades. We’ve been there since 1947; I spent 15 years, four days a week, 11 months of the year there.

“It’s our spiritual and physical home … and I could feel that. I could see it in the playing surface. It’s more than just concrete and steel girders holding up the foundations out there.

“I was delighted. I deliberately hadn’t gone out previously, I didn’t want to go out and have a look at it in stages; I was looking for a ‘wow’ factor being out there with it all ready to go, to get the full experience in one go rather than bit by bit. I’m glad I did that.

“The facilities are second to none. Whether you’re a fan, a player, whatever, it caters for your every need. It’s going to be a wonderful source of entertainment for everybody involved.”

Sterling is hopeful that Bankwest, plus impending redeveloped stadiums at Moore Park and Olympic Park, will mean more bums on seats at NRL games. Bankwest honoured the existing stand and terrace names from the old Parramatta Stadium, meaning Sterling, Brett Kenny, Mick Cronin and Ken Thornett take pride of place at the new venue. Sterling calls the tribute “wonderful”.

The bronze statue of Sterling’s 1986 premiership captain, Ray Price, still stands outside the new ground; a throwback to the Parramatta Stadium era. And how far the place has come from Cumberland Oval.

Sterling came to the Eels from Wagga Wagga. His first impression of Cumberland Oval, peering out that window from the sportsman’s bar at the Leagues Club, was of a “s---heap” less impressive than Wagga’s Eric Weissel Oval.

“The dressing sheds were ancient, the wooden grandstand was falling down, it was cold, the ground was hard. Whilst we loved it, we also realised that it wasn’t particularly good for a semi-professional team and club. We felt that it was necessary that the old went and the new came,” Sterling said.

“Parramatta Stadium in 1986, it was kind of state of the art, just the way that Bankwest is in this new era.

“The evolution of it … for someone like myself to have seen it from what it was in 1978 to see what it is now, makes me immensely proud. I’m proud of the fact that all of the people who have been looking to take our club forward over all these years will be sitting back satisfied by what we have at our disposal now.

“The opening of Parramatta Stadium was a wonderful step forward and in keeping with what I think is a big club in the premiership. We should have those kind of facilities available and we deserve this new stadium. It’s time for us to have something like that and to be able to look after our fans better than anyone else.”

All they need now is that first premiership since that landmark season in 1986.

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