From the Archives, 1997: Last rights for Whitten Oval

First published in The Age on August 24, 1997

Flying start wins for fiery Bulldogs

SUCH had been the intensity of the build-up to the Western Bulldogs’ final match at Whitten Oval yesterday that when hype finally gave way to action, something dramatic had to happen. It did.

Chris Grant and Matthew Croft leave the field after defeating West Coast in the last AFL match to be played at Whitten Oval.Credit:Joe Armao

Barely had the 26,704 gathered for the last rites begun to warm up their vocal chords — let alone done any barracking — when the emotions spilt over.

As the players took up their positions to start the game, a posse of Western Bulldogs descended on young Eagle ruckman Michael Gardiner in the goal square, pushing, shoving and generally letting him know the sort of afternoon he could expect.

The scoreboard at Whitten Oval.Credit:Joe Armao

After the Dogs “introduced” themselves, West Coast big man Jason Ball joined the fray, clashing with Western’s Matthew Dent, forcing the Bulldog player off under the blood rule. Then Ball was reported for allegedly striking Paul Dimattina. And the game still had not started.

When it did, it was the Western Bulldogs seizing the initiative, as they had in the opening skirmish. Rohan Smith, starting the game on the forward line, kicked the first goal after only two minutes. After five minutes, a Bulldog attack landed in the goal square, where Luke Darcy showed impressive mobility to tap the ball over the line in mid-air.

Drew Banfield responded for West Coast, but only a minute later Bulldogs forward James Cook threw his left foot at a loose ball and watched it dribble along the ground for 25 metres for another goal. Then Steve Kolyniuk added another after taking a pass from Brad Johnson. Already the Eagles were 19 points down.

Given the freezing cold, several heavy showers and a tricky breeze blowing almost directly across the ground, that was a considerably more valuable lead than it seemed at the time.

The crowd sticks around after the match to celebrate the win.Credit:Joe Armao

Half-an-hour later, it was priceless. A five-goal first quarter degenerated into a three-goal slog in the second. West Coast scored just one, a bouncing effort through Josh Wooden, but time-on had ticked over by the time the next goal for the term was scored by Bulldog star Chris Grant. When, two minutes later, a Jose Romero miskick was marked by Smith, two metres out, the margin was 29 points, a tall order for a side that had kicked only two goals in half a game.

All the usual key Bulldogs were playing their roles to perfection. Tony Liberatore this week put the squeeze on Ben Cousins, while Romero kept Dean Kemp right out of the picture.

Smith and Johnson offered their usual run, Grant gradually got on top of Glen Jakovich at centre half-forward, and a few others — such as Matthew Dent, who had the better of Brett Heady — also put up their hands in a big way.

When Grant booted the first goal after half-time to send the margin out to six goals, a thrashing looked on the cards. That West Coast ended up losing by only three probably accounted for much of the surprising upbeat atmosphere in the Eagles’ rooms afterwards.

Western Bulldog Simon Cox salutes the camera as team-mate Scott West ambles past.Credit:Joe Armao

It was Fraser Gehrig who began the long haul back to scoreboard respectability with a good left foot snap. Ryan Turnbull added another, and after 10 more minutes of slog, with interchange player Andy Lovell picking up plenty of touches, Heady reduced the gap to 17 points.

Besides Lovell, West Coast had the brothers Matera busting their gut, though Peter did seem to spend a lot of time trying to perfect the art of the torpedo punt on the run with a lot of success. Paul Symmons played a fine game on a wing, while Jarrad Schofield fought perhaps the most even duel of the match, against Scott West in the middle, to give the Eagles at least a sniff out of the middle.

Things even began to get a little toey again for the Bulldogs early in the last term, when first Lovell, then Phil Matera, scored to cut the gap to 12 points.

But it’s one thing to stay competitive in a match in which you’ve trailed from the outset, another altogether to turn that around into a victory on an occasion when your opponent has motivation to spare.

Replies from Western Bulldogs Brett Montgomery and Romero restored the balance, and when Grant coolly sneaked his third goal of the game along the ground from a tight angle to make the margin over four goals with 19 minutes gone, any danger had long since passed.

Which allowed a packed Whitten Oval a good 10 minutes of pure sentiment, repeated choruses of the club song, and the knowledge that, for the very last time, it had helped make yet another opponent simply wish it could get the hell out of the place.

First published in The Age on August 24, 1997

The last rights

FUNERALS bring people together. The wake for the Whitten Oval yesterday not only dragged 26,704 from the woodwork, it brought dozens of former Footscray players back to the fold. Like the fans, they came to pay their respects to the ground.

But the gathering of past Footscray players – there is, as yet, no such thing as a former Western Bulldog – was hardly a sombre occasion. The result of the match obviously lightened the mood, but the real cause for joy was the opportunity to meet old friends, share a beer and a memory or three. The sad part was that it would never happen again at this venue, much as many former players would like it to.

“I hope it won’t (be the last game),” past players president Ian Foreman (1952-53 player) told the gathering. “I’m a bit of an optimist.”

Alan “Rocky” Stoneham, 42, spoke for many in his lamenting of the passing of the Whitten, nee Western, Oval. “This is a football ground. Football’s played at stadiums these days.”

It was a typical Footscray function in that it was relatively quiet, good-natured and without pretence. They drank stubbies in a modest room with awful red carpet in the John Gent stand. There, Brownlow medallists and ex-champions such as John Schultz and Barry Round stood alongside such less than distinguished footballers as Ernie Sigley, who played “a few games for the thirds” for the club in his youth.

The spread of players, in chronological terms, was remarkable. Alby Morrison, a star of the 1930s (and former coach), was among a handful of ancient representatives of that dark era. Round and Alan “Rocky” Stoneham, the first player to be burdened with E.J. Whitten’s number (three), carried the flag for ’70, Footscray.

While many of them were too busy chatting and drinking to see the entire game, past Footscray players had plenty to say about the Western Bulldogs. Wally Douglas, 70, a 205-game veteran and vice-captain of the ‘54 heroes thought they should still be called Footscray. “The name’s changed, the ground’s changed, the jumper’s changed and the song’s changed. How can it be the same damn thing?”

Others may have shared Douglas’ views on the club’s heritage (and some didn’t), but it was easier to get them talking about the Western Bulldogs team, rather than club identity. While everyone was full of admiration for the current side, there was a common thread to the descriptions of the ’97 Doggies. They were invariably described as a team of “goers” whose commitment overcome its deficiencies. “They’re 18 real goers,” said Sigley, who pointed out that Footscray had won nine Brownlow medals but only one flag – an indication that it had been carried by the odd champion over the years. “Libba’s the one who holds this team together.”

The past players’ view of the Bulldogs, does not accord with the image coach Terry Wallace has of his team. He does not want his team to carry the back handed compliment of being dubbed a dour, battling team. He does not like its old, unofficial nickname, “the Scraggers”.

“A typical Footscray side is a dour hardworking, low-scoring type of side that drags an opposition down to it level. I think this side is different to that.”

As yesterday’s display showed Wallace is right. His team are no Scraggers. But, for one final day, at the reunion of past players in the John Gent stand, the Western Bulldogs were Footscray.

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