We've become used to selection intrigue in 2014 but still Luke Beveridge pulled off a massive shock in announcing the team to face West Coast. Out with alleged general soreness were wily veterans M Boyd and L Picken but few predicted the sidelining of B Tragician. (Caroline Wilson is hot on the heels of a story entitled : 'grave fears held for Tragician's mental state after last weeks bizarre positive post.)
Into the ranks came fresh faced rookies R Smith, D Pearce and one Dan Oskes who will be penning the blog while the Tragician freshens up for the finals.
Take it away, guest blogger Dan Oakes:
When the owner of this space asked me if I wanted to fill in for a couple of weeks (she did not elaborate on why she was "MIA", but the geo-tag for a well-known tropical resort on her tweets gave some clue) I was understandably chuffed. But a small, nagging voice in the back of my head did wonder whether it might prove to be a poisoned chalice.
And, lo, so it did come to pass.
Horrible as it is to acknowledge that Gary Lyon was correct, Sunday was a test, and it was one the Bulldogs ultimately failed.
In the lead up to the game, I told my parents - English migrants with a sporadic interest in Aussie Rules - that Luke Beveridge, deprived of Matthew Boyd and Liam Picken, had selected Daniel Pearce and Roarke Smith to replace them, two pups with a total of five games between them.
The selection was, I told them with a sense of pride, a demonstration of what distinguishes Luke from the rest of them. All year he has given the kids their chance, and none have let him down, even the Lukas Webbs and Bailey Dales, whose time in the seniors has been limited.
And I think after the last three months, an almost delusional optimism has taken hold: no Picken and Boyd, two newish, young kids, a road-trip to Perth, teetering on the brink of a top four (maybe even top two!) place, with the all the nervousness and pressure that entails. No problem. In Luke we trust.
The 10-year-old pointed out repeatedly in the 48 hours before the game that Masten would be out, after treating Suban as a giant jerky strip, as if that final piece of luck would be all we required.
As the camera panned across the pre-match huddle, the sight of Roarke Smith jiggling nervously at the back generated a little lift of the heart, ahead of what was arguably the most significant game the Dogs had played in a few years.
It was a strange, tense game, from the start. The commentators were rhapsodising from early in the piece, but we were somewhat puzzled in the Oakes lounge room. Yes, there was plenty of running, plenty of action, but there were also a lot of mistakes. It put me in mind of professional wrestling, when the two wrestlers repeatedly run past each other, turn and rebound off the ropes, until finally one sticks out his arm and clothes lines the other.
Um, yes, but anyway. It was heartening to see Crameri pick up where he left off against Melbourne early in the piece, wheeling away onto that left foot and smashing it through from 40 metres out.
Still not sure what he is. Wingman? Forward? Gutting running midfielder? At his best, he’s reminiscent of Matthew Richardson in that year he almost won the Brownlow playing on the wing.
There was Dale Morris launching himself horizontally, like a missile, to gather the ball, dish it off, and all of a sudden Big Jack Redpath had a goal and we were ahead. Then Josh Kennedy, looking more like the lost member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young every day, kicked his first of the day.
Sprawled on the couch, we saw an errant Bulldogs handball in the defensive 50, and all of the sudden the Eagles were ahead. “Who the hell was that?!”. “Oh, Murph….carry on.”
At quarter time, there were only a couple of goals in it, but Nic Nat was toweling up Campbell in the middle, and Kennedy was looking menacing. The Lair was looking sharp for us, and Hunter and McCrae were seeing plenty of the ball.
Mrs Oakes looked up from the paper to say “oh dear” as Kennedy kicked the first of the quarter. But Wallis demonstrated in a cameo what has made him so valuable this year, stripping the ball from a West Coast defender for The Lair to goal, and keep us in it.
With the benefit of hindsight, given the way the game panned out, the latter stages of the second quarter were an ominous signpost. The Eagles just seemed to have more time with ball, they sling-shotted it back from defence quicker, and Kennedy and Nic Nat were simply too good for their Dog counterparts.
It was nice to see it was an old-style day for the forwards, but unfortunately Big Jack is still not the gorilla that Kennedy is for the Eagles. Perhaps that day will come, though.
The second half started in frenzied fashion, as if the Dogs realized this was their last chance to haul themselves back into it. The two sides traded goals, as the scoreboard, at least, suggested we were still in it.
The Lair motored towards the forward 50, turned, kicked it left-footed across the arc looking for a teammate, and shanked it horribly. Human after all. But shortly afterwards he kicked the Dogs 12th goal.
From that moment on, it was all down (Josh) hill. The former Bulldog kicked the last two of the quarter, and although it was only four goals the difference at three-quarter time, we knew in our hearts it was over. “Yep, cooked”, texted my mate Dave, a born westie and lifelong Dogs man.
The sight of Biggs rucking against Nic Nat in the final quarter did not bring slightly disbelieving giggles, as those mismatched ruck duels have done when we’ve been winning, but resigned groans. And as the Eagles cruised home, I put the dinner on and the ten-year-old went back to his favourite past-time: standing in front of the fire with his hands thrust down the front of his tracksuit pants.
The equanimity with which he took the result was, in the end, an indication of the real expectations we brought into this game.
I was a relatively late convert to Aussie Rules, having grown up playing and watching soccer. But when I became a sports reporter, I felt it was incumbent on me to choose a team. These were the Peter Rohde years, so nobody could accuse me of chasing success, but there was something about the Dogs that drew me. I grew up a supporter of West Ham, a working class club that was never hugely successful, but drew plenty of neutral admirers and produced some titanic, much-loved figures. Maybe there’s a clue there.
But the 10-year-old was born a Doggie, and spent his formative years in Seddon, even if we’ve now moved across town. An old lady used to walk her dog in the nearby park, and never failed to stop and have a chat as we kicked the footy. When he told her his namewas Charlie, she waxed poetic about Charlie Sutton as he looked bemused.
The Doggies players would pop into Le Chien cafe, in Seddon, while we sat there with our morning long black and babycino, and when the club made those prelim finals in the late 2000s, the rash of red, white and blue ribbons and balloons across the suburb revealed how deeply those colours still ranin the inner-west.
He goes to the clinics, he pesters me to take him to VFL games, and, let me tell you, he wears his jersey with pride on ‘wear your footy colours to school’ day, as the red, black and white tide swells across the playground of his bayside primary school.(His younger brother is a Saints fan, but that’s a story for another time).
All of which is to say: he cares, and he cares deeply. When he was sick earlier this season and he couldn’t go to the game against Melbourne, watching it on TV instead, he ripped his jersey off at the final siren and lay on his bed sobbing for some time afterwards.
So, his lack of distress at the result of Sunday’s game was the purest demonstration of what our real expectations were, but also of the enduring optimism the season thus far has instilled in him. Meh, a blip.
What’s done is done. There was still a lot to like in the performance (The Lair, The Bont, Murph, Jack McCrae and Lachie Hunter, Big Jack in parts), and we can forgive some of the others for being overawed or out-muscled against a bigger, older side, playing at home for a top two spot.
Saturday’s has the potential to be a cracking game, and we greet it with a renewed spring our steps, and half an eye on the finals. Richmond? Surely not….
Our rows at Etihad Stadium stood, for once, silent and empty two weeks ago when we played Port. We were at a different place of worship, celebrating the confirmation of the youngest family member of our Tragician family.
Yes - after my recent tear-jerking ‘Angela’s Ashes’ revelations of a deprived Deer Park childhood, it will hardly be a surprise to learn that our family are also Irish-Catholics. (A family friend of a similar ilk once despairingly summed up the triple disadvantage under which we labour: ‘Western suburbs. Footscray supporters. Irish-Catholics. No wonder we all have chips on our shoulders!’)
We sat fidgeting in the church, trying to furtively check scores on our phones and keep in check blasphemous language when we saw that the Dogs were, far too quickly, three goals down. Then we had to contain urgent mutterings when we began to glean that the tide at Etihad Stadium was turning, and turning quickly; the Dogs were storming over the top of Port.
We weren't there when what seemed like 50,000 Dogs fans rode our team home (with three generations of the Tragician family absent, the ranks were sorely depleted to only a smidgeon over 20,000).
At the end of the game (by this time, we were safely seated in front of a TV, scoffing party pies in hour of the Confirmee, and watching in delight, amazement and awe – the three emotions I’ll always associate with this season), we could hear the song being sung, the Bulldog chant go up, the din and jubilation of a great win. Another chapter in this year of miracles.
A little over a week later, we were back, walking down aisles and entering pews of a different kind. If I wished to strain my religious metaphor still further (oh, why the heck not?) our opponents are the Demons, who've recently given us hell. (Bizarrely enough - and yet perfectly comprehensible to every Dogs’ fan - the under-performing ‘Dees’ are somewhat of a bogey team for us.)
The Dogs launch into a first half that is simply breathtaking. We rattle on twelve goals that are all at once effortless and yet effortful. Has there been a more blistering, dazzling, irrepressible performance than this?
Earlier in the season I once wrote that I expected that our players might pause to perform cartwheels, such was their exuberance and infectious enthusiasm. But there would be no time for such antics at present; football, Luke Beveridge style, is played in perpetual motion. Our Dogs are playing something that’s a cross between ballet and acrobatics; there are so many moments where, just as in Cirque du Soleil, we gasp and look at each other: ‘Did you see that? Did you REALLY see that?’
If the ball hits the deck, there’s always a swarm of frenzied Dogs hunting it down. Kicks scythe through the opposition; angles and impossible space open up everywhere in the field with sublime footskills; audacious, almost ludicrous, handballs somehow pay off.
In soccer terms, we’re playing the beautiful game.
These are heady — and yet, because we’re, well, us — scary moments as a Bulldog fan. Surely we are the only fans in the competition who could still, nervously, after an admittedly poor third quarter after the stunning first half theatrics, be computing whether the Dees could run all over us in the last quarter and inflict on us the most humiliating defeat of all time.
Yes: for Dogs' fans, saying ‘anything can happen’ means we're bracing ourselves for the possibility of squandering a 72 point rather than allowing ourselves to dream of our players, at last, on the premiership podium.
Every week we wait for the bubble to burst, for our team to suffer a humiliation, for the young legs to tire and the zest and enthusiasm to fade. Protectively, we cling to talk of ‘danger games’ to ease the pain if or as we think of it, when, this return to normality occurs.
So long resentful of being overlooked by the media, now we’re jittery that there’s been ‘too much attention’ on us. When people start not only reaching for the ‘F’ word to describe our prospects but also the ‘P’ word, we’re torn between moments where the tantalising vision opens up in technicolour glory, and sheer panic. This can’t be for the likes of us, surely?
It’s easier to don the protective shell, ruthlessly clamp down on dreams of Bob Murphy with the Cup, and don the hair shirt of pessimism.
We hose down hope with recollections of some of our ‘rabbit in the headlights’ finals performances, our embarrassing inability to deliver on the big stage, sorrowful memories of under-achievement. They have left scars, wounds on our psyche, not only that yawning abyss of 60 years without a flag, but the knowledge that we’ve appeared in only 44 finals in our 90 years in the competition and won only 14 of them.
To believe. To hope. To invest in the roller coaster and rip aside the defensive, protective walls. They're the hardest thing when you’ve had a history like ours.
The Tragician admits to setting a poor example in the positivity stakes by wallowing in such depressing stats and harking back, on the odd occasion, to certain galling preliminary finals defeats. It's high time to redress the balance.
As fans WE should be doing those cartwheels of exuberant joy and celebrating how far we've come.
Whatever happens this year, wherever our journey ends, right now we should pause and give thanks for the bottomless delight that this most unexpected season has given us already. (I will shoulder the blame if we implode and miss the finals.)
Here are some of my reasons that 2015 has been one I'll always treasure.
Luke Beveridge brings a new game plan
Our coach has the most abundant locks in the business, wears his heart on his sleeve, and high fives the crowd as he walks among them.
Every week we say his selection tactics make no sense, and every week his bold moves and faith in the young brigade pay off.
He is reputed to skateboard to and from the Western Oval, surfs on the weekend, and tells 'dad' jokes to the players to relax them before a game.
This is my favourite Luke Beveridge quote. After he was appointed he said:
"I don’t feel you need to win 12 goals to nine or eight goals to five is a good result, just as long as you win.
“If we kick 20 and they kick 17 we win. That’s all I want, to win."
Matthew Boyd. 'Mark of the Year' contender.
On Sunday Matthew 'Keith' Boyd took a hanger. A spectacular, sensational, bona fide specky. A thing of beauty. Right in front of us. it may have been, almost certainly was, his first ever. But the way he's playing, you wouldn't bet on it being his last.
Matthew Boyd, the former Frankston reserves player who's modelled his game on work ethic and a fanatical commitment to training rather than the fancy stuff, was once derided as a player who could accumulate 40 possessions a week but wouldn't hurt the opposition with any of them. Now I've dubbed him the 'Disposal Efficiency King'. As a re-invented backman, his figures apparently rival those of Murph's.
And best of all, when Luke Beveridge confronted the team and asked whether anyone was daydreaming about finals, none dared own up to the cardinal footy sin of 'getting ahead of yourselves.'
But afterwards Matty Boyd, a 32-year-old with a sometimes stern countenance, admitted he may have been fibbing.
The kids are all right.
At times this year we've fielded five teenagers. At least three of those (Tom Boyd - he's still only 19 people!, Lukas Webb and Bailey Dale) were last week playing for Footscray. There's every sign they will become elite players.
Early in the year I thought our team resembled the carefree 'Kids of 2006', that's a mirage - but not in the way you might think. That team fielded no teenagers, and our average age when we thrashed Collingwood in an elimination final (that was fun) was almost 26.
In 2009, our closest premiership tilt in recent times, we were also much, much older than our current crop. As my stunningly ingenious graphic below demonstrates, the experience profile of the two teams is completely reversed. As history would show, that team needed to win the flag that year - or not at all.
But because this is the positivity post, let's just savour the fact that almost every week this season we've fielded the youngest team (even more than the 'franchises'). With a staggering total of 18 players with less than 100 games experience in the team that obliterated Melbourne last week, what could this group achieve as they mature and create an era together?
We get to see The Bont. Every week.
When 18 year old Marcus Bontempelli kicked THAT goal that made the whole footy world sit up and gasp last year, I wrote:
If the Bont becomes the superstar we hope he will be, 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).
In his second season I've seen nothing to make me regret the hyperbole.
And my Bont badge gets proudly pinned to my scarf each week.
The hulking big key forward we've been crying out for? Right at the moment, that would be Jack Redpath, a 24 year old rookie-listed carpenter with two knee reconstructions, crashing packs around the forward line.
A dashing distributor from the backline to replace the peerless Lindsay Gilbee or (I can barely write the words, but Bob Murphy one day)? Apparently it's Shane 'PornStar' Biggs, a Sydney reject playing inauspicious footy for Footscray who has grabbed a spot in the backline and has no intention of giving it up without a fight.
That curly-haired tagger who didn't really seem to have enough outstanding tricks in his book to make the grade, despite an illustrious pedigree? Let's applaud Mitch Wallis, averaging more than 12 contested possessions per game and now our most important midfielder. (He doesn't tag any more. Bevo isn't that keen on taggers. Of course.)
The mysterious, mercurial, infuriatingly inconsistent Jarrad Grant? Recently seen performing one per centers. And nailing a clutch goal.
I did call this the year of miracles.
We have players that can and do bring a crowd to their feet, players where as soon as they get the ball, the fans begin to stir in delicious anticipation and hope of what might come next.
It could be Jason Johanissen careering through the middle on one of his exhilarating runs. Or Jake The Lair Stringer bustling towards the ball, making the impossible look simple and then celebrating as only a lair ('a flashy man who likes to show off', remember) can do. It could be Easton Wood's soaring marks, dazzling athleticism and remarkable bravery, or Bob Murphy's feather-light sidestep followed by a beautifully weighted 50 metre pass on his wrong side.
(It could even be Matthew Boyd taking a screamer. But I don't think anyone but Matty saw that one coming.)
Honouring the men of '54.
Last week some of the dwindling ranks of our solitary '54 premiership team were in the rooms and met Luke Beveridge after our 97-point win against Melbourne - the team they comprehensively defeated so many years ago.
Our team were wearing black armbands on Sunday to honour the memory of that brilliant young 'excitement machine' of the '54 legends, EJ Whitten. And we were told it was also a mark of respect for the Bulldogs' fans who have passed away this year too. There were some wry smiles at this announcement. So many of us have wondered, as the years drag by, if we will ever see the Dogs win a flag in our lifetime.
The vision of the premiership heroes makes me melancholy. And then strangely hopeful. Wasn't it the Boston Red Sox who waited 86 years between World Championships, breaking something perplexingly called the Curse of the Bambino in the process. Anything really can happen...
If you ask a Bulldogs' fan under the age of 65 their most fondly remembered victory, they will almost certainly cite the epic night in 2000 when we toppled Essendon and spoilt their unbeaten season.
It could, of course, be a sorry reflection on our far-from-glorious past that the best we can muster is a home-and-away win.
But with finals wins not exactly thick on the ground (and even the best of them overshadowed by some degree of heartache-inducing performance either before or after), Bulldogs' fans must resort to 'Schadenfreude'. This is not a long-forgotten nuggety half-back-flanker, but as my dictionary defines it: 'pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.'
Trying to sum up my antipathy to Essendon I once wrote:
For many of us, the red and black mob from the posh side of the Maribyrnong are the most dastardly foes of all.
I could say we have a love-hate relationship with Essendon, but to be honest it’s mainly hate.
It's not merely the fact that they inflicted on us two of our top three worst defeats. (Regrettably, I was there for every wretched moment of both). It's also their aura of arrogance and smug success; their frequent thuggery under Kevin Sheedy; and the behaviour of their fans (the Coodabeens once labeled them as 'Collingwood supporters who can read and write').
In my experience their fans have been the most contemptuous of us, the most mocking of our failures, the most cruelly relentless in delighting in our frequent misfortunes. In 1989 the Collingwood and Richmond cheer squads marched to the Western Oval in solidarity with us when our club's very existence was in peril; our northern neighbours were nowhere to be seen.
In my childhood, our horizons were small enough that travelling to matches at Windy Hill felt like entering a foreign and exotic landscape. Compared to my home suburb of Deer Park - our house was at one point just about the last house on the outer fringe of Melbourne before the then rural town of Melton - just seeing the streets around Essendon, manicured and immaculate, was an eye-opener. Forget Toorak and South Yarra - these streets were impressively wealthy and powerful in ways that were foreign to working class kids like myself.
The well-kept red brick Californian bungalows and serene streets with established flower-filled gardens looked prosperous, respectable and complacent. They could not have been more different from our windswept paddocks strewn with the Deer Park 'purple thistle' emblem, and the ICI explosives factory at the end of the street.
While that's my personal story of why I've always loathed Essendon, I suspect some variant of these sentiments explains why every Bulldog fan spent most of the first 20 weeks of 2000 secretly hoping that we'd be the ones to wreck their quest to go in the history books with an undefeated season.
That night Terry Wallace introduced the 'uber flood'; it has been described as the match that changed football. Perched on a third floor eyrie, I had a clear view of the baffling sight of our players, not standing toe-to-toe with our star-studded opponents, but instead grouped around like toy soldiers, guarding space not men.
Just before half time Brad Johnson was spotted suddenly, mysteriously, lying prone on the turf. The hostile all-out melee which broke out was an eruption of that boiling dislike that never seems to be far from the surface between these two clubs and their fans.
When the melee ended, it was the team in the red, white and blue, with a spring in their audacious steps, and led by chief antagonist and tackler extraordinaire The First Libber, who sprinted off the field and up the race, looking thoroughly pleased with our efforts and only too happy to have succeeded in 'poking the bear.'
Late in the last quarter, the Dogs trailed by a few points, but Wallace had released the defensive brakes and we were storming home. With under two minutes to go, Chris Grant took a free kick deep in the pocket. (As a sidenote, the person who kicked it out on the full was Dustin Fletcher, no pimply teenager, but already with seven years of footy under his belt).
We had a superb view of the moment that our champion moved to his left and snapped the miracle goal.
The instant where the ball sailed through was the purest moment of football elation I've ever felt and the greatest din of sound and joy and fury that I've ever been part of in a crowd. It eclipsed even the moment, some 90 excruciating seconds later, that the siren sounded and the win was ours.
In between wildly hugging every other Bulldog fan in sight, we paused just long enough to join in the cacophony of jeers and hoots when the ever-smiling Brad Johnson dropped his affable mask and launched a tirade, complete with a flipping of the bird, at Essendon ruckman John Barnes (who may have been in the vicinity at the time he had previously been felled).
His fury was uncharacteristic.
But Jonno grew up a Bulldogs fan too.
Fifteen years on, and Bob Murphy is the only one from that epic match still playing. Then a teenager in his second only match, his fresh-faced appearance in the 2000 match made 'Bailey Dailey' look grizzled and care-worn.
The Dons went on to win the 2000 premiership, ample compensation for being denied their place in the history books I'd imagine. They were grand finalists again the year after. But since then there has been an insidious decline. Regular finals appearances are no longer the prerogative of the men in red and black; winning in finals has proven more difficult still.
There is no fearsome 'Windy Hill' factor involved to our encounters any more; this is in fact a 'home match' for the Dons. Somewhere, Bombers' fans are sitting in our seats and cheering on their men, who kick towards the 'Lloyd' and 'Coleman' ends. The 'Doug Hawkins wing' has been packed away for the occasion.
Though we haven't beaten them since 2010, the Bulldogs are raging favourites. This means of course that every fan of the red, white and blue anxiously dubs it a 'danger game' and frets at the prospect that it could be our hated opponents, of all clubs, that could deal a mortal blow to our fairytale finals path.
A stalemate in an appalling first quarter heightens our fears. But when the dam begins to break, it does so quickly. We begin scoring goals effortlessly. Every player begins to partake in the picnic; at one point it seems that even Dale Morris, who's ventured down the ground just for the hell of it, is going to build on his stellar career tally of three goals in more than 200 games.
Jason Johannisen puts in a particularly eye-catching display, gaining our team more than 800 metres through his run. The 'Wee Man' Caleb Daniel delights us by taking two marks inside 50 (it doesn't seem that long ago that two marks inside our 50 metre zone for the entire match would have been cause for jubilation). He nails his shots with composure too.
From where we are sitting we get a front row view of the electric turn of speed that The Lair can put on when he puts down the after burners to kick one of his four goals. We watch soaring, breathtaking marks by Easton Wood and more surprisingly, Luke Dahlhaus.
I can't believe how subdued and lifeless the Essendon fans are. Gone is the virulent, ferocious spite that I believed to be their hallmark. They seem resigned, almost apathetic, as though the events of the last few years have drained even their formidable self-belief and blood lust for the contest. One guy who leaves early even shoots us an apologetic smile as he walks past and says: 'I'll leave you to enjoy your win.'
It's as though the defiant energy of their blind support and 'StandByHird' mentality has been leached slowly away. Not, as you might think, by the endless court proceedings and revelations of what was happening behind closed doors in their 'Whatever it takes' era, but by their team's declining performance, list management woes, and a slowly dawning realisation of where the slavish devotion to James Hird has led their club.
Unlike the last time we played, there is no booing of their former player Stewart Crameri. (I liked this joke from one Bulldog fan. 'Why did the Essendon fans boo Crameri? Because they don't like drug cheats.') He plays his best game in our colours, marking cleanly; one of those games where the ball seems to find him time and again, and he's always in the right spot. He kicks seven goals (it doesn't go unnoticed that this is more than the entire Essendon team) and he radiates a quiet delight in his own performance, though he refrains from Johnno-style theatrics towards the crowd or any of his former team-mates.
We leave the arena, 87-point victors, and in fifth place on the ladder. The result has left us , to coin a phrase, 'comfortably satisfied'.
And with just a sliver of Schadenfreude in our hearts.
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.