I'll be honest. If you'd told me after round 23 we'd win the Flag I probably would have laughed. Yes, we'd had a great home and away season, and yes, we were in the finals but I think I was hoping we could do one better than last year and win during week 1 of the finals and when we did I was delighted. Beating West Coast in Perth was beyond our wildest dreams. We'd been all but written off in the lead up to the game after our disappointing performance in the final home and away game at the same venue against Freo; a team that had only recorded 4 wins for the season and finished 16th on the ladder. To beat last year's grand finalist on their home turf, having brought 5 players back from injury sent us into rapturous celebration, and then we beat Hawthorn...who had fans calling themselves Fourthorn, thinking they were on their way to a 4th consecutive premiership. We beat them. I've already blogged about that game here. I know the club had us saying #believemorebulldog but I don't think we were all in that space until that victory. I'm happy enough to admit I wasn't. I felt we were shaping up to be red hot contenders for 2017 and then we beat Hawthorn... then anything seemed possible.
I started predicting a Cats v Dogs grand final - thinking it would be a marketers dream. The very first game I ever went to was the Cats v Dogs. It was an elimination final and it was at VFL Park. I grew up down that way and most of the games I went to in the 70s and 80s were at VFL Park. Google will help to remind me it was September 4, 1976 and that I was one of 50,686.
Back to 2016... we'd won 2 finals, against both of last year's Grand Finalists. No-one had predicted this and no-one favoured us. Many from NSW were gunning for an all Sydney Grand Final which was met with derision from Victorians. The Dogs bandwagon was filling with the "they're my second team' brigade and we welcomed them aboard.
We had a second interstate game to contend with and it was against the much fancied GWS on their home turf, Spotless Stadium. My post here gives the account of that match, including our road trip and the pure emotion involved in that game. Having lived through that game, grand final week, the actual grand final, post game celebrations and the day after celebrations I still think that preliminary final was the most intense moment of the entire finals series. Everything is on the line in a grand final, but for us Doggies fans it seemed like there was so much more riding on that prelim. We wanted it so bad... just to make it into a Grand Final and then for that to happen; the joy was long lasting and almost surreal. Everything that has happened since is also surreal but that seemed like such a monumental occasion.
So here we were in Grand Final week - we were in new territory. We'd watched from afar every other year and now it was about us. We'd gone in every other pre-prelim final ballot for Grand Final tickets and this year for a little while I considered not going in the ballot in case we were the jinx. I couldn't resist though and before heading off for Sydney I'd battled the Ticketek system to register 4 of the 5 of us. (Our youngest is a Dogs member too but preferred the idea of hanging with her cousins to watch the game). We also tossed up registering in 2 separate lots thinking it might increase our chances but eventually decided it was all or nothing. We'd go to Fed Square or Whitten Oval if we didn't get tickets, and during the registration process we were still in that state of 'we've been here before and look how that ended...' and as such we weren't really thinking much about Grand Final Day.
So, we get home Sunday night exhausted but exhilarated from our first ever footy road trip. Social media tells me Sydney members have started getting their ticket allotments. I really, really want to go to the Grand Final. I really, really want my husband to be able to go. I feel like we deserve it. I bristle when I see someone bragging about having a ticket and not being a Swan or Dogs fan. I scowl at the ridiculous competitions on radio and tv where just any old Joe can get a ticket. I know it is said every year that true fans deserve better but this year it is us so I feel it personally. We're not social club members, or coterie, or rich. We're a suburban family who love footy and especially love our Doggies. Two years ago I wrote a piece 'There's no trade week for fans' and in it I refer to some of the highs and lows of following a team - of the passion involved. We're long suffering and dammit we deserved to see our team in a Grand Final. Corporate Big Wigs with overstuffed wallets don't!
So Monday rolls around - I'm not too proud to beg so I openly put it out there that we want tickets. The ballot seems to be taking a ridiculous amount of time to be run. Surely a computer just needs a button pushed? I check our online bank account more times than I should. The priority one people start reporting that they have tickets... We're priority three. I check again...and again. This process seems cruel and unnecessary. Just after dinner I check once more and I've never been so excited to see the number $666 with a DR next to it. I just sit there for a little moment. Tears well in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. I grab the paperwork to try to work out what it means and realise we will actually have a seat. We'll probably be in the very back row but it's not standing room and we'll actually be there. Adult tickets are $180 and kids are $153 for category 7 seats. I walk into the kitchen, tears still flowing and ask my husband if he's doing anything on Saturday and then collapse into his arms with even more tears. "We're going" I say, "we're going." Incidentally, he doesn't really believe me until the next day when we have the email, and then later that day, the actual tickets. We're going to the Grand Final! Pinch me.
Our plans for that week had involved painting a bedroom but that idea goes out the window. (My husband's post from early in the week is here) We're in full footy fan mode. We decorate our house, make plans for the open training, grand final parade and everything else.
We travel by train on the Friday to Melbourne for the Grand Final Parade. It's such a joyous journey. There's a buzz in the air and red, white and blue envelops us. Every time my husband has a chance to chat to a Dogs fan this week he opens with 'How good is this?' and I love hearing the joy in his voice, the excitement and decades long wait for this moment finally being here. It feels like a pilgrimage making our way to the MCG for the parade. We're quite early but we want a good vantage point. Everyone is smiling. There is optimism and pure joy in every direction. My family from the other side of Melbourne; Saints, Pies and Bombers fans, plus my Bulldogs loving Aunt are meeting us and all of them are decked out in red, white and blue. My Mum and Aunt's Uncle, my Great Uncle, is Dave Bryden. he played in the '54 Grand Final win and by some accounts was equal best on ground that day. Wikipedia reports as follows:
Bryden was an old school ruckman-cum-back pocket recruited from Wonthaggi, Victoria who, at his prime was considered one of the best ruckmen in the Victorian Football League. Bryden played for the Victorian interstate team in 1951 and was second best on ground in the 1954 VFL Grand Final.
Sadly, Uncle Dave died in 2013 and would miss this opportunity to see his beloved Dogs win their next flag but his nieces (and grand nieces) would be cheering for him.
There was a lot of waiting just for the parade to start, but this gave my husband the chance to start his 'how good is this? conversation with several more fans. The actual parade was magical. Tears streamed down my cheeks from start to finish but there was cheering and singing and everyone was waving and clapping so no-one noticed. They were happy tears, happy, happy tears.
Seeing Bob Murphy perched awkwardly as the third man on the ute reserved for two really set me off. I loved that he was in the inner sanctum where he belonged and not on the outer as a non-player. There's been a lot written about him being our spiritual leader and I wholeheartedly agree. 6 years ago he gave a speech about being a Son of the West. I haven't managed to find it...yet, but here's a screenshot of him delivering it:
"A LINEAGE, a TRIBE, a FAMILY... what it means to be a Son of the WEST."
As the parade concludes and we mill around on the field beside the MCG we take in the sights and sounds. We sing the song one more time for good measure and still want to pinch ourselves that we're here and totally immersed in Grand Final week because our team is a part of it.
Grand Final Day 2016... Sydney Swans vs Western Bulldogs, October 1 - MCG
We're so nervous and excited. Heart is racing, blood pumping through our veins. We grin awkward, yet elated smiles. We're trying to take every moment in, every second feels important as we converge on the MCG with our pack. I'm humming the Paul Kelly tune, "High on the hill, looking over the bridge, to the MCG" as we make our way. We're as one. It's not an official march to the G, but my goodness it feels like it. We're purposeful and so, so excited. It doesn't feel real. We're also a bit antsy.
We wander around to our gate. Do we go in yet? No, not yet. We wander to the Goal kicking tower competition, we watch a little of Johnno on Fox footy coverage.
We walk this way, then that. We see the desperate fans holding up signs looking for tickets. I feel for them. We see a sea of red, white and blue.
We eventually go in. As expected our seats are pretty high on level 4. Row X, so not the very back row. We have a good view. We have a big screen in front of us. We can see the whole field. At one stage we see Bob wander out and tap his foot on the centre circle; purposeful, deliberate.
We're not saying much. just watching, drinking it all in as the stands fill. I'm not even particularly emotional yet, but then Mike Brady steps up to sing 'One day in Sep... October' and that does me in. The emotion whacks me in the face. This is OUR one day in October. We're here. Would we "see the joy that hard work brings?" "If we do it right we'll come home first..." "There isn't any doubting, we'll be in there shouting..." It's such an iconic song, even if the month had to be changed. "Football's such a part of this whole town..."
There's other entertainment. Vance Joy, The Living End and Sting. Then Vika and Linda Bull sing the anthem. We win the toss and before we know it the game has started. I'm calmer this week. I sit with my hands clenched through most of the first quarter, resting under my chin, almost in prayer. I'm not religious, maybe this is my religion. It takes forever for a score and that feels like a good omen. Sydney is known for fast starts and we've denied them. They get a burst of goals in the 2nd quarter and I get nervous but we're hanging in there, fighting with all our might. A difference of 2 points at half time feels positive. We've been in worse positions and won. Leading at 3/4 time tips us into a zone we've never known. This is when #believemorebulldog starts to kick in. Can we do it? Can we really do it? The last quarter is such a blur. I remember Dale Morris throwing his body on the line at Buddy. After the game I remember it as a smother but of course it was a tackle. Incidents are already blurring for me. The resultant goal from Boyd is the sealer and my phone is vibrating with well wishes but I won't celebrate early. I think a guy behind us says there's 2 minutes to go, so I turn to ask him if that's what he said and he replies 'Who cares how long? We've won'...
Tears slide out. Of course. Tears always slide out for me.
You know, I'm crying again as I try to type this. We won. We really won.
(This is of course our Vice President, the wonderful Susan Alberti - but I'm sure her face mirrored mine at this moment.)
When the siren eventually sounds we're jumping about like crazy. We're hugging and screaming and crying and smiling. I think we're also in shock. God we sing that song loud and proud. There are so many who didn't live to see this and I spare a thought for how much joy this would have brought them. My father in law. God he loved the Dogs. Somewhere up in heaven he's smiling. Uncle Dave. I no longer have to say 'My Uncle played in the last Bulldogs flag"...now it's "He played in the first Bulldogs flag."
The presentations start. I predict Picken will get the Norm Smith with Tom Boyd close behind. I know Sydney's Josh Kennedy has had a huge day but I also know winning a Norm Smith in a losing Grand Final can be bittersweet so I don't think that will happen. I'm pleasantly surprised to hear Johannissen's name called out. He had a ton of the ball but seemed to turn it over, but that's part of the fearless brand; kick it forward and trust.
I wont even pretend I'm not crying as the players are called up for their medals but when Bevo calls up Bob the floodgates open. What a selfless, generous, incredible man. I've seen the footage about a dozen times since. I don't think I'll ever watch it without feeling a surge of emotion.
The players do their lap. We move a little closer. We wave our flag and sing and soak in the moment. They know this is for the fans too. They know we're a part of the pack. This is for us and them. Bob shows us his jumper under his shirt. Of course he's wearing it. Of course.
The players head under the stands, into their rooms to sing the song again. We watch on the big screen, and sing along. We're all a part of it. If 99,981 people could fit in those rooms we'd be singing with them.
We make our way around to the roped off section for the post game concert and just sit. We respond to messages, listen to the music, smile at each other and at strangers, but mostly we just sit. We're spent. Emotionally wrung out in the best possible way. We're told the players are arriving so we decide to head out and stand on the hallowed turf for that. My husband picks up a handful of grass and puts it in his pocket. I grab a few tufts and put one in my locket. We'll remember this day forever.
The team is met with rapturous applause and singing and joy. There's fireworks and more singing and then they're gone. It's dark now as we make the trek home. The train erupts into impromptu renditions of 'Sons of the West' on numerous occasions. We're still with our pack. We're grinning from ear to ear.
On Sunday morning we are relieved to find we didn't dream that day. For a split second our son isn't sure if he wants to go to Whitten Oval but we encourage him to come.
This little road trip is the culmination of a journey of a month, but really, a journey of many, many years. We're gathering with our pack one more time to celebrate something so wonderful.
When a boy in my class comes up to me on Monday morning and asks, "Miss, do you know when the Western Bulldogs last won a flag?" It is with cheeky delight that I reply, "Yes, I do... last Saturday!" and then the line up music plays, and of course it is "Sons of the West."