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    How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs


    AFL grand final: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    JOHN STENSHOLT

    SEPTEMBER 24, 2021

    Whitten Oval in Melbourne’s Footscray used to be a “rat-infested and tinea-infected” hellhole. Like the Western Bulldogs, it looked like it would fall apart at any moment.

    Yet two unlikely figures, ex-Liberal prime minister John Howard and mystery Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez, helped kickstart a revolution that has transformed the Bulldogs and their home base from downtrodden battlers to a club brimming with confidence.

    The Bulldogs, based in Labor heartland, managed to convince Howard during the 2004 election campaign there was merit in helping fund a much needed revamp of Whitten Oval. It was the beginning of a big rebuild on and off the field for the club, which will take on Melbourne in the AFL grand final in Perth on Saturday evening.

    “There was certainly nothing in it for us for politically,” Howard told The Australian.

    “But I thought this was a good proposition and if they used the money wisely, it would be a good thing for the community. And that has turned out to be the case. I was pleased and the community seemed to appreciate it.”

    The Bulldogs used to be perennially on the verge of collapse or insolvency and the AFL seemed happy to watch the club go out of business.

    Now they’re about to appear in their second grand final in five years and the club is a model of off-field strength and on-field brilliance and nous, encapsulated by coach Luke Beveridge and star captain Marcus Bontempelli.

    “We’ve been able to build quite nicely over the past few weeks. But we’re coming up against a team with a good brand of football as well, so it should a good contest,” Bontempelli said this week about the grand final opponent.

    As for Beveridge, he has defended his players to the hilt, describing the “collision footy” the Bulldogs played in their preliminary final win against Port Adelaide two weekends ago as “outrageously good”.

    Going back further, though, a couple of secret meetings were key to radical changes that have underpinned the Bulldogs’ success story.

    One was Howard agreeing to the game-changing revamp plan put up by ex-Bulldogs chief executive Campbell Rose in a federal seat the Coalition would never have a hope of winning.

    The other involved billionaire Gonzalez, the Mexican boss of Mission Foods, being snatched by the Bulldogs, ironically, from under the noses of Melbourne in a clandestine move involving Bulldogs paraphernalia, expensive guitars and fast-food giants.

    Whitten Oval was in such a bad way, says then club president David Smorgon, that “there were prostitutes and druggies in the carpark and you’d get out of the offices there before dark because you didn’t want to be there when the lights got turned off”.

    Rose decided a circuit-breaker was needed and, with the 2004 election looming, armed himself with a 38-page document and with the assistance of Howard’s chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, convinced Howard to travel to Melbourne’s west to announce what was to become a $9.5m funding package to rebuild the ground and include community and education facilities.

    “We got him to be the first prime minister to run through an AFL club banner,” Rose, now working in Silicon Valley, says. “But this was a Liberal PM funding something in Footscray. It was counterintuitive, it was a circuit-breaker. It was a case of ‘wow, where did this come from?’.”

    The state government would also agree to put in funds, and with the help of several foundations and wealthy supporters such as Smorgon and Susan Alberti, Whitten Oval underwent a $32.5m rebuild. “It was a miracle,” Smorgon says.

    “It’s an area made up of people from many countries but bound together by a love of sport, by a love of Australia and by a belief that sporting clubs can act as a great community cement,” Howard would say when reopening Whitten Oval two years after beating Labor’s Mark Latham in the election.

    While Rose says Howard’s Bulldogs pledge was an election turning point, it’s more likely the famous handshake with Latham played a bigger role. But it certainly didn’t hurt him turning up at Whitten Oval.

    Named for late favourite son Ted Whitten Sr, the ground sits in a region battered by lockdown and at times ravaged by Covid in the past 18 months but one that is proud of its team and its roots.

    “It has struck me here, the expectation of community representation,” Bulldogs chief executive Ameet Bains says.

    “It’s sometimes seen in sport that you shouldn’t get involved in community and social advocacy. But if we don’t do that as a club, then our members get into us for not speaking up. As a result, we do see our role to advocate on a number of issues.”

    Bains says Bontempelli is an example of a team determined to win but one conscious of its role at the club and in the community. “He’s such a humble champion really. He has that combination of a hard edge who is so driven to compete, with a soft and caring side away from the field.”

    An upcoming $70m revamp of Whitten Oval awaits, finally giving the Bulldogs foundation a permanent home alongside education, sporting and other facilities to deliver its various health and education programs, and the ground could soon be used as a Covid vaccination hub.

    The Bulldogs still have a working-class image, though, which provides a contrast to Melbourne’s supposed blue-blooded supporter base.

    Yet both clubs have previously struggled financially over the years. Peter Gordon, the pugnacious lawyer, stepped down as Bulldogs president last year after helping save the club in 1989 and overseeing the drought-breaking 2016 grand final win and the clearing of all debt, before handing the reins to current president Kylie Watson-Wheeler.

    The Bulldogs are now on a sound financial footing; Smorgon calls Gordon the “Charlie Sutton of the Bulldogs off the field”, a reference to the club legend who captained the 1954 premiership-winning side – and Melbourne is in rude health now too.

    There is some irony that the two clubs battled for a key sponsor a decade ago – Mission Foods, which still adorns the Bulldogs jumper today. It had been a hard slog. “I remember going through the Yellow Pages one year, finding any company with a link to (Melbourne’s) west and cold-calling them to see if they’d sponsor us,” Smorgon recalls.

    In early 2009, Rose got a tip from a Bulldogs-supporting lawyer that Mission Foods needed to build a factory in Melbourne and wanted to sponsor an AFL team – and the boss, Gonzalez, was in town.

    “Mission supplied wraps and tortillas and the like to McDonald’s and KFC,” Rose says. “They were bringing them to Australia and got told they needed to supply them locally. So they had to introduce their brand here, and manufacture here.”

    Melbourne, under late president Jim Stynes and then CEO Cameron Schwab, had met Gonzalez, presented the music lover with a guitar worth thousands of dollars and walked him across the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground turf. (One tale, perhaps apocryphal, had Gonzalez’s name misspelt on the MCG scoreboard.)

    Rose managed to convince Gonzalez to travel across to the Whitten Oval, as Smorgon dashed up from his Mornington Peninsula holiday home. “This black limo turns up. Mr Gonzalez gets out and within 10 minutes Campbell leans over and says ‘he thinks you’re the owner of the club so you’ll need to deal with him’.”

    The pair would have dinner and, after Rose presented Gonzalez with Bulldogs tops for he and his family, then an anxious 10-day wait, Mission chose the Bulldogs ahead of Melbourne. It has since poured in at least $20m in sponsorship and remains one of the longest commercial partners in the AFL. The days of the Bulldogs skirting insolvency are over.

    Bains says the 2016 grand final win “validated us as a club and allowed us to set our sights a lot higher than we have traditionally. We have that background as a humble community club but we are also aspirational commercially and on the field”.

    Beveridge and Bontempelli are proof. Bains talks about Beveridge’s “emotional intelligence” as a strength. “There is a raw passion to that but for the people in the club, and particularly the players, not only does he support them unconditionally, he really believes in them. It is hard to articulate the chemistry and emotion building since we left Melbourne a few weeks ago. We expect to win if everything goes our way. There will be a great emotional outpouring to reflect that if it happens.”
    Last edited by Grantysghost; 24-09-2021 at 05:04 PM. Reason: Removed image captions

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Feels like an eternity ago when governments did what was right wth grants and not politically expedient for buying votes. I was surprised we got that at the time, but credit to Howard to kick starting the redevelopment for all the community and especially our facilities.
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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Quote Originally Posted by bulldogtragic View Post
    Feels like an eternity ago when governments did what was right wth grants and not politically expedient for buying votes. I was surprised we got that at the time, but credit to Howard to kick starting the redevelopment for all the community and especially our facilities.
    I remember at the time being pretty amazed Howard committed to that.
    Campbell Rose might need a statue.

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Campbell deserves more recognition for what he did for the club. Great bloke too.
    FFC: Established 1877

    Premierships: AFL 1954, 2016 VFA - 1898,99,1900, 1908, 1913, 1919-20, 1923-24, VFL: 2014, 2016 . Champions of Victoria 1924. AFLW - 2018.

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    I can recall the day the Mission Foods and Western Bulldogs partnership was announced which I think leaked out earlier than was originallly planned leaving Smorgon and Rose scrambling to get ahead of it.
    It was a Saturday morning and the players, coaches and many from the footy department were at Wesley College in Glen Waverly for one of the now defunct East Meets West days and I was happy just to be there but clearly unaware of what was about to unfold.
    Rumors that Melbourne and the Dogs were competing with each other in signing a major sponsorship deal had been doing the rounds for a few days.
    My understanding was our preference was to announce the deal on Tuesday but Melbourne had been advised that they had missed out on the Saturday and we were spooked into going early rather than letting Melbourne leak the news.
    What happened was a version of Campbell Rose we had never seen before. Positively glowing in front of the camera's and microphones and with a level of energy and enthusiasm we had never seen before he seemed to mention "Mission Foods" so many times in the various interviews like he was now on a generous bonus scheme. He clearly understood the enormity of the deal that he helped close.
    It was a grand day and something that changed and most importantly legitimized the club.
    A 2nd flag under Bevo tomorrow will also do that in another step forward in the evolution of this club.

    Now what I think put us in that winning position against Melbourne, much like we will experience tomorrow, was the fact that we could also name ELC (Elite Learning Centre) the Mission Foods ELC.
    Western Bulldogs Football Club "Where it's cool to drool"

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Quote Originally Posted by bornadog View Post
    Campbell deserves more recognition for what he did for the club. Great bloke too.
    I heard speak a few times at closed business events. Very smart bloke who did amazing things for the club. He’d freely admit to not know every player and their jumper numbers, but he was an ‘outsider’. Footy industry experience seem to a prerequisite now. I wonder if he’d get a look in in today’s times? But he was huge building the bridge to this frontier. It’s telling when PG invited certain club people to his house before the 2016 GF, Cam Rose scored an invite.
    Sam Power: Great Sage, Equal Of Heaven

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Quote Originally Posted by bulldogtragic View Post
    I heard speak a few times at closed business events. Very smart bloke who did amazing things for the club. He’d freely admit to not know every player and their jumper numbers, but he was an ‘outsider’. Footy industry experience seem to a prerequisite now. I wonder if he’d get a look in in today’s times? But he was huge building the bridge to this frontier. It’s telling when PG invited certain club people to his house before the 2016 GF, Cam Rose scored an invite.
    When we rebranded to the westernbulldogs and Rose went onto the footy show to sell the vision of the great western region is where we were heading, I was impressed by his passion and belief in the business plan.

    Rose has done a remarkable job in setting up the foundations for the club:
    - redevelopment of the whitten oval
    - rebranding
    - restructure the club and help developing the organizational structure and people to be where it is now.

    We had a $2 million loss in 2002.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell_Rose

    We are blessed to have great leaders like him and really to have many others who have not been named.

    Thanks all for all your work.

    We are here at the GF in 2021 because of all these seeds were sown long ago. And to be able to get here twice in 5 years is truly remarkable. I feel very fortunate to be able to have witness this in such a short time, and twice in my lifetime.

    Paul Kelly song: from little things big things grow

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-8s0xWLKX4

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Dinner with Smorgon would have been crucial too. I really admired Smorgon & his wife - both excellent ambassadors for our mighty club and for the arts.

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    I've attended our AGM's since the mid '80's. More than once during Smorgo's reign, he would tell us how he could get calls from Rose anytime from 5 am until midnight from Campbell saying 'David, i've got an idea..'

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Such a good article. Thanks for posting. It's really positive to be involved in this club even as a minor supporter. They were so many inspiring and positive figures around the place, especially in the background.
    "We've got to be good in the phone box, and good in the tardis" - Pearls of wisdom from Luke Beveridge.

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    I remember shortly after Mission came on board, Eade and the coaching staff must of had a bet to see how many times Rocket could mention "Mission in his post match presser". From memory it was an interstate game and just about every second work was 'Mission".
    "It was our Mission tonight to kick goals and we worked to achieve our Mission".
    Must of been about 20 times. When the interview ended you could see Eade and the boys having a laugh about it.

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyberdoggie View Post
    I remember shortly after Mission came on board, Eade and the coaching staff must of had a bet to see how many times Rocket could mention "Mission in his post match presser". From memory it was an interstate game and just about every second work was 'Mission".
    "It was our Mission tonight to kick goals and we worked to achieve our Mission".
    Must of been about 20 times. When the interview ended you could see Eade and the boys having a laugh about it.
    Mission ??? or that MINSON! ��

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    That's a great story. Really enjoyed it.

    I wish I knew why Mission chose "US". As much as I love guitars (and my walls at home are adorned) reading the story I love the idea that we presented Mr Gonzalez with jumpers for his kids...love the idea of trying build connection and make his whole family part of the club.
    What should I tell her? She's going to ask.

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    Re: How John Howard and Mexican billionaire Juan Gonzalez helped save Western Bulldogs

    Quote Originally Posted by mjp View Post
    That's a great story. Really enjoyed it.

    I wish I knew why Mission chose "US". As much as I love guitars (and my walls at home are adorned) reading the story I love the idea that we presented Mr Gonzalez with jumpers for his kids...love the idea of trying build connection and make his whole family part of the club.
    I got the feeling Melbourne misspelling his name on the MCG scoreboard may have offended him.

    Devil is so often in the detail
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