When the Western Bulldogs beat Greater Western Sydney in the AFL preliminary final a fortnight ago, my partner, Penny, and I were on the other side of the world walking in a remote river valley. The mobile phone reception was patchy, but it was enough for text updates from our son to create a tenuous link between ourselves and home to keep us in touch with the excitement of the game. When the Dogs won, we went wild, because we were in the grand final. The last time that was the case I was 10 months old. This was the day that the west had been waiting for.
I am a proud westie. I was born and bred in Altona. I have called Footscray my home for over 25 years. Footscray the suburb has been the underdog just as much as Footscray the footy team. It has always had a reputation—rough, unsafe, polluted. Of course, this reputation ignores the amazing place that Footscray really is. It is close-knit, it is down to earth, it is full of interest and diversity, it is full of people from all over the world—rich and poor, artists and lawyers, young and old, gay and straight, out and proud.
Footscray people walk down the street past shops and restaurants that seem to have been directly transplanted from Saigon, Addis Ababa or Delhi. We revel in the diversity. We are used to—and, in fact, even enjoy—not understanding a word that is being spoken around us. Our kids are friends with kids whose families have come from all over the world. So we know what a vibrant and healthy multicultural society really is. In particular, the people who live in the western suburbs hang together. We talk to our neighbours, we look out for each other and we support each other in tackling discrimination and in our various struggles. The footy team reflects this. It is has ever been the underdog. There have never been enough resources. It has always been a struggle. It knows that it lives or dies from the support it gets from the community it is part of.
It is very easy to be a tribe, a family, to have a sense of belonging when that tribe is homogenous and successful. It is much more difficult when your tribe is made up of all sorts and you are always battling to survive. The strength of the Bulldogs and, indeed, the wider western suburbs is that our tribe is expansive, welcoming and encouraging of all comers. That is why even making the grand final was so special. Almost everyone across the west feels part of a team. We have that sense of belonging. We felt that the win was ours.
I have been a Bulldogs member for 20 years or so. I have tried to get to as many home games as I can, but my diary has meant that I have missed a lot this year. I have to admit that, while I am passionate enough to have proudly worn my red, white and blue scarf all day after their magnificent win over Hawthorn the week prior to the GWS win, I am not so much of a believer that I was prompted by that win to reorganise our planned fortnight's holiday. I suppose I did not think that they would really be able do it. Like many other Bulldog supporters, I had come to terms with that feeling of coming so close but not quite close enough.
After the preliminary final win, my rational self said: 'It's such a pity I wasn't going to be home to see the dogs play in their first grand final in 55 years. Penny and I would find somewhere to watch the game and enjoy it vicariously.' Then how much it meant really hit home. My social media feeds were swamped with news of our community across the west being more Bulldog, being joyously, wildly more Bulldog. And the prospect of a fabulous grand final, involving my beloved Bulldogs, would have in the end probably been enough for my emotional self to overrule my rational self and for me to reorganise my flights and to come home early. But it was the realisation of just how much this game meant to our community, how much it was bringing us together and how much I just had to be part of it that made my mind up.
So I arrived back in Melbourne at 10 pm, Friday night. I was up early grand final day and spent the morning catching up with friends and fellow supporters. Then, like so many of my fellow Bulldog supporters, I got to the MCG for my first ever grand final. Average footy followers like me do not go to a grand final unless our team is playing. Of course, an awful lot of them still do not get to go, and I feel very privileged for being able to get a ticket. As everyone now knows, the match was exceptional. The Swans put up a gallant fight but the Bulldogs were dogged, determined and, putting it simply, just awesome. Even so, it was not until the last few minutes of the game that it became clear that they were going to make history and win their first premiership in 62 years.
I congratulate everyone at the club for this incredible achievement. I thank them for the extraordinary joy they have brought to so many people, but I congratulate them even more on the incredible role they play in bringing people together—people of incredible diversity who feel part of the family, people who range from the old bloke I met years ago when I was on Maribyrnong council, who had no family, no friends and no community connections other than the footy club. He lived for the footy club. Whether the Bulldogs won or lost each week really mattered to him, and the hope of 'there's always next week; there's always next year' kept him going. There are people like my neighbours who save the coverage in the Sunday Herald Sun the day after, just in case we have not seen it. And then there are the interwoven friends, families, neighbours, colleagues, small business owners, political friends and foes, professors, childcare workers, truck drivers, public servants, Vietnamese families, African families, Indigenous families and Muslim families, with the women wearing red, white and blue hijabs. This is multicultural Australia. This is belonging. This is family. It gives me hope that, despite the racism that is alight in our community, we will be able to rise above it, to share and celebrate our common humanity, to have our family, our tribe, our circle of care extend to all, regardless of race, gender identity and sexuality.
The Bulldogs are leading the way in women's football. They have had two premierships this year—Footscray in the VFL, as well as the big AFL grand final win. Let's go for three next year, when the women's league is up and running, and cement the role of women in Australian Rules as being so much more than just wives and girlfriends.
Finally, I am so impressed with the brilliant but humble coaching of Luke Beveridge, and the wisdom, care and spiritual leadership of Bob Murphy. They are so removed from the caricature of aggressive, arrogant, alpha males who are so often associated with AFL success. They are role models of different ways of relating, connecting, collaborating and winning. I would be so pleased if it were at the Western Bulldogs that gay players had the courage to come out. There are hundreds of AFL players every season. It is inconceivable that none of them are gay. Maybe it will be easier for a past player to come out, to open the floodgates, to build on the incredible courage of Jason Ball and to feel supported by initiatives like the Pride Game launched this season. It is going to be at a club like the Western Bulldogs, where everyone is family, everyone is accepted for who they are and where everyone belongs that the breakthrough is likely to occur.
The big question, of course, is: what is it going to mean to my beloved western suburbs? Will it change our collective mindset? As we stand taller on the shoulders of our premiership winning team, will we also feel that we are ready to cast off all that has been thrown at us all these years and to fully accept that we too can be winners, that we do not need to accept second best, that we are not going to take second best anymore and that we will support and encourage those amongst us who are doing it tough to find their way to be able to contribute, to belong, to join us in striving for greatness. Here's to the Bulldogs, here's to footy and here's to a community where we celebrate all and share our wins with each other!