You’ve heard the old saying ‘first impressions are everything!’ It’s never been more true than in the case of the Southport Sharks. Because if things had worked out a little differently 35 years ago the Sharks most likely would not be the financial powerhouse they are today.
It’s a story that goes all the way back to the late, great Wally Fankhauser, who in 1988 donated $2.2million to the club to build what is now the Gold Coast’s biggest and best sporting club, and the envy of semi-professional sport Australia-wide.
Rick Fankhauser, son of the Sharks’ great benefactor and himself a long-time Southport board and football committee member, tells how it all came about as Southport looked to move from their old home at the Owen Park Showgrounds to what is now Fankhauser Reserve at Musgrave Hill.
Wally Fankhauser, grandson of German immigrants, hailed from Burwood in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. He was a then VFL hopeful who had caught the eye of Hawthorn scouts before an accident left him with only one kidney. Instead he turned his focus to a large and successful family fruit orchard, near the intersection of Springvale Road and Burwood Road.
Then his wife Audrey came down with asthma, and on medical advice the Fankhauser family – Wally, Audrey, Helen, Dennis, Rick and Neville – moved to the Gold Coast in 1968.
Fankhauser Snr was a Melbourne supporter and quickly learned of the Surfers Paradise Demons, who wore the Melbourne jumper. So, as Rick recounts, he went down to the club to have a look, but quickly decided it wasn’t for him.
Second choice was against everything he believed in … the black and white stripes of Collingwood and the then Southport Magpies. “He walked in and the president at the time Leo Bush said ‘gidday’. Dad introduced himself, he told him he had three boys who were looking for a game, and they had a good friendly chat. He got in the car to drive home and said ‘this is the one.’ And from that day on he was a Southport man.”
Fankhauser bought wisely and worked hard after he settled on the coast, and became a major player in the real estate market. He bought a property at Mudgeeraba and doubled his money overnight. “Seriously,” said Rick. “The day after he bought it a bloke rang and said he wanted to buy it. Dad said “I just bought it – why would I want to sell it?” And the guy said ‘because I’ll give you twice what you paid for it.”
Next he bought the 1800-acre property of former politician Russ Hinze at Pimpama. “He learned a few things, he ran cattle and grew sugar cane. And he did ok,” was the humble and abridged summary of a personal success story-plus.
Initially a Southport trainer and runner, Fankhauser quickly became more and more invested in the club, joining the committee and becoming vice-president in 1974. And when the club was looking to escape the tight confines of Owen Park he donated $2.2million to lock in the move to a 31-acre plot of land on the corner of Musgrave Avenue and Olsen Avenue.
In 1987 the Southport Board of Directors submitted a proposal to the local council to build a ground and licensed club. The Sharks were granted a 50-year lease on the site. Construction of the $2.7m development began in 1988 and was completed in February 1989 when the ground was named ‘Wally Fankhauser Sports Reserve’ in his honour.
Looking out from the clubhouse deck, located on the wing high above the playing surface, he rejoiced daily in what the club had built. Undercover standing room directly below, a grassy hill that surrounds the rest of the ground, with a capacity of 8000 and lighting for night football. And inside a social club and entertainment spectacular that became a wonderful money-spinner.
What prompted the extraordinarily generous donation? “He wanted to get local kids off the street and playing football or doing something worthwhile,” Rick explained, noting how proud his father would be to see grandson Ashley now coaching the Southport Under-17s, the age group he was focussed on when he changed the direction of the club forever.
But ‘Wally’, as he was known to all, wasn’t just the money man. He did plenty of heavy lifting too. He personally bulldozed the mounds in place for what was originally to have been the headquarters of the Gold Coast District Rugby League and turned the area into a full-sized Aussie rules oval.
A ‘just do it’ man who would rather find a solution than complain about a problem, he was Southport vice-president under Dr Alan Mackenzie for 23 years from 1974-76 and 1978-95 until his death in 1995 aged 73. He had a stroke after mowing the oval and died seven days later. A Southport man to the very end.
Listed by the club on the highest level as a ‘Game Changer’, alongside ‘Doc’ Mackenzie and long-time treasurer Gerry Carmody, he is a Life Member and a life-time Southport Patron.
The legacy lives long and strong. In addition to being the home ground of the Sharks, Fankhauser Reserve has been used for AFL pre-season games and by the Gold Coast Suns reserves and AFLW. It’s a go-to choice for other junior carnivals and representative games.
Each year the Fankhauser Memorial Trophy is awarded to the player whose performance best represents the type of ‘hard at it, tough as nails’ player Wally was and liked to watch. And the B&F trophy for the Southport senior women’s team is the ‘Aud Award’, named in honour of Audrey Fankhauser, who is still going strong at 93. She, too, was a willing club worker for a long time and is a life member and patron.