Below is an excerpt from The Mighty West by Kerrie Soraghan, out Monday through all good bookshops or online at www.blackincbooks.com.
Kerrie (@bulldogstragic) is a lifelong supporter of Footscray/Western Bulldogs. She is the author of Too Tough to Die, which documented the 1989 fundraising effort to save the Doggies from extinction, and she blogs as the Bulldog Tragician.
One day a few years ago, as I was leaving a Bulldogs match, I came across a man pushing a twin pram. Fast asleep inside were two babies, only a few weeks old. They were wearing little Bull- dogs jumpers, and their pram was decorated with red, white and blue ribbons.
This was deep in the interminable gloom of the 2011–14 era. Ten-goal drubbings, a grimly defensive style of footy and a dearth of star power: that was our lot. We were excruciatingly bad, at one point losing nine games on the trot.
I caught the eye of the twins’ dad as he trundled along with an all-too-familiar air of stoicism. ‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained with a wry smile.
Resilience. It’s a term bandied about a lot in the lead-up to our match against Geelong. The players are dealing with the horrific leg injury to their teammate Mitch Wallis, not to men- tion a third knee reconstruction for Jack Redpath, with ‘resilience’, Bevo Our Saviour tells the media scrum. Endearingly, he could not hide his own tears and quavering voice as he spoke. Another reason to love our Plantagenet-lookalike, Willy-Wonka-quoting, skateboard-riding coach.
But when the team selections for our clash with Geelong are announced on the Thursday night I wonder if even Bevo is con- ceding the match as a certain defeat. The losses of Wally, Redpath and Dale Morris were expected. But we had no inkling that our defence would be further hit by the loss of the two Matthews, Boyd and Suckling, who are both out with Achilles strains. The team that is named will run out as the youngest and least expe- rienced of all those fielded on the weekend. With an average of 23 years and 10 months and just 66 games, we’ve eclipsed teams such as Melbourne, Carlton and Essendon, whose regular thrashings were being explained away as inevitable given their age profiles.
And we are facing the Cats on a cold, wet night at their home – a fortress from which, as I imagine perennial voice-over man Craig Willis pretentiously intoning, few Bulldogs teams have ever emerged victorious. In fact, even the legendary E.J. Whitten, so the story goes, never once drove back down that highway a winner.
The Geelong dynasty which began in 2007 is still very much alive, with at least six (it is too depressing to do an exact count) of those triple premiership players in the line-up. And tonight those annoyingly good Cats will be even more fired up – as if the sight of our red, white and blue jumpers isn’t sufficient. They are celebrating milestones in the glorious careers of two of those fabled premiership heroes – and serial Bulldogs tormentors – Corey Enright and Jimmy Bartel. Their crowd will be revved up, parochial and at fever pitch. Only a small contingent of Dogs fans will be there. For once I’m not one of them. It’s my own small protest at the exorbitant price the Geelong club demands for the small number of available seats.
The Cats cantered away from us a few weeks ago by ten goals, when our list was in much better health. As I settle on the couch I can’t see any way our depleted team can avoid a shellacking.
But our players, right from the opening bounce, have differ- ent ideas. They stun us with their intensity, their overwhelming determination to win. You’d think that last week’s horrible events might have made them hesitant; that seeing a teammate scream- ing in agony might lead to moments of tentativeness, might sharpen their instinct for self-preservation. Yet they are fiercer, braver, more committed than ever before. The footy world would have excused, even accepted a heavy loss. But Our Boys are demonstrating the most difficult form of courage. It’s the cour- age to believe.
Leading the way with an imperious performance is Libba the Second. He is playing, you feel, for the wounded Mitch Wallis, his fellow father-son recruit and lifelong mate, as much as himself. Despite his own injury woes – last year’s knee recon- struction, as well as a visit to hospital with broken ribs only a couple of weeks ago – Libba plays as though his own oversized will can drag us over the line.
It is a little more surprising to see another Tom being instru- mental in our impressive start: everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Bulldogs’ answer to Jack Watts, he of the constantly discussed pay cheque, Tom Boyd. There’s always been a rather placid air about big Tom, little sense that he can hurl his big frame around in the wrecking-ball style of Clay Smith, and little evidence so far that inside him burns the flame of a fierce competitive athlete. But he’s apparently had enough of the gibes, the recent suggestions that, having struggled with both form and fitness, he should nobly offer to give up his huge salary. Under pressure that’s unimaginable for a 20-year-old, on this Friday night he shows the ‘blue chip’ talent that Bevo has talked about, the champion he can become.
The first-quarter siren sounds with the Dogs only one point down. The Cats look, if not shell-shocked, at least nettled and aggrieved. Our depleted team have reached somewhere deep, somewhere perhaps even they didn’t know they could, and shaken a defiant fist in the direction of the footy universe. They are playing with a heightened recklessness, perhaps on behalf of – or because of – their injured comrades. And I so wish that I could be there, to stand together with my fellow Bulldogs fans and applaud them.
The second quarter begins, and like soldiers we slowly concede ground in a war of attrition. The Cats start to realise that there is no need to join our players and scrabble at the bottom of the pack. They can afford to have a player standing outside, ready to coolly sweep the ball downfield, where our defensive gaps are painfully exposed. The toll of our relentless efforts, our frenzied domination with so little effect on the scoreboard, threatens to – but never quite does – grind us down. The days of dazzling Round 1’s ‘sexy’ footy are long gone. It’s hand-to-hand combat in which we now must engage. And now we see, with disbelief, that our hardiest soldier, Libba, is off the ground. Yet again the wretched sight of an essential player squirming in pain, concerned doctors by his side. Libba will not return for the rest of the match. The news begins to filter through. His injury is a bad one. It’s the same as the one that kept Carlton’s Marc Murphy out for an entire season Another of our best, Luke Dahlhaus, who’s lit us up with his trademark energy and enthusiasm in his first match back after missing two months because of injury, begins to tire. Umpiring decisions don’t go our way. The Geelong players start to exude that air they’ve always had over us; they look taller, stronger, fresher, faster. More ... uninjured.
Yet even though the Cats’ authority over the match grows, it’s never unchallenged. A few times it looks like a dam wall is about to break and they will rampage over the top of us, but we bob up irrepressibly again – I’ll never quite know how. We’re still threatening, still surging, even in the last quarter, when we lose yet another player, Jackson Macrae, to what looks like a badly torn hamstring. Our low-key, tireless runner, unappreci- ated outside the Bulldogs’ own fans, had been doing a fine job on Joel Selwood, and still accumulated plenty of the ball himself in the first three quarters.
Old-fashioned words come to my mind as the final siren sounds, and the Dogs register a 25-point loss: gallantry, grace. We’d played the game, as a certain song that we’ve heard too many times goes, ‘as it should be played’. Our Boys stay on the ground as Enright and Bartel are chaired off. Their heads are held high. They aren’t losers. They’ve just lost a game. We’ve had 10-goal wins that haven’t left me feeling as proud as this.
In some of the Bulldogs’ more painful seasons, throughout tedious, repetitive losses, often I concentrated on unearthing one little gem of hope, one little moment to be proud of. Sometimes it was a first-gamer in whom we could invest our hopes and fan- tasies, or a plodding journeyman who had somehow, unexpectedly, had a breakthrough game. It could be, and often was, a moment of Daniel Cross madness as he backed fearlessly into a pack.
There were many nuggets to choose from on Friday. But there are two that I know I will always cherish. The first was the vision of Libba on the boundary line, heavily strapped. Libba would have known that with the finals tantalisingly close, he faced weeks out injured, as well as the surgeon’s knife. He prowled the sideline, watching the game as intently as the most devoted fan, clapping his teammates, urging them on.
The other nugget was the splendid sight of The Bont taking the opportunity to set Joel Selwood smartly back down on his backside when the Geelong skipper was getting mouthy. Like all Bulldogs fans for so many years, The Bont looked sick and tired of being pushed around by Geelong. Ah, The Bont. Exquisite skills – check. The leadership and character of a champion – check. Just the right amount of aggression, just the right time to make a statement – wouldn’t you know it, our Golden Boy has the right stuff for that as well.
And yet, while we’re proud, we fans, who have been patient so long, must absorb the knowledge that we have to be patient once again. We’d nurtured hopes that in this even season, with no standout team, we could somehow snatch an unexpected flag (though, after a 61-year drought, the words ‘snatch’ and ‘unex- pected’ aren’t exactly what I’m reaching for). It’s getting harder to imagine us, with our unprecedented injury toll, slogging our way through gruelling finals and featuring on grand final day. But, judging by Friday night, Our Boys aren’t accepting that as an inevitability. Not one little bit.
Those little twins in their Bulldog jumpers must be pre- schoolers by now. Maybe, like my own little boy at that age, they insist on starting each day by running through a banner – a sheet I was required to hang from a doorway for this purpose. I imagine them running around the backyard, kicking a footy with their patient dad. They probably have the numbers four and nine on their backs, like most western-suburbs kids I see wearing red, white and blue. Or they might be wearing 21, for Libba. Number three, for Wally. They’re learning resilience. Bulldog resilience.
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