"The internal source of energy within our team is changing.
In the best possible sense, this is not my team any more."
- Bob Murphy, July 16, 2014.
Just like Bob, as fans we've been sensing, yet up till now not fully grasping, the shifting power balance in our team. And just like him, it's taking us time to adjust, to transfer our hopes, our allegiances, even our love, to a new set of blokes in the red, white and blue.
At first the newbies feature only as pleasing, sometimes quaint, cameos to the main act when they make their debuts. They're endearingly young and fresh; they inject life, enthusiasm, new talking points, a novelty factor if nothing else.
But somehow we remain invested in the past, our affections and trust still lying with the guys that so nearly got us there in 2008-10. At a critical point of a match, we've come to expect there will be a burst through the lines by Griff, an act of courage by Morris, some crazily sacrificial desperation by Picken, gut-running by Boyd, a wily maneuver by the silver fox Gia, or a light-as-air sidestep by Murphy.
Yet quietly, almost invisibly, these stalwarts who've carried us for so long are gently fading into the background. They're the support act; having inspired the younger brigade by their words, deeds and examples at training and on the field, their parts are slowly diminishing, and a new order is being born.
It's a strange facet of football - or any team sport I guess - that fans have to keep re-calibrating their loyalties and emotions. We're required to move on, to accept the cruel fact those dedicated servants of our club, who would have been worthy of the highest rewards of the game, won't receive them, while we as fans, in an almost fickle way, can shift our devotion to the next, newest and brightest. It's a bitter-sweet reality, that even as we shed genuine tears when the dedicated warrior Daniel Cross gets chaired off the ground, the wheels are already in relentless motion for a new number four to take his place. At first the new pup will look weirdly unfamiliar in that well-loved guernsey, an unknown quantity when he's paraded in the draft. When he plays his first game there'll be jarring moments where it's hard to reconcile this number four persona - a tall and athletic youngster instead of a balding but crafty and selfless veteran. But soon the cheer squad will be chanting his name and blog posts will be written that are just All About Him - the Bont - just as I once wrote a tribute called "On Daniel Cross and Extraordinary courage."
We all know it's going to be like this - that it has to be like this - but it's no less poignant a process; while we might hold off just a little with our affection at first, our hopes and dreams will transition, inexorably, to a new generation.
These Young Ones are still untarnished, still blank canvases that could - might - be anything. For a club like ours that has wandered in the wilderness quite a few decades too long, we can project on them an endless range of possibilities. Our young blokes have not - we like to believe they will never - let us down at big moments, faltered at a critical point of a match, put in a disappointingly lacklustre performance. We're learning their strengths, and don't yet know their weaknesses.
It's actually a rather marvelous time to be a fan - or at least that's how I see it. Knowing where we are at as a side, there's not as much at stake; matches don't have that precarious, nerve-racking edge that comes from knowing the outcome will determine a spot on the ladder. I can actually remember in the 08-10 period going home disappointed with some six or eight goal victories because we hadn't in truth played all that well, or had coasted along without maximum effort against an inferior opponent. No place for such jaded ennui at present; wins are precious jewels, yet losses are still chances to see a new, potentially brilliant, future take shape.
At first there's just tantalising glimpses, enthralling us because they're rare and novel. That little thrill the first time you see draft pick number six - Jackson Macrae - spear a pass onto the chest of draft pick number five, Jake Stringer. The first time you see a string of players linking up, sharing and running down the ground, overlapping and supporting - and realise that none of them has played more than 10 games. The first time you see a flurry of Bulldogs players contesting and competing fiercely at the bottom of the pack, eventually shovelling out to another who's there to support his mates...and the names are not Boyd and Cross, or West, Johnson and Smith, but Libber and Wallis (the junior versions), Hrovat, Macrae, Dalhaus, Bontempelli...
Soon we're not just muttering, 'Hey that kid Macrae looks a bit of all right', but watching, almost unbelieving, as he becomes the youngest ever player to rack up 40+ possessions. We're not smiling with wry amusement at 19 year old Jake Stringer's strut and air of confidence in his first game; we're willing him on as in game number 23, he bursts through packs and nails five goals. We're not fooled any more by the baby faces of Nathan Hrovat and Lachlan Hunter; we've seen their ferocious competitive spirits, the way they hurl themselves into the fray, their neat finishing skills. The Bont, of course, has not so much stolen into our affections as crashed into our imaginations. The most exciting player in our colours since Chris Grant, he's an 18 year old prodigy, the player who already, in each of his 11 games so far, has done at least one thing that makes us turn to each other in amazement and delight: 'Did you see that?' 'The Bont!'
So though we could, maybe should, have won the match on Sunday, the crowds spilling out after our loss to our old foes (the villainous, infamous Dons) weren't shaking their heads about the usual tale of woe, lamenting how we let a lead slip, pondering what can we do about our height deficiencies in defence, bemoaning our decision to play Cooney when he was underdone, debating what might have been if Wally hadn't got injured and let Heppell off the hook, asking questions of the footy gods about why Carlisle had to suddenly bloom as a key forward just against us, questioning why that 50 metre penalty was paid when the Essendon player played on...all right, I concede we might have mentioned a couple of these things, but there was much more to our conversations as we headed home.
Our steps were brisk, energetic and light, our spirits still high. This was not the miserable trudge of losers.
'Did you see how high Lachie Hunter flew?' 'Could The Bont be a key forward? what about those hands? is he actually an alien, do you reckon?' 'Is Jake still eligible for the Rising star? he HAS to get a nomination this week.' 'Great little game from the Rat.' 'Thirty two touches again from Macrae, the guy is un-freaking-believable!'
We knew our young team ran out of legs, but not heart, not will.
Last week Bob Murphy signed up for one more year, energised, you feel, by the talent that's blossoming everywhere around him. I was relieved to hear that our heart and soul player will still be there in 2015; the day Bob retires is a prospect much too painful to contemplate. Yet running around some muddy ground somewhere is, I guess, the next number two for the mighty Dogs (unless, in my preferred scenario, Bob keeps playing until young Jarvis can take the field as a father-son). The beauty of footy is that it's all a bit of a 'write your own adventure' fantasy; the new number two could be, like Bob himself, a champion who plays more than 150 games (hopefully 200), or a Brownlow medallist like Allan Hopkins, or a premiership winning full forward like Jack Collins. He could, of course, be an honest journeyman like Keenan Reynolds, or Richard Cousins, or a plodder as you can perhaps infer Gene Sullivan (a mere three games in 1929) and Bernie Hogan (just two in 1949) may have been. But who knows, that yet-to-debut successor to Bob may be the next piece in the puzzle that BMac and Co are currently assembling - perhaps a match-winning centre half back in our next premiership team. After all, common sense says The Bont surely can't be expected to play full forward, centre half back AND in the midfield along Macrae, Hrovat, Honeychurch, Wallis and Libber..wait a minute...can he?
Last week when I reminisced on this blog about our one-sided enmity with Geelong, my mother chimed in on the Tragician Facebook page to tell me that on her wedding day, 22 April, 1957, the Dogs drew with the Cats at Kardinia Park. After the wedding, which was held in the morning at St John's West Footscray, most of the Footscray-mad guests made the trek down to Geelong. Meanwhile (I love this bit) my parents headed off to their honeymoon, via bus, to Marysville. No twitter updates, no Foxtel-go, no excited text messages: the newlyweds heard the result via a helpful bus-driver.
Fast-forward some 57 years and my mother, now 77, is a cosmopolitan citizen of the digital world, contributes a well-placed 'LOL' into family SMS conversations, emails us from her iPad...and travels almost 3000 km to Cairns to watch her beloved Bulldogs play.
With her was my sister. While The Tragician languishes in the grey Melbourne winter, she has stepped in to capture all the action as this week's guest blogger:
Coming off the interchange
It's game day and I'm setting off for the match: but hang on, it's only 6.15 a.m!!
I'm off to Cairns and there are two big OUTS for the day: Ryan Griffen and The Tragician. As I meet Mum and her partner at the airport and we get ready to board, things feel strangely out of order. I'm not travelling down Footscray Road, there are no text messages to my siblings about who is going, where to meet, what time...Then a giant shadow literally looms behind me. When I turn around I see that Barry Hall is also on his way, and then I realise it's a National Competition and order is restored.
We arrive at Cairns airport, drop off our things and walk to the bus stop, which is decorated with footy balloons. Suddenly we're surrounded by a sea of others wearing red, white and blue. We board the bus and chatter begins among the fans that Griff is out...he has woken with a virus. There's others that say he was on their plane and had to stand the whole way because of his back spasm...and here I was thinking I was dedicated!
We arrive at the ground to a carnival atmosphere, with marquees, tents selling fairy floss (unfortunately no Cherry Ripes, the favourite footy indulgence of the Tragician and myself). We walk to our seat and amazingly enough bump into a 'friend', a woman we sit behind at Etihad each week. We chat; she asks if my siblings are here. I tell her I am flying solo and she raises her eyebrows - I can't be 100% certain but I suspect she is questioning the Trag's commitment.
When we take our seats, we realise the interchange is right in front of us. How am I supposed to concentrate on contested possession, kicking efficiency and forward entries when there is another mini game being played out in front of me (not to mention hulking bodies)...but the ball is bounced and I am focused again (well sort of).
The game is underway and we can clearly hear the goings-on of the interchange, which is operating at a frenetic pace, yelling, screaming, pointing, hand signals and also words of encouragement. It seems like total chaos as we hear 'Keith, Keith, get off, get off now'. I find out Keith is Boyd. 'Where am I' - that was a bit of a worry... 'Am I forward or back now?' ...'this side or the other side'...a little grin for a second gamer who just kicked his first goal... as much as it appears to me that nobody knows what's going on, to the players I suppose this is a normal day at the office.
Back on the ground we're doing really well (well ok except for a poor second quarter) but The Bont did take that spectacular one handed mark and that kept us all excited.
Next thing you know it's the last quarter. We're only 2 points down and right into the match. Can we do it?
Chaos continues to reign on the interchange bench, players coming on and off, bent over, gasping for some air, stretching, crouching and looking like they can't take another step - but then they're back on. Everyone is playing well and this week another of our kids steps up, it's Jackson Macrae. He has a great last quarter and also kicks two goals...everyone cheers when he comes off for a well-deserved breather.
Suddenly it's around the 25 minutes mark and Libba has snapped a goal. I mutter 'Can we do it?' My new Bulldogs friend beside me says to relax and enjoy the rest, I say I have followed them for too long and I can't rest until the siren goes. Finally the siren, everyone goes up as one. The song begins to blare out and we are all singing loudly, but then I realise that someone in control of the PA system has got over-excited and pressed the button too early, as the Suns are still lining up for a shot at goal.
The music abruptly goes off, but we are all still singing without the music. We don't need it - we're 1000s of miles from home, but we all know the words. What a moment, it was spine tingling, something I will always remember.
We take our picture. We are undefeated in Cairns!
You'd expect the Cats and Dogs of the AFL world to share a fierce rivalry.
But over the years, the relationship between Geelong and our team has been more like a one-sided competition in which a pesky younger sibling tries desperately to engage the attention of the cool, superior older teenager.
Or like the futile efforts of my little dog Belle (a Brussels Griffon who weighs only four kilos), who is constantly embarrassed in her battles with the insolent cat from next door who sleeps on our front porch and shows humiliating indifference to her frantic attempts to scare him off the property.
Like Belle, it often feels we're just yapping away at the AFL Cats' heels, all sound and fury. Meanwhile they're yawning, looking bored, and licking their paws, not one bit troubled by our feverish, futile efforts.
As long as I can remember, when we've had the merest tantalising sniff of premiership glory, those cool Cats have stood nonchalantly in our way, effortlessly swatting us out of contention. Fearing this was just a trick of my Tragician-style doom-and-gloom memory, I checked the records and established that the picture was even worse than I thought. We've met Geelong seven times in finals, but have never beaten them.
While the style and narrative of our defeats has shown a commendable range of diversity, the dire outcome has always been the same. While I can't comment on our first two losses to them in 53 and 76, unfortunately I've witnessed the other five.
They were memorable. For all the wrong reasons.
There's been your garden-variety humiliating wallopings; in 92, we probably set a finals record (I'm too dis-heartened to check) by losing twice to the Cats by more than ten goals in the space of three weeks. I guess you've got to applaud our consistency. These were the days when you could meet your tormenters from the qualifying final a mere fortnight later in the prelim. And luckily for us, the Cats awaited us in the re-match, only too ready to pounce on a team that they certainly had the measure of.
The Cats piled on the agony in 94 when that 'Billy! you are the king of Geelong!!' moment unfolded with the awful slow motion horror movie style that is reserved just for us in finals series (to the uninitiated, this was the ghastly moment when Bill Brownless marked just before the final siren, when we were one point ahead. I never had the slightest doubt that he would go back and slot the goal).
To restore a more familiar order, they belted the living suitcase out of us when we fronted up again in 95, by a mere 82 points.
In our more recent stoushes with the Cats, in the finals' series of 08 and 09, we have at least been a bit closer. But... not really. Their fantastically talented super teams accounted for us comfortably; even if we were much more competitive than in the dreadful humiliations of 92 and 95, and had chances to beat them in the last quarter, the point was: we never did. And still there they were, a barrier we could never overcome, our hoops-wearing nemesis. It was, of course, our wretched misfortune that they were playing their greatest ever footy, perhaps some of the best ever witnessed, right at the time when we too were challengers.
The Cats have always had a way of delivering us a painful reality check. Earlier in 2008, we headed down the Geelong highway chock full of optimism; while the Cats were on top of the ladder, we were second, and flying. Flying enough to get within 61 points, in fact, as the Cats toyed with us and reduced us to a rabble.
The dreary atmosphere on the train trip home, with the carriages packed with silent Bulldogs' fans, resembled assassinated President Lincoln's funeral procession. The only chatter came from two Geelong fans who artlessly prattled away about how many of their players had been down, and, really, it had been one of their less impressive performances. The Cats hadn't been tested, and would need to lift to beat a team of quality, they agreed. (That yawning, insolent cat on the porch again).
These were just some of the inspirational memories of the Good Ole Days, that made me decide to take up position on the couch for Sunday's match rather than brave the elements and another example of innovative AFL programming (4.40 on a Sunday in winter, anyone?). I feared the Cat-astrophe (sorry) Performance Index for our young team, not perhaps known for exquisite foot-skills, was likely to reach harrowing, foofer-valve-busting, proportions. And I thought, despite recent sanctimonious words from me about being there for your team, that I'd prefer to be dry and warm if indeed a foofer-valve-busting Cat-astrophe was on the cards.
The decision seemed more than justified early on (with one important exception: for my sins of non-attendance, I had to suffer the awful inanity of the Fox Sports commentary). A kicking efficiency of under 30 per cent from Our Boys was not making for a pretty spectacle. The Dogs, it seemed, could well be goal-less for the match, as our lack of composure and comparatively immature bodies made us look badly outclassed. Our feline foes, stacked with triple premiership heroes, were, surely, set to grind us into the ground. They were living proof of the adage that rain and wind doesn't even out the skills gap between good and poor sides; it just makes it even more of a chasm.
But here's the thing: almost unremarked upon over the last few weeks, the Dogs have been quietly, almost stealthily, creeping towards respectability. From the nadir that was our humiliating loss to Brisbane - where our direction and even our place in the competition were questioned - we've pulled off an emotional, character-defining win against the Pies; lost to Port after a bright beginning and a horrendous spate of injuries against the top-of-the-table team; defeated Melbourne where we dug deep and just wanted the win more. And a big chunk of that improvement rests with our still raw younger guys, not content with mere cameos anymore but making influential, match-shaping contributions, at the right time, the right moment.
After half time, that growing resilience and refusal to give in was on display again. After huddling together in the rooms, on a gloomy, sodden night, four goals down with nothing really on the line for us... the Dogs showed there WAS something on the line. Pride, desire, and competitive spirit. Their efforts didn't drop away, they grew. They came gamely at the Cats, they scrapped, they fought. They kicked GOALS, they even out-scored the Cats. That kid called The Bont - have you heard of him? - was awesome, again, significantly, saving his best footy for the parts of the game where the contest was fiercest.
In the end, our tardy start made the mountain just that bit too hard to climb. We lost, as was always expected, but it felt like it was another step on our journey: that we displayed the courage to not meekly roll over and get thrashed when it was cold, wet and dismal. To want to win. More pointers to a future that seemed so bleak a few short weeks ago, and a reason to keep those Bulldogs' tails wagging. But I hope when the footy wheels turn and we are contenders again, those Cats are safely anchored down the other end of the ladder, not sitting languidly on the porch ready to spoil our party and break our hearts, one more time.
A story from last year: in 2006, the Dogs and Cats both faced a bright future, but only one went onto premiership glory(s)....
Cats, dogs, sliding doors and premiership windows
"I'm hoping to see at least one moment that might be a lasting treasure in the memory bank."
Bulldog Tragician, June 27, in the leadup to our match vs Melbourne.
I’m certainly not one to heap undue pressure on an 18-year-old kid, in only his eighth game and his first season.
But when future Bulldog premiership captain, Brownlow medallist and All-Australian Marcus Bontempelli kicked the 2014 goal of the year, I knew I had my unforgettable gem for not just the match but the year.
Before he even kicked it, I was in awe, amazed by his first, second, third and fourth efforts just to keep the ball in play with those octopus arms and unbelievable basketball-style reflexes. When he swung it onto his non-preferred foot, it felt as though everyone in the whole stadium held their collective breath. There was that milli-second of silence, then a building hum of sound as we watched its trajectory, hoping, yet hardly daring to hope. But when you look at the replay (which I may have done, once or twice) I reckon it was actually never going anywhere but straight through the middle.
I love so many things about this goal. I love the way, like the great players, The Bont conjured up possibilities, space and opportunities in the tightest of places, unseen by mere mortals, within a tiny little canvas where he is about to weave his magic. I love seeing debutant Mitch Honeychurch raise his arms almost as soon as The Bont lets fly, knowing it will go through (what a brilliant memory for him to savour forever in his first match). I love the looks on the faces of the spectators in the background, their expressions, dazed, unbelieving, laughing in that slightly crazy way that you do when you’ve seen something that really is that over-used word, "special".
As they begin to rise, as we all did, almost hypnotised, to our feet.
The roar as the ball sailed through was not simply jubilation - even though it was a goal that put us back in front and ultimately won us the match, after we seemed to have lost our way. It was the simultaneous, collective realisation from thousands of people (even, I dare say, the Melbourne fans too) that they’d seen one for the ages. We all knew instantly that this was no fluky goal, not just a lucky, blind, panicked kick. Straight away we sensed that the freakish skills - and the fact that they were produced at such a perilous point of the match - were signs that this could be a player with a charismatic ‘X’ quality. A player with that certain will and drive to produce his very best when it matters most, in the very hottest point of the furnace in a match. A player that could get the turnstiles clicking. A player who just may be the one to nail that clutch goal at the right moment and not seem overawed by the responsibility, as so many of our players have struggled with in the past, even great ones like Brad Johnson, Chris Grant and Daniel Giansiracusa.
Once the euphoria of the ‘Bonti-ful’ goal began to fade (actually, it still hasn't, but for the purposes of this story, bear with me) we walked out of the ground, untroubled by the driving rain, hail, sleet (and I still maintain there were a few snowflakes). And we were still marvelling. Still talking about that goal.
But I began remembering many other contributions throughout the match, not as spectacular but still worthy, and how these too shaped the outcome and formed the backdrop for The Bont's dramatic entrance on the stage. The ever selfless and always heroic Dale Morris flinging himself onto a Melbourne boot in the goal square, saving a certain goal. Liam Picken performing an almost insanely suicidal act in the third quarter when the Dees were launching their fiercest challenge, putting his head down, risking life and limb to wrest away the ball into his keeping. There were 20 ‘moments’ from Matthew Boyd, 20 contested balls won by the 32 year old leader of our precocious midfield, stepping up in the absence of Griffen. There were the composure and smarts of Honeychurch who only needed half a second to snap a goal in his first match, Lachlan Hunter's deft touches and 'specky'. The bullocking work of Jake Stringer, who should have finished with six goals in his best game for the club. The tireless leading and strong marking of our Carey-esque center half forward – ummm, Luke Dalhaus?? The ungainly but somehow beautiful snap on goal by the man who was apparently christened William Minson but is forever known as Big Will.
Let's leave these efforts aside, though, and return to The Bont and what his emergence could mean for our club. If he does become the superstar we hope he will be (I'm sick of being low key and judicious in my expectations - the lid is OFF!), how much excitement, magic and sheer entertainment could be bring and how much could he bring sparkle to the image of our battling club. And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I'm imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I'm all set to get one myself).
Some time soon, I guess it's possible The Bont may experience a natural form slump, and even play a shocker. Not yet 19, his body may soon cry out for a rest. As the years roll on, The Bont will experience (PLEASE, PLEASE let it be at our club for his whole career) the natural ebbs and flows of a footballing life. Disappointments, tough days at the office, and heartbreaking losses. Fickle fans. Injuries, maybe even lonely stints in rehabilitation. Times when footy does not seem as easy, joyous and carefree as it must at the moment.
Fans from other clubs often jeer at the Bulldogs for our lack of premiership success, ridiculing our solitary flag. They don't get it: that there are so many other reasons to love and follow a club, and one of those is our connection with our players. As we watch The Bont's career begin to unfold, right now full of limitless potential and wonder, I like to think about the fact that we will be there alongside him in all the steps of his journey. Just as every time Dale Morris backs courageously into a pack, it's more precious because we have been there for his debut as a mature-aged rookie who refused to give up, watching with hearts in mouths as he was carried off from a horrific broken leg, celebrating his hard-fought return; and one day, in sorrow, we know we will bid him farewell and thank him with overflowing hearts. Just as we shared Chris Grant's rise from spindly 17 year old to elegant power forward, his heartbreak at the missed Brownlow, the devastation of the missed Grand Finals, and transition to respected club elder statesman.
Now we're there for the ride as new careers begin in the red, white and blue, new fresh faces carry forward our dreams, and none right now seems more exciting and promising than the kid called The Bont.
Last year on Grand Final Day I penned a rose-coloured prediction of our 2016 premiership (Tomozz). There have been many times this year that my optimism seemed every bit insane as a Liam Picken sacrificial lunge over a loose balll. But right now I'm thinking if I wrote it again, I'd need to find a place in my daydream for The Bont. Marcus Bontempelli, Norm Smith medallist? It sounds pretty damn good to me.
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.