On Saturday the Western Bulldogs — once and always known as Footscray — beat the Giants and won the right to contest next weekend’s AFL Grand Final, which they last won in 1954. How that first and only flag came to hang at Whitten Oval is a story of footy, Melba and, most of all, of Melbourne
(This account of the long road to Footscray’s 1954 premiership is excerpted from Grand Finals, Volume II, published by Slattery Media)
Sure, 1954 was the big one, the year everything came together, but what happened at the MCG on that last Saturday in September was only the half of it. If you want to know why Footscray’s first, and still its only flag, was such a big deal, why a thinning cadre of old timers still talk about it in tones not far removed from awe, you need to go even further back—to 1924, when a suburb at the wrong end of Dynon Road was feeling its oats.
The Great Depression: who in those relatively prosperous years of the mid-Twenties could have seen that coming? Certainly not Footscray’s city fathers, who were just starting to think their municipality’s luck had changed, and finally for the better. If one of the early notions of Melbourne had come to pass, the CBD would have been just down the road at Williamstown, making Footscray an inner suburb. Instead, the West’s ambitions were paved over with abattoirs, glue factories and industries so on-the-nose that calling them noxious would have been to pay a compliment. Instead of the stately terraces and public gardens of the inner city, Footscray’s lot was mean cottages and tall chimneys. Sure, the same could be said of Richmond and Collingwood, but those equally malodorous locales at least boasted the distinction of being on the road to somewhere nicer. Follow Johnson Street, Bridge Road or Swan Street, and the Yarra marked the ascent to the more congenial environs of Hawthorn and Kew. Beyond Footscray there was what? Scotch thistles, salt pans and the Werribee sewerage farm.
It wasn’t that things were bad in Footscray, just that they had never been terribly good, so the relative prosperity of the mid-1920s struck many as something worth celebrating. Footscray should assert itself, letters to the local rags insisted, demonstrate that there was a bit more to the place than stink and struggle. It was nothing short of a disgrace, one councillor thundered, to see the municipality make do with a town hall which should have been “condemned and demolished” long ago: he wondered what impression the dilapidated pile made on visitors “from the other side”. It was a rhetorical question, as all of Footscray knew what the rest of Melbourne thought and it wasn’t much, not much at all. By unanimous consent the council voted to commission plans for a new town hall, visitors welcomed by a vista of municipal progress would know not only that they had arrived, so had their destination.
Public buildings? Terrific! But this being Melbourne, there was never any question that an up-and-coming suburb also deserved a football team of the first rank, and the Bulldogs had been repeatedly denied that status. In the Victorian Football Association they were without peer, romping premiers in each of the previous five years. But that was VFA, and sentiment held that the club, like its suburb, could get no respect. Three times the Bulldogs petitioned the VFL to let them in, and three times those pleas were rejected. Uppity? If that was the impression, it was perhaps understandable. Some still remembered when the old queen was on her throne and the club swapped its team name for something fancier, a tag perceived to bestow just a touch more class. Taking the field as the Prince Imperials, however, didn’t quite cut it. The club went broke, had to be bailed out by the council, another dream come to nought beside the Maribyrnong.
Dogged persistence, though, was the dominant streak at Western Reserve, as Whitten Oval was then known. Every year after the VFA Grand Final, the Association would call on the League to pit its premier against theirs, but the only result was an annual clash of frustration with contempt. As the Argus commented, the League “made aloofness its policy” and would probably have continued in this vein had it not been for a most unlikely catalyst, Dame Nellie Melba. In 1924, when the League once again rejected a post-season game to determine “the champion of Victoria”, the diva was moved to protest. How could able-bodied men refuse to stage a spectacle whose proceeds might do so much to help limbless Diggers? The League shrugged, Melba raised the volume and in less than 48 hours it was agreed that Footscray would play Essendon the following week at the MCG, a game both the Dons and League previewed as an imposition, a curiosity and, most of all, a mere formality. Who could doubt the boys from the more refined precincts of Windy Hill would remind both Footscray and the Association that it was folly to harbour ambitions above one’s station?
If the Tricolours—the Bulldogs name was not officially adopted until 1938—could pull it off, the case for admission would be impossible to deny. “The cause of the disabled soldiers is always an appealing one, and when it is backed up by Dame Nellie Melba it was irresistible,” the Argus noted on the morning before the match. “Never before has there been such interest in the respective merits of the rival premiers, and though the latest swing of the League pendulum seems to be in the direction of the non-inclusion of Footscray, there is still a keen desire to see how they will fare against the League premiers.”
A crowd just shy of 50,000 turned out to witness not just a game but one of those exquisite football moments, the kind when scoreboard and siren confirm that Divine justice can still order the affairs of men. On that day, October 4, the Great Umpire’s throne was draped in the red, white and blue of the team that morning’s papers gave no chance at all. Turn out to admire Bulldog pluck, the pundits advised, but do not expect a contest. The Argus’ correspondent ‘Old Boy’ was blunt: “No one, I think, really expects them to win save their own special supporters.”
By the final change, such predictions were rendered laughable as something akin to shock “settled over observers whose sympathies were writ in black and red”.
In Footscray, Yarraville, Tottenham, Spotswood, right throughout the West, a delirium began to spread, one that would last the best part of a month before the eruption of dinners and public meetings began to subside. The first to make it home from Jolimont were met at their stations by friends and families demanding accounts of the wonderful feat. At midnight a vast and jubilant throng still surged at Western Reserve, every sighting of a player prompting knots of hand-shakers and backslappers and demands to hear once again how Essendon’s “mosquito fleet” of little men was swatted.
At Windy Hill the mood was poisonous at every level. In change room and later in pubs, there were punches as teammates accused teammates of taking bribes to throw the game. There was even a whisper, quickly denied, of one Don whose reward for lying down was a new car waiting in the driveway. Officially, Essendon’s attitude was dismissive. It was a charity game signifying nothing. We didn’t win, big deal.
But it was a big deal, a very big deal. That “swing of the League pendulum” against Footscray’s inclusion was stopped cold, seized by public opinion, editorial writers, even members of parliament, and flung back very hard at the League, which heard all its former excuses for rejecting Association applicants howled down. Association grounds not up to snuff? They could be fixed. Recruiting boundaries too hard to adjust? Nonsense! What was so difficult about drawing fresh lines on a map? The clamour for reform grew louder, potentially threatening the League’s dominance of the game. Throughout the week that followed Footscray’s triumph, talk of reform and rebellion filled the papers.
It was stopped cold by a strategic leak on Friday. The invitation to Footscray was in the mail, the League let it be known. A cynic might have discerned a defensive strategy. If so, it worked. Calls for a unified, multi-tiered competition subsided as talk switched to anticipation of the next season’s 12-team competition. The League had given a little in order not to lose a lot.
In Footscray perhaps only the Second Coming could have generated a greater rapture. Every night for weeks, public meetings in rented cinemas and halls acclaimed the winners, who were awarded commemorative medals and substantial cash gifts underwritten by local businessmen. A local paper joked that no Footscray player would ever again need to buy shoes, as they were carried everywhere shoulder-high. The only regret to be heard above the cheers was the sad state of the town hall, too small to accommodate such crowds and joy. But that would change, as everything would change, when the council had a town hall worthy of its dignity and a premiership flag flew above the home team’s ground. As something like a quarter of the councillors were also committee men, the nexus of football and civic pride was a given.
Now turn the clock forward through three decades not of triumph and acclaim but of crushing disappointment. Those hopes that Footscray would be the League’s new broom? They were ground down through years of frustration. It was not until 1938 that the Bulldogs made the top four for the first time, and it would not be until 1953 that the club broke a six-straight sequence of finals losses. The club’s fortunes mirrored its location. No sooner had the council ordered work to begin on its fine, new town hall than the Great Depression scoured the West of jobs and hope. Come the war, the Bulldogs would not even keep their own ground. Western Oval was requisitioned as an army camp and the club was booted down Williamstown Road to Yarraville, an Association ground so down at heel that many spectators dispensed with the need for tickets and slipped through the numerous holes in the fence. That the host team went by name of the Villains did little to lift the ambience.
After the war, hope of the long-awaited redemption flared again. Between 1945 and 1954, the Bulldogs made the finals five times, only to see their form evaporate at the deep end of the season.
Take 1953, for example, when round 5 saw them come within ten minutes of becoming the first club ever to keep an opponent scoreless, denying a hapless Fitzroy all but a single goal, which it scored with just 10 minutes to go. Credit for that went to what was widely regarded as the best and toughest defence in the League. It was also the year the Dogs finally broke their September drought, chalking up their first finals win in a hard-fought clash with Essendon, appropriately enough in the first semi-final. Then they met Geelong and collapsed in a shambles of missed passes and blown goals.
Barracking for the Bulldogs has always demanded a certain unique perspective. A good clubman will look into a room packed with manure and know, just know, that there must be a lovely pony in there somewhere. And so it was at the conclusion of the 1953 season, when auspicious omens tempered September’s disappointment. The team was one of the youngest in the competition, average age just 22, but there was so much promise—the young Ted Whitten for starters, plus a full-forward in Jack Collins whom true believers saw as a rising rival to Essendon’s John Coleman. The appraisal was truer than they knew. Coleman would suffer a career-ending injury in 1954, ceding the top scorer’s spot to Collins. Then there was Peter Box, a future Brownlow winner, the dashing, Roger Duffy and the rocklike Ron Stockman across the half-forward line.
And there was captain-coach Charlie Sutton. Finishing third didn’t earn commemorative medals or shoulder rides down Hopkins Street, but the leap from 1952’s tenth place was some sort of consolation. Next year, insisted that obligatory Footscray optimism, they would give it a hell of a shake.
It didn’t start that way, not at all. The opening round saw the Dogs go down to St Kilda in a comedy of errors. It wasn’t that the Saints played well, they didn’t, just that Footscray was worse. There were no surprises about St Kilda’s ineptitude—it had won only five games in the previous season and would take 1954’s wooden spoon—but the Bulldogs, they were a rabble. Next Saturday, when the Dogs were done by Richmond to the tune of 18 points, the talk was of a season’s hopes already dashed.
But then, in the third week, something clicked. The Dogs thrashed South Melbourne, pulled off a squeaker against Carlton and rolled over North Melbourne, Essendon, Hawthorn and Fitzroy. Overall, iIt was by no means a great season—11 wins and a draw at the end of 18 rounds—and the slumps said little that was good about consistency. Still, the tally was enough to secure second place on percentage over the Kangaroos. Geelong, six points clear and undisputed flag favourite, claimed the minor premiership, while Melbourne slipped into the final berth.
Punters and pundits, everyone liked Geelong. As it turned out, everyone was wrong. But the Cats had cruelled Footscray’s hopes in the 1953 series and came within an ace of doing so again in the second semi-final. As usual, it was the Bulldogs’ inconsistency that cast the matter into doubt. They floundered in the first quarter, surged ahead in the second, managed only three points in the third to tie the score at the last change, and then caught fire once again in the fourth. All through the season, barrackers had never been sure which Footscray team would turn up, the well-oiled machine or the duffers who had been such easy work, even for the lowly Saints. The following weekend an increasingly cocky Melbourne, fresh from dispatching North Melbourne, sent the Cats home to Corio. So it came down to the Demons and Dogs, the big question being Charlie Sutton’s fitness. He had missed the Geelong game with a knee injury and remained a dubious proposition right up until Thursday, when the teams were announced. At the final training session, watched by a crowd of 7000, Sutton seemed to be hanging back. And what to make of the backman’s decision to play in the forward pocket? Did it have something to do with his crook knee or was there a deeper motive? In and around Footscray the only certainty was that Melbourne needed to be watched. It was common knowledge, an old-timer commented years later and still with undiminished venom, that many doctors played for Melbourne and knew just how and where to hurt a bloke.
What Melbourne thought of Footscray, there was no secret about that, not after coach Norm Smith laid out his logic. His team had beaten Geelong in the wet by 17 points while the Dogs managed only a 23-point victory against the same team under ideal conditions. If the Dogs could not see the statistical inevitability of their coming defeat, he told the press, his boys would explain it on Saturday.
That was the first of Smith’s offensives in the psychological war he waged right up until the teams took the field under a peerless spring sky. As the Bulldogs cooled their heels on the ground and the umpires waited, Smith, kept his charges in their rooms for a full five minutes after the scheduled first bounce, which Melbourne tapped, booted, marked and put straight through the goal posts. After three decades of dreams and disappointment, surely it would take more than Smith’s petty gamesmanship to count the Bulldogs out?
The answer came within seconds. Galvanised by Melbourne’s opening blitz, the Dogs came to life. There would be no quarter for Melbourne after that. With a sustained and overpowering brilliance seen fleetingly throughout the checkered home and away season, the young Bulldogs played the game of their lives. Nothing Smith tried could foil the massacre. When Ron Barassi and John Beckwith each took a shot at Sutton, both Melbourne players came off second best.
The strategy behind Sutton’s move to the forward zone also became apparent. The Dogs had demonstrated a tendency throughout the season to clump and bunch, hampering their own movements and generating large packs rising for long kicks. Sutton realised he needed to be there, a roving, forever-shouting field marshal to keep the forward line open and fluid. Full-forward Collins had the speed to outpace opponent Lance Arnold—an opinion voiced often by fullback Herb Henderson, who had grown up playing against him in Mildura. If Sutton and Henderson were calling it right, Collins would be out in front, setting up leads and snapping up low, fast, grass-burning stab passes from the likes of Roger Duffy and, indeed, Sutton himself. There was another advantage, too. Renowned for his muscular temper, Collins would be less likely to give away free kicks if Sutton could steer him clear of packs.
Keep the game open, keep it fast, smother every nascent Demon drive before it could reach the centre line—that was Sutton’s playbook, and it worked to perfection. At the first change, the Dogs were romping 6.3 to 1.4.
The remaining quarters suggested that if Smith was still keen to give the Bulldogs that lesson he had talked about earlier in the week, reluctant humility would now need to be his special area of expertise. Nothing he tried could resist the tide. Against North Melbourne and Geelong, Smith’s boys surged in the second term to sweep their opponents aside with speed and muscle. Sutton was ready for that tack; so, too, Whitten and the entire Dogs backline, which turned aside drive after drive.
The scoreboard said Melbourne won the quarter, having added three goals to the Dogs’ two. At the centre bounces, ruckman Denis Cordner dominated, while wingman Ian McLean and captain Geoff Collins, at half-back flank, launched repeated drives that sometimes, but all too seldom, brought results, as their drives hit a stone wall of backmen who, while sometimes beaten, never looked like cracking.
For Melbourne, that second quarter was a pyrrhic and short-lived victory. Never again in the match would they sustain such a frenzied, all-out assault. Observers noted that the team looked weary, almost spent, as it left field at half time, and their spirits would have been no less bruised by an inexplicable lapse of judgment by Arnold, who took a fine saving mark in the goal square with just minutes on the clock and decided, against all logic, to play on. Whatever Arnold’s motive, a lurking Sutton ploughed him into the turf with a tackle that left the defender visibly wobbly. A free kick for holding the ball saw the Footscray skipper nail the first of what would be three goals by day’s end.
After that, Melbourne’s lost cause was apparent to all but Smith, who tried a slather of positional changes, all to no avail. Ruckman Cordner, who all day had been winning taps, continued to see Dogs midfielders, especially rover John Kerr, make off with the fruits of his hard work. By three-quarter time, the Bulldogs had opened their margin to 38 points, and in the final quarter they did pretty much as they pleased—subject only to Sutton’s shouted orders, of course.
Sutton had warned his team at every change not to respond in kind to Melbourne’s increasingly frequent provocations. Half-back flanker Alan Martin copped a quite deliberate punch that broke his nose, and Box was dropped behind the play in what a local rrag’s reporter termed “a very cowardly way”. The umpires missed both incidents and numerous others, but the omniscient Sutton, who would follow the ball for brief periods to visit and adjust his defenders, continued to stress that the best response was more goals. The lower Melbourne stooped, Collins years later recalled Sutton shouting, the more certain a Footscray triumph.
Triumph, though, is probably not the right word. Slaughter, dismembering, humiliation—they come closer but still cannot capture what the scoreboard proclaimed as the final siren sent the crowd surging onto the field:
FOOTSCRAY: 15.12 102
MELBOURNE: 7.9 51
Sutton had been telling his men they were twice as good as Melbourne and the scoreboard confirmed it to the last digit.
These days, getting on for sixty years after the Bulldogs finally wrapped a flag about Footscray’s long-thwarted hopes, there is much in the brittle and yellowing newspaper clippings that can only strike followers of the modern game as strange, almost like news from a parallel universe. What surprises the modern reader is those players’ deep connections to the suburb whose honour they championed. Market gardener, plumbers, a couple of carpenters, storemen and a butcher—the Bulldogs of ‘54 were blokes people on the spectators’ side of the fence saw often and many knew personally. Today, when the League’s guns complain of being hassled and provoked at nightclubs and bars, who can imagine an AFL player doing anything but playing footy? A sport but also a billion-dollar business, it seems the game cannot be left to tradies playing for love and a few notes a week.
Maybe so. Much as you might detest it, there is no point in arguing with progress because it will never listen. That said, there is a modern deficit no balance sheet can show—a loss, a vanished sense of place and identity—that filled Footscray’s streets on that night of wonder. One supporter, heavy with child, drifted with her mum and sister into the throng from their home near Yarraville station, not quite knowing where they were going, revelling in the celebrations and many shouted choruses of ‘Sons of the ’Scray’. Eventually and in the dark they found themselves outside Footscray’s elegant new town hall, built at last and just as imposing a building as those ambitious councillors of 1924 had wanted. There was no reason to be there, not really. No celebrations were in progress, nor had any been planned. But they were not alone, not by a long shot. Scores of others were there as well, none quite knowing why but also feeling no need to explain themselves. As the mum-to-be, now a lady in her eighties, put it while rummaging in a cupboard for the treasure trove of premiership mementos she had promised to let a writer study, it was much, much more than a splendid victory.
“It was about us, about all of Footscray—the Depression, the war, everything we had been through,” she said. “In all my life I have never been so happy. That night, we all just glowed. There was nothing that wasn’t possible.”
A NOTE: Three months later, the expecting mum, Billie Franklin, gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Roger in honour of Roger Duffy. That would me, the writer of this chapter, in case you had not guessed. Thanks, Mum, for raising me a Bulldog. We’ll see our second flag soon. Don’t lose the faith.