September 20, 1997: Preliminary Final
Adelaide 0.7 (7) 4.11 (35) 8.15 (63) 12.21 (93)
Western Bulldogs 2.2 (14) 10.6 (66) 13.7 (85) 13.13 (91)
The Loss, in capital letters. Western Bulldogs vs. Adelaide, Preliminary Final, 1997. September 20, 1997; the losing spin of the roulette wheel on which all Bulldog people had invested everything, a forgotten match played in a forgotten year by two forgotten teams, but for the Bulldog faithful the only game that will ever matter.
We didn’t think beforehand about the emotional consequence that losing might leave on us. We did not consider the possibility. We knew that Adelaide would be a difficult game but that day was supposed to be our destiny. We had risen from the ashes of the disgraceful, de facto wooden-spoon season of 1996 (R.I.P. Fitzroy) to be on the cusp of an incredible Grand Final and a very real chance of a premiership. That game was it, that was the one.
I was there in the very last row of the Southern Stand, on the top with a concrete wall at our backs and the action far below. Chris Grant’s last smothered behind with a minute to go was just a blur in the distance for me. I’m still not sure what happened, but I get the impression that if we were not Footscray, always condemned to lose, then I’m sure he would have scored. It was a simple chance to win the game.
From the Bulldog end, this match – the most important game and probably the defining moment of Footscray Football Club’s modern history – was notable for the extraordinary performances out of nowhere of two players who had barely ever featured for the Bulldogs before that day and almost never would again after it: Mark West, the Indigenous midfielder who tore Adelaide up for much of the game, and James Cook, the slender full-forward who marked and kicked goals that day without drama, as a matter of routine that Jason Dunstall would be proud of. But they would both miss crucial shots in the last quarter.
In the second quarter, after Adelaide threatened to run away at 3.9 to 3.2, we suddenly clicked. We had ‘it’, that magical, intangible essence that coaches work for, players train for, sports scientists collect data for, but can never be explained. The ball always emerged from the packs in our players’ hands; run was created; kicks were precise; shots went in for goals without question. Even inexperienced players like Mark West and a seventeen year-old, mulletted Nathan Brown scored difficult set shots with ease. After the siren Cook scored another and it occurred to me that I had sat through so many false dawns and mere dreams but that this moment, this lead, this Grand Final berth, this was finally real.
In the third quarter Adelaide threatened but we held them off. Then in the last quarter Malcolm Blight switched one of his midfielders to the forward line: Darren Jarman, the man who single-handedly stripped me of my footy-based dreams, a week before he more famously did the same thing to the Saints’ faithful. Before he did, though, we missed chance after chance to end this game. Shots hit the post, there was the Libba thing, Cook missed from twenty-five metres what he had been drilling all day long, and balls bounced the wrong way through for behinds just beyond our unmanned forwards with not a single Adelaide defender in sight. And then we lost ‘it’, it passed over to Adelaide, and Jarman showed perhaps for the first time in his career what a brilliant player he truly was. Our defence couldn’t respond (see picture, two on one). Our lead dwindled from twenty-something to three in a matter of minutes.
Ben Hart missed a shot to take the lead, and then almost exactly like a counter-attacking soccer team a goal up but severely under the pump, which we basically were, a slick chain of handpasses sent Mark West streaking away as free as air to score the goal that would seal the game. He missed his shot on the run, quite badly in fact.
Jarman almost immediately then scored the winning goal. Then there was the Grant folly (was it smothered? Did a desperate Adelaide defender block his kick, and why wasn’t he feted as a hero afterwards? Did Grant just miss it? Could he not keep his feet? What exactly happened? Do I even want to know?); Scott West emerged from a pack on half-forward but turned back into it and his rushed kick into the forward line was marked by a Crow, and that was the end.
I was in a sort of daze immediately afterwards and did not see Rohan Smith repeatedly thump the turf. When I finally looked over at the scene, I wanted to see the Bulldog players one last time but my team was already nowhere to be seen. I was immediately sad that the Bulldogs would not appear in their current incarnation ever again. Everything changes in a new season, lists are culled. Despite how well we played over the following two years (and intermittently in 2000), 1997 was more emotional.
Would we have beaten St Kilda? Would we have had fun at the Grand Final parade? Would the Grant vs. Harvey Brownlow shemozzle have been an omen? Wasn’t Cook suspended for his next match, which would have been the Grand Final? The answer to all of those questions is the same: Who cares, because we lost.
Years later I wondered if it was even real. The pre-game hope and premiership dreaming seem like pure fantasy now, the loss just brutal reality reasserting itself once more. For a few years afterward it was like a death that we dealt with (however inadequately), usually by thinking about it as little as possible and not saying a word about it to anyone.
In my mind it became a myth – how could the Bulldgos have ever realistically contested for the premiership? But now that I see the pic of Jarman reborn, kicking our ass once more and I remember that it was a real match of actual physical players, and the thought of that gives it reality again and it hurts once more. But years have passed and it got buried, replaced by a different tragedy.