In Bob We Trust
The year 2000 was a long time ago. It may feel like yesterday to you, but it is 17 years since we all feared, at least subconsciously, that the world may end due to the Y2K bug. We’ve all come a long way. The smartphone was invented. September 11 happened. Saddam Hussein was captured and killed. Even the Western Bulldogs won a premiership, something that at that time felt like would never, ever happen. This Saturday, it will have been 6125 days since a skinny, and I mean skinny, kid from Warragul made his AFL debut. The kid was Robert Murphy.
At the time, the Round 19 victory over Carlton was incredibly memorable, for reasons other than Murphy’s debut. Carlton had won 13 in a row and were flying high in second place on the ladder, while the Bulldogs had just returned from Adelaide, suffering a large defeat at the hands of Port Adelaide. The victory was incredible, a true upset, one that was to be upstaged two rounds later when the Bulldogs knocked off the undefeated Essendon in a match that will be remembered forever – the spoiling of perfection, the debate about the mega-flood, and the genesis of the Chris Grant pocket at what was then called Colonial Stadium. That game against Essendon was to be Murphy’s last of the season, averaging under seven disposals in his three games, and at that stage, it hardly appeared as though we were seeing the beginning of a Bulldogs legend’s career.
Back in those days, Murphy glided across the field in the number 22, in a jumper that looked to be at least two sizes too big – with gaping armholes waiting to be filled by the powerful biceps of an AFL star. The holes never were entirely filled, but an AFL star did inhabit that jumper and then go on to make the number two his own.
Murphy becomes the seventh Western Bulldogs player to get to 300 games, after Ted Whitten, Doug Hawkins, Chris Grant, Scott West, Rohan Smith, and club games record holder, Brad Johnson, and even with those legendary names on the list, you could put together an argument that Bob may be the most important in the club’s history. Whitten is the soul of the club; he is the soul of Victorian football. Hawkins was a favourite son, a local boy, who was a shining light through some disappointing seasons, who like Murphy suffered a serious knee injury which robbed him, perhaps, of achieving his peak. Grant may have inadvertently saved the club, by rejecting a lucrative offer to head to Port Adelaide and almost being the man to get the club to its third Grand Final in 1997, when he finished atop the Brownlow Medal leaderboard, only to be denied due to a controversial suspension. But, at the end of 2014, when the club traded away their captain, Ryan Griffen, sacked their coach, Brendan McCartney, and saw their CEO, Simon Garlick, who kicked six goals in Murphy’s first game, resign, the club was rightfully being written off. The press was savaging president Peter Gordon, the culture at the club and the quality of the people involved with the Western Bulldogs. If I’m being honest, and I’ve lived through the drama of 1989 and 1996, this was probably the most hopeless I’ve felt about the footy club that I had grown up loving. My hope was fading that this club would ever become a functional entity, my hope that the Western Bulldogs could put all the pieces in place to finally erase the demons of the past seven Preliminary Final losses, and the heartache of financial pain and perhaps even worse, irrelevance, in a city that lives and breathes footy.
The club had no leaders left. Griffen was gone. McCartney was gone, Garlick was out. It was a rudderless ship, looking to drown in the high tides of the ultra-competitive landscape that is Melbourne. With a new coach, Luke Beveridge, being in place for just a week, Murphy stepped forward and asked for the captaincy, and the playing group responded by voting unanimously for Murphy to have that role. And with that, the Murphy-Beveridge partnership was born and the run to the 2016 AFL Premiership begun. This is why Murphy could go down as the most important player in Bulldogs’ history, as the heart and soul of a footy club that was on life support.
Of course, the history of Murphy and the Bulldogs goes back a lot further than November of 2014.
Bob has never won a Charlie Sutton medal, so Scott West and his seven has him covered. He has been named All-Australian twice, once as captain in 2015, his first as captain of the club, but two All-Australian nods are hardly something that a legend’s lore is built upon. Murphy’s impact is not about accolades. It’s not about stats. Murphy is Mr Intangible. His value to the club is not linked to what he does on the field exclusively. But, let’s talk about his on-field exploits first.
Starting his career as a wingman, Murphy quickly moved back to defence to become the player we all see now. Murphy is one of the best users of the ball in all of footy, on either side of his body, and that sublime delivery was utilised as he came running out of defence in his early days. But, what is lost to many, is that Murphy had a large chunk in the middle of his career, where he played as a key forward. The Dogs needed a centre half-forward, and Murphy had to become that man. From 2004 to 2008, Murphy kicked 115 goals in 91 games, including two seasons of over 30 goals, where he was a lead-up target, including the Dogs’ 2008 Preliminary Final team. That move may not have suited Murphy, and his game to a T, but the club needed someone to provide that option, and that’s the sort of player Murphy is. Someone who sacrifices for the good of the team.
In the middle of that time, Murphy tore his ACL, nine games into the 2006 season. That injury, along with a number of other knee injuries, handicapped the Bulldogs’ season. I remember being there, sitting on Level 3 at the MCG, watching Anthony Rocca sling tackle Bob from a standing position, wrenching his knee in the process and ending his season. I was outraged. A behemoth like Rocca rag dolling our Bob. At first, I thought it was a shoulder injury, caused by the roughness of the tackle when I saw Bob coming from the field, but worse news was to come later, an ACL tear confirmed and Bob’s season was done.
Bob returned in 2007, stronger than ever and no further thought was paid to the injury that ended many footballers careers, as recently as 30 years ago. Little did we know, that the same situation would play out exactly ten years later.
Everyone knows the story of Murphy tearing his ACL in Round 3 of 2016, in a narrow loss to Hawthorn, on the play that gave the Hawks the win. Bulldogs’ fans hopes, including my own, were high after two extremely convincing victories in the first two games, that maybe a return to the Preliminary Final could happen (that’s as high as we’ve ever been allowed to dream). With Murphy grimacing and grabbing at his knee, the familiar sense of dread that always seemed to be around the club returned. Oh no. Bob’s done his knee. The crowd, the Bulldogs’ portion, went silent. My brain immediately went to the thought of “oh well, this season’s probably done, we’ve got a young team, and they’ll be back to challenge for third again in 2017”. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of the injury woes and of the times that that thought would creep into my consciousness.
Would Bob retire? It seemed likely that at the age of 34, after suffering a second ACL tear, that we may have seen the end of Murphy, the captain that had rescued the club and gave us hope, and he would remain stranded on 295 games. It took a few months to get the decision, but after leaving the country for a break, Murphy wanted to keep going, and his role in the historic premiership is as well known as it’s importance is underestimated.
The 2016 Western Bulldogs team was a close a team as I have ever heard about. I know people in the club, with connections to the players and all I would ever hear is how much this group loved each other and how much every injury impacted them all personally. If Bob sulked around the club, lamenting his misfortune, it would’ve rubbed off on the entire group. But, he took on a new role. That of the off-field captain, providing advice to on-field leaders Easton Wood and Marcus Bontempelli and acting as a conduit between Beveridge and the playing group at times.
The outpouring of emotion for Murphy, not only when he suffered the injury, but when he announced he would return in 2017, and when he received Luke Beveridge’s premiership medal, wasn’t due to his on-field acumen solely. Murphy is a different breed of footballer. He is erudite. He is whimsical. He is a throwback – someone who seems like he would’ve been more at home in the 70s than living his adult life in the millennial era. How many other AFL players sport a huge Elvis Presley tattoo on their chests? He wrote a column in The Age for eight seasons. He was a weekly guest on AFL 360 on Fox Footy, and people fell in love with his personality. He was a person first, a footballer second and that image was refreshing in an environment when footballers were often seen as meatheads with no passion outside of the sport that they made their life.
His tears were our tears. Murphy understood what merely the appearance in a Grand Final meant to the supporters of this club. His visible tears up at Spotless Stadium were mirrored right across the country, from Barkly St, Footscray, to far-flung Western Bulldogs supporters, spread right across the globe. He felt what we felt. We felt what he felt. He was us at that time, and we were Bob.
I’ve met Bob briefly on a couple of occasions, at family days with my son, but in fact, it’s my boy who has probably had more interactions with Murphy than have I. True to form, Murphy is the most personable player at the club whether he is talking to a seven-year-old or a 70-year-old. No-one exits an interaction with Murphy with a negative experience. He understands the place of football, and the Western Bulldogs, in the fabric of society, and he knows his role in the creating that fabric and you always get the impression that Murphy is indebted to the game and the club, rather than coming across as a player who feels that the game would be worse off without him. He knows he is good – all professional athletes have to have that in them, but Murphy is unlike most others, in that he understands the grandeur of his role in this town, and the insignificance it may have in the larger scheme of life.
You won’t hear a bad word about Bob from anyone inside footy (except maybe Jason Akermanis). Sure, there are idiots everywhere who became sick of the coverage Murphy and his injury-induced absence from the Bulldogs’ finals run were receiving, but such is the Australian way. Everything is a good story until you hear it a couple of times, and then the ugly tall poppy syndrome kicks in. In general, people love Bob, but none more so than the faithful donning the red, white, and blue each week, whether they be in the stands, at home in front of the TV, or running out next to him.
From scoring the go-ahead goal in his debut in 2000, knocking off the seemingly unbeatable Carlton, to proudly walking the MCG boundary, thumping his chest through his number two guernsey, worn under his tracksuit top on the first of October 2016, Murphy is the Bulldogs. He is the heart of the team that has pushed from the lowest of the lows, through to the highest of the highs, and you never know, perhaps Bob will be back in October, this time with that jumper not poking out from under a jacket, but proudly on display as he gets to hold up another premiership cup, and he can go down as an icon of the club he loves, and that loves him. Not that it will take a second flag for that status to be cemented.
To some, he is Robert Murphy, AFL footballer. To us, he is our Bob.
This piece was first published at www.hashtagfooty.com.au It is re-produced here with the kind permission of the author Josh Lloyd – we welcome Josh as a first-time Almanac author.