Illustration: Mick Connolly
PETER Gordon saved old Footscray's name in 1989 by rattling tins and creating a Barack Obama-style groundswell of what he called ''micro donations'' from ordinary supporters. In his second coming as president of the Bulldogs, he is also tapping into the well-heeled and reaching into his own far deeper pockets to ensure that the Dogs don't find themselves in quicksand again.
Footscray had what then seemed insurmountable debt of $1.5 to $2 million when this impassioned lawyer orchestrated ''the Save the Dogs'' campaign. Today, the club's debt is closer to $10 million, yet it is not facing the same existential threat. The wolves aren't at the Dogs' door.
Gordon notes that the debt the Dogs had in 1989 was equal to ''100 per cent of the club's actual revenue and this year's it's less than a third''. But the more pertinent difference is this: That, in 1989, the league was walking the Dogs down the aisle in an arranged marriage with Fitzroy and actively sought to reduce the number of [Melbourne] clubs. In 2012, the AFL has a safety net that protects the vulnerable - read small - clubs.
Illustration: Mick Connolly
Socialism - not a word Gordon likes deployed in a football context - has ensured that there are still 10 teams in Victoria and quite a few outside of this state. When Gordon left old Footscray in 1996 and it re-branded as the Western Bulldogs, the AFL was dealing with the fallout from ''the Melbourne Hawks'', which was subsequently seen as the (failed) merger to end all mergers.
In the decade after Gordon's exit, every single club played in a preliminary final - including Richmond and Fremantle. Collingwood rose from ruin, Carlton fell into disrepute for several years. The Dogs were within a kick of that first grand final since 1961 in his first season of exile, when the Saints lost to Adelaide, Melbourne made a grand final in 2000 and was a regular finalist under Neale Daniher. North Melbourne, foiled in its attempt to take over Fitzroy in the year it won the 1996 premiership, won a second flag in 1999; Port Adelaide, later to prove the most impecunious of non-Victorian clubs, was premier in 2004.
The years from 1997-2006 were the heady days of football socialism. There was a competitive balance in the competition, courtesy of the draft and a salary cap that was actually enforced. But socialism had its limits. Some clubs were more equal than others, as the blockbusters and free-to-air television coverage confirmed. While the AFL sought to compensate by handing the poorer clubs a cheque - and by sending them to Canberra and Darwin - it could not control what clubs spent outside of player payments. So began the football department ''arms race'', in which development coaches would multiply, recruiting budgets exploded and the once humble fitness coach was re-invented as ''director of sports science''.
Illustration: Mick Connolly
The clubs with money and smarts found ways to gain a critical millimetre of advantage. Collingwood, the heaviest spender in football, would not miss the finals from 2006 until this year. Sydney - a club without vast funds but which was consistently in the top four football budgets - would remain thereabouts and win a second flag this year without the need to bottom out. Geelong, with a home ground goldmine, became the Corio Bay Packers - a provincial powerhouse, Hawthorn, too, turned dollars into wins, while West Coast proved recession proof.
In 2012, the ladder is heavily biased towards the clubs that are best resourced; more worrisome, the Dogs are down, the Demons haven't played finals since 2006, North has muddled along and Port has become nouveau poor. This week, the fixture will hand Collingwood seven Friday night games, the Bulldogs none. If this is partly due to results, does anyone doubt that the Pies, Essendon or Carlton would be so deprived of prime time if they were holding up the ladder?
The new inequality, apparent for a few years, is suddenly a hot topic, with Sydney chairman Richard Colless raising the question of how clubs can be better supported. ''I'm certainly of the view that there is a reasonably direct lineal correlation between football spending and success on the field,'' said Gordon, whose club spent about $5 million less on football - largely excluding player payments - than the Pies and Eagles behemoths this year.
Fairness? Photo: Matt Davidson
The trading and free-agency period exposed a troubling disparity that is seldom spoken about - the higher amounts that the weak clubs must pay to recruit or retain players when they are down the ladder. Angus Monfries is receiving around $1.5 million over four years at Port; Essendon offered much less over two. Chris Dawes gets a hefty contract from the desperate Demons, while Mitch Brown is offered $400,000 or more for four years by the Saints. Conversely, Brian Lake has donned brown and gold for far less than the Dogs were paying him.
The AFL is wondering how it might restore equality and fraternity, without ditching liberty. It has already revamped its funding models, handing more dough to the Dogs, Saints, North, Demons, Port and Richmond from 2012-14. The Tigers won't need it if they win games. The others will, no matter where they finish.
One proposal that has been raised within club-land is what has been called ''a luxury tax''. Under this form of ''New Socialism'', the rich can spend whatever they like on football - hiring a coach and career adviser for every player if they wish - but they would be taxed once the outlay reaches a certain number. If the Eagles' footy budget exceeded $20 million, for instance, they would pay the AFL, say, 25 cents for every dollar over that amount. The theory is that no one wants to stymie innovation, or equalise to the point teams lose any sense of individuality, but that, equally, they have to be competing on something like level terms.
Over the next few weeks, the US will decide which form of free market capitalism it wants. ''Communist'' China will choose its leadership and chart a new course at the National People's Congress. The AFL, more akin to social democratic Norway, is trying to navigate the next phase and maintain an egalitarian competition without killing initiative. It has already allowed the players greater freedom of movement - Kurt Tippett excepted. How it handles finer points of this new socialism has become the game's big question.