The First Quarter. Looking for a sign
The moment the siren goes after our magnificent win against the Hawks, we know we have to, somehow, do whatever it takes to be there when our Dogs take on the Orange Clad Acronyms.
We’ve watched our Bulldogs through interminable dreary seasons. Seasons when we won only just one game. Seasons where we were the butt of jokes and ridicule, where ten goal losses were wildly celebrated as a major step forward. Tough times when we had to rattle tins, knock on doors and dig deep, just to keep a Footscray Football Club team out on the field.
We simply had to be there, all of us who had sat, numb and grieving, after the 97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named (not to mention 1998's Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Really Very Good Either). So we looked up flights and researched hotels and fretted about tickets: all of us who'd watched the 2008-2010 era of promise painfully evaporate. Who'd remained stoic during our slow and hesitant steps to a rebuild. Who'd shared the shock and disbelief of a beloved captain walking out.
And as we make our preparations to get there, even though nothing can ever really erase the heartache of all those lost preliminary finals, we shut our minds firmly to the possibility that it could happen again. Instead we cling to the words of our young champion The Bont who said: ‘Why not us?’ And even though I could personally rattle off dozens of reasons why this sort of glory has never quite seemed ‘for the likes of us', we make our choice and begin to ask that same question, but in a different and hopeful way, a way we never have before.
In last week’s blog I called us the Daydream Believers. Even I'm not sure whether I was referring to us, the fans, or our young team who keep carrying us with them on their magic carpet ride.
Three car-loads of The Tragician family have decide to drive to Sydney for the game. We meet up at an ungodly hour on Friday morning to make the nine hour trek. Everywhere on the long and boring stretch of the Hume, we see our red, white and blue colours are flying proudly. Whenever we stop for a break, I try and claim I'm suffering hayfever as I see large family groups who are on the same epic quest as us. People drape their scarves and pose for photos in front of the Gundagai 'Dog on the tucker box'. Flash cars and battlers’ cars, all making their pilgrimage, kids waving out the back at people they don't know. Fellow travellers in every sense of the word.
I'm travelling with my fellow Libber sister, of course. We’re in rollicking high spirits, on the alert for signs and omens as the miles fly by. We pass Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. The towns with unusual names don’t faze us either. ‘Mittagong? I’m sure I've read it’s an Aboriginal word for Western Bulldogs!’
We bypass any songs that are sad and maudlin on the sound system and sing along, loudly, to those that are uplifting and inspiring. We’re with Aretha in an off key version of ‘I Say a little prayer’. We're with Paul Kelly as he sings:
I'm high on the hill
Looking over the bridge
To the M.C.G.
And way up on high
The clock on the silo
Says eleven degrees
The live version of The Boxer comes on. Just like the Central Park crowd, we sing ‘lie lie lie’, the chorus, with all our hearts, the beautiful anthem of defiance, pain, struggle and resilience.
I love this picture of excited young Footscray fans. camping out the night before the 1961 grand final. I can't help thinking they were lucky, though, that their vehicle, festooned with flags and banners, was not a DeLorean, able to catapult them forward to the 2016 future, and a glimpse of the Dogs' fortunes in the 55 years that lay between.
At the optimistic moment in which their exuberant celebrations were captured, the team from the west were about to compete in their second grand final in seven years. Their captain-coach was the man many say was the greatest footballer of all time, EJ Whitten. These buoyant fans, with their sign reading 'Bulldogs for Premiers 1961', would have expected good times to keep rolling in; they would have been astonished to learn about the barren years their team was about to endure.
That there would be no more flags, in 1961 or thereafter.
Not even one grand final appearance.
In stark contrast, during that same period, the Hawthorn team who were about to defeat us for their first ever flag, would go on to win 12 more.
The festive group, hunkered down in their sleeping bags - though it appears very little sleeping would be done - would have been dismayed to learn it would be 24 long years before the Dogs even returned to the MCG to feature in a final. (We lost two in the '70s in the miserable grey concrete surrounds of Arctic Park).
The Hawks - by then with five premiership cups glittering in their trophy cabinet - awaited us once again.
The year was 1985. It was the first time, since I started going to matches as a four-year-old, that I'd seen our team in a final. When the Footscray boys ran out onto the famous ground to a tremendous roar, I saw people weeping. Whether with joy that this day had finally come, or sadness that it had taken so long, it was impossible to say.
There were tears of a different kind when the Hawks demolished us by a humiliating 93 points.
Now here in the 2016 semi-final, the formidable might and power of the Hawks, who've won the last three flags and dominated the competition since the '70s, is on display. There's no pretence this is a neutral venue. Brown and gold flags circle the arena; footage on the big screen shows their many recent triumphs, on a loop.
Together the Dogs' fans have marched from Federation Square to the 'G, a place for us of great pain and few triumphs. The mood as thousands of us walk along is both joyful and tense. We've floated on air since last week's magnificent win. But we worry - we're extremely good at worrying - if that victory was our grand final, a match our battered team psyched ourselves up for. We fear - because we're also very used to being afraid - that we may not find that same determination and belief yet again, taking on this powerhouse opponent.
As usual, it was Bob who said it best.
The final on Thursday night, he said, would be all about belief.
"We don't have to manufacture it," Bob said. "It's already there."
My own belief, I know, is a more fragile thing. Too many times it has been trampled in the dust, exposed ruthlessly in finals on the big stage, in the big moment. Too many times there's been heartbreak. Too many times, the Dogs' teams in which we've placed our dreams have not been up to the task.
I've been there for all of those preliminary final losses, including, and since, 1985. Some were devastating, some were humiliating. I've seen our hopes dissolve like a cruel mirage before our eyes. I've watched again and again as our champion players, who gave their all to try and achieve the ultimate success, are chaired off the ground, waving bravely to us the fans, who must move on and transfer our faith to a new bunch of promising kids, a new wave of bright young talent.
And yet at some magical moment in the 2015 fairytale I made a conscious decision to jump on that rollercoaster ride again. I strapped myself in, eyes scrunched half-shut, doubt and fear banished - if not fully, as firmly away as any battle-scarred Bulldogs fan can ever manage. I signed over, again, my peace of mind to a bunch of blokes running around a football field. For who could resist this new breed's enthusiasm, their joy in playing beside each other, their talent, their determination to write a new narrative for our club?
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.