As Victoria’s second-biggest city has reversed its fortunes, this historical stadium has been given new life

In the 70s and 80s, Geelong kids would gather empty beer cans from the feet of adults at Kardinia Park.

Back then, the cans were strong and could hold a young child’s weight if they were stacked just right.

Standing on top, a young footy fan could get a clear view of the field, where their heroes donned the blue and white hoops of one of the oldest football teams in the world.

A boy from nearby Winchelsea named Denis Napthine was one of those beer-can architects.

“I barracked for the Cats from day dot,” Dr Napthine says.

Former Victorian premier Denis Napthine watched his beloved Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park from a young age.(ABC News: Harrison Tippet)

“[Some of my] earliest memories are the thrill of being able to come down to Kardinia Park and see my heroes play. And coming down with dad and the family and being in the outer.

“And you’re only a little fella at that stage, I was only 11 and 12, and by the time the game was on you barely could see, so what you had to do is collect a whole heap of beer cans.”

This was about 60 years ago, but he still reels off the names of young Denis’s favourite Cats.

“To see Polly Farmer play, to see Billy Goggins’s stab passes, and Doug Wade, and the tough fellas in the backline, John Devine and Geoff Rosenow. And the drop kicks of Paul Vinar, and the skills of John Sharrock,” he says, with youthful fervour.

Little did young Denis know, as he studied his heroes from atop his beer can watchtower, that he would later return to Kardinia Park as Victoria’s premier to pledge a $26 million portion of what would eventually be a $340 million, 20-year redevelopment of Geelong’s stadium precinct.

The exterior of a stadium at dusk, with the flood lights on and Geelong Cats branding on the side.

Kardinia Park has undergone a five-stage upgrade over 20 years.(ABC News: Cameron Best)

Aim to make Kardinia Park Australia’s best regional stadium

The state government and Kardinia Park Stadium Trust (KPST) will officially announce the completion of the new 14,000-seat Joel Selwood grandstand this week, just in time for the Cats to play in the centre of the new 40,000-capacity stadium on Saturday night.

The finishing touches are still being put on remainder of the $142-million stage of the redevelopment, including a new indoor cricket hub, sports museum and entry plaza, but this week effectively marks the blare of the final siren on the stadium’s upgrade.

A photo of a stand in construction

The new Joel Selwood stand in the late stages of construction.(Supplied: Kardinia Park Stadium Trust)

It comes almost three-and-a-half years after the state government announced it would fully fund the fifth stage of “the MCG of regional Australia”.

“With new and improved facilities and a bigger capacity, the stadium will continue to attract A-grade sport and entertainment to Geelong and ensure that the city’s name is known around the globe,” then-sports minister Martin Pakula said.

KPST, the body assigned to govern the state asset, will wait for this week’s official opening to make their own statements, but it’s almost certain they’ll point out that the stadium is far more than a footy oval.

It attracts top-flight cricket, soccer and rugby matches, numerous community sports and activities – and even one of the biggest rock bands in the world, the Foo Fighters.

A crowd of Geelong Cats fans in a stadium grandstand, wearing blue and white, holding banners and shaking oversized pom poms.

Kardinia Park is predominantly the Geelong Football Club’s home, but also hosts a range of sporting and entertainment events.(AAP: Julian Smith)

They’ll likely also note they have already won the title of Australia’s Best Regional Stadium in last year’s fan-voted AusStadiums awards.

“It’s a real feather in the cap of all the hard work of the people here to get this award, and it’s vindication of what we’re aiming to be, which is exactly that – Australia’s best regional stadium,” KPST CEO Gerard Griffen said at the time.

Five stages of funding over two decades

The overhaul of Geelong’s stadium began as an idea of the club’s leaders in the late 90s.

Over the next couple of decades, the club would continue to push all levels of government for funding pledges.

Politicians would steadily stream down the Princes Freeway to make their announcements at Kardinia Park.

There was $26 million for stage one, then $25 million for the next, and $48 million for the third stage.

The final two stages have been the big ones.

An aerial colour photo of a large sports stadium

Kardinia Park in 1990 before the redevelopment began.(Supplied: Geelong Advertiser, Bob Gartland Collection)

It cost $90 million to build the Brownlow Stand, new football department and stadium entry, opened in 2017.

And then the current $142-million final stage, with the state government picking up the entire tab.

While the federal government, local council, AFL and Cats themselves have all kicked in parts of the $340 million total overhaul of the stadium, the State is responsible for the majority of it — at about $260 million.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, with the completion of the final stage delayed almost a year by defects discovered in imported steel, and a 2010 miscalculation finding the stage three project $12 million short, prompting cutbacks to planned works.

Two men standing on a sports field while talking to one another

Former Geelong Football Club captain Joel Selwood with Kardinia Park Trust CEO Gerard Griffin after the stand was named in the footballer’s honour.(Supplied: Kardinia Park Stadium Trust)

The regular flow of taxpayer funds for the precinct has earned it the unofficial nickname “Pork Barrel Park” — a tag Dr Napthine disputes.

“I can very strongly say this investment in Kardinia Park, investment in the redevelopment of the ground, has been a really regional development investment that really has helped transform Geelong… investing in Kardinia Park, is an investment in the future of Geelong, and the future of Victoria as well,” he says.

Stadium precinct’s fortunes mirror those of Geelong

There’s a Geelong cliché that when the footy club is winning, the city is too.

The same could be said of Kardinia Park — the stadium’s complete overhaul is symbolic of both the Cats’ and the city’s reinvigoration.

By the end of the 90s the footy club was virtually on its knees – broke, $6 million in debt and having not won a premiership since 1963 while losing four grand finals between 1989 and 1995.

The city too, was doing it tough.

An aerial black and white photo of a large sports stadium

Kardinia Park in 1980.(Supplied: Geelong Advertiser, Bob Gartland Collection)

The 1990 collapse of “Geelong’s Bank” the Pyramid Building Society wiped out life savings for many in the region, as jobs also started to dry up in the manufacturing town, continuing well into the new century.

But alongside the redevelopment of Kardinia Park has been a revival of the city’s fortunes.

The Cats have the best win-loss record in the league since 2000 including four premierships, while the city itself is one of the fastest growing regional centres in Australia having established new employment opportunities.

Geelong historian and former Cats vice president Bob Gartland has the largest private collection of Cats artefacts in existence, and a thorough understanding of the club’s importance to his hometown.

A man smiling at the camera surrounded by dozens of Geelong cats jumpers on the walls

Geelong historian Bob Gartland says the expansion of Kardinia Park has reflected the growth of Geelong.(ABC News: Harrison Tippet)

“The development of the stadium sort of runs parallel with the development of the city, I think,” he says, flanked by game-worn jumpers of Cats legends.

“As Geelong grows the stadium has grown.”

“Those good fortunes and successes that [the Cats] had were mirrored in society, in the community, in business around Geelong. So, the football club in many ways has actually been central to the success of the region.

“I think the people are the heart of Geelong, buildings and the fabric of buildings are great, but it’s the people who represent for me anyway the heart of Geelong and the heart of the Geelong spirit.

“I think the stadium precinct is probably the glue that holds us all together.”

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