Was the Dogs’ 97 PF loss the ‘butterfly effect’ in the 09 failure?

“I’ve always felt we’ve never won the really big, key moments in finals. We’ve potentially been good enough, but we haven’t won the big moments to get us across the line.”

You can play a breathtaking brand of footy and play in prelims. You can have a reasonable defence and an unbelievable offence and be good enough to make prelims, but it’s proven over time that if you’re not good around the footy you’re not going to win the premiership.” – Chris Grant, February 14, 2014

The wise comments of the Legendary Great Man got me thinking.

There have only been two occasions where I genuinely thought the Dogs were on the brink of playing in a Grand Final, where I sat restlessly on the edge of my seat at three quarter time in a preliminary final, and believed, really believed, that one of the longest and most painful of football droughts was about to come to an end.

The first occasion needs little introduction: the one that lives on in the shell-shocked psyche of Bulldogs’ fans everywhere, the most bitter, galling loss of them all, the ’97 Preliminary Final.

The second was more recent, against St Kilda in 2009. For some reason I’ve tended to be more philosophical about that one. The pain doesn’t burn as deep, unlike ’97, where that inane ‘Pride of South Australia’ Crows’ anthem forms a permanent ghastly soundtrack in my head. Accompanied by flashback memories of Darren Jarman leading out smoothly time and again to mark the ball (unopposed? he is in my memories..). And Rohan Smith punching the ground, graphically enacting the despair that had rendered the Bulldog fans around me stunned, silent and speechless.

The Great Man was, in fact, out on the field that day. The Bulldogs had – naturally – done the ‘thinkable’ and spectacularly squandered the 22 point lead they held at three quarter time. In the dying moments, just after the Crows had snatched the lead we’d held all day, an attack into our forward line was launched, and the ball spilt loose a metre out from the goal line. Two of our players (Chris himself, and Paul Hudson) outnumbered a solitary Crows’ opponent. There was some sort of epic fumble or mix-up between them, when only the simplest of toe pokes would have ensured a goal, and the ball was instead rushed for a point.

We didn’t regain the lead.

A few months later I was at the movies and a Nike ad came on. To the haunting sounds of Bitter Sweet Symphony, the screen filled with the desolate image of Chris at the final siren of that match, beginning the slow anguished trudge across the MCG. Chris Grant, who could have, should have been, a premiership hero and Brownlow medallist to boot, was instead depicted as a poignant emblem of how sport and luck and fate can rip your heart in two.

Okay – perhaps it wasn’t a good idea of mine to revive the nightmare. But it’s been on my mind, since reading Chris’s words about the ‘big moments’ that we’ve never played well. I’ve also been wondering about the connection between ’97 and the loss in ’09. Is it possible that the 97 catastrophe is the butterfly effect somehow shaping our destiny many years later?

The ’09 defeat is, in fact, one that should burn just as deep as a lost opportunity. You could say that the ’97 team had perhaps over-achieved (it’s a debate for another day as to whether a team CAN over-achieve), rocketing from virtually last to a kick or toe-poke away from a Grand Final in a single season. We hadn’t even dreamt of making the finals that year, and if not for the ignominious way we collapsed on that September afternoon, our effort in finishing the season third would have been seen as valiant, inspirational.

In 2009, however, we were a seasoned team, right in that premiership ‘window’. We were a top four side for the second year in a row and had defeated nemesis team (and eventual premier) Geelong by four goals only a few weeks earlier. We were pretty much full strength – there weren’t the injuries or suspensions that could maybe have been worth one precious, match-saving goal in 1997 (Dimattina and Southern suspended, with Daniel being the only player before, or indeed since, to be suspended for ‘wrestling’. Just saying).

Was it our time, at last?

Five minutes into the last quarter, Brad Johnson – the sole remnant of the 97 team – put us back in the lead (a lead we’d held for probably 80 per cent of the match). Not since…yep, ’97… had we been in front in the last quarter of a preliminary final.

It was one of the most suffocatingly close matches I’ve ever watched. We’d battled with inaccuracy in the first quarter, spraying the goals when we were well on top. There were critical umpiring decisions throughout the match that were so infernally baffling that The Age devoted a whole page, the following day, to analysing them. Then came the familiar Bulldog tale of a loss of composure, after the infamous Nick Riewoldt-Brian Lake free kick, which saw our momentum stemmed and our lead overturned. We seemed to be made of sterner stuff this time though: we’d rallied and were in front, with 15 minutes to go, and a grand final spot in our grasp.

There was a moment, just a moment, where I let myself dream of what could be. Where I imagined how it would feel when the siren sounded and we’d won, before wrenching my attention back to the fierce contest still being played out in front of me. Strangely, as happens in the most tense of matches, I couldn’t barrack any more. Any illusion that I could influence the result by the intensity of my support was gone. I was a spectator in the most literal sense, and just like the dreamer unable to will their limbs to move any more, I was powerless and could only watch what would unfold.

When the siren went, we were losers again. We hadn’t been able to press home our advantage, couldn’t administer that ruthless killer blow. Gilbee and Giansiracusa, our most elegant finishers, missed eminently gettable shots. Riewoldt, by contrast, came to the fore with two last quarter goals. He soccered the last one through, squeezing it through our defenders’ despairing, lunging hands. Taking the opportunity that Chris Grant had not 12 years earlier.

The match, everyone said, was thrilling and enthralling. A classic. I didn’t walk out with the sickening embarrassment of the 97 final. I felt proud, in fact.  In between calling for a Royal Commission into the umpiring, I claimed to be satisfied with the Dogs’ undoubted bravery and desire to win. They’d given their all, they were exhausted, they had fought and scrapped to the end.

I guess I didn’t want to think too much about why we’d really lost.

We’d out-performed them in tackles. We had the greater number of disposals. We had an incredible 17 more inside 50s than our opponents. If, in fact, even just a measly two of those 17 had resulted in a goal, we would have won. Yet our conversion rate that night was a miserable 38.9% compared to the Saints 60. ‘Potentially good enough’: yep, but in those key points, the big moments, something faltered.

Now that we’re back in a rebuild/refresh/reinvigoration phase, these days already seem so long ago. We’re unlikely to be there on preliminary final day this year. Our consolation prize is to enjoy and invest in the emergence of a new breed, who were on display in the NAB challenge last night – exciting, raw but still inconsistent. Stringer, McRae, Hunter, Johanssen, Jong, Libber the second, and Wallis…who knows? They may equal or better the feats of the lads from ’97 or ’09.

Still, while I enjoy watching their progress, I’m haunted by those lost finals. Why is our club unable to deliver our absolute best, show the right mix of poise, composure and daring, when we need it most? Has the failure of 97 hovered like an unseen, malevolent presence, silently tainting those that have come after?

If we could go back to the 1997 future in a red white and blue themed DeLorean, in some parallel universe, Chris Grant’s outstretched foot would just have reached the ball, while Paul Hudson selflessly shepherded. Terry Wallace would have had the foresight to implement his later innovation, the uber-flood, in the final 90 seconds to protect our lead. As the siren sounded and OUR song began to blare out, the crowd around me would have wept tears of joy instead of despair and humiliation.

Fortified by the knowledge that we’d bravely withstood the Crows’ surge. The victory even sweeter because it had so nearly been snatched. Brad Johnson, Scott West, Rohan Smith, Luke Darcy and Chris Grant could have gone on to be 1997 premiership heroes when, buoyed and confident, we disposed of St Kilda. Another premiership could have followed in 1998, when we were again good enough to have a top four finish.

In 2009, when the blowtorch was applied in the last quarter, the next generation of Bulldogs could have dug deep into a reserve of recent successes and triumphs, the legacy of the dual premiership era champions, who oozed the charisma of winners. Ryan Griffen would not have been slumped on the ground, in tears, replicating the famous and poignant image of Rohan Smith, who’d grown up in Yarraville, and played 300 games without a Grand Final.

In the absence of a Bulldogs DeLorean (you just know it would sputter to a halt on Barkly Street), I turn for answers and hope, from our increasingly impressive coach Brendan McCartney. In a great pen-portrait written by Martin Flanagan this weekend, BMac described his satisfaction in walking down the race in 2007 after he’d played a significant part in finally bringing premiership success and overturning the culture of the mercurial and success-starved Cats.

BMac quoted Sir Alec Ferguson to describe his appreciation and his vision for his role at our beloved and unlucky club:

“Thanks for giving me the time to a build a football club, and not just a football team.”

Footnote: there are more cheerful musings about the Bulldogs’ fate , interspersed with rare doses of insane optimism, at my blog :

http://www.bulldogtragician.com/

 

About

Author of 'The Mighty West: the Bulldogs journey from daydream believers to premiership heroes.' Available at all good book stores and probably a few mediocre ones as well. Indoctrinated as a fan of the Bulldogs at an impressionable age. Caught unawares by the 2016 premiership, I have been blogging about being a fan and sometimes about the actual on-field performances of the Western Bulldogs at bulldogtragician.com Twitter @bulldogstragic

Comments

  1. Kerrie

    Very brave of you to revive such painful occasions.

    I attended both games and they were certainly memorable finals. However, I agree with you that the 97 final was the really shocking one. For the neutral observers, it was literally one of those sit back and relax-type afternoons – until halfway through the last quarter, that is. Even if I wasn’t gutted by the result, I was certainly gobsmacked.

    On reflection I think there were three reasons for this.

    The first is that no-one really rated Adelaide. As I recall the Dogs mauled them about three weeks before the finals in Adelaide and had certainly out-performed them across the season. That combied with a week’s rest and home town advantage all pointed to an easy win for the Bullies.

    The second reason is that for 90 % of the game, that’s exactly how it looked like playing out. The Dogs established a big break in the second quarter which they then maintained through the third. Tony Modra did his knee which only added to the sense that the Crows were down and out. Even at the start of the last quarter the Dogs bombarded the goals (remember Libba’s celebration of the goal that wasn’t) and you sensed that the Crows were about to be buried. The last 15 minutes came from nowhere.

    The third reason is that, apart from blowing the unloseable, I think there was a real sense that the Dogs could have won the Grand Final the next week. I certainly reckon you would have beaten St Kilda.

    By contrast I don’t think you would have beaten Geelong in 2009 (they comfortably beat you in the QF), nor even that the Prelim Final was such a golden opportunity. In fact St Kilda had been the standout team that year (20 wins) and deservedly started favourites. It was a gallant effort to match them as you did but as a neutral, I confess to hoping the Saints would prevail as it would make for a better GF matchup the next week (it did!)

  2. matt watson says

    Hi Kerrie,
    I think the preliminary final wipe-out in 1998 is more linked to the 1997 capitulation .
    Had the Bulldogs defeated Adelaide in 1997, they might have won back to back flags.
    Football is such a cruel game, and history tends to hate teams like the Bulldogs and St Kilda.
    Though I don’t support the Bulldogs, I hated Adelaide for what they did to you.
    Don’t give me that crap about Adelaide’s wins being good for the ‘national’ competition.
    Once again, a poor Victorian club was eclipsed by a rich interstate club.
    The reason is simple…
    It all comes down to money.
    The draft and salary cap were supposed to even out the competition, but North Melbourne is the only poor club to win a grand final since 1987. Every other club since then has been rich.
    Simply, the Bulldogs, St Kilda, Melbourne etc don’t have the funds to compete. They are either paying 93% of the salary cap or unable to attract high priced recruits.
    Equalisation measures the AFL is banging on about at the moment won’t change a thing.
    I remember being so angry when the Crows knocked you off in 97. I couldn’t help but think the AFL would be more thrilled by the success of an expansion club rather than the poor old Bulldogs.
    I still hate Adelaide for what they did to the Bulldogs in 97-98.
    As for 2009, I wanted St Kilda to win, simply because they had a better side, therefore the grand final would be better.
    Cheers

  3. Good on you Kerrie, nearly got through a whole day without that ice-pick of a memory violating my scone.
    It was like witnessing the Hindenburg come crashing to earth , with the grainy emotionally tinged voice of the radio announcer ringing in my ear
    “oh the humanity!”
    Beautifully written

  4. Skip of Skipton says

    Footscray should have been playing Geelong in the ’97 prelim, but some dodgy fixturing and dodgier umpiring put paid to that.

    Had Footscray beaten North in the last round of ’98 (five point loss in front of 68,000 fans!), they most likely would have avoided Adelaide and made the grand final.

    Forget football department spending, that’s 99% wank. It’s all fate and footy gods with a pinch of help/hindrance from head office.

  5. That last round in 1998 was a fantastic game…2 terrific sides. I remember being totally unconcerned by the loss and convinced these sides would meet again in a month.

  6. Daniel Flesch says

    Thanks , Kerrie ; great piece ! Permanent image in my memory is of ex-Hawk Hudson the Younger fighting his captain for the ball. Over-excited , unaware , unforgivable. Felt doubly indignant and embarrassed as i reckon Hawthorn owes Footscray. (Reason below.) But first… starting at a new school in Year 7 i met my lifelong mate Bob. It was 1961 . Hawthorn win in that year’s Big One tested our friendship only slightly , seeing it just made the tally one Flag each. Over the years since we’ve been to Footscray – Hawthorn games together , though not so any since i moved 1500 kms north of Melb 30 years ago and Bob developed his hatred of “Jihad” Stadium. A couple of years back before a Footscray game the Hawthorn website related how since joining the VFL together in 1925 the clubs had played over 180 games against each other for an equal number of wins and two draws. Passing this interesting info to Bob via email he replied “Yeah , and 10 Premierships to one. Shut up !” Point taken , and that’s why we owe you one – or half a dozen. And all this guff last G.F. about poor Freo 20 years in the comp and no Flag. . Rubbish ! Three times 20 for the Doggies. Almost as much for the Saints , but they had a few G.F. chances , so ALL sympathy and encouragement to your lot .

  7. Thanks, Kerrie, for the interesting read, and, sorry, I am a Crows fan. I watched the game recently (not surprisingly the Crows package up the whole 97 finals series in a nice little DVD box set) and still cannot believe we won that match. Libba’s celebration of a point, Hudson failing to put a shepherd on and allow Grant to stroll into an open goal, and James West missing a shot from 30 out straight in front when he could also have walked it in were the key points of that last quarter (not to mention Mr Jarman at the other end).

    In an odd way, I wonder whether for whatever reason it is the 98 prelim that has had a more profound effect on both teams. Since then both teams have played in and lost a combined 7 prelims and the description of not winning key moments in finals could equally apply to the Crows since 97-98.

    I am interested in the psyche of clubs – how despite a complete change of on and off field personnel, the stench of imminent failure lingers around the club. Only the arrival of some coaching messiah or other seems able to change a sad sack club’s fate.

  8. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Kerrie good article and as a crows supporter v interesting what tends to be forgotten in the 97 prelim is the crows had control of the game early but kicked a heap of points and then when the crows got the run on in the last q were hard to stop but there was no doubt a lack of composure from , Footscay contributed to the crows win .
    In 98 a combination of Adelaide having worked out Wallaces all out attack game plan and the bulldogs out smarting themselves re Mathew Robran ( under rated player ) helped towards the easy win by the crows . In 2009 luck totally deserted you and appalling umpiring and poor conversion by the dogs were the deciding factors .
    The mental side of sport is neglected and who noes what scars remain , another club to observe in relation to this subject from last years collapse in the elim final is Richmond .
    Thanks Kerrie

  9. Kerrie, I enjoyed your piece very much. The agony and the ecstasy – with more of the former than the latter. Your writing was so vivid, it seemed like you were describing yesterday. I guess that is the way things are when they are so burned into our emotional psyche.
    Round 1 will be a test for both of us. Home ground should give my Eagles the edge, but I think we can both look forward to improved seasons.

  10. Mic Rees says

    Terrific as always Kerrie.

    For some reason the ’97 result didn’t leave me as numb as the 1985 loss to the Hawks at Waverley. We seem to have a problem with the year of the Ox (1985, 1997, 2009). I suggest the Footscray faithful consider spending season 2021 abroad.

    Another memory that springs to mind re: the ’97 finals series was Michael Cordell’s “Year of the Dogs” got a small cinematic release in Melbourne that September. I remember leaving a screening thinking the footy was a hell of a lot more enjoyable when the Dogs were shithouse rather than advancing through to the penultimate weekend of the season only to be gutted.

    Keep the faith, it’ll all be worth it one day……….. I hope.

    MCR

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