We’re now only hours away from the 2013 draft. Opinions on what to do with the Bulldogs’ prized pick four have been feverishly debated. Beep test results, kicking styles and vertical leaps of the contenders have been critically analysed, and the needs of our emerging list deconstructed. And deconstructed again.
For me, there’s only a passing interest. Until the Chosen One pulls on the jumper I won’t really tune in. I’m still getting used to how to pronounce last year’s draft pick Hrovat, for goodness' sake — how can I possibly get my head around cheering for Bontempelli or Kolodjashnij?
This time of year tests the patience of those of us who cling to the romance of the game. I feel a sense of ennui when I see an endless parade of players who’ve, literally, switched jumpers in the off-season. Nick Dal Santo, three-time All-Australian for the Saints, poses happily in his new North gear. Dale Thomas, Magpies premiership hero, dons the colours of the formerly despised enemy, the Navy Blues. Paul Chapman and James Podsiadly, indelibly etched in my mind as members of the great Geelong era, now grind out a few more games as journeymen elsewhere. And the biggest fish of them all, Lance Franklin, heads to Sydney, leaving behind a generation of kids wearing number 23, dogs named in his honour, and people who’ve got his name tattooed on various bodily parts.
I know players have always moved onto other clubs (Doug Hawkins, after all, finished a glorious Footscray Football Club career with a forgettable stint with a dying Fitzroy) but there seems like a more casual acceptance of the concept with every year. This year’s defections have attracted no pictures of crying children, no gatherings of devastated fans to mourn the passing, not even irate calls to talkback radio or threats to burn membership tickets. Football, 2013-style, business-like, sleek and professional, but increasingly soul-less, is not, it seems, about loyalty, sentiment, or emotion any more.
It cuts both ways, of course. Daniel Cross, our beloved Bulldogs champ, will soon no doubt be leading the Demons’ time trials in their run around the Tan, showing the professionalism and dedication that were hallmarks in more than 200 games with our club, after the tough decision was made that his services were no longer required. Dylan Addison, who like Crossy extracted every morsel out of his limited ability, got the football equivalent of the ‘Don’t come Monday’ conversation and after graciously thanking the club for the privilege of being one it its players, will soon be wearing the hallowed orange colours of Great Western Sydney .
While preparations for the draft – to be held on the Gold Coast in yet another attempt to 'grow the game' in unfamiliar soil (at least it’s not the Rooty Hill RSL) – reach fever pitch, my thoughts are far away, thinking of a different era and a different time and place. Today, 31 years since my beloved father passed away, it seems inevitable that I am thinking about him and his window of opportunity for football glory.
I’ve written before about his brief and luckless career with the Footscray Football Club:
Dad grew up a mere four blocks away from the ground. He didn’t get ‘drafted’ to the team his family naturally supported; when he won the Footscray and District Best and Fairest as a 17-year-old he was ‘asked down’ to train. The local paper was excited about the prospects of the young rover, who they called a ‘natural’ with a ‘brilliant future’. (I have the clippings to prove it).
But Dad’s timing wasn’t the best. He came to the club in 1955, right after that solitary premiership. It was a rare strong era, a champion team that was hard to break into. Dad got named on the bench a couple of times, but in those days, you didn’t get to come on unless there was an injury.
Finally, family legend has it, the young bloke got told by Charlie Sutton that he would start in the 18 that week. Riding his bike home from his job at the Olympic Tyre Factory, the wheels somehow got caught in the Maribyrnong tram tracks. In a twist befitting a Leunig cartoon, Dad fell off, breaking his ankle. The club traded him to Tongala at the end of the year. The future of the promising young lad was over before it began..
Before he was recruited to the Dogs, Dad played for West Footscray Football Club on Saturdays (that's him, probably around 17 years old, sitting to the left of the coach). He used to back up again with the West Footscray YCW on Sundays.
He was a rover – not a midfielder (they hadn’t been invented). No draft camps were held, so I am unable to present any statistics about his performance in the BEEP test or vertical leap, but a clipping from the ‘Footscray Mail’ did enthuse about his clever baulking.
Years after my dad’s football days ended, the then Footscray Football Club drafted another local boy. Brad Johnson, pick 11, was pictured on TV beaming from ear to ear (actually that was his default facial expression, but we didn’t know it at the time), when his name was called out by the club he had barracked for all his life. (Trivia question: who was picked at number four that year? He played two senior games in his entire career.)**
Brad played 365 games for the club and is the record-holder. He was a captain who led us through what was one of our most successful eras, a member of the Bulldogs Team of the Century, a three-time best and fairest winner, and an All-Australian captain. I loved watching his brave marks, his relentless running, and his freakish goal sense (a mid-air soccer goal against Brisbane in 2005 stands out). Playing at centre half forward vs North Melbourne against the revered Glenn Archer and driving him to distraction by being so damn good that Archer punched him in the stomach (later being so embarrassed about this that he rang Brad to apologise). Showing rare anger against John Barnes (a rude gesture was involved after the final siren) because he'd decked him in a match against Essendon in 2000 (come on, we all know the result of that one). Coming back on the field when we were down and out against Sydney in a 2010 final, bandaged up after a severe head gash, and performing heroic feats that dragged us back into a match that seemed lost.
It was his second last ever match, though he didn't know it then.
There were never, as far as I recall, any dragged out contract negotiations with Brad. Never any whispers that he was holding out for more money, or, sick of the premiership drought, looking to bail out and get a flag elsewhere.
There's spine-tingling footage on YouTube where the surviving 54 premiership players watch highlights of the match at the Yarraville Sun Theatre, alongside members of the 2009 team. Brad sits with Charlie Sutton, the premiership captain, and one of his predecessors in the number six guernsey. Brad asks him how he prepared, what it was like. You feel he's asking as an awestruck fan, trying to drink it all in, not just as a player.
Brad commentates on Fox Footy now, having handed on the famous number six to Luke Dalhaus. The smile is just as wide, though the receding hairline reminds us that he is no longer the starry-eyed local kid living out his dream. He still picks the Bulldogs in the Herald-Sun tipping competition on an inordinate number of occasions, defying all logic, reminding us that he's still a fan underneath after all.
The last time we saw Brad in our jumper, though, even his famous smile was dimmed. In his last game, another preliminary final loss, he was attempting to console Nathan Eagleton, another retiree, as they sat in the rooms. Brad knew that, unlike Charlie, 'premiership player' would not be added to the list of accolades, no matter how close it seemed that day in the Sun theatre.
Tomorrow a few more young players will get the chance to put on the red, white and blue guernsey and head to the 'Kennel' on Barkly Street. First in the queue to welcome them, I'm sure, will be Bob Murphy, the country boy and former Tigers fan who has adopted this club like no other, and Daniel Giansiracusa, ungraciously now nicknamed by his team-mates the Fossil - another local western suburbs boy who has lived out his dream. Two-hundred gamers for the Bulldogs, both of them.
As I write an email drops into my inbox: from Ryan Griffen no less (I thought he'd be too busy with all that training). He's thanking me for my support of the club in 2014. Like thousands of others, I'm signed on to be a financial as well as a spiritual member, year in, year out, through the occasional good times and plenty of the bad. I’m a Bulldog for Life in more ways than one, unable to extricate myself even if I wanted to from the years of tradition and family memories that bind me to the red, white and blue.
We don't know what the future holds for Draft Pick Number Four, but I hope he knows, or learns, about the history of our club and the footsteps of all those that have gone before him.
A story about my father is on the Stereo Stories website. It is also being broadcast as part of the Big West festival on Mobile Radio, in the Footscray mall on Thursday November 27.
**Pick number four in the year Brad Johnson was drafted was Glenn Gorman, who was drafted by the Swans but never played a senior match for them. He later played two games for North.
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.