Written September 2007. A version of this was published in the December 2007 Inside Football magazine.
September 20, 1997, Preliminary Final
Adelaide 0.7, 4.11, 8.15, 12.21 (93) def. Western Bulldogs 2.2, 10.6, 13.7, 13.13 (91)
The Loss, in capital letters. Western Bulldogs vs. Adelaide, Preliminary Final, 1997. September 20, 1997; the losing spin of the roulette wheel on which all Bulldog people had invested everything, a forgotten match played in a forgotten year by two forgotten teams, but for the Bulldog faithful the only game that will ever matter.
We didn’t think beforehand about the emotional consequence that losing might leave on us. We did not consider the possibility. We knew that Adelaide would be a difficult game but that day was supposed to be our destiny. We had risen from the ashes of the disgraceful, de facto wooden-spoon season of 1996 (R.I.P. Fitzroy) to be on the cusp of an incredible Grand Final and a very real chance of a premiership. That game was it, that was the one.
I was there in the very last row of the Southern Stand, on the top with a concrete wall at our backs and the action far below. Chris Grant’s last smothered behind with a minute to go was just a blur in the distance for me. I’m still not sure what happened, but I get the impression that if we were not Footscray, always condemned to lose, then I’m sure he would have scored. It was a simple chance to win the game.
From the Bulldog end, this match – the most important game and probably the defining moment of Footscray Football Club’s modern history – was notable for the extraordinary performances out of nowhere of two players who had barely ever featured for the Bulldogs before that day and almost never would again after it: Mark West, the Indigenous midfielder who tore Adelaide up for much of the game, and James Cook, the slender full-forward who marked and kicked goals that day without drama, as a matter of routine that Jason Dunstall would be proud of. But they would both miss crucial shots in the last quarter.
In the second quarter, after Adelaide threatened to run away at 3.9 to 3.2, we suddenly clicked. We had ‘it’, that magical, intangible essence that coaches work for, players train for, sports scientists collect data for, but can never be explained. The ball always emerged from the packs in our players’ hands; run was created; kicks were precise; shots went in for goals without question. Even inexperienced players like Mark West and a seventeen year-old, mulletted Nathan Brown scored difficult set shots with ease. After the siren Cook scored another and it occurred to me that I had sat through so many false dawns and mere dreams but that this moment, this lead, this Grand Final berth, this was finally real.
In the third quarter Adelaide threatened but we held them off. Then in the last quarter Malcolm Blight switched one of his midfielders to the forward line: Darren Jarman, the man who single-handedly stripped me of my footy-based dreams, a week before he more famously did the same thing to the Saints’ faithful. Before he did, though, we missed chance after chance to end this game. Shots hit the post, there was the Libba thing, Cook missed from twenty-five metres what he had been drilling all day long, and balls bounced the wrong way through for behinds just beyond our unmanned forwards with not a single Adelaide defender in sight. And then we lost ‘it’, it passed over to Adelaide, and Jarman showed perhaps for the first time in his career what a brilliant player he truly was. Our defence couldn’t respond. Our lead dwindled from twenty-something to three in a matter of minutes.
Ben Hart missed a shot to take the lead, and then almost exactly like a counter-attacking soccer team a goal up but severely under the pump, which we basically were, a slick chain of handpasses sent Mark West streaking away as free as air to score the goal that would seal the game. He missed his shot on the run, quite badly in fact.
Jarman almost immediately then scored the winning goal. Then there was the Grant folly (was it smothered? Did a desperate Adelaide defender block his kick, and why wasn’t he feted as a hero afterwards? Did Grant just miss it? Could he not keep his feet? What exactly happened? Do I even want to know?); Scott West emerged from a pack on half-forward but turned back into it and his rushed kick into the forward line was marked by a Crow, and that was the end.
I was in a sort of daze immediately afterwards and did not see Rohan Smith repeatedly thump the turf. When I finally looked over at the scene, I wanted to see the Bulldog players one last time but my team was already nowhere to be seen. I was immediately sad that the Bulldogs would not appear in their current incarnation ever again. Everything changes in a new season, lists are culled. Despite how well we played over the following two years (and intermittently in 2000), 1997 was more emotional.
Would we have beaten St Kilda? Would we have had fun at the Grand Final parade? Would the Grant vs. Harvey Brownlow shemozzle have been an omen? Wasn’t Cook suspended for his next match, which would have been the Grand Final? The answer to all of those questions is the same: Who cares, because we lost.
Years later I wondered if it was even real. The pre-game hope and premiership dreaming seem like pure fantasy now, the loss just brutal reality reasserting itself once more. For a few years afterward it was like a death that we dealt with (however inadequately), usually by thinking about it as little as possible and not saying a word about it to anyone.
In my mind it became a myth – how could the Bulldogs have ever realistically contested for the premiership? But now that I see the pic of Jarman reborn, kicking our ass once more and I remember that it was a real match of actual physical players, and the thought of that gives it reality again and it hurts once more. But years have passed and it got buried, replaced by a different tragedy.
Written 22 September, 2016
September 18, 2009, Preliminary Final
St Kilda 0.2, 3.6, 7.6, 9.6 (60) def. Western Bulldogs 2.5, 4.7, 6.7, 7.11 (53)
It is again Preliminary Final time for the Western Bulldogs.
It’s a credit to the Bulldogs’ organisation that, since 1992, we have reached this rarefied, prestigious stage of the competition seven times – once every three and a half years? We’ve had our terrible seasons of irrelevance but consistently rejuvenated, which for some clubs hasn’t been the circular inevitability promised. So we’ve done all right.
Some of those six losses we threw away (92, 98) and some we gave it a shot but just didn’t have it (08, 10). In 1985 Mick Malthouse fell in love with a bunch of toilers who pushed Hawthorn to the limit. But Brad Hardie 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 all 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, Brad Johnson, Chris Grant, our greatest ever player Scott West, Rohan Smith pounding the turf, Scott Wynd, 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 one of 1997. 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 legend’s 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 St Kilda’s 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 GWS. 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 Wallace for what went down in 2002. He gave us his best shot. He turned everything around in 1997 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 him 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.
2016 turned out to be the year. The Bulldogs played another fraught preliminary final against GWS in Sydney but this time scored four last-quarter goals to win by 6 points amid incredibly emotional scenes. One week later they beat Sydney in the grand final to win the 2016 premiership, their first in 62 years and second ever.