Dogs & Saints – A Love Story

The only thing I remember from that day is Tony Liberatore being held aloft by one of his teammates, cabaret style, in celebration. In his mind, he had just nailed the goal that had snapped the spine of the fast-finishing Adelaide Crows and set up a scenario so outlandish that the mere whisper of it, even as recently as a few years prior, would have seen you burned at the stake by the local villagers.

In his mind, he had just set up a St Kilda v Footscray Grand Final.

As the umpire signalled a behind, though, the colour drained from his face and the story was complete; the Bulldogs had blown it. For three quarters they’d had their foot on the Crows’ throat, then they remembered where they came from. Now, Adelaide was off to the big dance against the Saints and the Saints, possibly wondering why they weren’t playing the Bulldogs, would succumb meekly.

By the time the smoke had cleared, footy purists throughout the land were left wondering how, in the midst of this giddy celebration of history and egalitarianism, the cup had ended up in the hands of a cashed up Johnny-come-lately.

Whilst this tragic denouement to the 1997 season was undoubtedly a watershed week for the relationship between these two perennial strugglers, the mirrored fate of the Dogs and the Saints dates back a lot further.

Both have one measly premiership apiece. Both spent the whole of the 70s and 80s being trampled by the rest of the competition. Both spent most of the early 90s sifting frantically through ashtrays, behind couches and anywhere else they might find enough loose change to save themselves from oblivion. And now, as we approach the midway mark of the 2011 season, both teams are anchored in the wrong half of the ladder with lists full of tired, battle scarred warriors. It seems the Saints and the Dogs have once again found something in common.

Had the 1997 Grand Final finished the way that every single football fan outside of central Adelaide wanted it to, it would have been a spectacular triumph of the salary cap and draft system introduced around when the VFL turned its ‘V’ to an ‘A’. The idea of the two lowliest teams in the history of the sport standing on the summit of the mountain after less than ten years under the new system was nothing short of phenomenal.

But the Crow’s lacked what St Kilda and the Bulldogs shared – a dark history. And this would ultimately prove the difference.

For brief time after this the two clubs flirted with a trial separation. The Saints’ drop back to base camp after the ’97 Grand Final was spectacularly swift; the Dogs more of a slow burn. In 2000, while the Saints were propping up the ladder and scouring the land for draft picks, the Bulldogs were getting on with the business of being the only team standing in between the Bombers and an historic perfect season. But it wouldn’t be long before they both found themselves in sadly familiar territory.

Through the mid ‘00s, the pair gathered picks, honed game plans and settled on personnel. Both changed coaches; the Dogs went with one of the game’s great thinkers, while the Saints placed their faith in an untried assistant from a culture of discipline.

Their styles, too, were starkly contrasted. The Bulldogs had the media salivating over the prospect of an outfit whose blistering pace they believed would revolutionise the game. Saints Coach Ross Lyon, meanwhile, was fashioning his charges into the most miserly team in the competition; a heartless, drilled unit that would suck their opponents’ will to live.

By the end of the 2007 season, hooves grinding into the dirt and smoke bellowing from their nostrils, the Saints and Dogs were raring to go. They had both sat the finals out that year as they watched the Cats – a contemporary of theirs who had sat the previous finals series out – conquer all laid before it. Now, one decade after the Adelaide Crows had so cruelly denied them their day in the sun, St Kilda and the Bulldogs were ready to make amends.

Oddly enough, as they worked their way back to the upper echelons, the Dogs and the Saints rarely, if ever, seemed to be pitted against each other when it mattered. No Grand Finals, no first-versus-second bragging rights clashes, no top-four-spot-at-stake showdowns. Just like how in 1997 it was both of them against Adelaide, now it seemed the world was turning to them to join forces against this newer, scarier Godzilla – Geelong. Perhaps this is why they’re more kindred spirits than mortal enemies.

What has followed for these two teams has been three years of frustration, euphoria, drama and, ultimately, pain. The Bulldogs always an arm’s length off the pace and the Saints – desperate, tragic Saints – just couldn’t make that final lunge to the finish line. In two consecutive Prelims, these teams failed to produce a classic. Hell, the Dogs failed to even produce a win.

And both failed to produce a premiership.

Was it luck? Was it a toe poke and an errant bounce for the Saints and ill-timed casualty ward for the Bulldogs? Who knows.

But it’s June now, and supporters of both the Saints and the Bulldogs are beginning to feel that early winter chill all too familiar to generations of yore. Like in ’97, the Bulldogs team sheet contains the name Liberatore and, like his father before him, it’s a good chance that he has some lean years ahead. But as long as you see kids in Bulldogs jumpers getting dragged through the produce section of the Vic Market by their dads, and as long as kids in Saints tops are running up and down the Frankston foreshore, these teams will know groovy times again.

So stuff your knapsack and burn a disk of your favourite driving songs, Saints and Dog fans, looks like you’re going on another journey together.


  1. Love it, Teefa,

    I’d disagree with your contention that neither of those two prelim finals produced a classic. The 2009 PF didn’t produce many goals but it was the tightest, tensest, toughest final I’ve ever seen – from start to finish. As a Dogs’ fan I left heartbroken but loved every minute of that match. 44 players and 78,245 fans left the MCG utterly spent. It was fantastic. Non-Saints and non-Dogs that I’ve spoken to who were there feel the same.

    But that’s all a distant memory. I’ve resigned myself to that road trip.

  2. Nice work. The Dogs and Saints will never be the Manchester Unity of the AFL like the Pies. But I still think its too early to call the 2011 season off. A lot can happen, especially when you consider the number of teams seemingly stampeding out of the eight at every opportunity.

  3. Chalkdog says:

    Teefa, nicely put.
    All I care to recall about 97 is that a Saint mate of mine got 250-1 on a Dogs/Saints GF in about June. He plonked a Hunji on it then lost twice…..when we lost and again the consolation prize that a flag would be worth the lost $$.
    I may be biased but we would have beaten StK that day in September. We had them covered in every position and the passion was so high at Barkly St.
    And the 09 Prelim was about the rawest and hardest games of football I can recall. It was epitomised by some awful umpiring [ie Reiwoldt falling over and getting a gimme & Shagger Hargreaves getting tackled and kicking the ball 30 m on the halfback flank. Incredulous free to StK resulted in a goal]. And there were more. I will be disappointed if the Dogs dont show a bit of fight this year but its not the end. If you were with us in the early 80s you would know hoplessness. I dont feel that yet.

  4. No love nor romance – my position on these teams is clear….their being shit makes our fate bearable.

  5. David Downer says:

    Nicely done Teefa. Brings back those mutual bad memories for us Saints and Dogs! Your piece demonstrates just how close to being kindred football spirits we probably are – perhaps more than any other two teams going around.

    Chalkdog, I think you are right re 1997. The Dogs had the Saints covered. And you really had us covered in the 2009 PF also. But after the dominating year StK had to that point, they would have been stiff to bow out then.

    Crio – that’s far too cutting an assessment …I like to think by our clubs have just been terribly unlucky, over and over …and over again, for the last 50 or so years …and most of the 50 or so before that too.

  6. not an assessment Dave…it is my gut feeling. I hate the “hope one of us does well.” I have found myself unable to support StK in any final.

  7. David Downer says:

    Party pooper!

  8. Schadenfreude!

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