The Western Bulldogs finished seventh in the 2020 season but after an eventful trade period, they may be looking to achieve a lot more.
It’s a credit to the Western Bulldogs organisation that we have reached the prestigious stage of the competition that is the preliminary final seven times since 1992 – once every three-and-a-half years.
We’ve had our seasons of irrelevance but consistently rejuvenated, which for some clubs hasn’t been the circular inevitability promised.
So we’ve done all right, even if we haven’t gone beyond the prelims. Some of those six losses we threw away (1992, ’98) and some we gave it a shot but just didn’t have it (2008, ’10).
In 1985 Mick Malthouse fell in love with a bunch of toilers who pushed Hawthorn to the limit. But Brad Hardy lost Leigh Matthews and Mick never forgave him.
And then there are the bad ones.
I guess it kind of all starts with 1997. That was the first generation that gave us hope that it may actually be possible for the team from Barkley St to win it all. We had never really considered it since Ted Whitten desperately implored a bunch of guys slouched on the changing room floor at halftime in the 1961 grand final, ephemerally winning but completely spent.
Any Bulldog fan born, say, pre-1992 is well aware of the complete sadness that the 1997 preliminary final loss to Adelaide inserted into our lives. I published an article in Inside Football about it. A Bulldog-supporting egghead from Melbourne University named Matthew Klugman opened his dissertation on the correlation between expectation and devastation by extensively quoting me.
It was a while ago now. 1996, ‘The Year of the Dogs’, was the worst year of my time supporting them. 40-point losses were greeted with relief. So it was a miracle that the same crew then almost won the flag a year later.
It, of course, turned into the anti-miracle on September 20. A year later to the day we lost to the Crows again, emphatically. Generation 1 of Brad Johnson, Chris Grant, Rohan Smith, Scott Wynd, and our greatest ever player in Scott West would not see glory.
I’m a bit more partial now to Generation 2, who lost to St Kilda in 2009. I’m surprisingly sadder about that loss than the classic of ’97. The sight of the Doggies actually delivering on D-day, taking the Saints to the cleaners in the first and fourth quarters… I just didn’t know what to think.
I lost my shit that night. Every moment of that match provoked emotional overload in me, from the first bounce. I watched the first half in an Albury pub, crossed the border at halftime and finished it off in my mate’s in Wodonga. A third mate, instead of waiting for the end, left with seven minutes to go instead of watching my meltdown.
In a mirror, tactical, 16-goal match, they gave Nick Riewoldt a free for a little bit of bumping with Brian Lake. Grant Thomas called it a “pathetic decision” and for once he was right. Lake would win three premierships, so he got some personal revenge, but we didn’t.
In the last quarter I keep seeing in my mind Adam Cooney emerge from pack after pack, cementing his legendary status to me forever. In my fallible memory, St Kilda only got the ball down twice all quarter, for two late, winning goals (the actual stats were 16-6 inside 50s our way).
Four points up and completely on top, I actually remarked, stunned: “We’ve got this. We just need one more goal.” Like ’97, that one more goal never came.
Write their names down, and then burn them and forget them. Darren Jarman, three last-quarter goals in 1997. What an unstoppable bloody champion. He got five late ones next week against St Kilda.
And Nick Riewoldt, who dobbed the last two, but took a cowardly dive beforehand. And yet I supported St Kilda in the 2009 grand final. Weird.
It was hard not to conflate the complete randomness of the Saints’ undeserved win with my own life, its foibles and failures. Sometimes losses are personalised, even though we’re just watching a bunch of blokes on TV. The same goes for Hawks supporters, in the opposite way.
I liked our boys that year. How can anyone not love Robert Murphy, except if asked that question too many times. Adam Cooney, Brian Lake, Lindsey Gilbee, Callan Ward, Matthew Boyd. Jason Akermanis was along for the ride, and Daniel Giansiracusa, who missed the shot of his life with three minutes to go.
They all got picked off, one by one. Jarrod Harbrow to Gold Coast. Ward to Greater Western Sydney. Lake to Hawthorn. And then the apocalypse of late 2014, when they all flew the coop at once.
I will never feel rancour for Terry Walllace for what went down in 2002. He gave us his best shot. He turned everything around in ’97 and did it by being creative: the first coach to do pre-game interviews; taking media roles; creating the uber-flood that drowned Essendon the one and only time in 2000.
Luke Beveridge did the same thing last year; him and Murph – thank God he was still around to pick up some pieces. It showed how well he’d done that we moved on without the skipper this year, tragic as it is.
I still remember Murphy’s steely, focused gaze when we were about to walk onto the MCG against Adelaide last year for the elimination final (them again). In a way, the loss was irrelevant – we were back, and had contributed to the game of the decade.
But in a more real way, I looked at the replay recently on YouTube, and it hurt. Our three goals in the first three minutes. Lin Jong climbing high. Marcus Bontempelli’s misses. Jake Stringer’s ‘we’re going to win this’ goal. The Crows treating our defence like butter. We never win 50-50 finals.
Until this year. By winning in Perth and iconically ending the Fourthorn, they’ve reversed everything. This new breed – Bont, Liam Picken, the sons of the old brigade, Jason Johannisen – I love these boys.