2015: The Dogs and Our Unfinished Journey. In Bevo we trust.

(Warning: Please excuse pronouns such as “we” and “our” in this piece… I won’t even try to bother faking impartiality)

 

Marcus Bontempelli snares a contested ball near his defensive fifty arc, evades a handful of would-be tacklers, baulks, bounces the ball twice whilst spinning himself out of trouble, kicks long to Jake Stringer who gathers, breaks a tackle, frees himself and gives off to Mitch Wallis, who in turn handpasses to an oncoming Liam Picken, who drills the goal on the run from just inside fifty.

 

That passage of play early in the final quarter of the recent North Melbourne-Western Bulldogs game brought the house down, and on each subsequent viewing only gets more and more dazzling. It was a team goal which encompassed speed, daring, skill and physical strength: some of the elements which have made the Bulldogs arguably the most inspiring team of 2015.

 

To recap, some history you’d already know: after the 2014 season, the Dogs’ captain and best player Ryan Griffen walked out on the club; coach Brendan McCartney was moved on; Brownlow Medallist Adam Cooney traded; the CEO went; and the reigning Best and Fairest winner, Tom Liberatore, ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, which ruled him out for the season.

 

Jonathan Brown wasn’t the only pundit to nominate us for the wooden spoon prior to this season. Virtually no one had the Dogs finishing in the top eight. Suggesting that they’d finish the home and away campaign ranked sixth might have had you sectioned.

 

As a Dogs fan, the only comparable season we’ve had to 2015 is 1997, which ended in a third place finish after coming 15th, ahead of only Fitzroy, the previous year. That remarkable season, like this, came not only from nowhere, but amidst a similar atmosphere of chaos and upheaval. Before the ’97 season, the club changed name, jumper, song and home ground after surviving a second merger threat in seven years. The team was then coached by Terry Wallace.

 

The sweeping up of the post-2014 season ‘Shocktober’ carcass began with the appointment of little known coach Luke Beveridge and 32-year old veteran Robert Murphy being made captain.

 

Like Wallace, Beveridge is an innovator. In terms of on-ground moves alone, there are some shifts no one saw coming: the reinvention of midfield accumulator Matthew Boyd into a halfback; seeing something in Liam Picken to free him up into a more attacking midfield role; converting Jarrad Grant into a throwback winger; allowing Jordan Roughead to unchain himself from the backline and spend time floating around the ruck and forward half.

 

There is a certain mystique surrounding Beveridge which is unique amongst AFL coaches. He brings something different to the coaching profession. Having spent 17 years as a public servant, including time at the Australian Tax Office’s intelligence unit where he helped regulate money laundering and terrorism finance, he doesn’t fit the standard coaching template.

 

Let me present a mixed assortment of Beveridge facts and observations. With the frame of a muscular statue, he talks with emotion and cuts his own hair. He comes across as relaxed and gives the impression of a man in control: a little bit of Sheedy with a pinch of Ross Lyon as well. Sometimes known as The Drink, he has a brilliant turn of phrase (describing Easton Wood’s form as “off the charts” earlier this year; talking of North Melbourne dominating “the airwaves” after the recent encounter; “adventurous” was his coaching self-description on Footy Classified). He gives off an infectious chuckle.

 

He led amateur club St Bedes Mentone to consecutive premierships in C, B and A divisions – a feat which had never before been achieved. At forty-five, he still rides a skateboard and surfs. He is in the Aussie rules football Greek Team of the Century. He played 118 VFL/AFL games, in which he amassed seven Brownlow Medal votes.

 

In less than ten months at the club, Beverage has transformed the team from a dour, reactive, contested ball-focused side into one of the most telegenic teams in the competition, a kaleidoscope of movement, teamwork and risk taking which most sides haven’t figured out how to shut down. We’ve been called the league’s ‘Harlem Globetrotters’. The Dogs have failed to beat only three of 17 clubs – Hawthorn, Fremantle and Geelong – in 2015.

 

Eight debutants, the most of any team in the AFL, have been given a chance – unknown teens with names like Roarke and Bailey and Zaine. Offcuts from other clubs, Shane Biggs and Joel Hamling, have been thrown in and given important roles. Mostly through choice, the Bulldogs have fielded 40 players this season. Only Gold Coast and Essendon (41) have used more. Beveridge has had the courage to drop established players and leave out Tom Boyd, the Great White Hope.

 

The coach has created a squad environment, which means fierce competition for spots and makes everyone from an early draft pick to the youngest rookie think they’ll be in consideration if they perform at VFL level. Horses-for-courses has been invoked. Three or four or five changes have often been made to a winning combination. It’s been an unpredictable, intoxicating ride. Going to the footy is fun again.

 

At times Beveridge’s bravery could be considered reckless, having no fear of playing undersized and underaged players in even the biggest of games. Against Fremantle and West Coast, he seemed to concede the ruck – at one stage 187cm Shane Biggs competed against Nic Naitanui. But no matter how bold or mad a decision may seem, the fans have faith in the man. Personally speaking, I’ve never had such unconditional trust in a coach. Has there ever been a honeymoon period so elongated?

 

The flair and dash has rightfully won admirers, but the turnaround in the Bulldogs’ defending also deserves recognition.  The team defence is organised, starts at the front of the ground and ranks as number seven in the competition. Last season it ranked 15th. The 360-degree “Bulldog squeeze” has choked the life out of teams, many of which have had no idea how to get through, especially at Etihad Stadium, where we’ve won our past nine games.

 

To say the season has been entirely rosy would be to misrepresent the Bulldogs’ 2015 journey. There have been downs, and the team’s bipolar quality is part of the charm, part of the rollercoaster. There was the 55-point lead thrown away against St Kilda; and almost losing to them the second time around. The listless and totally unexpected defeat away to Melbourne; and the goalless third quarter against them in the rematch. The meagre four majors kicked up to three-quarter-time against the Suns. The 77-point loss away to West Coast. Losing to the Brisbane Lions.

 

That inconsistency is another similarity to 1997, when the Dogs went from being a game clear on top of the ladder after round 14 to ninth place four weeks later. Blurred by the heartache of that season’s preliminary final defeat, that month-long mid-winter freefall is almost forgotten. Eighteen years ago, the team bounced back from that slump to almost go all the way, and I believe our team can muster the spirit and belief to come back from Saturday’s loss at the Gabba and give the season another wind in springtime.

 

After all, the Dogs have risen to the challenges all year (in addition to the obvious ones listed above, there have been moments like the spirited win over North Melbourne after coming off a six-day recover from Perth… demolishing the Giants when Ryan Griffen and co. came to town… beating the Swans in the driving Sydney rain…). Then there was the annihilation of Adelaide; the ten-goal last quarter against Gold Coast; the blistering four consecutive weeks through July-August where the team won every game by an average 67 points. The ups have been exhilarating. This season has felt like a free shot at goal and we’re loving every minute of it.

 

Importantly, the youngsters look to be big game performers. They appear comfortable in the limelight. Stringer, Bontempelli, Hunter, et al – you can just imagine a big crowd lifting, rather than daunting them. They ooze confidence and Saturday night can’t come soon enough. That said, there is no obvious arrogance in this group of players which the Dogs faithful have fallen in love with. Former coach Brendan McCartney often spoke about “good people” and bringing them into an organisation. The down-to-earth, hardworking current crop fit hand-in-glove with the ethos and nature of the club.

 

Saturday night against Adelaide is a genuine 50-50 game; there are strong reasons for and against either side prevailing. Our form away from Docklands (one win from six games dating back to early May) is a concern. Adelaide, however, have only managed to beat one side that finished in the top 14 – Collingwood – away from home all season.

 

To lose our captain, coach, CEO, best and fairest winner, roughly 800 games worth of experience and double our win tally, whilst blooding eight debutants and giving forty players a run, is a monumental and totally unexpected achievement. Averaging just 46.7 games between them, the Dogs are the second least experienced side in the competition. Only GWS (43.8) average less. Whatever happens at the MCG on Saturday – and a finals win would almost be tear inducing – 2015 has been a season us Dogs fans will never forget.

 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/simmo_melb89

 

Comments

  1. Neil Anderson says:

    Accurate, positive summary from the depths of the Dogs to Dogs now playing final’s football.
    A win on Saturday night would go a long way for Bulldog supporters to get over the 1997 PF debacle.
    I hope the Stringers, Bontempelli’s, Hunters et al are lifted by the occasion on the big stage rather than being overawed.
    If WE win the Coodabeens will have to invent a character with a positive outlook. Something like Harry Highpoint perhaps.

  2. Andrew Walker says:

    Thanks Simon. It has been some ride and there is no reason why it shouldn’t continue. Have been down to see three games this year, the early season pummelling of Adelaide, the no legs second half against St Kilda and the demolition job on Port Adelaide. The thing I noticed more than anything was the strength of the midfield. A slightly different combination at every centre bounce but never looking any weaker. I think we are blessed with midfielders. As well as this our inspiring captain has had a season which sets such an example for all his team mates. Am looking forward to all the finals.

  3. Clem from Dudley Street Footscray says:

    Just had a call from Quang. Good news – we’ll be there on Satdy night.

    Go Bullydogs.

  4. Yes Simon very much like ’97. Nothing will avenge the Prelim losses but whatever happens Saturday night, this year has been wonderful. Go the tricolours!

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