3pm – Gates Open
A train pulls into West Footscray station. Fans dressed in red, blue and white spill out onto the platform and make their way north over Cross Street to Whitten Oval. Home turf of the Western Bulldogs, it’s the setting for today’s match with the visiting Fremantle Dockers.
There is the odd punter in purple here in support of the team from Perth. But it’s no surprise that today the Dogs have the largest and staunchest backing. As the crowd trickles in punters nab spots, plant down eskies and warm up the vocal chords for the match ahead.
3.40pm – Indoor Warm-up
Behind the doors of Bulldogs HQ is a rabbit warren of corridors that veer off into a gym, office, changing room or indoor training ground. It’s here where bulldog mascots are carefully chaperoned up stairs, cheerleaders practice in hallways with hair-bows high on their ponytails and corporate sponsors in suits make their way to the upstairs VIP function.
Past these scenes come the reason it’s all here – the members of the Western Bulldogs AFLW team. Pacing through the narrow halls they make their way to the indoor training ground to start their warm-up. Muscles are stretched, footballs are tossed from player to player and coach Paul Groves pulls vice captain Ellie Blackburn and captain Katie Brennan aside for what looks like a leadership pep talk.
A group of trainers dressed in purple stand along the perimeter, eyeing the scene. The Bulldogs media team are there too, snapping away, capturing bite-sized moments to share with fans online.
We’re told that Naomi Ferris and Daria Bannister are two players to look out for. Both are new to the team and both wear a look of pure determination for their first game of the season.
With all the build-up leading to this day, we hear an anecdote of anxiousness from the sidelines. “I’m more nervous about this game than I am for the men’s.”
4pm – On Ground Warm-up
Back outside, the summer sun is belting down on the grounds. It’s getting packed. With seats few and far between, people are seeking out spots on the grassy embankments behind the goals. Parents are taking photos of their kids with the mascots. “It’s a real festival and family atmosphere,” says one staff official. Some eager supporters are keen to get as close to the action as possible, with feet firmly planted at the field’s edge, arms dangling over the fence holding homemade signs.
The two teams make their first appearance on the field, jogging on in warm-up clothes. Bursts of, “Go Doggies!” are heard, but the most dramatic display of fanfare is yet to come.
4.27pm – Pre-game
The star of the afternoon so far might well be the official team mascot, an English Bulldog named Caesar. He appears unphased by the crowd or media lining up for photos. Neither do his minders, Tanya and Chris, who say they’re used to the attention their beloved doggo gets. The couple are hardcore supporters – Chris pulls up his sleeve to reveal a Western Bulldogs tattoo.
As Caeser pulls focus, the field is prepped for the official entry before the bounce. The teams run on with their captains leading the way. Some players have excited smiles, others show nerves and seem surprised at the sounds of support echoing around the stadium.
4.35pm – The Game Begins
With mouthguards in place, bootlaces tightened and purple-clad trainers at the ready, the siren sounds.
It’s a slow start by both teams. But the Bulldogs soon pick up the pace with Brennan scoring three goals. It could be the noise from the official fan cheer squad giving her a boost. Up in the stands an unofficial cheer squad forms for newcomer Daria Bannister. “This is yours Daz,” they scream. “Go Daz.”
5.20pm – Half Time
The half-time siren sounds and the players head inside to refuel and refocus. It’s looking good for the home team. They have 34 points and are currently in front. By 34 points. Fremantle are yet to score.
Ten minutes later they’re back on the field. There’s time for a quick team huddle and a whiteboard strategy refresh from the coaches, then the siren sounds again for the third quarter.
5.35pm – The Home Stretch
The Dockers finally make a push with Amy Lavell scoring two goals at the start of the third quarter. It’s a little too late though as the bulldogs continue to rule the scoreboard.
With each home-team score, red and blue fireworks on the side of the stadium pop, sending the crowd into hysterics. Sports photographers with their telephoto lenses jostle for position, uploading photos on the fly to their respective media outlets.
In the final quarter there’s an injury on the field. An artillery of medics and trainers head out to assess the player. It looks serious and she’s lifted onto a stretcher and carried off the field. The crowd claps in support with chants of “good luck darling” as she passes. We later learn the player is Bannister. She’s torn the ACL in her knee and will be sidelined for the rest of the season.
6pm – A Winning Victory
The final siren sounds and the Bulldogs have clearly dominated, the scoreboard reading 49 to 23. The players and coaches are ecstatic. They huddle on the field to sing the team song, with fans coming onto the grass to join in. Almost everyone seems to know the lyrics and a sense of pride is clear.
The crowd begins to move towards the field boundaries to shake hands or get a photo with the Bulldogs team. It’s smiles all ‘round as the athletes greet and thank their supporters.
A few selfies and autographs later and teams are hurried back indoors. A gaggle of supporters hover over the cage covering the corridor leading inside. Bulldogs players look up in awe at the level of support, with some even scaling the fence to say hello to their families and friends on the other side. It’s only their first game of the season. This is what it’s like to be an AFLW player.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the AFL Women’s. The 2018 NAB AFL Women’s Competition runs until March 24.