During the footy season, my day is automatically made if one of two things happens: the Bulldogs winning and Essendon losing. Whilst Footscray victories have been few and far between in 2012, the Bombers’ nose dive from 8-1 after Round 9 has been hilarious.
On the Saturday afternoon before our match, Carlton – no champion team themselves – demolished Essendon by 96 points at the MCG, relegating Essendon to tenth on the AFL ladder. The smugness on display earlier in the year has evaporated and been replaced despair and bewilderment. I've taken vicarious solace in their demise, a brilliant sideshow in a largely dismal year.
After Saturday's hilarity it was back to reality a day later. Sydney, atop the AFL ladder, was $1.06 favourite to beat us in Victoria for the first time since 1987 - a streak spanning 13 matches and four different venues. Barring a miracle, the Dogs would relinquish a second long unbeaten streak in seven days.
Six changes were made to the side for our final home match of the season. Ryan Hargrave was suspended for a hit on Daniel Jackson last week. Michael Talia, Tom Campbell, Andrew Hooper and Jarrad Grant were all omitted.
The final omission from the previous week's side was Justin Sherman. Recruited from Brisbane in exchange for a valuable end of first round draft pick in 2010, Sherman has been a frustration. He showed so much potential early in his career but hasn't consistently delivered since his move south. I want him to succeed, but it just hasn't happened yet. Sherman is good for the odd goal, granted, but he doesn't do enough around the ground. His failure to pick up 15 disposals in any of his last six matches is testament to that - as is being dropped from a team on an eight match losing run.
The half dozen “ins” were impressive: Ryan Griffen, Shaun Higgins and Ayce Cordy returned along with defenders Lukas Markovic and Easton Wood after lengthy lay-offs. Adam Cooney and his much discussed knees also came back into the side. He began as substitute.
Usual full back Brian Lake again started forward and it took less than a minute for the move to reap rewards as he marked and goaled.
Buoyed by the early goal, Footscray played with tremendous desire and verve. The Dogs shot out like a greyhound bounding from the boxes. Our men took the game on and kicked long into an open forward line, a tactic which may well have surprised the table-toppers.
The sides went goal-for-goal. Sydney kicked three of them in the first term, but every time the Bulldogs responded with a goal of their own within two minutes. Pressure on the Swans’ ball carriers was fierce; their players were allowed no time.
The Dogs got to the ball first and were rewarded with some lucky free kicks, much to the chagrin of the Bloods faithful. Lin Jong alone got three for high contact. Though it’s only his second game, I love the way Jong approaches his footy already. He is fearless and courageous but also skilful and smart. We've found another player for the future - and the present.
Jong and 20 others were overshadowed, however, by the inspirational Ryan Griffen. Already a Best and Fairest winner, Griffen must have wrapped today's maximum votes up by quarter time. He collected 17 disposals and drove the team forward with speed and damaging foot skills.
At the first change the Dogs led by 18 points. 6.2.38 was our best first term score for the season and also the most points Sydney have conceded. The Swans' 3.2.20 was mercifully well short of their 9-goal blitz at the SCG.
The second quarter began. For how long can Footscray maintain the rage? How long before Sydney hits back?
The once maligned Lewis Roberts-Thompson put through the first goal of the term before Liam Picken responded. Sydney kicked another before second gamer Jason Johannisen received a hand pass from a stoppage and snapped truly to answer again. We were going stride for stride with the AFL's top team; it made for a surprising and pleasant change from our norm.
With the current Bulldogs team being so limited and inexperienced, however, it was surely a matter of when, not if, Sydney would gain control. The inevitable happened towards the end of the first half as they lifted to dominate clearances. Class shone through. Five goals in the last 20 minutes of the half gave them a 14-point lead at the main break.
Up to half time our leading ball winners were, as usual, Ryan Griffen (25) and Matthew Boyd (21). Without Jude Bolton, such a stalwart of their midfield, Sydney seem to lack a tagger – could that be a chink in their armour, perhaps? How Dane Swan, Sam Mitchell and Scott Thompson would love to run around unmarked in the September sunshine.
Boyd's 21 included several turnovers, and I've begun to notice a trend amongst fans to focus on what our captain actually does when he has the ball.
What will Boyd's legacy be? For mine, he'll go down as a great servant and ball winner. His stats are brilliant (it wasn't just parochialism which prompted me to pick him as Dream Team captain) and it's unquestionable that he's got the best out of himself. The likes of West and Johnson shade him as a Great, however.
Boyd accumulates more possessions than anyone in the game but not enough of his disposals are damaging - he's a superb grunt player but flair is in short supply. He was famously plucked from Frankston via the rookie list and though his game has improved over the years, it hasn't been modified. One can get away with long, hopeful kicks in the VFL but at AFL level they seldom come off. His habit of turning the ball over is the antithesis of leading by example.
It took just a minute for two-time Brownlow winner Adam Goodes to kick the first major of the second half. Based on recent form, the forecast for the second half was stormy for Footscray and with the goal dark clouds came circling ominously. Here we go again, I thought – another second half and another fade out imminent. Sydney took our best shot, responded and, now with a 20 point lead, was in the driver’s seat to assume complete control and cement top spot on the ladder.
And so the rains came. Sydney piled on four more goals before Tory Dickson momentarily stemmed the tide.
The deficit extended to 47 before Dylan Addison surprisingly bobbed up to produce a couple of goals and bring his tally for the day to three (he would eventually finish with four). After several years on the periphery of the team as a scrappy defensive player, his recent displays in the forward line have been a revelation.
Forward line pressure has been all the rage in footy for several years, with various incarnations of the strategy including 'Clarkson's Cluster', the 'Lyon Cage' and Collingwood's Press. The Dogs were left behind in implementing a 'press' during Rocket Eade's tenure and even today the likes of Daniel Giansiracua were seldom seen tackling or giving chase.
Just as important as his goals was Addison's “shut down” job on Rhyce Shaw. Sydney's dashing defender was restricted to a couple of first half disposals and had a limited impact. I think a new role, the defensive forward, has been found for DFA.
Adam Cooney was brought on for the subdued Ayce Cordy. Cooney's story is well documented and, in football context, tragic. A number one draft pick that became known for his speed and ability, he suffered a seemingly innocuous knock during the 2008 finals series – weeks before claiming the Brownlow – and hasn't been in peak physical condition since.
His knee has been described as “degenerative” and I've heard from reliable sources that he's cooked and will find it impossible to get 100% fit again. He's endured seven stints on the sidelines and two interrupted off-seasons over the past 24 months. It's a testament to how good his best is that the club have persisted for this long.
Since “taking Charlie home”, Cooney accumulated a relatively modest 13 Brownlow votes from 56 matches in 2009-2011 and its unlikely that he'll tally many this year. Once destined for legendary status, Cooney's body has let him down to the point of bit-part status and talk of trade and premature retirement.
The onslaught continued in the last quarter. 'Gia' turned and snapped a nice goal but it was a rare moment of pleasure as Sydney did as they pleased. Gaps appeared everywhere and our backline fell to pieces.
When I heard the ladies who sit directly behind me start to discuss who they like from Masterchef and whether the new Big Brother series will be worth tuning into, I knew it was about time for us all to go home for the year. Today's defeat gives me a depressing personal tally of one win – against the embattled, dysfunctional Port Adelaide – and 10 losses at Docklands this season. Some “home” record.
The Swans finished with 10 last quarter goals to win by 82 points. After our spirited opening term, Sydney kicked 23 goals to seven and played with the swagger of a team that was Premiership-bound. They're fit, fast, settled, experienced and will stay atop the AFL ladder for a seventh straight week.
Of the Dogs fans who actually bothered with the bitter end – and credit should go to those who did – a decent proportion applauded the team off the field. Yes, the group is young and learning and undermanned but, given the complete disintegration of resistance and lack of pride in the last quarter, those wearing the jumper can go and do one in my eyes.
This is a team who have contrived to lose nine games in a row, our equal worst run since 1982. Eight of the defeats have been by six goals or more, demonstrating a lack of tenacity and accountability to defend.
The virtuoso performance by Ryan Griffen will distinguish this thumping from all of the others in years to come. Our number 16 finished with 47 disposals, eclipsing the club record set two decades earlier by Simon Atkins – a feat which even the likes of Scott West and Matthew Boyd have failed to achieve.
Griffen was everywhere. He collected 22 contested possessions, racked up eight clearances, eight inside 50s and two goal assists. All of that against the league’s top team - with only Boyd and a gaggle of kids as a supporting cast.
The usually reserved, team-orientated Brendan McCartney described his display as “extraordinary”. In the Herald Sun Griffen scored the maximum five votes and he was also named B.O.G. in The Age. McCartney and John Longmire both awarded him maximum points in the Coaches’ Association Award. All of this in a team smashed by 82 points.
A debate about the identity of the next Bulldog captain – who the bridge will be between Boyd and his long term heir apparent Mitch Wallis – has bubbled in recent months and its worth asking where Griffen fits in the equation. If leading by example is the most important prerequisite, no one is better suited. He’s a naturally shy person, from all reports, and seeks minimum limelight – in other words, captaincy might not be in his DNA. Despite his excellence, the thought of Griffen replacing Boyd still seems unusual and mystifying.
The next best today were Boyd (35 disposals) and, encouragingly, Smith (23) and Johannisen (20).
My year of footy attendance wraps up next week, with a chilling trip to Geelong. The day will take on an “end of school year excursion” feeling. Not a year full of impressive grades, it must be said.