On football's struggle street, burning hunger still gnaws
Happy Western Bulldogs supporters Nathan Darbu and Jackson Kelly. Photo: Wayne Hawkins
THE big talking point has been the unusually open race for the flag. With as many as 10 teams in the mix, the fact that all the heavyweights are there adds particular spice.
On the flipside, the usual suspects are among the exclusions. You start to wonder whether any of them will ever make it to the summit. If this sounds pessimistic, look at the history. The last genuine battler to taste success was North Melbourne and it had an extraordinary circumstance: a once-in-a-generation player named Wayne Carey. While the Roos showed it's possible, 1999 is a light year away. These days the talk is of superpowers and an arms race.
A long drought preceded Geelong's 2007 premiership, but the Cats were never of the true underclass. Although a flag wasn't won in 44 years, neither was a wooden spoon. The Cats didn't miss the finals in the '60s, were three times in the top-three in the '80s, and played in three grand finals in the '90s.
Regardless of the theory that in the modern game everyone's turn will come, some clubs continue to wait. And in a competition where success is proportional to support base, and support is reliant on success, these clubs are in a catch-22. As Melbourne slumped to the bottom of the ladder last week, the seemingly endless struggle of Victoria's unloved was emphasised. The Demons are looking up at Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney. Is there no end to the ignominy of life as a Victorian struggler? St Kilda remains willing but an era is nearing its end without the grail being touched. The Western Bulldogs have lately been close but are back in renovation mode. Richmond is on the improve but, again, ninth might be about as good as it gets this year.
If you follow one of these four and were old enough to drink legally when they last won the flag, you're now over 50 or planning your party. So which supporters have had it the toughest?
The Demons are diabolical at present, but they're not necessarily worst among equals over the journey. In the past 30 years, the Dees have twice reached grand finals. Eight times they've finished top four; just about a par score. Supporters old enough to remember the ecstasy and agony of 1988 have seen them win 16 finals. The 60-and-overs recall a dynasty.
What about St Kilda? To be sure there's a lot of pine in the display cabinet: 26 wooden spoons, six of them from the last three decades. It's an impressive credential in a race to the bottom, belied by the consistent performance of recent years. With an ounce of luck the Saints could have won either of two grand finals. Teenage Saints' supporters, though, could be forgiven for thinking theirs is a reasonably successful club.
Which is hardly the view of kids who faithfully wear their yellow-and-black to the footy: how they must tire of hearing mums and dads reminisce about the '60s and '70s. When Richmond won three flags in a day in 1974, and its under-17 affiliate collected a fourth, it seemed as if the Tigers' time might be forever. But in the 30 years since the Tigers lost the '82 grand final, they've reached the finals twice. They've won two September games in 29 seasons! It's an abysmal record; one that leaves Richmond at rock-bottom for the period. At least, though, the Tigers have known success. Their middle-aged supporters remember a flag; the 50-somethings an era.
There's colour film too, of Footscray's one and only grand final victory, its scratchy nature only emphasises the extent of the club's deprivation. If you're a son of the 'Scray and you remember '54, hopefully you're still vertical and retirement is treating you well.
The upside is that over the past 30 seasons the Dogs have reached the finals with three times the regularity of the Tigers. The downside, though, is devastating: they haven't been in a grand final in 50 years. All the old rivals and most of the new ones have won a flag or two. The average number of grand final appearances per club over that period has been seven. The Dogs have been to the big dance not once. Not once in 50 years. Say it quickly and it's just another fact of footy history. Think about it, and it's hard to avoid the notion that even legged up by football's now accepted socialism - entrenched over 25 years - the divide between the west of Melbourne and the big end of town hasn't been bridged.