So ended a tradition stretching back to the 1880s when the game was known as British Association football to distinguish it from the home-grown variety. The South Melbourne cricket ground was the venue for one of the two interstate matches with New South Wales played in 1883, but the round ball game quickly established itself at Middle Park during that decade. The Middle Park hotel was the meeting place for players and sometimes several matches would be played opposite the hotel on an afternoon.
When the game revived in the years before the First World War, Middle Park was the central venue for league games. On 26 September 1908, for example, three games kicked off at 3 pm, St Kilda v Albert Park, Carlton United v Fitzroy and Prahran v South Melbourne. Middle Park was also the venue for the well-attended ‘international’ matches between Scotland and England. These were games between Australian players of the relevant heritage not games between touring teams from the United Kingdom. While club football seems to have been hard hit by the depression of the 1890s, Scotland and England met at Middle Park on 1 September 1894. In September 1908 Scotland beat England three-nil, but the following year the English got their revenge by three goals to two. There were matches against visiting teams, too, as when the steam ship Persic and the navy’s HMS Powerful arrived in 1908. Powerful was the flagship of the Royal Navy squadron on the Australian station from 1905. Dockerty Cup matches were also played at the ground.
So Middle Park was firmly established as the main football venue in Victoria when the First World War brought about an interruption that lasted till 1919.
On 2 August 1919, Windsor beat Albert Park two-one, Northumberland and Durhams (N and D) accounted for Spotswood by the same score, Footscray Thistle outclassed St David’s by five-nil and Melbourne Thistle drew with Preston in league games. Estimates of attendances at games are notoriously rubbery, but it is reported that some thousands attended Dockerty Cup games, and, according to the Argus, an unspecified record crowd watched the matches on 3 July 1920 with the highlight being that between N and D and Melbourne Thistle, effectively another ‘England v Scotland’ game.
For many years the pitches were not enclosed and Ted Smith remembers playing on one that ran parallel to the Albert Park lake into which one of the players had to wade to retrieve the ball. A bicycle track was built with a pitch in the centre in the 1950s, then came change rooms and perimeter fencing. A new stadium was constructed in 1959 with a capacity of 18,000 including the grandstand, which held 2,000, close to the railway station. There were later extensions to include offices, a café and terracing. The stadium was demolished in 1994.
Competition from other venues became greater as time passed, with the Melbourne Showgrounds, Olympic Park and even the Melbourne Cricket Ground accommodating major games, but Middle Park continued to be significant for the Victorian Amateur Soccer Football Association and its successor, the Victorian Soccer Federation, in the post-Second World War years. Park Rangers and South Melbourne United had their home at Middle Park in the 1940s. Both clubs later merged, Park Rangers with Moreland in 1985, while South Melbourne United joined another combined club—South Melbourne Hellas. Hellas began as the product of a merger between Hellenic and Yarra Park in 1959. The Hakoah club, founded in 1924, became a tenant at Middle Park. Later it played at Olympic Park. By 1956 Hakoah was back at Middle Park and merged with St Kilda in 1972 and then in 1982 joined with South Melbourne United as the Victorian arm of South Melbourne Hellas which was playing in the National Soccer League in 1982. Other clubs used the stadium for brief periods. In 1960 Waterside Workers Federation shared the Park Rangers ground at Middle Park.
Victorian Premier League finals were played at Middle Park until 11 September 1994, when Preston Lions beat Port Melbourne Sharks by three goals to one. Gerry McAleer and Chris Sterjovski with two goals gave Preston a winning lead and Peter Tsolakis converted a late penalty for the Sharks. Nineteen-year-old Sterjovski won the Jimmy Rooney medal for the player of the grand final. At half-time another teenager, Josip Skoko, was presented with the ABSW player of the year award, completing an excellent day for youth.
National League football matches were also played at Middle Park until its demise and many of the local derbies involving Hellas, Melbourne Croatia (later the Knights), Heidelberg Alexander, JUST and Juventus drew five-figure crowds over the years. On 15 June 1977, there were between 12,500 and 15,000 when Hellas with Malcolm MacDonald, superstar with Newcastle United and Arsenal, took on St George Budapest from Sydney which had Derby County’s Charlie George, who also played with Arsenal. On 23 October 1994 Hellas played the last game at Middle Park, thrashing Heidelberg United Alexander by four goals to one. There were 11,926 fans there to see them do so, with two goals by Ivan Kelic, and one each to Con Boutsianis and Francis Awaratife. Peter Tsolakis’s penalty was once again the consolation goal for his team.
Squads for the final game at Middle Park
South Melbourne: Steve Mautone, Mehmet Durakovic, Kevin Muscat, Paul Wade, Michael Valkanis, Gary Hasler, Jason Polak, Micky Petersen, George Goutzioulis, Con Boutsianis, Francis Awaritefe, Ivan Kelic, Paul Trimboli.
Heideleberg United : David Miller, Angelo Koutsos, Alan Scott, Richard Watson, George Georgiadis, Eric Vasiliadis Tom Karapatsos, Peter Tsolakis, Walter Ardone, Alex Kiratzoglou, Damir Gnjidic, Andy Vlahos, Michael Michalakopoulos.