Major events don’t just happen overnight – just ask Mark Penaluna.
The long-serving Werribee Football Club CEO has done his fair share of work behind the scenes in that area over the years, but this weekend’s JLT Community Series and AFL Women’s double-header at Avalon Airport Oval has taken things to another level.
First, there were the initial conversations with the AFL around the possibility of hosting such an event, which began in earnest the moment Werribee received the keys to its home base after the completion of its $11.75 million redevelopment back in April.
“We were advocating through our AFL contacts, and we were really fortunate to have the relationship with [AFL Facilities and Project Manager] Ken Gannon, who was advocating on our behalf, as well as people like [AFL Victoria CEO] Ricky Bell,” Penaluna says of the early stages of the process.
Then, following the official confirmation of both matches in November, there was the frantic work from Penaluna and his team in conjunction with Wyndham City Council to ensure the ground was fully prepared for the two biggest days in its history.
“Our staff, such as [Venue Manager] Deanne Musa and [Match-Day Coordinator] Zach Thornton, have put a huge amount of work into setting up external areas and arranging staffing to accommodate the large crowd expected,” Penaluna says.
“Council have also been totally supportive with the work they’ve put in through people like Tom Delahunty.
“They’ve put a lot of resources in to fixing things on and off the field, and the way the ground has turned out is nothing short of immaculate, so they should absolutely get a pat on the back for the effort they’ve put in.”
However, in a broader sense, the genesis of this weekend can be traced back to more than a decade ago.
Neither the JLT Community Series nor the AFL Women’s competition were even close to conception at that stage; but in working with Wyndham Council to develop plans for what would ultimately become the Avalon Airport Oval redevelopment, both Penaluna and late former Werribee president John Nicol put forward a much broader vision than a revamped VFL venue.
“It was largely around the fact that we wanted this to be a community hub,” Penaluna recalls of those early conversations back in June 2008.
“Our city didn’t have a major events centre, which we saw as pivotal from a sporting point of view, but there was also the question of how we could use a facility like this to attract larger-scale events.
“We’ve now done that with the JLT and AFLW, we’ll be hosting an outdoor cinema night later this month, and there are all sorts of other things like A-League games and concerts that we can potentially look at.”
As well as being the first of many major events for Avalon Airport Oval, Penaluna also hopes this weekend’s double-header can be the first step towards an increased football presence at the ground outside the traditional winter months.
“If you look between GMHBA Stadium and Whitten Oval, there’s no football-only facility, so for the kids of the west, particularly around Wyndham, it would be great to have a base that can be used as a football facility 12 months a year,” he says.
“In the south-eastern corridor, Casey, Frankston, Sandringham, Moorabbin, Seaford, and Dandenong are all football-only grounds, so it puts our kids at a disadvantage.
“Both council and our co-tenants, the Werribee Cricket Club, understand what we’re trying to do, so I’m hopeful we can all work together to allow for more year-round activities like pre-season games and academy programs so we can fully utilise what we believe to be the best off-field facilities outside the AFL.”
In the meantime, Penaluna is looking forward to the chance to showcase his club’s venue to a wider audience and hopes the wider Werribee area will also feel the benefit as the AFL procession rolls through.
“I’m hopeful the fans will appreciate the facilities we have,” he says.
“They’ll obviously be somewhat limited as to what they can gain access to, but I’m sure they’ll be impressed by the grandstand seating and canteen and bar.
“I’ll also be interested to talk to some of the shop owners after this weekend. They tell us how well they do from having local-league finals here and from our matches against clubs like Collingwood, so hopefully they feel there’s some financial return for them by us having these matches here.”