Belmore buzz is building at Brookie

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Tonight the NRL's most hated club hosts the side with the most hated fans. And the crowd will love it, writes Andrew Stevenson.

BACK in the bad old days before the salary cap, Manly Warringah, cashed up by the clink of coins flowing into its leagues club, had a sure-fire recipe for success - buy the heart and soul out of whoever stood between you and the premiership.

It worked a treat. Manly were happy to cripple Souths in 1971, and the following year dressed up former Souths stars prop John O'Neill and centre Ray Branighan in the maroon-and-white strip to win the club's first premiership.

Next it was Western Suburbs' turn. As Manly secretary Ken Arthurson, with the signatures of Les Boyd, John Dorahy and Ray Brown in his pocket, boasted in 1980: "We had to cripple Souths in the early 1970s to win a premiership and if that has to happen to another club, I'll do it again."

That time it didn't quite work but, like Faust, Manly's pact with the devil came at a price. The club earned the scorn of every league fan in the country - a scorn that crusted and scabbed with the success that came to Brookvale for so many years.

The incredible run of four premierships between 1972 and 1978 eventually came to an end but the chequebooks stayed open and Manly continued to plunder an international a year.

Old memories die hard, and the contempt survived Manly's hard times when, under the guise of the Northern Eagles, they came within a whisker of financial disintegration. It's something to be proud of, suggested new Manly chief executive Grant Mayer.

"The word Manly evokes emotion in every person you speak to with the vaguest knowledge of rugby league," he said. "If people are talking about them and thinking I'd love to see my team smash them - and if that drives another person through the turnstiles - that's a positive for the club."

The contest of negative and positive emotion promises to be a heady brew in the stands at Brookvale tonight, as the most hated club hosts the Bulldogs, the club with the most hated fans. That it's No.2 playing No.3 only increases the drama.

Last Sunday, Manly almost filled Brookvale Oval when they played the Rabbitohs, bumping along the bottom in 15th place, and tonight the club is hoping it might be able to put up its first full house sign since the NRL began in 1998.

No wonder co-owner Max Delmege is smiling. "It's very exciting for the loyal supporters … it's very big," he observed.

It's the biggest yet for the self-confessed Eagles tragic. "I've been involved there for five years and it's the biggest game in that time. I don't pray too often but I just pray to God we win," he said.

It's worked before, Delmege claimed. In July, Manly were being pasted 24-6 by the Panthers. It was time to go on bended knee.

"I knelt down in the garage because we were so far behind and all of a sudden the phone rang and we were 26-all," he claimed, of the match won 32-30 by Manly.

Poet laureate to the peninsula, Tom Keneally said there's a buzz about Manly again. Manly sides of recent years have tended to fold upon conceding a start. "There is a confidence now when you go to a Manly game you're going to see a contest - particularly at Brookie. You're not going to see a surrender," Keneally claimed.

Despite making the semi-finals last year, Manly still bled points when they lost. Six times teams put more than 25 points on them, including a 68-6 trouncing at the hands of Cronulla. Not so this year. When they've been beaten it's inevitably been close, with a 32-10 loss away to Brisbane their worst of the season.

The Bulldogs - even without the menacing presence of Willie Mason (suspended) and the injured Roy Asotasi - still project an imposing presence, one that will be much harder to repel without Manly's own injured leader, Ben Kennedy.

Keneally said: "There are few sides we'd rather beat - it's the forces of civilisation against the bull-thingys."

But the taunt comes with strong praise. "Despite their off-field troubles, they have a culture of victory, of never lying down. It is very rare they are put to the sword," he said. "When we were in the doldrums I said to Turvey [Steve Mortimer], 'What I admire about you blokes is the culture of winning, of making silk purses out of sow's ears'.

"No matter how many players go, there are always a new crop who play according to the culture of the club. We are building that now from the ashes of the joint venture."

Mayer, who worked back-of-house for six years at the Bulldogs before coming Manly's way via Super League outfit Les Catalans, also has very strong memories of Belmore.

"They literally personify, 'Get in there, into the trenches and support your mates'," he said.

"A stronger group of people I've never met, in regards to their support of each other - and that goes from the top to the bottom of the club, from left to right."

Keneally and Mayer both believe they can see something similar building at Manly, a transformation the poet attributes to the dramatic hero (Kennedy) and the chief executive awards to coach Des Hasler.

"BK gave the side mongrel, by which I mean a toughness where they don't want to run at you," Keneally said.

Mayer reckons Hasler never stops working. "Des is an absolute perfectionist and he's always looking for new avenues to create the best possible performance out of his team," Mayer said.

It comes back to him as the head coach. Des is across a lot of things the Bulldogs certainly didn't talk about and that Super League aren't touching on."
Team P W L PD Pts
12 9 3 83 22
13 10 3 80 22
13 9 4 110 20
12 7 5 64 18
12 7 5 -37 18
13 7 6 133 16
13 7 6 81 16
13 7 6 47 16
13 7 6 -34 16
13 6 6 27 15
13 6 6 26 15
14 7 7 -26 14
13 6 7 -47 14
13 4 9 -111 10
12 3 9 -123 10
12 3 9 -136 10
12 2 10 -137 8
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