It's half time at Etihad. As I stamp my feet to get warm, I'm doing some soul-searching, trying to work out what's gone wrong.
Maybe it's rustiness from the bye; maybe it's complacency, or a lack of preparation. It certainly seems that the fundamentals, the basic tenets of footy, have been sadly overlooked.
There was simply no way in the world that a seasoned veteran like myself should have come to a night match, in the middle of June, without wearing two pairs of socks, bringing a blanket to sit on, and armed with a flask of hot chocolate.
Sure, this may seem hypocritical, given my frequent romantic reminiscences about the bracing, character-building experience of a wintry day at the Western Oval. After all, here we are, with the luxury of a closed roof - no biting wind or icicles of rain trickling down the back of your neck any more - and I'm still complaining.
Despite, or maybe because of, the creature comforts of our current 'home', I've gone pathetically soft. I've spent the half-time break mentally composing a friendly email to Gill McLachlan with some ideas for Match Day Experience Enhancements. Why not consider hot water bottles, heated seats and renewable energy projects, as surely the hot air from the Channel 7 commentators could be redirected beneath the stadium to thaw out frozen toes.
(And while I had the supremo's attention, I just might mention the restitution of Chris Grant's Brownlow and a public apology for other crimes against our club. The '97 booking of Craig Ellis, Daniel Southern and Steven Kretiuk for intimidating behaviour would be a good starting point).
Back to the present chilly evening: the problem was, the footy was uninspired. Drab. Our team didn't really look like losing, against a mediocre opposition. But there weren't moments that had you leaping onto your chillblain-infested feet either. We were even getting a good run from the men in ...(what exactly is that colour? slime green?) A few howls of satisfyingly righteous indignation could have get the heart rate soaring, but Tom Boyd even got two free kicks right in front of goal (mind you, for the same sort of mauling he's had with no reward all season).
It was one of those halves of footy with long patches of emptiness. A 'Waiting for Godot' atmosphere. Stoppages, ball-ups, and a lot of pedestrian, unmemorable footy in between. Fumbles, stumbles. Sloppy disposals. Bob losing his feet. The Bont, after three weeks off, out of touch with his innate Bont-ness with some ragged handpasses. Ill-timed decisions to play on, the wrong balance between attack and defence. It just doesn't seem to be quite happening tonight for the Dogs, though we're five goals up at the break.
Ten minutes into the third quarter, I'm not bored any more, but another kind of chill is in the air. The Lions have momentum and trail by only 9 points. Even to me it seems unbelievable that they could win, but let's face it: such an outcome would hardly be uncharted territory for our team.
The first step in arresting the Brisbane mini-surge comes via Mitch Wallis. He lunges at a Lions' player and brings him down with a tackle that would have brought a tear to the eye of The First Libber. Though Mitch is not the longest or most penetrating of kicks, he goes back from almost 50 metres and nails it, as he's done for us more than once at crunch moments. I find myself thinking that there's no one else I'd prefer to see with ball in hands, in that oft-touted, scary but wonderful, 'We're-two-points-down-in-the-grand-final' scenario.
Within a few moments Jake Stringer moves into rampage mode, deciding to single-handedly rescue the game from its torpor. Maybe we weren't 'waiting for Godot' after all; we were waiting for Jakey, the one man who could lift this game from ho-hum to memorable.
Later on I hear that there were some contrived attempts by the Channel 7 commentary team to give Jake a new nickname: 'The Package' (accompanied, of course, by a few blokey sniggers). Memo BT and others: there's a much more Australian, and fitting, expression for our Jake. He is, quite simply, 'The Lair'.
Here's the dictionary definition: (noun) 'a flashy man who likes to show off.'
Lairs do special, unbelievable, freaky things. Lairs sometimes do selfish, frustrating, non-team oriented things, because ... well, because they're lairs.
Could there be a more quintessential 'Jake The Lair' moment than his efforts in flying for a specky from behind T Boyd, who already had front position in a marking contest? How about elevating this already exceptional lairiness to new levels by landing on his bum while T Boyd takes the mark; and then, with no hint of contrition or recognition that perhaps flying like that against your team-mate was not the highest percentage effort, ruffling T Boyd's hair as you run past (probably to face the ire of his frustrated coaches)? As a consummate lair, only Jake could have the chutzpah to act as though this was part of some well-rehearsed team strategy.
What could he be saying, I wonder? 'Great stuff, Boydy, you outmarked me. This time.'
In the last quarter, after Jake has produced a few more dazzling cameos, Mitch Wallis again takes a shot at goal. His shot does credit to another fondly remembered Mitch (Hahn); it's a dreadfully ugly mongrel punt kick from 30 metres out. It barely clears the players on the line but, in Mitch's typically no-frills fashion, gets the job done. Jake congratulates him, ruffling his hair again. No threat to the Jake highlight reel from this blue collar operator, thinks Jake. 'The flashy man who likes to show off.'
The Lair Show even ends with melodrama. Late in the match Jake staggers off the ground as though he's been shot in a spaghetti western. The crowd hold their breath: has he suddenly come down with emergency appendicitis, or has a Brisbane opponent become fed up with his sheer brilliance and decided to deck him behind play? All eyes are on our hero, barely able to walk, being attended to by trainers while the match meanders to a close. But look! to tumultous applause, Jakey is on his feet and back on the ground. (It was, he admits, sheepishly after the match, merely a cramp. All hail the Lair!)
In Jake Stringer, we are blessed to have a unique talent who will drag people through the turnstiles; someone who wants to win the game off his own boot; who misses regulation shots but kicks them from near-impossible angles. Whose amazing reflexes don't extend to the spotting of lesser team-mates unattended in the goal square, because he's too busy conjuring an amazing 'goal of the year' contender. Who steps off one foot 50 metres out to curl in a left foot snap at goal. Who bursts his way through a pack with brute strength, yet knows how to make the ball sing.
I can't think of one past Bulldog player that Jake resembles. We've had the grace and elegance of Chris Grant, the will-o-the-wisp artistry of Bob, the relentless running and ball-winning of Scott West, the endurance and strong marking of Brad Johnson, selfless men like Daniel Cross, quietly and obtrusively putting their bodies on the line.
But oh what fun it is to watch a fully fledged lair in action. And what could he do 'One Day' (we all know which day I'm talking about) on the biggest stage of all.
While Jake's antics have kept us entertained, we've accumulated a 72 point win (and averted frostbite).
It's a sign of our dramatic improvement that as fans, we are pleased but not ecstatic. We know that this wasn't our best form; that's an encouraging thought, not a depressing one.
We had five teenagers in the side (apparently the last time this happened was in the '70s); while 19-year-olds Tom Boyd and The Bont are imminent superstars, the even younger trio of P-platers, Lukas Webb, Bailey Dale and Toby McLean, who all look as though they should have had notes from their mums to be out there, are all fitting in beautifully. (I loved Bailey Dale's look-away handpass in the fourth quarter, Toby McLean's clean hands and neat skills as he passed to the aforesaid Bailey Dale, Lukas Webb's damaging left foot and elegance).
It was the best game for a while from Jarrad Grant, for whom the word 'enigmatic' may have been coined; T Boyd earned himself a Rising Star nomination; Jackson Macrae loped elegantly around racking up 35 disposals. And it's a sign of the times that we're mildly disappointed with The Bont's form given that he still had 20 possessions, six tackles and scored a goal. (Did you know, too, that this 19 year old in his second season is sixth in the competition for launching us inside the 50 metre arc? Me neither).
Six wins out of 11 matches so far, and now we face the Saints, the team that have so often been our nemesis and who broke our hearts only a few weeks ago with a spectacular comeback. If Jake and a few of his prodigiously talented mates continue to delight us, I might not be needing that extra pair of socks and blanket. But a flask of hot chocolate could be a good idea anyway.
I've always had an open-minded attitude to the presence of Greater Western Sydney in the AFL competition.
A sample of my measured and objective comments about GWS includes these descriptions:
They've got stakeholders; we've got fans.
They're bullet points on a strategic plan; we have history, heart, soul.
The occasion should have been an emotional one: the final game of one of our much-loved players, Daniel Giansiracusa. We promptly lost in a disturbingly listless performance. In retrospect the apathetic display was probably the outward sign of whatever malignant atmosphere was swirling around the club at the time.
Within weeks we were rocked by the news that our captain - and the man who was our best player that day - had most likely been in negotiations to join GWS for some time before this.
In the days and weeks that followed it almost felt like our club had been reduced to a scorched earth rubble, as Griffen's departure was quickly followed by that of coach McCartney and an exodus of several senior players.
Our transformation since then has caught us all by surprise. But in the lead-up to our match against GWS (aka The Acronyms), I still found myself uneasy and apprehensive.
There was no way I wanted to be part of an angry baying mob, hurling vicious insults at our former captain and revealing the sort of ugliness that as Martin Flanagan once said after standing near an embittered and vitriolic Collingwood supporter: "I knew he was actually telling the story of his own life."
I couldn't decide what I was most nervous about, though: that this match would be an ill-tempered, spiteful stoush, punctuated with abusive jeers of Griffen (and given our lacklustre display against Melbourne, a 10 goal humiliation). Or that the players would show indifference to the emotion of the occasion, as they did with the Giansiracusa farewell. (And we would endure a 10-goal humiliation).
Towards Griffen himself my feelings were complex. I could not help but feel sadness that something had gone so awry for him, that he'd by all accounts lost his love of the game that he played so brilliantly, yet there was also profound disappointment and disillusionment at the whiff of deceit and double-dealing that hung over his departure.
But I have to admit my feelings were far from noble whenever I recalled a photo that The Acronyms had posted just after the Griffen trade was delivered, featuring him with our other former players Leon Cameron and Callan Ward.
This little gimmick undoubtedly seemed like hilariously witty banter to some callow, smart-alecky youth in The Acronyms' marketing team.
But it particularly stung that our three former players could ever have consented to being part of it.
Each joined our club as a teenager; between them, they played more than 400 games in our colours.
Griffen and Cameron both have the honour and privilege of being life members of our club, one that has been around for more than 130 years.
I found it hard to believe that they felt no sense of honour or respect for our club or regard for the hurt it was feeling. Whatever the circumstances of their departures, did they not feel gratitude, loyalty or nostalgia for the place they had called 'home'; no affection or sense of decency towards their team-mates, the kids who'd hero worshipped them, the fans who'd been with them for the ups and downs?
Does the fact that I even ask these questions stamp me as hopelessly old-fashioned, naively romantic and out-of-touch with the new realities of football?
I wondered, too, how our players would feel about confronting Griffen in his new colours. Was it just business as usual for them, no different from a work colleague moving on to seek new opportunities? With their insiders' perspectives, maybe they felt more calmly resigned and philosophical about Griffen's defection than the fans, for whom this came as a devastating bombshell.
It was possible, of course, that it could work the opposite way. Our players could feel even more intensely aggrieved, because for them this was the betrayal of a friend. After all, these guys quite literally bleed alongside each other. This isn't the departure of Bill from accounts who's taken up a new role with a Sydney-based branch of the company, but the guy who had led them out each week, with whom they'd shared the euphoria of victory and the misery of loss. A fellow sufferer in icy recovery sessions at Williamstown beach or slogging training camps in 40-degree heat. A comrade alongside them at awful moments on field when bones break or ligaments tear.
Revealingly Mitch Wallis gave an interview where he said that he had 'pencilled in' this game at the start of the season, that Griffen's departure had 'hurt' and that he expected the encounter to have more spice than usual. Just as revealingly a sanitised version of these comments soon appeared on the Dogs' website, saying only that Wally was 'looking forward' to the game as a test of how the two young lists stacked up. The more experienced media performer Matthew Boyd was then hastily rolled out to 'blandify' the rhetoric.
Within moments of the first bounce, my questions about how our players would approach this match and whether it was just another four points were answered. They were switched on, playing a high intensity, physical, courageous style of football, harrying The Acronyms, forcing them into error and playing the game completely on our terms.
And all the more amazingly, this was despite the presence of Umpiring Non-Dream Duo 'Razor Ray' and Shane 'The Perm' McInerney; and the absence of two forward line members, Jake Stringer with an illness, and Stewart Crameri. (In an extraordinary example of the depths to which the AFL will stoop to advance the success of The Acronyms, I read with shock that Crameri was not in the team because he had actually been abducted!!). **
The passion of our players gladdened me. It felt right that the players' intention was to make a statement about our club and ensure that the football world knew that we stood for something.
It was, I felt sure, no coincidence that an enormous, bone-jarring tackle just when we needed it most - when The Acronyms crept back into the game in the third quarter - was delivered by the captain who had handed over the baton to Griffen, Matthew Boyd.
Or that Bob Murphy celebrated his last quarter goal with extra zest and emotion, and then followed up with an uncharacteristic physical jostle with Griffen.
Or that senior players like Jordan Roughead and Liam Picken committed selfless act after selfless act to push the ball forward or thwart an opposition attack.
Best on ground with an inspirational game was one Mitchell Wallis, who showed us that yes: this son of a life member and former captain is one who cherishes our club's history and honours its meaning.
And as for the booing of Griffen, it didn't really become the issue that I'd dreaded, simply because he had a wretched afternoon and rarely touched the ball.
It was as stirring a win as you could have when your opponents are a three-year old franchise. (However, I have to congratulate the AFL on the CGI special effects display designed to made it look like the Acronyms had a cheer squad behind the goals. And their pre-recorded cheers from the GWS Fan Engagement App seemed to work smoothly too).
When the siren went, our players, and fans, wore their hearts on their sleeves. It was one of those memorable moments when the crowd (sadly, far too small) and players came together in a feeling of oneness and belonging. I watched the joyous exchanges between our guys, the fist-pumps from Will 'Umpies Pet' Minson, the fierce, grim pleasure of Bob Murphy and Matthew Boyd, the look on the players' faces that said this was a mission achieved and accomplished, and not for the first time, my club moved me to tears.
Around the boundary line, the players jogged to touch hands with the fans. Celebrating his very first win was awestruck, shiny-eyed third-gamer Dale Bailey (or is it Bailey Dale? I never can remember); he was behind the athletic frame of grizzled second year veteran Marcus Bontempelli. Bailey Dale looks so heartbreakingly young that I'm convinced that he calls his captain and coach Mr Murphy and Mr Beveridge.
Bailey Dale's mentor is Mitch Wallis.
'He said to me: "Just put your head down and earn the respect of the boys" ', our new number 31 said in his first radio interview.
I think about his future and the journey he's about to embark upon, and wish that football would always be so simple for him. I hope he will never know moments like those of the blank-faced figure of Ryan Griffen, leaving the arena to boos and jeers, an exile from our club and his former brothers-in-arms.
**Correction: okay, okay, I might have got it wrong. Crameri actually had an adductor strain. But you have to admit after the injustices the AFL have meted out to us over the years, the kidnapping of a key player was not out of the question.
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.