General footy writing: Chelsea’s pain is small fry for a Bulldogs fan

By Andrew Gigacz

I’m not a big follower of soccer but I’m aware of the controversy surrounding Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Conspiracy theorists say the referee was “encouraged” to assist in avoiding a second successive all-English final. Chelsea players, officials and fans clearly were in pain after getting the wrong end of the stick.

Chelsea’s pain has revived in me memories of a far greater injustice: Libba’s disallowed goal in the 1997 Preliminary Final between the Bulldogs and Adelaide.  It still causes nightmares.

Until that day, the Dogs’ season had gone about as well as any season could. Coach Terry Wallace, having taken over from Alan Joyce in mid-1996, had turned the team from a laughing stock to a well-drilled, skilful, high-scoring outfit. The reins of the club’s administration had been turned over to new president David Smorgon, who took to turning the club’s off-field fortunes with gusto.

Smorgon’s most public action was to change the name of the club. No longer Footscray, they would be known as the Western Bulldogs. Diehard fans were never going to be happy with this change but success on the field would banish any notion of rebellion.

Wallace’s men delivered more than anyone would’ve dreamed possible. A third-placed finish on the ladder put the Dogs in an MCG qualifying final against Sydney. Having won their last four games of the home-and-away rounds, the Dogs took that momentum into the first quarter, smashing the Swans to the tune of nine goals to nothing. From there they coasted to victory.

The dream got better when seventh-placed North knocked off second-placed Geelong, delivering the Bulldogs a week’s break and a spot in the preliminary final. We were one game away from the big one.

St Kilda meanwhile had also finished the season with a string of wins. A Friday night win against North in the first Preliminary Final had the Saints in their first Grand Final for 26 years. Some years earlier the Coodabeens had made the fanciful prediction of a Dogs-v-Saints Grand Final in the year 2000. Now, all that was need to complete this equation, three years ahead of schedule, was the Bulldogs to see off upstarts Adelaide on the second-last Saturday in September.

Buoyant from our big win two weeks earlier, I arrived at the sunny MCG brimming with confidence. The Dogs did not disappoint and were more than five goals ahead at half-time. I turned to my brother Jamie to discuss the logistics of queueing for Grand Final tickets but he would have none of that. “It’s not over yet.” I shrugged my shoulders. Jamie’s always been a glass-half-empty kind of fan.

The Dogs held sway throughout the third quarter and despite a couple of late Crow goals, the 22-point margin at three-quarter time did not worry me.

The Bulldogs peppered the goals early in the last quarter. Set shots and snap shots all missed narrowly. But we were dominating. The final nail in the coffin would surely be hammered in at any moment. And it was. Or so I thought. Libba, renowned for not being able to kick over a jam-tin, grabbed a loose ball at half-forward and sent the ball high, handsome and straight.

Not seemingly straight. Straight.

That kick took place directly between me in the Southern Stand and the goal umpire. I watched it sail through. It wasn’t right over the goal umpire’s hat but at no stage did it go over or outside the goalpost.

A famous picture exists of Libba just after that kick. His arms are in the air, his fists are pumping, Rohan Smith and a couple of other Dogs are carrying him. The look on the Bulldogs’ faces leaves one in no doubt as to what they thought about the kick. They knew it was a goal. So did I. Had the goal-posts been as tall as they are today that mistake would not have been made.

Even then, it didn’t appear to matter. The Crows were still nearly four goals down and we were dominating.

What happened in the next fifteen minutes is a blur. Also a blur in that period was Darren Jarman, who took control of the game. With a couple of minutes left, his third goal of the quarter put the Crows in front. From the ensuing centre bounce, I remember Mark West streaming out of the centre and having a clear shot for goal to reclaim the lead. He missed. Moments later, Chris Grant and Paul Hudson fought over a loose ball in the goalsquare before one of them fumbled it through for a point.

The siren sounded. The Crows won by two points. Even as I write this twelve years later I have to stop and put my head in my hands as I recall that moment.

History shows that not even the consolation prize of St Kilda winning the flag materialised. A year later, we met the Crows in the finals again. There was to be no controversy on this occasion. We were smashed and the Crows won their second flag in a row.

Every time the memory of the “goal that wasn’t” surfaces, I have to file it back under “Not meant to be”. I just hope it doesn’t belong under “Never meant to be”.

About Andrew Gigacz

Well, here we are. The Bulldogs have won a flag. What do I do now?

Comments

  1. David Lewis says:

    A sad day, eclipsed only in sadness 7 days later.
    Still remember arriving at the Arts Centre to queue for GF tickets with Footscary supporters rolling up their sleeping bags.

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