All Bark, No Bite

Western Bulldogs LogoThere was a story last week in the papers featuring Dogs player Shaun Higgins where the undeniably talented ball player acknowledges it is time for him to “step up”.

Hot on the heels of Higgins’ vow to come good was an edict from veteran Dog Daniel Giansiracusa declaring that the Dogs younger players would also need to “step up” in season 2012.

These sentiments are in theory correct, but they do stick in the craw somewhat, especially Giansiracusa’s effort.  We’ve been hearing this kind of thing for quite a while from the Dogs and frankly, it is a few years too late.

It was players like Higgins and Giansiracusa who needed to stand up in 2008/09/10 when the Dogs made repeated prelim finals, only to be beaten on every occasion. It is a bit rich to be putting the heat on the likes of Dalhaus and Tutt and Jones when the senior players proved incapable, three times, of stepping up when it was really needed.

Obviously some of this is standard footy pre-season fare. Yet the Dogs would do well, especially senior players like Gia, to recognise that their premiership window has closed and the way the club approaches the next few years must change accordingly.

I’ve been impressed with how the Dogs have handled the transition from a side that was a premiership favourite barely three years ago to one that never even looked like playing finals last year. Crucially, the Dogs resisted the urge to go a club legend when appointing Eade’s replacement.

Brendon McCartney is a great choice and he’s begun to surround himself with people like Shannon Grant who have an intimate understanding of what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

The question is where they go next, especially having lost Callan Ward, the kind of player you can build a 10 year midfield around, to GWS. I don’t think the Dogs will make the finals this year and I don’t think McCartney will be too disappointed by that.

The general consensus is that 2012’s crop constitutes that most elusive but sought after footy phenomena: the super draft. A low finish in the season proper guarantees a high pick in the return to an uncompromised draft. Similarly, the lower the Dogs finish the better the return on their Ward compo pick which I expect they’ll activate. Finish bottom fourth behind GWS, Port and GC and the Dogs could be looking at picks 4 and 5 in a strong draft.

I also expect McCartney will take season 2012 to decide whether he wants to persist with the likes of Higgins. Yes, Higgins has struggled with injuries but he’s also never really delivered on his undoubted talent. He can certainly plan and would be a very attractive proposition for a team that sees itself as being in, or soon to be in, premiership contention. He’d also garner a first rounder in a trade.

It is accepted now that the key to building a team that can give a flag a shake is to hit two or three drafts hard – and obviously, draft well. The Dogs did very nicely out of the 2010 draft, largely on the back of some father/son selections. And while they are get to play a game, Clay Smith and Michael Talia were highly rated and will add to a burgeoning group of youngsters in the same age cohort. Trade astutely, activate the Ward compo pick and the Dogs could end up with three picks inside the top 15 of a superdraft. That’s a very solid foundation to build upon.

But as Jake Niall observed in an article  last week, it is difficult for smaller clubs like North and the Dogs to truly “bottom out”.  This is where it gets interesting for the Dogs. Having promised their fans so much – a Grand Final is the pass mark kind of thing – in recent times and having failed to deliver, they now must face the fact that they’ve lost off-field momentum along with the three prelims.

Their membership is well down on last year and if this year’s trends continue, they will end up with the lowest tally of any Victorian club. They’ve also seen a drop off in corporate revenue and a close examination of their figures shows some interesting massaging of the money they raised in their debt reduction program.

They are also still in the precarious position of having all their eggs in the pokies basket. Number one ticket holder Julia Gillard may have kicked the Wikie proposal into the long grass for now but the reality is that as long as the Greens have control of the Senate, pokies reform will remain high on the political agenda. A major reform will happen and sooner rather than later.

The Dogs really don’t have much room to manoeuvre either. They borrowed heavily to invest in the pokies venues and are entirely reliant on those funds to operate. They also get the equal highest amount of AFL “disequal” funding along with North. You have to ask yourself why, despite a sustained period of finals appearances, and having “ownership” of the western suburbs of Melbourne, the fastest growing area in the country, the Dogs still find themselves in last place on the membership ladder.

But it isn’t all doom gloom. Just because the Dogs haven’t seen an immediate mass membership boost on the back of western suburbs population growth doesn’t mean they’ll never reap any rewards from the boom over the Westgate.

There’s no denying the Dogs have worked assiduously to try and build their presence in their booming catchment area. They face increased competition from Essendon and North in areas like Melton and Wyndhamvale but the Dogs should yet see plenty of new fans coming through in the medium term. In the immortal words of Rachel Hunter, it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

Then there’s the timing of it all. The AFL is a cyclical competition in nearly every way. The draft and salary cap means teams inevitably rise ands fall. Financial matters are increasingly dictated by the five year terms of the TV rights deal.

That’s where the Dogs have an advantage. They’re already one year into their rebuild. If, as I suggested above, they hit the 2012 draft hard, by the time the next TV rights deal rolls around, they should be getting back up and about it onfield. The AFL has been very specific about how it has allocated the unequal funding so it cannot simply disappear into the maw of footy department spending. That money will help the Dogs address some structural problems.

By the time of the next TV rights, I expect the chorus of Taswegians demanding their own team will rise in volume once more. I also expect either GWS or GC to be in financial difficulty, most likely GWS. The AFL is never going to cut the number of clubs, but merging (co-locating, forming a partnership, whatever they dress it up as) a smaller Melbourne club with GWS and then ending North and Hawthorn’s deals in Tassie to make way for a stand alone side would solve a number of issues for the AFL.

I doubt that will happen for a number of reasons but the calls will come. The reality is there’s four Melbourne teams who are vulnerable in a financial sense and always will be – the Dogs, North, Melbourne and St Kilda. The key is to ensure you have a chair when the music stops.

The Dogs have a grim period ahead of them on-field but they are positioned well to make sure that in four years time, they have a nice steady seat to plonk themselves down on, even if it isn’t a luxurious leather Chesterfield, if and when eyes start to be cast around for clubs in trouble.

The problem is the Dogs have had such opportunities before. A premiership in the 90s would have done them wonders. Even a single Grand Final appearance in the most recent run of success would have made a difference.

The time for Dogs to talk about stepping up has ended. They need to do it, on and off field, once and for all.

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