Our coach, Brendan McCartney cuts a stern, occasionally even bland figure in public. We enjoyed an insight into the side of him, the one the players get to see, in full flight in a speech at the Rising Star awards. He roved around a whole lot of topics including how , as a four-year-old, he was too shy to run out and be a mascot for the local footy club, to the importance of family in footy players' lives; but my favourite anecdote involved him reviewing some footage of one of our young players one evening and spying some habits that displeased him.
He texted the culprit, saying that he would like to see him the next day. The reply zinged back immediately. 'Sure coach. Tomozz.'
BMac raised a quizzical eyebrow at this casual phraseology before texting back, 'This won't be a social chat.'
Again the reply was within seconds. 'No worries. See you tomozz.'
The young player did turn up 'tomozz' and eagerly absorbed Brendan's advice, wanting to learn more, keen to soak up information and be better at his craft, if not his spelling.
These stories are especially welcome at a time of year that there's little to cheer about. Let's face it, the week before the Grand Final is a special form of torture for followers of the Bulldogs.
Sure, we can take solace in our barnstorming end to the season, and cling to high hopes about what the promising newcomers might go on to achieve.
We can be grateful that the words ‘dwarf-burning’ and ‘Mad Monday’ aren’t associated with our club; proud of the chasm between this boorish behaviour and the wonderful, emotional and dignified speeches of Matthew Boyd and Daniel Cross at our best and fairest night.
But the dismal facts are impossible to ignore. I and most of my fellow faithful are supporters of a club that is entering its 60th year of a premiership drought.
Mostly we’re well practised at being chipper and making light of our predicament. No one does black humour and self-deprecation better than us. We’re the first ones to poke fun at our sorry history. Some of us even write blogs about it.
But it wears thin at this time of year. The little things start to make us crotchety. I get testy seeing fans streaming around after the Grand Final Parade - another party to which we're never invited. Grouchy with blokes walking about in business suits and footy scarves. Churlish when I hear anything about ‘long-suffering’ fans in relation to Fremantle. Furious at Tony Abbott’s face on TV (sorry, where was I?).
Past injustices and the never-ending ‘what ifs’ come painfully to the surface. The turning points on the field in preliminary finals, the split seconds which might have meant that we too know what it’s like to triumph on the big day. The names Shane McInerney, Darren Jarman, Billy Brownless, Nick Riewoldt. The fact that Shane Ellen is a premiership player and Brad Johnson isn’t. Memories of camping out overnight, rotating shifts between friends and family, excited and it turned out delusional, in a Grand Final ticket queue at the Exhibition Street outlet in 1997 - and again in 1998.
I don't find any consolation in following the fortunes of other teams. Like the Liverpool coach who said he is only interested in two teams – Liverpool and Liverpool reserves – I don’t hold truck with the notion of ‘second teams’ or nurturing a sentimental soft spot for another club.
The only thing that succeeds in blocking out reality and gloomy thoughts is to dream of a new raft of possibilities, a magic carpet ride that still could happen, after all. Like a dodgy fairground clairvoyant, I will mutter into my crystal ball and present to you my current vision for a fantasy of how the future could look:
It's the night before the 2016 Grand Final. We're too excited and nervous to sleep. A few of us have gathered to spend the night together. We're well prepared with doonas, potato chips, party pies, wine and Milo.
The plan was to watch the Grand Final Marathon, but instead we're watching the footage, again and again, of our come-from-behind victory against Richmond in the preliminary final the previous week. Even though we know the outcome, every time we watch the cool nerves of Nathan Hrovat as he lines up to slot the winning goal from a 45 degree angle after the siren, we still leap around the room in our Bulldog pyjamas.
Thank heavens the team had plenty in reserve, having coasted to an easy victory against Essendon in the qualifying final and earned the two week break. (As an aside, James Hird never did come back to coach after the suspension of most of the Bombres players in 2014, but you see him often in those ‘Want to last longer’ billboards on the freeway).
None of us have slept much over the past week. Firstly, there was the anxiety about getting tickets. Then there was the worry about whether Will Minson’s innocuous tap to the stomach of Jack Riewoldt at a critical point of the PF might be viewed unfavourably by the ever-unpredictable Tribunal - even though a straw poll of impartial friends and family had reached a decisive conclusion that there was absolutely nothing in it. Sure, Tom Campbell’s been in all-Australian form, but Will’s experience and brawn (and ability to swear in three languages) would have been sorely missed. It was a relief when newly appointed Tribunal Chair Luke Darcy adjudicated that there was, well, completely nothing in it. And fined Jack Riewoldt $20,000 for over-acting.
There’s also been the worry that Ryan Griffen’s Brownlow win could distract the team, but Griff seems to have taken it in his stride and apparently slipped town for some celebratory pig-shooting with Clay Smith and retired player Lindsay Gilbee.
Then there was the devastating announcement that the three umpires selected to officiate were none other than the very three - can you believe it ??!! - who most definitely hate us the most, who have CONSISTENTLY - I repeat, consistently - throughout the season given us the rawest deal. (I showed appropriate disdain towards a non-affiliated workmate who asked me which of the current crop of umpires actually DOES give us a good go. Some people are just childishly ignorant about footy.)
When we've finally snatched some sleep (and Mylanta) and Grand Final Day dawns at last, we double check for the 20th time that we have our prized tickets before heading to Seddon for a coffee. I'm moved and exhilarated by the number of red, white and blue streamers that have sprung up everywhere in the inner west. The Footscray Town Hall has a massive GO DOGS banner. Messages of support and congratulation in Sudanese, Vietnamese, Eritrean and every language under the sun decorate the Barkly Street shop windows.
It's still early, so we take a walk around the Western Oval to calm the nerves. A solitary figure is practising his skills out on the ground. The wobbly punt style quickly identifies him as Daniel Cross, the coach of our Footscray VFL side, who has been credited with the rapid development, work ethic and exemplary character of our young guns, though perhaps not their devastating foot skills.
At Footscray station the re-formed Hyde Street band is playing Sons of the West as the train pulls into the station. It's jammed pack with others in red, white and blue, but there's a strange silence on the way in. Everyone is deep in thought, wrapped in their own reveries and anticipation, hushed rather than exuberant.
My thoughts keep coming back, again, and again, to Bob Murphy’s column in The Age that week. It just said one word in 40 point font.
Unfortunately Bob has missed most of the season – which he’d announced would be his last at the age of 34 - with a chronic knee injury. His best, it seems, has been behind him as the young Dogs that he'd helped mentor through the lean years of 2011-13 made their own history. But Bob managed to play the last game of the season and the two finals as a sub. (It was, in fact, a beautifully weighted kick from Murph that had floated like a feather into the arms of Nathan Hrovat with the siren just about to sound in that epic preliminary final victory.)
For most of the week there has been heated speculation about whether this cameo would be enough, though, for the oldest player on our list to retain his spot. He’s been named in the squad, but The Age that morning reported he was still in doubt and had been put through a gruelling training session behind closed doors. Bulldog hearts are torn: should we play our spiritual leader, the guy who ‘gets’ this club like no other, if he is unfit? Brendan McCartney has been uncompromising in his public statements that sentiment would not guide his decision. It looks like Murph won’t be part of this dream, so very long in the making.
At last we take our seats high in the Ponsford Stand of the MCG. Looking down the row I see my brothers, sister, sons, friends, nephews and nieces, all decked out in every skerrick of red white and blue that could be dragged out of cupboards.
My mother – tragically - is not, however, with us.
That’s because she doesn’t like to sit with her family. She’s concerned that we will let loose with bad language. I don’t know WTF she’s talking about.
Mum turned 80 this year and is in the Southern Stand, a respectable distance away from her four offspring. Her loyalty and dedication to the Bulldogs since she saw her first game in 1954 (her second being the one and only premiership) are the reason that we’re all sitting here, sick with nerves and anticipation, fidgeting restlessly in our seats. Is this really the wonderful, euphoric, uplifting occasion that we’ve been waiting for all these years?
Bloody hell, I wish I'd gone easy on the red wine, party pies, Milo combination.
On the big screen, they keep showing the scene inside the rooms. Brendan McCartney looks calm, unflustered, with that slightly bemused expression on his face. He's probably still mulling over a text that he may have received from a player that morning. 'Coach..this will be totes amazeballs!!!'
Assistant coach Daniel Giansiracusa looks grave and thoughtful as he goes quietly around speaking to the players, especially some of the older brigade. He goes up to pat his best friend Bob Murphy on the shoulder. I guess there will not be any need for words between those two today.
The last strains of the inevitable performance of ‘Holy grail’ are trailing off. On the big screen, we see the players tightly bunched in the race behind our captain, Ryan Griffen. We’ve all risen from our seats but I can’t even seem to cheer with the size of the lump in my throat. The players run towards the giant banner that the cheer squad has toiled on all week. There’s the unmistakable sight of Jake Stringer, the Coleman medallist, looking fierce, determined, and just a tad menacing. Libba, Wallis, and Hunter chest the banner together, the boys who are doing what their dads could not.
The roar of the crowd comes right over the top of me. I can’t hear, mercifully enough, the pompous tones of Craig Willis, the last verse of a song from the recently retired (again) John Farnham, or the Channel Seven helicopter any more. Just something primal, a wall of sound.
Our team lines up for the anthem. Bob Murphy, wearing his famous Number Two, has his arm locked tightly with Griff’s. Brendan McCartney, it seems, is an old romantic after all.
On the big screen they show Brad Johnson, Scott West and Chris Grant seated together in the crowd. Not even Brad is smiling at this most poignant of moments.
I look around the crowd. Everyone’s got their own questions, about whether just being here is enough, whether this will be a day to always remember or another in the rollcall of bitter failure, whether our young pups can carry the crushing weight of all of our expectations and years of disappointment and live up to their own dreams. What it will feel like to win, or to lose. Why 22 men running around after a funny-shaped ball on a football field can mean so much to us. Why football really is, as someone that I can't recall once said, the most important unimportant thing in the world.
Footnote: Why not get along to a wonderful exhibition of art which features some Western Oval nostalgia and might help to allay some of those footy withdrawal pangs? A Bulldogs' fan, Carmel Riordan, has contacted me to ask me to spread the word and get other fans along:
For us, the fans, another year in our epic wait has passed. We will be there again in 2014 living through the whole range of footballing emotions: expectant, pessimistic, realistic, grouchy, frustrated, uplifted, despondent, ecstatic, buoyant, proud, despairing. Often in the one match. Perhaps even in the one quarter.
New favourite players will take their place on the stage and in our hearts. The man in front of me as I walk in, who is wearing number nine on his back, could be still honoring the brilliantly skillful 200-gamer Lindsay Gilbee, or looking forward and pinning his hopes on an outstanding career from young gun Jake Stringer. The army of kids now wearing number six revere the pint-sized dynamo Luke Dalhaus, yet only a moment ago, it seemed, the number could belong to no one other than the great Brad Johnson. To another generation, it was Wee Georgie Bissett. Way back further it was Charlie Sutton.
Time marches on. New players, new victories, new heartbreaks, new memories to treasure and dreams to cherish.
My family and friends have been watching it all unfold sitting in the same bay now, Aisle 17, for a surprising 13 years. I didn't think I'd ever get used to it, leaving behind the homely surroundings of the Western Oval with all its memories and layers of tradition. Yet when I walk in to Docklands, it's now our place - our home. There are familiar faces, people I feel I recognise; I may not know their names, but I'm sure I know their stories.
Maybe that's the guy, who I'd never met before in my life, that I bear-hugged when the siren went and we'd beaten Essendon in THAT match in 2000? Or perhaps that frail old guy, being pushed in a wheelchair, is the one I sat next to in 1985, next to his two sons, tears silently falling down his cheeks, because he was seeing, after such a long long absence, a Doggies team run out onto the MCG in September? That chubby, cheery-looking bloke strolling around with two little kids, all decked out in red, white and blue - maybe he's the distraught guy I saw kicking the tyres of a car with South Australian plates in the carpark after the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named?
Our journey goes on. The waiting and hoping can seem interminable, but another season always beckons. The players' time as Bulldogs, though, is short. We smile and shake our heads every year as we see the earnest, fresh-faced recruits awkwardly parading in their brand new jumpers, with their skinny little arms and wide-eyed innocence at making the big time. They have, they think, all the time in the world.
In the 1996 documentary 'Year of the Dogs' one of the last scenes shows The First Libba sitting on a bench after the season's last match. Typically bandaged and bloodied, he's talking about how that group, that bunch of team-mates, will never run out together in the exact same configuration again. Libba didn't know it, but he was one of those under threat. In a scene before that, Terry Wallace was sitting with a group of assistants pruning the list. Libba's name got moved, ominously, to the right of the whiteboard. Wallace said, with quite a bit of regret in his voice: 'I think he's in trouble.'
Libba, the great survivor, cheated that premature death notice and played on. But every year in the final match there are one or two players running out for the last time in our colours. We don't always know it - sometimes we can't farewell them until the next season, when they drive around in a motorcade, already somehow diminished, sitting in their suits, no longer part of it. Sometimes we have the time to absorb that it's happening and grieve that it must be so. This week it was Daniel Cross, the most courageous player I've seen since - yes, the First Libba. In another twist of history, Libba's son, whose outstanding season hints at a Brownlow one day, is one of the young midfielders whose form has squeezed out the unassuming champ in number 4.
At some point over the last couple of weeks Crossy's name got moved to that side of the whiteboard. Our coaches, I'm positive, must have moved it with heavy hearts, knowing that this man typified everything a footy club could ask for. The non-flashy guy, picked at number 56, self-effacing and unobtrusive, with one of the least promising ever starts to a footy career: just 10 forgettable matches in his first three seasons. The fanatical trainer who, legend has it, was seen out for a run on Christmas morning. The outstanding citizen who jumped into the Hong Kong harbour to rescue a drowning girl. The bloke who offered to do a blanketing role on Simon Black in a final and was happy to barely get a touch himself, only thinking about what he could do for the team. The man, we heard this week, who kisses both of his parents in the change room after each game, often after they have awaited the stitching of another head gash or injury in the name of the team.
I keep wondering how the news has hit his older team-mates, those men with whom he helped build a culture and a thirst for success that so nearly brought us the ultimate prize not so long ago. A few days before the news about Crossy playing his last game broke, I happened to hear Dale Morris speak about his recuperation from his horrific injury. Dale spoke about how the leadership team of Boyd, Murphy, Gia and, of course, Daniel Cross, insisted on moving their meetings to his hospital bedside to keep him involved. They even brought in sushi to spare him the god-awful meals. I can bet that it wasn't just Dale's insights and wisdoms into matchday strategies that brought his mates to his bedside. It was the unbreakable bond of mates that have lived through highs and lows, playing as much for one another as any other reason in this brutal sport, making sure that one of their own knew how much he mattered to them even as he wondered if and when he would play alongside them again.
I don't know what it's like for those guys to see your mate Daniel Cross, who's been beside you in the trenches, who's put his head over the ball time and time again to help you out, or ran down the other end of the ground to fly for one of those characteristic marks, be told that his time is up and witness his shattering pain. It must, I think, be in its own way a special and awful sort of grief.
For us the fans, all we can do is be there on Sunday. It's our own way to bear witness. We cheer like crazy when Crossy gets the ball. (He still does it a lot). We rise to our feet when he kicks a goal (fabulous though his career has been, there haven't been too many of them). The whole wing rises as one to give him thunderous applause in the last quarter, showing him a love and respect he may not have realised he had earned.
The match itself , especially in a laborious and boring second half, lives up to its lofty billing of 17th versus 15th. (Although I confess we enjoyed the half time fight, the more so because it was so ridiculous, despite commentator's half-hearted efforts to brand it a blight on the game. A match without spite and nothing riding on it, a yawn for so much of it, enlivened by a good old-fashioned push and shove and biffo. No one hurt, and the splendid sight of Will Minson towering over his team mates as he ran off like a bare-chested tribal warrior looking suitably angry about..something.)
Crossy doesn't move when the final siren goes - he huddles down on his haunches. Not a fan has left - the applause for the valiant number four is deafening. When he gets to his feet, he tells an interviewer: 'This will always be my home.' Boyd and Morris chair him off the ground. They too are over 30 years old. Their faces are sombre as they carry off their mate.
At the start of the match Gia, who's playing his 250th match, and Cross run through the banner together. Crossy has tried to avoid it, but Gia grabs his arm and insists on pulling him through with him.
A couple of bays further on I watch a group of young men in Bulldog suits filing up the stairs. They've been out on the ground to applaud Crossy and Gia. They walk or limp up the stairs. Clay Smith, Daniel Talia, Nathan Hrovat and Jake Stringer take their seats and wait for the game and their as yet unknown futures to begin.
Earlier this year not knowing Daniel Cross was about to retire, I wrote a story of admiration at his incredible courage.
Click here to read it.
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.