‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained.
Resilience and patience: qualities that have been needed in abundance in season 2013 for our fans. It’s only a few short weeks ago I was one of the depressed, silent crowd watching the Bulldogs apparently hit rock bottom. I may have mentioned once or twice on these pages that it was MY BIRTHDAY. There I was, though, watching the so-called competition laughing stock, Melbourne, play like premiership fancies against a listless, error-riddled Bulldogs’ outfit.
A week later, playing Great Western Sydney, we escaped by the skin of our teeth from what would have been an even more galling defeat . Even though we clawed our way over the line, the quality of the performance seemed to confirm that we were going nowhere. Appalling skills combined with a game style that bordered on unwatchable painted a sobering picture, telling us that our time in the footy wilderness could be a prolonged one and even more painful than what we’d realised.
At times like these it’s hard to hold the faith and maintain belief in a future beyond the damning evidence before your eyes. Almost impossible to believe that the pendulum can, and will, swing around our way.
Maybe that’s why lately, before each football match, I find myself sifting through my layers of footballing memory, digging through past matches, recalling past victories or dismal losses. I’m trying to draw out a meaning, I guess, a pattern or a shape, to spark hope, to shore up the faltering belief that good times can happen again.
Before we play Sydney, I dredge up two matches from the memory bank to ponder. One is the qualifying final of 1997. Our opponent that day, the Swans, had played in the grand final only the year before. The Dogs on the other hand had performed an amazing rags to riches transformation. We had limped through a horrible 1996 season, one of those only too familiar sagas of off-field turmoil, a coach sacked after fearsome drubbings, a bare five and a half wins against our name. Come to think of it - it was so bad we actually changed our name. It was the last time we ran out as the Footscray football Club..
Yet on a glorious spring day, a mere 12 months on, here were the Dogs, who had finished third on the ladder, running out onto the MCG, soaking up the September excitement. (It was the weekend after Princess Diana had died. Mystifyingly, the gallant Bulldogs’ cheer squad took the opportunity to express condolences to the royal family on their banner. This must have been extremely consoling to the ‘folks back at Buckingham Palace’ as undoubtedly Kevin Rudd would have described them).
We blitzed the Swans in an exhilarating first quarter, kicking nine goals to their none. It was breath-taking, helter skelter, attacking football. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a match as much. A premiership beckoned!
(Of course, this was followed the next week by our infamous collapse in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named. This is a Bulldogs’ fairytale, people. We don’t do happy endings here).
The other memory that bobs up is more recent, but also tinged with the sad shadow of what was to come. It’s of 2010: the year the Bulldogs began the season as flag favourites. After two preliminary final losses in 08 and 09, we were seen as primed, ready to claim the premiership that has eluded us for so long. Instead we limped into the finals, flattered by our fourth spot on the ladder, a team plagued by injuries, our deficiencies suddenly glaringly apparent, our glossy little period of success unraveling fast. Having been mauled by Collingwood in the first week of the finals, we then met up with Sydney, who raced out to five goals ahead of us in the second quarter. One of football’s most humiliating outcomes – a straight set exit from the finals – was staring us in the face. Somehow sheer grit and will propelled us to a brave five points victory. But even as we celebrated with relief, we knew the Dogs’ era was well and truly done.
The Swans' team that we grimly held off that night were, on the other hand, on the brink of a flag. They achieved that success two years later with a performance that was one of the greatest in determination and unshakeable self-belief that I have seen. The Dogs’ plummet down the ladder, meanwhile, has been spectacular. No more finals since then for the battlers in the red, white and blue.
Well, the point of this reminiscing (I know you may have started to wonder) is that the footy pendulum can swing around rapidly and unpredictably. And this week, four minutes before the three quarter time siren, with the Dogs only eight points behind the 2012 premier, all the evidence was there that the turnaround has begun.
In only four short weeks since the Dogs’ looked a struggling rabble against GWS, the transformation has been stunning. The slow, ponderous ball movement…the lack of a discernible plan of attack...the excruciating turnovers under no pressure whatsoever…suddenly, these are things of the past. (Well, maybe not the turnovers, but at least now we can see what the intent is, even if the skill level still needs to go up a notch or three). It seems like Brendan McCartney, having well and truly implanted on the team the importance of grinding contested footy, has done a Paul Keating and flicked the switch to vaudeville. Now not only are our players adept at suffocating pressure, bone crunching tackles and closing down their opponents' space; somehow there's been a shift from dour defence and a more attacking style has emerged. Many times this year we've won the contested possessions, yet it's been a meaningless statistic; now, when we win them, there’s another guy around to link up, space to run and carry, and a forward line that seems to be moving around and creating options instead of resembling a series of Easter Island statues.
In fact the Dogs do their best to ‘out-Sydney’ Sydney; fierce and relentless at the contest, but now there are fast breaks out of defence, long runs through the centre, chains of handballs. I swear I even saw our players bounce the ball and stream down the ground as though footy was fun and creative – signs of confidence, daring and sheer chutzpah that have been missing for so long.
Unfortunately, the team that we were trying to out-Sydney was...Sydney. With consummate professionalism they matched everything we threw at them, and with stronger bodies and a harder edge, they applied the blow torch to us in those last few minutes of the third quarter to break our hearts. One moment we were within 8 points; and then suddenly..we were 26 points down. We didn't recover. But we didn't stop trying.
Leaving the ground the talk was not of the loss, but the promising signs from cult hero Tom Campbell (why are big ungainly guys so funny?), 'GiaDonna's' brilliant soccer goal, Ryan Griffen's sustained brilliance in his best ever season, the heroic tackling (95!), and the fierce concentration of the Sons of Guns, Wallis and Liberatore. Most of all, though, I loved a sublime performance by the peerless Bob Murphy. Over these dark few months, Murph has often seemed as though he too has shared the mourning and sadness that we supporters feel at being back in the mediocrity of the also-rans. He has looked like he has lost his sense of fun, much though he has talked up the club line of leaders becoming teachers to the younger crew. Watching him on Sunday, Murph had his mojo back..and how. He danced on his feet, he pivoted on two cent pieces, he flew for kamizake marks, he worked that lightly built frame to the point of exhaustion. So often a guy like Murph, effortlessly talented, can seem almost detached from the game. But watching him I realised how badly he and this team wanted to win. They have kept believing and working their butts off through the slog, the abusive posts from disgruntled idiotic fans on Facebook, the endless drills of training and preparation that must seem pointless at this time of year.
This week the scoreboard showed a routine, comfortable enough six goal win to the Swans. For the fans it spelt hope that the swing of the pendulum is not so far away after all.