Former Australian Financial Review editor turned senior Fairfax executive Glenn Burge led a victory waltz through Leichhardt Council chambers last night when his daughter’s soccer team seized access to several Balmain sporting fields at the centre of an access spat.

In a star-studded council meeting that stretched until well after 1am, Channel Seven silver-tongue Tom Harley oversaw an AFL backdown over the use of hallowed Birchgrove Oval, with Burge’s Balmain & District Football Club emerging triumphant. Harley acts as general manager of the AFL’s NSW/ACT body.

Burge, who as club secretary spoke passionately in favour of a motion to bolster the club’s weekly hours allocation, managed to maintain access to Birchgrove and also secure space on two new re-activated ovals within historic Callan Park, the site of a former mental hospital and the third-largest piece of open space in Sydney.

In recent weeks, the potential erection of uneven goal posts at Birchgrove’s harbourside turf — considered the birthplace of rugby league in Australia — triggered a media storm in Burge’s Sydney Morning Herald and on talkback radio. Last night the council decided aerial ping pong would have to find a new home at the less prominent Glover Street oval.

The plucky Burge is a fierce advocate for the 2000-member soccer club in addition to his day job directing Fairfax editorial coverage across the eastern seaboard. Alongside local ALP identity and Balmain DFC president Brian Frankham and Labor councillor Darcy Byrne, he managed to extract an extra 29 hours for games and training from the Greens-dominated council, with the 116.5 weekly allocation increasing to a record 145.5.

Balmain DFC is the biggest sports club among the more than 20 outfits laying a claim to a slice of turf in the increasingly salubrious inner-west enclave.

The two new ovals will be built at historic Callan Park in time for the 2013 soccer season. Burge and Byrne have been at the forefront of the campaign to secure sporting space in the park’s controversial $300 million community master plan, which is currently before the O’Farrell government.

Byrne told Crikey this morning he had received “450 emails” from parents on the issue — his single largest body of correspondence. An online petition of 1000 local residents also contributed to the victory.

Last month, Burge was appointed as “Executive Editor, Metro” at Fairfax and has been busy consolidating the aging firm’s reporting lines across the company’s four remaining broadsheets. His reporters have been hard at work highlighting the “Battle of Birchgrove” in numerous articles in Sydney’s paper of record.

The background to the dispute is a long and torturous one. Four years ago the then-Labor government offered significant parts of Callan Park to Leichhardt Council on a 99-year lease. The masterplan was then worked up by the council. But with hundreds of local youngsters being denied a run around, prominent dissenters including Burge and Byrne hopped on the front foot.

Byrne accused local green-tinged activists Friends of Callan Park — whose vice president is Greens deputy mayor Michele McKenzie — of becoming “obsessed with the masterplan” as inactive Balmain children filled up on fat snacks. He said “kids were being used as pawns” to place pressure on the government, when all they wanted was more space to kick a ball around.  He said it was “extremely unlikely” that O’Farrell would stump up the cash for the plan given Balmain MP Jamie Parker is the only Green in the NSW lower house.

Greens councillor and former ABC radio star Cassi Plate slammed Byrne this morning for drumming up  “ridiculous bad press and misinformation” on the AFL angle, claiming the outcome was “fair to all groups”.

Despite the win, more rancour could be about to fester. Club president Frankham continued to express some scepticism this morning, saying “until I see the numbers I’m not signing anything”. He expressed concern over Balmain DFC’s future at Glover Street, which he said would now have to be shared with baseballers and the AFL. He says the AFL had deliberately misled council by claiming the number of participants within the Leichhardt local government area was “1644” — when forced to produce evidence during the debate, just 238 participants could be located.

Crikey can reveal that Frankham will join Byrne’s ticket at September’s local government elections, with nominations closing on August 8.

Leichhardt Council has been the source of several memorable power plays over the years, epitomised by federal infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese’s amusing off-camera contributions to the 1996 documentary Rats in the Ranks. Since then the Greens have edged out Labor and independents to force a controlling majority in the chamber.

Burge did not return a message left on his mobile phone today.

Peter Fray

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