My favourite Coodabeens’ football song has always been ‘My homeground’.
It’s adapted, of course, from the wistful Bruce Springsteen song ‘My hometown’: a melancholy and bitter-sweet look back at the depressed, working class town of his childhood. A tale of struggle, change and survival.
I can’t watch Greg Champion’s version (watch the YouTube clip below, with unrelated footage of us defeating the Pies in 1989) without being vividly transported back to that homeground: the Western Oval. To the sounds of stamping feet; the mingled smells of doughnuts, peanuts, damp duffel coats and Western Oval mud; to the sense of home, of community; to the memory of our place, our fortress, where we were always so much harder to beat.
You can see Pies players wearing two jumpers as they brave the cold; the ground attendants sit on the fence swaddled in blankets. The crowd, huddled together, for warmth as well as solidarity, in a rare win, in a bleak season. There's the Olympic Tyres' clock, designed by my dad. And if you watch to the end, you can see Wally and Hunter linking up in a surge towards the Mt Mistake end. (That would be Steven Wallis and Mark Hunter, of course.)
Our last ever home match was in 1997, against the Eagles. It was, to nobody’s surprise, accompanied by numbing cold, howling winds and rain that lashed against your face like icy splinters. (If for this historic occasion our beloved homeground had produced sparkling blue skies and balmy conditions, even Andrew Bolt may have seen the light, become an unlikely global warming campaigner and run for a Senate ticket with the Greens)
We'd endured a dreadful ’96 season, saved from the wooden spoon only by the carcass of Fitzroy that was left swining in the breeze that year. But Terry Wallace had invigorated us into one of the more startling transformations: we needed to defeat the Eagles to cement a top four spot. The match was notable for one other thing: just before the opening bounce one of the Eagles’ younger players, one Michael Gardiner, was bumped and jostled by Dogs’ defenders who memorably, or to some infamously, greeted him with the words: “Welcome to the kennel”.
This victory set us up for the 1997 finals series which culminated in - I’m sorry, I can’t quite recall how it ended – ummm – will need to get back to you on that one.
It's a strange thing to realise that as the competition has expanded, and all the Melbourne clubs have lost their suburban grounds and the unique and tangible aura each of these possessed, the newcomers to the competition have not only retained theirs but built formidable home ground advantages.
The Eagles' winning record at their fortress, of latter years often dubbed, with good reason, the ‘house of pain’ has been a major factor in their top four finishes. Over the years our trips to Perth have resulted in some awful drubbings. There's always been some hulking gorilla forward: Sumich, Lynch, Kennedy, Darling, all to my mind like swarthy pirates with glints in their eyes as they kick double figure tallies and brush aside a series of forlorn Bulldogs' defenders.
In the lead-up to our match against last year’s grand finalists, article after article heaped scorn on their woeful record of late away from Subiaco. (Were they TRYING to give the Eagles motivation by endlessly pointing this out?) Matthew Lloyd, helpfully explained to the Eagles' players that there was nothing to fear, that each ground just had green grass and the same goal posts, (Yeah, I've always thought Matthew Lloyd was a dill.)
I'm not too concerned, because I realise that depsite my Western Oval nostalgia, somehow soul-less Etihad stadium has become OUR fortress. Like a true homeground, it's become a place where we play better, where our team and gameplan have become united, where the crowd noise in close last quarters has become an immense din, urging our boys on. And walking into the ground on Sunday I realise rather sheepishly that on dismal Melbourne afternoons, there are some advantages in escaping those freezing winds and gusty showers, or that trip to the appallingly smelly toilets, which were not so delightful feature of the old suburban grounds
Something else has changed from those Western Oval days too. The Tragician has become evangelically optimistic. I believed we could win. I was SURE we would win, even when the news filtered through that our captain Easton 'Superman' Wood, who'd played such a superb captain's game the week before, had been troubled by that damn hamstring again and would not be available. This should have been the signal for an outbreak of gloom, knowing that he wouldn't be available for those moments where he somehow emerges from nowhere to fling himself in the pathway of scarily large and muscly bearded Eagles players. But then we hear there will be a new captain for the day. The Bont. Captain Bontempelli. It's always had an air of inevitability, that name.
The Dogs start slowly. Maybe my kumbaya optimism was misplaced, or maybe the Eagles don't think Matthew Lloyd is as much of a dill as I do. They look switched on. The Dogs look a bit flat.
But despite descriptions of our 'sexy' football, the work ethic of our team is to me the most powerful element of why we're doing so well. They just don't give up, imposing themselves into contests until the scoreline begins to tilt in our favour. The strange thing is, that almost every week we make mistakes, we mis-kick, we make inexplicable choices and decisions, we squander chances; yet so overwhelming is the sheer weight of our possession and the hunger and drive of the team as a whole that it matters less and less. I'm learning (with a few minor setbacks) not to focus on the errors and to see them as part of the picture, where we are currently at. Composure and polished finishing will come. And when they are allied with the heart of our players and their fierce will-to-win, the scoreboard will start to reflect that dominance, instead of us going into last quarters with an opposition we've comprehensively trounced in almost all measure still ominously in with a sniff.
We keep driving forward in the first few minutes after three quarter time but that old bugbear of inaccuracy hits yet again. The Bulldogs' fan sitting near us, who is quite literally sticking pins into the legs of a West Coast voodoo doll every time the big bad Eagles shoot for goal, must have somehow mixed up her black magic spells; it's the men in red, white and blue who are spraying their shots. But Tom Campbell, not exactly known for accuracy, drives one home and we're 23 points up. It should be enough, but of course it wasn't. The Eagles rattle on the goals; even the dreaded Josh Kennedy, who's been kept goal-less by a combination of a surprisingly steady Fletcher Roberts and the whole concept of team defence, bobs up to put them within three points.
When this happened a few weeks ago against the Crows, my stomach churned in the certain knowledge that we were going to blow the match and another chapter in the book entitled Ignominious Defeats When We Were The Better Team was about to be written. But, while I wouldn't quite describe myself as calm when Kennedy's shot sailed relentlessly through, the usual despair, terror and conviction that defeat was inevitable were missing. I found myself wondering who, not if, would stand up for us. How, not if, we would steady the ship and win the game.
That it was Tom Liberatore was not a surprise. He'd played a massive game, whether it was his usual work in the clinches or as a less likely goal kicking sneak. But the Dogs had had many heroes over the afternoon. The work of our skipper, the youngest ever winning captain, who amassed an extraordinary 21 contested possessions and might just win that Brownlow he's destined for earlier than even I expected. Our unfashionable but effective ruck duo who took on the man mountain Natanui (who would have thought when last year Bevo seemed to think playing a ruckman at all was a bit too staid and predictable for one of his imagination and flair, that we'd now be selecting TWO). The defensive unit, who are indeed a unit that's greater than their whole, gelling together in a way that means that even when you see that somehow or other Matthew Boyd is one out with Josh Kennedy, that it won't really matter because his comrades will ensure it never gets near them.
Oh and a special mention to The Lair. There is hardly a more electrifying sight than him grabbing the ball out of a midfield contest and going on a scintillating run with those turbo jet legs. Unless it's him guiding through a banana kick goal from the boundary, just the sort of outlandishly improbably goal that The Lair is born to kick (no matter that I still have head in hands when he takes a shot from 30 metres out dead in front).
After the win, which takes us to fourth on the ladder, I watch 33-year-old Dale Morris, who's done his usual unobtrusive sterling job and, also as usual, spent almost the entire match on the ground, run all the way across the oval to high five the fans. He's beaming from ear to ear.
As the teams leave the arena I found myself recalling a famous or infamous contest against the Eagles, at their homeground. A massive ugly brawl broke out, after Steve Wallis executed a brilliant old-fashioned bump on Brett Heady; completely fair but it laid him out cold. In the melee that followed our fearsome looking Daniel Southern grabbed Peter Sumich in a headlock; ill-feeling has simmered away in our encounters ever since.
And looking back at the records of that day, I see that not only did the Dogs cop a 71 point hiding, but as well as Wallis, Mark Hunter and Libber the First played that day. And I see a more unexpected name: Luke Beveridge was in our colours for that bitter contest, accumulating a modest six possessions.
It's 19 years since we left the Western Oval. A whole group of supporters now are growing up with no memory of that ground. Even though I've made my peace with our not so new home at Etihad stadium, it still heartens me to think that the sons of those men who played in the mud and the elements and in miserable times, are there, links in our chain. And later, when I see The Bont being greeted and congratulated by John Schultz in the rooms, and when I hear the awesome news that Bob Murphy will play on in 2017, I know that our history as well as our future are in good hands.
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.