By Claudia Alp
The final seconds of the game dragged on as passionate supporters held their breath in agitated suspense for the final siren. Anything could happen.
Finally relief came. Supporters hugged and cheered in tearful joy as the Western Bulldogs fought their way to their second premiership. None more so than the cheer squad, referred to by some as “the lifeblood of the team”.
For the first time in their existence, the Western Bulldogs cheer squad has hit full capacity of 500 members, with many hopefuls left on a waiting list.
After a significant decline of cheer squad membership and lack of enthusiasm, the Western Bulldogs attempted to reinvigorate the squad by changing its leadership in 2014 from a committee to club management.
Sam Twaddle, leading member of the cheer squad, said that excitement is building as more people are actively participating in making the banner and cheering at games.
“There [are] different faces and families that are coming in and a lot more people participating in banner making,” he said. “I think everyone’s just getting involved now.”
Chelsea Heath, who has been a member of the squad since 1999, said that the members act as an extension of the club’s staff when they need volunteers to help out.
“We help them out where we can. There’s a group of us who help out at the VFL from being ball boys to selling tickets to get in,” she said.
“At family days we might collect the gold coin donations, run the barbeque or help out at the autograph tents. Throughout a normal week, it’d be about 15 hours of volunteer time for most of us.”
The commitment of the cheer squad members doesn’t end with volunteer work. The cost of travelling interstate for away games is paid out of their own pockets without an subsidy from the club.
The cheer squad also collectively sponsored ex-Bulldog defender, Joel Hamling, as part of the Player Sponsors coterie group, developed to improve player-sponsor relationships and contribute towards purchasing equipment.
Hamling, debuted with the Western Bulldogs in 2015 as a delisted free agent and recently signed a three-year contract with Fremantle in 2017 for personal reasons.
During away games in particular, Twaddle said he’d like to think the cheer squad boosts player performance, especially in crucial moments.
“The boys say that they actually love the loudness of the crowd when we get in. I think it gets the boys when we start chants and get groups around us to do the same,” he said.
During the preliminary final against Greater Western Sydney (GWS) at Spotless Stadium, Sam said Western Bulldogs defender, Matthew Boyd, told him it felt like a home game because of the overwhelming support from supporters who travelled interstate.
Twaddle said the same feeling was echoed by the president of the Western Bulldogs club, Peter Gordan, and midfielder, Marcus Bontempelli.
“It’s about getting everyone involved. The hard thing is if we are losing by a lot, then a lot of people get flat and can’t find anything to cheer about,” he said.
“We give them a little reminder: ‘Hey, you’re in the cheer squad. Keep going. The boys are still in it. They’re still fighting so we should still support them 100 per cent of the way.’”
For Daryl and Heather Odgers, supporting the Western Bulldogs during their most challenging seasons led to a lifelong commitment, not only to the team, but to each other.
Daryl and Heather met in the cheer squad in 1985 and have been married since July, 1990. Along with their two children, Josh and Madeline, they have been lifelong supporters of the club.
Heather endured laughter and ridicule for being a Western Bulldog supporter in primary school and even had crutches kicked out from underneath her as an adult.
But her support never wavered. She remained a dedicated supporter, even attending a game at Waverley the day she was due with her first child. Six days after she gave birth, Heather was discharged and headed straight to Whitten Oval.
When a passer-by recently commented that doggie supporters were coming out of the woodwork, Heather said she gave him a polite mouthful. “There is no coming out of the woodwork for me,” she said.
“I’ve been paying membership for 20 years to guarantee a grand final ticket. My first kid saw a game at six days old. Daryl and I met in the cheer squad. And I have a Footscray Football Club numberplate.”
Daryl, who has been umpiring at local games for decades, said that he thinks the crowd has an impact on player mentality and he honestly believes they hear the support.
During the preliminary final at Spotless Stadium, they were outnumbered almost 40 to one by GWS supporters, so he and son, Josh, began banging on the tin wall behind their seats.
“Next thing we knew, we had the entire bay with us all doing it,” he said. “We bumped into a friend who was up the other end of the ground and he said it was like rolling thunder.”
“I honestly think that helped our blokes. And I think the GWS players were like: ‘What is this? It’s our home game and they’re outdoing us.”
Daryl said he believes the players show their appreciation for the noise made by the cheer squad and supporters in how they react during the run along the boundary line.
Heather, in particular, experienced this gratitude as she celebrated her 50th birthday at Spotless Stadium during the preliminary final against GWS.
As the players ran a lap of the boundary line, Daryl pointed to her, yelling: “It’s her 50th! It’s her 50th birthday today!”
“I got a cuddle from Bonti,” she said laughing. “He did a circle and came back and said: “Is it your birthday?’ He’s young enough to be my son, but never mind. It’s Bonti!”
Twaddle said 2017 will be a big year for the cheer squad, beginning with the WAFL season in March. “It’s building up to be one of those years where the cheer squad is going to be massive,” he said. “And what better way to do it then when you’re defending premiers?”