A Wink from the Universe – Martin Flanagan

He’d travelled from Canberra to watch his beloved team that day at Etihad. He was passionate and I enjoyed watching him as much as I relished watching the game itself. I was seated next to him and it was a terrific seat, almost at ground level, where the match proved to be a totally different beast to observing it from higher up or on tele. It was a sensational conflict from two very different teams – enthralling. By the end my new found pal was quite hoarse from all his vociferous barracking – at each break he had needed lubrication from the bar to keep him going. His wife was only mildly interested in the jousting out on the field and we had good chats while he was away. She was a teacher in the capital so we had common ground and she gave me their back story, little of which I recall as it was a few years ago now. Her hubby had grown up a western suburbs lad so his connection with the ultimately victorious team was strong. During his lifetime his lads had never made the big dance at season’s end, but they’d been in the semis a few times, not progressing once, to his disappointment. He told me he had a feeling in his bones about 2016 and on that day they certainly looked the goods. But it was only Round 11 – much could still happen. And it did. Their journey was a rough one. Boy, was my footy mate in for a ride.

In my view this decade, so far, has been a special one for our indigenous sport. Firstly my blokes, the mighty Hawks, stamped themselves as the greatest team of the new century with a three-peat. That, coupled with 2008, put them just above the Brisbane Lions (2001-2003). Then there’s been the introduction of AFLW and I love to watch it. What a revelation that has been – the girls’ massive determination and their hardness at the ball making it such a spectacle. Then last year, 2017, the long suffering, volatile Tiger Army finally had their reward with their team’s precise demolition of the Crows. It occurred due to a forward line innovation of one tall – Jumpin’ Jack – and a mosquito fleet around his feet. But, as footy stories go, 2016 outshone even that. A team that hadn’t won a grand final since 1954 rose from seventh position at the end of the home and away to score at the big one – unheard of till that date. During the end of year games they played a pulsating brand and had us all gasping at their audacity. They defied the footy gods, receiving their very own ‘wink from the universe’.

More joy, for this punter, has been added by the cajoling of an initially reluctant Martin Flanagan to tell this story in print for posterity. He’s been sorely missed since his retirement from The Age. Flanagan’s been the best writer on AFL for decades. It is therefore perhaps fitting that another legend has revived his association with that newspaper, one who was also closely involved in the tale of the Western Bulldogs’ 2016 surge to victory – the Doggies’ captain, Bob Murphy. Dramatically the man who was the heartbeat of the team, never took a mark or had a kick in that rollicking finals series. In the end, for Flanagan, it was too good a story to pass up, so he set about chronicling it – and all lovers of the game should be pleased he did.

Martin F’s book is akin to a footy season itself. The pre-season always gives a foretaste to what lies ahead. In this publication’s introduction the wordsmith sets the scene with an interesting history of the area of Yarra City that the Bulldogs eventually emerged from. Then there follows a pen picture of both the coach and captain that made for great reading, followed by one for each the other players of the premiership year. Then the season proper gets underway. Of course it takes a while for things to take shape and for the contenders to emerge. The author takes us on the journey that was the home and away rounds. We have summaries of each Doggie’s game and the coach’s input into proceedings. Also mixed in are tales of the club’s staff and its fan base. It’s the least successful part of the book with, for the reader, like no doubt for a player, it at times feeling a bit of a slog. Ultimately, though, MF is a spinner of yarns. There are many in this section related of the team and its followers through the tough winter months into spring. Sometimes events occurred that made it difficult to keep the faith, such as the tragedy that occurred very early on in Round 3 against my team. As Flanagan states, ‘Only Hawthorn wanted Hawthorn to win…’ It was a classic encounter, but an incident happened that took the shine off the quality of the play and even the most diehard of Hawk’s follower would have been devastated at the cost of the game to the opposition. Just as the Dogs were mounting a challenge there came an excruciating to watch injury which forced Captain Bob out for the rest of the year. You would expect that to knock the stuffing out of the cohort; for it to be season defining in the negative – but, if anything, it only made them stronger and more determined. Flanagan weaves into this the effect of the injury on a prominent fan, comedian Wil Anderson. He had to go on stage that night and make funny as his heart was crying for his team and its captain – a player respected by all.

The long season and an equally long injury list, by the last round, had taken its toll and the magic had dissolved from the play of the team once known as Footscray. Their finals campaign looked done and dusted. They clung onto a top 8 position by their fingernails. The last roster appearance was in the West and they were thumped, with gutsy backman Dale Morris, essential in holding the defence together, badly hurt. The first elimination final would see them fly back to the West to take on the Eagles, who would be red hot favourites. Then came the eponymous ‘wink from the universe’ – and the rest is history. For the first time the AFL inserted a bye the weekend before the finals. The ‘Scray boys had breathing space – time to regroup, sore bodies to mend and injuries overcome. And it negated the late season impetus of some of the other fancies for the flag. But Morris and others would be fit to play on.

With the playoffs Flanagan’s tome really comes alive. His writing is as pulsating as the four matches the Dogs had to win to take the urn. It’s great sports writing. I loved him on that amazing campaign from the ‘Sons of the West’.

The first one across the Nullabor was against the same team I had seen play earlier in the season at Etihad. In that match, yet again, even given the travel, one sensed the home outfit would be, well, underdogs. Acting captain Easton Wood was a late withdrawal and young gun Marcus Bontempelli would step up. The Eagles had a couple of power forwards, a tall backline and a more than worthy midfield to add to their perceived domination. I couldn’t see any way the Doggies could beat this mob. Coach Beveridge knew the answer though – his side would have a chance if the match was played below the knees, so he issued orders accordingly. I’d never witnessed a game like this one as the ball zapped up and down the ground at lightning speed once it was in the hands of the players in red, white and blue. There was no long bombing of it as the Eagles were doing, giving time for the backs to swarm all over the taller visitors’ forwards. But it was the kicking of the home side that really caught my attention – how close to the ground they were directed. Kicks skimmed through the air, seemingly inches from the surface, so the advantage in size and height of the opposition was eliminated. And to the excitable cheers of my new found friend, they narrowly won the day He and I parted with a hand shake and I assured him that, if they made the GF against anyone other than the Hawks, I would be on their side – so much so that come the end I couldn’t watch it live so keenly did I want them to be victors. But, no doubt, come the final siren there would have been a watcher in Canberra – or maybe he’d scored tickets to the ‘G that day – beside himself. He’d celebrate for the ages, as many did.

The book also features many images from the season, including the iconic moment when the coach presented his Grand Final Medal to his captain.

Since then the tale of the Dogs hasn’t been so magical. The mother of all hangovers seemed to afflict them all through ’17 and this year it is only at time of writing that the Western Bulldogs are starting to display a modicum of promise. Captain Bob is now retired, but he’s back filing a weekly column for the Age. He has as deft a touch with the language as he had with the Sherrin. One day he may be the chronicler of another Doggies’ premiership.

The SMH review = https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/a-wink-from-the-universe-review-martin-flanagan-on-a-dogs-season-to-remember-20180301-h0wua6.html



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