When I moved house recently, I came across boxes of old video tapes. Recorded matches of Bulldogs’ past victories (an archaeologist, trying to unravel their meaning if these were unearthed many years later, would conclude this Footscray/Western Bulldogs team must never have lost. What an anthropologist or psychologist would say, is open to question).
The handwritten inscriptions down the spines made me laugh and wince in equal measure. 'Crofty’s last game (he kicks five!)’ . ‘Historic win vs Bombers (we spoilt their unbeaten season. DO NOT TAPE OVER!!!)’.
Sometimes, in an economy drive, descriptions had been crossed out endlessly until a victory finally occurs. ‘1999. vs Carlton. vs St Kilda. vs Richmond’.
Milestones that seemed like they’d never happen. ‘We win in Perth for the FIRST TIME EVER!!’ (I was big on CAPITALS and exclamation marks!!)
They were records of wins that seemed memorable or hugely significant at the time. Or even just made us satisfied, relieved or hopeful. Yet so few of them can in actuality be recalled.
Over the grind of a season and the passing of the years, their meanings crumble away, or seem like a mirage rather than the magical turning point we often believe. Like a hard fought, gutsy victory in torrential rain and freezing temperatures in Adelaide, assuring us of a top 4 spot in 2010. At the time I was convinced it demonstrated our maturity and sealed our credentials as a premiership contender. In actuality the team got the flu and lost by 100 points to Geelong the next week, before limping out of the finals, depleted and demoralised.
It was our last hurrah, not the portent of a brilliant future.
I'm not sure why so many of those matches got recorded. They're like the mountain of family snaps we all accumulate. They're not all treasures, but in a lifetime of watching the Dogs, they form part of who we are. There was always the chance you were capturing that first vision of that raw-looking kid who would become the next captain. Or the new Wayne Carey, perhaps.
I haven’t yet seen this week's win against the saints. I've been on a sabbatical in warmer climes. I was in a far-off place that, scandalously enough, doesn’t even know there’s a Bulldogs team. Surrounded by locals that haven’t turned their minds to vexed questions like whether we’re over-emphasising contested footy or whether our coach is up to the challenge (elegantly expressed on a fan site after our loss to the Suns: ‘Pack your bags McCartney!’).
So keeping in touch with Saturday’s game was difficult. We weren’t, to be honest, too wholehearted in our efforts to gain a blow-by-blow account. Quite apart from our wretched form, in recent years the Saints have well and truly had our measure. No wins against them since 2008.
Twice, they stood in our path to a grand final — once because we were injured, fatigued, and not up to it (that flu-raddled 2010 team); but once in heartbreaking circumstances where we did everything possible to win — except...win (2009. And special thanks to Umpire McInerney from an embittered Bulldog Tragician. That was NOT A FREE KICK TO RIEWOLDT!!!).
At quarter time on Saturday, we did manage to get a score update. The reaction to us holding the lead was stunned elation out of proportion to this mild but increasingly rare achievement. ‘We’re in front!’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, and Dylan Addison’s apparently on fire!’
‘That new recruit scored a goal with his first kick. How do you pronounce his name again?’
At half time after checking in again, our mood slid back to the more traditional: mournful and defeatist. ‘Saints have the lead back.’ ‘Oh. It was good while it lasted.’
Our unreliable internet connection dropped out. No further updates were possible, till three hours after the Victory. I repeat..the VICTORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I was back in Melbourne the next day. Autumn seemed to have arrived all of a sudden in my absence. Having lunch in Carlton that afternoon, I saw a dad out strolling through a leafy park, holding hands with his little daughter. Every few steps they did a little skip together. It was Bob Murphy, the day after he kicked a magical goal to help us to that win.
The match is recorded, on a hard disc these days. I’ll sit down and watch it tonight. There's a good chance that new recruit with the funny name could well be a future captain. And Jake Stringer has a bit of a look of Wayne Carey about him. Doesn't he?
It’s probably around the 20 minute mark of the last quarter in our loss against North. I don’t remember who launched the ungainly kick. But, like many of the Bulldogs’ forward thrusts this season, it’s sailed well over the head of its intended target. In this instance it’s Daniel Cross. From the other direction, a scrum of players is thundering towards him.
The game is already well lost. A valiant effort for three quarters has come to nothing. We’re a tired-looking mob and the margin has blown out, telling a tale that doesn’t reflect the spirit and energy with which we’ve played.
There’s no incentive whatsoever for a 30-year-old veteran, who’s had the indignity of wearing the sub vest today, in what could be his last season, to do anything overly heroic. No one would have blamed him if he’d put in some short steps, done a helpless flailing of arms to mimic an effort at a mark, and then done an ostentatious gesture of annoyance at the original kicker, reminding him to be more careful next time.
Instead, never losing sight of the ball, Daniel Cross launches himself backwards in an act of sacrificial insanity. He would know for an excruciating second or two that he’s about to be crunched – the only question is how bad it’s going to be.
I don’t know what goes through his mind at a moment like that, having never played the game myself. I’m in awe of his courage. He doesn't flinch for even a moment, his eyes so fixed on the ball that he ends up marking it almost horizontally. The pack converging on him cushions his fall and strangely enough, protects him as he comes down almost gently in the end, clutching the ball as though his life depends on it.
I can understand a player doing something like this in the in the blind desperation of a nail-biting finish where a lot is at stake – a premiership, a spot in the finals. I can imagine moments in crunch games where for the players, as for the fans, the atmosphere is so heightened, the prize so high, that time seems to suspend itself and everything develops the blurry unreality of a dream. But I’m not so sure what motivates Daniel Cross to do this in a nondescript game, in a season that’s already over for the Bulldogs.
Over the years there are many players that have become favourites to watch. For some their skills and extraordinary talents are the obvious reasons. The grace and class of Chris Grant (the best player I’ve ever seen for us), so aptly nicknamed ‘The Rolls Royce.’ The guy who bestowed that nickname, Doug Hawkins, gliding smoothly along ‘his’ wing at the Western Oval. The ‘smiling assassin’, Brad Johnson, an incredible, brave mark for his size, a lively zesty forward, a player who could and did run all day.
But there are players that we love for other reasons. The player that gets the most out of limited gifts, who will never feature on the highlight reel for breathtaking marks or dashing goals. They often come to occupy a special place in the affections of the fans.
Players like the ungainly and unheralded Matthew Croft, who week after week played his heart out against brilliant forwards like Wayne Carey, playing with resolve and commitment, doing his little unspectacular bit for the team. (Though to be honest, we often suspected Crofty, who was fond of a daring baulk, secretly saw himself as a different kind of player, perhaps even a long-lost Krakoeur brother. And in his last game he even lairised, kicking a torpedo from 15 metres out).
Then there was the littlest Bulldog of all, Tony Liberatore, who usually ended a game bandaged and bloodied and had no right whatsoever to play footy, except for the size of his heart and his unquenchable self belief.
Daniel Cross - the unobtrusive footballer who probably wouldn't even be recognised by opposition fans - is that kind of player too.
Did he launch himself suicidally at the ball this week because he can feel the march of time, knows that with the granting of the ominous red vest his career is perhaps on the line, and wants desperately to prove the doubters wrong and prolong the days when he too runs out there and hears the roar of the crowd?
Did he do it for his mates? He’s always struck me as the ultimate selfless player. Is he motivated now, not for individual accolades and glory, but by his ’21 best mates’ and his gallant desire to do set an example for the team? (This is the man who, when he suffered a bad injury last year, was pictured crying on the bench, and explained afterward that it was because he had 'let his team-mates down'.)
Or did he do it for the supporters — the loyal or fickle, patient or angry fans — who so often, quite ridiculously, feel that it’s all about us? We, who say we’ve been ‘let down’, ‘embarrassed’, or ‘ashamed’ by a dismal performance, and yet feel inspired, uplifted and somehow proud of acts of bravery like this. Acts that have nothing —and yet everything—to do with the fact that we’re there, watching. Or at this moment, jumping to our feet, applauding and celebrating him, even though we’re headed toward another galling defeat.
On the fan websites, his name is now being debated as one that could, maybe should, be delisted at season’s end. I don’t know if that’s right, but I realise, whether it’s this year or the next, the end is in sight. He’s never been gifted with pace, and now he’s downright slow. Our list is in big trouble, needing an overhaul. Daniel Cross, 30-year-old 200 game player with a big heart, will not be around for our next tilt at a flag.
As fans, we get to see the exhilaration of watching new talents make their debut, as I wrote recently about Jake Stringer. We follow the progress of kids that we think and hope will be stars (some of them even live up to our fevered expectations). But we also see, and are saddened by, the gradual, slow declines of our favourites, guys who’ve given their all, week in week out.
One day, maybe even at the end of this year, Daniel Cross will get chaired off the ground for the last time by his team-mates. He's not likely to be the only one shedding a tear when that day comes, and the highlight reel shows him, again and again, with head over the ball, doing what he can for our team.
Fortunately enough, I didn't see our match against West Coast, but even if I had, I don't think I could better First Dog On the Moon's summary (hope I'm not sued for copyright infringement).. especially his portrayal of what it's like to be a dogs supporter in 2013.
His question 'Will we ever win again?' strikes a note that's funny but true. I hadn't realised this cheery fact, but we have won two games since 17 June 2012. I'm not sure what our average losing margin has been but there haven't exactly been a lot of close shaves in that time.
These are the weeks and months that it becomes a slog to go to the footy. How does the Bulldog Tragician keep motivated? Research appears to be the key to maintaining that steely optimism!
Firstly, I discover there's a wiki page on how to support an unsuccessful sports team (actually they say 'awful', but I don't want to bring the mood down even further). It's probably a bad sign that some of the tips make sense to me. The first is: EMBRACE THE TRUTH!..basically, stop pretending your team is any good. (See above stat of how many games we've won recently). Check - I think I have that one covered. But hang on, they then go on to advise; 'LOOK BACK ON THE DAYS WHEN YOUR TEAM DOMINATED!' I realise the answer isn't going to be found there.
Secondly, I research other unsuccessful teams, just to assure myself that it could be worse. It turns out:
Only the fact that these deranged initiatives proved unsuccessful (the Cubs still haven't won) stops me from initiating a similar Bulldog-themed movement. (Plus, I'm not too sure of the origins of our apparent curse just yet).
And finally, I turn to the writings of Nick Hornby who is probably the best explorer of the agony that is being a fan, in his wonderful book Fever Pitch. He has these wise words: The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.
And there is this memorable exchange between two Arsenal fans, which sums up vividly our collective lunacy and why we all keep coming back for more:
Fan 1: What about last season?
Fan 2: What about it?
Fan 1: They were rubbish. They were fucking rubbish.
Fan 2: They weren't that bad.
Fan 1: They were fucking rubbish last year. And they were fucking rubbish the year before. And I don't care if they are top of the League, they'll be fucking rubbish this year, too. And next year. And the year after that. I'm not joking.
Fan 2: I don't know why you come, Frank. Honest I don't.
Fan 1: Well, you live in hope, don't you?
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.