Round 17 – Fremantle v West Coast: The first and last Western Derbies at Subiaco Oval

14 May 1995 West Coast 23.13 (151) Fremantle 9.12 (66)

16 July 2017 Fremantle 5.14 (44) West Coast 11.8 (74)

The standing-only terraces at the city end were crowded. For a while we stood on a roof up the back of the hill trying to get a better view.  I love the old footage where each goal square and its pockets are covered in paper and streamers, and players have to step over and around them. It is a reminder from the olden days that the crowd is part of the game. As a young kid, whenever West Perth played a final at Subiaco Oval, my sister and I used to stay up late snipping up yesterday’s West into squares of confetti, stuffing them into bags so we could let them loose from the upper tiers.  This wasn’t a final, but it felt like something big.

There was a genuine sense of occasion, but it was mixed with confusion, ambivalence, curiosity, and novelty. It was similar to 1987 when the West Coast Eagles played their first game, but where that felt like a floodgate opening to the inevitable surge of a national competition, the formation of the Dockers felt more tentative than that. The Eagles represented pride in being West Australian, in playing footy differently, with speed and skill, with wide open spaces, and attacking flair. It’s why Peter Matera is the most fondly remembered player of that era, even though in reality he was hardly typical of the Mick Malthouse led efficiency and defensive pressure of that glorious era

It was a few years yet before the local tribalism of the Eagles and Dockers would emerge. When you see the footage now of that first derby, there’s not much green, purple or red in the crowd. True, it was a West Coast home game, but that’s how I remember it too. At school and at the footy clubs I played with, I don’t remember there being many Dockers supporters in 1995. If anything there was curiosity and goodwill towards the Dockers, but little outright support.

Eagles supporters still hadn’t moved out of the irrational West Australian faux-nationalism, typified by our first theme song. “So watch out all you know-alls, all you wise men from the East”. We were interested in what was good for WA footy, and if we needed another team in the AFL to do that, well, good luck to ‘em. Of course there were some who signed up on Day One – proud East and South Freo people I suppose, whose own dreams of a bayside separatism were finally being fulfilled. But for many others – most I would guess – they had to be coaxed into the purple side of the city. And many weren’t seduced by the Dockers, but rather repelled by the Eagles.

There was nothing tentative about the way West Coast entered this contest. There are some words to describe it… clinical, brutal, efficient, but above all, it was contemptuous. In crunching the Dockers the Eagles were flexing their muscles, and trying to deny the Dockers their self-respect.  As usual, Dennis Cometti put it best during the broadcast as Eagles captain John Worsfold smashed Fremantle’s Scott Chisholm in the first quarter (at the 3.39 mark). “John Worsfold, helping people determine which side they barrack for”. It was ugly, and many didn’t like it. It was also beautiful, and many more loved it.

It was a display that summed up the nagging doubts that many in WA harboured over the Eagles. Did they maybe have it too good? Was the public hero worship maybe a bit too over the top? The first Western Derby helped form and then feed the emerging narrative that the Eagles were an ego-driven organisation, a hyper-professional boys club, ruthlessly protective of their brand. There was a story going round the Claremont football club in 1995 – the Dockers’ real footballing epicentre –  that said the inside word at West Coast was that they only had to make sure they won three games for the season: the grand final, and the two Western Derbies. Had West Australian nationalism morphed into institutional triumphalism?

That’s not how I felt though. I grew up with the WAFL, with my beloved West Perth and their warrior captain, Les Fong. I wanted the Eagles to be continuation of that tradition, and the others like it around WA. So when I walked into the ground that afternoon with an enormous backpack full of torn up confetti and toilet paper rolls – the Security Guard shrugged when he checked… no law against that – I was determined to hurl them streamer-style onto the ground, and cover the goal square paper and colour, as a throwback to those nearly finished days of spontaneous crowd participation.

As you can see from the footage, I didn’t succeed. A dusting of paper around the fence, at best. I could’ve sworn I launched a dozen gloriously unfurling rolls onto the city end goalsquare, but it seems I didn’t manage it.  A 16 year old Eagles fan trying desperately to reclaim the lost spirit of the WAFL. A spirit of accessible professionalism, where the crowd interacts with the play. It was a vain attempt.

The First Western Derby typifies the West Coast Eagles in their mid-nineties pomp. Theirs was a relentless on-field and institutional professionalism. Defensive and effective. It’s what has made them one of the most successful and respected clubs of the modern era. But the Dockers have long since caught up. Those early days in the headlights, rather than the spotlights, feel a long time ago.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be at the last ever Western Derby at Subiaco Oval. It was a scrappy win to the Eagles, thank heavens. But there was nothing contemptuous about it. Recent last quarter fadeouts to GWS, Gold Coast, Melbourne and Port Adelaide mean there is little room for complacency and arrogance as a West Coast supporter. We beat an emerging Dockers team and got our toes back into the top eight.

Beyond that result however, it felt like the end of an era. The creaking grandstands and outdated facilities to be usurped by a spectacular new stadium next year. I’m pretty sure it won’t even occur to anyone to smuggle in bags of toilet paper there. It’s time for WA footy to enter another era, that isn’t about the WAFL, or organisational turf wars, but the creation of new traditions, based on respect and the future, rather than condescension and nostalgia.

About

Based in Ballarat. Supports West Coast Eagles. Originally from Perth but trying to raise a new generation of Eagles supporters in Victoria. Only partially succeeding.

Comments

  1. Great stuff Dave. I moved to WA in 97 so I have no memories of those early years. Just watching the Malthouse Monolith in those early 90’s finals series.
    Love how you were trying to keep the community values of WAFL footy going into the professionalism of the AFL. I smile more when I go to watch my nephew play for Swan Districts in the WAFL these days. The po-faced professionalism, structures and game plans of the AFL leaves me a bit cold.
    Still we all need a tribe. And mine, like yours, has been the Eagles the past 20 years.
    I have this vision of Nic Nat bouncing out onto Subi in a blue silk dressing gown in Round 21, like Apollo Creed in a Rocky film. We are just marking time now.
    As I texted a Freo friend last evening “thanks for the points (pun intended)”.
    Hope to see more Eagles writing from you on the site. Its full of Cat Porn and Pie Perves, so we need to raise the standards.

  2. Thanks Peter! I’ll see what I can do.

  3. Sean Gorman says:

    Cracking read and I concur. You had me at Cat Porn. Then sullied it by perving pies……aargh Hate them.

    Go Freo.

  4. Keir Reeves says:

    Great post David, good to read the Web Cuz Eaga view and Sean Gorman’s Frebeo take on the derby. Reading your thoughts on the early formative years into the Malthouse powerhouse flag era was really interesting. They were amazing to look at even as a Carlton supporter who truly hated the Eagles and all they stood for. I’ve always loved watching sport in Perth. The WACA for the Test was unforgettable and I don’t recall a bad game at Subiaco, just plenty of bad beer.

  5. DaveMcG says:

    Thanks keir. Thanks Sean. Now that you know keir that we actually stood for unauthorised ground littering maybe your hatred can be toned down a bit. In an equalised competition any self-image built on perceived superiority is on shaky ground. We need to dig a bit deeper than that these days. I’ve just now gone for a trip to the new stadium that is nearly completed.. my goodness, talk about magnificent. I can imagine the party on the banks of the Swan River when we lift our next cup.

  6. Dave – terrific piece. The derby gets a bit lost over here in the East where the media seems more concerned about who had houghmagandy with whom at AFL House. Its pathetic. But as a Cats man the Eagles haunted us through the 90s. They took over the banner from the Hawks of the 80s. But we’ve had our time in the sun since 2007.

    I agree that the Eagles (and Freo) need to evolve further to keep up with modern footy and modern footy clubs. I suspect that this “evolution” won’t necessarily make things better for nostalgic fans. Meanwhile the WAFL, like the VFL and the SANFL have big challenges ahead.

    How is women’s footy taking off over there in the west?

  7. Thanks Dips. It’s not just the Eagles and Dockers that need to evolve, and I’d say that many West Australians (and I’m sure South Australians) have already had a crash course in dealing with dramatic change and loss, with the decimation of our local leagues following the formation of the AFL. I have to chuckle when I hear my Victorian friends complaining about how the AFL destroyed their competition. Richmond regularly gets crowds of 60,000 plus. West Perth is lucky to get 1,000. We have simply had to move on, we’ve had no choice, and we’ve done it well.

    Unfortunately I don’t know much about women’s footy in WA as I’ve long since moved to Victoria myself – in Ballarat these days. Just back in Perth visiting family right now. Though I do think that Fremantle getting the first women’s team in the AFLW is their biggest ever victory over us. No longer are we the club who came first. I think it’s one of the key things that shifted my thinking about where the eagles fit in the WA landscape. I understand that there is a strong local league here, and I hope that the Eagles are investing heavily in the game’s development because they will lose supporters rapidly if the standard doesn’t lift high enough to sustain two WA teams and soon.

  8. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Thanks Dave and welcome. Great piece and very interesting to read bout the beginnings of the western rivalry. As a Swans supporter it mirrors very closely how I have seen the Sydney teams growing some kind of relationship. This last weekend’s game was the first time I felt the rivalry myself. Interesting how these things happen.

    My partner and I took our 2 year old son to the 2006 Grand Final. It’s folklore on this site that he stood up on the breakfast table the morning after, stared at the Sunday Age and asked who the blue and yellow ones were. I told him that they were the Eagles but that we didn’t go for them. ‘I do’ he replied. And he did. Committedly. Until he was 5 and began to play for our local Footy Club – the Newtown Swans, who fortunately wore the red and white. We still sometimes sing ‘flying high’ together. Good luck keeping your little ‘Victorian’ Eagles!

    Look forward to reading more.

Leave a Comment

*