Knights Stadium is one of the most iconic venues in Australian football – for many it is more than just a stadium.
The ground was built in 1989 with storied history. Melbourne Knights, formerly known as Melbourne Croatia SC, were two-time National Soccer League (NSL) champions and four-time minor premiers at the ground during the 1990s.
The Mark Viduka Stand can seat up to 3,000 people, while another 12,000 can stand around the pitch. The ground represents the largest football-only sporting ground in the state of Victoria – testament to the history and strength of Melbourne Knights FC.
Former Melbourne Knights president Andelko Cimera says he was part of the club while Knights Stadium was becoming a reality.
“We were playing at the old number two pitch at Olympic Park, where the dog track was, and that was virtually our home. We were looking for alternatives and a couple of properties came up – a drive-in in Altona and a drive-in at North Sunshine,” he said.
“We settled on Sunshine because it was a little bit cheaper. I think we paid $180,000 at that time in 1984. 12 months later we started developing the stadium.”
Melbourne Croatia at the time tried to secure the rights to play at Heidelberg United’s home ground Olympic Park and several other venues, before a decade-long donation drive allowed them to raise the money to purchase the land and develop a facility at the current site of Somers Street.
Melbourne Knights FC President Pave Jusup says that much of his childhood was spent at Knights Stadium.
“We only saw the stadium for games. We would always strive to go there, and sometimes the juniors would have an important game that’d let us on the second ground, even the main ground,” he said.
“If you walked into the wrong part of the ground the groundskeeper would grab you and make you be a ball boy, and you’d get a hotdog and drink after the game. It was a whole childhood for a lot of us.”
Jusup adds that Melbourne Knights and the stadium serve as a key pillar within the Croatian community.
“There are a lot of memories that have been created there. A lot of people are tied to the physical place and it is a hub of the Croatian community along with the Croatian club in Footscray and the original Croatian church in Clifton Hill. We are the three constant and long-term fixtures in the community,” he said.
Cimera explains that there were both positives and negatives towards the stadium being community ran and operated.
“There were advantages and disadvantages. It was our property, it was our ground. It was up to us whether it was Sunday night, Saturday afternoon, or Friday night game. It was always available to us,” he said.
“The disadvantages were that everything was up to us. The maintenance of the ground was up to us. The facility became a burden to the Croatian community, which involved all our payments, all our rates which were paid for by the community.”
Both Jusup and Cimera agree that the biggest games were always against South Melbourne.
“It became a fortress for us in the 90s. It was difficult to take points away from our ground for teams,” Cimera said.
“I think our record crowd was when Hadjuk Split was here, that was close to 15,000. I remember when we played South Melbourne we had 12,000 people. The games between South Melbourne and us were always the biggest crowds.”
During the 2000 National Soccer League season, over 11,000 people descended upon Knights Stadium to watch Melbourne Croatia vs South Melbourne Hellas.
“Around 2001, they were top of the table and unbeaten, while we were mid to low-end of the table. We beat them 4-0. That is one game that sticks out in my mind,” Jusup said.
For both Cimera and Jusup, they acknowledge that the supporters and members of Melbourne Knights want to see Knights Stadium and the club feature in a second division.
“It’s not only the Melbourne Knights. It’s the juniors too because they can have a career path. Right now they can’t see a career path. Without promotion and relegation, it makes it very difficult,” Cimera said.
“We’ve got a lot of latent fans who are disappointed in the situation we find ourselves in. There are a lot of people who would put their hands up and into their pockets to help propel the club if given the opportunity. We’ve gone through a period of consolidation, but there’s a new generation of people who want to propel the club into the limelight as their parents and grandparents did,” Jusup said.
If the opportunity to join a second division does arise for Melbourne Knights, then their home ground won’t look out of place on the national stage.