Culture

The Greatest Love Story Of All: What This Grand Final Means To A Lifelong Doggies Fan

This is one for the dreamers.

On Saturday, Western Bulldogs will be taking part in their first AFL/VFL Grand Final since 1961. It’s a dream come true for thousands of Doggies fans, including lifelong devotee Lachlan Kanoniuk. Here’s why.

I wasn’t supposed to go for Dogs. Your team is hereditary — Dad was a Cats man, and mum was (and still is) footy agnostic. Dad was also president of one of the two local teams in my country town at the time, Hamilton Imperials. Imps wore the red, white and blue strip — same guernsey as the AFL’s Footscray Bulldogs (renamed Western Bulldogs in 1997), and also went by the nickname Bulldogs.

I remember being tall enough to just reach the metal pole on the boundary fence while being perched on the wonky plank seating down at Melville Oval. “See the red, white and blue team?” Dad instructed. “That’s the Bulldogs. We go for them, alright?”. Easy. I was a switched on little fella. Sometime later, back at home, we were watching AFL on the telly. “See the blue and white? That’s the Cats. We go for them, alright?” Surely this was a stitch-up. We go for Bulldogs, mate. Despite a sustained effort to explain the differentiations between the Western Border Football League and the elite level Australian Football League, Dad conceded as I stood my ground. A mutation in the family genus was born. A Bulldog for life.

Last Saturday was the best night of my life. A Dogs prelim final win was a moment I’ve been envisioning since that pivotal confusion as a toddler. I made the 24-hour return bus trip to Sydney with the Doggies faithful, departing from the heartland of Footscray. The trip back loomed as 12 hours of abject misery, cramped in a coach.

But the Dogs got up. I cried. You cry a lot, as a Dogs fan. I think that’s the biggest point of difference from other clubs. After the final siren, I was in a daze. Bawling. This time, tears of joy. I hugged everyone in sight that wasn’t wearing GWS orange. Someone recognised me from the bus, then introduced me to acting captain Easton Wood’s mum. She was crying too. We hugged. The Dogs are into their first Grand Final since 1961, the first of my lifetime.

As a little tacker, Whitten Oval (then known as Western Oval) was the destination, not the departure point. It was about an eight-hour trip from Hamilton. Dad drove me plenty of times to catch the Dogs there, even when they weren’t playing the Cats. My Cats supporting younger brother (Dad made sure he got that one right) and Pies supporting sister (a rebel act, I think) came along sometimes too. At Doug Hawkins’ club games record-breaking match, I remember looking up at Dad for his approval to jump the fence prematurely at the final siren. He waited ’til security were distracted, and gave me the go ahead. I was off, and from apocryphal memory, I jumped up and gave Dougy a pat on the back as he was being chaired off.

1996 was a rough year for the club (as captured in the highly-recommended doco Year Of The Dogs), and a rough year for our family. We lost Dad in February in a car accident that nearly took Mum as well. You can’t make sense of such as loss as an eight-year-old. My favourite player, and one of my all-time favourite people to this day, Daniel Southern sent me a heartfelt hand-written letter, letting me know the Dogs were there for me. It meant a lot to eight-year-old me, and it still means a lot now. After retiring from an injury-ravaged career, Daniel moved to Egypt, converted to Islam, and now works with Indigenous youth in WA. What a legend.

A lot of footy clubs have heart, but the Bulldogs have a special kind of heart. While loyal Dogs fans have been rarely rewarded with Grand Finals, there’s reward in a spirit that’s hard to pin down. It’s one that has seen the club fight back from the brink when all looked lost.

DOGS2

I met Marcus Bontempelli, I’m never going to fail.

I think about a lot of things when I think about the Dogs. And I think about the Dogs a lot.

I think about heart. I think about hope. I think about my Nanna, who taught me how to kick with one of those shonky plastic footies that would break a toe if you hit it on the apex, whose vinyl couch I flooded with tears after the 1998 Preliminary Final loss to Adelaide. I think about my partner, a Kiwi who adopted the Dogs last year, insisting the decision was due to her own independent research into the club’s social good, and not my overt petitioning. I think about Liam Picken, who has flourished for the Dogs in the past two years after being freed from his tagging role. I think about every person who I’ve been to the footy with in the past two years who has heard me proudly boast “I went to primary school with Picko!” They build ‘em tough out in Hammo.

I think about Emma Kearney, who has made it from Cavendish into the inaugural season of AFL Women’s next year for the Bulldogs, and how I’ll boast to everyone within earshot, “I went to primary school with Karns!”. I think about our injured captain Bob Murphy, and which rock laureate he’ll quote should we get up on Saturday (I’m guessing Springsteen). I think about Mum, and all the support she’s given me, and the time she told me after 1997 Preliminary Final loss to Adelaide, “There’s always next year, mate”. 19 years later, it’s finally next year.

I think about the Dogs making the Grand Final. I think about it so much. Every idle moment in the past 25 years, my mind, it wanders to that ultimate destination. It’s surreal to see it so close, so real, on the immediate horizon.

On Saturday, I’ll be at the G, realising a quarter century’s worth of my wildest dreams. We haven’t won it yet — the Swans, and Buddy, are looking intimidating — but I’ll be enjoying every second of finding out. Here’s to the dreamers.

Lachlan Kanoniuk is the editor of FasterLouder. He changed his Twitter name to ‘dogs flag 2016’ in February and hopefully won’t have to change it after Saturday.