It’s two hours before the match against Great Western Sydney begins. Yet again the Bulldogs are playing in a far flung location, this time in the freezing Canberra suburb of Manuka, against the newest AFL franchise, Great Western Sydney.
While the Dogs journey to the ACT, I am driving through Footscray in a reflective mood. I'm mentally imploring my team to spare us the indignity of a loss to these so-called easy-beats. I'm still in recovery mode after our inglorious loss to Melbourne. There's only so much even a Bulldog Tragician can take.
Great Western Sydney entered the competition 18 months ago. They wear orange and charcoal, and are called the Giants; their mascot is a G-Man (I don't get it either). Their website says they have four core values: INNOVATION, INTEGRITY INCLUSION and ASPIRATION.
Ok if you like that sort of thing, I guess.
The Giants’ theme song was written by the guy from the Cat Empire. I’m fearful that for only the second time ever, the footy world will get to hear it. I can see it now, dejected Bulldogs’ players trudging from the arena. The Dogs mocked by the footy world, and me sitting there, the familiar sick feeling in my stomach.
I have to admit I have a childish, spiteful dislike of the Giants. Not because of anything they've actually done to us. It's more what they represent. Another step into a brave new world of football that many of us never really wanted. A world that's in danger of leaving the Bulldogs behind.
I pause at the lights, near the clock above what used to be the Kinnears rope factory in Ballarat Road. It mightn’t be as iconic as the Skipping Girls’ Vinegar sign (how come western suburbs’ landmarks are never as celebrated?) but it used to be clearly visible from most parts of the flat Footscray landscape, including my grandparents’ house just off Gordon Street, a few blocks away from the Western Oval. It’s been a while since Kinnears actually manufactured any rope. The deserted site, I hear, is earmarked for a boutique housing development.
When the VFL tried to merge Footscray out of existence in 1989, one of the many letters and donations came from a whip-around from the Kinnears factory workers. They were among many, many fans who just refused to let the club die. Tin rattles, donations from Dogs' fans all around the world and an emotional rally meant $1.5 million was raised in three weeks. Our club lived to fight another day.
One of the supporters who threw himself into the fightback campaign had a simple but poignant explanation of why it mattered. Pointing out to the deserted Western Oval terraces and fighting back tears, he spoke about standing there with his own father.
‘When I look out there,’ he said, ‘I see him.’
I drive around the corner, and there’s the Western Oval itself. It's been the club's home since 1877. Many people don’t know that ours is an older club than Collingwood FC. Older even than the world’s most famous sporting club, Manchester United.
Apparently after only a year or two, the Footscray Football Club changed its name to the Prince Imperials. Bizarrely, this was to honour the French heir to the throne. Hard to know why this club, in the industrial heartland of western Melbourne, chose this particular hero with which to align itself, but he came to a gruesome end at the hands of Zulu warriors – disembowelled in fact. (I'm not making this up). Early identification with the underdog, perhaps?
Soon afterwards, club history recites that 'with a lack of players and membership commitment, a crisis meeting was held at the Royal Hotel to decide whether the club would continue.' Bloody hell - even back in 1881 we were in strife! The Prince Imperials name was ditched (for which we can all be truly grateful) and the Footscray Football Club lurched back from the brink for the first, but not the only time. Its core values were Cede Nullis. Dignified and simple. "Yield nothing".
Establishing the Giants and the other new 'franchise', the Gold Coast Suns, will cost the AFL $200 million over five years. To me, they're artificially created clubs, chesspieces in the AFL’s strategic positioning against rugby, bereft of the rich vein of history, tradition, struggle, romance and memory that my club represents in my life. Yet in a twist of irony, this expansion of the AFL that I so resent is probably one of the best protections that struggling clubs like my own could have. The accompanying bonanza in television rights and advertising revenue mean that small unfashionable clubs such as ourselves, Melbourne and North Melbourne are now propped up and supported rather than marched to the gallows, as seemed inevitable in the 1980s. But that 1989 fightback campaign, too, was pivotal in challenging the prevailing wisdom that a progressive football future needed to be accompanied by loss of Melbourne clubs. As someone once put it, Melbourne’s twelve masterpieces. Two of which are now lost forever.
So in contemplating our match today how can I fail to feel betrayed and disillusioned when I realise Great Western Sydney will most likely win a premiership before we do? Having plundered the best young talent in the land, granted untold salary cap allowances, this fully owned subsidiary of the AFL could well win a flag within its first five or six years of the competition, as did the West Coast Eagles and Adelaide Crows.
While we press our noses to the glass, waiting for an invite to a premiership party that never seems to arrive – 59 years and still counting – I brace myself for the image of a GWS premiership team helping itself to the spoils of victory, their ‘long-suffering’ fans and corporate sponsors celebrating amid a sea of AFL-issued merchandising equipment. In orange and charcoal. I just hope the guy holding the cup in my nightmare scenario isn't Callan Ward the local western suburbs' boy (that's the western suburbs of Melbourne, in case you had any doubt). He played 60 games for us before the lure of obscene amounts of money saw him heading to the new club, leaving a ‘giant’ hole in our list (sorry). And a hollow feeling in supporters' hearts.
INNOVATION, INTEGRITY INCLUSION and ASPIRATION.
There's not much of the Giants' core values on display in their match against us when it gets underway. But I do see the Ghost of Kevin Sheedy ruthlessness, as Adam Cooney is downed in a punch behind play, Libba suffers a blow to the head when 'shepherded' many metres from the ball, and our most improved player this year, Jason Johansien, is stretchered from the ground in a questionable clash. Then again the Bulldog Tragician admits to a long memory for such atrocities, still recalling Sheedy sending out his henchman Dean Wallis to punch a teenage Chris Grant in the stomach after he returned from having his appendix removed.
The Bulldogs this afternoon seem to have reached a low point that even surpasses the Melbourne catastrophe. The match is so bad that even the fate suffered by the Prince Imperial starts to seem like a preferable option.
The Dogs have the lost aimless look of a team that has forgotten footy can be fun, that is expecting kicks to go astray, their team-mate to fumble, that desperately knows it's all going wrong but can't arrest the slide. So often this season I've consoled myself by watching the young guns, the bright sparks of the future. Now as I watch them, I wonder if playing too early in these mediocre matches is doing them any good, or just steeping them in the despair of failure.
But there's one player who seems to be blossoming. Michael Talia is our best player by a mile, and earns a Rising Star nomination for his role in this most unmemorable of Bulldog victories (yes, we did win, somehow).
Michael Talia's grandfather, Harvey Stevens, was the ruckman in our solitary premiership team. There are some wonderful stories on him, back in the day. How he still worked in a butcher's shop on the morning of the grand final. That he arrived for the match without his boots, prompting a hurried trip home and meaning he arrived at the MCG with only 30 minutes to spare. How he grew up in Gordon Street, across the ground from the Western Oval (I bet Harvey would know all about the Kinnears' sign).
But most of all I like to read what Harvey Stevens' grandson said on the day he was drafted. 'My parents have had a Bulldogs jumper on me for as long as I can remember, so to get to the club you have gone for your whole life, is an absolute dream come true." Michael Talia wears his Pa's jumper and is going to do it proud.
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.