As our Anzac round match against the Crows approaches, I reflect with sorrow on the futility of the battle. The shattered dreams of a youthful generation. The pointlessness of gallant but fruitless campaigns. The senseless waste. The bodies lying prone, desolate, on the theatre of war while the enemy celebrates.
Yes, I'm still haunted by our preliminary final losses to Adelaide.
Time marches on, of course. Like the dwindling band of soldiers in the Anzac Day parade, the veterans from our defeats, in 1997 and 1998, have disappeared from the arena. Chris Grant now sits on the Bulldogs' Board as our Director of Football; Brad Johnson, for so long the evergreen sole remnant of those losses, has retired, and taken his surly, grumpy countenance and relentless negativity to Fox Footy.
On match day at Etihad, we usually catch glimpses of two other veterans of that campaign running briskly from the box onto the field; they're members of our coaching staff these days. Rohan Smith - now greying - was in 97 the emblematic image of our loss, the devastated player pounding the turf when we lost by two points; in 98, his misguided selection as a small centre half back against Matthew Robran summed up an awful afternoon when we were thumped by more than 11 goals. Brett Montgomery - now balding - also played in both those different, though equally devastating, defeats; however, Monty - who I can recall kissing our jumper in celebration after a goal - went on to be a premiership player at Port.
I don't know if these former players or others are scarred or at peace with those losses. I've heard Geelong players saying that even after their premiership triumph in 2009, that flag never atoned for their loss the year before. I'd certainly like the chance to find out whether, if we win three flags over the next decade (okay, I'll settle for one), the pain of 97 and 98 will somehow be erased.
As for the 50-something female Crows supporter who felt the most fitting way to celebrate her team's 97 triumph was to go out of her way to approach our forlorn little huddle - standing shell-shocked and attempting somehow to console our crying children - and wave her scarf right in their tear-stained faces and say: 'Go Crows!'...I guess she was fortunate enough to be there to see her club win two premierships. Who says there's such a thing as footy karma?
Though I've wondered whether the ghosts of 97 and 98 hovered over us in other ways, that's probably more of an issue for us as fans than the current players. They probably feel as little connection to this ancient history as if it were Grandpa Simpson banging on about some boring event from his youth. Among our present-day brigade, perhaps Libber the Second was one of the bewildered crying children in the morgue-like rooms after 97 (so many still debate whether his dad's final quarter 'point' was really a goal). Others though, like Bontempelli, Macrae and Stringer were barely toddlers at the time. Even our older players, such as Gia, Morris and Murph, were only pimply gawky teenagers, (well, maybe not Gia, he was probably always devastatingly handsome), hoping and expecting to make their own history and fulfill their own destinies.
In truth, playing the Crows these days, while it will always bring a deep wellspring of regret and 'if onlies', doesn't bring out the stomach-churning hatred it once did for us fans either. I want to win this week, not as some sort of foolish 'redemption' for those long-gone Grand Final berths squandered - that, I realise, will never come - but because last week against Carlton we took some worrying steps backwards. It's a more immediate salvation that we're searching for against the Crows.
There have been big statements coming out of the Kennel in the lead-up, about the need to address our shortcomings from last week's loss, stirring talk about the need for greater defensiveness and promises of a more whole-hearted team approach. The Dogs, heeding the message, certainly come out snarling. Their attack on the footy is relentless, almost reckless. If there are still some troubling signs in the first quarter, of haphazard disposal and over-use of the footy, they're more than compensated by our undoubted endeavour, and willingness to take the game on and make something happen. Maybe it's the unaccustomed open roof, which means there's a swirling, if not quite Western-oval-esque wind, and shadows across the ground making it hard to detect if a nearby player is team-mate or foe, that's leading to some of the errors; but the effort and pleasing intensity can't be denied, and we're quickly four goals to nothing and looking impressively switched on, or 'up and about' as is often said (I don't really know what it means, either).
Slowly, inexorably, though, our lead is reined in. Our runners now are tired and lethargic, the forward spaces have all closed up. Jake Stringer, who seemed to be holding his own against triple premiership player and massive unit James Posiadly, now looks like the 10-game boy that he actually is; Michael Talia and Tom Young seem swamped and directionless without the leadership of the injured Dale Morris. It's Crows' bodies now ripping the ball out of our hands, Crows' numbers swarming around every contest. Our ball use becomes slow and hesitant, lacking dare and imagination. We surrender the lead meekly, and by the third quarter look to have little chance of getting back into the match; there are ominous signs that a heavy defeat, with the Crows' storming home all over us, is on the cards.
It doesn't happen often, but at times like this a treacherous thought pattern creeps across my mind. Yes, more treacherous than the scandalous excuse: "It's only a game." More alarming than my traditional fall-back: "Gee I wish Mum hadn't gone to that premiership in 1954 in her second ever game of footy, and made us all barrack for the Dogs." (More frequent, though, than: "Gee the umpires are giving us a good go today!")
It's this traitorous thought: "Are they actually trying?"
Yes, it's a ridiculous, unworthy thought, really. Winning games of footy is the players' life, their livelihood, their everyday goal. They can't ever not be trying, surely. It must, should, mean more to them than us fans who will go home unbruised and unbloodied, and quickly become resigned to the loss. We can choose to avoid the papers, the internet and the headlines; it's not 'our' performance analysed and criticised in excruciating detail in media reports, and slowed down into frame-by-frame video lowlights selected by the coaching staff.
Yet when a team's performance dwindles so alarmingly, as a despairing supporter, unable to influence the outcome, you wonder what's going on. Players aren't running hard to present an option, taking those extra steps to sprint alongside a team-mate and encourage him; there's no blocking and shepherding, no second efforts, certainly not a third. When in the third quarter, we begin mindlessly kicking it around to each other on the backline - not to protect a matchwinning lead, but because we don't seem to have any other clear strategy in place - our morale as supporters slumps. Are the players just too used to losing? Are they not 'buying in' to the BMac mantra? Is the BMac mantra going to actually get us there? Did we make bad decisions at the selection table? Is our fitness level what it should be? Are we, simply, not as good as even our very modest expectations of this year allowed? (And why DID my mum go to that bloody Grand Final at the MCG that day in 54, leaving this as our legacy?)
Just as I square my shoulders ready for the defeat, our players begin another, surprising last quarter surge. The missing ingredients of desperation, kamikaze commitment, and frenetic running, return, exemplified by the pocket dynamo Luke Dalhaus. Unfortunately, the other first quarter ingredients - of poor skills and baffling decision-making - have not disappeared. There are desperate whirlwinds of almost insane activity as our players find that extra gear - and yes, there's no doubt, their fierce desire to win - with Dogs' fans all finding our voices and willing them over the line; but our opponents always seem to have a clinical answer. Scoring is more effortless for them. It seems to sum it all up that our frantic thrusts forward lead to us hitting the post twice in the last couple of minutes, while the Crows are gifted two comfortable goals by our clumsy turnovers in the back half.
It's hard to know what to make of the defeat as we begin that slow 'we've lost' shuffle out of the stadium. It's been a poor crowd, only 17,000; those that are present are a dejected bunch, wondering where to from here, and puzzled and disheartened by the inconsistent performance. Two good quarters, two awful quarters; yet despite glaring weaknesses, our inexperience, and the inexplicable mid-game torpor, we so easily could have emerged as victors. Meanwhile the photo of Easton Wood (easily one of our best) on the turf after the match, with the Crows' banners waving in the background, looks chillingly like Rohan Smith in 97.
I try and replace that mental image, instead, with a photo I came across this week, of the unfurling of the premiership flag in 1955 at the Western Oval. (There's another image of that day, taken from a different angle, in the banner at the top of this blog). I read a little bit about it to cheer myself up: a capacity crowd of more than 40,000 - imagine that! - crammed into the Western Oval for this proud and historic moment. And yes, my mum remembers being there. She was with my auntie, and they were on the fence somewhere, in that vast sea of delirious fans, a proud memory that's just as much part of our tapestry as the sorrowful ones from 97 and 98.
Around this time last season such was the sad plight of the Bulldogs that I wrote a doleful post entitled: 'Will we ever win again?'
It was a legitimate question. The Dogs at that point were out and out putrid. Yet now that I look back at it, there was a certain noble simplicity to barracking for them at that time.
Instead of our club's eloquent motto 'cede nullis' (yield nothing) -you could be sure we would cede just about everything. Our task as fans was clear cut, if grim: most importantly, turn up each week; brace yourself each week for certain defeat; try and enjoy 'the kids'; and hang your scarf outside the car window in jubilation if you got within ten goals.
For survival in these bleak periods, Dogs' fans are accustomed to digging in, drawing upon our well-developed resilience, and tried and true strategies honed through other prolonged periods of misery; as recently as 2003 we only won three games for the season.
And just as players build strength and conditioning through several gruelling pre-seasons of dragging tyres up sand dunes, I reckon I've developed a reserve of fitness to sustain me through these hard times. After all, I stayed the course through the glorious 'Royce Hart Era', where in 1981 we only won two games. (Royce has left us one legacy, however; suspicious odours are always known as 'a royce hart' in our household).
While we may be well-placed to survive really lean periods, it's surprisingly tricky to manage emotions as things gradually trend upwards. Right now the Dogs and their fans are at the most trying stage of our rebuild (we no longer pretend it's a refresh) under Brendan McCartney. Expectations have risen; we've seen enough progress to become impatient, and have lost our stoicism about losing. Watching rapid improvement among some kids makes us more restless with those that are slower to develop; seeing a player show tantalizing glimpses of their talent and potential one week makes next week's puzzling slump back into mediocrity harder to take.
We're not yet good enough to be consistent and reliable; improvement is spasmodic and uneven. Losses somehow hurt even more again, as we realise steady, incremental improvement is not guaranteed, that there will be bad days, that we still have weaknesses in our list, and that our rivals at the bottom of the ladder are forever working just as hard to improve; their young talent may better or surpass our own.
This stage, where we are now occasionally even favourites to win games, is proving difficult for me to navigate.
With the hope of better times, it seems, comes inevitable disappointment - which sounds like something Barack Obama might have said (but may have actually been Guru Bob).
These conflicting emotions had an extra edge this week. Because we were playing the Blues - the Blue Baggers - the Blue Bloods - yeah, they not only have a lot of nicknames, but register right up there on my long list of clubs that I despise the most* (*list subject to change at short notice).
Let's recap for just a moment on the reasons to hate Carlton:
1. John Elliott, a caricature of a man, arrogantly described our club as 'tragic'.
2. Money, power, greed and ruthlessness are their hallmarks. Two of their recent presidents (Pratt and Elliott) have faced criminal charges.
3. After constantly brandishing their fat cheque-books to ensure success, when the playing field became just a bit more even, they resorted to salary cap cheating, and couldn't resist throwing away any vestiges of pride and decency, proceeding to tank to get draft picks.
4. The contemptible, sham, Visy environmental ambassadorship for Chris Judd that only a club like Carlton could even attempt, much less get away with. (I guess, though, his hammy might get a bit sore when he's packing up all those cardboard boxes).
5. Ian Collins. We all know why.
6. Peter Bosustow. 'The Buzz.' He took mark of the year one too many times for my liking.
7. Did I mention John Elliott calling our club 'tragic'?
My intense desire to beat Carlton, tempered with the knowledge of where we are at as a side, means there were some jarring internal monologues for the Tragician in the build-up as I sought to balance realism and optimism.
Optimist: the despicable Blues are on their knees. The papers are full of stories about what's wrong with them. This is a great chance to sink the boots into them.
Realist: every media outlet is doing in-depth analysis on what's wrong with them...it's bound to fire them up into a frenzy. Malthouse just loves a good ole 'backs-to-the-wall' scenario.
Optimist: Murphy and Gibbs have been under the pump for lack of leadership and not getting a kick. A great time to play them when they're completely out of form!
Realist: are you kidding??
Optimist: at least Waite isn't playing in the seniors, he usually destroys us!
Realist: looks at Carlton team selection announcement, buries head in hands.
Optimist: it shouldn't be about them. It should be about us. We and we alone control our destiny.
Realist: you've been falling for those BMac messages again, I take it?
Optimist: that young number four is making his debut; he's a champion in the making.
Realist: you still haven't learnt to pronounce his name, have you?
Regrettably, but unsurprisingly, in what the club website calls 'The White King Wash-up', I must sadly report that my old foe the Realist triumphed again. The Dogs did not come out, well-prepared, steely-eyed, ruthlessly primed to beat a desperate, down and out opposition; in a story only too familiar, our errors meant that we played those 'Bourgeois Blues' back into form.
Our team is not yet good enough to cover the losses in our defensive spine, the under-appreciated and ever-reliable Dale Morris, and his able lieutenant Jordon Roughead, both missing from injury. We can't get away with less than 100% efforts from the mid-field, or triumph when our field kicking and decision-making - lately much improved - began lurching again into dismal 2011 territory. And we couldn't take a trick with the men in green either, but that's, of course, a cheap excuse - far be it from me to fall back on this as a reason why we lost. (It might, just may, have had a bit to do with it. The umpires, perhaps, could have, just occasionally - only a suggestion, mind - appreciated that the exact same thing had happened to a Bulldogs player, as they'd just seen fit to adjudge as a free kick for the Bluebaggers. But I'm never one to quibble).
It may seem a faint consolation, but it's still true that with our poor start and missing defenders, this is a match the Dogs would have gone on to lose by 60+ points this time last year, degenerating into a feeble rabble. Yet in the last quarter, improbably enough considering how poorly we'd played, we were still threatening, still very much in the contest. We seemed, though, to be always just short of conjuring up that one crucial goal that could have delivered the Blues enough of a fright to push them into the mistakes that we had made all day, and give us the momentum and confidence that was lacking. But when Gia, instead of shooting for goal, attempted an ill-judged pass, our last effort spluttered to a stop; our afternoon was over. Soon their annoyingly triumphalist song was booming out and we were left - not shell shocked, because we're Dogs fans, and have seen many variations of this before - but to wonder whether recent signs of improvement have just been a mirage.
We are, after all, 15th on the ladder, with only two wins and already a poor percentage. (Optimist: we're only one game out of the eight!)
That ever-resilient, peskly Optimist (maybe those Royce Hart years did more good than I thought) is also dredging up the wisdom of Brendan McCartney for inspiration. I've heard him saying that just about the most reliable predictor of a result is the age and number of games played. It's worth remembering that our average age on Sunday was 24 years and 10 months, compared to the Geriatric Blues average of 26 and 3.
And as I watched, marvelling and envious, another classic match unfold between Geelong and Hawthorn on Easter Monday, and wondered despairingly if we could ever attain their skills, poise and competitiveness, I reminded myself that these teams also have many many more games under their belts than our Dogs (average age of Geelong, 26 years and seven months; Hawthorn, 25 years 11 months).
Last year our win against the Blues was greeted with joy because it was so unexpected; any loss that was not a thrashing would have made us happy. Now we rightly expect more, and fans are struggling to find the balance between our natural desire to see measurable improvement, and accepting the reality that we are still a very young side, with nine players on Sunday who have yet to play 50 games.
Maybe we'll have to fall back on the gentle musings of Michael Leunig to keep us patient on our journey; he's a born and bred Footscray supporter by the way.
Last week in our match against Richmond, I was part of a community of thousands of Bulldogs' fans, sharing moments of anxiety, exhilaration, indignation, despair and ultimately joy. Waves of sound reverberated around the ground from our fans and theirs, groans of disapproval, whoops of delight. There were, to be sure, moments of quiet - but it was an expectant, humming quiet, the temporary lull as a player lined up for goal, or the ominous, hushed quiet of our fans as momentum shifted and we watched our lead whittled away.
This week, watching us play the Giants, there couldn't be more of a contrast. I'm solo on the couch, with only the moronic and inept Foxtel commentators for company (can they just learn our players' names? Please? Is that too much to ask?).
The dog has made herself scarce, subdued, settled on her cushion as far away from me as possible - she's seen how these scenarios play out too many times before. My partner, a footy non-believer, has also disappeared, muttering something about a quick trip to the supermarket, and failing to reappear until well after after the final siren.
Remote control in hand, I wonder why people would ever fear, or hope, that footy on TV could ever replace the atmosphere of being there at a match. Even before the game starts, I'm feeling bored and disengaged. My usual investment in my team's performance - the tension and anticipation - is missing. Naturally, I hope my Bulldogs will win, but it's with the same feeling of mild interest that I have when we're playing a meaningless pre-season practice match in Bendigo. Without my fellow sufferers - I mean fans - alongside me, sharing and amplifying my anxieties and hopes, it's much easier to view it, as some heretics do, as just a bunch of boofheads chasing a ball around a football field.
It doesn't help that our opponents are Great Western Sydney. Loyal fans of this blog (and I'd like to sincerely thank you both) will know that the Tragician is kind of sniffy about GWS. That's if you view as sniffy comments such as: 'meaningless franchise', 'artificial excuse for a footy club', 'soul-less parasites created like pieces on a chesspiece in an AFL strategy game'.
As you can see, I'm kind of indifferent to them.
It's not so much the team as what they seem to represent. A construct unconnected to a community; a club with no tradition or genuine base, yet which has received more than $200 million and countless draft concessions to give it an extraordinary advantage over perennial stragglers (naming no names, but like a certain team that hasn't won a flag for 60 years).
On the Footy Almanac site a GWS fan (let's not be childish, they do exist - I guess) attempted to strike up a sense of camaraderie and 'us against the world' rapport with me. She was drawing some sort of parallel between our clubs, both representing underdogs and battlers in the western suburbs. But it was this artless comment that made my eyeballs began to spin with all the glittering manic white line fever of a combination of Tony Liberatore, Daniel Southern and Rick Kennedy:
The Giants will also be grateful for the Doggies for one of our best players – Callan Ward. The Doggies gave us a ready made young leader and I’d hate to think where we’d be without him.
Fearing that her next rejoinder would be another enthusiastic and misguided attempt at bonding - maybe 'And just like you, we haven't won a flag this century!' - I hastily decamped from the debate.
Anyway, here are the Dogs - having nobly 'given' Callan Ward, just for fun, to today's orange-clad opponents - playing this week many, many miles away from our western suburbs' heartland. There's no deep-seated rivalry between us and GWS (it says something, doesn't it, that they're the first club to be known by an acronym), no long-held grudges, no simmering tensions or memories of past injustices, fateful umpiring interventions, or layers of football folklore to add an edge to the game - despite my Footy Almanac buddy's helpful attempts to connect our football experiences by our geographic locations in our cities.
The futiristically named venue - StarTrack Oval (what the hell?) - so far from the Whitten Oval got me thinking that in my childhood, football matches were the impetus for the rare occasions our family even left the western suburbs. Sure, you could have a big day out at the Melton Pool or maybe go to on an outing to Lerderderg Gorge, but the times when we travelled further afield were when the 'Scray were playing in exotic locations. Like Glenferrie Oval or Princes Park. Travelling to these grounds was the first time I can remember seeing leafy suburbs and wide tree-lined streets with imposing Victorian-era homes. Travelling to Princes Park and driving past Melbourne University might as well have been Oxford and Cambridge, such was its aura in my eyes with its gracious buildings, parkland and cafe precinct. At least for those of us who'd grown up in the flat, featureless western suburbs landscape, dotted with dingy factories and what I always thought of as the Deer Park emblem: the 'Purple Thistle'.
Of course, this was before VFL Park was built. We then ventured even further away from the familiar suburban compasses of Sunshine, Deer Park and Braybrook to - Waverley! In preparation for this epic cross-town trek, we used to make a day trip out of it and go to a pub en route for a counter meal, daringly ordering cutting-edge, sophisticated '70s cuisine... like hamsteaks and pineapple. (You think I'm making this up? our family occasionally - rarely, but sometimes - went to one of the Chinese restaurants in Barkly Street Footscray, but cautiously ordered the 'Australian' menu of T-bone steaks and fried eggs).
While I'm reminiscing, a game of footy has got underway. (Right - this is meant to be what the blog is about). It appears, though, that the Bulldogs' players concentration levels are just as skewiff as my own. With little sense of occasion and a lacklustre crowd, our first quarter is sluggish and uninspired. Tackles look half-hearted and are easily evaded; chases are given up after a couple of token steps. It's a lethargic effort.
I look for some signs of apoplectic, vein-popping rage from BMac. When the cameras pan to him, he's standing with a thoughtful, even benign, expression, in some sort of strange amateur-looking coaching box. There's no sign of a team of statisticians around him industriously working laptops to produce indicators of what's going wrong, no gesticulating assistants wildly arguing about what our next move could be, no signs of a Malthouse-style meltdown.
Though this is actually BMac's usual demeanour, it contributes to the sense that this is a match that doesn't really matter. Four points are just four points in a year like this where we probably won't win the premiership (I did say probably). I feel disappointment but not angst at the listless showing. But I do start to get riled watching the players slipping around on a ludicrously substandard surface, with sand churned up after every step. All the talk about professionalism and insistence that the players deserve a 'safe working environment' - and yet here they are regularly losing their feet or even worse, their feet get planted one way and then the other.
I'm particularly fearful for two players that have seen more than their fair share of heartbreak. I hold my breath whenever Shaun Higgins, with a traumatic history of foot and ankle injuries, goes near the footy on this unstable, shifting surface. But I begin to realise that I'm holding my breath a helluva lot, because Shaun, whose sublime talent has never been in question, is racking up possessions, and barely one of them is wasted. His smooth and elegant delivery reminds us of what a promising prospect he seemed only a few short years ago, recognised very early for his leadership qualities and captaincy potential. How valuable he could be to our team if his fragile body only holds up.
The second player that I'm watching with trepidation is Tom Williams. Tom is playing game 80 for the club; in contrast, three of the four players selected ahead of him in the 2004 draft (including team-mate and captain Ryan Griffen) have already played more than 180 games now, a statistic which shows the diabolical run of wretched bad luck this poor guy has had. I've often wondered what drives a player to still keep going in these circumstances, how Tom must have felt when year after year, large chunks of the season are spent in lonely rehabilitation, apart from your team-mates, wondering if the dreaded delisting is just around the corner.
Tom starts the match looking all at sea; it seems a cruel twist of fate that he's playing on Jonathan Patten, an enormous talent still with all a potentially brilliant career ahead of him, while Tom now seems to be playing for his career each week, the label 'journeyman' increasingly attached to his name. Then Dale Morris is subbed off; suddenly Williams must step up as the Grand Old Man of the backline. He rises superbly to the challenge, playing one of his best ever games for our club, while slowly we begin creeping our way into the contest, edging closer and closer.
We're surviving the GWS challenge and reining them in - for once, we're the older, more seasoned team. We begin swarming all over them in a burst of last quarter goals. And, now that I'm reassured that Higgins and Williams have survived another week, there's one young man I can relax and watch more closely - Jackson Macrae, who puts in yet another belter of a performance, seemingly in everything, winning his own ball, fiercely competitive, and still unnervingly babyfaced, in only his 17th game for us.
Jackson Macrae was selected by us at pick six in the 2012 draft. In an irony that would be lost on the GWS 'diehards', this selection was our compensation pick for losing Callan Ward, the wonderful young player who grew up in Spotswood and played his first 60 games with our club. He was touted as a future Bulldogs captain before being lured away for an inordinate amount of cash to join the fledgling club.
When the siren sounds, with the Dogs victorious, Callan gets some extra ruffles of the hair and affectionate pats on the head from his former teammates (who once described his defection as like seeing your little brother move out of home). Callan played a quiet game by his standards, touching the ball only 16 times. I'm surprised at how quickly my feelings towards him have shifted into indifference when his departure once seemed so heartbreaking, even sickening if I'm honest. The Dogs' caravan has moved on; now we're investing our hopes now on new young talent like Macrae. This 19 year old is ranked second in effective disposals in the entire competition - a great stat seeing he gets it so often (more than 30 times each game so far this year), and a particularly encouraging figure in a team where polish and skill haven't exactly been in endless supply of late.
The buzz is already around that he could be a future Bulldog captain.
A bit like Shaun Higgins.
A bit like Callan Ward.
The Dogs are a respectable 2-2 on the ladder. Next week we take on the Blues, and already I'm looking forward to it with anticipation, dread and a fervent desire to win - all the feverish emotions that were absent from Saturday's event at StarTrack Oval. Our antagonism to the Blue Bloods - and surely I speak for all my fellow Dogs' fans, as I doubt that the words 'I really don't mind Carlton' have ever been uttered by a true Doggies' loyalist - goes back a long, long way, built on more than a century of ill-feeling, humiliating defeats at Princes Park, occasional glorious and memorable triumph, and a staunch hatred for their arrogance and lack of humility in success. (They're not too good at failure either).
I guess four points aren't always just four points, after all.
Read my story: when Callan Ward left the Bulldogs
Please feel free to vote for my blog in the 'Best Australian Blogs' competition!
I'm starting the day with a pilgrimage of sorts. A Footscray team is playing again at the Whitten Oval. I know I have to be there.
I see many fans making the same odyssey as me, strolling in the sunshine, decked out in their gear. People are flooding the streets, flying their red, white and blue colours, spilling out from the renovated houses and swank apartments that have crept around the grand old ground - the home and heart of a western suburbs team for more than 130 years.
I even see a bloke in Bulldogs' gear swinging out of his home in Droop Street, though his gait is too jaunty and the smile on his face too broad for him to be the Coodabeens' Danny.
Approaching the oval again transports me back to the day in October 1989, when I headed there to attend a defiant community-led rally to save the club from near certain extinction. I wasn't sure if I would be one of only a dozen or so - it seemed a big stretch to even hope there could be hundreds. I thought maybe our battle had already been fought and lost; that apathy about the club and indifference to its fate would prevail.
But at the Gordon and Barkly Street traffic lights, I'd watched, choked with emotion, as thousands like me converged on the ground, united in the conviction that our club must not, would not, and could not die. Together we'd raised the still amazing sum of more than $400,000 in a single day, the start of a successful and still unprecedented three-week campaign to save a club. The tide of history and the relentless march of the national competition - for a few more years at least - were held at bay by the community of the west.
I haven't actually been inside the Whitten Oval for some time, not since its recent transformation. I feel sure I'm going to be inundated, even overwhelmed, by nostalgia. I'm recalling what I wrote last year on this blog, trying to capture my first ever Western Oval memory:
My mother promised me I could start coming to ‘home’ games when I turned four years old. In my child’s imagination, a home game would mean that the footballers played, much like my brother and I, kick-to-kick in a player's backyard. I expected this to be with the only player I could name. Naturally this was Ted Whitten. I can still recall my amazement when the eagerly awaited day arrived and I walked in for the first time to the Western Oval (not yet christened in the legend’s name), to be greeted by what seemed like a vast expanse of emerald green grass.
There was a unique smell of wet duffel coats, donut vans, and something indefinably Western Oval. (It may have been the plumbing). The players were remote and tiny specks far off in the distance. They wore dressing gowns and ate oranges while they listened to Ted rev them up in the breaks. We walked up to our seats in the John Gent stand - it was rickety even then. The Hyde Street band marched around the oval, coins whizzing dangerously past their heads.
I was entranced. So began my journey as a fan.
So now I'm walking towards the ground, up Cross Street, with a silent nod in the direction of the now disused and empty Olympic Tyres factory. Both my parents, and my grandfathers, once worked there. There's a carnival atmosphere as I come near the entrance (but not a donut van in sight); and instead of that elusive aroma, only the scent of a beautiful, calm autumn day. The entry to the Oval is not through grimy turnstiles with surly men in blue coats, but via a spacious cafe where people are milling, waiting for their lattes. Through a wall of glass you can see the city, and the Footscray team taking on the Richmond reserves.
It's already half time; parents and kids are out on the oval, kicking the footy. There's the familiar thump thump thump sound of hundreds of footy hitting the grass. This is the same turf where my late father, a talented rover who grew up a few blocks away, took the field in the 1950s as a young reserves player. The clock, which he designed as a draftsman working at Olympic Tyres, is no longer there. Neither is the scoreboard, leaving an imposing emptiness on the Mount Mistake Hill. Behind the stony terraces on the Gordon Street end, where I watched the last ever Footscray match on a fittingly icy and rain-soaked finale, there is now an open view to Gordon Street.
I thought I'd be awash with sentiment, overwhelmed by the silent footsteps of all those who have been here before me, in awe of the history and tradition of this special place. Maybe it's the balmy weather; maybe it's that the landscape is so changed that all my markers and compasses have all but disappeared, but my feelings are of curiosity, not regret. This is after all a celebration, not a wake. Instead of being sad, I'm proud of our club's resilience, its big-hearted, welcoming place in our community.
And after all, even though I'm enjoying watching our Footscray lads, lumbering around with comical numbers like 73 on their backs, posting a big win, there's another game of footy still to be played. It's down the road at the more glamorous stadium built a few years ago at the Docklands. Last year Richmond thrashed us there twice in lopsided contests. The same fate could well be on the cards today.
It's time to leave the Western Oval and head to our new home.
We're in our seats at Docklands. Along with five other AFL club tenants, (and events as diverse as Kiss concerts and the Papal visit), the Bulldogs now call it home. I've often found the atmosphere impersonal and any sense of home contrived and even ridiculous. That's most apparent when you turn up as the away team to play the other tenants, and see other fans in the seats you imagined were somehow 'yours.' The Bulldogs' signage hailing the 'Dougie Hawkins wing' gets swiftly dismantled after the match. Up goes new branding, labelling the territory the 'Matthew Lloyd' end.
However, three generations of my family are, as usual, here to watch the Dogs. We range from my mother, now in her 70s, to my niece Stephanie who is 10, and too young to have ever seen us play at the Whitten Oval.
It's easy to point out the many contrasts to our Footscray heartland. When a chant goes up, the crowd stamps their feet on concrete floors instead of the ramshackle John Gent timber; the roar when there's a Bulldogs' goal ricochets under a closed roof even on this glorious day, coming at those of us on the Latrobe street wing like an ocean wave, telling me earlier than my eyes can judge that it really has gone through. But really, the rhythm of being a supporter has barely changed. Up on the seats...down on the seats. Raucous disapproval of undeserved free kicks against our team (in other words all of them). Nicknames and in-jokes. Silent prayerful anguish as a player lines up for a much-needed goal. Joyous release if it goes through.
Maybe the sense of place isn't actually the core of being a Bulldogs' fan, as I've always thought. Our Western Oval traditions are a foundation, but they're not, it seems, the only thing. There are other familiar things that make up all the pieces of our story. Babies who are dressed straight away in their red, white and blue booties. Toddlers who can sing the theme song and know all the numbers by heart. The people who rattled tins to save the club. The humour that's sometimes brittle and sometimes bitter. The faded mural of Footscray beating Collingwood on the corner of St Monica's in Dynon Road. The fact that it somehow feels we're the only club where a player with all the whimsy of Bob Murphy could ever belong.
Something else is far too familiar as well. With three minutes of the match to go, the Dogs have surrendered the lead they had held all day. I can barely watch as Jack Riewoldt boots the goal that puts his side back in front and begins a celebration that will, it seems, lead inevitably to stirring versions of 'Yellow and black'. And embarrassing headlines will inevitably scream: 'Dogs blow it'.
Stephanie - not yet steeled to this far from unexpected turn of events - begins to cry.
More conditioned to such heartbreak, I begin marshalling the usual excuses for the loss, one that I fully anticipate will now come. We had a mere six-day break compared to the Tigers' luxurious nine. (Goddamn AFL scheduling). Each of our three matches so far has been played in heatwave conditions. (Goddamn global warming). We're not very good (now I've gone too far). Next thing you know, I'll be trotting out the lamest one of all: it's only a game.
I don't believe a word of it, of course. Defeat will be bitter, galling, polluting any memories of the many surprising, wonderful moments in an exuberant Bulldogs' performance. Our young guns linking up to create a goal. Jack Mcrae running like the wind. Murph putting on a vintage shimmy. Libba the Second coming to the fierce defence of his captain when he was dumped on the ground. Lin Jong, who was nearly delisted after breaking his leg last year, kicking two running goals. Roughead staying on the ground with a busted shoulder for three quarters.
None of these will console us if we throw this match away.
The Tigers have the ball in their forward line again; they're scenting the kill. But the Dogs, out on their feet, launch a counter-attack from the back-line. Our players, who must be hurting badly, somehow find the will to run, supporting each other, swarming in a line down the ground with Stewart Crameri leading the way. Gia gets a free; it was deserved of course. When he snaps a clever goal, the din in the stadium is deafening.
Out of nowhere I think of the line from the Scottish missionary in 'Chariots of fire'.
Then where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? It comes from within.
When the siren goes Jack Mcrae has just mowed down a Richmond player who is sprinting towards goal. I can't hear it amid the frenzied noise of the crowd, but I know we've won when I see a Mexican wave of my fellow fans around me jumping to their feet, arms stretched to the skies, as loud and joyous as any Western Oval crowd. Stephanie is being crushed by her parents, aunties and uncles in a giant teary bear hug and victory dance. She's all smiles now, breaking away from us to run down to the fence and see up close the heroes in red, white and blue.
Recently the 'Footy Almanac' (which Tony Abbott would call the 'suppository' of excellent writing from AFL fans about the game) published two articles which caught my eye.
The first was a passionate debate about tradition vs the corporatisation of footy. It was started by a fan who argued that he saw no cause to celebrate the success of the expansion clubs: "A unique product – Australian Rules – has fallen in to corporate hands who believe that only bigger can be better.
A disconnect from the game was inevitable, he believed. 'With no functioning “home” ground or community, a kid in Craigieburn or Cranbourne might as well barrack for Gold Coast."
While many replied, expressing sadness at the loss of tradition, community and soul, others returned fire with equal eloquence, defending the expansion of the game and pointing out that the good old days were not always brilliant and saw teams come close to extinction. One such point of view was:
"I reckon the AFL is an easy target to pot but they are selling a product that the people want: 24/7 entertainment. If people didn’t want it, the sponsors, the media and the supporters would turn off.
"The alternative, if I read the lamentations on this thread, are to somehow rekindle the suburban, tribal rivalries. I agree, those days were fun but times change. Back in those days, Fremantle was a seedy port and Fitzroy was a down at heel blighted, inner city suburb. Now, you can’t move in these suburbs for bearded hipsters running between art classes and coffee bars.
"The point is, the culture that used to pervade these areas has changed. People move on.
"TV, the internet and gambling are hand in glove with the game. It’s either move with the times or end up like the dinosaurs."
Another article that set this dinosaur thinking was from a disaffected Bombers' supporter, now living in the western suburbs. The intriguingly-named 'JoeFloh' outlined his growing disillusionment with the cancerous drug saga, James Hird's role, and the club's blind support of him; and how this led him to re-think his allegiance, especially when he saw our club's place in the heart of the western suburbs' community.
"Walking the streets of Sunshine, I saw a lot of people in tatty old bulldogs hats and scarfs. A lot of them looked like they didn’t have much else going for them, but they had the Bulldogs, something to look forward to every week.
"I couldn’t imagine the Bulldogs ever asking their cash strapped members to fork out for a multi millionaire former player who had brought the club to its knees through impatience, incompetence, vanity and pride. It was disgusting. Then I heard he would be welcomed back in the coaches box for finals. That was the last straw. "
JoeFloh has announced he will "attempt to do one of the hardest things a lifelong Melbournian can ever do. CHANGE FOOTY TEAMS. As the season approaches I already feel the sting of those winter friendships I’ve treasured being lost. I look bleary-eyed at the sports pages, not recognising any of the Dogs players, and trying to avoid Joe Daniher stories. It’s gonna be bloody hard, but after 34 years, I’m going to try to quit Essendon."
Both these Almanac articles were in my mind at half time of Sunday's match. Four goals have been kicked in an ugly scrum of ball-ups, semi-comical disposal errors, 'stacks on the mill' and a distinct lack of memorable moments. The match is, in fact, a stinker. Though the Tragician has shown uncharacteristic optimism by pressing the 'record' button on Foxtel before heading out for the game, I know this is one that, whatever the outcome, I would never be able to suffer through again.
Still, I'm here, of course. My connection to the club is not something that I can switch at will, just because we're languishing again in oh-so-familiar terrain at the bottom of the ladder - and, more depressingly, seem to have reverted to a style of footy that would not inspire any neutral observer or resident of Great Western Sydney to embrace it as a 'product' (unlike our last blitz towards premiership glory in 2006-2010, when, under Rocket Eade, we were renowned as one of the most watchable, skilful and entertaining teams. Still, we know where that ended up).
Is footy, though, a 'product'? In other forms of entertainment and sport, I am happy to cherry-pick the best available option. I can cheer on Roger Federer, marvelling at his grace, unbelievable talent, and elegance but turn off the TV when he's losing, feeling no knot of despair in my stomach. Mildly disappointed but easily disengaged, I will happily tune in again the next night, my support easily and painlessly transferred to the brute force and strength of Radal Nafal. I can choose a film, restaurant or comedy performance based on good reviews and value for money, and shrug my shoulders if it doesn't live up to the hype. My investment has not paid off, that's all. As a discerning customer I can exercise my right to walk away.
Barracking for the Bulldogs is something different though, hard-wired into my DNA through several generations, something to which I return because there's no choice, when even objective evidence says that this is by no means good for my health or sanity. Enjoyment hardly describes the experience of sitting in numb silence and watching 100 point defeats, or watching us self-detruct in finals series when we (relatively rarely) get there.
It makes me wonder how JoeFloh is faring, trying to learn to love our club, when we are, well, just not very good, toiling along with our draining, error-riddled style of play. Unlike me, he cannot tap into history, memory or tradition to sustain him in long afternoons like this. He's come from a club whose tradition is to expect and demand success (of course, that's a big factor in why he's alienated from them). It is depressing for me to think that he has already witnessed several premierships in his 34 years of support, while we have failed to even make one grand final in the same period. What do the unfashionable (though honourable, decent and - we fervently believe - drug-free) Dogs have to offer at present? Is the 'honourable, decent and drug-free' bit the answer to my question, or are these values just a quaint anachronism in today's sporting landscape?
What about that mythical kid from Craigieburn who chooses the Gold Coast Suns for his team - because right now, Gary Ablett is the best player in the competition and with all the squillions thrown at them by the AFL and an endless parade of Number One draft picks, an inevitable premiership not too far away? Will he or she still dig deep and keep coming when the Suns slide back towards the other end of the ladder (judging by the way Sydney and Brisbane crowds, who've had a glut of success, dwindle when hard times hit, I wouldn't bet on it). Conditioned to watch his team mostly on TV, will there be a whole generation of fans who choose to switch on only when their team delivers up the required dose of 24/7 entertainment, not the 'they-tried-hard-didn't-they' stoicism and loyalty that at present is the Bulldogs' fans lot?
On Sunday, my way of coping with the ugly spectacle is to take my solace in small moments of the game, trying to build them into an overall vision of our future. Our team at the moment is like photos in the darkroom, not yet emerged into a recognisable shape. I have to hold onto an image of Jackson MacRae loping effortlessly down the wing, taking elegant side-steps to bamboozle his opponents - and edit out the part where he landed the subsequent kick neatly on a North player's chest. I have to remember the energiser bunny zest of Dalhaus making something of nothing time and again with his quick hands and manic intensity at the ball, not focus on his simple misses of shots at goal which would have given us much needed reward for effort in this scrappy, low scoring contest. I must remind myself that Jake Stringer has played only 12 games and that I need to appreciate and revel in his physicality as he takes on a gaggle of North wannabe tough guys, his determination and intangible 'star-in-the-making' aura, not wince when he misjudges the bounce of a ball and it dribbles miserably over the line, another opportunity missed.
This bunch of raw youngsters, with others such as Hunter, Jong, Hrovat and Johanssien, may yet be the nucleus of an exciting side that gets the turnstiles ticking ( or should I say the bar-codes zapping). Or, as happens too often, young may not necessarily mean good. These kids may never grow together into their full potential, or may never cumulatively develop the chemistry, the hunger, the talent, the luck, that makes a premiership team. BMac's experimental dark room might instead be throwing up another Melbourne FC, where countless number one draft picks never seem to blossom, or a Carlton, where the talent pool proves to be good enough to take them into finals but never become a threat. We don't know anything for sure. Really all that keeps us coming every week is hope, and love of the club.
Before the game, I met my son outside the stadium. Last year we were travelling in New York together when overnight the joyous (and surprising) news came through that in the middle of another bleak season, the Bulldogs had had an unexpected victory over the West Coast Eagles. He donned his well-travelled red, white and blue jumper and set off for a jubilant run across the Williamsburg bridge, celebrating our win thousands of kilometres away from Melbourne and our western suburbs heartland.
On Sunday I handed over to him his 2014 membership ticket. It's his birthday present every year, making him, like me, a paid-up 'Bulldog for life'. We joked about the fact that even the most notorious convicted criminals, those that are 'lifers', have some prospect of release for good behaviour. No prospect of a pardon or respite for the Bulldog faithful, we agreed, before we headed into the ground to watch another game, and another Bulldog defeat.
Is the fish rotting from the head up?
Going west (from JoeFloh)
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.