Since entering the VFL in 1925 the Bulldogs have epitomised the archetypal Aussie ideal of honest, hard working - but, in premiership terms, predominantly unsuccessful - blue collar grafters. However, if affection and admiration rather than flags were an index of a club's achievements then Footscray - and, latterly, the Western Bulldogs - would arguably rival Carlton or Essendon as the V/AFL's most enduringly successful member.
Things were different prior to 1925, however. In the twenty-five seasons prior to their admission to the VFL, the Tricolours, as they were then known, secured no fewer than nine VFA premierships. Just about the only thing which has remained constant since then is the club's working-class identity. Certainly there has been little in the way of on-field success to get excited about.
Having said that, the club has produced a succession of champion players, including no fewer than ten Brownlow Medallists, as well as the individual who, to many, epitomised the essence of Australian football in the twentieth Century more than anybody else. Indeed, so synonymous was Edward James Whitten with the essential spirit of his chosen sport that he was almost universally, in Victoria at any rate, accorded the designation 'Mr. Football'.
Not even Mr. Football could inspire Footscray to more than a couple of sporadic stabs at premiership success, however. Indeed the first such stab, in 1954, arguably owed more to team balance and determination than to any particular impact or prowess on the part of Whitten. Moreover, the fact that the club was ultimately successful in lifting the premiership that year was largely attributable to the fact that one significant VFL heavyweight - Geelong - was in abeyance, while two others - Melbourne and Collingwood - were undergoing transition. Certainly, it is hard to imagine the Bulldogs matching it with either of Geelong's 1951 and 1952 premiership sides, or the redoubtable Melbourne combination of the late 1950s which won five flags from six consecutive grand final starts.
That said, a premiership is still a premiership, and a team can do no better than beat the opponents which fate conspires to place before it. Moreover, to equate Footscray's 'success' as a football club merely with its achievements - two senior grade flags - since 1925 is to do it a considerable disservice, for the Tricolours enjoyed a rich and illustrious history for more than forty years prior to their admission to Victorian football's premier competition, and their achievements during that period arguably played an even bigger part in developing the club's unique identity and character than any subsequent events.
Unravelling the origins of the Footscray Football Club is no easy task. As long ago as the 1870s, various clubs bearing the Footscray name appeared, with one such being a founder member of the junior division of the VFA in 1877. Three years later, out of respect for Prince Louis Napoleon, the 'Prince Imperial' of France, who had heroically met his end in 1879 during the Zulu wars, this club changed its name to 'Prince Imperial Football Club'.
The following season saw the emergence of another club in the district, Footscray Excelsior, which soon provided a home for many of the area's better players. In a bid to restore its position as Footscray's leading club, Prince Imperials reverted to its original name before the start of the 1883 season. This, coupled with the likely adoption the same year of the now famous red, white and blue colours, has led to the near universal nomination of 1883 as the inaugural year of the club which today bears the name of Western Bulldogs. However, an objective examination of the facts appears to make it clear that such a demarcation is both convenient and contrived; as with many football clubs originating during the nineteenth century, identifying a discrete and unambiguous starting point is notoriously difficult.
Whatever the truth about its genesis, one watershed in the club's development which is easy to identify occurred in 1886, when Footscray was one of five clubs to be newly granted senior status by the VFA, bringing the total number of senior clubs in the competition to fifteen. With the arrival of a new rail link to the metropolis, Footscray's transformation from obscure plains outpost to integral part of suburban Melbourne was well underway. Playing its home matches at the colourful but notoriously boggy Western Reserve, Footscray provided the rapidly growing local population with an obvious means for engendering its nascent sense of community identity and spirit, if not quite yet the full-blown pride that emerges from success. To put it bluntly, the club struggled during its early years, both financially and on the playing arena, often taking to the field with players missing, and never seriously troubling competition heavyweights like Geelong, South Melbourne and Carlton.
During the 1890s, Footscray's on-field performances gradually improved, but the actual premiership race continued to be dominated by the same few clubs. Footscray, however, was building a distinguishable tradition for itself, and the red, white and blue colours were beginning to be seen as synonymous with both the club and the locality.
When Collingwood entered the competition in 1892 it was instructed by the VFA to discard the red, white and blue playing uniforms it had used in its previous incarnation as Britannia Football Club, and re-invent itself in the now famous black and white. If this represented a victory of sorts for Footscray, however, it was both minor and transient, for within a couple of seasons, Collingwood had emerged as a bona fide VFA power, reinforcing the lop-sidedness of the competition still further, while Footscray was incontrovertibly back in the doldrums. Matters finally came to a head at the end of the 1896 season when eight of the stronger, wealthier and/or geographically better positioned clubs seceded from the VFA to form a new, elite competition, to be known as the Victorian Football League.
Footscray, it perhaps goes without saying, was not considered worthy of inclusion in this breakaway organisation, and the 1897 season found it participating in a truncated VFA, along with eventual premiers Port Melbourne, North Melbourne, Richmond, Williamstown, and newcomers Brunswick.
The inevitable decline in standard enabled Footscray to compete with greater effectiveness from the start, finishing third in 1897, before securing a hat trick of premierships over the course of the following three seasons. In a competition which ostensibly, if not quite in reality, espoused the twin 'virtues' of amateurism and territorial pride, Footscray, which around this time began to be referred to as 'the Tricolours' or 'the 'Scray', was one of the leading standard bearers. Players like Billy Dickens, Arthur 'Nance' Williams, William 'Ching' Harris and Joe Marmo attracted record crowds to a Western Reserve that was now a focus for considerable local attention and pride. Footscray was considered to be as strong as many VFL clubs at this time, but repeated challenges issued to the likes of St Kilda and South Melbourne fell on ears rendered deaf either by conceit or fear.
The VFA introduced a 'final four' system in 1903, but by this time the Tricolours, undermined by the loss interstate and abroad of a number of key players, were no longer a force. A combination of careful recruiting and the emergence of a group of talented local juniors gradually turned the tide, however, and in 1906 the side made it through to its first premiership play-off, only to lose by 11 points to West Melbourne despite hurtling out of the blocks early on.
The 1908 season was noteworthy in bringing the defection of Richmond to league ranks, with West Melbourne also disappearing after an aborted attempt to follow suit by means of a merger with North Melbourne. Brighton and Northcote were admitted to the competition as replacements. Changes were afoot at Footscray, too, with a new administration, and the arrival of some half a dozen high quality players, including Jim Neylan from West Melbourne, Johnny Lauder from Yarraville, and former Port Melbourne and Richmond goalsneak Jack Hutchinson, who had already topped the VFA's annual list of goal kickers on three occasions, and would do so again in 1908 with 68 goals for the year.
The new look Tricolours were a power to be reckoned with in 1908, losing only three home-and-away matches for the year to qualify for the finals as minor premiers before seeing off Williamstown's premiership challenge in a semi-final to reach the flag decider against Brunswick. The VFA, in an astute move, scheduled the final for the MCG on a public holiday, aware that the United States Navy, which was in Melbourne as part of its 'good will' world tour, was conducting a range of festivities that morning, with the likelihood that many of the spectators would regard the prospect of an afternoon at the football, to round off the day, appealing. So it proved, with a huge crowd, estimated to be in the region of 44,000 (only 9,000 fewer than attended that year's VFL final), rolling up.
The game was closely fought for three quarters, with Brunswick leading by four points at quarter time and two points at the long break, and Footscray in front by eight points at the last change. However, the 'Wicks had been forced to play a man short since losing Harold Balfe with a broken arm in the opening term, and the longer the game went on, the harder they found it to maintain the pressure. In the final quarter, Footscray totally dominated the play, adding 3.5 to 1.1 to win 'pulling away' by 24 points, 9.10 (64) to 6.4 (40). 'Scray wingman Fred Hansen, who wore a claret cap when playing, was best afield, ably abetted by centreman Archie 'Driver' Clarke, rover Roy Cotton, and three-goal half forward John Lauder. Each of the Footscray players received a sovereign for his efforts from club president James Cumming.
Footscray's fall from grace after its 1908 premiership success was marked, but mercifully brief. By 1912, the season after the VFA openly accepted that professionalism existed, and could not be fought, Footscray again emerged as the team to beat, finishing the home-and-away season in pole position, only to succumb comparatively meekly on two occasions to Essendon Association in the finals.
Honour was restored the following year, however, as the Tricolours once again topped the ladder, and on this occasion managed to finish the job. Not that it was easy: semi final opponents Essendon Association got within two points of causing an upset, while the final against North Melbourne was even closer, with the lead changing hands repeatedly all afternoon.
When the Shinboners edged out to a 12-point lead during the final term it appeared that they were finishing the stronger, but Footscray rallied determinedly, adding a goal and behind from Vern Banbury and a major score with three minutes to play from Art Gregory to hit the front by a solitary point. North attacked frenetically throughout the closing moments but the Tricolours' defence held firm to secure an heroic win.
North gained emphatic revenge in the 1914 final, downing Footscray by 35 points, and the 'Scrays' second period of sustained dominance was over. However, its greatest era was still to come.
When the VFA resumed after a two-year break in 1918, Footscray was one of half a dozen clubs to take part, albeit somewhat half heartedly. The side finished last. However, when things resumed in earnest the following year, Footscray, which had recruited ruckman Jack 'Chooka' Howell and forward Harry Morgan from South Melbourne, once again proved itself the team to beat.
After Brunswick had upset minor premiers North Melbourne in a semi final the Tricolours showed great fortitude to win the final against the 'Wicks by 13 points after allowing their opponents to kick the first four goals of the game. This set up a challenge final meeting with the Shinboners, who surprisingly, apart from a period during the 2nd term, failed to put up much of a challenge. Footscray's eventual 22-point victory, in which rover-cum-half forward Aubrey McKenzie, full back John Meuleman, centre half back Norman Ford, and four-goal full forward Johnny Craddock excelled, would have been substantially more emphatic had it kicked straighter, but the formidable overall nature of the team's performance left no one in any doubt that the gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down to the other nine Association clubs.
By contrast with 1919, Footscray's 1920 flag win owed almost everything to steadiness in front of goal, for despite managing only 19 scoring shots to opponent Brunswick's 26, the Tricolours emerged victorious from a tempestuous final encounter by three points. Footscray won 10.9 (69) to 8.18 (66), with future Test cricketing rover Roy Park vying for best afield honours with ruckman Jack 'Chooka' Howell.
The Tricolours' consummate dominance of the competition continued in 1921 - except when it really counted, in the finals. Not only was Footscray bested by Williamstown in both the final replay and the challenge final, it was forced to surrender to the elements when an enormous hailstorm during the 3rd quarter of the 1st attempt to play the final forced its abandonment.
Footscray finished runners up again in 1922 after a controversial two-point challenge final loss to Port Melbourne which produced allegations that four Borough players had been offered bribes to 'lie down'. The allegations were never proved, but left a sour taste which was still evident 12 months later when the same two clubs played off once more for the title. This time around the 'Scray proved too strong, leading at every change by 22, 9 and 31 points before running out 7.10 (52) to 5.8 (38) winners. More notable than the scoreline, however, was the rough, uninhibited nature of the play which saw four Port Melbourne and three Footscray players reported. Somewhat controversially, the Borough players were all severely punished, while none of the Footscray trio received anything worse than a caution.
By 1924, Footscray had assembled arguably the strongest team to feature in the VFA competition since the eight VFL clubs had gone their separate ways in 1897.
After comprehensively dominating the home and away rounds, winning all bar one match for the year, the side effortlessly progressed to the final where it looked a class above opponents Williamstown.
Brilliant passages of teamwork, clever positional play and a resolute defence marked the Tricolours' efforts, which contrasted Williamstown's mediocre performance. Centre half back Norman Ford was in brilliant form for Footscray and it wasn't until the last quarter that Williamstown kicked its first goal.
Footscray eventually won 11.11 (77) to 3.4 (22), with just three players, full forward Tom Mullens (5), centre half forward Jack O'Brien (4) and half forward flanker Alan Hopkins (2) sharing all its goals.
Footscray's next outing has attracted its share of controversy over the years, mainly because the result did not conform to expectations. At the suggestion of opera singer dame Nellie Melba, the VFL and VFA agreed that their respective premier teams should play a special benefit match in aid of the Limbless Soldiers' fund, with the victors of the game being declared 'Champions of Victoria'. Thus it was that, on Monday 6th October 1924, a crowd of 46,000 turned up at the MCG to witness Footscray run a disconsolate VFL premier, Essendon, off its feet to the tune of 28 points, 9.10 (64) to 4.12 (36).
Initial reactions to Footscray's performance were effusively admiring. According to 'The Argus':
In all points of the game Footscray were the better side. They were fitter, faster, cleverer .... electrifying. they worked together like a well-oiled machine, and their handball - if not always in strict conformity with the rules and often overdone - was bewildering.
The reference to illegal handball concerns Footscray's use of the flick pass, which was permitted in the Association, and which indeed had been one of the primary foundations of the Tricolours' supremacy in that competition, but which was not allowed in the League.
'The Australasian' added further salt to Essendon's wounds:
What capped Footscray's exhibition and made it a joy, was the absolute fairness of their methods, and (the) manliness displayed by every member of the team. League football was humiliated and trampled under foot when Footscray made hacks of mighty Essendon.
Prominent Essendon player Tom Fitzmaurice later poured scorn on these reactions:
"The game," he declared, "was a frame up. Some Essendon players were offered money to let Footscray win and they refused it; a few others sold Essendon and the League without compunction."
These are serious allegations, but they might have carried more weight had they been ventured in the immediate wake of the game, and not more than a decade later. As such they cannot help but be regarded as sour grapes of the meanest, most reprehensible kind. When all is said and done, the only objective measure of the respective strengths of two football teams is the score on the board at the conclusion of the game; if Essendon's approach to the historic championship match was inadequate or flawed, that is merely another way of acknowledging that its team was inferior to Footscray on the day.
It is therefore perhaps a trifle ironic that the Tricolours should have provided the VFA with arguably its most noteworthy achievement of the twentieth Century in what was effectively their last game under the Association banner.
In 1925, after a forty-one season stint in the Association which had yielded a record nine premierships, Footscray, along with Hawthorn and North Melbourne, left its roots behind and embarked on a new era in the VFL. Since the schism of 1897, the Tricolours had only failed to contest the finals on seven occasions, and had managed the highly commendable success rate of 70.6%. However, things were about to get considerably tougher.
As recently crowned champions of Victoria, Footscray's debut in the state's elite competition was eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries to key players, and the enforced removal of the flick pass from the its armoury, seriously undermined the team's effectiveness. With just 4 wins for the season from 17 games, the Bulldogs finished eleventh, ahead only of fellow newcomers Hawthorn.
Matters were soon to get even worse, however, as the allegations of bribery which had been made in the wake of the 1922 VFA grand final against Port Melbourne, came back to haunt the club. The chief focus for these allegations was Footscray's president, George Sayer, "a curious mixture of self-made industrialist and gambling king", who was in a sense synonymous with the club. When rumours began to circulate of Sayer's involvement in bribes being offered to Essendon players prior to the 1924 championship clash it was, in effect, the good name of the Footscray Football Club that was being besmirched.
Irate at what they saw as petty victimisation, the club's members rallied behind their president, who was comfortably re-elected at the 1926 Annual General Meeting, only for the league to refuse to accept him. With the threat of compulsory disaffiliation looming, Sayer chose to do the honourable thing, and resign "for the good of the team".
In truth, George Sayer's resignation proved to be anything but beneficial to Footscray. Whatever the truth about the allegations of bribery and corruption, Sayer had been personally responsible for providing the club with the financial resources and, indirectly, the recruits which had enabled it to perform so successfully since the end of world war one. His departure set the club back years.
That said, the Western Oval did provide a home to a fair number of high quality players during the 1920s and '30s, notably:
- the deceptively graceless looking Alan Hopkins (151 games), who was voted player of the series after representing the VFL at the 1930 Adelaide carnival, and would later be awarded a retrospective Brownlow Medal for the same year
- triple best and fairest winner (1927, 1930 and 1932), Ivan McAlpine (112 games)
- rugged and versatile big man, Alby Morrison (224 games)
- smooth moving ruckman Norm Ware (200 games), who carried on playing until 1946, and won a then club record five best and fairest awards as well as the 1941 Brownlow Medal
Of these, only Morrison and Ware were still around when Footscray finally broke through for its first VFL finals appearance in 1938. After winning 13 out of 18 home and away games to finish third on the ladder the Bulldogs fronted up to Collingwood in the first semi final before a crowd of 68,566 at the MCG. The side remained in contention until well into the third term, but extreme nervousness caused the players to miss numerous goal scoring opportunities. Footscray ended up managing only one less scoring shot than the opposition, but still lost by 41 points.
"It was just like a whirlwind," remembered 'Scray rover Jim Thoms more than half a century later, "the ball was going that quickly from one end to the other. I hardly knew what was happening."
Footscray suffered a similar case of the jitters four years later on its next finals appearance, the 1942 first semi final against South Melbourne, which the southerners won by 27 points, 13.13 (91) to 7.22 (64). Subsequent first semi final defeats in 1944 against Essendon, 1946 against Melbourne, 1948 (Collingwood) and 1951 (Essendon) all too readily gave rise to the myth of Footscray being incapable of performing well under pressure.
In actuality, Footscray in the 1950s was gradually assembling its greatest array of talent ever, and an inability to perform under pressure was certainly never an issue for players like Herb Henderson, Jack Collins, Charlie Sutton or Ted Whitten. Henderson, an agile, well balanced player who took the field in a Footscray jumper on 130 occasions, was one of the finest full backs in league history. Collins, the VFL's top goalkicker in 1954 and 1957, was arguably Footscray's greatest ever full forward¹⁶. As for Charlie Sutton, although best remembered as a highly accomplished back pocket player, he was capable of playing almost anywhere, and indeed jointly topped the club's goal kicking list (albeit with only 23 majors) in 1951. Whitten, of course, was simply incomparable:
Fans talk about the 'complete footballer' and although I believe this creature to be mythical, Whitten went very close to football perfection...... (He) could play in almost any position and often made the centre half forward position - the most difficult of them all - look relatively easy. Whitten could dominate in the air, control the ball on the ground, flick out superb hand or foot passes and the move down field to play at centre half back to stop the opposition in its tracks. Very few footballers have successfully played in these two key positions. Besides, Whitten was genuinely tough. I still get an ache above the eyes when I think of Whitten tearing through a pack with murderous intent. And pity help the rival who decked one of EJ's team mates.¹⁷ And:
My .... memories of EJ are of a brilliant footballer who would shake the ball in mid air after he had taken a mark. It was his way of saying "this is mine". It was an almost arrogant action and must have infuriated rivals. I also recall that he invariably wore a crisp white bandage on one wrist. I learned later that he played for much of his career with a broken scaphoid bone, the bane of many a footballer. Whitten had brilliant skills and the old clips of him in action reveal a footballer blessed with natural talent. He would win possession, shoot out a handpass, and then run to shepherd a team mate. His work rate was phenomenal in an era of mark and prop football.¹⁸
Finally, and quintessentially:
Nobody has really had a hiding until they've had one from Ted Whitten.¹⁹
In 1953 the Bulldogs finally emerged as a credible VFL force. In the first semi-final against Essendon that season they opened in a flurry of passion and endeavour to have 3.7 on the board to their opponents' 1.0 by quarter time. Thereafter, the Dons fought back hard, but Footscray played with grit, resolve and considerable doggedness to hold out for an eight-point win, 6.13 (49) to 5.11 (41).
A fortnight later in the preliminary final Geelong proved to have the Bulldogs' measure but, to borrow the parlance of a later era, 'the finals monkey was now off their back', and 1954 would see it well and truly obliterated.
The 1954 VFL home-and-away season was extremely closely contested. Footscray managed just 11 wins and a draw from 18 matches, and yet managed to qualify for the finals in second place, one and a half games behind Geelong, and comfortably ahead of North Melbourne on percentage. Footscray had lost narrowly to the Cats in the teams' only minor round meeting, but bounced back emphatically in the second semi final to record an 11.19 (85) to 8.14 (62) win after the teams had been all square at the last change. To call the result a shock would be a major understatement: the Cats were regarded as easily the most accomplished side of the era, and were widely expected to secure their third flag in four years. When the Cats bowed out of the finals race to Melbourne the following week, Footscray was automatically - one might almost say miraculously - installed as the new premiership favourite.
In blazing sunshine, before of a crowd of 80,897, some of whom sat inside the perimeter fencing, Footscray began the grand final tentatively, allowing Melbourne to register the opening goal of the game after eleven minutes. As if this was the spark needed to get them going, the Bulldogs immediately upped the tempo, and a couple of quick goals from full forward Jack Collins saw them edge in front. With both sides going in hard there were a number of heavy body clashes, notably Footscray captain-coach Charlie Sutton's flooring of Demons hero Ron Barassi, and the longer the quarter went on the more the Bulldogs seemed to be in control. This superiority was rubber-stamped in the most emphatic fashion during the time on period when goals to Kerr, Stevens and Collins extended Footscray's lead to 29 points at the first change.
The second term was Melbourne's best of the match as they attempted to undermine the Bulldogs' systematic teamwork with vigorous use of the body and, on occasion, outright intimidation. However, despite conceding 3 goals to 2 for the quarter, Footscray stood firm, and their "dressing room generated a tremendous air of confidence during the half time break".
A couple of early third quarter goals from Collins and Sutton pushed the margin out to six goals, a lead the Bulldogs maintained until the final change. The last quarter saw Footscray maintaining control to add 3.3 to 1.2 and win with beguiling ease, 15.12 (102) to 7.9 (51). Full forward Jack Collins' seven goals equalled the grand final record, while rover John Kerr, ruckman-defender Dave Bryden, centreman Don Ross, and the irrepressible Ted Whitten were among Footscray's better players in what was an even team display. According to Hugh Buggy, who estimated that 70,000 of the 80,000-plus spectators at the ground were rooting for the Bulldogs, the grand final victors "won in the rucks, they won in the air, and they outroved Melbourne".
With seventeen of its premiership twenty working in manual occupations, Footscray's image as a blue collar, working class club was confirmed, and if anything this only served to accentuate the widespread acclaim given to the side from virtually all quarters.
Among the Bulldog faithful themselves, of course, the reaction to the team's achievement was predictably effusive:
.... Footscray went mad with joy. Bands played, train whistles blew, cars honked and men, women and children cried with delight. Bursting rockets in red, white and blue intermittently lit up the Footscray sky. Traffic jammed the Footscray streets and police were forced to cordon off the Town Hall area in Napier St. where about 6,000 ecstatic fans surged to pay homage to the victors. And, on the Footscray Oval, a group of revellers lit a fire and warmed their hands over the roasting effigy of a demon. Charlie Sutton was the King of Footscray. The chant roared on through the evening..."We want Charlie; we want Charlie." After a team dinner at the Mayfair Hotel, Footscray Mayor, Fred Peart, introduced the players to the clamoring fans outside the Town Hall. And so the night was in full swing. Indeed, for many, the celebrations raged on for days. Some still tell you of the most beautiful hangover they've ever had.
Sadly, Footscray's supporters would not be the only ones with premiership hangovers; in 1955, the team failed to contest the finals (albeit with a better win-loss record than in 1954!), and although it recovered to finish third in 1956 the comprehensive nature of its preliminary final loss to Collingwood emphasised that it could no longer be described as a realistic premiership threat.
Charlie Sutton, who had secured the role of Footscray captain-coach in 1951, retired as a player at the end of the 1956 season, but was re-appointed as coach. However, midway through the 1957 season he was suddenly and peremptorily deposed. Apparently, "there was criticism of his training methods, his reluctance to move players and his attention to business interests that allegedly interfered with his role as coach".
The man chosen to replace Sutton was 'Mr. Football' himself, but if the committee believed that by appointing Whitten they were procuring an automatic ticket back to pre-eminence they were to be seriously disappointed. The Bulldogs finished sixth in 1957, largely as a result of the solid start to the season they had enjoyed under Sutton, but 1958 and 1959 brought a nosedive into oblivion, with just three wins in the latter year earning the side its first ever VFL wooden spoon.
Whitten's response was astute, meticulously planned and radical, and it went within an ace of securing the ultimate pay-off. By fundamentally altering the way that Footscray played the game he transformed 1958's team of ramshackle no-hopers into 1961's premiership contenders.
During the 1959 season, Whitten's Bulldogs began using the flick pass, a type of handpass which involved striking the ball with the open palm rather than a clenched fist. Speedier and easier to execute than a conventional handball, the flick pass enabled Footscray's players to move the ball faster and more accurately than any opposition team. However, it quickly attracted the ire of opposing coaches, who felt that its use contravened the spirit, if not the letter, of the game's laws. Midway through a 1961 season in which the Bulldogs had taken their much maligned skill to a new level of efficiency, the constant, high profile criticism from coaches like Norm Smith of Melbourne led to a much more rigorous interpretation of the handball laws by VFL umpires. At a stroke, Footscray's 'secret weapon' was rendered impotent, but the side showed great courage and determination to continue to perform well, ultimately securing fourth spot on the ladder after a hard fought last round victory over Geelong.
The press, however, remained to be convinced, dubbing Whitten's charges 'the under-doggies' in advance of their first semi final encounter with St Kilda. However, Footscray played superbly, its eventual 9 point win being rendered deceptively close by a couple of late Saints goals which came after the result had effectively been sealed.
Given Norm Smith's role in undermining the Bulldogs' efficiency and effectiveness, Footscray's preliminary final meeting with Melbourne carried a certain amount of feeling, with the 'under-doggies' again scotching the experts' expectations with a comfortable 13.7 (85) to 8.10 (58) win.
The 1961 VFL grand final between Footscray and Hawthorn produced a close contest for two quarters, with the Bulldogs leading by 8 points at the main break. However, after half time, 'Kennedy's Commandos', almost universally renowned as the fittest side in the league, ran away with the game, adding 10.7 to 2.4 to win by 43 points.
Ruckman John Schultz, back pocket Charlie Evans, follower Ted Whitten (14 kicks, 8 handballs and three goals), centre half back John Hoiles, and half forward flanker John Quarrell were best for the losers. Footscray centreman Bob Spargo, who had probably been the Bulldogs' best player overall in the two preceding finals, had to be moved off a rampant Brendan Edwards, who with 36 kicks for the day was far and away the most influential player on view, and a key reason for Hawthorn's win. Despite this, Spargo's 23 kicks and 2 handballs made him, statistically at least, Footscray's most productive player.
After starting the 1962 season well with a 12.8 (80) to 6.11 (47) defeat of their 1961 grand final conquerors, Hawthorn, the Bulldogs endured an inconsistent year which finally yielded 11 wins from 18 matches, and fifth position on the ladder.
If this was disappointing, there was worse to come: Footscray did not again enjoy involvement in the September action until 1974, by which time the heroes of 1961 had been completely replaced by a new generation of hopefuls. Prominent among these was ruckman Gary Dempsey, who won five club best and fairest awards in a row between 1973 and 1977, and a record six in total, not to mention the 1975 Brownlow Medal:
"Tall and extremely well built, he was expert in giving his small men first use of the ball."
Among the other Footscray stars of this era were key position forwards Laurie Sandilands, who captained the side between 1974 and 1976, and Kelvin Templeton, who in 1978 became the first Footscray player to notch a century of goals in a season, while centreman Peter Featherby, rovers Geoff Jennings and Ray Huppatz, and the explosively talented but inconsistent Bernie Quinlan, were others to make their mark at the Western Oval during the 1970s.
Unfortunately, however, none of these players were capable of seeing the Bulldogs over the line against either Collingwood or Geelong in the elimination finals of 1974 and 1976 respectively, which proved to be the team's only finals appearances of the decade. The 1980s would scarcely prove to be any better, and indeed would test both the loyalty and the nerves of the club's supporters to the limit.
The 1980s proved to be a decade of dramatic change for the sport of Australian football, while for Footscray it was a period of almost unalleviated hardship, culminating in probably the narrowest escape from extinction ever accomplished by a major club.
With former Richmond champion Royce Hart as newly appointed coach, Footscray fronted up for the 1980 VFL season with considerable optimism. Hart favoured a style of play which was based on the coaching philosophy of his former mentor, Tom Hafey. Centred on pace and long kicking to position, it required its exponents to be in the peak of physical condition. Unfortunately, it also presupposed a level of pure football ability of which few of the players at the Western Oval at the time were capable.
In two complete seasons at the helm, Hart oversaw returns of 5 wins and 17 losses for eleventh place in 1980, and an execrable 2 wins and 20 losses for eleventh place the following year. After ten rounds of the 1982 season, Hart was replaced by former Geelong and current Bulldog ruckman Ian Hampshire, who promptly retired as a player, but matters scarcely improved, as Footscray ended the season with just 3 wins out of 22 matches, and the wooden spoon, notwithstanding the outstanding later season form of Swan Districts recruit Simon Beasley who finished with 82 goals.
In 1983, however, Hampshire began to turn things around. Aided by the recruitment of sandgropers Andrew Purser and Jim Sewell the Bulldogs were tough, resilient and competitive, attracting an average attendance of 20,088 to their home games (the highest figure since 1963), and rounding the season off with 3 consecutive wins to take their total for the year to 10, which was good enough to secure seventh place on the ladder. In 1984 the improvement continued, but 12 games in, with Footscray well in contention for a finals place, Hampshire astonishingly resigned. It would be left to his replacement as coach, former Richmond journeyman Mick Malthouse, who just failed to get the Bulldogs into the 1984 finals, to transform the nucleus of Hampshire's side into a credible premiership contender.
This is not to suggest that Malthouse did not himself make adjustments and improvements to the team. Chief among these was the acquisition of a trio of highly talented Western Australians: eventual 1985 Brownlow Medallist Brad Hardie, strong running Claremont utility Allen Daniels, and experienced rover Tony Buhagiar, originally from East Fremantle, recruited from Essendon. With these additions to the mix, and the outstanding form of the man who, according to one of his greatest rivals, Hawthorn's Robert Dipierdomenico, 'was Footscray', Doug Hawkins, the Bulldogs in 1985 enjoyed their best home-and-away season since their VFA days, winning 16 of 22 matches to qualify for the finals in second place. Lacking in big game experience, however, Footscray was overwhelmed by Hawthorn to the tune of 93 points in a damp squib of a qualifying final. Distressed and annoyed, Malthouse nevertheless remained outwardly calm, and under his astute guidance the Bulldogs bounced back in the following weekend's first semi final to overrun North Melbourne after half time and notch up a well deserved 19.23 (137) to 16.11 (107) victory, with Coleman medalist Simon Beasley bagging 7 goals, including his 100th for the year.
It was clear almost from the start of the preliminary final re-match between Footscray and Hawthorn that on this occasion the Doggies were not going to be pushed aside so easily. Playing with a tenacity and verve which befitted their nickname, the Bulldogs led 4.4 to 3.2 at quarter time, and then trailed narrowly (4 points and 1 point) at each of the subsequent changes.
The Hawks were clearly discomfited, and when Footscray edged out to a 9 point lead early in the final term it seemed that the unthinkable (to everyone except Bulldog supporters) might happen. Ultimately, however, it did not: Hawthorn steadied, Footscray players made a series of unforced errors at critical times, and the final result was the one that most pundits had predicted, a win to the Hawks, albeit by a significantly narrower margin (10 points) than in the previous meeting between the sides a fortnight earlier.
The 1985 season was just about the only alleviation to Footscray's gloom of the decade. Never remotely the wealthiest of clubs, there were intermittent murmurings throughout the 1980s of re-location (to Brisbane), amalgamations and oblivion. Then, near the end of the 1989 season, it was announced that the club was insolvent, and would be merging with (or, more accurately, be being taken over by) Fitzroy in 1990. Despite this, only 8,673 spectators showed up at the Western Oval for the team's round twenty game, in which the Bulldogs trounced Richmond by 78 points. However, when the heat was really applied by the VFL, and it was clear that the club's prospective extinction was not merely hypothetical, but virtually certain, those with red, white and blue blood surging in their veins rallied to the cause.
This cause, in simple terms, involved the raising of $1.5 million dollars in just twenty-one days, a prospect which at the time appeared about as likely as a Footscray premiership within the next twelve months. Speaking for all Bulldog aficionados, and indeed the majority of genuine football lovers everywhere, Peter Gordon, leader of the Footscray Fightback Foundation, declared:
"If Footscray and if Victorian football can win this fight, we will stop these men in their tracks. These corporate lawyers and bankers and ex-parliamentarians who sit behind closed doors and outside the public gaze and make decisions about what sort of game we want to have...."
When, miraculously, it appeared that Footscray was on course to meet its $1.5 million target, the VFL promptly upped the ante by declaring that the club needed to raise a further $3.5 million by January 1990 in order to meet its anticipated running costs for the forthcoming season. Of course, it is a fact of history now that the Footscray Fightback Foundation managed to secure the required funds, and that the Bulldogs not only survived but went on to enjoy their best decade on the field since the 1950s. In a way, the fact that it was Footscray, the VFL's 'people's club', that managed such a resounding but unlikely victory over the self-appointed custodians of the game rendered it all the more gratifying and special; it seemed an archetypal case of the 'good guys' winning out over the forces of malevolence and greed which used the game for their own, primarily financial, ends without either understanding or truly appreciating it at all.
Freed, at least temporarily, from the financial constraints imposed on it by the VFL, Footscray, which had finished second last in 1989, roared up the list to seventh in 1990. Under new coach Terry Wheeler, who had played 157 games for the club during the 1970s and 80s, the Doggies produced an exuberant, attacking brand of football which delighted the crowds. After marking time somewhat in 1991, the side equalled its best ever home and away return the following season with 16 wins from 22 matches, good enough for second place on the ladder going into the finals. Once there it managed a solid 29 point win over St Kilda in the first semi final, but unfortunately this was sandwiched between 61 and 64 point losses to Geelong in the qualifying and preliminary finals respectively. The side had captured the imagination of the public, however, and Terry Wheeler's selection as coach of the AFL All Australian team emphasised the scope of the club's turnaround.
Football in the modern era can be fickle, however: within eighteen months Wheeler was on the coaching scrap heap, replaced by former East Fremantle and Hawthorn supremo Allan Joyce, under whose aegis the side would contest the finals in consecutive years (1994-95) for the first time since the Charlie Sutton era. Drawing attention away from the on-field action, however, was an event which united football supporters everywhere in grief: the death in 1995 of Footscray's and one of the game's greatest ever legends (a word that is often over-used, but not in this case), Edward James Whitten. Among the many sincere and touching tributes to the great man was one that he might have appreciated more than any other: the re-naming of his beloved Western Oval in his honour. Sadly, however, the ground would not be used for senior AFL football for much longer.
Back on the field of play, after a disastrous 1996 season which yielded just 5 wins and a draw and fifteenth place on the sixteen team ladder, Allan Joyce went the same way as his predecessor, and it was left to his successor Terry Wallace to assemble arguably the second greatest team in the club's history up to that point. In 1997, the first year under the new and somewhat contentious (not to mention misleading) 'Western Bulldogs' banner, there is little doubt that the team was good enough to win a premiership, but a calamitous and inexplicable last quarter fade out against Adelaide in the preliminary final scuppered its chances. It was the same story a year later, albeit that on this occasion the margin was somewhat greater (68 points as against 2). Sadly, a team possessing many fine players and capable of playing a scintillating brand of football will probably be best remembered for choking when it really mattered.
It was a similar story just over a decade later as star-studded Bulldogs teams finished third, third and fourth between 2008 and 2010 under coach Rodney Eade.
When the Bulldogs' second A/VFL premiership finally arrived in 2016 it was almost wholly unexpected and tantamount to a gift from the gods. Whilst the side had produced some stirring football during the home and away rounds it had not quite been good enough to procure the double chance, and the consensus - based, it has to be said, on pretty solid evidence - was that the double chance was a prerequisite for premiership success. The way in which the Bulldogs systematically dismantled this notion made for one of the most compelling and captivating football stories of all time.
Having finished in seventh spot the Bulldogs did not even enjoy home ground advantage in the first week of the finals. Instead, they had to travel to Perth to take on a West Coast Eagles team that had lost only once at home all season, and had finished the minor round in much better form than the Bulldogs. It is a cliche, but nonetheless true, that previous form and achievements count for nothing in the wayward, unpredictable maelstrom of finals football. The Western Bulldogs made light of pre-match forecasts of doom by conclusively putting the Eagles to the sword in a classic display of tough, relentless, at times almost ferocious finals footy. "We haven't really broken a game open for a long time. It was an outstanding all-round performance," Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge said.
A week later the Bulldogs faced, if anything, an even tougher challenge when they fronted up to a Hawthorn side chasing a record-equalling fourth successive premiership. Once again, however, they rose to the occasion superbly, overcoming a slightly indifferent start to power their way to a 16.11 (107) to 12.12 (84) triumph. Hawthorn's dreams of a fourth straight flag were in tatters, but the Bulldogs' hopes of a first senior grade premiership for sixty-two years were still very much on track.
Standing in the way of a what would be the Bulldogs' first grand final appearance since 1961 were the team which had been the revelation of the season up to that point, Greater Western Sydney. When the sides had met at the Sydney Showground in round nine the Giants had eked out an unspectacular 25 point win but any psychological advantage this might have given them had been nullified by the four frenetic months of football which had ensued, and not least the fact that the two sides had produced performances of equivalent standard during the finals. The match was a bone fide thriller, with the Bulldogs ahead by by 2 points at the end of the first quarter, 9 at half-time and down by 1 at the last change. Early in the last term the Giants had moved out to a 14 point advantage, which in the context of what was a low scoring encounter might well have proved a match-winning break. The Bulldogs, however, simply kept going, and midway through the quarter Marcus Bontempelli goaled to put them in front, and they were never headed, ultimately inching, edging, scraping and scrapping their way home by a single straight kick, 13.11 (89) to 12.11 (83).
The Western Bulldogs entered their grand final clash with Sydney on a wave of sentimental support and favouritism. If a win was achieved it would, some declared, be "a premiership for the ages". Hyperbole or not, the Bulldogs played as if possessed by the spirits of the scores of Western Oval favourites who had endured perennial failure whilst battling and bleeding for the Bulldogs' cause. Not that Sydney simply rolled over and died. Boasting much more finals experience than the youthful Bulldogs they never gave up, and indeed were marginally the better side in the first half. However, the Bulldogs fought back to lead by 8 points at the last change - still line ball, of course, but it seemed obvious that the momentum had shifted their way. This impression was endorsed during a stirring final term which saw the Bulldogs gradually pull clear to procure a 22 point win, 13.11 (89) to 10.7 (67). Jason Johannisen produced an eye catching display of purposeful running football, amassing thirty-three possessions to earn the Norm Smith Medal for best afield. Also prominent were Tom Boyd, especially in the final thirty minutes when he took a series of inspirational contested marks, Liam Picken, Jack Macrae, Jordan Roughead and Tom Liberatore, whose father Tony, a former Bulldog champion, summed up the mood of everyone connected with the club: "It’s enormous - this is such a surreal moment. Footscray people are incredible people; so humble. I’m just so happy - ecstatic. I can’t believe it. I’m so happy for him and the boys, and Luke Beveridge. I’m not a big drinker but I’m going to have a crack tonight."
There were some who claimed that the Bulldogs' 2016 triumph was a mere flash in the pan, and when the side missed the following year's finals after winning just 11 out of 22 matches these doubters might have been felt to have proved their point, an impression intensified after a 2018 campaign which brought a distant thirteenth place on the ladder and an 8-14 record. However, history shows that premiership winning teams often experience what is often called a "hangover" in the season or two following their triumph. Moreover, recovery in subsequent seasons can sometimes be marked and significant, so it would probably be both unwise and premature to write the Bulldogs off yet.
As was suggested at the outset, football is not just about premierships (although let it not be forgotten that the Bulldogs, with eleven, have won more than many clubs). In the twenty-first century football at the highest level, which is governed more than ever by economic factors, is first and foremost about survival, and there are few if any clubs which, based on their own experiences, have such a rich, varied and exciting tale to tell on that score as the 'honest Aussie battlers' of Footscray.
Indeed, in terms of their on field contribution to the game, in recent years the Bulldogs have given us as diverse and talented a selection of players as any other club, including a quartet of very different Brownlow Medallists in the shape of Brad Hardie, Tony Liberatore, Scott Wynd and Adam Cooney. Hardie was a robust, supremely well balanced and highly skilled pack pocket player, Liberatore was a pint-sized terrier who led the league in the number of effective tackles applied in seven out of eight seasons between 1990 and 1997, while Wynd was a tap ruckman in the classical style who also brought his team mates into the play with his strong marking around the ground. Cooney, a pacy, energetic footballer with a keen goals sense a,lso happened to be the first number one draft pick to win Australian football's highest individual award. A man who perhaps should have been a Brownlow Medalist, strong marking key position forward Chris Grant, was a bona fide match winner of the highest order. After rejecting a huge offer from new AFL club Port Adelaide in 1996, Grant endeared himself even more to Dog's fans, and in time will surely become an official 'legend' of the Bulldogs. Latter-day AFL All Australians Rohan Smith, Paul Hudson, Scott West, Brad Johnson, Nathan Brown, Luke Darcy, Lindsay Gilbee, Adam Cooney, Dale Morris, Matthew Boyd, Brian Lake, Bob Murphy and Barry Hall are just a handful of the many others to warrant notice.
It is men like these who epitomise the club's ethos, and who hopefully will help ensure its continuance well into the future. However, irrespective of what the future holds, the club has made a significant and unique contribution to the history of the game, one which deserves to be extolled and treasured.
Note: This article was written by John Devaney and subsequently updated with additonal material from australianfootball.com writers.
John Devaney - Full Points Publications