Last week our Bulldogs were in frequently charted territory.
We were stranded at the bottom of the ladder, with the footy world lined up to jeer and sneer at our misfortunes. No longer everybody’s second favourite team, the Cinderella club was back sweeping up the chimney ashes.
There were rumours of disunity and in-fighting. Players were not kicking it to each other (here was me naively thinking that was just our skill level).
And Bevo – Our Saviour – had lost the players! (Goodness. Where?)
I flinched at every dismal headline. I shuddered at every unsubstantiated theory, even when it came from wise and knowledgeable sages such as Brendan Fevola.
Because there’s always that kernel of doubt, isn’t there? that fear that as fans we’d always be the last to really know. Confident and complacent in the loyalty of our 2014 captain, Ryan Griffen, we were blindsided by news of his defection and the poisonous mess that lay below. Hoping that in 2018 the penny would drop for Jake the Lair that a higher work ethic could reap rewards, we were poleaxed when his name emerged as 2017 trade bait, dumbfounded that it could have come to this when our club became hell-bent on getting rid of him at any cost. Some of the reasons gradually emerged; others may never surface beyond the inner sanctum from which we the fans are forever excluded.
Turmoil, unrest, injury after injury: it wasn’t the ideal build-up to tackling our most loathed adversaries. (Well, of the Melbourne clubs at least). My dislike of the Insufferables in Red and Black is of course legendary; it had something to do with a hellish afternoon in the early ‘80s when the Bombres inflicted our worst ever defeat, by 146 points. And at the Western Oval, no less. (We bounced back strongly in our next contest with them, however, hauling back the margin to a mere 132 point loss).
And there’s the class warfare aspect; it was one thing to have the citizens of the leafy eastern suburbs look down upon us, but to be scorned by those smug fans of the club just the other side of the Maribyrnong has always been another thing altogether.
The fact that in recent times we have been a better performed team than them, and have in fact beaten them over the last four matches, only makes the prospect of them trouncing us at this low ebb even more unbearable.
That we would be trounced appeared inevitable. With players going down like nine pins, we were the only team in this round whose average age was under 24; the only team whose games average was under 75 (ours was just 59.5). It’s the profile more often seen in a team that claims to be ‘rebuilding’ (Carlton, for example, had an average games of 83; even Brisbane has 78).
Our threadbare backline featured a pair of 18-year-olds. And our first – and second – ruck, Tim English, was playing just game number five; he might look like an eerie hybrid of Scott Wynd and Simon Beasley (let’s not think about that concept too much), but how on earth could the kid, raw and undoubtedly talented, compete, for virtually the whole afternoon, against the imposing bulk of Tom Bellchambers, listed at 108 kilograms (in other words, the combined weight of Dailey Bailey, Ed Richards and ‘Celeb’ Daniel?)
And if the anticipated thrashing unfolded, what about the horrific prospect of our former number nine, Jake Stringer, Frontrunner Extraordinaire, emerging from the shadows to dance on our grave, maybe even making rude gestures towards Bevo and the crowd OR – this possibility, which I could clearly visualise, enraged rather than alarmed me – after scoring some impossibly magic goal, running past and arrogantly ruffling the hair of the poster boy for good living, Our Golden Boy, The Bont!!
Still, despite these colourful scenarios (I was quite possibly the only one to conjure them up) you don’t get to pick and choose your times to be there as a fan. And after all, it’s a running joke in our family, whenever the Dogs got off to an atrocious start to the season (admittedly we’ve had plenty of opportunities to polish such running jokes), that my mother would remind us that the Bulldogs had lost their first two matches in 1954, and still gone on to win the flag.
So I headed to the match. Messages from the Universe weren’t promising; I was unsure what to make of one omen; walking around that river which divides Footscray and Essendon on the morning of the match, I’d been stung by a bee.
I'd finally banished the so-called Lucky Scarf. It was 30 degrees, and it had clearly had lost its magic allure.
I’m not saying the binning of the not-so-lucky scarf was DEFINITELY the critical factor, but who can say? Because Our Boys had switched back on to those demented ‘Men of Mayhem’ levels. The blue collar work ethic returned. You only realised how much it had been missing when you saw it again. Those acres of space in which oppositions had romped were shut down; players in red and black could not move without the suffocating pressure of three, four, five Bulldogs’ players. Luke Dahlhaus, so subdued in the first two weeks was immense, Jack Macrae was everywhere (but when was that ever a surprise?) and The Bont loped around like the elegantly talented thoroughbred we know him to be.
While Bont’s greatness was evident in his first few games, there are always players who surprise you; they’ve been pigeonholed early in their careers, and the hard work they'd put into quietly transforming their games often overlooked. Lachie Hunter had always featured in that category for me, etched into my mind as a lightweight half forward inclined to the flashy; I’ve been too slow to reappraise and value his efforts. Now as I watched him I realised how much my perception had shifted. Even in the debacle against West Coast, I’d seen him applauding and clapping Ed Richards who’d taken a risk in the backline which didn’t come off; it was Lachie left guarding the mark as yet another goal sailed over his head, but his encouragement of his young teammate caught my eye as one of the truer kinds of leadership.
Lachie Hunter is now a relentless runner both ways, one moment bobbing up to link in with our gallant young defence, seconds later presenting as a target in our forward line. In his linkman role, he took 13 marks on Sunday, the same as the combined efforts of Joe Daniher and Hale Cooker (or whatever that guy with the weird haircut calls himself). In fact seven of our players, including the diminutive ‘Celeb’ Daniel, took more marks than any single Essendon player (their highest being the perennially grouchy and aggrieved Brendon Goddard). It was a measure of just how hard Our Boys worked despite the sapping and fatiguing conditions.
The performance was full of heart if not always polish; we threatened, and threatened, to blow the game wide open and inflict a thrashing, and yet somehow the margin was never so wide that our opponents could not have easily dragged it back. Tragician nerves began to fray when the Bombres chipped away our margin in the last quarter (how did I survive a grand final?); when Joe Daniher dragged down a mark metres out, I feared the worst, most galling kind of defeat: the one where you capitulate after leading all day. My head was in my hands; only the roar of our supporters informed me that not only had Big Joe made a horrendous mistake, giving out a sloppy handball in the goal-square, but that out of nowhere ‘Celeb’ had materialised to ensure no goal was scored.
The Dogs found something more, in the stifling heat when every step must seem like a kilometre. Toby McLean had the ball and was charging, bouncing the ball, closing with electrifying speed on the goal, selflessly shepherded by Mitch Wallis and then Josh Dunkley. The crowd made the most amazing noise as the ball speared through the goals, a roar as loud and joyful as any since October 2016.
The match, at last, was ours, and all the more treasured for its unexpectedness.
Amid the angst of the last two weeks some furious fans dredged out the old-fashioned lament that our players were no longer ‘playing for the jumper.’ It’s always been a strange concept to me and one I doubt resonates with the players of today. And yet who could say, seeing Jake Stringer in the unfamiliar red and black, that his very donning of the sash hasn’t transformed our view of him.
He’ll be celebrated, of course, in time: one of the oh-so-few Bulldogs premiership players. But on Sunday we looked at him anew. Maybe it was those red and black colours, but he was in every conceivable way no longer our Lair. The brashness has disappeared. So has the Jake Stringer swagger.
Instead I saw a pallid and unfit player, a one-trick pony who may never attain the greatness that was his for the taking, a player who for quite some time has been surpassed by less showy but harder-working players like Lachie Hunter and his fellow 2012 draftee Jackson Macrae. In the last quarter he wheeled around hemmed against the boundary line in the forward line, the same manoeuvre we thrilled to dozens of times in his five seasons with us. When his premiership captain Easton Wood used every bit of his strength to corral him, our joy was fierce. Jake toppled like a tree trunk. No, not ours any more.
And our Bulldogs are no longer on the bottom of the ladder; in fact, in the euphoria of the victory, I was keen to remind everyone that we’re only two games off top spot.
And, let’s not forget: in 1954 we lost our first two games and still won the flag!!
I wasn’t really interested anymore in the number 25 for Essendon; it was far more important to cheer our victorious heroes off the ground. We hadn’t won a match since August 5, 2017; we wanted to sing the song with extra gusto. Inside the change rooms, Ed Richards, Aaron Naughtin and Billy Gowers got to sing it for the first time… and then a second, because Bevo (still Our Saviour) got them all to link in with the coaches and injured players and support staff, all those who’d worked to make the magic reappear in the past miserable fortnight. They sang it proudly, one more time.
When I was younger, I used to occasionally dream of playing for the Bulldogs.
I don’t mean ‘dream’ in the sense of ‘aspired’ or ‘hoped’. I mean that when I was fast asleep in the middle of the night, mysteriously I found myself out on the field with the Dogs. I wasn’t an early visionary playing in the women’s league either. No, I was running around aimlessly in the middle of a football field alongside huge and hulking men wearing red, white and blue.
In dreams we can glide through walls, possess supernatural powers, and achieve impossible deeds. I’m not sure what this reveals about my psychological wellbeing, but unfortunately in my dreams, as I trotted around in a state of agitated bewilderment, I was every bit as untalented, non-athletic, clueless - and most of all short - as I am in my actual daily life.
My dreams didn’t involve me soaring majestically for marks, or bouncing the ball as I sped towards an open goal, urged on by the rapturous cheers of the crowd. My dreaming mind even bypassed any preliminary bits, such as a solemn jumper presentation, or me bursting triumphantly through the banner. I didn’t dream myself into the midst of the pre-match huddle, joining my team-mates in menacing snarls or doing whatever they do in there. My role didn’t even extend to running in for congratulatory pats after a goal was scored (obviously not by me): ‘Great stuff Jonno!’, or doing a reassuring ruffle of the hair to lift the spirits of any under-performing team-mates. Neither was I a covert on-field strategist, masterminding team tactics: ‘How about I lead over this way as a decoy to give you plenty of room, Granty?’ (Actually, I believe I would have called him Mr Grant).
No, none of this took place in the dead of the night within the Tragician dream-world. Instead, it played out as it would have in real life. I ran around like the proverbial headless chook, aware that a match was being played around me but with no concept of how to be part of it. If the ball accidentally came my way I experienced pure terror as the thundering hooves — make that boots — of players drew near. I knew I would fumble it, that if by some miracle I grabbed it before the herd of players descended upon me, my kicking distance of approximately three metres would do little to advance the Bulldog cause.
But I’d like one thing to be clear. I was trying. Trying extremely hard.
I thought of those dreams, actually more akin to nightmares, on Easter Sunday, when ‘Celeb’ Daniel found himself pitted against one of those Eagles' gorillas (Lycett? Darling? Why do they all look the same?); as Bailey Dailey got bumped off the ball by a first gamer; as ugly floating kicks into the forward line seemed to assume that Luke Dahlaus had the same marking capacity as those Eagles gorillas; as Eagles players found acres of space while for us the ground had shrunk to the size of a squash court. Lin Jong with his cut to the forehead, sustained by friendly fire with Tim English, wasn’t the only one seeing doubles of the Eagles players. Our forward line may not have contained one panic-stricken Bulldog Tragician, but the circling seagulls which inhabited the frequently vacant territory were only marginally less likely to score a Bulldogs goal.
Our Boys looked just as baffled as us in the crowd about what was going wrong; how the effortless chemistry of 2015 and 2016, the sense of fun, their oversized determination, the largeness of their ambitions, had faded into hesitation, a variation of the dread feeling of the Tragician dream: that catastrophe, not opportunities, lurked every time the ball came our way. I’m sure of one thing, though some keyboard warriors would disagree. They were trying. Trying very hard.
The crowd on Sunday was bemused, incredulous, and mainly subdued, confused rather than belligerent. The mood may not be so resigned next week, when we face our cross-town rivals the unlovable Bombres, and a certain player who used to play for us wearing number nine. I’m just praying, though not confident, there won't be too many situations where ‘Celeb’ Daniel is one-out with Joe Daniher.
Our Dogs are currently on the bottom of the ladder, with a miserable percentage of 47%. However the benefit of being a Bulldog Tragician is that there is always – always — a memory of an even worse time in which to wallow, or draw strength, depending on your point of view. In 1996 we opened our season with an 87-point thumping by Brisbane (they weren’t even yet the Lions), and then backed it up with a humiliating 131-point thrashing (this is not a typo) by North Melbourne. So many losses (and wins for that matter) have been scrambled together in my brain, yet the mournful silence of the train ride home to the western suburbs after that display is lodged deep in my memory. And yet I fronted up again, one of the paltry crowd who saw us break through next week for a victory, albeit against the remnants of a forlorn Fitzroy team playing its last ever season. I was there for almost all of the games of that lamentable season, our last as 'Footscray', when crowds dwindled down as low as 8000. Our very survival as a club teetered, not for the first time, and our cries of 'Come on boys!' had a forlorn and plaintive air.
We didn't know, then, that four of the young men toiling through that dreary season would play more than 300 games for us. We could never have anticipated that this bedraggled group would finish the next year a top four side, in fact be premiership contenders over the next three consecutive years.
Any more than we would have thought, in the euphoria of the 2016 premiership, that 18 months late, our club could find itself adrift at the bottom of the ladder. The flag, Bevo Our Saviour acknowledge after Sunday's loss, now 'seems like a lifetime away'.
For Bevo the coach with the Midas touch, this is foreign terrain. With a quarter of our list unavailable due to injury, even a callup for the Tragician doesn't seem that far-fetched (GULP!).
Aside from the obvious fact that not even half of our premiership team were able to be selected last week, Bevo will also be dealing with the question of why confidence, form - and perhaps desire - has ebbed away so quickly among the remaining premiership players. Countless theories of what’s gone wrong are being debated, the most popular one being that our club, downtrodden for so long, hasn’t been able to handle the lightning bolt of success in 2016; the other, which brings on a red mist of rage in me, being that we were just ‘lucky’ because of the newly introduced bye.
None but those on the inside can know what happens before Our Boys run out on the ground: who’s got a niggle, who’s battling stuff in their personal lives, or whether the magic connection, the spirit and resilience of the 2016 group, has faded away.
And maybe there are times that even for the master coach, father figure and mentor, these questions are beyond his control, just as mysterious and intangible to him as they are to us.
For I keep thinking of him in those last two agonising minutes of The Preliminary Final That Will Always Be Remembered. There was footage of Bevo in the coaching box, during those excruciating moments when every toe-poke, every bump, every tap of the ball forward, meant the difference between more heartbreak for our club or the breaking of the magic spell that had kept us away from the Grand Final for so many years.
Just as we the fans could do nothing bar scream our heads off, unable to change the script, direct their actions and decisions, Bevo too was a spectator, phone dangling uselessly in his hand, muttering the same words as us as he implored them to just hang on: 'Come on boys.'
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.