“You can play a breathtaking brand of footy and play in prelims. You can have a reasonable defence and an unbelievable offence and be good enough to make prelims, but it's proven over time that if you're not good around the footy you're not going to win the premiership.” - Chris Grant, February 14, 2014
The wise comments of the Legendary Great Man got me thinking.
There have only been two occasions where I genuinely thought the Dogs were on the brink of playing in a Grand Final, where I sat restlessly on the edge of my seat at three quarter time in a preliminary final, and believed, really believed, that one of the longest and most painful of football droughts was about to come to an end.
The first occasion needs little introduction: the one that lives on in the shell-shocked psyche of Bulldogs’ fans everywhere, the most bitter, galling loss of them all, the '97 Preliminary Final.
The second was more recent, against St Kilda in 2009. For some reason I’ve tended to be more philosophical about that one. The pain doesn’t burn as deep, unlike '97, where that inane ‘Pride of South Australia’ Crows’ anthem forms a permanent ghastly soundtrack in my head, accompanied by flashback memories of Darren Jarman leading out smoothly time and again to mark the ball (unopposed? he is in my memories..). And Rohan Smith punching the ground, graphically enacting the despair that had rendered the Bulldog fans around me stunned, silent and speechless.
The Great Man was, in fact, out on the field that day. The Bulldogs had - naturally - done the ‘thinkable’ and spectacularly squandered the 22 point lead they held at three quarter time. In the dying moments, just after the Crows had snatched the lead we'd held all day, an attack into our forward line was launched, and the ball spilt loose a metre out from the goal line. Two of our players (Chris himself, and Paul Hudson) outnumbered a solitary Crows’ opponent. There was some sort of epic fumble or mix-up between them, when only the simplest of toe pokes would have ensured a goal, and the ball was instead rushed for a point.
We didn’t regain the lead.
A few months later I was at the movies and a Nike ad came on. To the haunting sounds of Bitter Sweet Symphony, the screen filled with the desolate image of Chris at the final siren of that match, beginning the slow anguished trudge across the MCG. Chris Grant, who could have, should have been, a premiership hero and Brownlow medallist to boot, was instead depicted as a poignant emblem of how sport and luck and fate can rip your heart in two.
Okay – perhaps it wasn't a good idea of mine to revive the nightmare. But it's been on my mind, since reading Chris’s words about the 'big moments' that we've never played well. I've also been wondering about the connection between '97 and the loss in '09. Is it possible that the 97 catastrophe is the butterfly effect somehow shaping our destiny many years later?
The '09 defeat is, in fact, one that should burn just as deep as a lost opportunity. You could say that the '97 team had perhaps over-achieved (it’s a debate for another day as to whether a team CAN over-achieve), rocketing from virtually last to a kick or toe-poke away from a Grand Final in a single season. We hadn’t even dreamt of making the finals that year, and if not for the ignominious way we collapsed on that September afternoon, our effort in finishing the season third would have been seen as valiant, inspirational.
In 2009, however, we were a seasoned team, right in that premiership ‘window’. We were a top four side for the second year in a row and had defeated nemesis team (and eventual premier) Geelong by four goals only a few weeks earlier. We were pretty much full strength - there weren't the injuries or suspensions that could maybe have been worth one precious, match-saving goal in 1997 (Dimattina and Southern suspended, with Daniel being the only player before, or indeed since, to be suspended for 'wrestling'. Just saying.).
Was it our time, at last?
Five minutes into the last quarter, Brad Johnson – the sole remnant of the 97 team - put us back in the lead (a lead we’d held for probably 80 per cent of the match). Not since...yep, '97... had we been in front in the last quarter of a preliminary final.
It was one of the most suffocatingly close matches I’ve ever watched. We’d battled with inaccuracy in the first quarter, spraying the goals when we were well on top. There were critical umpiring decisions throughout the match that were so infernally baffling that The Age devoted a whole page, the following day, to analysing them. Then came the familiar Bulldog tale of a loss of composure, after the infamous Nick Riewoldt-Brian Lake free kick, which saw our momentum stemmed and our lead overturned. We seemed to be made of sterner stuff, this time, though: we;d rallied and were in front, with 15 minutes to go, and a grand final spot in our grasp.
There was a moment, just a moment, where I let myself dream of what could be, where I imagined how it would feel when the siren sounded and we’d won, before wrenching my attention back to the fierce contest still being played out in front of me. Strangely, as happens in the most tense of matches, I couldn’t barrack any more. Any illusion that I could influence the result by the intensity of my support was gone. I was a spectator in the most literal sense, and just like the dreamer unable to will their limbs to move any more, I was powerless and could only watch what would unfold.
When the siren went, we were losers again. We hadn't been able to press home our advantage, couldn’t administer that ruthless killer blow. Gilbee and Giansiracusa, our most elegant finishers, missed eminently gettable shots. Riewoldt, by contrast, came to the fore with two last quarter goals. He soccered the last one through, squeezing it through our defenders' despairing, lunging hands, taking the opportunity that Chris Grant had not 12 years earlier.
The match, everyone said, was thrilling and enthralling. A classic. I didn’t walk out with the sickening embarrassment of the 97 final. I felt proud, in fact. In between calling for a Royal Commission into the umpiring, I claimed to be satisfied with the Dogs' undoubted bravery and desire to win. They’d given their all, they were exhausted, they had fought and scrapped to the end.
I guess I didn't want to think too much about why we'd really lost.
We'd out-performed them in tackles. We had the greater number of disposals. We had an incredible 17 more inside 50s than our opponents. If, in fact, even just a measly two of those 17 had resulted in a goal, we would have won. Yet our conversion rate that night was a miserable 38.9% compared to the Saints 60. 'Potentially good enough': yep, but in those key points, the big moments, something faltered.
Now that we’re back in a rebuild/refresh/reinvigoration phase, these days already seem so long ago. We’re unlikely to be there on preliminary final day this year; our consolation prize is to enjoy and invest in the emergence of a new breed, who were on display in the NAB challenge last night, exciting, raw but still inconsistent. Stringer, McRae, Hunter, Johanssen, Jong, Libber the second, and Wallis...who knows? may equal or better the feats of the lads from '97 or '09.
Still, while I watch their progress, I’m haunted by those lost finals. Why is our club unable to deliver our absolute best, show the right mix of poise, composure and daring, when we need it most? Has the failure of 97 hovered like an unseen, malevolent presence, silently tainting those that have come after?
If we could go back to the 1997 future in a red white and blue themed DeLorean, in some parallel universe, Chris Grant’s outstretched foot would just have reached the ball, while Paul Hudson selflessly shepherded. Terry Wallace would have had the foresight to implement his later innovation, the uber-flood, in the final 90 seconds to protect our lead. As the siren sounded and OUR song began to blare out, the crowd around me would have wept tears of joy instead of despair and humiliation.
Fortified by the knowledge that we’d bravely withstood the Crows’ surge, the victory even sweeter because it had so nearly been snatched, Brad Johnson, Scott West, Rohan Smith, Luke Darcy and Chris Grant could have gone on to be 1997 premiership heroes when, buoyed and confident, we disposed of St Kilda. Another premiership could have followed in 1998, when we were again good enough to have a top four finish.
In 2009, when the blowtorch was applied in the last quarter, the next generation of Bulldogs could have dug deep into a reserve of recent successes and triumphs, the legacy of the dual premiership era champions, who oozed the charisma of winners. Ryan Griffen would not have been slumped on the ground, in tears, replicating the famous and poignant image of Rohan Smith, who’d grown up in Yarraville, and played 300 games without a Grand Final.
In the absence of a Bulldogs DeLorean (you just know it would sputter to a halt on Barkly Street), I turn for answers and hope, from our increasingly impressive coach Brendan McCartney. In a great pen-portrait written by Martin Flanagan this weekend, BMac described his satisfaction in walking down the race in 2007 after he’d played a significant part in finally bringing premiership success and overturning the culture of the mercurial and success-starved Cats.
BMac quoted Sir Alec Ferguson to describe his appreciation and his vision for his role at our beloved and unlucky club:
“Thanks for giving me the time to a build a football club, and not just a football team.”