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A grandstand finish at VU Whitten Oval

Last Friday night’s AFLW match between the Bulldogs and Geelong would have created mixed emotions for many of the fans on hand at Whitten Oval.

Last Friday night’s AFLW match between the Bulldogs and Geelong would have created mixed emotions for many of the fans on hand at Whitten Oval.

Doubtless they would have been thrilled with the performances of Bonnie Toogood, Ellie Blackburn and others in red, white and blue as the Dogs ran out victors over the Cats.

But there would have been a tinge of sadness each time they looked up at the empty EJ Whitten Stand.  The grandstand’s days are numbered.

The builders are moving in, ready to knock down the old to make way for the new — a brand new grandstand and state-of-the-art training facility for the Sons and Daughters of the West.

The new stand, part of a redevelopment of the Whitten Oval precinct, will be a welcome addition to the Bulldogs’ home base, but more than half a century of good times and excitement provided to those in the old EJ stand who have watched the Dogs battling it out should not be forgotten.

Now is a good time to look back on the history of a grandstand named after one of the Bulldogs’ grandest players.

The need for a new grandstand at Footscray was flagged in the early 1960s but, as is often the case, it took several years for the concept to become reality.  In 1965, the Footscray Football Club was keen to assume full control of the council-owned arena then known as Western Oval.

But Footscray City Council was unwilling to cede that control, and the club toyed with the idea of moving to Skinner Reserve, home of the VFA’s Sunshine Football Club. The Bulldogs had only a year-to-year agreement for the Western Oval with Footscray council at the time and the two parties struggled to come to an agreement satisfactory to both.

Eventually, the council offered to assist the Dogs with the cost of establishing a licenced club and a new grandstand, provided the club committed to a 20-year-lease of the ground. The two parties found common ground in the end, and in 1966 the old ‘cowshed’ pavilion at the Barkly Street end was demolished.

By 1968, construction of the new grandstand, at a cost of more than $200,000 (co-financed by the council and the Spurling family, well-known tailors of Footscray and across Melbourne) was well advanced, and a decision on its name had been reached. It would become the ‘E.J. Whitten Stand’, in honour of Mr Football himself.

In addition to honouring Ted, it was agreed that the stand’s five bays would also be named, with champions Alan Hopkins, Norm Ware, Arthur Olliver, Charlie Sutton and John Schulz all being recognised.

The E.J. Whitten Stand was officially opened on this day 53 years ago, February 23, 1969, with Ted Whitten arriving at Western Oval after an open-air drive through the streets of Footscray, which in turn had followed a civic reception for him (along with another former Bulldog and champion boxer, Ambrose Palmer) at the Town Hall.

Just over a year later, the stand named in his honour was heaving as Whitten celebrated his record-breaking 321st VFL match with a stirring three-point win over Hawthorn. EJ walked off the Western Oval for a final time as a player that day, his legacy as one of the game’s greatest players firmly established, and enshrined in the blue letters on the grandstand before him.

For the next half a century that grandstand served his club and its fans well. Its occupants witnessed many unforgettable moments, both brilliant and tragic: Kelvin Templeton’s 15-goal haul in 1978 as the Dogs kicked the then highest score in league history, Neil Sachse’s accidental collision that left him a quadriplegic, Scott West announcing himself to the world with a seven-goal haul against Essendon in 1993, and of course, Simon Beasley intercepting a pass from Collingwood’s Graeme Allen and kicking a last-gasp goal to bring down the Magpies in 1984.

Over the next few months, Ted’s stand will come down, but it will not be forgotten. A new stand will rise, bearing the famous EJ Whitten name. New memories will be created as fans in the rebuilt stand watch our AFLW, VFLW and VFL players take the Bulldogs to new heights. Who knows, the redeveloped Whitten Oval may even play host to the odd AFL men’s match, adding a nice touch of nostalgia.

For now, we bid the EJ Whitten Stand a fond farewell, but soon the mighty Western Bulldogs will be saying hello to a whole new era, as a new stand rises and new Bulldog legends are forged.

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