Dog of a Year

Barring a miracle, Bob Murphy, patron saint of rascals, iconic figure at the Western Bulldogs, will play his last AFL game this weekend.

 

There is nothing not to like about Bob.  He has been a loyal leader of the club for nearly two decades.  He’s chalked up over 300 games at a consistently high standard.  Off the field, he is charming, intelligent, funny. He writes with wit, whimsy and insight, like few footballers I know.  As his media contributions have become more frequent than his actual games, the love for Bob from commentators and journos has only grown.  Be prepared for plenty more dewy-eyed tributes in the coming week.

 

In itself, that’s all very nice.  But it raises a couple of issues.

 

One is that this cosy relationship with the media seems to have made Bob a subject about which only sentiment is permitted.  For example, I suppose it was OK for the media to lap up that moment of Bob being gifted his coach’s Premiership medallion as a fitting tribute to his special contribution to the team.  But not one cynical hack dared point out that for the entire finals series and 90% of the Premiership season Bob didn’t play, nor speculated how other “significant players” who missed their clubs’ greatest triumphs through injury might have felt about the gesture when they received no similar recognition.  It’s a lengthy list.

 

The Fourth Estate were certainly asleep at the wheel in unquestioningly accepting the tacky, opportunistic commercialism that accompanied Bob’s 300th game.  Even in these days of “commemoration by marketing”, surely someone could have suggested that the special “Bob” jumpers and coffee mugs were OTT, particularly when compared with comparatively muted 300th celebrations for Nick Riewoldt, Gary Ablett, Luke Hodge, even James Kelly, all arguably much bigger figures in the game?

 

But my point is not to run down Bob.  Rather, it’s to suggest that this uncritical adulation of the individual, perhaps justifiable in itself, has actually become a component of a cloying narrative about the Mutts which has become increasingly irritating as their 2016 triumph recedes into history.

 

Now I have no problem with genuine, die-hard fans of the Dogs knocking themselves out with months of celebrations.  The 2016 Flag was a remarkable feat and, God knows, they’d been through enough misery until last year (as they never cease to remind us).  But as their sputtering candle of a 2017 season has dragged on, there seems to have been a singular reluctance from supposedly objective commentators to query whether the Dogs are simply a good ordinary team that fortuitously hit a rich vein of form last September.

 

So why has this aura persisted about last year’s Premiers?

 

The media is the obvious offender, with its hyperbole about the quality of this team, the glorification of “Bont”, “JJ”, “Package”, “Libba” et al., as though they’d accumulated a decade’s worth of All-Australian selection.  Yes, they’ll always have the “Premiership Player” tag, but beyond that, genuine stars forge their reputations over seasons rather than weeks.  Few enhanced theirs in 2017.  Yet even as the harsh reality became increasingly apparent, plenty of “experts” still desperately tried to justify their fanciful pre-season pronouncements, clinging to the hope that the Dogs would again come home with a wet sail and take September by storm.

 

But there’s also a sentimental overlay that there’s some special ethos about the Bulldogs, and it’s here that the club has been opportunistically complicit with the media in fuelling a myth.

 

In fairness, years of outright failure, punctuated by some heart-breaking near misses, allowed the Bulldogs to run the “Cinderella Club” and “loyal battlers” lines without much fear of contradiction.  But the 2016 Flag made these cliches more than a little hypocritical as they butted up awkwardly against success, the profit motive and the Premiership bandwagon.

 

The “battlers” were bombarded with the usual barrage of merchandising options that accompany an unexpected Premiership and evidently opened their wallets with gusto.  Just glance at all those very natty new white, red and blue scarves that the faithful wore this year.  Very fashionable.  Not at all blue collar.  And I’m sure just the tip of the iceberg of what they could spend their hard-earned on.

 

And as for the “loyalty” thing, well, ahem, it’s a fact of life that everyone loves a winner so let’s not pretend that the 47,000 Bulldogs members (7000 up on last year) are all rusted-on “Danny from Droop Street” types, who’ve endured decades of hardship and failure.  Like any club, the Dogs will take the membership dollar from anyone. If loyalty was that important, maybe 2017 membership applications could have been accompanied with a compulsory sign-on question like “Who’s Joel Hamling?”  Just a thought.

 

So let’s call bulldust on the “blood and boots” spin about the Bulldogs.  It was funny, once, on a banner.  But contrary to the propaganda, the Western Bulldogs are just another AFL club, a slick example of sporting capitalism, doing its darndest to extract as many dollars out of as many folk as possible.  They don’t survive on community spirit, meat tray raffles and suburban loyalty.  If the club was ever in that world, it symbolically signed out of it in 1997 when it abandoned the name “Footscray”, stopped playing games at the Western Oval and launched a shiny new “brand” on the grounds that it would appeal to a wider demographic across western Melbourne.  Cynics at the time argued that it also made for a much easier transition in the event that the Bulldogs were ever moved to, say, Western Sydney.  That didn’t happen, but I did hear their recent foray to Ballarat being described by the club itself as a move to “grow the western Victorian corridor”.  If that’s not a line from a “focus group” I’ll go he!

 

So let me finish where I started – with Bob.  Bob is intelligent and modest enough to see through hype and appears uneasy at being its subject.  I think that if pushed, Bob would admit, more bluntly than most, that in the aftermath of last year’s Premiership glory, the club has struggled to handle the expectation generated by the media and its own PR machine.  They’re certainly not the first club to have experienced “the year after” syndrome.  Maybe the best thing that can come from the Dogs’ limp Premiership defence and Bob’s swansong is that we might see some cold hard analysis replace sentiment about the Team of the Mighty West.

 

If Bob himself is holding the pen in 2018, I’m confident he’ll get the balance right.

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. Tony Robb says:

    Great piece Stainless, Apparently Sam Newman had a dig at Bob last night on the footie show for getting up on the dais last year and was howled down as if he had shot bambie. Bob has been a loyal servant whose status in the game has been highly overstated, as you have pointed out. The Dogs have been very ordinary this year with too many passengers. A failure to rebound strongly will be devastating for the club long term.
    Cheers
    TR

  2. Punxsu.... Pete says:

    Bugger, I was hoping another almanac doggie would’ve got off his or her arse by now to address this post, but seeing that they haven’t, I guess I’ll have to do the heavy lifting … sheesh

    Stainless,

    I think it’s fair to say that you’re trying to make a case that the dogs are undeserving of their likeability? Well I won’t concern myself with the undeserving angle, but I can disabuse any notion that the dogs are universally liked: any opposition supporter within earshot of my obnoxious barracking over the last 40 years hates us like vermin … and not just any vermin; a new strain that can only inhabit sewers.

    PS You can’t taint a premiership, mate. Believe me, I’ve tried. Up until 2016, I misspent epochs of time subverting the merits of premiership teams. It’s a road that leads to madness, or at the very least, embitterment.

  3. Stainless says:

    Thanks Tony – glad I’m not the only heretic!
    I thought this piece might provoke a bit more response from the community that brought us “The Dogs Footy Almanac”, but maybe the silence to date means I’ve been ex-communicated??

  4. Stainless says:

    Punxsu – thanks. That’s the sort of reaction I was looking for.
    A few points:
    The hatred for the Dogs you describe is news to me. It seemed that the whole unaligned footy world found the Dogs likeable in 2016 (I certainly did). Up until then I sensed everyone just felt vaguely sorry for them.
    Yes, you can’t taint a Premiership but once you win one, any notion that you’re still deserving of the likeable underdog goes out the window – immediately. You’re now the hunted.
    My point is not to disparage the Dogs of 2016 but to say that they’ve not handled the effects of their success well in 2017.
    Probably my strongest criticism is directed towards the many so-called experts have gotten way too carried away with their assessment of the Dogs and have ended up looking silly.

  5. Dave Brown says:

    I find it all a bit odd to be honest, Stainless. I don’t see that the premiership last year to (probably) missing the finals this year is that unusual. The Bulldogs won an unlikely premiership last year. To say that does not diminish it in any way, it just was. This year they have dropped a bit and the rest of the competition has improved, particularly in the areas that were the Bulldogs’ strengths last year. Chuck in a few injuries and it’s all not sufficiently surprising to label it a hangover for mine.

  6. Stainless says:

    I agree Dave – but lots of “rose-coloured glasses” experts haven’t been so willing to face reality,

  7. Here’s my 20 cents.

    Whether Bob’s status in the game is overstated or not is probably not something I can comment on, being a rusted-on Bulldogs fan, although I would ask who is doing the overstating, what are the statements that are being made, and how do we measure them objectively?

    What I feel more comfortable commenting on is Bob’s status at the CLUB and his qualification for being on the dais on Grand Final day last year. I think only those who who are part of the inner sanctum of the club can truly make a call on whether he deserved to be up there but I reckon I know enough about the Dogs to say that there is no way they would have won a flag without his contributions OFF THE FIELD, particularly after the events of late 2014 but also beforehand. I would venture to say that those contributions were as critical as those of the coach Luke Beveridge and the playing captain of day, Easton Wood. Most importantly, Bevo and Easton Wood feel that way, too, so if they themselves believe Bob deserved to be on the stage accepting the spoils of a Grand Final win, who are we on the outside to argue? There may well be other players at other clubs who missed on premiership success but made equally vital contributions to that success but because they did not climb the dais on GF day, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Bob should not have done so.

    As for the marketing of Bob’s 300th being over the top, I had a look at the Dogs’, Hawthorn’s and St Kilda’s online shop web pages. Each of them has a DEDICATED page to Bob, Hodge and ‘Rooey’ respectively. There are 21 items on the Hodge page and 17 on Bob’s, while Riewoldt’s only has five, but for Roo this is more a function of the fact the his 300th game wasn’t played this year. I agree that the Bob merchandising is OTT (and there’s no doubt he would too), but no more so than any other club’s.

    Media-wise, David King has been one who has consistently talked up the Dogs, predicting the team to come good as September drew near. Other journalists that I’ve read and listened to have been pretty lukewarm towards the club going close to another flag by my reading of them. Am I reading and listening to different journos? Or am I just hearing them differently?

    Meanwhile, until tonight at least, back-to-back flags remain mathematically possible! So I’m off to clear some shelf space for my 2017 Bulldogs premiership poster, mug, flag, DVDs, jumper, t-shirt, framed prints, badges, caps, beanie, scarf, keyring, Christmas cards, picture book and stubby holder!

  8. This is a great piece Stainless.

    It gets to the core of top-level professional sport. Capitalists in whatever guise will commercialise anything that is meaningful for people. IN the arts. In sport. Religion.

    And yes, you’re right Stainless, here we are, Malarkey Publications, a standard-bearer for capitalism, exploiting readers and Doggies fans by cashing in on the wave of 2016 emotion – we’re just another squad of uncritical myth-makers.

    Or are we trying to give people an opportunity to express the depth of their satisfaction?

    The Doggies Almanac broke even – and a little more. But it didn’t stop the reality that Malarkey Publications only exists because of the generosity of volunteer editors. We are not a business. We’re a service.

    The coffers may have been filled had the Doggies chosen to support our book. But the commercial organisation which is the Western Bulldogs (you are absolutely right in that observation Stainless) chose NOT TO STOCK IT IN ITS SHOPS, OR MENTION IT ON THEIR WEBSITE, OR SUPPORT IT IN ANY WAY. I OFFERED THEM COPIES AT NEXT TO NOTHING> ONE EMAIL TO MEMBERS AND THEY’D HAVE SOLD SQUILLIONS.

    I could embarrass one of its professionals by quoting from her email, but that would be unkind.

    Many of the people who are exploiting the game and the meaning that the game contains DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THEY’VE GOT. They just know they’ve got something marketable.

    However, let me put Mammon to the side, and concentrate on what matters to me. Life matters. meaning matters.

    For me the Dogs 2016 premiership was meaningful for numerous reasons. And it was meaningful to many people – not just Dogs supporters.

    I would like to write about this but it would open me up to even more accusations of self-indulgence. I have held off.

    In 2016:

    1. I liked Luke Beveridge’s approach. I liked his willingness to show affection.
    2. I liked that he wanted to win games, by playing attacking, joyful football. He had flagged that in late 2015.
    3. I liked that players took risks – especially when they were granted the freedom to employ their run and gun option
    4. I liked how the September story developed momentum. The lounge room moment v WC when they came back so brilliantly and smashed WC forced me to actually go to the MCG for the Hawthorn match, again a classic battle. Then to the GWS game and then the Grand Final. Geelong getting smashed by the Swans sealed the deal.
    5. Dean Lush’s GF week piece in particular (there were others as well) made me realise the depth of feeling around. Kerrie Soraghan’s as well. There was a lot of fine writing about the Doggies on the site.
    6. But my story is the one I would like to tell. That story involves my dear friend the late Mike Selleck, his mate John Murphy (Robert’s father), a cadets trip to Mildura (or somewhere up the bush) and a Brownlow Medal, a response to a letter, the Prelim Final tears of Robert Murphy, my return to words about tears and football I had written in Loose Men Everywhere 15 years before, tears generally, the Murphys at the Grand Final Eve lunch, the Grand Final itself, Luke Beveridge and the Grand Final celebrations, and more. But who would be interested in that?
    7. I have a story – and I’m not even a Bulldogs fan. The personal stories that came in after the Grand Final deserved celebration. So I decided we should do a book. There were other factors.

    Whether a book came out or not, whether we had stories on the Almanac site or not, I think many people – not just Dogs fans – were connected to the story, and affected by the story. Even if just to smile for a day. Or even shed a tear in empathy.

    If I had more time I’d have brought out The Footy Almanac 2016. But I don’t. It’s still coming. I hope by Easter next year. I’ll cash in on a Python-esque marketing campaign – yes it is the 2016 edition – and retire on the proceeds.

  9. And on Bob, Stainless, I agree with your closing words. He has a big picture understanding.

  10. Ok, I’m the person who wrote: The Mighty West and at the risk of crass commercialism I only wish you could read it as I think it articulated all the reasons why the premiership WAS special. Why it was a celebration more precious because of all those heartaches. Why our club still is central to the western suburbs community. Why people got in cars and drove to GWS just to be there with our team even though we’d lost those seven Preliminary finals in a row.

    I’m saddened that lately it’s fashionable to tear our premiership down. If we were just a good ordinary side doesn’t that make our achievement even more remarkable, winning four gruelling finals, in each of which we were unanimously expected to fail. Why do even the best, most romantic of stories need to be deconstructed? Why can’t we just enjoy things that are magical, mysterious and emotional?

    As for the tacky merchandise, I don’t own one of those things but as one of many who doorknocked and did everything to keep it alive when we were merged out of existence in 89, long live anything that ensures that our club survives, and thrives.

    And Bob up on the podium – for me and every other Bulldog fan, it was the most wonderful part of the day. That’s because he has been part of our lives, our club’s ‘dreaming’, articulated our story, Led us back to hope and relevance at a crisis time for the Dogs. Our flag was about more than the 22 players on the field. I thought it was right, and fitting, that he was there, wearing his number two Guernsey under his match day attire. I invite you to read my blog post on this day to see that there are many reasons why fans love their club and our journey with our players, our own family stories, our sense of belonging are part of these too.
    http://www.bulldogtragician.com/the-tragician-blog/the-2016-premiership-blog-the-force-was-with-us-and-we-were-the-force

    Our 2017 season has been a bust. I think we’ve copped our share of whacks over that and rightly so. I just can’t get the argument that’s around, that this miserable year somehow diminishes the year before.

    PS Bob gave his medal back and it’s now in the Bulldogs museum.

  11. george smith says:

    It has been my contention for years that the Bulldogs treat every close defeat as a cross between Rorke’s Drift and Gallipoli, instead of spewing, like Terry Wallace, if someone pats them on the back for a good effort. Last year that all ended in the best possible way.
    But as we see Collingwood turning into Footscray – obsession with personal bests and doing the right thing by past champions, and Footscray turning into Collingwood – winning the flag and not knowing what to do next, beware Footscray. Winning that next flag is no walk in the park, and nobody is indispensable, not Teddy, not Hawk, not Bob, not Brad, not anybody…

  12. As a lifelong doggies supporter I must say one of the most lovely feelings post premiership last year was a sense that the club would be forever stronger. Financial woes have been at the heart of our problems over decades, so I was delighted to see the shelves at the Bulldogs Shop empty.

    I think Bob would be pragmatic enough to know romanticism doesn’t pay the bills.

    This year was ordinary, but nothing can take away how perfect and exciting 2016 was for us westies.

    I’d argue that the Bulldogs are more ensconced in the community than you would think. They invest a great deal locally – men’s health initiatives, refugee programs, social inclusion work. That’s not the work of some mindless marketing machine. There’s a lot of good going on and if some Bob jumpers help fund that, well, that’s a great thing.

    John – I’m sorry to hear the club didn’t promote the Almanac. It’s such a special thing to have, all those stories. It’s my favourite premiership purchase!

  13. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Stainless, you are brave taking on Bambi Bob !! I think our game has more space for sentimentality – Buckley has kept his job because of it for 3 years. I liked what Bevo did for Bob and I reckon the club showed respect for a bloke who indeed offered a beacon of hope/dreaming as Kerry states above – A spiritual/symbolic leader. However, I do agree that these ‘moments’ can get overplayed and lead to commemoration fatigue. This is also a result of media saturation milking the moment for every possible penny.

    Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri a few months after he helped deliver a football fairy tale on a global scale. Would Tony Jewel been a Premiership coach in ’82 had your Tigers not been so ruthless?

    I’m still waiting to see Collingwood represented on the cover of the Footy Almanac. Thought the Women’s league might have provided the opportunity seeing as Carlton and Collingwood launched the season with a bumper crowd, but alas Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide were safer options it seems.

  14. Stainless says:

    Hi all

    Thanks for all your comments.

    I thought long and hard before posting this piece. I knew it would polarise opinion but was unsure whether or not it would be seen as just envious ramblings.

    To those Doggies fans who have misinterpreted my article as a denigration of your 2016 Premiership, let me stress that I loved every minute of that finals campaign and was cheering home the Mutts at the G on Grand Final day with almost as much gusto as the rusted on fans. I still have recordings of both the Prelim and GF and am in no hurry to delete either. Kerrie – I would love to read “The Mighty West” as I’m sure it conveys profoundly how the Dogs’ achievement will stand as one for the ages and means so much to loyal fans like you.

    However, whilst the article was ostensibly about the Dogs, I think I set out to emphasise a few broader things:
    – the predictions, perceptions and opinions about the 2017 Bulldogs (as with many reigning Premiers) were far too grounded in the sentiment of what they achieved last year and failed to recognise that the AFL is a brutally fast-changing competition. My criticism here is largely directed at outsiders to the club, but that said, as a newcomer to Premiership success, the Dogs will quickly need to learn the harsh lessons of living in the (even very recent) past;
    – narratives about sporting clubs are constantly changing in accordance with their achievements or lack thereof. As I said, the dyed-in-the-wool fans can indulge in the 2016 Flag for ever as far as I’m concerned but don’t expect the same groundswell of sentimental favouritism from the rest of us in future. The Dogs became the hunted from Round 1 2017;
    – the AFL has a rich history and strong, deep-rooted community connections, but it is ultimately a big commercial machine. The diversity of comments on my piece have highlighted aspects of the inherent tension that this involves. It’s apparent that while the Bulldogs do retain a degree of community spirit, I have learned enough over the last few days to be convinced that the club is as guilty as any other of crass commercialism, capitalising on but not truly understanding its value proposition (if I may use such a term).

    As I write this, my own team, Richmond, has just secured 3rd place on the ladder and is being talked up as a genuine Flag fancy. Whether we triumph or crash over the next few weeks, don’t think that I haven’t thought about how everything that I’ve described about the Bulldogs applies in equal measure to the Tigers.

  15. Interesting piece, Stainless, and good on you for posting it on the site. I agree with some of what you say, and find myself being curious about other things you say.

    Of course the Western Bulldogs are a corporate money-making venture: they are 1/18th of the AFL, so that is a huge part of their reason for being. And of course they will take membership dollars from anyone – I am not aware of the Bulldogs promoting themselves as the home of “Danny from Droop St” types.
    And the Bulldogs certainly had no control over how the pundits rated them prior to this season – they are not the first (and won’t be the last) premiership team to have a poor season in the aftermath.
    I have no problem with your suggestion that other 300-game players were bigger names than Bob, but that is just the thing – he is Bob, he is different, and people/thinkers like him are what we cling to/need, to ensure that the AFL continues to retain some sort of character.

  16. Noel Simmons says:

    Dog of an article

  17. Arlo Langham says:

    you would do well to watch Martin Flanagan’s jumper presentation for green ruckman Tim English from earlier this year (http://www.westernbulldogs.com.au/video/2017-05-26/flanagan-presents-gurernsey-to-english).

    Flanagan has always understood the Footscray/WB Football Club and the class issues that pervade it (and the suburb it still calls home). The national comp gloss failed to coat these issues – in fact it almost brought the club to its knees several times. The Premiership, as you say, has finally masked some of this. (Though, as was pointed out in classist glee by many on social media, there is something congruent about the fact that only the ‘Vans’ division of Mercedes Benz have joined up since the Flag).

    Bob Murphy is one of the most important modern Bulldogs because he represents the roots of our club (which I believe DO still exist) in a way that is not anachronistic and has not tried to deny the present or the future. He is a preserver of a traditional spirit, and, no matter how hokey that may appear to some, I think that it is what makes him a unique person in modern football.

    The (perceived) move away from “community spirit, meat tray raffles and suburban loyalty”, the corporate spin, the name change and the new grandstands have been enacted so as to SURVIVE “sporting capitalism”, not to gleefully take up its mantle whilst conning a traditional supporter base.

    Respectfully,

    A young Danny from Droop Street.

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