Places matter: Sport’s role in community building (The Grand Final edition)

This weekend, Australian sports lovers were treated to two spectacular events.

In the Australian Football League (AFL), the Footscray Football Club (aka the Western Bulldogs) came from seventh place at the end of the home and away season, narrowly winning its matches to qualify for the Grand Final on Saturday. The game against the Sydney Swans was tightly fought, until the Bulldogs broke away in the last 10 minutes and won.

On Sunday, the Cronulla-Sutherland District Rugby League Football Club (aka the Cronulla Sharks) managed to override the Melbourne Storm to claim the ultimate goal of winning the NRL Grand Final.

There were some clear similarities between the two winning teams:

  • Both victories were labeled ‘fairytale’ endings for the sporting seasons:
    • The success rate for both clubs, in terms of finals, was limited – the Bulldogs one and only grand final win was in 1954 (yes, 62 years ago) – and the Sharks had never won a Grand Final in the 50 years they were in the League.
    • Both teams were on the bottom of the ladder two years ago.
  • Both were up against teams which had experienced great success in finals in recent times.

There’s been mass excitement about the Bulldogs victory here in Melbourne (we don’t call ourselves the sporting capital for nothing), and I imagine similar in Sydney with the Sharks win.

It can be partly explained by the fact that Australians love seeing the underdogs, the battlers, come through against the odds. It can partly be due to the attributes and adversities each team faced, and, certainly in the Western Bulldogs case, the dignity and generosity that the players, the coach and the community around the club showed.

But, putting my urban planning hat on, I realised there was something more that united the two teams, and that was their location. Their link to their community. Their link to place.


Western Bulldogs


Supporters at Western Oval, Footscray, on Sunday

Martin Flanagan wrote about this beautifully in his article ‘The Western Bulldogs: ‘A team that didn’t know what it couldn’t do‘ and I encourage you to read this article in full. Apart from articulating the attributes of the club itself, he nailed the importance of what role a club can play within its community with these words:

‘Everybody has to believe they can win the big one. They don’t have to win it each year but it has to remain a credible belief. The Dogs now have that belief and something more – they have a region, a place, a home. They have the west of Melbourne.

The west is still the west. It’s still Melbourne’s “other”. In the old days, it was an otherness determined by class. Even with the gentrification of the inner west, class is still an element. Nowadays, the region is about as diverse as you can possibly get in terms of ethnicity and religion, but, even so, the people of the west understand themselves to be different from the rest of Melbourne….

Other AFL clubs in Melbourne, even mighty Collingwood, are finding their traditional identities diluted by the demands of a rapidly changing game. It’s the problem the Dogs don’t have any more. They hit change way back, in the 1950s, when the first waves of post-war migration hit the western suburbs, forever changing its demography. The Dogs have ridden those waves, emerging as something exciting and new and in sync with the future’.

Melbourne is the fastest growing capital city in Australia. Most of the population growth is taking place in the north and west of Melbourne. The Bulldogs are the only football team located in the west – and, unlike other clubs, the club maintained its training and other facilities in its home suburb. 

For a place to thrive, there are a range of elements needed. One of the most important is to include clear ‘anchors’ – landmarks or facilities – which become places where people can belong and feel connected to one another. The Footscray Football Club has provided a key one in the west for years, through the tough times (especially two years ago). It seems, with the values it is demonstrating, that it will continue to form part of the ‘glue’ that will unite those people within this community. 

The community aspect is one of the reasons so many of us from other parts of Melbourne, regardless of which teams we barrack for, were so supportive of the Bulldogs throughout the finals. It’s why we are so delighted with the result. 

And I hope their win can have the same effect on the western region of Melbourne as Geelong has experienced in its Grand Final wins, where the citizens of that city were equally rejuvenated as a result. Geelong serves as a good role model, as it’s another place where ‘a Grand Final is an achievement of more than just a club. It’s a win by the whole city and for it‘. (source: Fox Sports). 


Cronulla Sharks



I know less about the NRL than the AFL (because we’re an AFL town, really, here in Melbourne, although yay to the Melbourne Storm for getting to the finals). My knowledge of Cronulla is coloured by the violent actions over ten years ago that became known as the Cronulla riots. I understand that, although it happened over a decade ago, the memories still linger (source:  I also known it’s located in that place called Sutherland Shire. And ‘The Shire’ is a place that is quite different to the rest of Sydney – the people living there see themselves as unique and the rest of Sydney see them as ‘different’.

According to the Huffington Post:

“The Shire’s going nuts at the moment and no doubt they’ll turn it on next week,” Sharks playmaker James Maloney said after the game.

He’s not wrong about that. And the people of the Sutherland Shire in Sydney’s south won’t give a hoot if nobody likes them.

If the Shire is the part of Sydney that the rest of the city likes to make fun of, the Sharks have become the team that other league fans sneer at. 

So the impact of the victory, I’d imagine, is really defining for its community. As one of the Shark’s supporters said:

  • “So many people have been long-time fans, we’ve been here 50 years.
  • “It’s a one-team town. It’s a massive thing for the community and I think everyone will have a good time win, lose or draw, but if we win it’s just going to be amazing.”

I can’t tell whether Cronulla’s victory has been embraced by the rest of Sydney in the same way as Melbourne has embraced the Western Bulldog’s win. Maybe the dynamics are different – and maybe there isn’t the same level of goodwill for the club.

However, I hope that last night’s win will have as big impact on the community that makes up the Sutherland Shire, as I am hoping we will see for western Melbourne.

Because sport – at its best – can be a means of uniting a community, of developing confidence, of growing positively towards the future. Plus it can motivate others to join in.

Sport – at its best – really is more than a game.


Did you watch either Grand Final? How has it left you feeling? 

Apart from sport, what other events, or focal places, have you experienced which have brought a  a community together? 




7 thoughts on “Places matter: Sport’s role in community building (The Grand Final edition)

  1. This is a beautiful piece, Helen. I don’t follow football at all, though I was in the same room as the AFL grand final on the weekend and it actually was kind of riveting (I only watched the second half). I agree with you about the sense of place and belonging, ad about the “otherness” of both the Western suburbs of Melbourne and of “The Shire” in Sydney. I actually loved reading the articles about the Bulldogs this week, and I always like martin Flanagan’s writing. Have you ever heard of a book called The Rose Boys? It’s non-fiction, about some footballing brothers, thoroughly gorgeous writing.


    1. Thanks Dani. It was riveting, I agree. I was struck with the parallels when I read Martin Flanagan’s piece – and he does write so beautifully (clearly the writing gene runs in the family). I remember when The Rose Boys came out – by Peter Rose about his father and brother, who both played for Collingwood (I think it was partly a fundraiser for his brother who became a quadriplegic? Maybe I’m mixing the book up with another event). I should get it out – it sounded fascinating at the time x


  2. Interesting. There is still the overarching feeling that AFL is a Melbourne game at it’s heart. So it seemed to me that if you weren’t a Swans supporter all year, then you would be supporting the Doggies. To me it felt like the whole of Melbourne’s team won – like The America’s Cup in the 80s where we got half a day off school for the win – the entire city was gripped. So I think ‘place’ is essential element in footy. Growing up, a friend of mine (and her family) were MAD Fitzroy supporters as her Dad grew up in Fitzroy, but when they became the Brisbane Lions, they were all devastated and refused to support Brisbane Lions. Sport is most definitely a uniting force.


    1. It really did have that feel, didn’t it? I lived in North Fitzroy, a block from their old oval, and although I wasn’t a supporter of Fitzroy, I remember the devastated feeling, which is still apparent at certain times. It’s one of the aspects I love most about sport (because I don’t follow much of the intricacies, to be honest) x


  3. I’m an AFL fan and absolutely LOVED this Grand Final. I love that the underdogs came through as so many predicted the Swans were sure winners.
    I cried when the coach passed on his medal – best sportsmanship ever!!! That’s what needs to taught in kids sports 😊 I love the joy both games gave their communities, an epic weekend for sure!!


  4. I don’t follow football so much anymore, but I am a Cronulla girl from way back – agree that these results have really helped community, and that’s never a bad thing!


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