*Pic: Alexander and Carmen at a Dogs’ game. Carmen’s wearing the scarf her father bought her on the day she was born ...
First published March 15
This is the story of how my book on the Bulldogs’ 2016 AFL premiership got its title.
The story actually starts in 1993 when I wrote my first book on the Dogs, “Southern Sky, Western Oval”. Back then, the Dogs’ home ground was called the Western Oval – now it’s called Whitten Oval.
Back then the club was the Footscray Football Club – now it’s the Western Bulldogs Football Club. That both changes were deemed necessary for the club’s survival tells you something of its battling history.
What surprised me when I arrived at the club in 1993 was how quiet the place was. There are a number of possible explanations for this. For well over 100 years, the western suburbs of Melbourne was the city of Melbourne’s “other” and its residents were looked down upon. Bulldogs club historian Darren “Ace” Arthur says from early times the western suburbs had an “introverted” character. I was also advised by historian Robert Pascoe that early Footscray had a strong Scottish presence. Having lived in Scotland during the 1970s, I fancied that I could hear that same taut silence I’d heard in pubs and workplaces in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
All the old AFL/VFL clubs have religious components to their early histories. The Dogs were different in this regard. After the terrible depressions of the 1890s and 1930s that were felt cruelly in working class areas like the western suburbs of Melbourne, Footscray became a trade union town, the Bulldogs a trade union football club. With that came the old Australian working class maxim: “Actions speaks louder than words”. The Dogs were football stoics, proud and uncomplaining. But their culture was introverted. To add to my difficulties, there was no history up around the walls which stared at me like blank pages.
With the Dogs having a seriously anti-climactic season on the field, I seriously wondered if there was a book there to be written. I began reading every book I could find on the western suburbs of Melbourne and stumbled upon “A Bunch of Ratbags”, a novel by William Dick about growing up in Footscray in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
It seems that “A Bunch of Ratbags” was first published in England, in 1965. Working class writers like Alan Sillitoe were big there. He’d written iconic stories like “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. “A Bunch of Ratbags” belongs identifiably to that genre. It’s a tough working class novel. It has a character called the Mad Russian. Kids were wary of kicking their footballs into the Mad Russian’s yard. He’d been known to plunge a knife through one.
The Mad Russian had actually been a medical student in Russia but, having no English, the only work he could get in Melbourne was as a labourer on the wharves. His Polish wife, who had survived a Nazi forced labour camp, was short, dynamic and, according to her granddaughter Carmen, “something of a stunner”. She took in boarders, including some pretty rough types. But one, Reg Cook, was a cut above the rest. He worked as a clerk at Olympic tyres. He dressed up on Sundays even though he didn’t go to church. And he barracked for the Dogs, went every week, took the Mad Russian’s son, then eight years old. His name is Alexander Petropulo.
In 1960s Australia, with “a Russian father, a Polish mother and a name that sounded Greek”, Alexander was a “wog”. An outsider. Through Reg Cook and his connections, however, he grew up inside the Footscray Football Club. He kicked the footy with club legend E.J. “Ted” (Mister Football) Whitten. He and Reg Cook went to the footy together for decades. Together they saw Merv Hobbs’ famous mark in the 1961 preliminary final, saw Ted Whitten’s last game, walked out on to the oval to hear the footy orator’s last three-quarter time speech.
Reg Cook was an optimist, not a quality one finds in abundance reviewing the history of the Western Bulldogs/Footscray Football Club. Indeed, club historian Darren Ace Arthur calmed himself before the 2016 grand final by persuading himself that a Bulldog defeat was certain. But it didn’t matter how badly the Bulldogs were doing on the field, Reg Cook would always find something positive to say.
“Wasn’t that a lovely goal so-and-so kicked today?” Reg Cook wanted to live out his days in the care of Alexander’s mother, but when the boarding house closed up he had to go. Alexander, who later became a lecturer in educational technology at Monash University, says Reg Cook, the Bulldog optimist, was like his de facto father.
Alexander married and when his daughter Carmen was an infant her mother was hospitalised. Alexander had already bought his daughter a Bulldog scarf the day she was born - in 2016, she wore it to the grand final. Caring for Carmen as an infant, Alexander sang her the Bulldog club song every night. Alexander and Carmen have been going to the footy together for decades.
Carmen is now in her 30s, works in marketing and is active on Twitter. She is protective of the Bulldog players, both from external critics and barbs chucked at them by their own supporters. The title of the book comes from an incident involving Carmen which occurred the Monday after the Dogs had comprehensively lost the last home and away match of the 2016 season to 16th-placed Fremantle in Perth and slid to the rank outsider odds of 67-1 to win the flag.
In two weeks, they would travel back to Perth to meet West Coast in the first round of the finals. The Dogs hadn’t won in Perth for years. Their average losing margin in recent times there had been 70 points. West Coast were coming into the finals with impeccable form, having played off in the grand final the year before. It seemed like a familiar Bulldog story in the making: crippled by injuries, they had made a characteristically brave tilt for the flag which would end in a characteristically anti-climactic manner. This, after all, was a club that had won only one premiership in its VFL/AFL history, and that in 1954, a time closer to the 19th century than our own.
It was at this moment of utter public disbelief in the team that Carmen Petropulo had what I call her Joan of Arc moment: she had a premonition that the Dogs were going to win the 2016 premiership. The number of people around Australia who shared her conviction at that point could have been counted on one hand. On Monday morning, wearing her Bulldog scarf, she was striding towards her favourite coffee shop in the centre of Melbourne when a worker on a building site yelled out, “”I think your boys are going to win! Two weeks off’ll do ‘em the world of good!”. Looking up, she liked his face, and thought, “That’s all we need. A wink from the universe”.
So that’s how the book got its name. I’d like to think Reg Cook approves. And her grandmother, too.
*Martin Flanagan. above is the author of 18 books and a play. His latest book, A Wink From the Universe, published by Penguin/Random House, is now available in bookshops. At Wrest Point Hotel on Saturday April 14, at a function celebrating the re-birth of the North Hobart Football Club, he is giving a speech on the future of Australian football.