Home: it’s where the Bulldogs are playing

My mother promised me I could start coming to ‘home’ games when I turned four years old. In my child’s imagination, a home game would mean that the footballers played, much like my brother and I, kick-to-kick in a player’s backyard. I expected this to be with the only player I could name. Naturally this was Ted Whitten. I can still recall my amazement when the eagerly awaited day arrived and I walked in for the first time to the Western Oval (not yet christened in the legend’s name), to be greeted by what seemed like a vast expanse of emerald green grass.

There was a unique smell of wet duffel coats, donut vans, and something indefinably Western Oval. (It may have been the plumbing). The players were remote and tiny specks far off in the distance. They wore dressing gowns and ate oranges while they listened to Ted rev them up in the breaks. We walked up to our seats in the John Gent stand – it was rickety even then. The Hyde Street band marched around the oval, coins whizzing dangerously past their heads.

I was entranced. So began my journey as a fan.

Every home game, we would park near Olympic Tyres in Cross Street. My grandfather was the gateman and would wave at us from his little booth, wearing a long grey dustcoat.  He wasn’t allowed to go to games himself, as he had a heart condition which it was feared would not stand the suspense of  Footscray’s performances.

There were mysterious events on alternate Saturdays called ‘away’ matches. I wasn’t old enough to go to these as they would involve standing all day and, most likely, uncouth language. The adults in the family – my mother, uncles and aunts  – headed off to destinations that sounded picturesque – Lakeside Oval or Victoria Park. The sorts of places, I thought, that the Famous Five might have shared a simply ripping picnic, with ginger ale.

We children stayed home with my grandmother. She was Irish and would listen to the game on the radio, cooking up a storm for when the adults returned home. We’d run inside at what we thought must be half time. ‘How are we going Nanna?’ Her face would darken. ‘ Five goals down.’ Knowing this was insufficient, she would attempt some spite in her lilting brogue. ’The bloomin’ umpires are killing us!’ My grandmother never saw a game in her lifetime.

Though cold hard facts tell me that, this being the 1960s, we didn’t win many games at the Western Oval, surprisingly enough, that’s not my recollection. It was our fortress, and we went there expecting to win. I don’t remember all the dis-spiriting losses that must have happened; instead I recall Georgie Bissett charging into goals as we made stirring last quarter rallies, pinching games from more favoured teams, who hated coming to our ground with its narrow flanks, howling wind and parochial fans. But my memories are probably  faulty as I also recall my mother and I returning home from the last game of the season and my father, in an ill-judged attempt at humour, coming out onto the front porch waving a wooden spoon.

This week our ‘home’ game was in Darwin. All hail the Truly National Competition, where football executives now refer to the fans as stakeholders. The unoccupied John Gent Stand is undoubtedly still rickety, but underneath it, a groovy café sells lattes. (As Marj Simpson would probably say: Do you kids still say ‘groovy’ these days?).

I tuned into the match on Foxtel. Diabolical camerawork, aimless direction, and annoying, droning commentators stood between me and the smells, sights and atmosphere of the game. Even so, I could sense the humidity of the airless night. It seemed like a foreign country, not just another state. Instead of braving the biting wind coming off Mount Mistake, the players retreated to refrigerated cool rooms for carefully managed rehydration. No dressing gowns or oranges were in sight.

Though Port Adelaide have been in the competition for 16 years I can barely recall any of our matches against them. It’s like that with many of the interstate clubs – an absence of that intense rivalry, that tribal loyalty that builds layers of memories, disappointment, joy or resentment into matches. Playing them every year in Darwin of late has still further eroded any investment in the matches – they feel about as interesting as an early pre season trial match. They’re always sloppy, error-riddled games because of the humidity and, perhaps, the lack of occasion. Games you just want to be over without an injury and with a routine four points banked.

This year any complacency about four points is a luxury. Despite myself, I desperately want the Dogs to win what would be just their third victory of the year. The signs aren’t good — they look fatigued from the opening bounce and then Tom Williams, unluckiest of the unlucky, pops his shoulder. I don’t think it’s going to be our night. I try to be philosophical. Again.

The Dogs don’t yield, though. There’s a veritable avalanche of goals in the third quarter, at least by recent Bulldog standards. We hold them off in an agonisingly tense last quarter that seems to go forever. Ted Whitten would have said: Oh what a bloody relief!

When the boys are singing the song my mind drifts to a Martin Flanagan article in The Age that morning. One of our supporters, a man called Gary Hincks, was travelling to Darwin to watch his 888th consecutive game. I’m not much of a mathematician, but he must have started this amazing run some 40 years ago. I’m imagining him celebrating among the sparse Darwin crowd, the most dedicated stakeholder of them all.

About

Author of 'The Mighty West: the Bulldogs journey from daydream believers to premiership heroes.' Available at all good book stores and probably a few mediocre ones as well. Indoctrinated as a fan of the Bulldogs at an impressionable age. Caught unawares by the 2016 premiership, I have been blogging about being a fan and sometimes about the actual on-field performances of the Western Bulldogs at bulldogtragician.com Twitter @bulldogstragic

Comments

  1. Paul Daffey says:

    Great piece, Kerrie.

    Wonderful reflections on the old and the new.

    I love footy in Darwin but I’m not sure the sense of excitment and unpredictability is translating to the AFL.

    Turn off the fans.

  2. Neil Anderson says:

    Thanks for that trip down memory lane. When you were first ‘allowed’ to attend the temple I was a teenager in the outer so I hope I wasn’t too loutish. Actually I was a drinker but pretty quiet. I was too busy observing and listening to the smart remarks from the other supporters. I knew one day I could use that comedy if ever I wrote articles for the Almanac or tried my hand at writing plays.
    I thought I was a loyal supporter catching a bus and two trains from the eastern suburbs to the Western Oval back then, but reading about Gary Hincks showed me what loyalty was all about. I’m only 220 ks from Etihad now compared to Gary’s 320 ks so there’s no excuse for not attending.
    The donut stand smells and the Hyde Street Band brought back great memories Thanks Kerrie.

  3. Kerrie

    This is one of your best. Really loved it. And that smell? It was a combo of the plumbing in the gents and those lemon puks that put in the urinals … god awful pairing

    Keep up the great work for out wonderful club.

  4. Neil, I don’t think your loutish comments reached the rarefied surrounds of the John Gent stand, but now I know who to blame if I ever recall them!

    Thanks for the kind words. It never ceases to amaze me how fans retain their quintessential loyalty to their team in the face of so much change and the loss of the sense of place (and THOSE smells ), in fact that was the subject of my very first Almanac story placed at the urging of my friend Vin Maskell chronicling our transition to ‘Colonial Stadium. ‘ and also documents the role of family, tribalism, and loyalty in a true fandom, please feel free to revisit even if in itsel it’s become a snapshot in time.
    http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/colonial-memories/

  5. Kerry Smith says:

    Hi Kerrie
    I loved this piece and have emailed it to my 13 year old nephew who is a couple of years into his journey as a devoted Bulldog fan. He was thrilled about the win but still found time to ring and commiserate with his Aunty who happens to be a long suffering Power fan.
    Kind Regards
    (Another ) Kerry

  6. Neil Anderson says:

    Kerrie, I checked out your report on the Dogs V Saints match not realizing exactly what year it was. I was trying to think when we last beat the Saints apart from a couple of weeks ago, so I knew it was a while back.
    Like some of the other Knackers commenting, I remember Max’s tears as well. It wasn’t long after that time that StKilda had the wood on the Dogs. I can still see Kosi and Riewoldt out-marking our boys at the death time and time again.
    The Year 2000 provided one great highlight for the Dogs when we beat the then unbeatable Dons before they went on to win the premiership.

  7. cowshedend says:

    Lovely piece Kerrie,I think the smell of the milling rubber at Olympic Tyres contributed to that unique ‘eau de Scragger’.
    Very familiar story to many of the Footscray faith, we too had a nan who had the ‘dicky ticker’who was not allowed to listen to the footy on the radio if it got too close.

  8. ‘Eau de scragger’, not sure why a French perfumerie hasn’t got onto it? We have that tricoleur association too. One for the marketing dept, no doubt?

    The Olympic Tyres association is strong indeed in my family: my dad designed the Western Oval clock, both my parents and 3 of my grandparents worked there at some stage… and now I hear it’s a boutique housing development! Sheesh!

    Kerry, thanks for your kind words. I hope your nephew gets plenty of joy out of following the Dogs. You say you are ‘long suffering’, but in your short history in the AFL, you’ve seen a flag – I’ve never even seen a grand final. (Not that I’m bitter or anything!!) Port has its own strong history as a working class and very successful club but there are probably more connections than I realise.

    Neil – the night Maxie cried, indeed, and didn’t the saints make up for that one over the past 13 years or so!

  9. Kerry Smith says:

    Hi again Kerrie
    You are right. I have been blessed with success as a Power supporter. Thanks for restoring my sense of perspective. Our clubs do indeed share common bonds as working class clubs from the western suburbs. Throw in the Giants and it makes an interesting blue collar block amongst the so called ‘powerhouse’ clubs.
    Regards
    Kerry

  10. Mic Rees says:

    Hello Kerrie, more Western Oval memories please (especially ones that include Wee Georgie). Yes, you’re right, the place stank, but it was OUR stench.

    Re: Gary Hincks. I’m pretty sure his journey started in 1974. He couldn’t have picked a better year to start, 13 and a half wins, KT, Ted Jnr and Ray Huppatz debuted & we went to the finals – and got flogged.

    Do you think he’s a front runner?

    MCR

  11. One of my memories of the Western Oval in the 70’s & 80’s is the half time wander across to Charlie Suttons Albert Hotel, and drinking his famous, watered down beer.

    The other half time memory of that period was the Hyde Street Band, walking around the boundary, playing their music, whilst being pelted with coins.

    The good old days of the VFL.

    Glen!

  12. Mic –
    you nailed it, a definite bandwagoner & frontrunner is our Gary. I’m reminded of a friend of mine, a mad Tigers supporter, who made a principled decision in 1980 that as a western suburbs resident, he should switch support to the local team. He had to endure Royce Hart seasons where the Dogs were more than usually atrocious and see the Tigers absolutely flog Collingwood in the Grand Final. It tested his decision making. But he has stuck true (not that the Tigers since then have been glorious).

    Kerry –

    it remains to be seen whether the Giants can develop a genuine connection with their suburban area but it’s an interesting comparison. Those bonds are much weakened these days. Freo also have a strong blue collar foundation.

    Glen –

    the coin throwing at the Hyde Street band would be outlawed for OH&S reasons these days. Was there a Hyde St band equivalent at any other ground, I wonder?Many never returned from The Albert if we were getting flogged, I suspect, watered down beer and all!

  13. Yes Kerrie, coin throwing would be a big no-no nowadys. The club has legal requirements under various pieces of legislation to make it a no-no.

    The Albert; it is no more, units , like so may old pubs.

    Glen!

  14. I happened to be in Darwin on holiday and went to the game. Enjoyed the NT Thunder v Southport Sharks game before the AFL game.
    Good family atmosphere. We stood at the fence in the pocket and a sea of little kids played around us, kicking their footys onto the ground about 20 times. the security guy would just hand it back.
    Glad Footscray won it.

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