(Essendon Recreation Reserve)
Photo: Essendon Football Ground in 1920. The A.F Showers pavilion is where the building stand. The big tree in the foreground was a well known landmark for many years, The horse (left of picture) was used by the curator to pull his mower.
The Changeover to Windy Hill
The Essendon Football Club association with the Essendon Recreation Reserve began in 1921. But before then in 1881 the club did apply for the use of the Essendon Recreation Reserve when they were forced to move from an oval in Kent Street, Ascot Vale. However, Essendon Mayor Cr James Taylor rejected this application on a casting vote because he considered the ground to be suitable only for the gentlemen’s game of cricket. This saw Essendon play their home games at the East Melbourne ground at Jolimont from 1881 to 1921.
In 1922 the shift to the Essendon Recreation Reserve in Napier Street was necessary due to the expansion of the rail yards close to the Jolimont site. The move was suggested to by the City of Essendon Council which announced it’s preparedness to improve the ground by spending over ?12,000 which included a new grandstand, scoreboard and re-fencing of the oval. The transfer also saw a change in the name of the club symbol from “The Same Olds” to “The Bombers”.
At the same time as the club was planning it?s move from Jolimont, there was substantial argument as to whether it should have shared the North Melbourne Football Club ground at Arden Street. It was the Essendon Football Club committees original recommendation for the use of the Arden Street ground as it next home base.
This recommendation was seen as a virtual amalgamation of the Essendon Football Club (E.F.C.) with the North Melbourne Association Club. During the week following the disbanding of North Melbourne, the future of the Arden Street venue was a great talking point and the amalgamation was met with mixed feelings. The general consensus of opinion was that North Melbourne (then a VFA club) should have been admitted to the VFL in it?s own right (which it did so by the start of the 1925 season).
Essendon Councillor and future club president Arthur Showers andmembers of the E.F.C committee who opposed the move to Arden Street had it deemed illegal after the consulting the State Minster for Lands. The E.F.C committee then accepted the Essendon Council?s proposal and made the Essendon Recreation Reserve the home base of the E.F.C by signing a 5-year contract to the ground from 1922 to 1926. This however led to the disbandment of the Essendon Association Club which had played at the venue in the then VFA competition.
A New Beginning
After finishing the 1921 VFL season on the bottom of the ladder (3 wins, 11 losses, 2 draws), the only way for the club was up and the change of home grounds had instant results. A foundation stone was laid for the new grandstand at their first home game in Round 1 1922 at the new venue and the original goal posts from the East Melbourne ground were installed in the ground.
A crowd of 21,000 watched the club play one of their cross-town rivals Carlton, who were runner-up in the competition the previous year. It was a close and see-sawing game with Carlton leading by 7 points at three-quarter time, but in the final quarter the Bombers kicked 3 goals, 7 behinds (25) to Carlton 0 goals, 0 behinds to win by 18 points (11.14. 80 to 9.8. 62).
Photo: The new grandstand at Essendon in the late 1920’s, later to be known as the R.S Reynolds Stand
By the end of this season, the Bombers had appeared inthe finals series for the first time since 1912, and finished the season in third position. For the next two years the Bombers new found success continued, finishing on top of the VFL ladder and winning back to back premierships. Their success was mainly due to captain / coach Sid Barker and the?Mosquito Fleets? ? the group of Essendon little men who were Charles Hardy, George Shorten, Jack Garden, Jim Sullivan, Vince Irwin and Frank Maher, all between 160 to 167 cm tall.
The Essendon Recreation Reserve was soon nicknamed “Windy Hill” due to the fact that the ground stood on the crest of a hill with no construction behind it but the vast sweep of the Victorian plains. It was always windy and sometimes gale force. When the Victorian winters kicked into full swing the press boxes took the front of the winds and the frozen journalists soon dubbed the ground “Windy Hill”.
In Round 8 1934, the Bombers kicked their highest ever score at the ground by kicking 29.16 (190) to defeat North Melbourne 15.13 (103). The main goal kickers that day were Keith Forbes with 8 and Ted Freyer with 7.
In 1939the Windy Hill ground hit the headlines as the issue of ground and entry charges came to the fore, when the VFL caused an uproar by raising entry charges to the outer by two pence. The league also agreed to deal with the Ground Management Association ? the cartel of ground managing cricket clubs, after an eight-year stand off. The GMA in return gave a pledge that all additional gate receipts would be spend on ground improvements. This didn’t curb the rise in random outbreaks of crowd misbehaviours; such as at the ending to the Essendon – North Melbourne game at Windy Hill when a gang of youths savagely attacked several police outside the ground. Earlier a group of 30 young men had rushed forward to the fence from the top of the embankment and several spectators were knocked to the ground.
Also in this year, another stand was completed and named the A.F Showers Stand in honour of the former club president Arthur Showers. It was built to accommodate about 1,200 spectators. This was to be the last major football stand to be build in Melbourne prior to World War 2.
Photo: The A.F Showers Stand as it stand today, underneath the stand is the Windy Hill Gym
A Grand Era – Coleman and Reynolds – 1940’s -1950’s
In 1949 John Coleman joined the club and with his first match for the Bombers proved an instant success by kicking 5 goals against Hawthorn in the first quarter of their Round 1 clash that year at Windy Hill. He went on to kick 12 goals for the match in the sides 63 points victory (17.18.120 to 9.3. 57). That year Coleman went on to become the first player to kick 100 goals in a year on his debut season and kicked his 100th goal in the final quarter of their 1949 Grand Final victory over Carlton by 77 points (18.17.125 to 6.16. 52).
The club’s success continued into 1950 when they lost only 3 games of football for the entire season (1 at senior level and 2 at reserve level) and went to win all the premierships at the 3 levels of VFL football. The senior result was again thanks largely to their full-forward John Coleman who kicked 120 goals for the season included a bag of 11 goals against South Melbourne in round 2 and 10 goals against Collingwood in round 11, both at Windy Hill.
Coleman continued to kick more goals at Windy Hill in the early 50’s including 2 more bags of 10 goals in 1953,against Fitzroy in round 1 and St Kilda in round 3. In round 7 1954 he kicked his, and a ground record of 14 goals at Windy Hill against Fitzroy to win by 91 points (22.13 145 to 7.12. 54). However, the following weeks game at Windy Hill against North Melbourne was to be the full-forward?s final match. He had kicked 5 goals in the match until early in the last quarter when he fell awkwardly taking a mark and was carried from the ground with a serious knee injury. Essendon, who were trailing the Kangaroos when Coleman left the ground, kicked 5 goals to none to go on and win the game despite playing the remainder of the match with 17 men. Coleman never played again and finished up having played 98 games for Essendon and kicked 537 goals. He later went on to coach Essendon from 1961 to 1967 guiding the Bombers to 2 premierships in 1962 and 1965.
Also during the season of 1950, the first grandstand at the ground was finally named and titled “The R.S Reynolds Stand” in honour of the club great Dick Reynolds who retired as a player from the club the previous year after playing what was then a record 320 VFL games. Reynolds was the winner of 3 Brownlow medals (1934, 1937, 1938) and coached the club from 1939 to 1960 to help Essendon win 4 premierships and finish runners-up 7 times during his time as coach.
Big Games and Big Crowds In The 60’s
One of the best games ever to occur at Windy Hill was in Round 15 of 1964 when Geelong (then second on the ladder) played Essendon (third). Both sides were separated by percentage when they met this day and at the last change, the Cats lead by 5 points and with last use of the wind seemed set to win their first game at the venue in 10 years. But the Bombers had different plans and matched Geelong all the way in a thrilling finish. Essendon trailed by a point when Ken Fraser for Essendon kicked for goal 60 yards out at the 33 minute mark. He was felled immediately after the kick which traveled through for a behind. Asked if he wanted to let the score stand or take another kick, he choose the former after conferring with captain Clarke. Less than a minute later,the siren sounded with the game ending in a draw. Afterwards Fraser explained that kicking into the wind and in such bad conditions, he was very doubtful another kick at goal or even a set shot would have made the difference. Also in 1964 the Bombers claimed their biggest ever winning margin at the Windy Hill ground by defeating South Melbourne by 165 points (28.16.184 to 2.7.19).
The biggest ever crowd at Windy Hill occurred in Round 3, 1966 when 43,487 people turned up to see Essendon (the previous years premiers) defeat Collingwood (who finished 3rd in the previous season) by 12 points (8.18.66 to 8.6. 54).
A third grandstand, the Memorial grandstand, was opened in 1969 and later renamed in 1972 the W.H Cookson Pavilion in honour of the former club secretary Bill Cookson. In 1973 the Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer opened the A.T Hird Stand, named in honour of the former player and club president Alan Hird, the grandfather of 1996 Brownlow medallist and club premiership captain James Hird. However these new stands and improvements to the outer, with terraced and rows of seats now placed around the ground, limited the crowd capacity to less than 30,000 people, far fewer than the record crowd a decade before.
An Ugly Day in 1974
In round 7, 1974, in a game against Richmond, the Windy Hill ground was the venue for one of the biggest all-in-brawls in VFL/AFL history. It occurred between players and officials of the two clubs as the half-time siren sounded. At the time, the media described the incident as a black day in the history of football as both sides wrestled and threw punches, and police were forced to intervene to stop further violence. The aftermath of it all saw four players, an Essendon runner and staff member and a Richmond official charged by the league with conduct unbecoming or prejudicial to the interests of the league. 5 of the 7 people charged were found guilty.
Both clubs denied responsibility for the half-time incident. The VFL was quick to get its investigating officer to work out the conflicting stories between the two clubs. The tribunal declared that the whole incident was sparked off by comments Essendon runner Laurie Ashley to Richmond player Mal Brown to the effects of ?you are a filthy player?. According to the tribunal chairman John Winneke; Ashley had ?the dubious distinction of starting off what we can describe as an unseemly brawl. We have no doubt that Brown was provoked by into action by the conduct of Ashley?. Ashley was suspended for six matches and Brown for one match.
Of Essendon fitness advisor Jim Bradley, Winneke said, ?We have no doubt that he went into a group of players with the intention to strike Brown and carried out that intention.? Bradley was also suspended for six weeks.
Photo: The half-time brawl between Essendon and Richmond in 1974
In 1991 crowd control was a problem again, this time almost affecting the result of the Essendon ? Melbourne game at Windy Hill. Melbourne player Steven Clark received a free kick just before the final siren in the last quarter with his side trailing by 6 points. Before he could take the kick, the siren blew and fans raced onto the ground, so Clark had to take the free kick amid a sea of people. In the goal square Essendon supporters helped the defenders stop the ball from going through but as it turned out the torpedo punt just fell short. The Demons President said if the front person to touch the ball wasn?t a player, then the game should be declared a draw, but the result of the game still stood.
The final match played at Windy Hill occurred in Round 21 1991 when Essendon played the (then named) Brisbane Bears in front of 19,010 people who saw Essendon win by 45 points (23.19.157 to 17. 10.112). Little was known then that this was to the final senior VFL/AFL match played at the venue. Later in September that year, the Essendon Football club announced that the club would move to the Melbourne Cricket Ground for home matches from 1992 onwards.
Map: A 1982 bird eye view of the Windy Hill ground
The move away from Windy Hill was seen as necessary to keep the club financially viable for the future. The new Great Southern Stand had just been completed at the MCG, which was being recognised as one of the best sporting stadiums in the world, allowing a capacity of around 100,000 people. This compared to Windy Hills’ recent capacity of about 22,500, and in recent seasons Essendon scheduling of major matches away from the ground, had lead to a downturn in gate receipts, lost revenue through membership tickets sales and problems in developing the clubs’ marketing potential.
The ground was still used as a venue for AFL reserve matches up until the late 1990?s and is still used as a cricket venue in the summer months by the Essendon Cricket Club for their home matches in the Victorian Premier Cricket Association.
Windy Hill Today
A view of the ground in January 2003 when the ground is used for district cricket matches during the summer months, to the right in the background of this picture is the Essendon Bowling Club
Today Windy Hill is still used as the Essendon home for their administration and training base, a players gym is now located under the Reynolds Stand. The Essendon Football Club Hall of Fame is also located at the ground. The facility was first opened in 1996 and displays player memorabilia including the premiership cups the club has won throughout their existence; as well as letters, medals and items such as jumpers and boots used by past players. The history of the club is told and a library of football articles and books is also a feature of the venue. This display is open to the public 5 days of the week. The Bomber Shop is also located at the ground as fans can purchase Essendon items of apparel such as jumpers, caps, scarves, videos and footballs to name a few. The outside of the ground also features an Essendon Walk of Fame where each past player from the club has a plaque dedicated to them. The walkway also features the names of past club coaches, captains, presidents, best and fairest and Brownlow medallist winners. A fans walkway is also located outside the ground where fans have a plaque with their name with either the town where they live or a short support message. The Windy Hill gym is located under the Showers stand and the Essendon Bowling club is located next to it on the outer wing side of the ground.
The Essendon Football Social Club is located in the Allan. T. Hird Stand, which features a bistro and gaming facilities and photos of the premiership winning years’ grand final squads. People can still walk freely today onto the ground and have a kick of the footy like the legends of Sid Barker, Dick Reynolds and John Coleman did in the past; or to recent heroes such as Terry Daniher, Tim Watson and Simon Madden or the modern day greats such as James Hird and Matthew Lloyd.
The Essendon Football Social Club, located in the A.T.Hird stand (left) and entrances to the Bomber Shop and Hall of Fame located at Windy Hill on Napier Street.
Photos: A small selection of the great players/ coaches names that can be seen on the Essendon Walk of Fame (from left to right: Dick Reynolds Brownlow Medal plaque, John Coleman playing plaque, Kevin Sheedy coaching plaque, James Hird Brownlow Medal plaque
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