The Drama of Football

Photo from Maribyrnong Leader
I think it's fair to say that some of my nearest and dearest (hello Mum...) have been bemused by my growing absorption in the world of AFL, and the Western Bulldogs in particular. And even though it's now technically the off-season, and there aren't even any games going on, the events of the past week or two have illustrated the roller-coaster experience of belonging to a football club.

It's all about the story.

It's been said (by Martin Flanagan I think) that sport is the purest form of drama - the enactment of a contest where character is displayed, or found wanting; where the outcome is thrillingly unknown; where the audience is emotionally invested in the twists and turns of the 'narrative' as the game plays out.

But lately, for my Bulldogs, all the drama has been off the field, and it was just as absorbing, just as emotionally wrenching, as any game could be.

The high point of the roller-coaster was set before the end of the AFL season proper, with the victory of the new Footscray team in the VFL Grand Final. It was the first grand final victory for a team called Footscray since our single premiership win in 1954, and the Bulldog faithful spilled onto the ground in jubilation to celebrate with our boys.

Within days, three members of that victorious team had been de-listed from the club. Not long after, the voluntary exodus of senior players began -- Higgins, Jones (a hero of the VFL victory), Brownlow-medallist Cooney, all looking for new clubs. We knew that there were rumours of trouble at the Kennel, that the end of season reviews between coach and players had been pretty brutal. But we were confident that our coach, Macca, with his reputation as a patient teacher, was on the right track. If some older players were disgruntled, well, maybe it was better if they moved on, and cleared the stage for the next generation.

But then came the bombshell. Thursday afternoon: Ryan Griffen announced that he wanted to leave, too. Griff, our captain, our best player, our leader, was jumping ship. And not even to a team at the top of the ladder -- he wanted to go to GWS, the no-hoper plastic love child of the AFL. It smacked of desperation -- he wanted to be anywhere but with us. Things must be very, very wrong.

We were still reeling from that news when the second bombshell dropped. Friday morning: Macca was gone. He'd 'resigned,' apparently convinced (or having been persuaded) that he no longer had the confidence of the majority of the players. Turmoil at the Kennel! Suddenly we had gone from a calm, steady, confident club -- not achieving well at the moment, but with a course for improvement mapped out ahead -- to a total basket case! No coach, no captain, players lining up to get out… What the hell was going on down there?

It was a sombre weekend. I listened to Brendan Macartney's dignified, philosophical interview on ABC radio and cried. I read and posted on the club forum obsessively, taking comfort from the shared anger and sorrow (and even pained laughter) of fellow fans. (Someone had named their dog Griffy -- what was he going to do now??) I couldn't see where we'd go from here.

Then on Monday morning, the roller-coaster took a dramatic swing upwards. The Bulldogs slapped down the gauntlet to GWS. You want our captain? You can have him -- but only if you give us Tom Boyd, your number one pick from last year. Boyd is a young gorilla, nineteen years old, the young power forward our side has been desperately seeking for years. (Our last top-class forward recruit was Chris Grant, in 1988.) Straight swap. How about that?

The boldness of it took our breath away. Then it got even better -- Boyd declared that he wanted to come to us! Suddenly we dared to dream again. Could it actually happen? Could we land this big fish, the missing piece of the puzzle? All week we seesawed between hope and incredulity. It couldn't happen -- GWS said they'd never let him go, under any circumstances. He was a number one pick, just last year, for heaven's sake!

But by the end of the week, the deal was miraculously done. We had lost Griff, lost Macca, and a handful of other players. But we had gained Tom Boyd for the red, white and blue: the Tominator, the Six Million Dollar Man, Major Tom, our own Tommy Boy.

So here we are, breathless and dazed, but starting, tentatively, to hope again. Up and down and up again, participants in a drama with its own wounded heroes, defiant rhetoric, valiant but untried knights,   silent and probably misunderstood traitors, bluster and bluff, enormous costs and potential for huge reward, an immense gamble, a future. And us -- the supporters, because we are part of the story too. Bruised from decades of disappointment, but daring to believe that success might be just around the next corner, that this might be the gamble that pays off.

How could anyone resist a story like that?

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