Before Bruce McAvaney’s famous war cry ‘It’s over! The dam wall has busted’, 92 seasons of league football had delivered the Footscray/Western Bulldogs just one solitary premiership. A single, lonely cup has remained the sole tenant within a cavernous trophy cabinet, signifying the fruitless toil of the post-1954 era. And one passionate Bulldog - Alister Ford – who has who has worn the famous tri-colours both as a proud supporter and player, knows of the heartache and elation the club has endured over this long journey. Through it all however, he had maintained faith in the Mighty West, and since that drought breaking moment in October, he has worn a bulldog grin from ear to ear.
Bulldogs Centre writer Mat Lyons caught up with Bairnsdale’s prodigal son for an epic interview, which documents the hopes, passion, camaraderie and a team spirit that Alister witnessed first-hand during his time in the inner sanctum and from the terraces as a roaring fan.
Alister’s extraordinary journey to Whitten Oval is one of the most captivating tales and unlikely pathways a league footballer could take. Alister recalls that summer of 1981 was “the craziest three months of my footy life in regard to what happened.” Footscray had just returned from their Christmas break after an horrendous 1980 season where it had finished in the bottom three yet again.
“They had a practice match against the Hawks at Moe scheduled on a Sunday. On the Saturday of that weekend the Bulldogs had a ‘recruit’s game’ at Newborough to identify talent in the region. All the local footy clubs knew about it and they said if you want to go and have a crack it's all good. I was a bit unsure about it all as I had just turned 17, but decided to try and get there. No one else from Bairnsdale that I knew was going, so on the Saturday morning I went and stood on the highway in Bairnsdale at put my thumb out to try and hitch the 160 km to Newborough. I got a lift with some people from Lakes Entrance that we're going through to Melbourne. So I arrived in time!”
I was named at CHF and was doing ok against the older guys. At half time we're all in the sheds and (Footscray senior coach) Royce Hart walked in. You could've heard a pin drop. He went over and was talking quietly to the guys who were running the match when one of them turned around and pointed at me. Royce came over and introduced himself and said he thought I was playing well. Then he said ‘I don't want you to play the second half. I want you to come back to Moe tomorrow and play against Hawthorn.’
Any footballer in their right mind would have jumped at this invitation, but not Alister, who remembers the moment vividly: “I told him I wasn't that keen to travel again tomorrow and would have to ring dad when I got home and see if he and mum weren't busy and if they could bring me. I also said I just hitched a hundred miles to play today so I wanted to play the whole game. He tried to talk me out of it but then relented and let me keep playing.”
Despite the rejection, Hart was determined to lure the young forward to the kennel and after the game, made another play for Alister. “I was walking down the road to the indoor pool for a swim and he and another guy pulled up in a car. Royce wanted to confirm the game the following day. He organised a lift home for me to Bairnsdale so I wouldn’t have to hitchhike back again and so agreed to play. And that’s how I met Royce Hart.
Alister was named at Centre Half forward for the Footscray U/19s that next day and starred with five goals. A few weeks later, after the club had fallen silent, Alister’s dad answered an evening knock at the family home, before walking back inside with Royce Hart, CEO David Allen and champion player Kelvin Templeton. “It was fairly daunting having those guys all sitting around the kitchen table. Kelvin Templeton had just won a Brownlow medal and he's telling me he wanted me to come and play footy with him.”
At trade school the next day a FFC official came and knocked on the classroom door and asked the trade teacher if he could have a quiet word with Alister outside the class. “He took me out the front of the school and told me to get in the car. He then reached over and took a wad of money out of the glove box and threw it in my lap. I asked what it was for and was told it was my match payment for round one in the reserves – one thousand bucks!” For an apprentice carpenter who was earning $75 a week, this was simply an offer too good to refuse, and Alister lined up the following week for the Bulldog reserves against St Kilda at the Western Oval in round one of the 1981 season.
“I remember kicking four goals that day, before retreating to the John Gent stand to watch the seniors.” As a mad Saints supporter, he was unable to contain his excitement however, cheering and clapping each time the St Kilda scored, despite being dressed in Bulldogs kit, amongst his new Footscray teammates. “I didn't know any better and I got some strange looks, I think. I knew none of the guys I had just played with. I'd never seen or met them before and thought I'd probably never see them again as I'd be back playing at Bairnsdale the next week!”
With the journey to Melbourne each week a daunting proposition, Alister was resigned to returning to his local club rather than play VFL reserves. “That’s when I received a call from Royce. He asked me how I thought I had played against the Saints and said ‘if you come down and play for us again this weekend, it will be your senior debut against Collingwood. I just froze and said ‘okay…as long as I can get a lift in with mum and dad!’”
Being a die-hard Magpie supporter, Alister’s father negotiated that he would drive his son to the match on one condition: that he brought back a clump of dirt from Victoria Park so that they could plant it in the family farm.” Alister agreed and his league career began.
“I had absolutely no idea what to expect for my first game. I'd only ever been to the football in Melbourne seven or eight times. We used to go to a game each year. First thing was get a footy record. I remember thinking to myself that the place looked exactly like it did in the movie The Club. Then we went back in the rooms to get ready. Royce took me over to see Eddie Walsh the property steward and he hands me my jumper – the number 6 guernsey. I’d worn the number 54 the week before in the reserves, so I was pretty happy! I always remember Royce's words: He says to me ‘you're number 6. This is a very famous jumper at the Footscray football club. Do you know who used to wear this jumper?’ I was bloody scared because I had no idea about any of the club history and didn't want to say the wrong thing. He then told me about Charlie Sutton and the number 6. If I wasn't shitting myself enough that closed the deal. I though why the hell didn't they just leave me in number 54!”
“We got ready and warmed up in those cramped old Collingwood away rooms. Then it was time; up the race and onto the ground. The place was packed, they were hanging from the rafters. We ran out, through the banner and to the other end of the ground. Then reality set in. Collingwood were out there warming up and I could see Moore, Shaw, Picken, Daicos, Kink, Barham, Magro etc. and thinking to myself only six months ago I was 16 and sitting at my friend’s house in Bairnsdale watching these guys in a grand final and now I'm going to play against them. Life is crazy.”
“We kicked to the river end first. I went to the forward line. Kevin Worthington picks me up. Game starts. It's a total blur. I think I was still looking at the Collingwood guys amazed that I was out there. I'll always remember my first kick: I got the ball at half forward and looked up. Rene Kink was coming straight at me flat out about five metres away, and he looked a bit displeased. I dropped the ball onto my wrong foot and it went about 20 metres along the ground and I got out of his way. He would've killed me for sure, I think! So no entry into the goal with first kick club for me.
“In the second quarter and I'm up the other end near the stands. Play is in the outer pocket. The Collingwood guys were crowding the goal square and I was thinking I'm no chance standing in there with them so I went back to the far goal post. The ball gets snapped over all their heads and hits me on the chest. Back on the angle but I'm a left footer. Got a goal. Pretty happy! We get the ball forward again. Very close to half time and there's a scrimmage in our goal square right on the goal line. The ball spills out to me. Another goal. Even more happy now. The runner comes out to me with big smile, very enthusiastic and positive even though we were well behind. ‘Well done - It's just another game of footy’, he said to me.
Collingwood legend Billy Picken was moved onto Alister for the final term where he slammed through a third major to announce himself as an outstanding young recruit for the Dogs. The father of Bulldog immortal, Liam, turned to Alister to congratulate him post-match. “We shook hands and he said ‘you've done pretty well today. Good on ya.’”
Alister would spend the next half decade at the club, where he would play a modest 21 games and kick 17 goals. But he recalls those times as “Five of the best and funniest years ever. All the football staff, the volunteers, the office staff, the social club staff, the supporters and cheer squad members were wonderful. Bruce Reid, who wore number 5, had the locker next to me and was outstanding. He was always making sure things were all okay. And the players were all approachable guys, always willing to give some advice or direction: Hampshire, Reid, Davidson, Wheeler, Jennings, Templeton and so on. And the locker on the other side of mine was number 7: Hawkins. You never knew what was going to jump out of that locker when it was opened. I just looked on in amazement as Dougie plied his trade out on the ground though.”
Before the 2016 triumph, the 1985 squad was arguably the team that was most likely to lift the Cup. Alister recounts that famous season as one that got away. “The ‘85 team was an excellent side. The feeling was good all year. The training sessions during the finals were fantastic. All those loyal supporters there enjoyed the ride too. I think we would've beaten Essendon in the GF but unfortunately couldn't get past Hawthorn on Preliminary Final day out at VFL Park. It was very disappointing for all involved in the club but that's footy, I suppose. I sat up in the stand and watched the game and wanted the guys to win so much. I can't remember how long I just sat there when the final siren went. I was shattered.”
Alister lists the Semi-Final win against North Melbourne as perhaps the most memorable from that season. “It was a great one, with Simon Beasley needing five goals to crack the ton. A big mouthed guy at work who hated Footscray was mouthing off saying he'd bet anyone a hundred bucks we'd lose and he wouldn't get his hundred goals. I got my hundred on with him and got a couple of workmates to get on for me as well. I told Simon at training that night and he wanted in on the action too but the next day the guy shut up and wouldn't hold any more. We beat North comfortably and Simon bagged seven for the ton. I had fun collecting on Monday from a very sheepish loudmouth!”
“I only played one senior game in 84 and one in 85 after Mick Malthouse took over as coach. I played round 11 in 85 against St Kilda at the Western Oval. Andrew Purser had copped a week at the tribunal for something. I played pretty well I thought, with 10 or 11 possessions, half a dozen marks, a couple of dozen hit outs and we had a win as well. Anyway I got dropped the following week and that was that. I suppose that's the way footy was then. You just copped it and moved on. Up until round 11, I had been named on the interchange to be selected from or as an emergency in every round. But as I said, it was a very good side and hard to break into. Brad Hardie winning the Brownlow was sensational. Gee, we went hard for a few days after that! We drank so much that the pub needed more beer. The brewery sent a truck around just to keep us happy!”
If an incident of this magnitude occurred today, it would be an international event and imprisonment the certain consequence. But for the class of ’85, they simply hopped on another flight and carried on partying. Alister is typically laconic when recalling the mid-flight mayhem: “The footy trip was good…after we got over a few early setbacks. Everyone in Australia thought our trip was ruined after what had happened so they sent a camera crew to film our misery. Couldn't have been further from the truth. One day we were laying around the pool and Simon Beasley came out and told us we all had to get out the front on the main strip because channel 7 sent a crew to film us. So we all lob out the front and the whole street is packed as Las Vegas always is. So the cameras start rolling and we're all walking as a group along the street. It was exactly as you see in the movies with all the crowd standing looking at the movie stars in action. Trouble was no one knew who we were!”
When the hype had settled down, the Bulldogs were able to hit the bars and casinos. “Las Vegas was good to me. After a couple of nights with Brad Hardie on his Keno system I left Vegas with about $500 more than I arrived with. From Vegas, we went to San Francisco. Well we were in this bar one night testing the local ales. A bit like that bar in Cheers, with all the regulars in there. So we're sitting at the bar having a quiet drink and the barman gets us another round and He says where are you guys from with those accents, you're not American. We tell him were from Australia. Well he says straight away, Australia hey, what about those Australian footballer guys who got thrown of the plane. Did you hear about them? They're crazy! We say yeah that was us. Were some of the guys. So he yells out to everyone in the bar.....Hey these are the Aussie football guys who got thrown of the plane. The whole joint erupted with cheers. He says that we’re famous. We made the New York Times. And from behind the bar he pull a Times out and sure enough there's an article about us in there. We didn't have to buy another drink the whole night. Good trip that. A lot of fun with great mates all of them!”
Following 1985, Alister received an offer from St Kilda and the clubs tabled a deal for a straight swap for forward Max Crow, who would go on to play only 12 games for the ‘Dogs. “If I wanted to stay at Footscray in ‘86 I would have definitely been on the list but pretty much as an insurance policy for a Purser injury or suspension. Staff said straight out that I would be a huge chance to play regular seniors with St Kilda and not much chance at Footscray, so I made the move.” Alister went on to play a further 18 senior games at St Kilda before retiring in 1987.
“I was a bit gutted to tell the truth. Five years at the dogs and the only senior footy I'd ever really played. I loved the place. Still do!!!! I look back now with no regrets. Still a huge amount of quality friendships with old Bulldogs teammates and the same at St Kilda. I cherish them all.”
Alister is glowing in his appraisal of the people at the kennel: “Every player that I played alongside at Footscray I regard as a good friend. Whether I've not seen them for thirty years or one week.” He was fortunate to play alongside fellow Bairnsdale greats – champion rover Brian Royal and former skipper Jimmy Edmond, along with his cousin Mick ‘Fruitcake’ Ford. As children, the cousins were sports crazy, with Mick a representative at state level for soccer. “We never played much backyard footy. It was always soccer or cricket in the driveway or table tennis in the shed at his place. Or we'd play test match cricket when he came out to stay at the farm. He always gave me a hiding at everything. And he was fast too. I always had a go against him, but pretty much to no avail. The only thing I ever beat him at was fishing!”
When asked to list the best teammates he played with, he was quick to name ‘Bluey’ Hampshire, Jennings and Terry Wheeler as his early standouts. But the two that blew his mind as the Rolls Royces of his era were clear: “Templeton…it’s still surreal to think I played alongside him. And then there was Doug Hawkins - Say no more. Can anyone else take the ball while in mid-air and kick it to a teammate before they hit the ground?”
In truth, Alister could go on talking about his love for his teammates forever. And he almost did. “Jock Edmond and Choco Royal were among the very best, along with Simon Beasley – he was a gun! Dunstan was a ball magnet and Wallis, The Macphersons, Hardie, Foster, The Cordy Brothers, Egan, Davidson, Whitten, Purser, my cousin Michael (Ford), Magic McLean - love that guy - Bamblett, McGuinness, Buhagiar, Daniels, Kennedy…! - they were all great players. But every guy from Darren Brown to Zeno Tzatzaris were gems. I love every single one of them. I'd just name the lot if I had to keep going!”
Nowadays, aged 52, Alister still has an ongoing love affair with the club. He attends games whenever he can, joins the past players every year, has a country membership, and in his own words “Love the club. Love the people. Love the jumper.” And he is especially passionate and excitable when discussing the current crop of premiership heroes. “I love the way they play. It’s exciting to watch! And the Grand Final was just an amazing day all round. I was on the bottom deck right behind the Bulldogs cheer squad. The noise was unbelievable. An emotional day for anyone who has ever been involved with the club in any way shape or form!”
And when asked whether his beloved Bulldogs could go back-to-back in 2017, his belief is emphatic: “Yes. No reason to think otherwise!”
All Photos Were Supplied By Mat and Alister