Finals Week 3 – GWS v Western Bulldogs: A miracle on grass
by David Jacobson
My wife has begrudgingly driven me to the airport. Danielle has got out of bed way too early. 8 am for a Saturday is a stretch. We chat on the way with coffee, and nonsense about with words and just how wonderful she is making this sacrifice for me. We kiss as I get out of the car and she wishes me luck. I thank her and wish her the same.
I reply hopefully and anxiously.
There are a number of people wearing the same colours at the airport and a few of us acknowledge each other, some state their nervousness, some too nervous to make eye contact. My family who I will leave with, my brother, his wife and two of his adult children are too uptight to give me the usual hug; we just don’t quite know what to do with ourselves.
Once on the plane the low winter sun glares off the wing and blinds me. I try to read the book I have brought with me. The crab lunch by the Hudson River with a Martini and a discussion of Eisenhower and Cold War politics is far removed from the purpose of my flight. We start to taxi across the bumpy concrete slabs of Tullamarine to wait just off the runway proper, the sun though gentle outside still burns into the fuselage windows. Suddenly we accelerate hard and my mouth curls into a small smile. I love this feeling. I think to myself ‘We’re away’ and the image of Bontempelli, Hunter and Picken fists pumped in celebration makes me smile further. I leave the image of frantic mid-game celebration behind with Melbourne as we quickly sit up above the Great Dividing Range. I sniff and worry about a head cold. I will be fine. I worry about the Bulldogs playing the Giants in tonight’s preliminary final and I chase it out of my head. I can’t help, except for cheering at the game later today. 5:15pm, odd time for footy.
A Bulldog venturing to a Preliminary Final is not a new experience, boarding a plane to do so is. It is one that holds unpleasant memories however. ’85, ’92, ’98, ’08, ’09, ’10, I was present at all of them. Some blew out to horrible losses. Some so painfully close that they are etched raw in to many a Bulldog soul that even the mention of one of those years can’t be removed from one game and opportunity lost. I haven’t mentioned 1997 above, I wasn’t there. I returned to Melbourne that day and listened to it in the radio in the car celebrating each goal as our lead increased through the first three quarters before racing inside to hear the last quarter. As that bloody Darren Jarman furthered his influence on the game and the scoreboard I grew almost sick and a longing for the game to be finished. Most Victorians wanted the fairy-tale Grand Final of St Kilda-Bulldogs. We would have smashed them too. As Jarman kicked another goal or as we missed one, it doesn’t matter for the sake of the story or my hand, I fell to my knees in the lounge room and whacked the floor. As it turns out the old floorboards were stronger than the bone in the side of my hand. It didn’t tickle but it’s not the worst pain I have felt. Ask any Son of the West and they will still say ‘death in the family’ regarding that game. As for Darren Jarman, he could end all suffering of all living things and I still couldn’t forgive him. I suppose he must have played a pretty good game.
Arriving in Sydney to blue skies and the two islands of CBD either side of their famous bridge I think to myself, ‘you might be Giants but we are flying over you’. Orange and grey, who would have thought they would be colours running around a footy oval? On our slow descent I look out the window and see a pitch with those funny posts that only New South Welshmen and Queenslanders appreciate. With Geelong losing last night the pressure is firmly on the Bulldogs to avoid an all Sydney Grand Final. No worse a nightmare could a Victorian face.
Once landed, we catch a train to as near as possible to our hotel and walk the rest. Peter, Carmel, Liz then Mark and I at the back turn a corner and I am close to the building when I feel something brush my arm and splat on the ground. I think nothing of it at first then look at my sleeve.
Mark turns to look after my single word.
A pigeon on a ledge above has good timing and seemingly a spot of bad belly. Mark and I have stopped in our tracks and Peter, Carmel and Liz turn back to see where we are.
A bird shit on David.
My family is sympathetic but giggling. I have now realised that the pigeon-arrhoea has streaked itself from my shoulder to my cuff over my vintage red, white and blue flannel shirt. Mark thankfully runs into the KFC on the corner to get me some serviettes to clean up a little. Peter, being my older brother, has just the right thing to say,
That’s good luck! We will win tonight now!
We all hose down the suggestion as just saying it might jinx us. Peter then suggests we can’t influence the game only by showing our support at the ground. It works and we relax. I’ve always been sure the undies I wear will determine the outcome of a match.
After checking in to our hotel I wash my shirt sleeve. We go to lunch and by the time we get back it has dried. We trek and train across town to the Sydney Olympic site, where our fate, ecstatic or funereal, awaits us. We go to a pub over the road from the ground and have three drinks, or so. The first helps relax my nerves and ease my slight nausea. I don’t know if it is footy related or that I have recently returned from Sri Lanka. It is nice to drink water from a tap again. The pub feels like a nightclub in the wee hours and our theme song gets played and a rousing chorus is indulged. I still can’t relax.
We go into Spotless Stadium with an hour and a half before the start of the game. With less than half an hour to the start the teams complete their on-ground warm up. The Giants come out to boos while the Bulldogs are greeted to a home-ground type welcome, even as the banner comes out we get a massive cheer. I’m sure Danny McGinlay is proud. From our seats I can’t read it. My whole body remains tense and I would really rather not think about what is about to happen. I just can’t bear to guess. Both teams are now on the ground and taking their positions. Heath Shaw is giving advice to any Bulldog that is in earshot. There is niggle and some push and shove until the umpire bounces the ball. The sun has now set beyond the stands and early nerves from most players show until Clay Smith gets our first goal and his first of four. By half time my family and I don’t know what to do with ourselves. I am paralysed, exhausted and just want to know that we have won but what would be the fun of that? For most of the game I can’t really feel my legs. Whether that is tiredness from the early flight from Melbourne and the anxiety of the day or the confidence in this team and we are floating on this dream of what might be. I think I need to wee again. What’s with the bladder? What a sensitive thing it is. The noise and atmosphere transcend the twenty thousand people in attendance.
As the clock ticks past twenty minutes in the last quarter we start getting text messages from my nephew Nick. He is watching on from a road trip in Queensland.
Five minutes to go. C’mon! Hang on Doggies.
We chip around half back controlling the tempo and the ball with precision. One bad kick would set the Giants up. My sister-in-law Carmel is crying and willing us all on. She may be a Magpie in her heart but tonight she is as passionate a Bulldog as us.
‘Come on, not long to go!’
With 3:21 remaining Jack Macrae has marked 35 metres out and will kick for goal to give us a five point lead. If it is a point scores will be tied. Oh God, what if it is a draw and extra time? Jack answers our prayers. All our players congregate at centre half forward to celebrate before returning to their positions. The Giants get the ball to almost their 50 metre line, with 2:10 remaining, before our captain Easton Wood smothers then tackles to start the ball heading our way again. Jake Stringer gathers the loose ball off a long kick and has the composure to hear Tory Dickson in the other pocket and he delivers a perfect pass to his chest.
0:28, Tory Dickson marks about 35 metres out. We relax slightly knowing his kick would seal the game and he is a beautiful kick. He takes all the time he can and as he starts his run-up as the siren blows. Tory stays focused as he drops the ball to his foot and guides it goal-ward. It bangs the post but he is already celebrating with his teammates. Not only a hard fought win in a tight final but we have finally won a Prelim. I can say that has never happened in my lifetime and Dogs older than me can say it too. The noise at the ground is near deafening; we truly made it our own red, white and blue kennel away from home. Liz and Mark hug each other and then me, then their parents. We all hug in varying combinations. The thing that doesn’t change is how much we are all crying, uncontrollably. We can’t talk. The crowd is rapturous with our team’s achievement and in disbelief at what our team has just accomplished. I can barely see for tears; the happiest tears to have ever washed down my cheeks. At this point I haven’t seen much of the players celebrating. They are mainly in a huddle but a few are running around the fence high-fiving either friends or fans. Tom Liberatore runs by and Bob isn’t far away in his polo shirt they hug and the crowd cheer. So many mixed emotions as we acknowledge our captain who has missed the majority of the year with injury. Everyone loves Bob. Bob Murphy is different in footy. Maybe the most philosophical man in footy since Brett Kirk. Next Tom Libba runs to his childhood friend in Mitch Wallis, also injured. Both are sons of champion bulldogs whose fathers played in losing preliminary finals, more than once each. Bittersweet moments providing contrast to pure elation. More hugs and more tears as we sing the song again for the players to walk off to. Our little group of five make our way to the ground and walk on the turf or should I say float over the manicured blades of green. We stand on the spot that Jack Macrae kicked the last goal of the match to give us the lead.
I don’t know what to feel!
I can’t understand this!
This is the fucking best!
We share the same overwhelming disbelief but express it with slightly different words. It is euphoric. I ask Liz if her camera is ready then bend down and kiss the ground. I’m pretty sure it is the exact spot where Jacko launched his goal from but no one could confirm or care. He kicked it, we won, Doggies are into a Grand Final!!
Hugging, crying, sing the song again. A dream materialised. We stay on the ground until we have soaked up what we can. A memory flashes back from this morning.
I’m glad that bird shat on me now!
We all laugh and continue to cry our joyous tears. Peter is the first to respond.
I’m gonna tip birdseed all over you next week!!
The five of us laugh together at his comment and the very fact that next week we, the Western Bulldogs, will play in the Grand Final. After decades of dreaming about this very moment, it is reality.
The day after in Sydney, we walk around killing time before our four o’clock flight back home. The mood in the streets is considerably flatter than if we were in Melbourne. Only a very few people comment on the colours we wear and most in the positive. It gives me more time to contemplate the win and the timeline to date. In no particular order my mind flashes from sitting behind the point post at the Western Oval’s Barkly Street end with a thermos of Mum’s pumpkin soup in the 1980s, to the MCG and Etihad Stadium through the ‘90s and ‘00s losing Preliminary Finals. And Dad, I think of Dad in his aged care facility where he has recently moved into and I wonder if he watched the game or now had the concentration to watch the whole thing. I hope so.
It isn’t until Brownlow night that I find the words to describe how I feel and I am nervous about saying them out loud. I feel as incredibly overwhelmed to when my Mum died. From one to the other I feel such incredible emotion at either end of the scale, from debilitating heartbreak to pure elation. The similarities are disbelief, physical exhaustion and uncontrollable tears. As the red carpet special plays on the TV my phone rings. It is Peter.
The money has come out of my account. We’re going!
My wife comes over to the couch and like trying to say someone has died all I can manage is,
I’ve got a tic…
We embrace, my lips and tongue don’t work but rambling wet paragraphs pour from my eyes yet again.