'Fast and ferocious Western Bulldogs deliver Adelaide's first loss'
"So many words could be used to describe the way the Western Bulldogs played in the first half of Sunday's game that it was little wonder most of the Adelaide players had a 'hang on, wait, what?' look about them. The Bulldogs were fast, first of all. They were creative, adventurous, confident, relentless and fierce, an energetic blur. They kicked the first goal, then the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. They played like they had absolute faith that everyone would be where he was meant to be, doing what he was meant to be doing".
- Emma Quayle, The Age, April 27, 2015
"Don't dream too loud, or I'll come and shoot you"
- Ned Kelly's menacing 'advice' to a schoolteacher at the siege of Glenrowan
The Dogs unleash a blitzing first quarter. They tackle like fiends. When the ball inevitably spills free, they pounce and sweep the ball downfield with lightening speed. They have six goals. It should actually be more.
They're fast. They're daring. The arena seems wide and spacious, full of possibilities and endless green turf for our boys to charge into; our forwards lurk, dangerous and threatening. One moment they're locking the ball in with insane intensity, the next moment they're galloping down the ground together, waves of players running in formation.
We're up by 35 points at half time; a whopping 65 at three quarter time.
We look like a top team. Like contenders.
The Tragician, of course, had secretly hoped only for a respectable showing. The unsporting and mean-spirited Hawks had laid bare our inexperience and defensive fragility, ruthlessly reminding us of how long a journey lay ahead. Losing Wallis and Morris to injury, I was philosophical about the likelihood that the bubble of hope and possibility would quickly deflate. It seemed realistic to expect, against an undefeated and impressive Adelaide, that the hard grind of a year with a young and inexperienced team was about to begin in earnest.
Yet here are the Dogs, regaining the zest and free flowing footy of the first two rounds, energetic, feisty and (this is the most stunning bit) crisply skilled.
Early, there is a spine tingling, time-capsule moment. It gives that message from the universe that comes only in the most perfect of wins: that this is our day, that we can't possibly lose.
Clay Smith has marked the ball; he's playing his first AFL game in almost two years. Aged just 21, he's already endured two knee reconstructions, a bout of salmonella poisoning, and a serious shoulder injury. It's hard to imagine the loneliness of his rehab, the despair and heaviness of each setback, the isolation and doubt, wondering whether your awful luck will ever end. But his team-mates can imagine it only too well; they take the field each week, knowing they are one awkward movement away from it being their story, too. They know that joy in footy is never far away from sorrow.
There seems no doubt whatsoever that Clay will kick the goal. When he does, the fans make an incredible, roof-lifting din, an outpouring of our gratitude, love and goodwill. But when virtually every team-mate runs and he gets wrapped closely in their midst, you know this is a moment for the players, and the players alone.
Meanwhile Jake Stringer is exploding with the complete performance that he has promised but never quite delivered. Jake might not have the full hipster Ned-Kelly-style beard so beloved of footballers these days, but he's got Ned's irreverence and larrikin spirit. From his very first appearance in our colours, only the word 'lair' (in the best Stevie J sense of the word) has seemed to fit. He has an aura, something threatening and electrifying and breathtaking all at once. He's catlike on his feet, he bursts through tackles, he creates a bristling forcefield whenever he goes near the ball. He takes his energy from the crowd, a showman loving the spotlight. (He also misses regulation set shots and drops a chest mark; perhaps these are a little mundane for one of his exceptional talent).
You just know that one day Jake will kick ten. It could be soon. Very soon.
Jake's all fire; his captain is more like an airy sprite, drawing on Celtic magic. Maybe Bob Murphy has played better games; if so I don't recall them. He makes the ball sing. It bounces and sits just for him, yet really that's a trick of the mind; it's just that, balancing on his twinkle toes, he's perfectly attuned to what's going on, he's there intercepting it seconds before mere mortals realise it's arrived.
And yet my favourite moment of our captain's superlative performance is not very whimsical or Bob-like at all. A Crows player is slightly fumbling the ball near the boundary line. Bob Murphy, not exactly the most brutish of men, arrives simultaneously. He delivers a bump that is somehow both delicate and forceful. It's easy, I think, to be misled by Bob's unlikely footy physique, his gentle and self-effacing humour, and forget the burning intensity that lies just beneath the grace and artistry.
Around Bob and Jake there's a support cast; it's rare for any side to be totally in synch, but today every-one in red white and blue plays their role to perfection. While we're dazzled by the crackling energy of Jake, just as important are the relentless running and will to get the ball of his fellow high draft pick Jackson McCrae; yet just like Bob, it's unwise to be deceived by his unobtrusive, sometimes laconic, appearance as he lopes up and down the field. Jason Johaniesson with his dash and line-breaking runs sends us forward countless times; it seems a travesty that Eddie Betts ends with four goals when JJ has trounced him so comprehensively. Michael Talia and Jordan Roughead hold up the 'Men's Department' so stoutly that it is only at the end of the game that I remember that our premier defender over the past ten years, Dale Morris, is missing - yet for once not really missed.
Before the match there had been a round of family jocularity about the hapless Ayce Cordy, and his somewhat puzzling selection after a two possession game in Launceston. My sister had announced that she would run down Bourke Street naked if Ayce defies the odds and is best on ground. (When in the first five minutes, a fired-up Ayce wrenched the ball out of a pack and kicked a goal, my sister was looking a tad pale).
We're chortling about this as we drive home together (Ayce, who had been at best workmanlike, had fortunately spared my sister's blushes). We're remembering wonderful moments, trying to capture again the magic and fun that this team of kids (seven of them have not yet played 20 games) are bringing to us with their exuberance, their vitality; at times I expected some of them to perform cartwheels of sheer joy and enthusiasm. We're talking about Lukas Webb and how naturally he has slotted into the backline, this baby-faced kid wearing the old number of his coach (who I dimly remember as a blur of small determination in our forward line). We're revelling yet again in the form of Lin Jong, his courage and his creative dash; the rejuvenation of newly crowned Disposal Efficiency King Matthew Boyd in the backline; the willingness of Tom Boyd to play a patient, second fiddle role to ShowPony Jake in the forward line; the heroics of Liam Picken; the athleticism and leap of Easton Wood.
We want to hear every post-match detail, of Bob saying: 'Today I'll put my arms around them, last week I was more like Rocket Eade'. Lin Jong telling us that Beveridge doesn't get them to tag, he wants them to play their own game 'and how much taller does that make us all walk out onto the ground.' About how second-gamer Lukas Webb had been practising the words of the club song, getting ready for this moment.
We could talk about it forever. And I realise that not once today have I looked back or thought about the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named, or The Other Preliminary Final That Wasn't Really Very Good Either.
My sister says, suddenly: 'I just think they can do it. I think this group are going to do it for us. They're going to win us a flag one day.'
For a fraction of a second, I think with a pang of Grant and Johnson, and Smith and West, and Gia. And Murph.
'Yes,' I say. 'I believe it too.'
Footy pathways meander; they are rarely a straight line. Setbacks follow progress; disappointments make the progress seem like a mirage.
And you can't always spot the forks in the road, the moments that matter, even when glancing back through the rear view mirror.
In 2011, the Dogs and Hawks were playing in a late season match at the MCG. The Dogs had had another wretched year; the Hawks were about to be finalists yet again. Up on the big screen, they were showing, pre-match, footage of another long-ago fork in the road. The year was 1961, and the Footscray team were leading the Hawks by nine points at half time in the Grand Final.
The Hawks, who had at that point never won a flag, were (unbelievable as this now seems) sentimental favourites. I found myself transfixed by those shadowy images and the sliding door scenario they seemed to represent.
Of course, that '61 team surrendered the lead in the second half, and we have never since returned to the MCG as grand finalists. I wrote at the time of my emotions watching the haunting scenes of our lost opportunity :
"It was Hawthorn’s first premiership. As they’re presented with the cup, Ted Whitten is beaming on the podium, energetically slapping the back of his Hawthorn counterpart, looking genuinely delighted that the Hawks, fellow strugglers at that point like the boys from the west, have finally joined the ranks of premiership-winning clubs.
"We watch the footage of the defeated 1961 Footscray team leaving the ground, mingling happily with their brown and gold rivals. My son says, ‘I guess they’re saying: there’s always next year, fellas!' "
I find myself wondering what significance the result in 61 had on the later histories of each of the competing clubs. If the 'Scray had maintained their half-time lead, would the chasm between our performances from that moment on have been so great? Maybe the loss tells us nothing, except that 18 blokes in Hawthorn jumpers played better than their Footscray counterparts on that September afternoon. (After all the Hawks did not immediately build on their era of awesome success, waiting another ten years before their next flag.)
But if the Dogs had emerged triumphant that day, would it have had some sort of butterfly-wing impact, affecting, intangibly, the psyche and culture of our club as the years went by - just as I remain convinced that the gut-wrenching failures of 97 and 98 had a malevolent impact on our 2008-10 era, making the burden of history seem too great, introducing doubts that successful clubs don't seem to have?
And how different would it be, growing up as one of those unbelievably lucky Hawthorn supporters, many of whom have seen 11 flags in their lifetime? And yet, surely, their joy at each of those flags can't have the same level of intensity and meaning as that long-awaited second flag would have for us.
I have to confess in my heart of hearts I somehow believe OUR supporting experience is nobler, grander, purer, because it has to draw upon something deep and profound.
Failure, or at least the struggle to break free from failure, is more inherently interesting than success. Though I can imagine the unbelievable joy of finally seeing a flag, I can't help but think that from that point on, with that epic quest finally attained, some of the magic of awaiting the fairytale ending would be lost. The barracking experience would revert, I'd guess, to a more normal level, and be just about what it actually is, a sport, logical factual discussions of recruitment, coaching, tactics, good players and bad - while so often for us Dogs fans, it's more like an act of faith and blind commitment. Those Hawks fans (poor blighted souls) have rarely had to wrestle with the great philosophical questions of why do we bother, never had to try to rationalise the irrational, because for them there is a straightforward relationship between investment (turn up as a fan) and reward (team will win, more often than not).
It's not a coincidence that two great footy stories have been woven around our suffering (I'm thinking of Martin Flanagan's Southern sky, Western Oval, and the magnificent documentary, Year of the Dogs). It's hard to imagine similar beauty in a gripping documentary about how the Hawks and their long-suffering fans survived the 'wilderness years' between 2008 and 2013.
Fortunately, or perhaps not, the Dogs' performance on Sunday reminds me that it will be a while before we get to test out my hypothesis about the noble aspects of failure, and I can lay aside my pen (or computer mouse) declaring with a grand flourish: My work here is done, fellow Tragicians!
I watch the game on an Ipad app, checking in via text and twitter. How strangely futuristic this would seem to Teddy and his mates in 1961, as unreal as a scenario from the Jetsons. It would have seemed just as likely that we would all have arrived in our individual flying saucers for the match.
The Dogs' performance is not exactly bad. But the gap between us and the Hawks, in class, skills, and personnel, is huge.
Any slim hope that we might cause a stirring against-the-odds upset vanishes when The BONT (he's already one of our most important players) is a late withdrawal. Not long after Wallis suffers a horrible back injury; the footage of him struggling to walk around the boundary line makes us all wince. These losses mean our two chief contested ball-winners so far this season are out.
Our backline, too, is depleted with this year's surprise defensive stars Boyd Senior and Easton Wood missing from the line-up; when our usual mainstay Dale Morris pulls on the red vest, the result becomes a foregone conclusion. With our rotations severely hampered, I start wishing that former Bulldogs Brad Johnson and Big Bad Bustling etc Barry Hall could pull on the guernseys and help stem the flow, instead of doing their best to sink down to the cliche standards of the inane Foxtel commentary team.(I need to report I was NOT on the edge of my seat, hoping to hear whether Luke Hodge would break his personal record for possessions.)
The Hawks have harder bodies and they're not afraid to use them; I'm outraged when they keep smashing our little guys: Hrovat, Honeychurch and Dalhaus get dumped regularly into the turf. (How unsporting. And mean. Can't they just rely on the fact that they're so much better, instead of picking on our feather-weights. After all, our team clapped them off the ground in 61).
Not only are they mean and unsporting; on average, the Hawks are two years older than our pups. They have eight players who've played more than 150 games compared to our three, and their average games tally is 124.5 while ours is a mere 63.6. (See? The Tragician Blog brings you cold hard facts, figures, statistics, not just musings on the futility of the barracking experience).
The Dogs' performance is not completely without moments of hope; there's enough to make you dream about what could come. Boyd Junior, who seems fortunately oblivious to the unending snide remarks about his contract and pay packet, plays his best game yet in an admittedly short career in the red, white and blue. You could imagine - in fact I frequently Do imagine - this guy, with his powerful frame and composed, mature presence, dragging down the big occasion contested mark in a tense final, the sort of mark that has always eluded us in our previous tilts. Michael Talia continues his impressive form this season, standing up well to the many, many Hawthorn forward thrusts.
And though it's far from home, it's heartening to see player number 982 make his first appearance in our colours. Nineteen-year-old Lukas Webb makes a polished debut and doesn't look daunted by the presence of so many triple premiership thugs, I mean players.
There's not much respite for the bruised and battered Dogs: next week we take on the undefeated Adelaide Crows.
The pain of our performances against the Crows in 97 and 98 - otherwise known as The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named and The Other Preliminary Final That Wasn't Really Very Good Either - has caused wounds that not even Hawthorn-style premiership gluttony over the next few years will ever repair.
Forget that tosh about how much more intrinsically interesting failure is. Our Boys need to make sure that hateful refrain 'Pride of South Australia' isn't ringing in our ears late on Sunday evening. We've all, surely, suffered enough.
More on my story of the '61 missed opportunity: 'There's always next year'
These days when I head to the footy, wisps and fragments of memories are always swirling around in the backdrop. Going to the MCG last weekend on a brilliant sunny day those thoughts drifting through my mind were not, surprisingly enough, the heartbreaks of THOSE preliminary finals, lost at this very arena over the last two decades. I found myself recalling instead a day, way back in 1983. The Dogs and Tigers were meeting at the ‘G for what turned out to be an epic, thrilling Round Five clash.
Footscray (as they then were) had finished ‘82 in a familiar spot: wooden spooners (we registered a paltry three wins for the year. However, this was nirvana compared to our ugly ‘81 season where we registered just two. Sheez!). We had roared out of the blocks in '83, though, and were somewhat stunned to find ourselves in fourth spot on the ladder, having won three of our first four matches. Richmond, meanwhile, had not started the season well, yet that intangible aura of success clung to them; they had played off in the '82 Grand Final, and in 1980 had won their tenth flag in an imposing performance, thrashing Collingwood by a record margin.
That day in ’83 was the biggest and most excited crowd that I had then seen: the first occasion that I recall the Dogs playing in front of more than 50,000 people - in fact, though I'm sure it's because my memory is faulty, it's the first match where I can recall at the 'G. As I grew up, it seemed the competition was dominated by the Big Four - Richmond, Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon, the successful, ruthless, well-supported clubs, forever kicking sand in our puny faces. My club Footscray, small, innocuous and forever languishing at the bottom of the ladder, existed on the margins of the competition. We were rarely on the replay, had little star power, and our performances occupied few column inches.
The Big Four had bold and brash colours: yellow and black; black and white; red and black; and navy. Our red, white and blue always looked tame and inoffensive. Their supporters had intimidating chants, ferocious slogans like ‘Eat ‘em alive' (they seemed to really mean them too); on the Saturday night replays, their cheer squads hung over the fences in blockbuster matches, triumphantly waving giant floggers amid a hail of confetti. These clubs and their fans exuded an expectation of success and, I felt, a contempt (though it was perhaps indifference) for our suffering; ours were apologetic and introverted. Their songs thumped out, rousing and strident; ours seemed tinny and forlorn. ‘We’ll come out smiling, if we win or lose’; yes, we knew our place, we were resigned to mediocrity, hiding within our shells, everyone’s second favourite (because perennially non-threatening) team.
To head to the 'G that day, to be part of what seemed to us an enormous, big occasion crowd, to come in as winners; it was like finally being invited to a party that the Big Four took for granted. It is my first memory of an electric, pulsing atmosphere at the footy. It was Anzac Day (remember when other clubs apart from Collingwood and Essendon got to play on that day?). The famous arena was bathed in glorious sunshine. Our red, white and blue colours looked bright and sparkling among the sparkling emerald green turf. They were flying, at last, on the big stage in a match that counted.
And at quarter time, our team had risen to the occasion with an amazing blitz. The boys from the west had kicked ten scintillating goals, while our star-studded opponents, boasting household names like Bartlett, Roach, Taylor and Weightman, had managed only three points. For once, it was our fans leaping to our feet, incredulous but deliriously happy. But the part of the match that has lodged deep in my memory is what was yet to come: the ominous sound of the Tigers’ fans rumbling noise and then their full-blooded, scary battle-cry, as they proceeded to outscore us for the rest of the match, regaining the lead in the last quarter.
The Dogs rallied and held them off: we won that day by two points. But despite a more than respectable record in the last 20 years in finals appearances and winning ratios against the Big Four, I'm still haunted by the fear of the sound and fury whenever we play the Big Four, that sense of their dangerous might and power, that nervous fear of awful their collective racket, the product of years of success and a winning culture, can be.
Back through the time tunnel, and it’s 2015: fifteen minutes into the third quarter, and I’m waiting for that menacing sound to break again. The modern-day Dogs had been terrific in the first half, but I can’t shake my sense that the Tigers will awaken from their slumber and hunt us down. It seems my pessimism is well-placed as the formerly quiet Jack Riewoldt, who seems when he’s on song to epitomise the Tiger strut of my nightmares, kicks a goal to put his team within reach.
I’m bracing myself for what might come, based on a long, long history of failure and non-achievement, instead of reading the game as it is in actuality unfolding and appreciating the Dogs are well in control.
I should be revelling in the manic pressure of our tackling (we are currently first on the ladder in that stat): the fact that a kamikaze squad of human clamps in our forward line are just refusing to let the ball out.
I should be delighting in the unbelievable improvement of Lin Jong, an 11-gamer who’s lightning fast and unafraid, bravely placing himself in front of marauding troops in the Richmond forward line. (He takes a courageous contested mark but who should be on the spot but the Tragician's old foe, Shane 'The Perm' McInerney, the only person at the ground who doesn't see it as a clear mark).
I should be lost in a reverie of awe at the poetic grace and artistry of Bob Murphy, his feet somehow just gliding across the ground as he moves through traffic with those delicate skills, the different sense of time and possibilities that sets the great players apart.
I should be enjoying what Rohan Connolly called a ‘sublime’ performance from The BONT. He's leading the competition in tackles, yet he's also pivotal to many of our attacking moves, as he roams effortlessly around the 'G. A place where we cannot help dreaming of seeing him perform his wizardry one September, very soon.
In actuality the Dogs never come close to surrendering the lead we have held all day; a composed Tory Dickson makes sure of it. And looking around me, I realise that the Tigers’ fans aren’t all that arrogant and scary any more. As they lose a match they would certainly have pencilled in for a win, I notice that despite their reputation for passionate volatility, their fans have a resigned, stoic, patient look - one that's all too familiar to me. They've gained an understanding in the last 30 years of something Dogs’ fans have mastered long ago, of how to endure heartbreak. Of how to, simply, endure.
Their misfortunes have been of a different ilk, a spectacular, cataclysmic fall from power and greatness, while ours is the dreary one of continued failure without even a glorious past to draw upon for solace. But what clairvoyant could ever have predicted on that autumn day in '83 that the lowly Dogs would go on to out-perform their proud opponents in the intervening years? And what crystal ball gazer could ever have guessed that our paths would converge in an even more unlikely way? For in 1990 the seemingly invincible Tigers had to launch a ‘Save our skins’ campaign and beat off threats of merger and relocation. It came only a few months after the Dogs had had the greatest near-death experience of all, saved by our fans, who proved to be not so humble, accepting and self-effacing after all when their club stared down the precipice of non-existence.
I think of the Tigers' fans' irresistible enthusiasm which swept up even a crochety Tragician as they charged into the finals last year. I understood their pent up joy, and then their sorrow when it came to nothing. Perhaps I am no longer fearful (in reality envious) of the fearsome Tigers' fans and their record of success, but feel empathy (perhaps they would scorn it) for a club that has stumbled so unexpectedly into the footy wilderness, and find themselves fellow travellers with the Dogs in that long and winding road to success.
Oh - and the aftermath of that ’83 epic? Cue a pretentious Craig Willis style voice-over recapping: 'What happened next?' as the final credits roll over a backdrop of a sea of red, white and blue celebrations at the 'G:
It was only to be expected in Round One.
Signs of rustiness. The occasional failure to gel together. Indecision and hesitation leading to errors.
I'm talking, of course, about the performance of the supporters.
Our ironical cheers if West Coast kicked out on the full were, it has to be said, ragged and ill-timed. The 'Bulldogs.Clap, clap, clap!!! stamp the feet' rhythm took a while to get established, and was frequently hesitant and staccato. Our timing and touch were off: we launched too early into boos when we got three frees in front of goal in the first quarter, failing to appreciate that it was Our Boys who were for once the worthy recipients of the umpires' largesse, and having to settle sheepishly back into our seats, muttering (a good ten minutes into the new season) that it was not before time.
There were valid reasons, of course, for this early lack of cohesion. After all we were mesmerised, almost hypnotised, by the insistent, distracting neon flashing signs around the ground. Puzzled about why, whenever we glanced up at the screens to get a closer look at action on the other side of the ground, the Brisbane- Collingwood match was playing instead. Bamboozled by our edgy banner: no more labored references to snarling, biting Bulldogs, or folksy pleas for us to support Bill's Beaut Meats, but a preview of the post-modern banners, perhaps: 'If you think Tom Boyd cost the earth, try buying a cup of coffee in Perth.'
And then a terrific match began unfolding before us, and we found our supporting rhythms at last. With the ball hurtling from one end of the ground to another, and the lead changing more than a dozen times, we remembered again just how much fun an exciting game of footy can be.
The Dogs on Saturday night may have only introduced one new player, but they definitely seemed like a new team, revitalised and fresher, an invigorated outfit, playing footy at the tempo of an exuberant Irish reel. There were daring, fast-paced handballs, audacious attempts, near-impossible at times, to link up with others in red, white and blue. When they didn't come off, the noise the crowd made was not the deflated one of disappointment, but the quick gasp of breath, the thrill of seeing a circus performer very nearly carry off an unlikely and risky stunt.
Saturday night actually reminded me of 2006, the carefree year before we really began to seriously challenge, the year when bright and shining hope alone was enough - before the knowledge that a flag was actually within our grasp became a shadow, hovering over our games and tempering the sheer joy of footy.
We were called in that year the most watchable club of all, and if Saturday night's match is any indication, that mantle might come our way again. Rebuilding will be a whole lot more fun if it consists of daring to win rather than doggedly attempting not to lose.
Three talking points from round one
'I wept from seeing greatness. Bontempelli was Royce Hart at his best, full of grace, intertwining his ballet seamlessly into a game of football' - a poster called 'Born in Droop St 54', Woof Footy forum.
There's a split second of stillness in the crowd every time the kid in the number four guernsey goes near the ball. It's an anticipation, a thrilling awe, about what might and could happen.
There's already a lot of debate about who he's like: with his composure and balance, is he the new Pendlebury? Perhaps the Bont is a bit like Koutifides in his size, versatility and strength? Are there touches of Ablett in his charisma, his uncanny ability to come into the match just when we need him most? Maybe, with his deftness and skills, he could draw comparisons with Robbie Flower?
Sometimes we daydream about where he will eventually fit in the Bulldog pantheon. Could he be as great as Chris Grant? Does he resemble Doug Hawkins pre-knee injury, with his elegant one-handed pick-ups, or is this what it was like to see the young Ted Whitten, a mix of power and grace, a pure footballer effortlessly able to dominate in a variety of positions?
But watching him on Saturday night, I realise I don't want to focus on what The Bont's future might be, or whose style he most resembles. I just want to enjoy, right here and right now, what he is doing, this exceptional, once-in-a-generation talent. I want to have more of those moments, like his extraordinary blind turn and pirouette through a cluster of hapless Eagles, where he freezes time. The Bont in those instants seems to be operating in some different dimension, effortlessly sensing a possibility that didn't exist before, in fact had no right to exist at all.
Twenty five rounds to go
It was a throwaway line in a post-match interview. Barry Hall (looking every bit as Big, Bad and bustling as ever, even though awkwardly constrained within his respectable Fox Footy suit) was talking with our new captain. When Bob praised our work on the night, he also mentioned the need to keep it up for 'the next 25 rounds.'
There was a small, wry smile from Bob as he made this comment, with its cheeky implication that the Dogs have every expectation of being there on the last day in September. The wry smile of a guy who has made no secret of his sense of loss and mourning as he comes to terms with the knowledge that now, cruelly, a premiership will not be among the achievements that Bob Murphy experiences as a player.
But I'd prefer to think that Bob, the great romantic, was stirred and inspired by what he saw around him, carried away for a moment by the exuberance and enthusiasm of his 'kids'. And that somewhere within that big heart with its boundless love for our club, Bob hasn't quite given up on that dream of somehow, improbably, being out there when our day comes.
'I'm really proud of the boys, the way they stuck at it. They've obviously had a tough summer. They've had to deal with a lot of ridicule and innuendo. They're terrific young men, and they really deserved the win tonight.' - Luke Beveridge
Not since October 1989 - the traumatic month when our entire footy club actually ceased to be when the AFL attempted to bludgeon us out of existence via a 'merger' - has there been such a tumultuous off-season for Bulldogs' fans as 2014. A beloved captain blindsided us with all the force of one of his trademark shimmies, and a coach was dumped.
I guess as fans we'll never really know the real reasons for what some have dubbed 'Shocktober' - why Ryan Griffen defected, and why Brendan McCartney was sacked.
There may or may not have been bullying, skulduggery, incompetence, duplicity or betrayal, but the fact that we don't really know gives us a stark reminder that as fans we're on the periphery. Our loyalty must indeed be blind because when it comes to the crunch we're not within the inner sanctum and aren't permitted to know what went on inside those closed doors.
The acquisition of Tom Boyd was a turning point in arresting the devastation and turmoil. Since then, his recruitment to the Dogs, paypacket and talent have been put under the microscope, analysed and mocked to an unprecedented degree.
Our new number 17 didn't star in his first match in our colours. But time after time, he presented himself for his team-mates, taking knocks and bruises with no free kicks and no complaints; he even had stints in the ruck. When he took the second of only two marks, in the last quarter, and lined up to shoot for a critical goal in this match of see-sawing leads, all in the stadium held our breath. When he kicked it, there was collective relief: that he had helped seal the match; that the burden of expectation had lifted just a fraction.
When the siren went, Luke Beveridge walked down from the coaching box down to the field. He reached out, slapping the hands of the elated supporters lining the fence and aisles. Later he struck the perfect note in his press conference, fiercely defending the integrity of our players and adding: 'As long as our fans walk away with a spring in their step, that's the most important thing.'
The song was playing, the team were gathered in the middle celebrating. But Tom Boyd, meanwhile, was doing a slow trek around the field, taking the time to touch hands with the rapturous fans spilling over the fence. Our modest crowd of 23,000 could well have been the biggest (and definitely the most excited) audience that the former GWS player has ever played before.
The era of Griffen and McCartney is over. Tom Boyd and Luke Beveridge will now play roles, big or small, in the next chapter in our story. It was good to see their generous spirits in reaching towards the success-starved fans; it made us feel that for now at least we're all in this journey together.
Coaches and players come and go but the fans' bond with the club endures, too deeply rooted for us to walk out on our 'contract' or negotiate for a better deal. Someone expressed it poignantly in the midst of the pain and hurt of 'Shocktober': there's no trade week for fans.
"Football, the game, the experience, the stuff of life, it exists for us to connect with a world that’s gone and the one that’s coming. It enlighten, enlivens, it bores, it frustrates, it gives us tiny moments of triumph along with long tracts of failure. Truly all human life is here, for football is the power, the glory, the misery, the humanity, the laughs and the loss, forever and ever. In the lives of so many of us, football is a light that never goes out."
Fans of the Western Bulldogs are facing year number 61 without a premiership, reeling from an off-season of heartbreak, the disastrous, messy walkout of a captain, and the ugliness which always surrounds the sacking of a coach.
Yet we are still eagerly awaiting Saturday night's first bounce of the ball.
In fact we feel just as much anticipation, the same nervous excitement, as the smugly complacent Hawks' fans (whose only concern is whether a three-peat is on the cards) or others who fancy themselves as flag contenders.
It's not because we genuinely, in our heart of hearts, doubt the predictions of those disappointingly pragmatic footy experts, and their unanimous consignment of us to the stragglers in the bottom four of the ladder. Though naturally, we've managed to rustle up an appropriate degree of righteous indignation at their lack of faith. We've indulged in feverish replaying of our NAB Challenge triumph against the Pies, proof that we could just surprise the tipsters, and even ourselves. (I mean - did you see THE BONT?). We pore over every word of that interview with our captain Bob Murphy (and doesn't that phrase itself put a spring in our steps) where he reckons the talent of this young group exceeds that of the 2008-10 contingent. We've imbibed all the hype about our new recruits; the new coach is enthusiastically embraced. A likely type, we agree, an assessment mainly based on alarmingly muscular arms and glimpses of that slightly crazed glint that only the best coaches have.
Yet despite everything, we know. We know that those annoying critics are predicting a realistic outcome for our club and where it's at right now. We know that there's been too many hundreds of games of experience lost; we know that the added wrench of seeing our elite player and best and fairest winner, Libber the Second, sidelined all year with a knee injury will mean that we are likely to be frequently hopelessly outclassed, despite the bright promise of our uber-talented, up-and-coming midfield (I repeat, did you see THE BONT). Especially as the season drags on, there are likely to be thrashings, dark days when our team of skinny striplings gets humiliated, dismal afternoons where we sit silent and stoic, days when we don't really want to get out the 'Bulldog for life' membership ticket, and take our seats with fake jauntiness and black humour.
Something has to sustain us when premierships are not remotely in the frame. There have to be other reasons why we care enough to attend. The AFL seeks to find the answer in improvements to the 'match day experience', but gimmicky songs and cheaper food aren't going to be what sway the faint-hearted when another unsuccessful season drags endlessly on. When it's a wintry July day, the injury list is long, the great white hopes are looking disappointingly fallible, we'll need to reach (deep) for other reasons:
Coaches are fond of saying, 'It might not be your match, but it could be your moment.' A fearful hiding might be on the cards, or even a mundane and plodding win, but you never know. Whole seasons. I confess, are just about completely lost to my memory, yet little time capsules are stored away forever, precious moments that are funny, silly, tragic, poignant, exhilarating or uplifting.
The day that Glenn Coleman breaks a point post. Searching in the Footy Record to find out more about this 17-year-old in the number 29 guernsey, C. Grant from Daylesford, who has just kicked four goals in his first match. Doug Hawkins jostling with Dipper on a Western Oval wing. The immortal line from a frustrated fan: 'The Dogs have had more passes than Bruce Ruxton on Mastermind'. Todd Curley being dubbed 'The Pubic One' by a wit in the crowd. Daniel Cross backs into a pack, eyes on the ball, in a match already well lost.
Libber the First's last game, chaired from the ground, eye closed and blackened, the most unlikely - and yet the truest - of football heroes. The moment some scrawny kid suddenly shows the stamp of the great he may or will become. That fragment of play in which an unpromising fringe player shows the intangible 'X' factor and you know he's going to make it. The mind-numbing, dreadful day that Neil Sachse became a paraplegic. Simon Beasley intercepting a Gubby Allen mark and kicking an after-the-siren goal. The night final where chords of 'Highway to hell' blared out of the sound system at the MCG instead of the national anthem.
If you've been there for these fragmentary moments, how could you risk that this week just might provide another gem?
Yep, we've had our share, and then some - only the Saints' fans could reasonably argue that they have had more. It might seem counter-intuitive to say that they're part of the reason we should still front up, yet they're part of our supporting psyche too. I may feel empathy as I see Pete Sampras or Roger Federer cry during a tennis tournament but I could never claim to share their pain in the same way that I share the anguish of the players and my fellow fans after a gut-wrenching loss.
Together, we've gone through heartaches like watching Chris Grant miss a Brownlow. Sat in a haunting bubble of disbelieving silence aswe watched a Grand Final berth slip from our grasp in 97. Cried as Daniel Cross was chaired off the ground for the last time, dumped by the club to which he could not have given more. A bright, sunny September day in 85 when our team made the finals after a long, long drought and I saw an elderly man with tears silently streaming down his face (we lost by a record margin). Headlines blaring: 'Death of the Bulldogs' in 89. All those preliminary final heartbreaks. Dale Morris' horrific broken leg. Brad Johnson's second last game, where the champ had lost his dazzling skills, was so obviously older and slower, floundering and hesitant, beaten badly in a contest, enduring the jeers and heckles of the ever-sporting Collingwood cheer squad.
Those heartaches are not, as it might seem, the opposite of our moments of triumph and ecstasy, but an essential component of them. If one day Bob Murphy/Nathan Hrovat/Jake Stringer/Caleb Daniel or some guy who's not even born yet lifts the premiership cup, that joy will be amplified and more precious because of the sorrow and troubles we've seen.
Grandfathers that stood in the outer. My mother, the star-struck 17 year old Irish immigrant, queueing from 4 am to see the 54 premiership. My father, the Footscray-born and bred rover and reserves player who didn't make the big time. My children, fast asleep in prams to see training on the terraces, wearing red, white and blue booties.My niece who cries when they lose. Young nephews and nieces jumping on the trampoline and chanting 'Browny is a winker' the day after Nathan Brown made his first appearance in Tiger colours. Kids being handed down number 14 jumpers that were signed by Luke Darcy, and then Callan Ward, and now by Clay Smith, while some of us still recall that it used to be the number of the legendary Robert Groenewegen.
"This club, every club, allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, on and off the field. We are here because our forefathers willed the game into existence, formulated it, supported it in good times and bad and created its ethos, its atmosphere" - Bowlers Delivery, Like a Religion
Those that came before us, silent ghostly spectators, a form of dreaming and collective memory in a club that is more than 130 years old.
Echoes of the playing generations that have gone still waft around this current crop of players; while we watch Luke Dalhaus bustling around the ground in his number six, we remember the 364 games of Brad Johnson that came before him, and further back the grainy footage of the nuggety Charlie Sutton. Bob Murphy soars for a mark in his number two guernsey and a vague memory stirs: Merv Hobbs' wearing the same number, in the iconic mark that graced dozens of western suburbs' fish and chips' shops. Michael Talia, raw and gangly, wearing the number of his grandfather, Harvey Stevens, the ruckman in our solitary premiership team, who still worked in a butcher's shop on the morning of the grand final. (He arrived for the match without his boots, prompting a hurried trip home and meaning he arrived at the MCG with only 30 minutes to spare).
We see the black and white photos of the first Footscray VFL match at the Western Oval, and marvel at some of the quaint differences, the men in their hats and suits (though I'd like to know more about the dame with the umbrella). Yet we wonder how much has really changed. Their stories, we somehow know, are still OUR stories, that even as we tweet or upload our photos or write a blog, we're just the next links in the long and mysterious chain of being a fan of the Footscray Football Club.
5. The crowd
It could be the anonymous, never-again-seen bloke sitting next to me with whom I shared a bone-crunching hug in 2001 when the siren sounded and we'd ended the Bombres' unbeaten run. It might be the old lady in the hand-crocheted red white and blue rug who used to give my little boys lollies in the EJ Whitten stand. It might be the little vignettes we share with strangers that sit around us, the exchanges of rueful smiles, grimaces and head shakes at fluffed opportunities; high fives when something unbelievable and improbable happens, to snatch a game.The guy with tiny Bulldog jumper-clad twins, fast asleep in their prams, who smiles at my interest and says he's teaching them resilience.
But as every interstate match proves too well, the 'match day experience' cannot be the same without our combined noise, anticipation, sorrow and joy, our nerves all jangling at the same time in a close match, our unified groans of despair, our collective intake of breath as a player does something crazy brave, our voices lifted together in our tribal song.
6. The chance to be silly
In real life, we can be concerned about world peace, angered at the treatment of refugees, earnestly doing our bit to speak out on worthy causes and issues of social justice.
At a footy match, a so-called mature adult can wear a Marcus Bontempelli badge, stand on seats and sing an off-key version of a not particularly good song, be unreasonably prejudiced against short bald male persons (otherwise known as umpires), give into irrational dislikes at people of other colours (I refer in particular to those wearing red and black, or black and white), and be militantly, viciously unforgiving about the slights inflicted by Ian Collins, Shane McInerney and the Adelaide fan who waved her scarf at my crying nine year old son in the wake of the 97 catastrophe.
It's refreshing, and good for the soul.
7. Just because
"Of course each of us has our different reasons for going to the game, but if you look across the broad sweep of football supporters, we do not come here to be entertained the way that we do if we go to the cinema or a concert or the theatre. We come here because we have to."
Bowlers Delivery, Like a Religion
We go along each week because, notwithstanding any of the above worthy sentiments, and despite - or maybe because of - the fact that 61 plus years is just a ridiculously long time to wait, still we dream of Our Day. Our Day when it will be different, and it's our team and our long-suffering fans that are sitting high in the MCG, listening to the national anthem, about to play off in a Grand Final, and all the fruitless years and the wintry July days when we get flogged will have a meaning. I imagine it like this:
I look around the crowd. Everyone’s got their own questions, about whether just being here is enough, whether this will be a day to always remember or another in the rollcall of bitter failure, whether our young pups can carry the crushing weight of all of our expectations and years of disappointment and live up to their own dreams. What it will feel like to win, or to lose. Why 22 men running around after a funny-shaped ball on a football field can mean so much to us. Why football really is, as someone that I can't recall once said, the most important unimportant thing in the world.
The quotes in this article are from a marvellous article by a fan of West Bromwich Albion, which rings true for us as well: Bowlers Delivery: Like a religion, January 2015
Memory lane: We played the Eagles in round one last year. Read 'It begins"
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.