Before their epic win over GWS in the 2016 preliminary final, when Giants players were booed onto their own home ground, the Bulldogs ran through what journalist and author Martin Flanagan described as the “most politically pointed banner in the history of the game.”
The message on it, written by comedian Danny McGinlay, neatly sums up what this burgeoning rivalry is all about: “Our club was born in blood and boots, not in AFL focus groups.”
Expect a sequel of sorts on Saturday. “It’s quite good,” said Chalmers of the next banner that will be revealed. She’ll be among the convoy of Bulldog buses driving up to Sydney at 1am on Saturday morning.
A crowd approaching 20,000 is anticipated at Giants Stadium, with much intrigue in how many of them will actually be Giants fans. Chalmers is expecting it to feel like a Bulldogs home game again, just like it did three years ago. “I heard they’re trying to recruit the Swans people to try and barrack for GWS,” she said. “We’re going to take over.”
Michael Shillito, the spiritual leader of the GWS cheer squad, shakes his head at the way Bulldogs fans think about his club. “They do seem to have a chip on their shoulder, more than any other club, about our existence,” he said.
The Dogs have rusted-on types like Chatfield and Chalmers and cult heroes like Franco Cozzo, the furniture king of Footscray. The Giants will, too, one day – they come with tenure.
Until then, they’ve got celebrity ambassadors like Mitchell Starc and Melissa Doyle and ultra-committed diehards like Shillito, a 48-year-old account manager who once supported Essendon, but could not resist jumping on board with a brand new club that sprung up on his doorstep.
A photo of Shillito and his trademark green headband sits prominently amongst a collage on the walls of the GWS gym at Olympic Park. He will never forget that banner from the 2016 prelim.
“It was pretty misinformed on a number of levels,” Shillito said. “But that’s the thing – a lot of Victorians don’t understand what’s going on up here, what this club’s about and what they’re doing to grow the game.”
Among the small but growing contingent of Giants tragics like Shillito are some extremely cashed-up individuals. On Thursday morning, Sydneysiders were treated to a series of strange slogans scribbled into the clear blue sky, including ‘Never Surrender’, ‘Jezza’, and ‘Thx Cogs & Kelly’.
To the average local, unfamiliar with the southern code, they may as well have been hieroglyphs.
It turns out this skywriting was not paid for by the club itself or the AFL but apparently by a few supporters who preferred to remain anonymous. The club wouldn’t confirm if they were the same ones who coughed up for the naming rights sponsorship at their stadium, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise.
“We come from all walks of life,” Shillito said. “We’ve become very passionate, very quickly. Probably no other sporting club in the world has their existence the subject of as much vitriol as what we cop, but we’re growing, and that hardens us for the challenges ahead.”
What the Giants lack in history, they seem to make up through a culture strong enough to keep people like Shillito so engaged, and players like Stephen Coniglio in Sydney’s west despite the lure of interstate megabucks.
Shillito still ranks the Swans as GWS’s fiercest enemies but the Bulldogs are catching up fast. Crosstown derbies are one thing, but some of the AFL’s best modern rivalries – like Geelong and Hawthorn, and Sydney and West Coast – are born not from geography but chemistry.
“It’s evolved organically, and it’s because it’s not manufactured, that makes it real,” he said.
Shillito reckons GWS fans learned a lot from that heartbreaking loss to the Bulldogs in 2016. He remembers what it felt like to be drowned out at home, but notes the club’s membership base has doubled since then. “It took the Bulldogs well over a century to get to 30,000 members. We’ve done it in eight years,” he said. “We’ve got a wrong to right on Saturday.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.