Colonial memories

by Kerrie Soraghan

I attended my first Footscray match in utero. My mother, a passionate fan, prided herself on missing only one match for each of her four pregnancies, which, to her annoyance, coincided with the winter months. She would stand for three hours at a time in the outer, rain trickling down her neck, while my dad minded a gaggle of small children at home. When we would press her for snippets about the days when we were born, her reminiscences focused on the football games.

“You were born the day after we played Hawthorn. We lost that one by a kick. The umpiring…!”

Later I too spent far too many Saturday afternoons at Footscray’s home ground, the perennially windswept Western Oval. Sure. there may have been days when there was no bone jarring wind, no rain blowing in your face like needle points. But no one seems to have been there at the time.

Supporting the team in those days was an act of stoic endurance, for they specialised in ineptitude, were not pretty to watch, and were permanently rooted at the bottom of the ladder. The ground was a bog and rumours abounded that sprinklers were left on before matches in a usually futile attempt to drag the opposition down to our standard.

The beleaguered supporters – one of whom joked that he had followed them “through thin” – were unrivalled in their fierce loyalty, blaming biased umpiring, mysterious planetary alignments, and machiavellian plots by league powers for the underwhelming performances of Our Boys. They could look back at only one premiership, in 1954. This was the year my mother, a naïve teenage Irish immigrant, saw her first game, and anointed them as her team.

The team had a unique link with its heartland, the western suburbs of Melbourne, taking on its blue-collar persona, its honesty and decency, but also its chip on the shoulder “us against them” mentality and pessimism.

At the end of the 1980s the club went bankrupt and was booted out of the competition, until an amazing tin rattle and community effort raised $1.5 million in three weeks to save it. There were stirring tales of tearful pensioners heroically giving over their life savings, children donating pocket money, and war veterans collecting on wooden legs. The supporters simply refused to let their beloved if unfashionable club die.

The last ten years have seen an amazing cultural change at the club, as it bustled its way into the modern era of a national game. As well as a dizzying position near the top of the ladder and a slick new playing style, the club threw off the suburban dagginess of the name Footscray, which, the president explained, was hampering our image. The team abandoned the homely but decrepit Western Oval. Re-styled the “Western Bulldogs”, this year they started playing at the bastion of corporate football, Colonial Stadium. I decide to go along to see if the passion of the supporters can live on in this brave new world, where TV rights and profit and loss statements get the headlines formerly reserved for the full forward’s crook groin.

My timing is impeccable. The Dogs are in familiar ‘backs to the wall’ territory, their newfound status as a successful team under serious threat after four successive losses. They will be playing St Kilda, a fellow under-achieving club who have not won a game this year. Well-schooled by my mother, I know this is the scenario to strike terror into the hearts of the faithful, more accustomed to the fear of losing than an arrogant thirst for success.

The odyssey starts as I join the good-humoured crowd, cramming into trains at Footscray station on Friday night. I am travelling with my friend Kathy who grew up the proverbial drop kick from the Western Oval. We discuss the controversy during the week, where two Bulldogs players were accused of sexist and insulting language and hauled before the tribunal. Kathy, a staunch feminist who plays guitar in the church choir and is expecting her fourth child, does not disappoint me with her strong views on this contentious issue. Our Boys were definitely victimised by the tribunal and crucified by a biased media. Western suburban tribalism is more than a match for mere political correctness!

The train windows fog up; outside there is a vicious wind and driving rain. Any pang of nostalgia for the forlorn empty Western Oval dissipates in the guilty pleasure of knowing that in the new, all-seated stadium, we will be comfortably dry. But will the raucous energy of the Western Oval, the larrikin spirit that sustained so many barren years, survive in the club’s sterile new home?

As we alight, the stadium looms ahead, dazzlingly lit, sleekly modern, a world away from the ramshackle stands and gravelled terraces where we used to stand. The drabness of the Western Oval is superseded by fluorescent glamour. Supporters chat on mobile phones to arrange a rendezvous, and we swipe bar coded tickets like supermarket commodities.

Subdued, we move towards our seats but are soon heartened by the sight of familiar Western Oval veterans. I catch up with my brother’s friend, Kevin, and we chat about the Dogs’ tantalising position near the top of the ladder recently. Kev says that if the Dogs ever won that elusive second premiership, then he would not feel the compulsion of the weekly ritual any more – the magic spell would somehow be broken. Kev is a gentle school teacher, with long hair in a ponytail, and prone to such whimsical and quixotic musings.

Before the game, the atmosphere is muted, as though the transplanted supporters are still expecting a tap on the shoulders and a polite escort out from such splendour. The pungent smell of hot dog stands and chip stalls is strangely absent, though they are for sale alongside – oh final indignity for the Western oval stalwarts – focaccia! Even the toilets are gleamingly sanitised, bringing on another fit of nostalgia as I recall a halcyon day at the Western Oval when, ankle deep in an unidentified liquid, I spotted a dead rat in the “Ladies.”

Instead of the ancient rickety scoreboard, there is an electronic contraption with an animated bulldog to cater to short attention spans. The stadium operators, fearful of leaving any vacuum of silence for their “customers”, assail us with mindless video games, hysterical announcers, and gimmicky stunts before the games. Young, scantily attired dancers wave pom poms for some obscure reason and are studiously ignored by all, even flanelette-clad yobbos nursing tinnies, who have more important things on their mind.

The announcer’s attempts to manufacture crowd noise – “Let’s cheer for the Doggies NOW”- are met with polite boredom. But when Our Boys run out on the field, the spontaneous roar inside the closed stadium splits our ears, and for an electrifying second, it does sound like the old home ground, with subversive supporters calling out “Come on Footscray!” and the cheer squad stamping feet on the concrete floors.

The same black humour that has carried the fans through many bleak performances is still there. Nicknames abound – defender Todd Curley is “The Pubic One”, midfielder Simon Garlick is “Breath” and forward Andrew Wills’ shining bald pate earns him the name “Egg Man.” There is great glee when the Egg Man crashes to the turf and a chorus goes up of “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall..”

But at three-quarter time the crowd’s humour has faded and there is a mood of sullen resignation. Yes, the Dogs are about to lose the apparently unloseable game. They are more than five goals down and taking a hiding from their previously winless opponents. Already case-hardened Doggies supporters are bracing themselves for the mortifying headlines and stern- faced crisis meetings that will inevitably follow.

Kev can’t stand it any more. In the hushed interlude as the team prepares for the final quarter, he rises to his feet to deliver an anguished, Hamlet-esque soliloquy. “Twenty years I’ve been watching this – 20 years of this crap. At least at the Western Oval we had mud! Open the roof! Bring back the mud!

“It’s all like a Leunig cartoon, where the bloke goes into a tattoo shop and asks to have ‘Born Loser’ and ends up with ‘Born looser’. And he says to the tattooist, ‘Leave it there, it’s all right.’ That’s what barracking for this mob is like.”

But Our Boys have more grit than Kev thinks. Somehow they conjure their way back into the game they seemed to have lost, led by their graceful champion, Chris Grant. With a minute to go, they snatch the lead. Delirious fans leap into the air as the siren sounds – the Dogs have pinched the game!

At the Western Oval this would be the signal for 1000s of kids to pour onto the ground, an indulgence strictly forbidden at Colonial. They would jostle with their heroes who would slowly make their way off the ground, towering above the sea of excited fans, who would pat their muddy backs, smell their sweat and linament and marvel at how big these boy-men are up close.

I turn to Kev to get his thoughts on the meaning of this change. But he is hugging two mates, and belting out the club song.

On the train on the way home everyone is smiling, the young cuddly couples, the earnest Vietnamese family, Kathy’s sleepy children curled up on her knee. The Dogs have won, and the Dream lives on. The train disgorges everyone at Footscray station, and people spill out, oblivious to the cold and rain, chatting to strangers and reliving the game. Their week will be enriched, just because, in a game of hundreds of fateful actions, an unpredictable oval ball slid through two white posts one more time for the Dogs than the hapless opposition.

I talk to my mother on the phone the next day. She had been at the match of course, cutting short a holiday in Perth and going straight from the airport to the match. It is now 46 long years since, seduced by the premiership euphoria, she became that mysterious creature, a football fan. “That team will be the death of me,” she says complacently as we discuss the Dogs’ heart- stopping win. She has made this prediction many times and clearly considers this would be a noble, indeed fitting, way to end her days.

Births and deaths framed around football matches. The Dogs can play at Colonial stadium or even the moon. Kathy, Kev and my mum will still be there, the vibrant, beating heart of the game.


  1. David Downer says

    Terrific read Kerrie, great stuff!

    You’ve beautifully nailed the insight into barracking for a team like the Dogs (or my Saints). I remember that game well and was there myself. I hoped against hope we wouldnt get over-run in that last qtr, but you could almost see it coming. Another heart-breaker! The game will probably be best remembered for Max Hudghton’s tears.


  2. Wonderful stuff, Kerrie.

    I also remember Maxy’s tears but, more so, I remember deciding after that night that it’s not such a good idea to go to the footy with your mates who support the opposition. I wanted to scream with delight when that final siren went but my friend was sitting next to me broken-hearted, so I felt I couldn’t.

    These days I meet her before and after the game whenever the Doggies play the Saints, but we watch the game from separate vantage points. It allows one of us a few moments of glory without the guilty feeling.

    I’ll be happy for a replay of that game this Friday!

  3. Fantastic story, Kerrie.

    I’m impressed, and proud to know you. I’m even more impressed that you are a supporter of a near-perennial cellar dweller like my team. It’s the most rewarding way to follow football; chasing and staring down fate.

    And thanks for introducing me to this brilliant website.

  4. I loved reading that, Kerrie. I remember that game for bursting into tears the next morning (as a 12 year-old…), reflecting Max’s own (mine were not as stoic, however) as he walked off in another losing side in 2000.

    As empty a feeling it was seeing highlights of the game that morning, and those of many, many similar scenes since, reading this reinforces that I wouldn’t have it any other way – St Kilda is a part of my family, my childhood and my life. Our lives are unimaginable without your Dogs and my Saints, no matter how little glory or much heartache they’ve given us.

  5. Dorothy G says

    Dear Kerrie
    your story telling is brilliant, in fact, you do have a touch of the ‘blarney’ in your beautifully written story about our ‘Dogs’. Tonight I sit here pondering my footy tips and feeling down about our very poor form this season but nevertheless I cannot bring myself to tip against them – hence I will never win the footy tipping competition !!…..but I have to say thank you as you have restored my faith, reminded me of why I could never stop barracking for my beloved Dogs and reinforced my dream that one day, one day we will all get to sing THE SONG at a Grand Final.

  6. I’m glad the story struck a chord. I wasn’t sure if it would still have resonance, since it was written 11 years ago, yet so much is very familiar. The dogs still chronically under performing, the fans still waiting, dreaming, hoping, and frequently despairing.

    At least the saints have got close. I don’t think other fans can really comprehend the idea that it is 50 years since the dogs were even in a grand final. Hard to know what keeps us going, but maybe some of it is in this, friendship, and the sheer quixotic nature of the quest. Thank you for the lovely comments!

  7. Hi Kerrie,
    Great story, viividy real with details so strange they have to be true. You could have given yourself more mention of your work in Footscray’s fightback. Also, I’m surprised you’ve adopted Western Bulldogs terminology with equanimity and are not railing against the corporization and blandness of Western Bulldogs. Always Footscray to me although I do notice that younger people dont’ know who I mean. see what I mean?
    Growing up as a Collingwood family member surrounded by Dogs supporters at school (including your good self, Susan Butterworth was the only other Collingwood supporter I ever met at school)) in the seventies, I never understood that footballl was about winning. It was about losing in heartbreaking, perverse ways. It was about angst, teams with heart and no brains, hubris, stupidity and deep pain. So I always had an affinity with your lot. Since then of course, our paths have diverged but I know and you know there are always things that will always unite us.There are some things no matter how successful or how unsuccessful remain important no matter who you are. That’s right beating Carlton. Go the Dogs.

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