AFL Round 9 – St.Kilda v Western Bulldogs: Good for the soul

The St Kilda-Bulldogs match on Saturday provided the most fun I’ve had at the footy for a long time.

Following the Dogs during Brendan McCartney’s tenure as coach has been, to put it politely, a challenge. After a handful of victories against easy beats in early 2012, the Dogs had, up to Saturday, lost 18 out of 19 games.

We’ve suffered heavy defeat after heavy defeat against sides who are appear to be more hungry, more skilful, or pacier – and often all of the above.

All but the most optimistic fans have gone to the footy with a feeling of foreboding over the past twelve months, reduced to hoping for a small sign of improvement in young players, a high mark or an individual bag of goals to alleviate the gloom. The bar had fallen ankle height.

On Saturday, you could get upwards of $5 on the Bulldogs in head-to-head betting. In The Age, only Robert Murphy and the Village Idiot tipped a win.

In each quarter, St Kilda started brightly but the Dogs fought back to take a lead at quarter time and hung in there when the margin threatened to balloon out just before the main interval.

Just ten points down at that stage I was satisfied enough but, remembering how the team have tended to crumble in the second half of matches, didn’t have much hope of anything beyond a gallant defeat. We’d been in a similar position last week, the week before that, and most weeks since the middle of last year.

St Kilda extended the lead to 19 by time-on in the third term. This week, however, our young team dug deep.

They played with surprising intensity and even displayed some uncharacteristic flair. Koby Stevens, who was best afield, twice dummied opponents and calmly finished. Bob Murphy produced a similar highlight. Experienced players like Griffen, Boyd and Minson lifted. Suddenly scores were tied.

The Saints again got the margin out to 14 points – again the Bulldogs came back and this time stole the lead. We hung on to claim a stirring win.

Although I sat through all of this as an anxious wreck on level 3, contributing precisely nothing on the field, I deliberately use the pronoun ‘we’. This was a win for all of us who have continued turning up week after week, clinging to threads of futile belief. Melbourne fans take note: hopelessness need not be permanent.

Just before the season began, returning President Peter Gordon implored all Doggies members to enjoy every win that was to come this year. As a club – players, administrators, fans – we certainly did just that on Saturday.

You could tell how much it meant to the players, especially the young ones like 18 year old Nathan Hrovat who excelled on debut and didn’t bother trying to hide a beaming smile in a post-game interview. He described the day as “unbelievable” and “phenomenal”. At the siren, Will Minson struck a pose usually seen after an elimination or semi-final victory.

For Hrovat, Jake Stringer and the impressive Jackson Macrae, Saturday was a first win at AFL level. Half of Saturdays side were aged 22 and under, and it was important for them to get tangible reward for buying into what McCartney is trying to achieve.

In the stands, rank-and-file supporters sung, high-fived strangers and stayed behind to give the team a hearty, almost paternalistic ovation as they headed off. Though it was only one win – a win against a fellow also-ran at that – it meant a lot to everyone.

Historically, St Kilda is one club we’ve expected to beat and after five years of losses it felt like we owed them one. “We wanted to impose ourselves. They’ve pushed us around in the past; they went after a few of our young players last year,” Stevens revealed afterwards.

There is something brilliant about winning a match a) against the odds and b) when your team is ordinary and you don’t expect it. Losses grind away at the soul but a win like we enjoyed on Saturday restore your belief in the club and remind you why you fell in love with footy in the first place.

A win against the same opponent in the middle of 2004 had a similar galvanising effect (although that was an even greater upset, us positioned 15th and St Kilda two games clear on top of the ladder). Two years on from that day, the Bulldogs played finals.

As I mentioned, it was only one win and the Dogs are still in the bottom three. We’ll cop more 10-goal drubbings as the season goes on, but at least a new standard has been set.

“What we do have to do is find the best mix and best options for the club going forward,” McCartney said tellingly after the match. Stalwart Daniel Cross was bumped out of the side for the St Kilda match, whilst Jarrad Grant and Mitch Wallis are two others ploughing away at Williamstown trying to regain spots. Adam Cooney and Easton Wood are soon to return from injury.

Finally, the match committee are dealing with a few happy headaches. That is partly down to the off season recruiting drive, which delivered an eclectic mix of promising young tyros (Hrovat, Macrae and Stringer), recycled players from other clubs (Stevens, Nick Lower and Tom Young) and 29 year old Brett Goodes. All seven have played crucial roles already this year.

In the grander scheme of things, Saturday was a baby step and more painful times are to come. But at least we got to enjoy positive signs for the future, a belated win against St Kilda and, most importantly of all, the near-forgotten experience of going home from the footy happy.

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says:

    It’s great to hear from other Doggy supporters such as yourself. When you lose week after week you feel like you’re on your own as a supporter and you keep your head down dreading the next match such as Dogs V Saints because of past history. That’s why the Almanac is such a good avenue of conversation for supporters around Australia. It reminds you that you are not alone.
    I was proud of myself in tipping the Dogs against the Saints. The team lineup on paper just looked about right for some reason. And then I saw that amazing athlete Nick Riewoldt warming up with his sprints towards the goals and I thought I must be crazy to pick the Dogs. In the bad old days, Riewoldt, Kosi and Hayes used to beat the undersized Dogs on their own every time.
    So yeah, an unexpected but uplifting win for all of us.

  2. Barkly St End says:

    Amazing what a win can do.

    Captain Blood used to say that when you get that winning feeling, you can almost taste it.

    Teams get a taste for it, and there’s no holding them back.

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