It’s only seven years ago that a couple of young emerging teams played two enthralling clashes at Docklands.
In the first nail-biter, early in the 2006 season, the Dogs triumphed by just one point. The Cats returned fire by winning another thriller, securing a two-point victory later in the year.
I remember both matches as classics. The ball kept whizzing down the field at breakneck pace, the lead changed several times, and both teams played helter-skelter, almost joyful, footy. An epic battle between young guns, our Ryan Griffen versus the mop-topped Gary Ablett Junior, typified the tantalising match-ups that made these contests a delight to watch.
It looked like the start of an amazing rivalry between two clubs, who’d each languished for decades without a flag, and known their share of heartache.
The Dogs made the finals that year, blitzing Collingwood in the first week. The consensus was we'd arrived as an up and coming, serious contender. Geelong, in contrast, missed the finals - a disappointing result, seen as a waste of their immense potential, and another example of an enigmatic club with a frustrating inability to capitalise on the flair and at its disposal.
Fast forward, and many of the Cats’ 2006 line-up are now triple premiership heroes. Names like Bartel, Chapman, Corey and Johnson will resonate forever as Geelong legends. The team is still right in premiership contention again this year, playing an exciting, complete brand of football that even a parochial Dogs fan like myself loves to watch.
My memory told me that many of the 2006 Dogs were much younger than their decorated opponents who’ve gone on to achieve such glory. But when I look at the stats, it seems it wasn’t so. Surprisingly enough, we were actually two years older on average, quite a big difference in footy terms — the mean age skewed by the presence of our champion players, Grant, West, Johnson and Smith, who each played more than 300 games for the club.
Despite their brilliant careers, the ‘Fab Four’ have now exited the game without premiership medals. All except Brad Johnson had in fact departed from the 2006 squad even by the time of our next finals series in 2008. Brad captained the three Bulldog lineups who came ever so close in the years 2008-10 (but maybe it's significant we never beat Geelong in a final in that period, despite three attempts.)
I went into this trek down memory lane before last Saturday’s match, a reverie that started with Bob Murphy’s fantastic article in The Age this week. Bob wrote about nearing the end of your footy career and having to face the gaping hole that footy retirement would leave in your life.
As fans, no matter how disappointing the match, how sour the year, how bitter even a loss like our infamous collapse in the Preliminary Final against Adelaide in 1997, we always have another year, another new batch of kids to look forward to. Age and decreptitude don't affect our chance to get out there for another season, another shot at that premiership that for our club has been so elusive.
Bob's final eloquent paragraphs tell us what it’s like to know you’re getting near the end of your career, you’ve given it all you’ve got, but you’re not going to taste the ultimate success:
We keep moving forward, hurling ourselves from week to week, contest to contest, hoping, just hoping that one day we might be Cameron Ling – kicking a goal with his last kick in the game, to put the finishing touch on a third premiership, leaving the screams of Geelong fans to echo in his ears like the sound of the ocean in a sea shell.
His footballing death was the equivalent of a heart attack at the peak of orgasmic pleasure on a secluded Thailand beach at the age of 102. The reality for the rest of us is that we will be told, probably before we are ready to go. That is bound to happen even when all we want to do is play forever.
It was this rather melancholy frame of mind, about sliding doors and missed opportunities, that I took into Saturday night’s match. This time the Bulldog team really are the young underdogs, a good two years younger on average than the Cats.
Amazingly, we have 16 players out there who have played less than 50 matches. I understand that makes us younger even than the expansion ‘franchises’ (don’t get me started on that subject). Even in the four short weeks since we thrashed the Lions in round one, we have lost more than 500 games of experience from our forward line, with Higgins, Giansiracusa and Murphy all sidelined.
With the Bulldogs looking all at sea the last two weeks, and the calibre of the opposition, a shellacking was on the cards. Yet the players had other ideas. Their spirit and endeavour was unquestionable, even if their skills lagged behind.
Our style has been dour, grinding and slow-looking over the past few weeks, but there were moments of sheer exhilaration in the last quarter as they threw themselves recklessly into the contest, and were suddenly a chance to produce what would have been the boilover of the season. Like the 2006 Dogs and Cats, young guys like Jones, Smith, Roughead and Stringer looked like they didn't yet know what was possible, were still testing out and wondering how good they can be, and what the journey ahead will hold. We just have to hope that when they find out, Bob Murphy's still out there alongside them.
To be or not to be…
At the ground when your team gets a pummelling…or watching from the safety and anonymous comfort of your couch?
Advantages of being at the game are the camaraderie and shared anguish of fellow sufferers, and there's always the possibility of a memorable, humorous comment by aforesaid fellow sufferers to leaven the gloom.
Being at the ground, you can at least see the patterns of play and, depending on your strength of character, make an optimistic appraisal of what that seemingly aimless kick was trying to achieve. (It may have looked to all the world like a grubber that went five metres, but perhaps being there, you would appreciate it was actually an audacious attempt to hit one of our forwards on the chest; it was just unfortunate that it hit an ankle and went out of bounds on the full).
There were, however, quite a few reasons to be thankful not to be at the match this week: it was cold. It was wet. It was in Adelaide. We sucked.
All things considered, being on the couch was the better option. But when you lose, it can be agony.
Watching more than an hour of footy where we only score a point seems even more prolonged and dreary on television (and of course, you have helpful commentators, happy to update us, minute by painful minute, at just how long it’s been since the Dogs stirred the goal umpire into action). The close-in camera-work only highlights what's becoming already the story of this season: that we are, at best, grinders who painfully accrue possessions, but seem to have lost sight of the fact that these possessions should result in a goal.
In fact, we could scrap the in-depth Monday statistical analysis, frame-by-frame video review, and GPS data and stick to what Bulldog Tragician observed: Our whole team seemed to be always around the ball. And when it came out, we didn’t have anyone to kick it to.
It reminded me of an under-9 football match that my son played at Hoppers Crossing. Anchored on the last line of the forward line of a losing team for 95 per cent of the game, any expectation that the ball would come his way had long since evaporated. When it finally did dribble ever so slowly in his direction (pursued, rather comically, by 30 or so muddy teammates and opponents) he’d forgotten that this was a possibility, and was, instead, engaged in some delicate blind-turning and pretend baulking of an imaginary opponent.
Despite our enthusiastic yells of encouragement, my son was unable to switch onto the idea that there was a real, live possibility of scoring a goal. The Dogs on Sunday were very much of that ilk. When I saw Liam Jones fall over in the goal square trying to evade an opponent that wasn’t actually there, my son’s efforts came vividly to mind.
But there was something else going on yesterday, and it's the reason that despite our dismal efforts I still wish I’d been there - the debut of Jake Stringer. I don’t remember a young recruit whose arrival has been so eagerly anticipated at the club, maybe because he’s what we’ve been crying out for over so many years, even when we were at our peak in 2008-10: a forward.
His fellow debutant Jackson Macrae looks skinny, wide-eyed and baby-faced. I'm reminded of Bob Murphy’s quip at his own expense, that in photos when he was drafted he looks as though he hasn’t yet gone through puberty. His skills remind me of Bob’s too, elegant and precise. There are promising signs in a lovely snap for goal. But a lot of the time he looks a bit lost, as you’d expect from an 18 year old first-gamer thrust into a slogging, grim contest.
But Jake, the man-child, has a body made for footy. He looks poised; he isn’t afraid, straight after his first mark, to play on immediately and curl the ball around his body to a team-mate. Something about him makes him look as though he’s the real deal.
There have been many false messiahs for the Dogs, many great white hopes that look the goods before fading into trivia questions.
Our last champion forward, Chris Grant, snuck under the radar in his first ever game, as low key and unassuming as he was throughout a wonderful career. Fans were rustling through Footy Records, trying to find out more about this scrawny kid from Daylesford. He was 17, kicked four goals, and just kept marking the ball. Martin Flanagan called him, beautifully, ‘the boy with the solemn hands.’
It was a game against St Kilda, the first, emotional match at our ground since the failed merger. Just like Sunday, the Dogs got thrashed.
Chris went on to play 341 games for us and a goodly proportion of them were the best I’ve ever seen from a player in the red, white and blue. I was there that day to see a champion make his debut.
My son, (the little boy from the Hoppers Crossing match), was at the Adelaide match yesterday. He ended up cold, wet, frustrated and dis-heartened, but maybe one day he’ll be able to say he was there the day Jake Stringer played his first ever game.
Walking into the match against Richmond I run into a couple of friends who are Bulldogs’ fans and one coins a quintessentially Bulldogs-esque phrase. She is feeling, she says, ‘a little bit confident.’ This passes for bullish optimism, almost swaggering arrogance, among our supporters.
We’re not known to be buoyant about our team’s chances, no matter what the situation.
Ten goals up with five minutes to play? We’ll be the ones still gnawing our fingernails, checking the record books to see how many goals are technically possible to be kicked in that time, and wondering if the time clock has actually malfunctioned. ‘Wasn’t there time on for injury, too?’ we’ll ask each other nervously.
About to play the competition easy-beats (assuming that’s, for once, not us)? Well, that’s a worst-case scenario for Bulldogs’ fans. We just know it will be even more humiliating to lose a game where we are raging favourites. Flippant comments about how we're looking forward to thrashing an opponent, no matter how lowly, are most certainly never on the agenda.
But we felt justified, on Sunday, to be, at least, ‘a little bit confident.’ We'd seen a lively, accomplished performance against Brisbane in round one. A creditable, spirited loss against Fremantle in round two. Young players who seemed to be taking huge strides forward, old stagers who still seemed to have a crafty trick or two up their sleeves. We’d be respectable, I thought. Maybe even a chance.
That little bit of confidence evaporated probably around the time that Deledio charged unopposed towards goal, leading to that intimidating Tigers roar. I believe it was the ten second mark of the first quarter.
Fumbles. Bulldogs’ players competing strongly – against each other for a mark in our own forward line. Blind panicking kicks to nobody, or at least nobody wearing red, white, and blue.
If one of our players did manage to lay a tackle it inevitably led to the ball spilling out to an unattended Tigers’ player and his three best friends.
We couldn’t even blame our old foes - the usual standby in the wake of a bad defeat - the umpires. Even the Bulldog Tragician couldn’t see why we got some of the puzzling decisions made in our favour, although this is only admitted here in the privacy of this blog. But we were in no position to do an Adam Gilchrist and make sportsmanlike gestures to hand back the free kicks made in our favour.
Watching our cavalcade of mistakes and downright ineptitude, I thought again about confidence – how it seems to even affect the bounce of the ball. It taints that split second of hesitation, sowing a momentary thought that a mistake is coming up. Will Minson, for example, who in round one seemed to be wresting marks from the sky with sheer force of character, had them slipping constantly through his big mitts on Sunday. The carefree abandon, the dare and imagination that we saw in Round one is slowly but surely ebbing away.
The Tigers looked like us in 2008, one of the best footy years I’ve seen a Dogs’ team play. They ran confidently (there’s that word again) from the backline in waves, looking up to see a plethora of scoring options, windows of opportunity and patterns of possibilities opening up easily all over the ground in contrast to the crammed, congested Bulldogs. We seemed simultaneously to have too many men on the ground, all clustering hesitantly and getting in each others’ way near a rare scoring opportunity, and far from enough whenever the ball hit the ground.
Later we would hear that three of our players have serious injuries. Shaun Higgins, one of the unluckiest of the unlucky, will miss the season with a broken foot to go with what he’s endured in the past: a broken elbow, thyroiditis, groin injuries, and an ankle break that was likened to a car crash victim. Shaun Higgins is 25 years old.
We don’t know that as we’re leaving the ground, trying to block out rollicking versions of ‘Yellow and Black.’ While we’ve been inside the stadium, it’s begun to rain. Hard. It’s a wet and cold trudge back to the car.
I guess I wouldn’t be the Bulldog Tragician if it wasn’t for my mum. I described her love for the club in another story:
I attended my first Footscray match in utero. My mother, a passionate fan, prided herself on missing only one match for each of her four pregnancies, which, to her annoyance, coincided with the winter months. She would stand for three hours at a time in the outer, rain trickling down her neck, while my dad minded a gaggle of small children at home. When we would press her for snippets about the days when we were born, her reminiscences focused on the football games.
“You were born the day after we played Hawthorn. We lost that one by a kick. The umpiring…!”
The second ever match that Mum ever attended happened to be the 1954 premiership. Newly arrived in Australia, she went along with little knowledge of the game. You could actually just queue up on the day to get into a grand final. I love the footage showing that the crowd are actually spilled onto the ground, sitting, rather perilously, inside the boundary line. I imagine courteous players pulling themselves up in gentlemanly fashion instead of running full pelt, lest they spreadeagle the fans, wearing their hats and Sunday best.
Mum’s never again seen that premiership glory, but she’s never had any doubt that they’re her team. She ensured too that we would never have a choice in selecting our own football teams. My brother once boldly announced that he was sick of copping stick at school for barracking for the dogs, and could he please instead support the Lions? It was explained this would involve him never seeing a live match, and he would never have a jumper or flag bought for him. I believe the threat of not having dinner that night may also have been made. He continues to support the Dogs to this day.
While other mothers express noble sentiments like, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything’, my mum applies mysterious jinxes on players that have had the gall to leave the club. It started when Gary Dempsey had the temerity to depart, joining a North Melbourne team that had just won back-to-back flags, saying he wanted to play finals. Reasonable enough, but an outraged Mum made the big call that he would never play in a final. The Roos duly missed the finals for the next few years. Mum’s career as a feared curser had begun.
Remember Kelvin Templeton suffering a career-ending knee injury when he left the Dogs for Melbourne and a squillion bucks? It just seems a bit too much of a coincidence that my mum had proclaimed that he would live to regret it.
When Nathan Brown crumpled over in agony with a broken leg, not long after joining the Tigers, our family did, however, worry that she’d gone too far. We also wondered: Why can’t mum use these legendary powers for good (like - I don’t know - a bulldogs flag) instead of, well, evil? It’s a bit like she’s the befuddled auntie on Bewitched who gets most of her spells mixed up.
All the same, Brian Lake and Callan Ward would do well to look nervously over their shoulders after their recent defections.
In a recent Bulldogs magazine the club, in a lovely gesture, listed all the supporters that had gone to every single Victorian match. Mum’s name was there, of course. Today is her 76th birthday. She’s moved into electronic communication with us about Bulldog performances, which means that if the dogs win, we get rather interesting auto-corrected texts that say: ‘Wood wood’ or ‘Dairytale!’. Yet we know exactly what she means.
Some losses just break your heart, others show you where your side is at. Saturday was one of those losses, a realistic picture of a team in transition but with an upside. A lot to like, a lot to still work on.
But when your side has been waiting 58 years to win a flag, this conciliatory attitude towards losses raises great passions. Many long suffering fans of the red white and blue see any sign of acceptance of losses as part of a culture of mediocrity and failure - intrinsic to the problems of our club.
Terry Wallace famously encapsulated that view in his memorable 'I'm gonna spew up!' speech after one of those 'honourable', 'good effort', 'gee the boys tried hard', 'hey we weren't disgraced' kind of losses.
It could be said, in fact, that his compelling speech in 1996 was a turning point for our club, bringing about an era of comparative success ... we made the finals in the following three consecutive years, and in eight of the intervening 17 years. Here again many indignant fans would be saying, and not without justification, that this only proves the point: we have NOT had success, we have been failures who were unable to convert one of the five preliminary final appearances in that time into a grand final appearance.
This was the view of a couple of frustrated fans who rang into the radio to take issue with Leigh Matthews' measured assessment that the Dogs had done well in Saturday's five goal loss to Freo. The callers pointed out that with our less than glorious history, any complacency about our performance is unjustified. Leigh responded, with all the reasonableness of one who's played and coached in an amount of premiership teams that seems, well, greedy to the rest of us, that not every club is in premiership contention every year, all the time. Within the context of 'where we're at', he maintained that we'd done ok.
I'm with Leigh on this one, yet I know how easily satisfied our fans, including me, can be with 'good efforts'. But I liked what I saw, and I still think you can recognise the good in a performance while acknowledging how far there is to go.
If I needed any reinforcement of that view, it came through the ghastly one sided slaughter that posed as a 'match' between Essendon and Melbourne.
In some ways the Dees' atrocious start to the season is the parallel universe every pessimistic Bulldog fan (at least those closely related to the Bulldog Tragician) feared when scanning the early weeks of the fixture. Whereas we have emerged with one exciting and unexpected win, and a respectable loss with signs of improvement, the Dees have been humiliated in both their matches.
The ashen face of a coach on the edge...the nightmarish way a hiding plays out, where every conceivable bounce of the ball goes wrong..seeing a lack of confidence and belief run through a team like a cancer...the tears of the despairing and loyal fans who stayed to the end, yet maybe only two weeks ago entertained hopes that their side was at least heading in the right direction...having seen all of these in my Bulldog-supporting career too many times, yep, I think I'll side with Leigh and say that on Saturday, we lost with some degree of honour.
As for the Essendon fans who could not just be content to revel in a 140 point + victory, and instead thought it might be fun to rush over to the race to further berate and jeer a shellschocked bunch of kids..there are many things I love about football is not one of them.
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.