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The Dawn of a New Dogs Era

Footscray Football Club defeated North Melbourne by 22 points in the Grand Final on 27 September in 1919 - Western Bulldogs
Footscray Football Club defeated North Melbourne by 22 points in the Grand Final on 27 September in 1919

Western Bulldogs fans look back with great fondness and pride at the club's two V/AFL premiership wins but for some that pride is perhaps accompanied by a twinge of jealousy, considering the number of flags won by some of the other clubs.

But a century ago, the Dogs were in fact embarking on a golden premiership era in the VFA, one that ultimately resulted in the acceptance of the Footscray Football Club into the VFL (now AFL) in 1925.

That era, which kicked off in 1919, produced four Bulldogs premierships in six years. With a bit of luck, the Dogs could have won all six flags in the 1919-1924 period. In the years they missed out — 1921 and 1922 — they finished at the top of the ladder and only narrowly lost their Grand Finals. 

The Bulldogs set up that period of dominance at the beginning of 1919. The VFA returned from a two-year hiatus, the result of the First World War, in 1918 and for Footscray, it was not a happy return to competition. The Dogs started and ended the season with a win, but lost all of the games in between to finish last in the six-team competition.

In the lead-up to the 1919 season, in which four more clubs came out of hiatus to return the VFA to a full 10-team competition, Footscray vowed to make a concerted effort to restore its powerhouse status, one which had seen the club win a hat-trick of flags from 1898 to 1900, and two further premierships in 1908 and 1913.

At the club's AGM in March 1919, outgoing club secretary Tom Clark, talked up Footscray's chances, declaring the club's prospects to be "splendid" and that with several prominent League players joining the club, the team would "surprise the natives."

The local newspaper, the Footscray Independent, agreed, declaring, "This is no idle talk. Footscray is going to deliver the goods this year, and followers of the good old winter game will see that Mr. Clark did not exaggerate when the boys take the field."

The list of players who crossed from the VFL to join the Red, White and Blue included a premiership Essendon player, Bill Sewart, who came on board as playing coach, Carlton's premiership centre-half back Paddy O'Brien and outstanding tap ruckman Jack "Chooka" Howell, who had played a large part in South Melbourne winning the VFL premiership in 1918.

Footscray kicked off the 1919 season with an emphatic statement, thrashing 1918 Grand Finalists Prahran by 81 points in the opening match of the season at Western Oval. Prahran did not score a goal until the final quarter.

The Bulldogs had a hiccup against 1918 premiers North Melbourne in Round 3, going down narrowly at Arden St, before putting together a solid home-and-away season which resulted in a second-placed finish on the ladder with 14 wins from 18 matches. Only North Melbourne finished ahead of them, the Shinboners winning every match.

Heading into the 1919 finals series, Footscray's biggest concern was perhaps that their four losses had come against the three other sides to make the top four. North Melbourne defeated them narrowly again in Round 12, and the Dogs went down to Northcote in Round 11, and Brunswick in the final round. As it turned out, Footscray would have to beat all three of those sides to secure the 1919 flag — and they did.

The Dogs made short work of Northcote in their Semi-Final, while Brunswick scored an upset win over the Shinboners. Footscray then prevailed over Brunswick in what was known as the 'Final'. Under the system of the time, North Melbourne, having finished on top, exercised its right challenge the Bulldogs in a Grand Final, the winner to be crowned 1919 VFA premiers.

Despite having lost to North twice during the season, Footscray were favoured to win the match,The Australasian's football writer declaring, "With both teams at their best, there is little between them, and on paper Footscray, who are in rare form, should hold their own." The writer turned out to be a good judge.

A strong wind was blowing towards the grandstand end of the East Melbourne Cricket Ground on Grand Final day and Footscray's captain Johnny Craddock chose to kick with it when he called correctly at the coin toss. Bulldogs fans might have become a little nervous when Irwin of North kicked the first goal of the match kicked the game's first goal into the stiff breeze but the Dogs took control from there, kicking four goals, two to skipper Craddock, to set up a 22-point lead at the first break.

The Shinboners used the wind advantage well in the second term, narrowing the gap to just two points at the long break, leaving the match very much in the balance.

In a third quarter script that might sound very familiar to today's Bulldogs fans, Footscray dominated the third quarter but were plagued by poor kicking for goal. The Dogs kicked two goals to nil, one each to Craddock and Howell, but also missed the target many times, registering eight behinds. That gave them a 21-point lead at the last change, but with North coming home with the wind, the door was ajar for the Shinboners.

The importance of that last quarter cannot be understated. Even in 1919, the stronger VFA clubs were eyeing entry into the Victorian Football League, and premiership success was the key.Old Boy in The Argus wrote:

"A premiership hung in the balance, and with it the right to battle at the doors of the League on the ground of performance, and both sides went into the final term determined and eager if not anxious."

Footscray got the important first goal of the quarter but North responded with two, cutting the margin to 16 points, but captain Craddock's fourth major sealed the match, and the 1919 premiership, for the Bulldogs.

The 1919 triumph was no fluke. The Dogs won 16 of 18 home-and-away games in 1920 and defeated Brunswick in a Grand Final thriller to make it back-to-back flags. Despite again topping the table in the next two seasons, the Dogs faltered narrowly in both of the 1921 and 1922 Grand Finals, beating Port Melbourne to win the 1923 premiership and crushing Williamstown in the 1924 Grand Final.

To stamp their credentials as a team worthy of joining the VFL, the Dogs then defeated the League premiers Essendon in a post-season charity match to be declared Champions of the Colony.

Footscray, along with the team they beat in the 1919 Grand Final, North Melbourne, and Hawthorn were accepted into the League for the 1925 season, starting a new era for the Bulldogs.

The seeds for that new era were sown in 1919, a century ago, and they sprouted with the Bulldogs' Grand Final win over North Melbourne, exactly 100 years ago today, on September 27, 1919.