Incomparable feeling of winning after long drought
Book review by Adrienne Ribeny who lived a parallel footy history – part of the Australian legend
Being the one true devotee of Australian Rules Football (AFL) in my Canberra-based family, I was the automatic choice to review The Mighty West by Western Bulldog tragic, Kerrie Soraghan, just published by Black Inc Books.
I will admit to not being overly enthusiastic about drawing the short straw but I was barely a few pages in when I discovered that the author and I are kindred spirits and that our footy paths closely align. I get it – the feeling of belonging, of tribalism, and of being a ‘football romantic’ – and I absolutely get the euphoria experienced in winning a premiership on the back of a drought.
Few experiences in life compare. That said, I also acknowledge the author’s belief that ‘something more than a simple win-loss ratio is what connects a football team and its supporters’. It is an undefined ‘something’ that cannot be explained but can only be felt.
My interest in Australian rules football stems back to day dot when I accompanied my family to the local Unley Oval and to the away games to support our beloved South Australian National Football League (SANFL) club, Sturt, affectionately known as the ‘Double Blues’.
If you’re not a footy fan when you start this book, you could well be one by the end.
Since the inception of the Australian Football League (AFL) I have supported the Adelaide Crows (or as the author prefers to refer to them, ‘The Preliminary Final that Must Not Be Named’ and ‘The Other Preliminary Final that Wasn’t Really Very Good Either’), but Sturt will always be my No.1 team.
The Bulldogs and the Double Blues are an integral part of our history. Like the author, I also know the feeling of coming home to celebrate losing by ‘a mere’ 10 goals and to share the heartache of witnessing our Club on the brink of extinction but for the herculean efforts of the ‘true believers’ to turn the books around.
Both our teams, against all odds, were to honour this lifeline by winning that elusive premiership flag in 2016, (the Bulldogs being the first to have come from seventh place to win the flag) which served to reinforce our belief that it is simply unimaginable for such proud and powerful identities to be denied their rightful place in their respective competitions. It is just as unimaginable to think of the alternative of a Footscray/Fitzroy merger, or for Sturt to become the reserve team for the Adelaide Crows as was rumoured.
As a Sturt supporter I found myself transformed into a time capsule, riding the waves of reminiscence as the author described the kids who would leap the fence and jostle with their Bulldog heroes as they made their way off the Whitton Oval following the final siren, and who would ‘pat their muddy backs, smell their sweat and liniment and marvel at how big these boy-men were up close’. I was one of those kids and, as I close my eyes, I can instantly smell that delightfully distinctive eucalyptus liniment.
Brave new footy world meets die-hards
Unfortunately, as the author laments, such indulgences are strictly forbidden in the ‘brave new world of football that many of us never really wanted’ where the inevitable successes of the GWS/Gold Coast franchises, alias the ‘Acronyms’ and the lookalike ‘Ronald McDonalds’, ‘will be a return on investment, not a fairytale’. Like the author, I too can’t quite imagine what her Dad, a former Footscray player, would think of his progeny travelling hundreds of kilometres to witness a Footscray team play a five year old team in the outskirts of Sydney, a football outpost.
Some things never change, however, for us die-hard supporters. The ‘premiership croak’ is alive and well from the overuse of our vocals, as too our ‘rhythm’ as we yo-yo up and down on our seats in synchronisation while simultaneously directing our raucous disapproval at the umpires for their outrageous decisions – ‘all of them’!
Then the excuses come for the loss, with the lamest of all – ‘It’s only a game’. We know it isn’t and, where finals polarise our feelings, ‘an honourable performance, whether a win or loss, just won’t cut it’. There is of course the obligatory race to get home to watch the game ‘again, and again, and again’ – with one proviso – that it be only in the event of a win. Far be it for us to be self-flagellating!
Superstitious, not us!
We’re not superstitious – not much! God forbid if our favourite badges aren’t affixed to our scarves or if our players wear those ‘infernal white jumpers’ when they play an away game. That’s just plain unlucky as too if one of our players doesn’t run through the team’s banner. What was he thinking?! I even find myself crossing my fingers on both hands and holding my breath when my team is going for goal.
If I haven’t remembered to also cross my arms I am surely tempting fate that it will be a behind or worse! It’s those confounded ‘Ole Tom-style scenarios’ again, the voice that says ‘not us’. ‘Why not us’ Ole Tom? And when it IS us, ‘our city has never looked quite so beautiful’. Only a die-hard supporter can see this beauty – the euphoria one feels on the back of a finals win.
Honest and passionate account of the Bulldogs
The Mighty West is an honest and passionate account of the Bulldogs and their adoring fans, and is a diary of the 2016 AFL Season. It demonstrates that the club is bigger than the individual and provides great insight into what it means to be ‘Western suburbs, Footscray supporters, Irish-Catholics’. Although the author describes this as a triple disadvantage, and one which leaves a chip on your shoulder, she also highlights the resilience and unwavering belief of the fans in the face of interminable adversity.
I have learnt the significance of the numbers 54 and 61 and have experienced the fans openly weeping to have made the finals after 24 years, some may well be those ‘starry-eyed young men who camped out in 1961’ in the hope of clinching a finals ticket. I have flinched when reading of the jeers of the ‘callow private schoolboys’ and marvelled at the man in Bulldogs colours on Grand Final day holding aloft a sign reading ‘Here to represent parents, aunts, uncles and cousins who’ve passed away since 1961’. I can also appreciate the significance of the famous statue of E.J. (Whitton) decked out with red, white and blue ribbons and a scarf. The same accolade has been bestowed upon the Double Blues’ legend, Jack Oatey.
It’s not all serious
I have also enjoyed the comic relief along the way – after all, the Irish are known for their humour. I laughed at the ‘Three-Peaters’ (Hawthorn), the ‘Bourgeois Blues’ (Carlton), the ‘most irritating team’ (North Melbourne), the ‘impertinent upstarts’ (Bulldogs) for daring to win and, yes, even at the ‘least likeable’ (Crows) ‘for the hideous memories that team conjures up’.
In the excitement of driving to western Sydney to witness her beloved Bulldogs in a preliminary final, the author is ‘on the alert for signs and omens as the miles fly by’. As for the unusually-named town of ‘Mittagong’ she encounters, the author is sure that she has ‘read it’s an Aboriginal word for Western Bulldogs!’ Such passion is so infectious!
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a night game at the Manuka Oval in Canberra between the Bulldogs and GWS. Whilst the result may have previously been a matter of indifference, I soon discovered that my sojourn with The Mighty West left me barracking voraciously for the red, white and blue! Alas the four points were not to be theirs on the night. Although I felt the anguish of the Bulldog’s fans for missed opportunities, I was also reminded of their eternal resolve to endure. This is a valuable lesson to us all.
As a true devotee of AFL, I thoroughly enjoyed the passion and humour of The Mighty West, which is extremely well researched and which provides the reader with some interesting statistical information. If you’re not a footy fan at the commencement of reading this book, you could well be one by the end.
PS I agree with the author that the Bulldogs’ coach, Luke Beveridge, is a Plantagenet king Richard III look-alike!