Lambert Park deserves to be saved

This iconic ground needs more support.

Darcy Byrne, the mayor of Leichhardt Council in the inner-west of Sydney, wants to pump millions of dollars into saving Leichhardt Oval as a venue for four NRL games per season.

At least that’s what he told The Sydney Morning Herald late last year. At the same time Byrne’s council has continually delayed the refurbishment of Lambert Park, the home ground of APIA-Leichhardt, and arguably one of the most atmospheric football venues in the country. Why does it always seem to come to this?

I don’t know Byrne, but I do know Lambert Park. It’s iconic. Nobody seems to know for sure when the first games were played there, but it’s been used as a major football venue for at least 70 years.

From Leichhardt-Annandale (formed 1910) through to APIA-Leichhardt (formed 1954), it’s borne witness to big games and famous names.

The likes of Ken Grieves, Joe Marston, Frank Parsons, Fil Bottalico and Johnny Giacometti. Generations of factory workers and waves of Italian migrants have walked through the turnstiles at Marion Street. Marston met his future wife, Edith, in the grandstand.

For decades – from the 1940s through to the 1990s – it was often standing-room only. In 1960, in the NSW First Division, an APIA side which included Marston, Bottalico and Pat Hughes drew an average crowd of 8,700. You couldn’t fit any more in.

Lambert Park is a ‘stadium’ which reeks of history. Sadly, it now looks like a piece of history. The last time I was there the pitch was a dustbowl and the place looked liked it hadn’t had a coat of paint in years. Some might link the decline of Lambert Park to the decline of APIA-Leichhardt, who haven’t played at the game’s highest level in two decades. But it’s not as simple as that. It rarely is.

In the 20 years since APIA-Leichhardt left the NSL,Tony Raciti has been begging various levels of government for money to fix up Lambert Park. Until last year, the long-serving APIA-Leichhardt president was routinely ignored. Football has never been much good at selling its story – and that’s assuming there are people willing to listen.

The history of Lambert Park is every bit as storied as that of Leichhardt Oval, the municipality’s other major venue. Not that you’d know it judging by the comments of Byrne, who showed his colours when the threat of Wests Tigers leaving town first surfaced.

This is what he told Fairfax Media: ”It would be a disaster if you had no more Tigers games at Leichhardt Oval. It would be a genuine tragedy for our local area and I’m not going to let that happen.”

“Leichhardt Oval would lose its reason for being. You’re talking about more than a century that this place has been at the very heart of our community.

“My old man wanted his ashes scattered at Leichhardt Oval, and he’s not the only one. There are a lot of people like that. It’s a place that is the very centre of what is special about living in the inner west. There’s an enormous emotional significance for a huge number of local people.”

Good luck to the Tigers if they can spring some money out of the council for a ground which only three years ago received a $3.5million upgrade from Federal Government. But don’t those comments apply equally to Lambert Park?

I’ve got nothing against rugby league, but there are as many Leichhardt ratepayers who care about football. And here’s the rub.

Last July, a politician finally listened to Raciti. The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, made a point of coming down to Lambert Park and handing over a cheque for $2.2million for the badly-needed refurbishment of the decaying venue.

A new, state-of-the-art synthetic pitch imported from Italy, new floodlights, four new dressing rooms and two new referees- rooms will breathe new life into the ground, helping to provide the revenue streams which will sustain APIA-Leichhardt long into the future. A game-changer, in every sense of the word.

But since the cheque was put into a trust account, nothing’s happened. Byrne’s council has demanded 27 meetings – yes, 27 meetings – in the last six months to ‘fine-tune’ the details of the development application. The constant delays have meant the upgrade won’t be ready for the 2013 NSWPL season. APIA-Leichhardt will now be forced to play their opening nine games of the season on the old pitch, and the second half of the season away from home while, hopefully, the works will be done to have the new-look Lambert Park open for business in 2014.

I say hopefully, because the development application is still to be approved. The council is due to consider the proposal in the next few weeks. This is the council which isn’t contributing towards the development, and indeed hasn’t committed a cent towards Lambert Park since APIA-Leichhardt moved in there in 1957.

”Every bit of infrastructure in there, minor as it is, has been built and paid for by our volunteers,” says Raciti.

”The council hasn’t put in a screw, or a lightbulb, in my 35 years as president. We’ve been trying to fix the place up for at least the last 20 years, but getting money out of them has been impossible. Now that we’ve got it out of the state government, there’s still been all these delays.”

Surely, common sense will prevail. It must. ”In football, we’ve always struggled to get the politicians to listen,” says Raciti. But the battle-scarred veteran of the game’s chequered past has renewed hope. ”I’m starting to sense that things are changing,” he says.

Why? ”The profile of the A-League, one billion per cent.”

Is your local football ground doing it tough? In serious need of investment? Tell us your story below and become part of the campaign for change.