Retro Football and the formerly Footscray Bulldogs
Footscray’s greatest player, Ted Whitten, is also the icon of Victorian football and the champion of interstate rivalry. And, the Western Bulldogs are one of the AFL’s least glamorous clubs. Along with Melbourne, North Melbourne, St.Kilda and Greater Western Sydney they have a low membership and low crowd-drawing power. They are rarely given any of the prime TV slots, in which the AFL can cash in on advertising. During the 2015 AFL season, the Western Bulldogs are given hardly any free-to-air coverage. This compares negatively to teams such as Collingwood, Hawthorn and even the perennially under-achieving but well-followed Richmond . Teams such as Adelaide, Port Adelaide, West Coast and Sydney can rely on their team’s city-dominance for a rusted on fan-base. What to make of the club formerly known as Footscray?
The Western Bulldogs aren’t even the most popular team in Melbourne’s West. Despite a fractious two years, the Essendon Football Club has a fanatical mass of supporters. Success breeds strong fans, it seems. But, perhaps this is not exactly so. The Dogs made three-preliminary finals in a row, without ever making it to The Big One (how things could be different) and now, after the retirement of a series of key players, they have struggled to get beyond the re-building phase. Re-building: one of footy’s great euphemisms for ‘we don’t expect to win much soon.’ And then at the end of the 2014 season, the club kind of imploded: Ryan Griffen, the captain of just one year, walked out on the club and left for the unheralded Greater Western Sydney, a club with seemingly little going for it. The former club of the great rugby player, Israel Folau. And then, the coach left. Captain and coach hadn’t got along well and by year’s end, both were gone. There was recently a report in The Age in which Griffen stated the reasons for not enjoying his footy. At a conservative guess he probably had upwards of 350,000 reasons to enjoy playing a game. Or at least repay the fans’ support and trust.
The oval is at the end of Barkley Street. Going west from the Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) one passes the busy main street of the suburb and drives along its tram lines. Along the side of the road are Vietnamese restaurants and small Greek and Italian cake shops and cafes. There are the charity shops of St.Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. There are proper rough pubs and hipster cafes. Nearby are Ethiopian restaurants. I first saw Barkly Street while watching Sam Newman’s “Street Talk” segment on Channel Nine’s The Footy Show. Newman, a great Geelong ruckman and a commentator given to insult, would walk along suburban streets accosting pedestrians or letting strangers approach him. Most commonly he made fun of others; he would often be puerile and derogatory. Newman would rejoice in the company of those who had mental illnesses, who were socially inept or who weren’t familiar with the language of Australian rules or parochialism. And now Footscray is increasingly trendy, expensive (in terms of its real estate). Footscray isn’t so much on the ‘wrong side of the city’, but, is simply close to the city. Next to the FCAC is a park with a view that provides a broad panoramic view of Melbourne and emphasises the suburb’s access to the city.
I had been briefly to the FCAC and wanted to see what the Western Bulldogs had in terms of merchandise and museum. The museum, a corridor with a few exhibits paled in comparison to that of Richmond’s, curated by Roland Weeks, but, I met Michele in the shop – and she was chatty and full of enthusiasm for her team. We spoke a little.
She said ‘this is not how we roll.’ And continued, ‘it was a really strange thing to happen. If people have issues around here, we state how we are feeling. We don’t keep things to ourselves.’ Michele doesn’t mention Griffen by name, but her willingness to bring up the taboo of the club’s captain walking out on the team is suggestive of loyalty to the Club. ‘I am a supporter and a member’. And she also works at the Club, meaning that her commitment is three-fold. It is the team photograph day and one of her staff is missing; she is sending her junior a text message so that she can come in, if she has time, to be photographed. ‘I’ve worked here for a number of years and also at some other clubs. I know how things get done elsewhere, and I’m quite proud of the way that we go about things here. We are integrated with our community. We are down to earth. Our club is open to the public.’
The shop was selling Footscray replica jumpers – those from 1980s, if I’m not mistaken. The years of Brian Royal, Brad Hardie, Terry Wallace. I saw the price and they seemed more expensive than the current jumpers. Having NAB games played at the Whitten Oval is a part of the AFL’s attempts to re-integrate itself into ‘the community’. Ironically, the Whitten Oval/Western Oval was one of the symbolic sites of the AFL’s desire to remove itself from the suburban, parochial domains. Fitzroy Football Club, had their last win at the Western Oval. The waxing and waning of the AFL’s attitude towards heritage and progress is also reflected in the branding and re-branding of the Footscray/Western Bulldogs. The Footscray-Western Bulldogs dichotomy is expressed here: Footscray Not Western Bulldogs.
I tell Michele that I’m a Richmond fan and blah blah blah. She tells me I should come to the NAB game on the 28th February. I tell her that I’ll already be back in The Netherlands. She says, it’s a pity because she thinks I’d enjoy it; she wishes me well back in The Netherlands, putting the emphasis on the final syllable. She talks while smiling and looks one in the eye. The sense of longing for what footy used to be like is encapsulated by Dugald Jellie writing of the VFL clash between the two teams last year, “I was off to see a game at Whitten Oval – the first-round match between new stand-alone VFL teams Richmond and Footscray – and under bright skies it felt like a return to something cherished that’s long since gone. Football was back at the old Western Oval. The Tiges were playing. I had to be there.” His full report is here: A Lament for Us Tigers.
I visited the Whitten Oval while it was being slightly renovated for the NAB games prior to the season proper of 2015. A fence was being erected at the Barkley Street end, but, otherwise, there was no impediment to walking on to the field. The players were about at the cafe; some were up in the stands in their uniforms being photographed. I couldn’t relate the newness of the administrative building and cafe area, the flatness of the field and the mid-summer warmth to the few games I had watched being played at the Western Oval. I walked on to the field; took photos of the southern end. And then I walked north into a gale. Up until then I hadn’t notice a breeze. I also couldn’t place it against the excellent photos I had seen on The Holy Boot’s Football Emporium, here.
The Club has changed its name to break with its past and then seeks to invoke that past through retro jumpers, a museum and the renaming of the oval after one of the Club’s legends. Footy clubs always change their jumper – at least by degrees. Sponsors come and go, materials change. Collars change. FNWB, for one, can’t accept the presence of the Bulldog’s head (aka ‘yawning cat’) on the jumper. A change too far; a too literal stating of the club’s identity.