The Western Bulldogs’ 2016 premiership came from nowhere – they were the club with no luck, no stars, no right to win, no culture of success. They were the rank underdogs and they swept to victory on an unprecedented tide of goodwill that washed over the nation.
In this exerpt from his book A Wink From the Universe, Martin Flanagan recalls the 2016 AFL grand final between the Western Bulldogs and Sydney Swans.
Melbourne Cricket Ground,
1 October 2016
Third quarter, premiership quarter, red, white and blue, red and white, everywhere. The G is full, loaded with people, full of noise, the noisiest grand final I’ve ever been to. On the ground, young men play a game and simultaneously act out a much larger drama, lots of dramas, as many as there are people watching, in the ground, around the nation, in odd places overseas.
There hasn’t been a match like this one, not for fifty years, maybe ever. In the third quarter, it’s all out there, all on display, not hidden anymore. Hope’s here. Naked dangerous hope. I can’t remember when I last felt hope surging through me this wildly. It’s dangerous to hope this much, but I’m gone. Real, real gone. I’ve seen enough losses. There are people watching this game who have seen lifetimes of losses. Go Dogs. Go you bloody beautiful Dogs. Show them they’re wrong, all the people who say you can’t do it. You’ve just got to be a bit mad like Bevo and Bob and all the rest of them, mad to think their club – their club of all clubs – can win a flag.
The Western Bulldogs aren’t about winning premierships. They’re a cause, a cause made more attractive by the fact they’ve had spells over the past twenty-odd years when they played exciting footy, good to watch, everyone loves the Doggies – but no-one expected them to win the premiership and now a win is that close you glimpse what it might feel like, the wild eruption of joy, but that’s setting yourself up for a fall as big as the difference between dreams and the waking world so you blink and come back to the game which is a mighty struggle because the other mob have come here today with their own load of hopes and aspirations, and they’re the side expected to win, but first they have to overcome this young team who play for each other like their lives depend on it. And as much as they are testing their bodies they are testing the belief that has got them here, winning when no-one said they could, each win more wondrous than the last so that by the grand final their story has the aura of a fairytale, talking about fairies here as the Irish do, as otherworldly beings associated with events that cannot otherwise be explained or understood. The Dogs, to quote a poet, have slipped the surly bonds of earth.
They’re away, out there, but there is also this other force called Sydney who are the old South Melbourne just as the Western Bulldogs are the old Footscray. But the Swans left South Melbourne, the Bulldogs never left Footscray. They never left ‘the West’, a term understood by everyone who lives in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The old South Melbourne was working class; the Sydney Swans are middle class. Footscray was working class. Nearly all the West was working class. That implies politics of a Labor kind. Successive waves of migrants have changed the colour of the region from basically all white to a rainbow of races and cultures and religions. But they all come from the West and, one way or another, they share some sense of being underdogs. The Western Bulldogs are an old club that speaks to old Australia and a new club speaking to the new Australia shooting up around us.
In the second quarter, a chant of ‘Sydney, Sydney’ reaches an eerily powerful volume and then this other chant begins, this subterranean roar, ‘Bulldogs, Bulldogs’, and the Sydney sound is swallowed up and it seems like the earth has spoken. I’m on the second tier on the non-members’ wing. In the third term after a Bulldog goal, the concrete beneath my feet is bouncing. The place is rocking.