Bulldogs buoyed by Boyd
Rewind less than two years, to October 2014. It wasn't a fun time to be a Western Bulldogs fan.
They’d just dropped six of their final seven games to slump to a 7-15 record, their only taste of victory in that stretch coming against eventual wooden spooners St Kilda.
The propped-up expansion clubs were on the rise, Gold Coast finishing with three more wins and Greater Western Sydney flashing their truckload of talent throughout a season in which they doubled their combined win tally from the previous two years – including a season-ending six-point victory over the Dogs, who had seemingly taken a backward step from their eight-win campaign in 2013.
But worse was yet to come.
Within the space of 48 hours, captain Ryan Griffen had walked out and coach Brendan McCartney was right behind him, resigning amid rumours a fallout with the skipper was the main reason for the star midfielder’s departure.
Former Brownlow medallist Adam Cooney would then pack his bags for Essendon, CEO Simon Garlick was out the door by January and reigning best-and-fairest winner Tom Liberatore’s 2015 season was over before it started, the tackling machine tearing his ACL in the opening quarter of the club’s first NAB Challenge hitout.
But, as they say, it is darkest just before the dawn.
Under the guidance of Luke Beveridge, and on the back of 2012-2013 drafts that netted Jake Stringer, Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae and Lachie Hunter, the Doggies surged to sixth on the ladder, culminating in a heart-stopping elimination-final loss to Adelaide that is widely considered among the best games in recent memory.
The story of the Bulldogs’ rise from ugly basket case off-field to “sexy” football on it has been well-documented.
We know shrewd drafting laid the foundation, and that appointing a mentor in Beveridge – one of five former assistant coaches to land a head coaching job since cutting his teeth under Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn – gave them leadership and direction.
And we know it was the trade of Griffen, in addition to pick No.6 (which the Giants used to land Caleb Marchbank), that brought 2013’s top pick Tom Boyd to Whitten Oval, where he promptly inked a seven-year deal worth somewhere in the ballpark of $1 million a season. As a teenager.
Based on how fans and the media tend to scrutinise No.1 picks, and the fact his contract instantly made him one of the highest-paid players in the league, Boyd was always going to have a tough time meeting external expectations.
But this isn’t an argument about the 20-year-old’s development or on-field contribution since crossing from the Giants.
Sure, his 21 goals after 18 games pale in comparison to Melbourne’s young key forward Jesse Hogan. And no, he hasn’t had anywhere near the same impact or share of the limelight as some of his young Bulldogs teammates.
But this isn’t an argument about whether his performance will ever line up with his pay packet. Less than two years into his contract and that has already been done to death.
It’s not Boyd's fault that GWS took him with their first pick in 2013. And it’s not his fault the Dogs saw fit to offer him the deal he received.
But what if we look back at his arrival as something more than a team throwing a bunch of money at a shining light amid some of their darkest days?
What if his lucrative contract did more for the club than lock up a young gun around whom they hoped to build a forward line and a future?
What if trading for Boyd and their subsequent long-term investment was a sign the club believed its time was sooner than everyone else expected?
Almost every season we hear of at least one coach who “lost the players”. According to many reports, McCartney was one of them.
But perhaps before Beveridge ever stamped his mark on the Bulldogs, the club had already gone a long way to winning them back.
What if this trade, this contract, gave the Bulldogs more than just hope they might one day have the key forward they had lacked for so long?
What if it told the other talented youngsters on the list that the club believed in what they had – that it was time to add the missing piece to their premiership puzzle?
What if it confirmed to their emerging stars that a club – their club – was willing to reward them as individuals when their time came?
What if the message that was sent – intentional or otherwise – played a bigger role in the club’s dramatic turnaround than any game Boyd has played in his young career?
The Dogs nailed a handful of picks in consecutive drafts and Beveridge has proven an inspired choice as the man to lead the way, but maybe moving on from the past and focusing on the future in one fell swoop instilled a new wave of belief that helped turn the tide.
From the moment Griffen announced his intentions to join Leon Cameron, Callan Ward and Co, the Bulldogs severed ties and found a new way forward. They put their money where their mouth was, and – to cram two cliches into one sentence – more often than not, actions speak louder than words.
Not that they aren’t without a very real chance of pushing deep into September by any means, but bad luck has cruelled the Dogs’ chances of adding to their sole premiership in 2016.
Irrespective of the injuries that have plagued their half-back line this season – as well as causing others such as Boyd to miss weeks at a time – it would be a huge effort for them to clinch a flag – particularly with inspirational skipper Bob Murphy forced to watch on from the sidelines.
But the future at the Kennel is bright. And perhaps it was one teenager’s signature that helped ignite that spark.