A Love Letter to the Underdogs

Every September in New York the fiendish summer temperatures finally break, the school year begins after the long summer vacation, and routine returns to the lives of folks in this city.

But for Australians like us, living 10,000 miles from our Aussie Rules football team, there’s a layer of uncertainty and cautious hope that accompanies the AFL finals season.

Each year as our team has “rebuilt”, my husband Danny and I have asked the question: “What if the Western Bulldogs get in the Grand Final?”

As the Bulldogs’ most recent Grand Final was 1961, this question was a speculative one for most of the past six and a half years we’ve lived in the USA. Until now.

My husband is currently in Australia for the first Western Bulldogs Grand Final of his life. The Bulldogs’ (or Footscray as they’re known to the old timers) only premiership was in 1954. Danny’s father Frank saw that game, a very young man at the time.

As a lifelong Doggies supporter, Danny follows the home and away season and the finals with unmatched zeal. I am a relative newcomer to the Bulldogs, having started barracking for them in the late 1990s.

To say this Grand Final has been long awaited is a cruel understatement. Danny, his five siblings and their various spouses and offspring have been waiting for this opportunity their whole, collective, lives; turning up, week in week out, willing the club to the top of the ladder.

It wasn’t until I experienced first hand the devotion, dedication and determination that is somehow unique to Western Bulldogs supporters, when I started dating Danny in 1998, that I began to understand how supporting an underdog club unleashes both loyalty and tribalism.

Initially, it was an easy transition to follow an AFL team — I lived in Sydney, but never had any connection with the Sydney Swans. My parents were New Zealand immigrants, so they had their beloved All Blacks, but Rugby Union was a remote idea for me. It was easy to enjoy the novelty of the Red, White and Blue scrappers from Melbourne’s industrial west. 

When I moved to Melbourne in 2000, while working at a national magazine, I started going to Bulldogs games with Danny’s family. It was a window on a world I didn’t even know existed. Tens of thousands of people each week would turn up, decked out in their colors to barrack (cheer) for their team, let of some steam, and go home a couple of hours later either elated or disheartened. It was an exhilarating ritual.

During those first live games, I understood the rules but not the finer points and I simply enjoyed a couple of beers in plastic cups, as Danny’s siblings and I shared from waxed paper bags of sugared doughnuts with hot jam inside them. I experienced the joy of being away from the office on a Friday night after a long week at a job I didn’t love.

But the novelty soon wore off and the team’s weekly struggle became personal. I learned about holding the ball, holding the man, deliberates; I learned to appreciate a good smother, a screamer of a mark, a brave tackle, and the one percent efforts that make or break a team.

We had some incredible players at that time: Scott West, Chris Grant, Daniel Southern, Luke Darcy, Brad Johnson and Rohan Smith. I had my own favorites, the back men and defender Matthew Croft, and later Brian Lake, Nathan Brown and Daniel Giansiracusa. But despite moments of brilliance, the Bulldogs could not consistently challenge for the top spots in the league. The club kept looking like it was going to break through, but we’d get so far, then drop back to the purgatory of a “rebuilding phase”.

It didn’t matter because I was hooked. I could no longer sit back and soak up the ambience; I would channel the nervous energy around me. I became focused on the performance of our team, the omissions of the umpires, the crowd frees, and the sometimes genius, but often flawed, strategies of our coaches.

The club struggled to get members year in year out, it had financial problems, staffing issues, sponsorship nightmares. These concerns became my problems, too. “We” lost a sponsor, “we” lost a talented player to a wealthier club, or retirement, or injury.

At the same time, I appropriated the powerful sense of belonging that the Western Bulldogs football club represented to Danny and his family — who were my family too. I was part of something bigger than myself; I had found my tribe.

Then in 2010 Danny, myself and our son moved to the USA. We watched from afar as our club rebuilt, once again, and then finally found the coach that could take us where we always knew we could go. Our collective hero, Luke Beveridge.

As we approach this monumental achievement — a Grand Final in our lifetime — I doubt if I could love my team, my tribe, more than already I do.

No matter what happens on Saturday, they — we — have proved the non-believers and the nay-sayers wrong.

The Bulldogs have already prevailed.

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2 thoughts on “A Love Letter to the Underdogs

  1. It’ll be a great game Caroline! Half my friends are for the Swans and half the Doggies so I’m torn.
    I guess it’s just great that both are in the final.
    Fabulous that Danny is in MElbourne for it.
    Next year you and Lewis too!
    xxx sarah

  2. Nice article Caro. Growing up supporting another western suburbs scrapper team Port Adelaide Football Club I can relate to the feelings you articulate, although probably more from Danny’s POV. Port Adelaide had the most successful run of state league grand finals of any club and were hated for that (along with the supporters being considered the league’s classic working class ferals!). I loved it and was lucky enough to see my beloved maggies win 3 grand finals. (And also experience the bitter dejection of seeing them lose in some as well)

    When PAFC were accepted into the national competition the AFL they were all of a sudden playing the big time game. They shrunk in stature somehow, and went through their own ‘rebuilding’ phase. I drifted away from watching the game in the 90s and early noughties in favour of work travel and other pursuits. (Also, I have never quite reconciled with the colour teal in PAFC’s guernsey or having to lose their emblematic magpies identity to that “other” magpies team;-)) I did see them win their only AFL Grand final victory in 2004 but it’s only been in the past 7 years that I’ve rekindled my affinity with my footy tribe.
    My team had a pretty ordinary year this year but I took lots of joy seeing the Fooscray underdoggies and their tribe go nuts with elation winning their first “Granny” for 62 years. Enjoy the year of the Dogs!

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