Finals Week 3 – GWS v Western Bulldogs: The Halted March of the Orange Army
When I was heading towards the Sydney Showground with the rest of the Giant Orange Army last Saturday, there were a cluster of stories behind us and in front of us. For me, I remembered the early days of heading down to where my now wife lived, in West Footscray. I could recall with fondness the Whitten Oval, Sims Supermarket and the glorious Sun Theatre in Yarraville. But here I was, part of a club that could well cause the eighth straight Prelim Final loss for the Footscray Bulldogs.
Also in my head was the story and journey of the Giants into the western suburbs of Sydney. I was someone who grew up preferring Aussie Rules to the rugby league I was being forced to support. I’d be out and about, talking Parramatta and picking up the lingo in order to appear normal. But then at home, I was following Carlton, then the relocated Swans. Aussie Rules, however, was still a distant sport. The SCG was a long way away for a lone teenager. The move by the AFL to tackle the western suburbs and make the game grow in my part of Sydney was an incredible and surprising gift. This is why I have felt more and more comfortable coming out of the football closet and wearing Giants gear, talking AFL, being proud of being AFL. And here we were, all marching together with pride.
Swimming around in my head as well was all the negativity coming out of the largely Victorian media coverage and social media chatter prior to the game. We didn’t deserve a team. The AFL should have just done a second Brisbane Bears and give us uncompetitive players. That the club was just part of a focus group tested advertising plan. All of these narratives denied us, the fans, the supporters of the Giants, any agency. We were blanks as far as the narrative was being told. According to such a narrative, we only go to games because of clever focus group tested advertising. Not because we have an ingrained love of the game.
Such talk made me and others upset because the supporters in the Orange Army aren’t robots, paid actors, nobodies. The reality is that the supporters love the Giants, love the club. They are people like the mother and son team of Paula and Steven Strother, originally from Adelaide and loved the idea of a team in their adopted home. They had been to every game of the Giants thus far. Every single one. Even those 100+ point floggings. They are also Kath and Seb Dell’Orifice, who too loved AFL – Seb from a Victorian perspective, Kath from a Sydney one. They are the ones people may have seen on TV with the bright orange sparkly outfits. Their home features a stunning shrine to the early days of the Giants’ merchandising efforts. There’s few more passionate people about football than Kath and Seb. Then there’s out the front of the Army, the capo of the Cheer Squad, Michael Shillito, training us as a cheer squad to shout out support, build an atmosphere, even in those days when there were crowds of 6,000 or during away games where the only supporters are the Cheer Squad. He, like me, was a westie who converted from the Swans.
Ultimately, however, those thoughts were flying away as we marched from Giants HQ to the Showground. The main thought dominating during the parade was the old Rex Hunt line “How Good Is This?” Except this time, the people who were happy were the massed Orange Army, much bigger than it has been before – a culture building from our diverse western suburbs. To an extent, what happened inside the Sydney Showground, while important, was only a part of what the club had achieved during 2016.
The game itself was the most intense game of football I had seen live. From the first minute, it was clear that this was going to be a tough game. The Giants weren’t being allowed to play their usual running game and that all goals would be hard earned. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that this was the first of many finals between these clubs, a bit like the Swans and West Coast in 2005 – 6, except this time, it wasn’t so much a clash of vastly different game styles, it was a clash of two young, fast, dashing, exciting clubs butting heads like two mountain goats.
It will be a game that will pass into the folklore of both clubs. On our side of the fence, people will remember the heroics of Scully, Kelly, Shaw and Shiel. The calmness under pressure of Patton. The outstanding clunked marks of Lobb (as well as his inexplicable fall). The defensive brilliance of Haynes’ marks. There will also be talk about the free kick count and the balance of the deliberate out of bounds calls – that’s a rule interpretation that has never provided a happy time in any game in 2016. That talk, though, will be just that, and will go into the folklore of a club that has relished its underdog status for its first five years. That status is, however, well and truly in the past – something we all have to cope with into the future.
Giants’ home supporters also got a big taste of what it is to enter an arena where you are a hated club. Swans fans have been intense during our bigger derbies, but the Dogs’ fans took that intensity up several levels. There were columns of red white and blue booing everything the Giants were doing – going onto the ground, leaving at the end of the game. There were bays of supporters crying “Bulldog, Bulldog” when Callan Ward was knocked out cold. There were intense, guttural roars the like we have never heard when the Dogs scored their goals. These just spurred our still growing Orange Army further with empassioned cheers that didn’t let up, just like the game. And then, it happened. The loss. And with that, came this moment from Kath and Seb Dell-Orifice, Kath’s body heaving with tears. Seb had slumped moments before.
Despite it all, despite the loss, despite the talk of umpiring calls, the Dogs deserved their victory, their first moment since 1961 to win a flag. Theirs is the irrepressible narrative of 2016, coming from seventh to get to the Grand Final. I am very happy for all of those Dogs fans who have been there for their club for all this time. This is the club of Bob Murphy, the club of the working class, now culturally diverse Scray. This history, however, won’t stop me cheering on the red and the white. My wife – the one who lived in West Footscray, shopped at Sims Supermarket – is a Swans supporter and will be at the game. I will cheer louder if what I have characterised as #Towersmentum means that the Enigmatic Dean Towers gets the winning Grand Final goal for the Swans. That, however, isn’t entirely likely. What is likely, however, is that the Giants and Dogs will face each other again in a final. And that the next time, the Giants will Never Surrender, Fight Until the End and the banner sledge will be about the supporters, not the AFL.