The day itself

It’s a grey morning before 9am. I haven’t been out, but imagine a few drops of rain. There’s a breeze that rustles the fronds of the palm outside my window. I expect it to clear up a bit, before maybe clouding over later. It’s grand final day, so I’m hoping for a good one.

It’s still quiet. Seems strange on such a day. So much anticipation today, so much excitement, so many people with their minds focused on the contest later this afternoon. You almost expect there to be a sign.

I don’t know how memories work, but for some reason I’ve got grand final day 2001 rattling around in my head since yesterday. I’d not long returned from a life changing trip away. I’d arrived home just days before 9/11. I remember watching TV that evening – Talking Footy – from my mum’s house where I was staying, and the sudden crosses to the breaking news of a plane ploughing into the World Trade Centre. The news was momentous, in a tempestuous time of my life.

I missed the qualifying final win that year, but went to the preliminary final against Hawthorn with Cheeseboy. It was an exciting game, but a shaky win by a champion side weary with injury. I think I was back too late to get a ticket to the grand final, so spent the day at Cheeseboy’s in Prahran. I was the only person cheering for Essendon as we took on Brisbane.

It’s that morning I remember though. I remember it sunny and warm and that feeling of buoyant anticipation. I don’t know if you imagine it, or just see it because you’re looking for it, but as I walked up the street to Maling Road the world seemed abuzz. I imagined that the game was on everyone’s mind and all the bustle was a combination of anticipation and rush to get everything done, everything prepared, before the game began later in the day.

The local newsagents was owned by Francis Bourke, a legend of the Richmond football club. As a footy fan I was always aware of that. I would catch glimpses of him and be glad to be so close. It meant I had a connection to the big stage. It was within touching distance, if only by proxy.

Most of the street was probably decked out. That’s the norm these days. Canterbury didn’t have a stake in the game, and it was usual for shopkeepers to show support for their chosen team of the year. This year it’s all Bulldogs in Melbourne. I don’t remember it then, but going by the popular support for Brisbane later that day (because of the Fitzroy connection) popular sentiment was probably with them. Not that that worried me.

I absorbed all that. Like pretty well every year I wished I was running out onto the ground to compete. I remember in the newsagents people asking Francis Bourke as they bought their Saturday papers how he thought the game would pan out. The shop was decorated for the day, and if I remember right Bourke favoured the Bombers, largely because his ex-team-mate Sheeds was coach. And that’s what I remember.

Soon I’ll be out amongst it again. I expect the same buzz, though my team is not part of it. I’ll buy a 6-pack of beer for the afternoon’s festivities, a few other things, then return to watch the pre-game on TV before walking to the Cheese’s for the usual grand final barbecue.

It feels like it’s been a bigger week than normal. There’s great excitement that the Bulldogs have finally made it back to the big game, and great sentiment. I wonder if there’s been too much. It’s perfectly understandable. It’s been a long wait. Hype is natural, and hope is undeniable. The fear I have is that it might detract from the Bulldog’s performance. It’s fine to acknowledge what you’ve achieved, but the job isn’t done yet. In these circumstances I think you need to insulate yourself. You need to stay focused on the basics and keep emotion in check. That’s mighty hard in this environment. It feels almost as if the Bulldogs have already won, and that’s dangerous.

I’m reminded on another year: 1983. That was the days before a national comp and the VFL still had a final five. My team finished 5th that year, but like the Bulldogs got on a roll in the finals series. First we beat Carlton, winner of the 2 previous premierships, in the elimination final. We were their bogey team, winning something like 10 in a row against them even as they won repeat flags.

The next week we beat Fitzroy in a spiteful and quite famous semi-final. That was the day that the Fitzroy coach, Robert Walls, came onto the ground at half-time and attempted to take on big Roger Merrett. Up to then it had been tight and hard fought, but in the second half we pulled away. In the preliminary final the next week we smashed North Melbourne in an exhibition of clean, attacking footy. So then we were in the grand final.

I went to all those games and I was filled with excitement. We were the form team. It was a team chock-full of talent, and we were surging irresistibly. Back then it had been a while since we’d played off for a flag and the hype was nearly as much as this year. Like the Bulldogs we had a charismatic coach, and sprinkled with charismatic players just like the doggies. And like the doggies we’d defied the odds to get there. I think even my old man was excited.

I went to the grand final and it was a fizzer. It was over as a contest within 10 minutes, and when Tim Watson was knocked out behind play all hope was gone. We lost that day by a then record grand final margin.

It was one match too much for us. I don’t think weariness caught up with us so much as the occasion. We were shot before the ball bounced.

That’s the challenge for the Bulldogs today. The Swans are as tough as they come, and fast starters. The Bulldogs need to keep in touch early to be a chance, and need to take their chances when they come along.

They have a fine coach and he’ll get them right, but once on the field it’s over to the players. I reckon I’ll know within 20 minutes what sort of game it will be. Either the Swans will blow them away early, or it will be tight throughout and a real contest. I don’t know which one it will be, but I suspect the steadier Swans will likely win. They have the big game experience, and the big game players – and have been the best team all year.

If it’s close late I’ll favour the Doggies. They play to the wire, and with a partisan crowd onside emotion might carry the day. I don’t know if the Swans will allow them that opportunity.

For what it’s worth, we bounced back from losing in 1983 to win in ’84 and ’85, and become one of the greatest teams of all time. You want to win, but there’s always next year.


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