Bontempelli’s 200th – Ode to potentially the greatest Bulldog of all time?

It was Round 15, 2014. The Western Bulldogs were a goal down against Melbourne with about five minutes to go in the game.

The Dogs were actually dominant in the opening half, leading by as much as 37 points midway through the second term, before Melbourne began a run that would see them kick seven of the ten goals kicked in the third quarter and nwould see them lead at three-quarter time.

Jack Grimes put the Demons ahead in the 22nd minute mark of the final term, and it looked like Melbourne were going to continue to heap on the misery that surrounded the Dogs that year.

But up stood a teenager playing just his eighth career AFL game.

His name was Marcus Bontempelli.

A spindly figure, he moved with grace and had remarkable poise with the ball for his age. He kicked two goals in the last six minutes of play to see the Dogs home by a solitary kick. His first was a quick snap in general play. The second one, however, truly announced his arrival as a big-time player.

He chased down James Frawley in the forward pocket, and in amidst a mad scramble for the footy; he won the loose ball, weaved and pirouetted around Melbourne defenders at his own leisure before finding space where there was barely any, a snap on the right boot and it sailed right through the middle.

I was sitting on the broadcast wing that afternoon and got a great angle of the ball sailing through, I thought I was one of the first ones there that knew that was home as soon as it left the boot and as most young male adults would, celebrated hysterically… against a fellow battler. What can I say? 2014 was a dire year to be a Dogs supporter.

What I didn’t know was just how special of a talent we were about to witness. It didn’t matter who was in front of him, the kid was 18 years of age and – not even ten games into his career – had won a game off his own boot; you don’t see those sorts of kids in football very often.

Sure, we’re seeing guys like Nick Daicos, Sam Walsh and some others rack up the footy as if it’s a Sunday session at the local footy oval, but how many of those young bucks command and impact the scoreboard in the manner the Bont has in his first couple of years?

Well, Nick Daicos literally won the Anzac Day Medal on the back of an exceptional run and carry. His two goals in the last quarter helped complete a seven-goal turnaround in the last quarter too.

The point is, before the man I label weekly as ‘Hollywood’ Daicos, we were witnessing something special with the Bont.

We fast-forward nearly nine years later and this very same gentleman is set to play his 200th game.

After the off-season fiasco which saw multiple players walk out on the club and then-coach Brendan McCartney sacked, The Bont only flourished under Luke Beveridge. In Beveridge’s first game in charge, the Bont recorded three Brownlow votes in a stellar win against West Coast. In fact, he put in another three votes a week later in their win against the Tigers.

This was a 19-year old that threw whatever midfield core was there on his back and took them as far as he could’ve taken them. And well, he took them further than any Dogs fan could’ve imagined that year. Many expected the Dogs to finish wooden spooners, but they made the finals.

The rest as is often said, is history.

In amidst Bontempelli’s 199 games, we’ve seen a premiership medallion, multiple club best and fairest awards, multiple All-Australian nods, an AFLPA player of the year and a Coaches Association player of the year. The man has almost done it all in AFL.

It can’t be a stretch to say that he’s the best Bulldog of all time, is it?

In his third season in the competition, he was named an All-Australian for the first time, won his first Charlie Sutton Medal and was a vital cog in that Bulldogs’ premiership midfield. In fact, I don’t think his efforts in the Grand Final don’t get talked about as much as others who played in that side, he put in a very stunning shift that afternoon.

Everyone knows the premiership cupboard at the Whitten Oval has been scarce, but the two best and fairest winners from their premiership seasons were Bontempelli and Ted Whitten.

I’ve always tried to steer away from comparing players from different eras, because the game in the 21st century is miles apart from what the game was when the Dogs won their first flag in 1954.

But having said that, Whitten was a remarkable player; dubbed Mr. Football for his class, and abilities to play both centre-half forward and centre-half back.

What I’m about to follow up with is exactly what I mean when I say I try to steer clear of player comparison in different eras. Whitten was a 184cm key position player throughout the 1950s and 60s. Bontempelli is a 190cm-plus midfielder who can also pose a dangerous threat up forward.

There were many great qualities about Ted, none more so than leadership, and that was recognised when he was named as captain in the AFL’s Team of the Century.

It’s also hard for me to compare as well because unless a time machine was granted to me in the next 30 minutes, I can’t go back and watch games Ted Whitten played en masse.

What I do know is the modern age of football and since being anointed as captain of the club in 2020, Bontempelli has shown time and time again when it comes to requiring a hero in the time of need. He’s been the man that the Dogs can rely on.

That game against the Suns in 2020… The Dogs were up by a kick, Billy Gowers marks the ball on the wing with less than 40 seconds to go. Instead of chewing the clock up, he immediately searches for a fast play and turns the ball over and the Suns get one last crack. One push up the ground and the Bont is there with a safe chest mark and a kick out wide to Easton Wood sealed the game.

That’s probably one of the more underrated moments in his tenure as captain, in fact, that was about eight games in his captaincy.

Of course, we remember the best ones when he kicks go ahead goals. The game against West Coast in 2021 is one that sticks in my mind; for a few reasons. The first is that it was the first home game I was at since the pandemic and the noise of the crowd rallying Josh Bruce to gather the ball on the wing and deliver it to the Bont inside 50.

That was with one minute to go in the last quarter and the Dogs lead by a solitary point. They’d controlled play for a majority of the afternoon, but poor kicking for goal allowed the Eagles with chances to pinch the game from their noses. But with 30 seconds to go, the Bont – who has been known for shanking set shots every now and then – took the time off the clock and calmly slotted it through.

I’ll never forget the roar of the crowd as it sailed through. Everyone knew they were home from there.

The second reason this game sticks with me was because even though it was just two rounds in, this was a game that solidified the Dogs as a genuine side that year. Last year or the year before, these were the sort of games that the Dogs just threw away.

Fast forward from Round Two that year to the Grand Final. When Marcus Bontempelli kicked his third goal in the third term – a snap on the left from about 40 metres out, the Dogs were out in front by 19 points, and he was the best player on the ground at that moment.

He played like a leader after the Dogs had a horror start in the opening term, with which Melbourne kicked four of the first five goals and perhaps fortunate to be down by only 21 points at the first break.

He kicked two goals as part of a second-term charge, that saw the Dogs kick six goals to just Melbourne’s one. The goal right before halftime was a thing of beauty. A strong overhead mark and right before the halftime sire, it just felt like it was a typical captain’s goal.

The 2022 season was marred with an ankle injury in the Grand Final rematch that grounded his influence in the middle a fair bit. He registered games with under 20 disposals in four of the first six games, being stationed more as a forward than a midfielder to combat the injury.

By the end of the season though, we started to see the old Bontempelli through the middle, sheer brilliance out of stoppage and good marking hands up forward whenever he found time to rest up forward.

We’re only just six games in the 2023 season, but after the Bulldogs were handed the blowtorch for their lacklustre opening fortnight, the following game against Brisbane felt as if it was Michael Jordan in the Last Dance and took everything that the media said on the Dogs personally.

Across his last four games, Bontempelli has played like a demigod in around the clearances and stoppages, averaging nearly 10 clearances, 8.7 tackles, 7.2 score involvements, 6.25 inside 50s and 26.7 disposals per game.

After six games, it feels like the only thing that is stopping him from being a five-time Charles Sutton Medal winner is Tim English, who’s producing a career-best season and is surely in the mix of being one of the top ruckmen in the competition from this season.

In football, we often talk about a captain’s efforts and how they are often inspiring, With the exception of few, you won’t find leaders that stand up more so than the Bont. I could go on and on about how he’s stood up for the club at numerous points over the years, but I think it’s time to move to the next point.

At 27 years of age, turning 28 in December, it’s just scary to imagine just how much Bontempelli has done and I’d hazard a guess at saying he’s probably got maybe four to five really good years of football left at best.

He is still with a serious chance of – at the very least – equalling Scott West’s record of seven club best and fairest medals. With four already down, a fifth one won’t be too far away if he doesn’t win it this year.

A fifth club best and fairest would tie him with the likes of Ted Whitten (1954, 57-59 and 1961), Norm Ware (1934, 37-38 and 1940-41) and John Schultz (1960, 1962 and 1964-66) with only West and Gary Dempsey with six club best and fairests right behind him.

Scott West is up there in terms of midfielders extremely unlucky not to win the Brownlow Medal. But perhaps what separates West from the Bont is that West was a pure midfielder, excelled in the stoppages and a great link-up on the outside. The Bont is capable of doing that, but he is also more potent in hitting the scoreboard. West’s career-best goals tally in a season was 21.15 he kicked – in his first season. Since then, he only registered double figures in goals twice after that.

Bontempelli has averaged a goal per game or more four times – all of which were seasons in which he played the majority of the year. He hasn’t hit the scoreboard much so far in the 2023, only averaging 0.4 goals per game, which is remarkably a career-low, but he’s more than made up for it so far with his influence in the middle of the ground.

Brad Johnson and Chris Grant are other players I think about when it comes to discussing who the greatest Dog of all time is and I’ve seen more than enough from both men to form a good opinion of them.

When Rodney Eade took over at the Dogs, we saw Johnson permanently move to full-forward. It resulted in a 74-goal season in 2006 and two bags of 50 goals-plus the following two seasons. But it’s also hard to forget that he was an excellent player as a high half-forward type.

We could be playing what-ifs with the smiling assassin – what if he was moved into the midfield permanently. The answer here is nobody knows, he could’ve gone down as a great midfielder, he certainly had the athleticism and the skill.

Chris Grant will forever be known as the man that got me to support the Bulldogs. Early memories of him playing were just see him glide across both centre-half forward and centre-half back. Almost a modern-day Ted Whitten… okay I made that up, but his ability to play both positions well was outstanding.

The goal he kicked on the pocket to sink the unbeaten Essendon of 2000 will forever be a thing of legends. However my favourite moment was his game against the top of the ladder West Coast in back-end of the 2005 season.

Clearly nearing the end of his career at 32, he came out and kicked the Dogs first three goals of the match and finished with six as they dismantled a side that went on to play in the Grand Final.

But anyway, this is all waffle now and a trip to memory lane that I’m sure no one asked for.

To bring it back to the Bont. It’s hard to leave him out of the discussion of being the best Bulldog of all time, considering all that he’s given the club, and that’s just on the precipice of him playing his 200th game on the weekend.

Dogs fans can only be thrilled with what happens over the next few years, when he eventually gets to closing in on 300 games, we may just get a clearer understanding of just where he sits among the club greats.



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