Saying goodbye to the Dogs: 2011

 

by Kerrie Soraghan 

It’s the second last week of the season, and we’re at the ‘G’, watching the Dogs take on the Hawks. We’ve gone along, not thinking we’re a chance to win, but because that’s just what you do when you’re a Dogs fan. You turn up with stoicism, switch on the self-deprecating humour, trot out, with varying degrees of sincerity and sarcasm, the well-worn line: There’s always next year.

 

Today we’re amusing ourselves by cracking hardy about just how many goals the star-studded Hawthorn forward line will kick against our depleted defence. Could Buddy kick more than ten? The Dogs’ fans are asking that question even more than the Hawks fans. With genuine interest too.

 

Before the match they’re showing highlights on the big screen, of the 1961 Grand Final between Hawthorn and what was then Footscray. The Dogs are actually leading early in the match and are nine points up at half time! We watch with morbid fascination as they get over-run in the second half.

 

It was Hawthorn’s first premiership.  As they’re presented with the cup, Ted Whitten is beaming on the podium, energetically slapping the back of his Hawthorn counterpart, looking genuinely delighted that the Hawks, fellow strugglers at that point like the boys from the west, have finally joined the ranks of premiership-winning clubs.

 

The Hawks, of course, have since won nine more flags.

 

The Dogs, meanwhile, haven’t even played in a Grand Final since that day. Yep…not even once in 50 years. Maybe that’s why, try as I might, my imagination never extends to actually winning a flag. I’d just like to know what it’s like to walk into the MCG on Grand Final day, even sing along to a corny John Farnham number or the inevitable version of ‘The Holy Grail’ (it was written by a Bulldogs’ fan, too). I’d like to see the colours of my club everywhere as the anthem rings out. From that point on, I can’t imagine a thing.

 

Meanwhile, back at the ‘G’, we watch the footage of the defeated 1961 Footscray team leaving the ground, mingling happily with their brown and gold rivals. My son says, ‘I guess they’re saying: there’s always next year, fellas!’

 

Buddy kicks five. We’re happy, knowing it could have been worse.

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Now, finally, it’s the last game of the year for the Bulldogs. It’s hard to get enthused. We’re way out of finals contention, bruised and battered by a spate of injuries.  Our coach has been unceremoniously dumped, our best players couldn’t get out on the field, and now there’s a familiar tale of internal unrest and presidential challenges. It’s been one of those years where the club just couldn’t catch a break, unless you count the hideous compound leg  fracture suffered by gallant backman, Dale Morris.

 

And we know we’re a long way off  success too.  We know it even more because we have actually been close, so close, for three years in a row, especially in 2009 when we were in front in the last quarter of the preliminary final, but just couldn’t hang on. Our wonderful, poetic player Bob Murphy writes weekly articles in The Age and lately you can hear his resignation, his sense that an era has passed, his knowledge that he won’t finish as a premiership player. It’s hard to bear.

 

As I’m heading to the game, I’m wondering how the crowd are going to react to one of our own players, Callan Ward. It’s strongly rumoured that he’s already signed with the AFL’s newest ‘franchise’, Great Western Sydney. There’s talk that the crowd will boo him, suggestions that he shouldn’t be playing, rumblings that if he’s already signed with another club, he shouldn’t be wearing the Bulldogs colours this week. It could be a sour end to a wretched season.

 

His potential loss cuts deep. He’s the local boy, born and bred in Yarraville. When he was drafted, he was photographed, fresh-faced and wide-eyed, at Spotswood Oval with the Westgate Bridge as the backdrop.  Bob Murphy, romantic as always, wrote him a letter when he played his first game and put it in his locker, telling him what it meant to play for this club that Murph has embraced so whole-heartedly.

 

Callan Ward is brave, talented, and just hitting his straps at 21 years old.  He’s bought a house in unfashionable North Altona. The local Yarraville traders display clippings on their Anderson Street noticeboard saying, ‘We’re so proud of you, Callan!’ But the ‘franchise’ has offered him $850,00 a year to play with them. Logically, everyone knows that he must have accepted this incredible offer. For me it still doesn’t seem real.

 

Somehow, it gets me thinking about my dad. He was a local boy too, growing up even closer to the Western Oval than Callan: a mere four blocks away from the ground. He didn’t get ‘drafted’ to the team his family naturally supported; when he won the Footscray and District Best and Fairest as a 17-year-old he was ‘asked down’ to train. The local paper was excited about the prospects of the young rover, who they called a ‘natural’ with a ‘brilliant future’. (I have the clippings to prove it).

 

But Dad’s timing wasn’t the best. He came to the club in 1955, right after that solitary premiership. It was a rare strong era, a champion team that was hard to break into. Dad got named on the bench a couple of times, but in those days, you didn’t get to come on unless there was an injury.

 

Finally, family legend has it, the young bloke got told by Charlie Sutton that he would start in the 18 that week. Riding his bike home from his job at the Olympic Tyre Factory, the wheels somehow got caught in the Maribyrnong tram tracks.  In a twist befitting a Leunig cartoon, Dad fell off, breaking his ankle. The club traded him to Tongala at the end of the year. The future of the promising young lad was over before it began.

 

 

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Later, Dad designed the ‘Olympic clock’: a recognisable (iconic could be too strong a word) feature of the Western Oval landscape. The Dogs don’t play at the Western Oval any more, and the clock’s apparently in storage. Docklands stadium is now the Dogs’, and so our, home. My dad’s children and grandchildren, and some friends who’ve joined us along the way, have adapted to the change, and together we occupy a couple of rows. This has become our spot.

 

My little nephew, like so many other kids at the ground, is wearing number 14, Callan Ward’s jumper.  A few weeks ago, he and my niece wrote a letter to Callan asking him to stay. It doesn’t seem to have worked.

 

Before the game I have a chat with two women who sit at the end of ‘our’ row. I don’t know their names, even though we’ve sat alongside each other for 10 years, but I like their open, kind faces. They’re fiercely loyal to the club, always chipper, and never seem to get fed up with our lack of success. They’re not angry with Callan Ward, they say. It’s a lot of money. You can’t blame the kid.

 

When the game starts, ‘the kid’ looks like he’s already left. He seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders and can’t get into the game. Afterwards, the media report that he copped sporadic booing but I don’t hear it. Instead, around us, there’s a silence whenever he enters the play, almost a collective withholding of breath. I don’t know if it’s stoicism, pain, or merely resignation.  I’m not surprised, though, to hear one of the women at the end of the row calling out, defiantly, ‘Go Callan!’

 

The game is awful, as only games between teams with nothing to play for can truly be. We’re playing Fremantle, who have also been decimated by injury. There’s mistakes, mis-kicks, a lack of skill and tempo, players inexplicably missing goals from five metres out (though admittedly one of them, Aaron Sandilands, seven foot tall, with his huge ‘clown feet’, can be excused  a lack of nimbleness and grace).  The crowd groan, grimace, shake their heads.  It’s not even funny, as sometimes these inept games can be. Everyone just wishes for it to be over: the match and the season.

 

The lethargic-looking Dogs surprise by putting on a sudden spurt of competence in the last 15 minutes.  It’s  enough for them to run out 46-point winners; enough for the fearsome spearhead, Barry Hall, to suddenly snaffle five in his last ever game. The crowd love Barry, who with his classically western suburban face, has always looked as though he should have been a Bulldog from day one.  A chant goes up in his honour. Something to cheer about at last.

 

The players love Barry too. They form a guard of honour for him and fellow retiree Ben Hudson. They chair them off the ground. I always think it’s an odd relic of history, big men being hoisted awkwardly on their mates’ shoulders, so they can tower above everyone like warriors. I’m watching Callan Ward to see how he’s reacting, wondering what it must be like to see your team mates get a giant, generous farewell; knowing you’ve been booed by some of the crowd; knowing you’ll never get this sort of hero’s farewell; knowing that next year you won’t be playing in front of fans with this passion and history. I can’t see his face but I see some of his senior teammates putting their arms around him, consoling him. One of them’s Bob Murphy, and I know then that it’s true and Callan Ward’s leaving our club. It feels a lot worse than I had even imagined.

 

The club song is blaring. We’re getting ready to go home; 2011 is over. I catch the eyes of the women at the end of my row, whose names I still don’t know, but I know what they’re about to say to me. ‘There’s always next year.’

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Alovesupreme says:

    Kerrie,
    That’s a beautiful poignant piece. You’ve managed to take us through a fair bit of Bulldogs’ history, and your account of your father’s experience is memorable. I wonder if you’ve read Jack Clancy’s “The Game that Never Was”, which describes his solitary match at Fitzroy; he spent the day in his dressing gown on the bench, was dropped to the 2nds the following week, and in that match suffered a career-ending injury.
    I’m sure you’re familiar with “Too tough to Die” the account of the Bulldogs’ fight-back against the proposed merger with Fitzroy. Barry Dickins also produced an anti-merger piece from a Fitzroy perspective, around that time. I frequently find myself quoting from both.
    Footy gives us some exhilarating moments, but it also breaks our hearts.
    Good luck, next year and beyond.

  2. I agree totally with Alovesupreme, Kerrie. Certainly very poignant for a fellow Bulldog.

    And I would definitely describe the Olympic clock as iconic – it certainly was for all the regular visitors to the Western Oval over the years.

  3. Kerrie Soraghan says:

    Thanks Alovesupreme. I love the sound of Jack Clancy’s story. It does indeed have that ring of Leunig-style tragi-comedy that reminds me of my Dad’s tale. Is it a book or short story?

    Despite my father’s links to the club it was actually my mother who inculcated (indoctrinated?) us with the love of the Dogs, which has often been the source of some mirth and occasional regret. I wrote about it here:
    http://footyalmanac.com.au/?p=24454

    I’ve heard they are going to restore the clock, Andrew, but haven’t heard that much more about it.

    Kerrie

  4. Good stuff. Very good stuff.

    Re: the first comment and its point: I’m sure you’re familiar with “Too tough to Die”

    I believe Kerrie Soraghan may be ever-so-slightly familiar with the book.

  5. Dear Kerrie,

    a beautifully, moving piece and my sister and all her inlaws a Doggies and I suffer along with their suffering. Your boys have heart, just look at Murphy, Gia and the ones that have been there and done the hard yards. And you had the joy of Barry being the best man and footballer and his big heart has given you guys pleasure for the last few years. My sister and I would text BARRRRRRYYYYY to each other when he was weaving some of his magic.

    As for premierships, St.Kilda (my chain of pain and suffering) are like your boys, one too long ago. The maddest St.Kilda supporter I know keeps the faith like no other – his mantra is : we did it once, we can do it again ONE DAY. And that sustains him, and it helps to sustain me, and I hope it helps sustain all the Doggies fans like you and my sister and her extended family.

    Go Doggies. Go Saints.

    Yvette

  6. Just wonderful Kerrie.

    Callan Ward is the grandson of Bill Gunn who played about 100 games for South in the `50s until injury got him. He was well-named. When I was interviewing players of that era most of them mentioned how good a player Bill was. Fred Goldsmith was recruited to South because of Bill. They grew up together in the Spotswood/Newport area and when the South recruiters came looking for the kid with the reputation – Bill Gunn – young Bill said he’d only sign if they signed his mate Fred as well. Which they did. Turned out Fred was pretty handy as well winning the Brownlow.

  7. A beautiful piece Kerrie; as a Cats supporter, I constantly count my blessings.

    With regard to “knowing that next year you won’t be playing in front of fans with this passion and history.”

    Very inciteful. At least with Gold Coast, there is a strong AFL presence and many ex-Victorians. It could be a very lonely existence for the GWS boys.

  8. John..

    Callan indeed has great pedigree. Some bulldogs supporters are trying to lessen the pain by saying he is a B-grader. Don’t agree, I think he’s a rare talent.

    Pete..Bulldog blessings are hard to find. I hope the Cats do well this year.

    Kerrie

  9. Alovesupreme says:

    Kerrie,
    Jack’s tale was an article. I read it in Ross Fitzgerald’s and Ken Spillman’s collection “The Greatest Game” published in the mid-’80s. Jack was a lovely bloke, as self-deprecatory in life as he was in print.

  10. Loved this, Kerrie.

    My wife is a Bulldog supporter, and as each year passes I get the feeling she
    becomes more and more resigned to never witnessing a Bulldog flag.

    It just makes me thankful that i have been fortunate enough to see North win 4.

    The Ward family are salt-of-the-earth people. Callan’s mum was my son’s Gr 5
    teacher a couple of years ago. And I played footy with his uncle Ray (Billy Gunn’s son).
    No-one should underestimate just what a difficult decision this must have been
    for Callan.

    The AFL is still a tribal, passionate, life-or-death matter for the everyday fan.
    But for the clubs and players, it has long been about big business.

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