We were travelling down the Western Highway to Ballarat for our blockbuster against the Gold Coast Suns when the bad news filtered through: Marcus Bontempelli was a late withdrawal from our already depleted team.
It was almost enough to cause traffic chaos. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see multiple cars with Bulldogs’ bumper stickers hastily executing U-turns, their long-suffering occupants fleeing back to the safety of the western suburbs.
With captain and vice-captain sidelined, teenagers holding together a brittle backline, and only eight of the 2016 premiership team taking the field, the youth of the Dogs’ team is almost shocking. Whether measured by games played or age, our profile is that of the franchise clubs in their first season or two, when there was widespread acceptance that they would be thumped by 10 goals every time they took the field.
Yet in the watery Ballarat light, those that bravely continued down the highway saw Our Boys somehow find a way to win.
The signs have been faint, but there are rumblings of momentum, little signs that our team, shell-shocked by that hideous injury list, was finding something of a mojo, learning to play together, gaining confidence after our horror start to the year. It has to be said, though, our ‘streak’ of two wins in a row against fellow bottom of the ladder stragglers weren’t exactly classics. But our team had shown heart. Often that’s enough.
We left encouraged, if not buoyant.
The Bont is back for our match against the Lions. He is the skipper in a team where only Matt Suckling is over 26. Within minutes of the match beginning, his class, grace and instinct for the game are on display. Operating in that different time zone of the truly gifted, Our Golden Boy snaps a goal. There haven’t been too many exhilarating moments in 2018. But this, at last, is one of them.
When those cars nearly veered off the highway last week, part of our angst – our unfairly directed angst – was not just that The Bont was out, but that his replacement was the much-maligned Mitch Honeychurch. In every season, in every team, in every year that I’ve followed the Dogs, there’s always been that one player (okay, in many years more than one) who’s a magnet for criticism.
The "suppository" — as that former prime minister would have said — of our frustrations.
The one whose mistakes loom large, whose errors we cannot forgive.
The Tragician is far from immune from these unworthy thoughts. Yet admitting this makes me uncomfortable and sometimes ashamed. After all (and for this we can all be truly thankful) it’s not me going out there putting my body on the line, risking injury in each brutal contest. I’m not the one who has a millisecond to decide what do; I’m not shouldering the burden of knowing that each of my actions out on the field may be the difference between the team’s success and failure.
Mitch Honeychurch has been around our club longer than you’d think; he was drafted in 2013. There was never any suspense about who would be the number one pick selected that year by The Acronyms, who of course had access to the cream of the land’s talent; they chose the prototype modern, powerfully built footballer, with the movie star looks, Thomas Boyd.
2013 was also the year that our recruiters made the momentous decision to select (thank you, thank you, THANK YOU) our number four pick, a rangy kid called Marcus Bontempelli.
Fifty nine names were called out – and the two Sydney-based teams had actually called out: PASS rather than make a selection – before Mitchell Honeychurch, just 175 cm and 70 kilograms, was drafted, without fanfare, to the Western Bulldogs.
The career paths of the three draftees have diverged widely. The Bont has now played 92 games; he was pivotal in our 2016 finals and premiership. He’s been the youngest ever AFL captain; he’s already snared two Charles Sutton medals. The number four Guernsey is the hottest property for sale in the Bulldogs shop. With his Italian good looks, I always picture him as a profile on a Roman coin. He’s humble, affable, sure of himself without cockiness, and somehow in all his interactions with the fans, I see something not always associated with AFL players. Kindness.
Tom Boyd’s career has taken a more circuitous, even melodramatic path. A sensational, contentious transfer to the Bulldogs. Sneering criticism of his pay-cheque, endless debate about his true value. Stints in the twos. A bizarre dustup with a team-mate. A fairytale ‘coming-of-age’ performance in a Grand Final, followed by a year of more struggle and mental health concerns.
This year Tom seems comfortable in his own formidable strength, throwing himself into the ruck contests while we all hold our breath, a man-mountain. No longer the cleancut youth of the draft photos, he now sports an interesting array of facial hair and resembles a swashbuckling pirate.
And Mitch Honeychurch? He’s had no luck with injury. His role in the team is precarious, his hold on his spot always a week-to-week proposition.
He’s mustered just 29 games in his five seasons; seven of them this year.
Last year he was out of contract. The Dogs offered him a one-year extension.
He is small, but not particularly quick; brave, but not noted for his skills. Even Bulldogs fans would struggle to recognise him if he strolled down Barkly Street, though he’s adopted the ubiquitous man-bun. Yet his name takes up disproportionate space within the fan forums. The commentary is rarely kind.
Kids don’t hero-worship our number 22. Nobody hopes and prays the ball will be in his hands at a critical moment in a final of the future.
We’ve seen many Honeychurch prototypes over the years. Some fulfil our gloomy predictions and never manage to scrounge more than 30 or 40 largely unappreciated games. There are others, though, whose initial careers were just as lacklustre. Blokes with unlikely body shapes, a dearth of flashy footballing talent, no scintillating highlight reels. Men like Tony Liberatore, whose physical stature meant he had no earthly right to play high level footy, but won a Brownlow. Like Daniel Cross, who had none of the gifts of the current wearer of the number four Guernsey except - and he had this in spades - courage, yet won a Sutton medal. Like Matthew Boyd, who willed himself from Frankston reserves to premiership player.
Mitch Honeychurch is probably no more — and no less — talented than these men. I’m sure if the Bulldog Tragician blog had been around in the early days of their careers, there would never have been excited predictions about future glory for Libba the First, Daniel Cross or ‘Keith’ Boyd. On the other hand it’s one of the crueller aspects of footy, that sheer talent does not alone foretell a future. Chris Grant, the ‘Rolls Royce’ never saw a flag while Clay Smith, more like a battered but somehow reliable Holden —a footballer of far humbler pedigree but outsized determination - who was desperately unlucky in so many ways but lucky enough that his brief window of footballing health came in the second half of 2016 — is a premiership player.
The Dogs defeated the Lions on Saturday night. Maybe for the first time this year, footy was fun again. Our team even kicked 100 points; our appalling inaccuracy was not quite so, well, appalling. There were errors, there were flat patches, but there were moments when Our Boys linked up, running like the wind to help each other out. Moments where you could see a future, a bright future at that.
The backline was held together by veteran player ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy, another of those unheralded players who’s never won a Rising Star nomination, but was a premiership player in only his eleventh match. I love that 'In-Zaine' always looks personally affronted when a goal is scored in his vicinity, let alone against him. His moustache somehow bristles in an enjoyably mean way. You get the feeling he wouldn’t have been too sorry when his knee collided, completely accidentally, with Callan Ward’s head in that bruising preliminary final. Zaine, pick 62 in the 2014 national draft, has now played 39 games, and is just 21 years old.
Another old hand, 23-year-old Jackson Macrae, was indisputably best on the ground with an incredible 47 possessions. In Jackson there’s not only a hunger to succeed; there’s a hunger to get better. We had him pigeonholed as a master accumulator, reliably racking up umpteen possessions per week. But now he takes contested marks in the forward line. He’s even a goal kicker, and actually features in highlight reels. Where, previously, his magic was unobtrusive, invisible, in the match against the Suns, he delighted us us all by careering down the wing, bouncing the ball, before landing an impeccable pass.
And his beautifully weighted kick to Tom Boyd had all the poetry of Marcus Bontempelli in full flight.
Mitch Honeychurch, meanwhile, played as a tagger on Saturday night. He kept the human scrabble rack, Dayne Zorko, in reasonable check, and accumulated the highest number of possessions of his brief career. Yet inevitably, as fans debate this week’s selections, Mitch’s name will - as always - be the first one viewed as dispensable.
Over in the camp of our mortal enemies the Bombres, selection debate will be even more frenzied, as they deal with the fallout of their humiliating loss to the Old Dark Navy Blues. (Cue some immature chortles from the Bulldog Tragician). The man in their sights will be one who had all the gifts, as much pure talent as any ever seen in the red, white and blue. While Jackson Macrae elevates his game to incredible new levels, his fellow 2012 draftee Jake Stringer’s career is, not for the first time, at a crossroads.
Meanwhile the statistics of our enthusiastic but rough-around-the-edges rookie Billy Gowers, who couldn't make the grade at lowly Carlton, are surpassing those of All-Australian and premiership player Jake Stringer.
My thoughts keep wandering back, though, to Mitch Honeychurch. I try to remember more about his debut in June 2014. The Bont already had a couple of games under his belt before his fellow draftee got the call-up. I realised, then, that the day the number 60 draft pick debuted was a match against Melbourne. Its highlight was the trans-formative moment when 18-year-old Marcus Bontempelli announced his greatness, manufacturing an unbelievable goal, hemmed in on all sides from the pocket.
The fans were in raptures; the Bulldog Tragician dedicated an entire blog to celebrating its glory, forecasting that The Bont would one day captain our club, win a Norm Smith and a Brownlow.
When The Bont kicked his freakish goal, Mitch Honeychurch was one of those in the vicinity. He was 19 years old, just at the very start of his footballing journey. He had kicked a goal with his very first kick, but had a modest eight disposals for the match, and would play only two more games for the year. But as The Bont's kick sailed through, Mitch Honeychurch raised his arms, laughed at the sheer genius of what we’d witnessed, and ran forward to congratulate his team-mate and prodigy.
This week there was a bit of a legend in the social club pre-match – Portland man Gary Hincks who two weeks ago had, extraordinarily, clocked up 1000 consecutive games of watching the Bulldogs.
One thousand games!
Gary’s amazing streak began in 1974.
He was there for our highest ever score, when Kelvin Templeton kicked 15 goals against St Kilda. He saw nine of our ten worst ever losses; and 17 times in his streak, saw the Dogs lose by more than 100 points. He saw countless coaches come and go, kept turning up in those dismal seasons, 1981 and 1982, when we only won five games.
Across both seasons, that is.
He saw Doug Hawkins in his heyday, witnessed the debuts of six champions who went on to play more than 300 games - including that apple-cheeked western suburbs lad who holds our match record of 364 games.
He saw promising careers that fizzled and raw talent that never developed, injuries that stymied potential, players who willed themselves to succeed where skills and talent suggested they could not, should not, make it at all. He saw three captains walk out on us. Line in the sand games after which, somehow we got bogged all over again.
He travelled interstate, he turned up at Kardinia Park, he travelled to the Western Oval or Princes Park or Subiaco or Cairns to see thrilling wins against the odds, capitulations and debacles, losses that stung. He must have been there on the dreadful day in 1974 that Neil Sasche became a quadriplegic.
And in 2017 Gary was one of those who walked around the Docklands stadium, hands on the precious premiership flag as it was carried reverently around the arena.
One glorious, still night in 2016 the Libba Sisters found ourselves walking alongside him, part of a throng in red, white and blue. We were about to take on the smug three-peaters, that club positively oozing success and glory. The club that held up a mocking mirror of how footy supporting life could be, to those downtrodden fans of the Bulldog persuasion. Hawthorn, with their experience, their aura, their collection of premiership players, were expected to swat away the traditional underachievers like annoying flies.
Yet Bulldogs’ fans – there were so many of us – were walking with nervous excitement and unaccountable hope across the bridge into the MCG.
Walking together in an almost silent and eerie reverie, because the Dogs the week before had pulled off an amazing upset and beaten the Eagles in a cut-throat final.
There was something electric, emotional in the air. Our heads were held high, our steps were light. We believed in Our Boys as we’d never quite dared to before.
Gary had been at that extraordinary win in Perth of course; he told us he’d arrived back in Melbourne that very day. It seemed right to ask for a photo with him; he obliged, wearing his familiar jaunty chef’s hat. He gave us a wave; then he merged back into the red, white and blue mob.
(Below left) Gary is in the back left corner of those carrying around the flag: (below right) Gary with the Libba Sisters, and a Libba Sister Apprentice, my niece Stephanie, on the way to the semi final against the Hawks in 2016.
I’m sure I’ve seen most if not all of the same games as Gary, and probably more games than him overall, though not consecutively. There’ve been babies, holidays, colds and flu to interrupt the rhythm, and I've rarely travelled interstate to see the Dogs. Which has usually been just as well. I don’t know what the ratio of wins to losses has been in the decades I’ve been watching; it’s unlikely to be a stat I’d like to dwell on.
But my experiences in those formative years of barracking have cast a shadow, and no more so than in what by now is an irrational reaction to those imposing Melbourne ‘Big four’ clubs: a fear of their supporters, a cringing memory of past humiliations, a distorted perception of our relative strengths over the past few years, one that is grounded in memories now decades old.
Carlton, of course, was always one of those clubs. They were the anti-Bulldogs, with their wealth, hubris, ruthless expectation of success, Liberal party connections, and dodgy but arrogant presidents. (They even had a Rhodes' scholar on their list, for heaven's sake. Not to mention the infamous Bluebirds). They flaunted their ability to go out and buy a premiership or two (ok, 16). That theme song boomed relentlessly in my head after each galling loss. Da-ta-da-ta-da.
Oh how we despised them. Those privileged, elitist, Old, Dark, Navy, Blues.
So whenever we encounter the Bourgeois Blues, as we sneeringly nicknamed them in my rebellious youth, I revert to a time-warp sensation, a fear of losing, a feverish conviction that THEY are the team I loathe the most (I know I said that about Essendon a mere fortnight ago but I’m sure you don’t read this blog to get facts and rationality).
I guess after standing too many times in those Princes Park terraces copping hidings, I’m frozen in some version of footballing PTSD. Footy was primitive then, primal, even ugly. There were no polite reminders flashing on the scoreboard reminding fans to behave nicely to each other, no separations of fans into bays so you could at least endure potential misery with like-minded sufferers. There was a tangible sense, as you were (well at least I was) wedged beneath the armpits of triumphant, celebrating Bluebaggers, of our footy club as despised outsiders, losers in every sense of the word, mockingly told we should just bugger back to St Albans or Footscray or Deer Park as soon as possible, and leave the rest of the competition to get on with their real business, doing something we knew nothing about.
With these memories and flashbacks, my sense of apprehension about the match was of levels that may have been understandable if Stephen Kernahan, Diesel Williams, Bruce Doull and that guy ‘BOSUSTOW!!!!!’ who flew for mark of the year each week were still taking the field. Then again, it’s bizarre how someone who writes a footy blog can take so little notice of whatever’s been happening over the years with opposition clubs and their playing personnel. I was agitated when we played Essendon two weeks ago that Darren Bewick was getting too much of the ball - until it was pointed out to me that the ginger-haired bloke racking up possessions was Devon Smith.
(While we’re on this subject, why do Essendon always have so many unlikeable red-heads? Paul Barnard, the aforesaid Darren Bewick, Moorcroft, Alan Ezard, Dustin AND Ken Fletcher…ok, I’m veering off track. But I believe it's an issue worth thinking about).
Back to my sentiments about our clash with the Bourgeois Blues – my fear of failure against them was not allayed by reminding myself they’d lost the first five matches of 2018. In true Tragician fashion, I figured this would only make it worse, make us MORE of a laughing stock, if we couldn’t even beat the Bluebaggers when they’re down on their knees.
Carlton, of course, are allegedly young and rebuilding. (Again. Even though that borderline-crook president who called our club tragic, boomed out in his raspy voice that “Carrrrllllton NEVER rebuilds” !!). And yet, they’re not all that young, with Kane ("Grandpa") Simpson and Daisy Thomas still going around; it’s the Dogs that, as with every match so far in 2018, fielded the youngest and most inexperienced team.
With each game this year, our premiership has seemed further away, but my acceptance and understanding of why this is the case – why it must be the case - has been slowly building. Instead of wistful pining for what had been, my focus has switched to the emerging new talent. It's always the way: gradually we create a story around them and they find a way into our hearts. There are 200-gamers of the future: ‘Little Red’ Richards is like an uncanny mix of Bob Murphy and Liam Picken; Aaron Naughtin (let’s hope we find a better nickname for him than ‘Naughty’) is gangly and raw, but there’s a steeliness that suggests the guy who’s undoubtedly been mentoring him, Dale Morris.
And the ‘old hands’ playing alongside these teenagers are still yet to reach their footballing prime. Our engine room consists of players who are 23 or under: Lachie Hunter, Jackson Macrae, The Bont (who returned to slashing form apart from the goalkicking yips), and Toby McLean. Dailey Bailey, Bailey Williams, In-Zaine Cordy and ‘Celeb’ Daniel, who somehow looked even smaller - (can that helmet make such a difference?) are just 21. Our first ruck is 20-year-old beanstalk Tim English, interchanging with the footballing enigma Tom Boyd. Who despite the countless words, critiques, hand-wringing, scorn and questions, is himself just ... 22 years old.
The game was scrappy, the skills were diabolical, and even in the last quarter a panic-stricken Tragician was talking about one of our scores providing the traditional ‘handy point.’ We were never really in danger of losing, my hyperventilating aside; we should have won by 10, 11 goals; but we were just glad to prevail, to beat the Bluebaggers, to begin the slow climb away from the bottom reaches of the ladder.
There was another celebrity in the social club apart from Gary on Friday night too. I don’t know how many games my mum has seen since she became an ardent fan in 1954, but I’m pretty sure 2018 is the first time she’s ever missed five games in a row. She’s just turned 81, and had a stint in hospital early this year, but, having regained match fitness, she was at the Docklands stadium to cheer on a new generation of blokes in red, white and blue.
Though my dad played for the Footscray reserves, it was my mother who was the avid fan, going to the footy – it really was rain, hail and shine those days - each week. When I was a child I can vividly recall that when another interminable season drew to a close, Dad was waiting on the front porch at Deer Park for my mother and I to return, bedraggled and depressed from the final game (we’d lost, of course). As we got out of the car, he was brandishing a wooden spoon in an attempt at humour. It didn’t go down all that well.
The Dogs have accumulated four such wooden spoons in their history – the first, rather aptly, in the year I was born. Until very recently the proud and haughty Blues boasted they had collected none at all; yet in the last 16 years, they’ve found themselves ‘earning’ four. (2002, 2005, 2006 and 2015, but who’s counting?)
The Blues have had the tanking scandal, and the salary cap rorting scandal; the last of those 16 premierships was way back last century...1995. Their defeat on Friday night was the first time they'd ever lost the first six matches of a season. It’s all enough to put a spring in a Bulldog Tragician’s step, but the lowly Blues now have a subdued and meekly resigned fan base, who’ve known more bad times than good over the past two decades. Their fans have had to learn the lesson that Gary and my mother had to master so long ago - simply to, when all else fails, endure.
Out of respect for the recent misfortunes of the Old Dark Navy Blues, I feign a humble demeanour as we leave the stadium.
I can’t help an inner sense of triumph however.
After all, Our Boys kept Stephen Kernahan so quiet, it was almost like he wasn’t on the field at all, and I do believe an unsighted Bruce Doull must have had a shocker as well.
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.