That is a preview of Footscray’s 2010 season in four words. The longer version is below.

The Dogs were very close to a premiership in 2009. They finished third, behind Geelong and St.Kilda. They lost a final to each of those teams, by 14 points and 7 points respectively, and it is widely accepted that preliminary final loss should have been a win, just as the Saints should have beaten the Cats a week later.

Since then some things have changed. Geelong managed their older players almost perfectly on their way to a premiership last season. In addition to having to manage injury prone stars who are another year older, they have lost their captain Tom Harley retired, Matthew Stokes might not be playing much this year, and their best player, Ablett, is considering an offer from the Gold Coast. Perhaps most critically, there has to be doubt as to whether the Cats can again produce the kind of desperation for success that drove them last year, following their grand final loss the year before.

That Saints have had some problems too. They recruited Andrew Lovett from Essendon to address a perceived lack of pace, but he was sacked before Christmas for much publicised reasons. They also lost former club captain Luke Ball, who per minutes on the ground was close to the most influential player on grand final day. Ross Lyon didn’t seem to rate Ball all that highly, yet the response from the club to him seeking an opportunity to play at Collingwood has been churlish.

The Dogs have had some changes too. Barry Hall has joined the club, and had stunning success during the pre-season competition. Adam Cooney and Robert Murphy are training without the restrictions that significantly held them back a season ago. The pre-season form of young talls Tom Williams and Andrejas Everitt suggests they are ready to contribute more consistently than in the past. Ryan Griffen and Shaun Higgins are high quality players that are still improving. Jarrod Harbrow and Josh Hill are younger and can also be expected to keep improving. Mature aged rookie list recruit Brodie Moles has performed exceptionally well in pre-season, and forced his way on to the main list. He adds another solid body that commits to every contest, whilst he also seems to have clean ball handling skills.

There does have to be some doubt about the ability of the Dogs’ older players to continue to perform at a high level. Hall, Akermanis, Johnson, Eagleton and Hudson are all old enough to make you think they could struggle to get through what is a long season. Mitch Hahn can be added to that category, as even though he is younger, his bullocking style takes a greater toll on the body. On the positive side, none of these players has ever been particularly prone to injury. Muscle injuries to Eagleton and Johnson in pre-season are cause for concern though. Geelong showed last year that if you are good enough to win a lot of games early in the season, you can manage your ageing players in a way that allows them to perform well in the finals. The dogs will need to follow that example this year.

There are good reasons to think the Bulldogs will be better this year. Over the years they have traded for mature recruits to compliment the talented players they have drafted over the last decade. With the addition of Hall, the team looks well balanced, and has no obvious weaknesses.

Lake, Morris and Hargrave are three of the league’s best defenders. Gilbee is an elite attacking defender, whose defensive skills are generally underrated. Harbrow quickly developed during last season into a very good small defender, and he should be better again this year.

The Dogs midfield has been considered one of the best in the competition for a few years, and it is still a young and improving group.

Footscray has also been a high scoring team for a number of years, and Hall will draw the kind of defensive pressure that makes things a lot easier for those around him. His presence will also mean that players up the field will not as often need to take risks to create scoring opportunities That will make it harder for opposition teams to score on the rebound.
I should probably mention the potential of other clubs, most notably Adelaide Collingwood and Hawthorn, to ruin everything for the Doggies. Other would probably throw Brisbane in, but I don’t rate them enough to bother.

Adelaide became everyone’s favourite outsider with a run of strong performances late last season. I was less impressed, as I saw them as the proverbial flat track bullies. They had a reasonably poor record against the top 3 teams, and were only narrowly beaten by Collingwood in the finals, but that Collingwood team was crushed by St. Kilda the week before and again by Geelong the week after. I think Neil Craig is an exceptional good coach, but I don’t think they are likely to threaten the Bulldogs this year.

Collingwood seem to do well with a list that nobody else rates very highly. Mick Malthouse is another exceptional coach, and he always seems to get the best out of his team. They have added Luke Ball, and I think he is a very good player. He isn’t enough to get them from what turned out to be a very distant 4th to the premiership though.

Hawthorn won the premiership in 2008. On that basis, there seems to be a bit of buzz around about what they might do this season. I think people underestimate the significance of the loss of Croad from that team, and to a lesser extent Crawford and Dew. They have also lost the novelty factor of their cluster style zone. Recruiting Josh Gibson should help, but after his struggles playing against Hall in the pre-season competition, it’s clear that he won’t solve their defensive problems. They also have one of the worst ruck divisions in the league. Admitteldy, having a forward line that includes Franklin, Roughead and Rioli will cover for some problems in other areas. With a better run with injuries they will improve a lot on their 2009 season, but not so much that they will win the flag.

There has been a lot of pain for Dogs supporters over the years. As Matthew Lloyd insightfully pointed out in the Sunday Age footy magazine, there have been ‘countless’ preliminary final losses, beginning in 1985. Whilst one may be inclined to point out to Lloyd that it’s not actually difficult to count to 6, it is true that there has been a fair bit of heartache without much success for Dogs supporters.

I think that is going to change this year. To win a premiership you must beat the other teams, and that is why I have talked so much about opposition clubs in what is supposed to be a preview of Footscray’s season. None of them are as good as the Dogs this year, and that is why, THE FLAG WILL WAG.