By Josh Massoud
1 March 2008 - The Daily Telegraph
WHENEVER the Bulldogs farewell Belmore Sports Ground, the sky weeps.
On August 15, 1998, it cried uncontrollably - heavy, driving drops - as the ground hosted top-flight rugby league for the last time.
Just under a decade later, the clouds are trembling once more as the Bulldogs begin their final training session at Belmore.
It was just after 2pm on Thursday, and the heavens cannot control themselves any longer. Only a few moments earlier, the last group of young men to train here emerged. They are running a speed drill in the southwestern corner when the rusting steel grandstand roof starts to scream to the tune of pouring rain.
Sitting beneath the din is a lone fan, Nick Kalaitzakis. He has a knack for these occasions, having stood on the hill opposite 10 years ago for the Bulldogs' last game at Belmore.
"It was a night just like today - pouring rain," Kalaitzakis recalls.
"I remember saying to my mate, 'This better be worth it'.
"We beat Melbourne 8-4 and went on to make the grand final."
But on this day, no one, including those responsible for moving the club's entire operations to Homebush Bay, is celebrating.
Any number of words could describe the past month at Belmore. Bitter. Poisonous. Bloodbath. But there was only one to describe Thursday. Sad.
Hazem El Masri used the word no fewer than a dozen times as he sat at his favourite cafe on Belmore's main drag, Burwood Rd, before the historic field session.
"To see it all end is very sad for me," he said.
"Belmore is a spiritual place. For a lot of the players, it's a second home."
While not born at nearby Canterbury Hospital, El Masri was bred down the road at Belmore Sports Ground.
His dark eyes flash as he recalls watching his first game of rugby league and playing his first game of representative footy at the ground. He even helped to extend the grandstand in 1996.
For a local junior like El Masri, Belmore is now woven into his DNA. For the Belmore locals, seeing him and the rest of the team leave is akin to erasing the Opera House from Circular Quay. If anything, they are sadder than the Bulldogs. The players, after all, can return whenever they like. Belmore, however, has no choice but to stay put - far removed from its beloved team.
Josephine Nakhoul, owner of Jobels cafe on Burwood Rd, stands to lose much more than a healthy trade of poached eggs that comes with serving lunch to a troupe of hungry footballers on a daily basis.
Sitting beside a table of Bulldogs stars, she laments: "I knew Sonny Bill Williams and he's been getting the boys to come here every day for lunch since we opened four months ago.
"We've got to know them all as customers . . . and friends.
"It's a shame, not just for my business, but for everyone in Belmore."
The gang at Hairtrix - the Bulldogs' hairdresser of choice - are also hurting. After finishing their lunch, Luke Patten and Reni Maitua drop by for one last trim.
As owner Chrissy Laundry explains, Patten is an especially prized customer because he gets a haircut every week in the conviction that "it makes him run faster".
"I also created Sonny Bill's hairstyle," Laundry reveals.
"I fixed it up and now he is very particular about getting the style right. Sonny knows what he wants."
The Bulldogs used to be so sure. Long before his resignation this week, former CEO Malcolm Noad signed a two-year deal to move the club to the Athletics Centre at Homebush Bay.
Given he is a businessman and not a footballer, Noad's thinking was understandable. Belmore's asbestos-riddled grandstand and concrete cancer-infested wall don't see eye-to-eye with a best practice training facility. Just a few months ago a feral cat gave birth to a litter of kittens in the roof above Noad's office. The RSPCA was summoned to remove them.
Noad's very public demise, however, has given the club's sizeable pro-Belmore faction added voice. They are resigned to move for now, but have renewed hopes of returning when the Homebush Bay deal ends.
In the interests of not creating more waves, the dissidents ask not be quoted. But El Masri puts the emotional case this way: "I don't want to blame anybody, but I really want to stay here.
"A change is sometimes good, but if something is good why change it?
"The gym is great and the changerooms were renovated 10 or 12 years ago. The surface is one of the best I've ever trained on, let alone played.
"You can walk from the gym to the ground and upstairs to the office.
"It's like being in a big double-storey family home. As a footballer, that's all you need."
Ironically, the task of overseeing the shift in Noad's absence has fallen to club great Terry Lamb, the Bulldog responsible for perhaps more memorable Belmore moments than any other.
On this very ground he scored 26 points in one game, kicked a field goal when his team was two points behind, and led the home side to their biggest victory - a heart-stirring 66-4 thumping of the Cowboys in 1995.
"I suppose I won't really feel it until we are in the new place," Lamb said.
"We'll soon find out if it's the right thing or the wrong thing.
"We've tried as hard as we can to stay here, but there's no money from council."
All around him, workers are rolling up the gym floor, even ripping out the water cooler, to take to Homebush. A sign boasting the club's seven values is also taken down and moved out.
"It will be re-erected at the new premises in the hope the same ethos that has seen the Bulldogs become one of the proudest clubs in rugby league still thrives long after their spiritual home either decays or is demolished.
As the late Peter Moore, whose posthumous hold on the club still remains tight, once said: "A club is not about the four walls surrounding us. It's about the people the four walls surround."