“We’re not going to look back at history and history isn’t going to dictate our future.”[i] – Bulldogs Backman Dale Morris.
It is this kind of single minded focus that has seen the Bulldogs overcome all manner of obstacles to book a Preliminary Final match up with Greater Western Sydney. While the combatants are wise to focus their energies on the threat the Giants pose, for their fans the game on Saturday will be watched with the weight of history heavy on them.
Seven Preliminary Final defeats since the team last graced the game’s greatest stage and although each would be painful in their individual way, not all defeats are equal. For Cooney, the epic finals of 1997 and 2009 stand out. ‘From Libba’s goal that wasn’t in ’97 to Aker’s deliberate out of bounds call and Nick Riewoldt’s free kick for a push against Brian Lake right in front of goal in ’09 … in a seven-point loss on a night when goals were so hard to come by (not that I’m still bitter about it), it’s a tale of agony.’ [ii]
Yesterday we took a look at Libba’s goal that wasn’t and the heartbreak of 1997, today the gripping and hard fought slog that was 2009’s Preliminary Final.
After again losing Preliminary Finals in 1998 and 2008 the Bulldogs again made it to the penultimate week in 2009, meeting Minor Premiers St Kilda on a cold and wet night at the MCG. Before the game most pundits refused to give the Bulldogs a chance against the Saints who had lost only two games all year. After a gripping contest which was light on goals but high on tension was decided by seven points, all the post-game talk was about a number of contentious umpiring decisions, each against the underdogs.
The Bulldogs jumped out of the blocks early as the Saints tall forwards struggled to have an influence in the wet conditions. The game may well have been over at quarter time had the Bulldogs kicked straight, the Saints held goalless as the Dogs ran wild, spraying their way to a 2.5 – 0.2 lead.
Nick Dal Santo and Lenny Hayes took control of the clearances in the second quarter to get the Saints back into the game, but with Nick Riewoldt being well held, the 7-point gap was still substantive. In what proved a telling warning, both backlines were told by the umpires that greater scrutiny would be afforded off the ball contact.
”Dale [Morris] told me that the umpire had come to them, and him, and said ‘if you bump him [Riewoldt] and he falls over I’m going to pay a free … and Morris was saying that they [the Saints forwards] heard that,” Bulldogs on-baller Akermanis told Channel Ten’s Before the Game on Saturday night.[iii]
The 78,245 spectators had barely retaken their seats for the second half when the first controversial decision was made in line with the umpires half time warning. In fact, play had yet to resume when Nick Riewoldt was felled in the Saints forward line by Brian Lake, the resultant free kick was taken full advantage of with the St Kilda captain kicking truly for his first goal of the night.
Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade was perplexed by the decision, ”It was very pivotal, wasn’t it? To actually bump a bloke in the elbow, I just found it very strange [for it] to be a free kick,” Eade said in the post-match press conference. [iv]
Brian Lake was disappointed too “I can’t go into it too much, but I think I was a little stiff,” Lake said. “It’s a body contact sport. I thought it was fair. It wasn’t high. It wasn’t in the back.” [v]
AFL Spokesman Patrick Keane defended the decision after the match ”the one in the third quarter, at the start of it, was deemed a correct decision because the ball was about 100 metres away, play hadn’t started,” Keane said. ”You simply can’t make contact with an opposition player to knock him to the ground when the ball is not in the area.” vi
Many Bulldog and neutral fans disagreed believing that the St Kilda champ had been rewarded for a ‘dive’. Former Bulldogs President Nick Columb most publicly, calling in to Radio Station SEN and calling Riewoldt a cheat.
The Saints grabbed their first lead of the night not long after with Riewoldt’s second goal and things began to look bleak for the Bulldogs. However, Ryan Griffen and his midfield mates had other ideas and the Bulldogs, if not for a last minute Stephen Milne goal, would have taken a narrow lead into the three quarter time break.
Brad Johnson took an early mark and goaled to take the lead back for his team. With Griffen, Boyd and Cooney and dominating clearances, possession and inside 50’s they worked tirelessly to turn their slender lead into a match winning break.
Cooney lamenting later “It was a pretty good contest but in the last quarter we just couldn’t score. We kicked the ball in too high and the Saint’s backline out-marked us time after time.” ii
Eight long goalless minutes passed, the drought breaker was again tinged with controversy. Where there is controversy Jason Akermanis isn’t too far removed, as was the case here. The Brownlow Medalist collected the ball on the back flank and hurriedly cleared the ball from the area, bouncing once before crossing the boundary line.
The umpire immediately penalised the veteran and the Saints immediately went on the offensive. The ensuing attacking drive ending with another goal to Nick Riewoldt. While many questioned the fairness of the decision, Akermanis wasn’t one of them, admitting he had made a costly mistake kicking to the boundary line, rather than attempting to find a teammate. v
In a quarter of missed opportunities Daniel Giansiracusa missed a difficult shot late to retake the lead before the last and most decisive controversial decision. With St Kilda leading by a point, a long ball inside their attacking zone bounced and was contested by Riewoldt, Lake and Morris. Lake brought the ball to ground but was unable to clear the area a desperate Leigh Montagna ricocheting the ball forward where Riewoldt was able to toe the ball between the big sticks. With just over a minute to play the Saints were home.
Replays afterwards indicated that a diving Jarrod Harbrow may have managed to get a fingernail to Riewoldt’s game sealing toe poke. Without the goal review system in place at the time we will never know if the decision would have been overturned on review. Bulldog anger at the situation wouldn’t have been helped by the AFL declaring, that because replays of the incident were inconclusive, it had “no issue” with the decision. iv
For Cooney it ‘was the toughest and most heartbreaking game’ ii he was involved in, absolutely devastated by the final siren, it took him ‘about five years to watch the replay’ ii. The curse would strike again the following year against the same opposition, the seventh loss in the penultimate week since last seeing action on Grand Final Day.
When Dale Morris and his team-mates prepare to take the field at Spotless Stadium on Saturday, there will be no talk of curses or history, they will treat the match as just one step on the way to their intended destination.
These young pups are playing brave and exciting football, taking all before them, and as a result expectations are high. Along with their faithful supporters, with the exception of the small but growing GWS ‘Orange Horde’, the rest of the football world will be hoping that Eighth time’s the charm for the luckless Dogs.
[i] AFL finals 2016: Western Bulldogs won’t address preliminary final hoodoo – AAP, September 19th 2016. http://www.smh.com.au/afl/afl-news/afl-finals-2016-western-bulldogs-wont-address-preliminary-final-hoodoo-20160919-grjexc.html
[ii] Adam Cooney reveals the heartache of playing in three Western Bulldogs preliminary finals – Adam Cooney, September 19th 2016. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/adam-cooney-reveals-the-heartache-of-playing-in-three-western-bulldogs-preliminary-finals/news-story/41aa81f22484a5d70972110f1bb8454f
[iii] Saint forward played for free after umpire warning: Akermanis – Real Footy, September 21st 2009. http://www.theage.com.au/news/rfnews/saint-forward-played-for-free-after-umpire-warning-akermanis/2009/09/20/1253384908565.html
[iv] AFL backs decision that brought goal – Jesse Hogan, September 20th 2009. http://www.theage.com.au/news/rfnews/afl-backs-decision-that-brought-goal/2009/09/19/1253209041252.html
[v] Brian Lake laughs off banter from 2009 preliminary final ahead of NAB Cup grand final – Mark Stevens, March 11th 2010. http://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/nab-challenge/brian-lake-laughs-off-banter-from-2009-preliminary-final-ahead-of-nab-cup-grand-final/story-e6frf3el-1225918713024