By Michael Cockerill
1 August 2012 - Sydney Morning Herald
CANTERBURY clearly don't want Sydney Olympic at Belmore Sports Ground now that they've got what they wanted out of them. The Bulldogs are an NRL powerhouse with more than 20,000 members. Sydney Olympic no longer play at the national level, and have a membership base that has shrunk to 600 now they are playing in the part-time NSW Premier League. It's the law of the jungle out there.
But here's the rub. Sydney Olympic have a lease at Belmore until 2032. There are about 20,000 registered football players in the local electorate, Watson, of the federal MP Tony Burke, a Bulldogs fan who was the driving force behind the $8.7 million grant to upgrade the stadium, supposedly for the benefit of both clubs. It's no surprise it's the football club that's getting shafted. It usually happens whenever there is a co-tenancy with rugby league.
Ask Wollongong Wolves. Ask Newcastle Jets. Ask North Queensland Fury. Ask Central Coast Mariners. Surface issues. Training times. Ground markings. Signage. The list goes on. Rugby league clubs need football partners to justify government-funded upgrades, but as soon as they get the money any semblance of a partnership goes out the window.
But after decades of copping it on the chin, football is starting to stand up for itself. Look what happened with the Birchgrove Oval fiasco. Balmain District Football Club used their greatest strength - their playing numbers - to win a cross-code stoush with Leichhardt council. Sydney Olympic intend to do the same. They aren't going anywhere. And they aren't staying quiet as an unofficial alliance between the Bulldogs and a compliant Canterbury council tries to squeeze them out of Belmore.
Burke's apparent lack of impartiality in what's becoming a drawn-out dispute also warrants closer scrutiny. The minister has a lot more football voters in his electorate than rugby league ones. But that's a story for another time.
The story now is what's happening to Sydney Olympic. In mid-June, they were told they could no longer play there because of the condition of the ground . Theoretically, the Bulldogs were also told they couldn't train there, except on the perimeters, until the surface was repaired. The Bulldogs have been training with impunity there, and there are pictures and video to prove it. One of those pictures you can see here. They were taken between July 18 and 24. On July 17, Canterbury council general manager Jim Montague said in a letter to both clubs "no use of the field would be permitted until at least August 21". Somebody forgot to tell Des Hasler. Or he simply didn't care. The secret was out on July 18, when Kieran Loveridge was arrested at a Bulldogs training session by detectives after the high-profile murder of Thomas Kelly at Kings Cross.
Last Tuesday, Sydney Olympic officials met Montague to see if they could return to Belmore for last weekend's NSWPL match against APIA Leichhardt. Montague said yes. The next day council officials told Sydney Olympic that as long as they shifted their youth leagues games on Saturday, everything would still be OK. On Thursday they were told the field would be marked and set up 24 hours before for the Sunday first-grade game. Despite the short notice, Sydney Olympic shifted their juniors to Hensley Athletic Field at a cost of $4000. On Friday, just before close of business, they were suddenly informed they couldn't play at home after all. They hurriedly had to shift their game to APIA's ground , Lambert Park. The change of venue came too late for many. Former Socceroos midfielder Peter Katholos was one of hundreds of fans who turned up at Belmore at kick-off time only to discover the shift.
That's the fifth NSWPL fixture in a row Sydney Olympic have had to move. It's cost them about $60,000 in lost signage, canteen and gate revenue. That's a decent whack out of an annual budget of about $300,000. Bulldogs football manager Alan Thompson denied they'd been flexing their muscles to shut out Olympic, telling the local newspaper yesterday: "I think it's a good decision [to close the ground at weekends] by the council." Thompson then claimed the Bulldogs trained only on the edges of the ground . Pictures don't lie.
Sydney Olympic president George Giannaros has had enough. "I keep hearing how Belmore is the spiritual ground of the Bulldogs, but eight years ago they abandoned the ground [to move to ANZ Stadium], and we've been there ever since, meeting all our obligations," he says.
"Since they've come back, everything's changed. We have no issue with rugby league, and plenty of our fans also support the Bulldogs. But we don't disrespect their game the way they've disrespected ours."