A Voice from the Stands: A nod from the Footy Gods

 

On a Sunday afternoon back in February, sitting in the stands at the Whitten Oval, I stood up and leant across the seat in front of me to get a glimpse of the banner. I couldn’t make it out as it fluttered in the breeze so I turned to Twitter. There, I saw a picture.

 

Photo via @dannymcginlay

 

Chinese New Year is Feb 16th

But we’re sure you won’t be surly

As our women show that

The year of the dog is starting

Two weeks early

 

I grinned. Another Danny McGinlay special that was the perfect mix of cheeky and clever.

 

In the Chinese Zodiac, the dog is an auspicious animal. It is believed that if a dog comes to a house, it symbolises good fortune is on the way. I don’t put much stock in astrology or zodiacs and yet I can tell you I’m a Tiger (loyal, trustworthy, intelligent) and a Gemini (curious, adaptable, indecisive).

 

Unlike astrology, I do believe in the Footy Gods. Sometimes, as a footy fan, especially as a Bulldog, it’s the only thing that keeps you going: knowing that someone or something has some control over this unpredictable and chaotic game. For a long time, we’ve felt out of favour out west. The Footy Gods seemed to mostly ignore us. And when they did pay attention it was, well, it wasn’t what you might call good fortune. Auspicious dogs we were not.

 

When my Bulldogs were awarded an AFLW licence in 2016, I said a silent prayer of thanks to the Footy Gods. And when February 2017 rolled around, and the inaugural season of the AFLW kicked off, I couldn’t help but think that the Gods were smiling on this new league; this beautiful wondrous thing that captured the heart of even the most cynical among us and drew so many of us back into the footy fold. It’s not hyperbole to say the AFLW changed my life in big ways and little ways that I’m still feeling the impact of. I know I’m not alone in that.

 

But 2017 was not meant to be for my Bulldogs. Despite a thrilling beginning, by the end of the season we were playing to avoid the wooden spoon. We did so, handing it to the Giants in the process. All of this was sitting in the back of my mind that Sunday afternoon in February at Whitten Oval as I grinned at that banner. Year of the Dog? Well, one can only hope, right?

 

Only a few short weeks after the Sunday afternoon, I lined up with friends outside Princes Park on the second last Saturday in March. As we waited, the heavens opened and we huddled under umbrellas and I thought about that banner. I thought about the game that came after it, a win over Freo, and about the six weeks that followed. Spectacular wins and crushing losses and yet somehow, my Bulldogs had done enough to be playing off against the Lions in the grand final. The Footy Gods has smiled at us, but the rest was up to the likes of Ellie Blackburn and Hannah Scott and Aasta O’Connor.

 

Inside, we sat high in the stands doing our best to stay dry. On the ground, the players warmed up as the rain continued to fall. The Lions had experience playing as a team in the wet, we didn’t. But we had something else: an infallible spirit borne of years out of the favour of the Footy Gods. The women of the west may be a team only two years old, but that spirit courses through the hallways and grandstands and along the Doug Hawkins wing at Whitten Oval. It gets into your blood and it sticks.

 

At the first bounce, I took a breath and said a prayer to the Footy Gods. In a tough and contested first half, the Lions had the better of it. They seemed to settle to the conditions quicker than we did and took a six-point lead into the main break with a first quarter goal to Sophie Conway the only one of the half.

 

In the stands, I sat on the edge of my seat. I’d been full of nerves all week and with no half-time entertainment to distract me, they mushroomed in my belly. Sitting in the stands is a tough gig at times. You have no control over what happens and yet what happens has enormous control over you. The best you can do is put your fate in the hands of the Footy Gods (and Emma Kearney), cross your fingers and hope.

 

Whatever crossing of fingers and hoping Doggies fans had done seemed to work. Only a couple of minutes into the third quarter, Deanna Berry, the recipient of a clever toe poke from Kirsten McLeod, kicked a goal from outside 50 and the Dogs were off. Goals followed from McLeod and Monique Conti and my Bulldogs took a handy lead into the final break.

 

The grey clouds that had sat heavy over Princes Park began to clear at the beginning of the final quarter. A sign from the Footy Gods? An early goal from Jess Wuetschner closed the Bulldogs lead to seven points. Then, with less than five minutes on the clock, Emma Kearney kicked the Dogs back out to a 13-point lead. Whatever comfort that goal provided was short-lived as Wuetschner kicked truly again. There was now only a kick in it.

 

With little more than a minute on the clock, McLeod is denied what is a certain goal on the replay and the resulting behind pushes the lead to six points. In the stands, my heart raced as stoppage after stoppage slowed the ball and the clock ticked down. The Lions pushed the ball down the ground and into their forward line. In the stands, we shout a countdown but our timing is out and the siren is silent. Seconds later, a last-ditch effort from Wuetschner is intercepted by Naomi Ferres and the siren, finally, finally, sounded.

 

Around me the crowd roared as the strains of Daughters of the West filled the stands of Princes Park. By now, the sun had pushed its way through the clouds and thrown golden rays onto the ground where that curious juxtaposition of devastation and exhilaration appeared.

 

Not wanting to miss the official celebrations, we headed to the other side of the ground. As we walked, my thoughts drifted to the same weekend last year when I’d made the last-minute decision to fly to Brisbane and go to the inaugural AFLW grand final. Under clear skies and sunshine, Brisbane had lost to the Crows. I’d felt for the Lions then and I felt for them again; their pain was written on their faces. Still, when Ellie Blackburn took to the dais and called Katie Brennan up to lift the cup, those thoughts and feelings were overtaken by pure joy.

 

Later, on the train home, I replayed my memories of the game. The tight and tough contested play. That McLeod goal. That Bruton tackle on Gibson. That Ferres mark. The kids that filled the stands. The hugs and high fives between players and family and friends. The Brisbane fans who stayed to cheer their team. The ebullience of the red, white and blue. These are the moments that make the pain and heartache worth it. These are the moments you pray to the Footy Gods for. The moments that will live on in your mind long after the gates are shut and the last empty chip bucket is binned.

 

Year of the Dog? Yes, I think so.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Kasey Symons says:

    This wraps up the game and the season beautifully Kirby.

    I love the line, ‘It’s not hyperbole to say the AFLW changed my life in big ways and little ways that I’m still feeling the impact of. I know I’m not alone in that.’

    You are definitely not alone.

    Great writing.

  2. Yvette Wroby says:

    Great that we got your final say Kirby. It has been a pleasure getting wet and nervous with you. Bring on the VFLW!

  3. John Butler says:

    Welcome to the Almanac, Kirby.

    A debut write from the heart, if ever there was.

    Cheers

  4. Danae Gibson says:

    I love your work Kirby, thanks for sharing.

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