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Heroes of a hundred years ago: the forgotten names who forged a future for the Bulldogs

Andrew Gigacz  December 28, 2017 6:00 AM

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2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of a significant year in the history of the Western Bulldogs. The last year of the First Word War saw the Victorian Football Association recommence premiership competition after it had gone into hiatus during the war years of 1916 and 1917.

The 1918 season was, on the face of it, not successful by any standard measurement for the Footscray Football Club. A shortened 10-game season began well enough for the Tricolours, with a win over Northcote, and it also finished off nicely, with a victory over finalists Port Melbourne. The problem for the Red, White and Blue was that they lost the eight games in between!

Nevertheless, the year was significant in that it brought together the nucleus of the Footscray side that would become a dominant force in the VFA over the next six years, to the point that the VFL had no option but to accept Footscray into their ranks when the Bulldogs virtually knocked the league's door down at the end of the 1924 season.

Despite the underwhelming 1918 effort, the Dogs of that year included several pioneer Bulldogs who went on to make such an impact that they were initial inductees into the club's Hall of Fame in 2010. This group included names such as Vic Samson, Arthur 'Diver' Clarke, Johnny Craddock and Vernon Banbury. They would soon be joined by other Hall of Famers Norman Ford and Con McCarthy, and, although a long time has passed since they were household names at Whitten Oval, these players formed the nucleus of the team that carried the club into what most consider its finest era.

The Tricolours last-round win in 1918 was a sign that the club had turned the corner. In 1919, with Craddock captaining, the club won 14 of 18 home-and-away games before knocking off red-hot favourites North Melbourne in the Grand Final to win the premiership. The team went back-to-back in 1920, losing only two games on the way to defeating Brunswick in the Grand Final. Johnny Craddock was said to have inspired his team that season with his 'bulldog tenacity', a phrase that gave birth to the nickname the club uses to this day.

While the Bulldogs lost the Grand Finals of 1921 and 1922 (the latter by an agonising two points after falling six goals behind in the first quarter), they bounced back under the captaincy of McCarthy to go back-to-back once more in 1923-24, thus making it six Grand Finals and four premierships in the space of half a dozen years.

The Bulldogs, already pushing strongly for inclusion in an expanded Victorian Football League, staked an even stronger claim in October 1924 when they defeated that year's VFL premiers Essendon in a charity match proposed by Dame Nellie Melba to decide the 'Champions of Victoria'. A big second half, with Norman Ford starring for the Dogs, saw Footscray run away with the match to win by 28 points.

There were suggestions that some Essendon players had performed deliberately below their best in the match, but regardless, the win proved beyond doubt that the Bulldogs were ready to join the 'big league'. In January 1925, the team's application to join the league was formally accepted and the Bulldogs, along with North Melbourne and Hawthorn became part of what was now a 12-team VFL.

With the Western Bulldogs set to be represented by a record four teams in 2018 (in the AFL, AFLW, VFL and VFLW), the coming year will mark a perfect time upon which to reflect on the events at the club 100 years earlier, when Johnny Craddock, Vic Samson (who had also been part of Footscray's 1913 VFA premiership) and their teammates laid down a platform which has ultimately seen the Bulldogs become a club that now has flagship teams in four AFL competitions.