The two facts, I suppose, that sum this whole thing up and save you the reading time:
The Footscray Bulldogs won 14 finals in 90 years. They then won seven finals in five years.
And I was not in Australia to see the 2016 premiership.
I went to primary school in Gladstone Park, airport territory, from 1987 to 1993. The school was one or two Collingwood supporters, a recent arrival to Australia who’d say Hawthorn because they were on top and he knew nothing else about footy, me. The rest of the place was an Essendon whitewash. I never once had bragging rights over any of the myriad Bombers supporters through my entire formative years. In 1992 Footscray were equal top, Essendon were crap and still beat us twice. Then the next year we beat them, and out of nowhere, they won the bloody flag.
That was the way of things. I was supporting a club that would probably never make a grand final before I tasted cold earth. They were not relevant to the footy conversation and, though they won their share of ballsy home and away matches against big dogs, could never stand up in a final. The one time they did stand up in 1994 their inspiring night’s work was wiped in 26 seconds. I won’t mention the bloke’s name, he’s on The Footy Show.
My Dad started a 25-year streak of buying memberships in 1996, simply because he thought they really needed the money. He had been sent to the western suburbs in the 1970s, from America.
I never bothered with memberships until 2021, nor with wearing club colours until 2017. (I wore the premiership top to the tennis and remarked, “Before 2016 I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing Bulldogs colours.”) As a human being, I really am not resilient enough to deal with the Western Bulldogs at all a fair chunk of the time. My main claim to Bulldogs fame is that I was at three preliminary finals in the 1990s. I was there on September 20, 1997.
1997 was different. It was the first year that Western Bulldogs – with a slick new name, no less – showed that a comfortable 11-11 season was not enough, or even a comfortable 3rd place out of 16. It was incredibly moving. There will never be another season for us like 1997 or 2016 again, with the sheer incredulity, the blind excitement of winning. The roller coaster ended in one of the most devastating losses of all time. The Bulldogs had certainly stopped doing things by halves that year, for better or worse.
Western Bulldog writers such as Kerrie Soraghan, “The Bulldog Tragician”, focused with good reason on that ‘never’ aspect of our club. She eloquently wondered in the midst of never-ending Hawk premierships if our way of doing it, of waiting your whole life for that magical moment that might never actually come, was a purer form of sports fandom than say, theirs at the time, the semi-guaranteed gratification. Did the Boston Red Sox lose their identity by going 86 years without a title, then winning four in 15 years?
It friggin’ hurt though, the absence of success. Until something great happens in our lives the first time, the fear is that it will never happen, and that screws with your mind. Every game until 2017, instead of us being able to take the match on its merits, was funnelled into this premiership we were never going to see. Losses simply confirmed that we were further away from it than ever. Wins provoked the edgy, fearful question: are we on our way?
Soraghan believed in early 2015 that these new boys were going to be the messiahs. I had that slight sensation too, I think quite a few of us did. 2015, Luke Beveridge’s first on the scene, was actually fun. It was Year One of the rebuild and we were certainly not going to win the premiership that year. So the pressure was off, everything was a bonus. We won approximately 14 more games that year than anyone had expected us to. Six or so games into the journey I saw Beveridge walk past and from the stands, people shouted their support for this mysterious man, and I thought, there’s a random coaching appointment like we often seem to make.
But 2015, like that other great ‘Year One’, 1997, again ended down a few points against the Crows in a brutally tense MCG clash. Suddenly something was at stake again. I found that loss particularly hard to take, and in the Doggies Almanac a year later, several authors said they felt the same. Was this new generation going to be tainted by finals trauma too, just like the others? Was it always going to lead to that? If Lachie Hunter’s handpass had connected we would have won, but those tiny ifs never went our way.
I was around long enough to see us lose to Hawthorn in the last minute in Round 3, 2016 – business as usual – but I was in Bolivia in South America for the rest of the year. It was tough, and if anything the premiership perhaps made it tougher. While my reason for ‘missing’ the premiership was the best reason of the lot, the premiership certainly did not help me commit to the place mentally. Luckily, I don’t have the type of mates who would rub my nose into leaving the very year we had been waiting for our whole lives, because those sorts of jokes may have made me crack. I initially greeted the last two wins in particular with slightly mixed feelings, but swiftly came to the conclusion that a premiership was better than no premiership, Bolivia or not.
The whole thing was unfathomable. I was 34; a club that had won maybe one hardcore final in my entire life (Collingwood 2006, maybe the Sydney wins of 1997 and 2010 if I’m being generous) won four of them in 24 days. They were fancied in none of them, each time backing up to do it all over again, completely against the grain of our history as a club. I perused the list of preliminary final heroes and was stumped: there’s a Josh Dunkley? There’s a Zaine Cordy? What happened to Ayce? Tom Boyd’s in the team again? The last I’d heard of Clay Smith he’d played one game in three years. I didn’t really know the difference between Tory Dickson and Koby Stevens either, their names sounded the same.
I believe the 2016 premiership changed everything for the club, and I immediately believed that as soon as it happened. I could see the newfound pride on people on trains wearing “Premiers 2016” hats, of the 2016 premiership trophy painted on a cartoony mural at Highpoint Shopping Centre. It added to the sense that the western suburbs were suddenly dynamic, fluctuating, and now had a team that matched them in suddenly going places.
Conversely, apparently the vibe of the Doggies Almanac launch in a Richmond pub in December was repeated stories of Bulldog lamentations of the past (my family attended and told me; I had an article published in that Almanac appropriately called Bulldogs in Bolivia) and I reacted: “For God’s sake, they just won the premiership.”
Of course, once I came home to Australia, sans girl, it all went to shit again for a full two years, mid-17 to mid-19. Titus O’Reilly is not to everyone’s tastes, but he hit the nail on the head when he joked that the Dogs were trying to get back to their hipster underdog status as fast as possible. But the crushing existential pressure was off – we had all seen a Bulldog premiership before we died. Losses were frustrating but were just losses now, they were not existential subliminal reinforcements on who we really were as people. We were not losers; we had merely lost a game.
Somehow they climbed off the canvas and made the finals in 2019. With serendipity, I had gone see them play Essendon for a spot in the finals and witnessed a black line drawn through my childhood inferiority complexes: the Dogs won an even-money match by 104 points. The girl I took, seeing her first-ever live footy match, wondered where the atmosphere was. “They have nothing to cheer about,” I told her matter-of-factly. The Dons were goalless from a goal in the first 21 seconds to fourth-quarter time on.
We had to beat Adelaide in Ballarat to make the finals. Pre-premiership, a game like that would have freaked out the entire Bulldog nation: think Demons 1987 at the Western Oval (and then quickly unthink it). But I thought: How can you win a premiership and then be scared of a little game like this? Their form was too hot, and Adelaide’s too cold (it was actually the start of a 16-game losing streak for them). I was 95 per cent certain not just that they’d win, but win well. I was still too chicken to actually watch it until the training-run last quarter.
GWS crushed us in a very personal way, and then 2020 was a hub-induced write-off. I turned on Luke Beveridge’s unconventional magnet shifting then, labelling it his quixotic quest, quote unquote. The 2016 premiership’s midfield core was still in place (except Dahlhaus) but the other half of that team on the outside ring, Beveridge had mostly tossed within a year. While the core had been the team’s metronome, the others were the ones who had provided all the iconic plays in September 2016 and had sentimental value. I missed them. I was going to miss Josh Dunkley, my favourite player, when he would leave the Bulldogs to play for them. I believed that Geelong and Richmond had won an initial premiership and used it to completely change the culture of their clubs, but that we had done the same only to go back to what we were.
Having said that, I’d been happy Beveridge had signed his contract extension. “Maybe he’s a genius, maybe his fragile vision will all piece together for another month or so again,” I wrote. “Off he rolls with his surfboard, and on we all rock.” On we rocked, with Aaron Naughton and Bailey Smith, new unequivocal superstars.
I had planned to write this article mid-2021, certain that the vibe of the past was over. Traditionally the Bulldogs were seldom big scorers and never had a big percentage; this year we had two 100-point wins with a percentage cruising above 140. Previous stints on top of the ladder (say, in 1997) had provoked a feeling that this is exhilarating and scary and unusual, but that it wasn’t really our place to be top of the AFL ladder. Post-premiership I shrugged and thought, “Why the hell shouldn’t we be top of the ladder?” less a question than an affirmation. Drafting Jamarra had also kept us in the conversation as one of the most interesting teams in the land. My Dad still had the old complexes, that in his opinion any time we avoid Geelong is good because historically we can’t beat them in a crunch, which to me is as superstitious as black cats, mirrors and ladders.
I went to four early matches in 2021 to soak in the greatest team Western Bulldogs have ever had. I even bought a cheapo membership so I could be in grand final running. But I stopped caring about footy midyear. I started working, we got locked down, and there were small wobbles before the wheels definitively fell off in August.
Suddenly, in August, this article about moving on from the past was not relevant anymore. Listening to the end of Brisbane-West Coast, where Brisbane needed one more behind in a curiously long final quarter, my footy-neutral brother said, “It’s the Bulldogs; anything that can go wrong will.” And Brisbane scoring that behind with 18 seconds left in a match accidentally prolonged by 24 seconds could have truly gone into the black legend of Tony Liberatore’s behind in 1997 and Jason Johannisen’s disallowed goal in the Grand Final. In the year that the Bulldogs had their highest percentage of modern times, we still got done on percentage. And yet…
I counted seven major reasons why the likely elimination final loss to Essendon would have been unbearable. Dogs fans were sure we would lose; ditto Dons fans. The biggest reason was to do with primary school, and the western derby-ish nature of our geographies. But in a more general sense: it took us 80 years to become a more successful, more relevant club than Essendon. We had worked too hard to get this foothold and we couldn’t let it go back to the way it was. For us to go seven years undefeated to Essendon, then for the 11-11 Bombers to apply the coup de grâce to what was supposed to be our greatest season and pass us on their way up, for us to be the team to break 6,204 days, for Jake Stringer to dominate us in a final… I can’t even finish the thought. So I didn’t watch it at all: I have already established that I am not the most inspiring fan in the world. Afterwards, I wrote on Facebook: “Whatever else happens this year, thank the lord we didn’t lose to Essendon.” I meant that in a larger sense: whatever else happens with life, the universe and everything, at least all the things I listed above had not happened.
Such vitriol that night! Though most of it was schadenfreude towards Essendon, I have never seen our irrelevant club provoke such reactions! Cody Weightman was the greatest hero in AFL history (a correct assessment); Cody Weightman was the worst scum in the AFL. I had personally(ish) seen my club win a big final at last. I was euphoric.
I can lament missing them, but whether I could have stuck through the four tension-filled finals of 2016 is debatable. But I sat through all the Brisbane match. On replay, I wondered at times how on earth we’d won it. Bailey Smith had done it almost singlehandedly. Jack Macrae, who has surely always been the best player on our team including in the 2016 Grand Final, was finally getting a bandwagon. And what a clever, goal-poachy behind by Vandermeer, squeezing it through the gap. “They scratch and claw and snarl their way to a win,” Hamish McLoughlin poignantly commentated. The Bulldogs have never been so annoying to neutral fans as after that game (free kick Bulldogs), they’ve never been relevant enough before.
2016 had reversed the curse. My Dad, who never agrees with me on anything, said, “Yeah, you’re right. They never would have won a game like that in the past.”
The Western Bulldogs have also seldom had personality in their history and have definitely never had swagger until right now. Even the 2016 premiers were, in comparison, toilers straining desperately to eke everything out of themselves. The sheer gall of Aaron Naughton and Bailey Smith to carry off those hairstyles, and Tom Liberatore and Josh Bruce’s tattoos, is next level.
So many personalities. I was glad Jason Johannisen won his Norm Smith medal purely because we are not traditionally a club of supermen: Tom Boyd deserved the medal but it would have been incongruous with our history. For social reasons, our only Norm Smith medal ever should have gone to a dude, not a superman, and Johannisen is a dude. He has swagger too. The beery, noisy and sometimes nightclubby celebrations from both the Brisbane and Port Adelaide wins fly in the face of one-week-at-a-time AFL professionalism.
Meanwhile, the underappreciated doyen of AFL writing, Jonathan Horn, labelled Luke Beveridge “as clenched and bonkers and brilliant as ever” in the preliminary final. He had told them after the losing streak in August: things are not as bad as they appear. He is all or nothing, aiming for nothing but the top, a genius who I completely doubted for four years. Playing Josh Schache as a defender towards the end of the home and away season so that at the moment of truth he could shut down Aliir Aliir? What the hell was that?
We have never played a game like the Port preliminary final, we have never shrugged off history so easily.
2016, winning four consecutive finals away from home, was as unrepeatable as it gets. When I realised they had repeated 2016 exactly, with three finals wins, two interstate, I simply could not believe it. I call 2016 ‘The Miracle’. Miracle finals trajectories aren’t supposed to be repeated (albeit from a far stronger team this time). The water is turned into wine once and it’s supposed to be over.
The Western Bulldogs, for one of the first times, are the villains! Melbourne are playing exceptionally and are a wonderful story. But they have to deal with a club that, after 95 years in the big leagues, has finally found its groove.