I'm starting the day with a pilgrimage of sorts. A Footscray team is playing again at the Whitten Oval. I know I have to be there.
I see many fans making the same odyssey as me, strolling in the sunshine, decked out in their gear. People are flooding the streets, flying their red, white and blue colours, spilling out from the renovated houses and swank apartments that have crept around the grand old ground - the home and heart of a western suburbs team for more than 130 years.
I even see a bloke in Bulldogs' gear swinging out of his home in Droop Street, though his gait is too jaunty and the smile on his face too broad for him to be the Coodabeens' Danny.
Approaching the oval again transports me back to the day in October 1989, when I headed there to attend a defiant community-led rally to save the club from near certain extinction. I wasn't sure if I would be one of only a dozen or so - it seemed a big stretch to even hope there could be hundreds. I thought maybe our battle had already been fought and lost; that apathy about the club and indifference to its fate would prevail.
But at the Gordon and Barkly Street traffic lights, I'd watched, choked with emotion, as thousands like me converged on the ground, united in the conviction that our club must not, would not, and could not die. Together we'd raised the still amazing sum of more than $400,000 in a single day, the start of a successful and still unprecedented three-week campaign to save a club. The tide of history and the relentless march of the national competition - for a few more years at least - were held at bay by the community of the west.
I haven't actually been inside the Whitten Oval for some time, not since its recent transformation. I feel sure I'm going to be inundated, even overwhelmed, by nostalgia. I'm recalling what I wrote last year on this blog, trying to capture my first ever Western Oval memory:
My mother promised me I could start coming to ‘home’ games when I turned four years old. In my child’s imagination, a home game would mean that the footballers played, much like my brother and I, kick-to-kick in a player's backyard. I expected this to be with the only player I could name. Naturally this was Ted Whitten. I can still recall my amazement when the eagerly awaited day arrived and I walked in for the first time to the Western Oval (not yet christened in the legend’s name), to be greeted by what seemed like a vast expanse of emerald green grass.
There was a unique smell of wet duffel coats, donut vans, and something indefinably Western Oval. (It may have been the plumbing). The players were remote and tiny specks far off in the distance. They wore dressing gowns and ate oranges while they listened to Ted rev them up in the breaks. We walked up to our seats in the John Gent stand - it was rickety even then. The Hyde Street band marched around the oval, coins whizzing dangerously past their heads.
I was entranced. So began my journey as a fan.
So now I'm walking towards the ground, up Cross Street, with a silent nod in the direction of the now disused and empty Olympic Tyres factory. Both my parents, and my grandfathers, once worked there. There's a carnival atmosphere as I come near the entrance (but not a donut van in sight); and instead of that elusive aroma, only the scent of a beautiful, calm autumn day. The entry to the Oval is not through grimy turnstiles with surly men in blue coats, but via a spacious cafe where people are milling, waiting for their lattes. Through a wall of glass you can see the city, and the Footscray team taking on the Richmond reserves.
It's already half time; parents and kids are out on the oval, kicking the footy. There's the familiar thump thump thump sound of hundreds of footy hitting the grass. This is the same turf where my late father, a talented rover who grew up a few blocks away, took the field in the 1950s as a young reserves player. The clock, which he designed as a draftsman working at Olympic Tyres, is no longer there. Neither is the scoreboard, leaving an imposing emptiness on the Mount Mistake Hill. Behind the stony terraces on the Gordon Street end, where I watched the last ever Footscray match on a fittingly icy and rain-soaked finale, there is now an open view to Gordon Street.
And after all, even though I'm enjoying watching our Footscray lads, lumbering around with comical numbers like 73 on their backs, posting a big win, there's another game of footy still to be played. It's down the road at the more glamorous stadium built a few years ago at the Docklands. Last year Richmond thrashed us there twice in lopsided contests. The same fate could well be on the cards today.
It's time to leave the Western Oval and head to our new home.
We're in our seats at Docklands. Along with five other AFL club tenants, (and events as diverse as Kiss concerts and the Papal visit), the Bulldogs now call it home. I've often found the atmosphere impersonal and any sense of home contrived and even ridiculous. That's most apparent when you turn up as the away team to play the other tenants, and see other fans in the seats you imagined were somehow 'yours.' The Bulldogs' signage hailing the 'Dougie Hawkins wing' gets swiftly dismantled after the match. Up goes new branding, labelling the territory the 'Matthew Lloyd' end.
However, three generations of my family are, as usual, here to watch the Dogs. We range from my mother, now in her 70s, to my niece Stephanie who is 10, and too young to have ever seen us play at the Whitten Oval.
It's easy to point out the many contrasts to our Footscray heartland. When a chant goes up, the crowd stamps their feet on concrete floors instead of the ramshackle John Gent timber; the roar when there's a Bulldogs' goal ricochets under a closed roof even on this glorious day, coming at those of us on the Latrobe street wing like an ocean wave, telling me earlier than my eyes can judge that it really has gone through. But really, the rhythm of being a supporter has barely changed. Up on the seats...down on the seats. Raucous disapproval of undeserved free kicks against our team (in other words all of them). Nicknames and in-jokes. Silent prayerful anguish as a player lines up for a much-needed goal. Joyous release if it goes through.
Maybe the sense of place isn't actually the core of being a Bulldogs' fan, as I've always thought. Our Western Oval traditions are a foundation, but they're not, it seems, the only thing. There are other familiar things that make up all the pieces of our story. Babies who are dressed straight away in their red, white and blue booties. Toddlers who can sing the theme song and know all the numbers by heart. The people who rattled tins to save the club. The humour that's sometimes brittle and sometimes bitter. The faded mural of Footscray beating Collingwood on the corner of St Monica's in Dynon Road. The fact that it somehow feels we're the only club where a player with all the whimsy of Bob Murphy could ever belong.
Something else is far too familiar as well. With three minutes of the match to go, the Dogs have surrendered the lead they had held all day. I can barely watch as Jack Riewoldt boots the goal that puts his side back in front and begins a celebration that will, it seems, lead inevitably to stirring versions of 'Yellow and black'. And embarrassing headlines will inevitably scream: 'Dogs blow it'.
Stephanie - not yet steeled to this far from unexpected turn of events - begins to cry.
More conditioned to such heartbreak, I begin marshalling the usual excuses for the loss, one that I fully anticipate will now come. We had a mere six-day break compared to the Tigers' luxurious nine. (Goddamn AFL scheduling). Each of our three matches so far has been played in heatwave conditions. (Goddamn global warming). We're not very good (now I've gone too far). Next thing you know, I'll be trotting out the lamest one of all: it's only a game.
I don't believe a word of it, of course. Defeat will be bitter, galling, polluting any memories of the many surprising, wonderful moments in an exuberant Bulldogs' performance. Our young guns linking up to create a goal. Jack Mcrae running like the wind. Murph putting on a vintage shimmy. Libba the Second coming to the fierce defence of his captain when he was dumped on the ground. Lin Jong, who was nearly delisted after breaking his leg last year, kicking two running goals. Roughead staying on the ground with a busted shoulder for three quarters.
None of these will console us if we throw this match away.
The Tigers have the ball in their forward line again; they're scenting the kill. But the Dogs, out on their feet, launch a counter-attack from the back-line. Our players, who must be hurting badly, somehow find the will to run, supporting each other, swarming in a line down the ground with Stewart Crameri leading the way. Gia gets a free; it was deserved of course. When he snaps a clever goal, the din in the stadium is deafening.
Out of nowhere I think of the line from the Scottish missionary in 'Chariots of fire'.
Then where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? It comes from within.
When the siren goes Jack Mcrae has just mowed down a Richmond player who is sprinting towards goal. I can't hear it amid the frenzied noise of the crowd, but I know we've won when I see a Mexican wave of my fellow fans around me jumping to their feet, arms stretched to the skies, as loud and joyous as any Western Oval crowd. Stephanie is being crushed by her parents, aunties and uncles in a giant teary bear hug and victory dance. She's all smiles now, breaking away from us to run down to the fence and see up close the heroes in red, white and blue.