Each week NEIL CADIGAN will look back on some of the most eventful games and most famous names in the club’s 70-year history and bring them back to life. Last week we remembered the club’s inaugural premiership in 1981, today we chronicle what happened afterwards which saw the Eels become nomads for four seasons.
Long-suffering Eels fans could be forgiven for being deliriously happy after the Jack Gibson-coached side broke the premiership drought with victory against Newtown in the 1981 grand final.
Yet, no one expected what would happen in the hours that followed.
And they had far-reaching repercussions … that only a special team was still able to overcome.
Hundreds of fans watched the grand final (Parramatta had three teams involved – under-23s, reserve grade and first grade) inside the Parramatta Leagues Club and soon after full-time (kick-off was 3pm) hundreds more converged on the club to welcome their historic heroes home.
Without exaggerating, pandemonium broke loose!
When the team arrived at the club that night, the team bus could not get within 50 metres of the front door and players were lifted by fans to the club entrance. Inside, the club was bursting at the scenes in every corner with an estimated 5000 patrons, and it took an age for the team to make it to the upstairs auditorium.
The party mood spilled well beyond the club premises. An estimated 10,000 more filled the precinct around the club. There was dancing and drinking in the streets, car park and on the darkened, dilapidated Cumberland Oval next door.
Cumberland had one old wooden grandstand, built in the 1930s, which housed dressing rooms underneath at each end with the main canteen in between. Teams would parade out of the rooms onto the field through the crowded canteen, often to heckles aimed at the opposing team.
I remember as a teenager camping at the back of the stand at half-time to clearly hear coaches address the players through the often-open louvre windows. The ground had certainly had its day.
The Eels had been campaigning since 1977 to have it bulldozed and replaced by a new American-style ‘superdome’ at a cost of $6 million.
Four years later, the cost had crept up to $10 million and opposition from a group called Friends of Parramatta Park had delayed progress. A full-time consultant was employed in 1979 as residents, National Trust, traffic police and other opponents stalled development. It was a political hot-potato.
The night of September 27 it become hotter than hot … it was torched down to cinders!
Fuelled by alcohol, exhilaration and a well-meaning gesture by radio 2KY’s iconic broadcasting figure Ron Casey, a wild, destructive party developed at the ground.
‘Case’ ventured to Cumberland to honour a bet that he would celebrate with fans if the Eels won the first title. Word quickly spread, and hundreds had converged and suddenly fence palings were being gathered for a bonfire.
The crowd swelled into the thousands and while fans looted the dressing rooms and kiosk shelves, fire broke out above them and some escaped the smoke-filled stand’s bowels just in time to see the old stand that literally vibrated the stomping of feet accompanying the chant of “Parra (stomp, stomp stomp) … Parra … Parra”, become a furnace with flames bursting from the floor to the roof.
Attention then shifted to the scoreboard at the southern end. Some fans were trying to disconnect the large game-clock as a souvenir but soon it was also ablaze. The goal posts and advertising hoarding were also added to the bonfire.
By daylight, as firemen were dousing what remained, it emerged that Cumberland Oval had almost burnt to the ground. The shell of the grandstand remained but little other seating in the ground and there were huge chunks in the external fence.
Court battles to stop a new stadium built began in March 1982 and it was two years later before approval was given, provided the new stadium did not expand outside of the previous circumference of the old Cumberland. Cost had blown out to $15 million, with the federal and state governments sharing the outlay due very much to Federal Sports Minister John Brown being an avid Eels supporter.
It meant that the Eels would share Belmore Oval with arch-rivals Canterbury as a home venue for the 1982-85 seasons. They had to move to Granville Park, on Woodville Road, as a training base. With very basic facilities in the one building which housed dressing rooms, one open room and canteen facilities and a small balcony, coach Jack Gibson decided to buy an old bus to use for team meetings at the training park.
Yet, despite the setbacks that would stop most teams, the Eels won premierships again in 1982 and ’83 – the only team to achieve that without a home base - and returned for a fourth straight grand final in 1984. In ’85 they were beaten 26-0 by the Bulldogs in the preliminary final.
The last match was played at Cumberland Oval in the final round of 1981 (August 30), a 20-all draw with Manly in front of 18,449, one of the largest crowds for years.
The first game at the new Parramatta Stadium, an almost capacity crowd of 26,850 watched a Peter Sterling-inspired Eels beat the previous season’s grand finalists and minor premiers St George 36-6 on March 16, 1986 – 11 days after Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip officially opened the stadium. Future club chairman Steve Sharp was the first first-grade try-scorer at the new stadium.
In August, 27,243 – still a club record crowd at Parramatta – watched the Eels draw 12-all with the Rabbitohs. Parra won eight from 13 games at the stadium that season while Balmain (three) and Easts (one) took matches there.
The first (first grade) teams to play at Parramatta Stadium:
PARRAMATTA: Paul Taylor, Eric Grothe, Brian Jackson, Mark Laurie, Neil Hunt, Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling, Ray Price (c), Steve Sharp, Paul Mares, Stan Jurd, Michael Moseley, Terry Leabeater.
ST GEORGE: Glenn Burgess, Denis Kinchela, Michael O’Connor, Chris Johns, Steve Morris, Steve Linnane, Perry Haddock, Graeme Wynn, Marc Glanville, Geoff Selby, Craig Young (c), Chris Guider, Chris Walsh.
SCORE: Parramatta 36 (N. Hunt 2, B. Jackson, B. Kenny, R. Price, S. Sharp, S. Jurd tries: Hunt 4 goals) beat St George 6 (M. O’Connor try and goal).