Some players can’t be imagined playing for any other club but ours. It’s not just the fact that the horrendous brown and gold Hawthorn colours, or the stark severity of the black and white stripes, would play havoc with his pale Irish complexion.
Bob Murphy, surely, could only ever have belonged, ever truly been at home, in our club.
He gets its uniqueness. In his slight but resilient frame, he somehow embodies it.
Many claim to have been there to witness his debut in the year 2000 at Princes Park, when a spindly teenager wearing number 22 (Bob has joked - well, I think he was joking - that he had barely gone through puberty) kicked a crucial last-gasp goal.
I was definitely there. It was the last time that I ever stood in the outer to watch a footy match. The era of suburban footy grounds was coming to an end; the Dogs had moved digs that very year, to a stadium then called ‘Colonial.’
On the day of Bob’s debut we were in a position that he would come to know too well over the years: dangerous, ‘backs-to-the-wall’ territory, clinging to the chance of a finals spot after occupying a top four spot for the past three years. There’d been a host of injuries, meaning that the frail-looking 18-year-old got the call up. It was a stirring, unexpected, brave and gallant performance by our team in defying the might of premiership aspirants Carlton. When the baby-faced teenager ran in to slot a match-saving goal with the wobbliest – let’s be honest, ugliest - of kicks, there was little sign of the superb skills that we would come to cherish.
Bob played in the next two matches; he might have thought footy was pretty cruisy, as these two were also wins. In fact, I only realised recently that Bob featured in another of our more famous home-and-away wins just two weeks later. Bob was in fact the youngest player on the ground when we took on the Bombers’ great team of 2000, who were aiming to make history by completing an undefeated season.
To the delight of every fan of the red, white and blue, the Dogs were the ones to deny our unloved rivals from the posh side of the Maribyrnong. A Bombers’ victory was famously short-circuited by Terry Wallace’s implementation of the uber forward press, some manic tackling by Tony Liberatore, and an elegant left-foot goal in the last two minutes by our champ Chris Grant.
I have no memory of Bob that day at all, though. I don’t know where he was when a wild brawl broke out at half time (hopefully safely bundled down in the rooms away from the mayhem); it was so heated that the ever-smiling Brad Johnson (who’d been KO-ed by john Barnes) was seen to mouth obscenities at our red and black opposition. Even in retrospect I quake at the thought of Bob, the fresh-faced recruit who couldn’t have weighed more than 70 kg, taking the field opposed to hulking brutes like Dean Solomon, Damien Hardwick and the Johnsons, in a team coached by the perennially nasty Kevin Sheedy.
Surprisingly enough, Bob has never actually played for four points at our spiritual home, the Western/Whitten Oval. Yet somehow he has absorbed its history, has tuned into a long-ago past, has a spiritual connection to our history in all its fierce pride and frequent sorrow. You feel he remembers intuitively the smells and sounds of that ground , where we played for more than 100 years, where the locals gathered, raucous, hopeful and stoic under the Olympic tyres scoreboard. A place where it was always blowing ice, rain and sleet, where opposition clubs somehow feared to play, dreading that fickle tricky wind, no matter where the boys in red, white and blue were on the ladder.
It’s also surprising to realise that Bob didn’t play a final until 2008. He didn’t make the cut for the 2000 finals team that was bundled out with depressing efficiency by Brisbane at the Gabba; we didn’t play finals again until 2006.
But in that barnstorming year Bob was an unlikely but magnificent centre half forward. Not for him the muscular brute force of a power forward in the style of Carey or Jonathan Brown - our Bob was all about feather-light footsteps, nimble movements, the sensing of an opportunity or a chink of space that no others could see. And yet with the finals in sight, Bob crashed to the deck at the MCG beneath the force of a massive Sav Rocca tackle, his knee buckling, his season over. And so he wasn’t out on the field when an effervescent team ran amok against Collingwood in the first final at the MCG that year.
But he was there for those three preliminary final heartaches in 2008-2010. And he was there, slowly slipping towards the ‘veteran’ category, when hard times came in the years that followed, when the premiership dream felt further away than ever, when drubbings and thrashings were more common than wins, when our club was dismissed as ‘irrelevant’.
I always felt Bob realised, as no other did, the poignancy of our fabled wait for premiership success. He made us realise, though, that wait has an even tougher aspect for the players, as we saw him edge further into the ranks of the unrewarded, that painful list in which our club has sadly been over-represented: players who had played the most games without ever seeing a flag.
For us, the fans, even through decades of non-achievement, there is always a next year, always a new group of players on which to pin our hopes. It’s a blessing and sometimes a curse: we can still front up for a new season and think, hope, pray, the new season will be different.
But the players’ time - their opportunity for glory - is short. As our club fell into another of those sadly familiar troughs in 2011-2014, Bob’s grief for his missed opportunities was evident. A melancholy note recurred in his articles, in his TV appearances. He began to write about what it would be like when that longed-for day, when the Dogs somehow triumphed, would come. It was heartbreaking, cruel, as he began to concede that he could now only imagine himself now as a joyful but wistful spectator among the celebrating crowd, not as one who’d brought that day home by deeds on the field.
When our club hit a nadir at the end of 2014, it seemed so inevitable, so natural, that Bob would step up to be captain that we wondered why it hadn’t happened before. He was re-born on the field, a natural in our thrilling, adventurous game style, revelling in the sense of freedom and endless possibility that our new coach introduced. Bob gave us so many of the brilliant memories of the wonderfully unexpected and exciting 2015 season. I will never forget a breathtaking, audacious 50 metre kick across the ground which landed, ever so gently, on the chest of Easton Wood running at full tilt. Bob’s celebrated side-step - the lightness with which he ran across the turf - returned. And when he announced, after we defeated Sydney on a wet track in a thrilling victory, that it was ‘the best win, ever’, his face wreathed with smiles, we shared his joy, knew that it was sweeter because he’d almost lost sight of the dream: the premiership dream, that was now rekindled, so close you could touch it.
Bob’s injury in round three last year was like a sledge hammer to us all. The injury itself happened in slow motion, the ball spiralling to the Hawks’ forward line in the dying seconds of the match, Bob shifting his weight in the most innocuous of ways, his knee somehow moving at an awkward angle.
In the crowd we fell silent, appalled, suddenly not caring for the result of the match. Only sharing Bob’s anguish, that the footy gods could be so unspeakably cruel.
Joy and sorrow – they’re never far apart in footy. Bob was alongside and a part of his – our- extraordinary 2016 team and its epic deeds every step of the way. His rollercoaster of emotions matched that of the fans, as he too celebrated with tears when we smashed our preliminary final hoodoo out of the park. The unbelievable roar as Bevo called him up to the premiership dais; the hugs from his team-mates who loved him as they pushed him forward to share the accolades; the sight of him in the circle of team-mates as they sang our song on that precious day in 2016 - we know and understand the preciousness of those emotions and their poignancy for him.
On Saturday Bob Murphy plays his 300th game.
Thousands like myself, who’ve never even exchanged a word with him but love him all the same, will rise to our feet, tears in our eyes, to try and show him what he means to us, though words will never really be adequate. We’ll hope for signs of that Bob Murphy whimsy, the semi-humorous look on his face that shows he knows it’s (kind of) only a game, or one of those moments where he moves as the great players do in another dimension of time and space. We’ll cheer extra loud whenever he goes near the ball (we hope it will be often).
We all know what Bob is playing for this year. We all know that his young team-mates, including the son of one of those who was beside him when the freckle-faced teenager ran out onto Princes Park all those years ago, will do everything in their power to make sure that dream comes true.
We hope he knows something else, whatever happens in 2017. That he was a reason, maybe even THE reason, that we’d got to that unforgettable day in 2016 at all. And we’d like to say thanks.
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.