The Western Bulldogs are a working class club long starved of success. The artists formerly known as Footscray have an unimpressive history, winning just one flag (1954) and making one other Grand Final (1961) in 90 years in the VFL/AFL. The Dogs have been close to the last day in September quite regularly since being rebranded from Footscray in 1996, making the preliminary final five times including three straight years from 2008-2010.
Falling to St.Kilda by just 7 points in the 2010 preliminary final was a crippling blow and the club has spent the last 4 years stumbling and bumbling its way to loss after loss.
Most experts and pundits agreed that tough times were ahead and forecast a tough 2014 under new coach Luke Beveridge, who replaced Brendan McCartney. After 14 rounds the Dogs find themselves in 6th spot on the ladder and head into this weekend's Domestic Derby with the Geelong Cats seeking their first five game winning streak since 2010. They probably only need to win three of their last eight games to play finals.
So how has this club turned things around so quickly? Make no mistake, the revival is ahead of schedule as most fans would have expected a middle of the table finish this season and finals action next year. But the bar has been raised and the Dogs need to challenge themselves over the next 24 months.
Firstly lets take a look at their list profile. They have the youngest list of all non-expansion clubs with an average age of just over 23 despite having three players (Robert Murphy, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris) aged 32 or older. Three quarters of the list are under 25 years of age and they have just five players who have played more than 100 games (the aforementioned three, Liam Picken and Will Minson) and eight more who have played 50-100 games. Historically, premiership contenders are stacked with players between 80-100 games and have a number of more experienced campaigners so the future looks bright for the Dogs in this respect.
Their appetite for contested possession has been impressive and puts them in good stead as they look to jump up the ladder. They rank 4th in the league in this category, which has been a good indicator of a successful team in recent years. Of the past five premiers none have finished lower than 8th in contested possessions ( that was the Hawks of last year, arguably the best team of recent memory) and both Sydney and Collingwood have won recent flags (in 2012 and 2010 respectively) on the back of leading the league in contested possessions.
Secondly, their defensive record is sound and improving. They rank 7th in least points conceded but that lead the league in the last month as they have limited their opponents to just 64.0 points a game. Again, a strong defence is an indication of a successful team as no premier has finished lower than 5th in this category in the last 8 years.
Lastly they have every area of the field covered and have depth across the board, and young depth at that. The midfield runs very deep even without arguably their best midfielder Tom Liberatore who is recovering from a knee injury. Jackson Macrae, Liam Picken, Luke Dahlhaus, Mitch Wallis, Koby Stevens, Marcus Bontempelli and Lin Jong. Of that group only Picken is older than 24 and he, Macrae and Dahlhaus have been revelations this season. Once a scragger. Picken has matured into an excellent two-way midfielder and is averaging career-highs in possessions, tackles and marks. Macrae is one of only two players in the league that is in the top 20 in contested, uncontested and total possessions per game. When Liberatore comes back next season, this midfield is as young, talented and deep as any in the competition.
Oh yeah, and if you haven't seen or heard of Bontempelli then check this out. The question mark in the title must be a typo, it was clearly the goal of the year (apologies to about half a dozen nominations by Eddie Betts)
Down back youngsters Fletcher Roberts, Joel Hamling, Michael Talia and Easton Wood complement Murphy and Boyd perfectly while Jason Johannisen will play a critical role in the next few years as the elder statesmen inch towards retirement as his run and carry gives the backline another dimension.
Up forward Jake Stringer is the match-winner and the guy most likely to take a step to superstar level, able to play both in the air and on the ground. The tall timber isn't lacking as Jack Redpath, Ayce Cordy and Tom Boyd loom as likely types. Tom Boyd is currently arguably the highest paid non-contributor in Australian sport, but his $1m/year deal is likely to reap dividends in the future as the big man matures and hopefully reaches his potential. The kid is a #1 draft pick for a reason.
Beveridge deserves a large dose of the credit for such a stunning turnaround as his message is clearly hitting home, but McCartney shouldn't be forgotten as the defensive fundamentals he implored his charges to learn are on display week after week.
Big clubs like Richmond, Carlton, Essendon and to a lesser extent Melbourne dominate the headlines but the mob at Whitten Oval are far better placed to launch into the top 4 and make an assault on the premiership in the next few years than any of those other clubs. Lets hope they get the credit and airtime this dynamic young group deserves.