Before Saturday night's game, the youngest member of the Bulldog Tragician clan, my nine-year-old nephew exhibits a disturbing degree of pessimism — or perhaps pragmatism.
“Dad...if we’re getting smashed at half time, can we go home early?” he asks hopefully.
Agh yes - the Tragician spirit lives on.
My nephew Joel (that’s him on the far left in the photo above) is the youngest of four generations to barrack for the Dogs. My two grandfathers stood in the outer when their dodgy tickers permitted; my father played in the reserves and designed the Olympic clock that stood on Mount Mistake for many years (at right). My son ran up and down the steps of the John Gent stand in 1985 wearing his hand-knitted Footscray jumper, on a glorious sunny September evening when we were among 1000s of excited fans who thought anything was possible, watching the team train when they’d made the finals for the first time in 10 years. (Around this time my son also insisted on starting every morning by ‘running through the banner’ — an improvised sheet hanging from the doorway — commentating to himself about his favourite player at the time ‘Stephen The Person’ – McPherson to the rest of us).
Families, generations, the passing on of traditions, and the circle of history – they're what I'm thinking about before the Richmond clash. I'm nostalgic because there's a new member of the Bulldog clan making his debut. I see him for the first time just after the players complete their on-field warm up. A baby-faced kid (surely he’s not old enough to be out there against brutish looking thugs in yellow and black) protected by a tight-knit wall of team-mates, having his new guernsey passed on to him by senior members of the team. His name is Lachlan Hunter. His dad Mark was player number 790 to ever appear for the Dogs. Lachie now joins our ranks, number 975 to represent our club.
After the circle disperses, Lachlan gets an enthusiastic ruffle on the head from others, including veteran player Nathan Hrovat. (He’s an old hand, now, in his third game.)
In this topsy-turvy fixture, it’s our first re-match of the season. In round three our performance against Richmond had dampened down the misguided expectations that I confess I’d developed after a relatively bright start to the season. We were brought down to earth in a 67 point old-fashioned drubbing where we never gave a yelp. Playing the same opponent would, I decide, be a chance to measure how far we’d progressed. Are we more competitive? Is genuine, if slow, progress is being made? I’m hoping to see a picture that tracks an orderly path, an encouraging tale about the future, steady progress, and regeneration.
Yet I realise quickly, it's impossible to make a neat, straightforward comparison. There's already been an enormous transition in two short months. No fewer than eight players from that match did not run out with Saturday night’s team. Missing from the Round Three line up are: the chronically injured who’ve missed virtually all the season: Shaun Higgins, Tory Dickson, and Easton Wood. Blokes who were missing because of short term injury but have been regular and solid contributors: Tom Young and Koby Stevens. Two young hopefuls who haven’t seemed to thrive: Mitch Wallis and Tom Campbell. An old dog whose card now seems to have been marked: Daniel Cross (the earlier Richmond match had been his 250th ).
Lachlan Hunter gets quickly involved. His debut is lively and impressive, though he doesn’t remind me at all of his old man in either looks or style of play. Later I read a beautiful account by a Footy Almanac contributor, Andrew Fithall, who knows both Mark, and Lachlan’s mother Colleen – a sporting legend in her own right who captained Australia in lacrosse. He wrote of the moment that Lachlan lined up for a shot at goal with his second ever kick:
As he went back, Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt was heard to say ‘You won’t kick this you f*cken midget.’ But he did kick it. Colleen is grateful the TV cameras hadn’t yet located them in the crowd – they would have seen her tears.
Lachlan Hunter is playing alongside Tom Liberatore, another father-son. Libba Senior was the shortest ever player to win the Brownlow. I believe he’s still the record holder for the most tackles in the VFL/AFL. We all shed a tear in his last ever game in 2002, when this most unlikely of football heroes got chaired off the ground. It was only fitting that he was sporting a broken nose, shattered in the first couple of minutes in a sickening though accidental clash with a fearsome man-mountain three times his size, Sav Rocca.
In that final match, one of Libba's team mates was a young Daniel Giansiracusa. Now grey-haired and playing as an almost permanent sub, on Saturday night Gia paces up and down the sidelines, offering support, advice and encouragement to his former team mate's son, who is still learning the game, and learning about life too, from his 'big brothers', men he would have idolised as a star-struck little boy.
Gia is playing game number 240. One hundred and seven of these have been wins, probably an average that’s better than most in our Bulldog rollcall. Saturday night was not one of them.
Four of the newcomers from the Round 3 side are our draft picks from 2012, a group of 18 and 19 year-olds playing together for the first time this year. One of them, of course, is Lachie Hunter. Another is Jake Stringer, who somehow seems to crackle and bristle every time he goes near the ball.
Jake nails a goal on the half time siren (thwarting Joel's hopes of an early exit). He goes up and chests a Richmond player, sparking a tepid brawl, but it brings us to our feet. Stringer !!!!!! – player number 973 to pull on the red, white and blue guernsey. (In our family it seems significant that it's the maiden name of my mother — the Bulldog Tragician matriarch). I don’t think Jack Riewoldt would be game to call him a ‘f*cken midget’. Long may Jake exhibit his strut.
We don’t lose by 67 points this time. We lose by 60. We’re more competitive for stretches of the game, especially early. But what’s painfully apparent is the waning of the older players. They look slow, uncertain. There is little in between, a massive gulf between the raw young kids and some veterans. If I needed any confirmation that glory days are not going to come around quickly, Saturday night confirms it.
Writing about a losing sports team, according to Martin Flanagan, is a difficult task: like ‘trying to play with an orchestra in which the various instruments drop out until you are left in silence, holding the baton.’ Players like Gia are holding that baton, passing on our traditions, shaping a future that they won't be part of . What the young guys do in the silence that will come when he and other older players leave the arena, just as Libba and Mark Hunter have done, is a story alll of its own, still to be written.
Postscript: there's more about the clock, and my dad, here and at Scoreboard Pressure
The Footy Almanac story on the Hunter family is here.
It’s half time and the mood is glum among the smattering of Bulldog die-hards. We’re stoically huddled together, a forlorn cluster in the high reaches of Etihad Stadium. Outnumbered. Definitely out played.
‘We haven’t brought our A-game today.’
‘Do we have an A-game?’
The Dogs have kicked a feeble two goals (one each quarter) and are already out of the contest. Fifty three points down in fact. It’s looking grim.
We’ve played unimaginative, stilted football, bereft of ideas and options. Later I read that in the first quarter alone, we had 77% of our possessions in the back half. Can we conclude, then, this may have been a calculated tactic? Are we minimising a potentially heavy loss by a defensive ‘play it safe’ strategy? It’s hard to see the logic. With our limited skill level, it’s only ever a matter of time before the inevitable turnover leads to another Collingwood player whizzing into goal.
Many of these clangers seem to result from my least favourite part of the Bulldogs’ game plan at the moment (see, I can even rank them in order) – our kick in maneuvers. The shower scene in ‘Psycho’ is positively frivolous compared to the excruciating suspense of seeing which wretched variation we’ll choose to employ. Will it be the relatively straightforward tactic of a wobbly kick to the tallest Collingwood player on the ground, preferably unattended? A little prosaic for mine. Why not try the daring play-on tactic, only to become stranded about 10 metres from the goalmouth before running out of ideas (and realising that no other teammate has caught onto your intention and made any move in support)? Just like an evening at Norman Bates’ hotel, when that scary music comes on, you know how it’s all going to end.
The great existential questions of football are looming large: Why am I here, and why does it matter? It’s not, after all, fun. It’s just another forgettable loss demonstrating how far we have to go. Judging by the size of the crowd, and the difficulty in spotting much red, white and blue, many of my fellow Dogs’ supporters are snugly at home, having drawn their own conclusion to these questions.
The atmosphere in the crowd is strangely listless. This isn’t just among the Bulldog unfortunates. One of the things I’ve always feared and admired in equal measure about the Collingwood faithful is their unrivalled ability to create their own energy force field, possibly even visible from the moon: no matter the score, the opponent, or stage of the match, their sense of outrage, and lust for victory, never seem to wane. In a miserable hiding they inflicted on us in our unsuccessful finals series of 2010, these were the fans who, despite the game being over by quarter time, booed and jeered well-known AFL bad boy Brad Johnson, crippled by injury and in his last handful of games. (I mean… Brad Johnson?)
But today the Pies fans can’t seem to muster the energy. Their boos towards some anonymous Bulldog stripling, as he commits the cardinal offence of lining up for goal after taking an innocuous mark, seem perfunctory. (He misses anyway). Their hearts aren’t in it. A depressing realization dawns. Maybe they feel sorry for us?
The Bulldog players run out from their half time break. Bless their red, white and blue socks: they still pile in for that ‘we’re all in this together and we’re going to give this match a red hot go’ huddle, trying to generate a sense of purpose and ferocious commitment in a way that strikes me as comical in the circumstances. I can’t help imagining how they might be urging each other on:
‘Boys, the crowd do seem to appreciate it when Harry O’Brien dashes down the ground. Let’s give the fans what they want, and give the guy some room.’
‘Fellas, that guy with the tattoos, anyone know his name? He seems to be getting a bit of it – slipped under our radar. Right, let’s knuckle down on him now. Boydy, why don’t you take him?’
‘Look, guys, this could be a bit out of left field, but it’s worth a try. Let’s NOT kick it to someone with three opponents when another bloke’s on his own.’
There are the usual slaps on the back and mutterings of fierce intent. They can’t mean it, surely?
Why am I here, and why does it matter?
The Dogs do show a bit more purpose in the third quarter, obviously fired up by my imaginary conversations in the huddle, and to my relief they actually attack. I’d prefer to lose with an attempt at some pizzazz than suffer through our clumsy inept possession game.
There’s a group of four young blokes near us that are supporting the Dogs. They’ve been unstinting, despite the dire performance, in their loud and unruly enthusiasm. When, for the first time in the match, we score consecutive goals, they leap to their feet, applauding wildly, celebrating with exuberance out of proportion to the occasion. Perhaps it’s a post-modern, Gen-Y expression of irony. Then again, beer could be involved.
This goal avalanche (two) is only a warm-up for the last. The Bulldogs pile on five goals. The Pies seem to be already on their mid season break. The match has been so awful, and we’ve been so dejected by the dreadful first half, that we welcome the emergence of some signs of class – a delicate Jack McCrae sidestep, a Griffen burst through the middle, a strong mark from Jake Stringer. The Quartet of Post Modernists are delirious. ‘We’re coming Pies! We’re coming! We’re on a ROLL!!’ they call when some Collingwood fans pack up their belongings, evidently content in the knowledge that with five minutes to go, our little surge is not threatening to lose them the game.
From nowhere, it seems, a guy with a red, white and blue Mohawk starts a Bulldogs chant. Around us, people join in, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. There are more Bulldogs fans around than I thought. We’re here. It doesn’t really matter why any more.
We leave the ground. The Collingwood theme song is blaring out. There was never any doubt that’s how it would end.
The words have given me some answers, though.
See, the barrackers are shouting, as all barrackers should…
My mother promised me I could start coming to ‘home’ games when I turned four years old. In my child’s imagination, a home game would mean that the footballers played, much like my brother and I, kick-to-kick in a player's backyard. I expected this to be with the only player I could name. Naturally this was Ted Whitten. I can still recall my amazement when the eagerly awaited day arrived and I walked in for the first time to the Western Oval (not yet christened in the legend’s name), to be greeted by what seemed like a vast expanse of emerald green grass.
There was a unique smell of wet duffel coats, donut vans, and something indefinably Western Oval. (It may have been the plumbing). The players were remote and tiny specks far off in the distance. They wore dressing gowns and ate oranges while they listened to Ted rev them up in the breaks. We walked up to our seats in the John Gent stand - it was rickety even then. The Hyde Street band marched around the oval, coins whizzing dangerously past their heads.
I was entranced. So began my journey as a fan.
Every home game, we would park near Olympic Tyres in Cross Street. My grandfather was the gateman and would wave at us from his little booth, wearing a long grey dustcoat. He wasn’t allowed to go to games himself, as he had a heart condition which it was feared would not stand the suspense of Footscray's performances.
There were mysterious events on alternate Saturdays called ‘away’ matches. I wasn’t old enough to go to these as they would involve standing all day and, most likely, uncouth language. The adults in the family – my mother, uncles and aunts - headed off to destinations that sounded picturesque – Lakeside Oval or Victoria Park. The sorts of places, I thought, that the Famous Five might have shared a simply ripping picnic, with ginger ale.
We children stayed home with my grandmother. She was Irish and would listen to the game on the radio, cooking up a storm for when the adults returned home. We’d run inside at what we thought must be half time. ‘How are we going Nanna?’ Her face would darken. ‘ Five goals down.’ Knowing this was insufficient, she would attempt some spite in her lilting brogue. ’The bloomin’ umpires are killing us!’ My grandmother never saw a game in her lifetime.
Though cold hard facts tell me that, this being the 1960s, we didn’t win many games at the Western Oval, surprisingly enough, that’s not my recollection. It was our fortress, and we went there expecting to win. I don't remember all the dis-spiriting losses that must have happened; instead I recall Georgie Bissett charging into goals as we made stirring last quarter rallies, pinching games from more favoured teams, who hated coming to our ground with its narrow flanks, howling wind and parochial fans. But my memories are probably faulty as I also recall my mother and I returning home from the last game of the season and my father, in an ill-judged attempt at humour, coming out onto the front porch waving a wooden spoon.
This week our ‘home’ game was in Darwin. All hail the Truly National Competition, where football executives now refer to the fans as stakeholders. The unoccupied John Gent Stand is undoubtedly still rickety, but underneath it, a groovy café sells lattes. (As Marj Simpson would probably say: Do you kids still say ‘groovy’ these days?).
I tuned into the match on Foxtel. Diabolical camerawork, aimless direction, and annoying, droning commentators stood between me and the smells, sights and atmosphere of the game. Even so, I could sense the humidity of the airless night. It seemed like a foreign country, not just another state. Instead of braving the biting wind coming off Mount Mistake, the players retreated to refrigerated cool rooms for carefully managed rehydration. No dressing gowns or oranges were in sight.
Though Port Adelaide have been in the competition for 16 years I can barely recall any of our matches against them. It’s like that with many of the interstate clubs – an absence of that intense rivalry, that tribal loyalty that builds layers of memories, disappointment, joy or resentment into matches. Playing them every year in Darwin of late has still further eroded any investment in the matches - they feel about as interesting as an early pre season trial match. They’re always sloppy, error-riddled games because of the humidity and, perhaps, the lack of occasion. Games you just want to be over without an injury and with a routine four points banked.
This year any complacency about four points is a luxury. Despite myself, I desperately want the Dogs to win what would be just their third victory of the year. The signs aren’t good — they look fatigued from the opening bounce and then Tom Williams, unluckiest of the unlucky, pops his shoulder. I don’t think it’s going to be our night. I try to be philosophical. Again.
The Dogs don’t yield, though. There’s a veritable avalanche of goals in the third quarter, at least by recent Bulldog standards. We hold them off in an agonisingly tense last quarter that seems to go forever. Ted Whitten would have said: Oh what a bloody relief!
When the boys are singing the song my mind drifts to a wonderful article in The Age that morning. One of our supporters, a man called Gary Hincks, was travelling to Darwin to watch his 888th consecutive game. I’m not much of a mathematician, but he must have started this amazing run some 40 years ago. I’m imagining him celebrating among the sparse Darwin crowd, the most dedicated stakeholder of them all.
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.