It's late in the last quarter. At last the Dogs stop-start season has re-ignited, with a stirring performance that makes me realise even more keenly what’s been missing for sizeable chunks of 2017. That manic pressure, combined with fast ball movement and the right balance of risk to reward, have returned.
But those neighbours of ours from the more glamorous side of the Maribyrnong - let’s be honest, they’ve never been good friends - are throwing everything at us.
The ball is kicked into their wide-open forward line. Our hearts sink as we see Joe Daniher, who’s already dominated the match with six goals, galloping towards the ball. Loping alongside him with equal determination, and an equally bad moustache, is Zaine Cordy. ‘In-Zaine’ is conceding seven centimetres and three years on his star opponent.
The outcome of this contest may well decide the match and determine each team’s season.
The Daniher family are football royalty: the Cordy dynasty is, well, perhaps a less celebrated pedigree. The uncles and fathers of Joe and Zaine played alongside and against each other in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Joe arrived as a new messiah at the Essendon Football Club where his father, three uncles and a brother had already played with distinction and sprinklings of premiership glory; Zaine slipped into our footy ranks with a lot less fanfare.
The main thing I recall about his arrival is hoping he would play alongside his gangly brother Ayce, just so I could say that I had seen the A to Z of Cordys. Such were the lowly aspirations of a Bulldog Tragician, back in the day.
Ayce’s career never quite fired. Heart-breaking injury followed heart-breaking injury for the young man who proudly donned his father’s not-so-famous (except for those of us who’d seen Brian's brave and resolute performances in the '80s) number 49. On the rare occasions Ayce strung a couple of senior games together you could see glimpses of promise, raw – it has to be said, very raw - potential. As is the fate of many oversized players, Ayce's mistakes were more glaring; his failure to clunk the ball even more mystifying. I guess it’s hard to be unobtrusively ineffectual when you’re 201 centimeters.
Ayce's kid brother Zaine became a premiership player aged just 19. Stunningly, his nine games for 2016 included those four precious finals, where he played as a forward. That Cordy rawness that he shared with his brother was accompanied by a ruthless glint in the eye and a competitive edge that perhaps - we never saw enough to know - his gentler, amiable sibling never had. Zaine's been playing down back this season and as elder statesmen of our defence Bob Murphy, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris battle injury, their careers now moving towards a different end of the spectrum, 'In-Zaine' has begun assuming more responsibility in an inexperienced backline.
That responsibility is put to the test as the ball hurtles towards Joe and Zaine. We hold our collective breath, fearing, hoping. Joe is well-placed to take another mark, to wheel around with his super athleticism and drive the red-and-black into attack. Zaine doesn't want that to happen any more than all of us fans who helplessly watch the moment unfold. His big fist comes over the top of Joe. The ball sails away. Danger has been averted.
Zaine's actions didn't make the later highlight reel. But we all rise to our feet, applauding him, knowing how much it mattered.
I hadn't been confident about this match, not one little bit. I wasn't convinced by our win against Gold Coast - we've unfortunately seen some of these false dawns before in 2017. Mix in my passionate dislike of the 'Bombres' with the vital importance of a win to our 2017 premiership defence, and I found myself in some vintage Bulldog Tragician territory. Not only did the two 130+ point thrashings in the 80s begin lurking in my consciousness (the Cordy brothers and at least one Daniher brother certainly featured); soon I was getting revved up about the fact that Essendon, it was rumoured, opposed our very admission to the VFL back in 1924! Even though - or perhaps because - we'd just beaten them for the title of Champions of Victoria, when we were VFA premiers and they'd been VFL premiers! What a dastardly mob!
I envisaged how it would play out: the dread sight of scarf-waving, ungracious Essendonites mocking us as they, of all AFL fans, know so well how to do. Some of their brutish thugs (is Dean Wallis still playing?) would rough up our smallest guys, 'Celeb' Daniel or Toby McLean. And I could just see that bloke with the shocking hairstyle, Hale Cooker, ruffling the hair, making snide comments, getting right in the face and intimidating Young, Lewis.
I was perhaps a little overwrought. In my defence, this was Essendon after all.
My pre-emptive anguish was fortunately unnecessary. There was something free-spirited about Our Boys again; a rebirth, at last, of the zest that had been strangely extinguished since our premiership. JJ showed that he may not be our best player, but perhaps he's our most important. Some of Bob Murphy's adroitness, his lightness of step, returned. The Bont was a colossus, magnificently imposing his will in the fiercest heat of the contest. Those sons of guns, Hunter, Libba and Wally: is it my imagination or had that antipathy towards the Dons seeped down through the generations? because there was, surely, an added intensity in their efforts, an extra edge to their emotion as we steadfastly saw off the Dons' challenge and nailed a 30-point win.
There was an obligatory thuggish brute moment of course, when the supremely unlikeable Brendon Goddard decided to mash Toby McLean's head into the turf. But Bont was there, standing toe-to-toe in support of his team-mate. And as our players mobbed Toby when he goaled from the resultant free and let Goddard know all about it, there amongst them was 18-year-old Lewis Young. With his irrepressible enthusiasm he had earlier thwarted a certain goal from that Hale Cooker. It doesn't seem coincidental that since his debut we haven't lost a match.
As we left the stadium, our song ringing in our ears, I spied a very tall individual with the distinctive Cordy toothiness. Ayce: delisted by the Bulldogs at the end of 2014; student of medicine; wearer of the number 49 Bulldogs guernsey for five seasons and 27 matches; and now just a face in the crowd (well, towering over the crowd actually). He looks animated, relaxed, another Bulldogs fan who's enjoyed the win, chatting with friends.
I find myself remembering one of Ayce's 27 matches. For true connoisseurs of the Tragician Blog, it's known as the Birthday Match. Yes, in that grim season of 2013, on the very night of my birthday, instead of living it up at a swanky restaurant, I instead nobly elected to trot along to the MCG. It was a freezing Saturday night; our opponent was Melbourne, who'd recently been dubbed an embarrassment to the competition. We weren't setting the world on fire with, but were considered certainties (except by the Bulldog Tragician) to triumph over the Melbourne rabble.
Naturally we lost. It was a defeat that was ignominious even by 2013's abysmal standards.
After trailing all evening, the Dogs did mount a surprising last quarter comeback. (The greatest surprise was actually that any of us Bulldogs' fans were still there to see it. I suspect many of us were too cold to move). Amid this belated flurry of activity, Ayce took a strong mark. A couple of rows ahead of us, a middle-aged woman leapt to her feet to wildly applaud him; she jumped with exuberant joy when he slotted a goal. I wasn't sure this achievement after a modest evening warranted such celebrations until I realised that the man sitting next to her, smiling at her antics, was Brian Cordy. His parents had no doubt witnessed the travails Ayce had gone through with his fragile body; knew, as only families do, the heartaches and disappointments, the hospitalisations, the setbacks, the self-doubt and depression; heard the snide comments, seen the venomous posts on social media as their son, a first round selection who'd come to the club with high hopes, battled to carve out his career.
Sitting alongside his family was a teenager, even more spindly though not quite as tall as his sibling. Who could have known that a mere three years later it would be 'In-Zaine' who would run onto the MCG in October 2016; that the teenager would execute a massive tackle in the first quarter, and then kick the first Bulldog goal on grand final day for 62 years.
Timing, good fortune, some extra mongrel perhaps; such tiny little variables there are that separate Zaine the premiership player from his brother the also-ran. I wonder if these moments were bitter-sweet for Ayce, even as he celebrated, as a brother, a son, a life-long Bulldogs' fan and member of our Cordy dynasty.
Their mum, I imagine, would have been bursting with pride; yet I'm sure she would have been probably no less ecstatic, no less proud than when Ayce kicked his goal on that far-away day of June 29, 2013.
It was a busy weekend for the Bulldog Tragician.
Firstly, I was part of a panel discussion at the Williamstown Literary Festival. The topic was "Living footy", and the advertising blurb said:
Fans live footy. They fall into its clutches and are happy to be tossed about in a state of battered uncertainty. It’s all about hope and joy and other important stuff.
Whether you’re in the grip of footy or not, you can’t help but see the impact it has on people. It consumes them. Us! Reasonable, intelligent, capable people. Three footy fans, intrigued by the depth of their own feeling, have spent a lot of time thinking about what footy means to them – and writing of their own experience.
Flattered at being described as reasonable, intelligent and even capable, I joined fellow footy tragics John Harms and Yvette Wroby for our session. It's surely no coincidence that all of us have written about the pain of supporting an unsuccessful football team. John is a Cats' man; Yvette, who now goes everywhere magnificently attired in red, white and black, of course supports the Saints. Our magnificently flaky, frequently underperforming teams, have brought us as much heartache as joy.
Flaky no longer describes the Cats, though; John has now seen the unfolding of a Geelong dynasty which doesn't seem close to ending. Yvette has watched her Saints in three grand finals, including the agony of a draw. Yvette says she doesn't worry any more about when the Saints will get to experience the elation, the euphoria, that John and I now have. It will come one day, she says. A simple faith that I had never been able to achieve in the Dogs' long years in the footy wildnerness.
The three of us had no trouble yarning about why it all mattered, swapping nostalgic stories of our early footy memories, reminiscing about the old suburban grounds, confessing to ridiculous superstitions and paranoid beliefs that our items of clothing, positions on the couch, or other such factors were somehow resulting in runs of goals. Or the reverse.
A Saints' fan in his 80s raised a laugh when he asked whether I thought there was any cure to barracking for his team. I told him not only was there definitely no cure, but after what I'd experienced with last year's flag, he shouldn't wish for one anyway.
On Sunday I was a guest of the 3AW pre-match panel. Again I told the story of why my team has always mattered to me through years of failure, of my western suburbs' upbringing, of family, of a sense of place.
I was asked by Matthew Richardson when I first realised this group was something special. The final against West Coast, I replied, though the answer to these things is never quite as clear cut as that, is far too simple and pat to capture how doubt and hope and fear and joy ebb and flow in the mind of the barracker.
Before I left the commentary box, Richo said to me how much he wished that he would see a similar sort of joy one day for his team Richmond. Richo is one of those I once called The Unrewarded: loyal, beloved one-club players, who embody the spirit of their club, yet never taste the ultimate success. Our players have always been disproportionately represented in this cruelly unfair list: Chris Grant, Brad Johnson, Rohan Smith, Scott West, Daniel Giansiracusa.
Richo played 282 games for the club his dad represented as well. Kicked 800 goals (ten of these, regrettably enough, in a single game against us the Dogs in 2004).
Played just three finals. And only one of these was a win.
I didn't cross paths with the next guest who was to follow me, our captain Bob. Our performance against Melbourne, we all knew, would play a big part in determining whether Bob, currently suffering an injury setback, would remain a card-carrying member of the Unrewarded.
I returned to my seat in time for the first bounce, hoping to shake my uneasy sense that our faltering form of late would follow us into this vital match.
What unfolded was shattering, hard to watch. An apparent return to a past we prayed, and hoped, had been banished forever.
So stark was the gap between the 2016 heroes and the desperately out-of-touch Bulldogs I developed a theory that somehow, a crew of skilled impersonators had pulled a daring stunt, locking the actual Bulldogs premiers into the training rooms while, in the ultimate practical joke, they took the field in their stead.
Or perhaps what had happened was borrowed from one of those interminable, long-running soapies like The Bold and the Beautiful, in which a long-running character is suddenly replaced by a new actor, with only a voice-over as explanation. I began to expect an announcement at some point, along these lines: 'The part of Easton Wood is now being played by Lukas Markovic.'
None of us could comprehend what was happening. None of us really knew what our expected emotional reactions, after the premiership which was supposed to change everything, should be in this unfamiliar territory, the post-premiership world. Should we launch into irrational, Danny-from-Droop-st panic? (that bloody flag! it's the worst thing that ever happened to us). Should we sit back in resigned torpor, chanting rhythmically: I saw a premiership in my lifetime and that's all that matters?
Like the well-worn philosophical dilemma that used to be furiously debated by Bulldogs' fans - the question of 'was it ok be happy with an honourable loss?' - divisions broke out as we struggled to understand the perplexingly awful performance.
Many condemned our club for 'celebrating too hard'. There were actually calls from some fans for the sign, ever so proudly emblazoned on the Whitten Oval - 2016 premiers - to be removed. It was, some said, giving our players an inflated sense of self importance!
Driving home, I drew upon my well-worn strategy of a media blackout. An ungracious loser like myself (you'd think I'd be better at it after decades of practice) really didn't want to hear gushing, albeit well-deserved compliments, about the red-hot Dees, who had out-men-of-mayhem-ed us.
I began thinking about a light-hearted question I was asked in my 3AW interview, about whether I myself was suffering a premiership hangover. I'd fumbled for words to describe what our new world has been like since we'd surfed that tidal wave of raw and pure emotion. 'Hangover' is too glib a term to capture that kaleidoscope of feelings left behind by that month of brilliant, audacious footy, that lion-hearted win against all odds. Maybe some things can't be captured at all.
I turned on the music system. Somehow songs that bob up post-loss always feel portentous. Sure enough, my old soul-mate in teenage angst, Joni Mitchell was the first one to emerge from the ipod shuffle. (I've never before confessed to a dark phase of my Tragician journey. It's time to reveal that as a moody teen, I completely renounced footy. I'd retreated to my Deer Park bedroom to listen to introspective singer-songwriters such as Joni, James Taylor and Neil Young, and squabble with my Libba Sister, who much preferred Abba. Fortunately I came to my senses,embracing footy once more - just in time for the halcyon Royce Hart era and a year where we won just two matches).
You had to hand it to Joni, though, because a line from one of her best known songs tumbled out and, I felt, expressed what I couldn't capture, about the impact of the premiership.
Moons and Junes and ferries wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel, as every fairy tale comes real.
It's a lot more poetic than a mere premiership hangover, I decided.
I've found myself thinking about Richo a bit this week, as normality returns, Joni's mournful voice recedes, and I become resigned to the idea that for whatever reason, we are playing at nowhere near the same level as 2016. We could well miss the eight, and even with Bevo's wizardry, a second premiership this year no longer feels remotely possible.
There was such a wistful note in Richo's comment to me. It kept me thinking about about what he missed out on, what so many Tigers' fans have never known. A vivid memory recurred, of Richo out on the field on Grand Final Day. He was cradling a Channel seven microphone instead of a Sherrin, wearing a smart suit instead of mud-splattered yellow and black, and trying to corral our celebrating players for an interview while they embarked on that joyous victory lap.
How many times must he have envisaged these moments, fantasised about sharing this elation with his team-mates and the euphoric fans. Longing, yearning, to experience that 'hope and joy and other important stuff.'
In the background, Luke Dahlhaus was openly weeping. The Bont stood proudly astride the MCG fence, holding up the precious cup to us, the fans. Bob Murphy - who idolised Richo as a kid - walked the boundary line, crying with us and for us: the 'sons and daughters of the west.'
Richo laughed along as he cornered, and then tried to get a sensible answer from, the exuberant Tom Liberatore. Libba (The Second) had played all four taxing finals, two of them interstate, with an appalling ankle injury which should have ended his season.
'Happy days, Richo! happy days,' said our Libba, and then he ran off to join his teammates and Bulldog family in a shower of red white and blue confetti.
Listen to my interview on 3AW.
2016: It was ten minutes into our sudden-death final against the Eagles. Our brave but battered team had peppered the goals, taken bold risks sweeping the ball through the corridor. Yet only points were registered despite their efforts and determination.
We were the most under of under-dogs. Seventh on the ladder, despite a season blighted by injury, consigned to the most difficult of assignments, a final in Perth. All week a series of gloomy statistics forewarned us of our fate. We’d never won an interstate final. We’d lost to bottom team Freo here only the week before. Our opponents, grand finalists the year before, were in menacingly hot form.
Now, after our early dominance, we attempted to clear the ball from the Eagles’ defence. An errant kick landed the ball straight onto the chest of our nemesis, serial Bulldog tormentor Josh Kennedy.
He didn’t miss. Of course, he didn’t miss. And another Eagles goal quickly - too quickly - followed.
Watching back home, we fans felt our slim hopes evaporate. Excuses - no, valid reasons for an imminent defeat, maybe even one of those horrific interstate shellackings - sprang readily to mind. There’d been too many injuries to key players. It wasn’t ‘time’ yet for our team, the youngest and most inexperienced of the eight finalists. 2016 – like so many before it- just wasn’t going to be our year.
The Dogs kicked the next 7 goals.
Well into the last quarter our team, miraculously, kept extending their lead. Yet still we shifted restlessly in our seats, fearing far-fetched ‘it-could-only-happen-to-us’ scenarios. Could there be a string of unprecedented 50-metre penalties, one after another, against our team? Or a team sheet filled in wrongly. A power blackout hitting Perth, forcing the game to be replayed.
But even as we fretted about these outlandish possibilities, The Bont kicked a monster goal from 50 metres and pointed to his heart. For faith. For belief.
We headed to the G the next week. A community of red, white and blue, marching as one to the famous ground where we’d known more heartache than joy. Though we were brimming with pride, those pesky worries tapped our shoulders like ghosts. Our opponents - The Smug Three-Peaters -boasted some serious cred; they were awash with Norm Smith medallists and premiership trophies. And after all, one of their players, Shaun Burgoyne, had alone played 33 finals, while our teenagers ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy and Josh Dunkley between them hadn’t even played that many home-an- away games.
Half way through the second quarter, things hadn’t gone our way. We were indignant when Luke ‘Good Bloke’ Hodge had successfully claimed he had touched the ball, leading to an over-rule of a goal. And frustratingly, those irritating Three-peaters kept calmly absorbing everything we threw at them. Their goals seemed more effortless, their players at home on this big stage, the largest crowd that any Footscray/Western Bulldogs team had ever played before, since 1961. We felt a familiar resignation settle over us. Sure, it had been a great season, but maybe this wasn’t our night. Perhaps we’d have more luck next year, the good old non-threatening battlers from the west.
Even as these thoughts gnawed into our minds, Our Dogs were busily working their way back. They matched the Unsociable Hawks scuffle for scuffle in a half-time barney and then stormed past the Three-Peaters in a brilliant third quarter.
We marched back home along the Yarra again. We relived the electrifying memories - Our Bont taking over the MCG, and twice eclipsing The Good Bloke. The astounding goal by Jake Stringer. Liam Picken’s amazing form.
The air was somehow charged, different. As we walked through the balmy night, I heard snatches of conversation. People were beginning to make plans. And a nervous, restless impulse was taking shape.
We felt compelled – we needed - to join Our Boys on the next stage of their quest. Somehow, some way - we had to join our team in Sydney, even though, or perhaps because, we’d witnessed, so many of us, all those seven heartbreaking preliminary finals losses.
The close ones, the humiliating ones, the downright embarrassing ones.
We made our way there by planes, trains - and for most of us automobiles. Our red, white and blue colours flew everywhere in Harbour City. We packed the ground, outnumbering, outcheering, even better, out-booing, the fans of the dreaded Orange-clad Acronyms.
Our team fell behind to the Number One Draft Picks in the last quarter. Their efforts had been valiant, heroic. But it was our third final in a row, the second on the road, and there were signs of fatigue.
So often we the fans retreat into our shells when this happens, bruised by traumatic memories of cruel defeats past. Yet from nowhere came the most spine-tingling Bulldogs chant. It rang, it echoed around the unfamiliar arena, so far from our western suburbs’ home. It seemed to propel JJ forward, galvanise him as he loped across the turf, kicking it towardsThe Bont, our star who’d asked that simple but difficult question: “Why not us?”
The Bont held our hopes in his hands. He steadied for the kick, one that could put us closer to a grand final than most Bulldogs’ fans had ever seen. We rose as one from our seats, praying, willing the ball home. And we were suddenly sure it could go nowhere but through the big sticks.
When the siren sounded and our team had made the grand final, suddenly – just like that – those worries and fears that had hovered over us for years floated away.
We watched our team in the grand final parade with joy. We saw our team run, at last, onto the MCG for a grand final, and our hearts were full of hope, a thrilling sense that all things were possible, that no boundary could contain what Our Boys planned to achieve.
Our outrage, when the potentially match-winning goal from JJ was disallowed, was fleeting. For Jordan Roughead immediately thwart the Swans’ move forward from the point, his strong hands pulling down a crucial mark, driving it back again to the relentless men and boys, the heroes in red, white and blue.
Nothing was going to stand in the way of their dream. And because they believed it, at last, through tears of joy, we did too.
2017: We’ve watched those four epic finals, each a jewel in their own way, over and over. We still leap up when Liam Picken kicks the matchwinning goal. We cry, again, when Bevo gives Bob his medal.
We get goosebumps whenever we hear the music from Boom Crash Opera, the backdrop as OUR team ran around with the cup amid a hail of red white and blue confetti:
This is the best thing that has ever happened to me
These are the colors that I've always wanted to see
Our Christmas trees are decorated in red, white and blue; we eat our turkey and ham from placemats created from photos of our premiership heroes; the Grand Final is on replay to accompany that gentle post-Christmas snooze. (Please don’t tell me it was only my family that did all these things?)
My 13-year-old niece. who used to cry whenever we lost, can now recite the grand final commentary, word for word, from that moment that Dale Morris launched his famous, thrilling tackle on Buddy Franklin, to the final siren.
Trams and buses now trundle past us every day, with The Bont emblazoned on their sides. The footy world knows, what we instantly grasped when we first watched the spindly kid in number four kick a freakish goal in a ho-hum match against the Dees. That The Bont is an outright star.
We don’t worry too much about the draft, or pre-season training or indifferent early form. Bevo ‘Our Saviour’ will have that all well in hand, we reckon.
Sometimes, though, we stop and wonder.
What will it be like to watch matches without that ever-present, jittery, sense of impending disaster hovering over our shoulders?
Will our first loss in 2017, whether that is in round one or round 20, hurt as much, now that terrible ache has been eased?
Who are we, if not the ‘battling Bulldogs’, the Cinderella club, ‘everyone’s second favourite team’?
Still, there will be new chapters for the men who couldn’t be out there on 1 October. We’re desperate to see Wally and Bob and Lin and Red know that euphoria too. And maybe there will be another awkward spotty recruit that emerges as a potential star, even while we pray that ‘Keith’ Boyd and Dale Morris keep up their evergreen form.
We confidently hope – and expect - there will be some lines that are intriguing and mysterious from Luke Beveridge. A fleeting mention of the tardis, or Willy Wonka. Maybe he’s got something preposterous in mind.
Such as seeing that Matty Boyd could be an All-Australian defender.
Almost on cue, we hear about Bevo’s speech at the season launch. He channels Dr Seuss. The footy world is puzzled, but we - who once were worriers – smile and know exactly what he’s talking about. That ‘everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. And the magical things we can do with that ball, can once again make us the winningest winner of all.’
The week of tears
It's Grand Final Week, and our Western Bulldogs' story has captured Melbourne. It's a dream that has swept and carried all neutral fans in a tidal wave of emotion and good will. There's hardly a mention of our opponents, the worthy but dull Sydney Swans.
We're a fable, an allegory, the good guys who everyone wants to win.
Our tale, our quest, are the very definition of 'quixotic.' I know because I looked it up in the dictionary:
Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.
And yet in this happiest of weeks, all I can do is cry.
I shed tears, whenever I saw the words 'Bulldogs' and 'Grand Final' in the same sentence. And without the usual qualifying words, 1961 or 1954. Or 'never'.
Tears, whenever I view again the incredibly moving footage of our fans during the last, desperately tense minutes of the Preliminary Final against the Acronyms. I recognise myself in every frame.
Unable to watch, having to watch.
Unable to hope, but needing to hope.
Tears, when I see pictures of the Bulldogs' logo being painted on the MCG turf, or the famous arena lit up with our colours - at last - in the build-up to that match, the party from which we have been excluded for so long.
And finally it's Grand Final Eve. We, our beloved but luckless club with the most patient of fans, will be proudly on display in the Parade. That happy celebration, that window of opportunity when for both clubs, everything is still magically possible.
Making my way to meet the Other Libber Sister and set off for the big occasion, tears fall again as I drive down Barkly Street, seeing the African restaurants in Barkly Street, flying our colours, displaying their 'WOOF WOOF' signs. Footscray, the suburb where my father was born, has become unrecognisable to me these days, vibrantly multicultural, unexpectedly hip. In fact, the street in which Dad grew up was even spruiked by real estate agents recently as having a 'Paris end' (which may perplex those who've ever visited the Champs-Elysees).
Houses in the suburb everyone used to scorn and deride now sell for a million bucks.
And the new generation of young professionals, who've brought soy lattes and avocado smash to trendy cafe menus, now call West Footscray, where my parents married and I myself was christened (all in the right Catholic order of course, in case you're wondering) - WeFo.
The Libbers are catching the train from West Footscray. Even Metro have entered into the spirit, blaring out our song from the speakers as we do battle with the Myki machine. The platform sparkles with our red, white and blue colours: there are faded, hand-knitted scarves and retro bomber jackets from the 80s dragged out from cupboards and worn with pride. There's a resurgence, I feel, of the fierce Footscray and western suburbs' parochialism that I'd thought might have disappeared in our more urbane and cosmopolitan city.
I see craggy faces who look like they've been through a lot, and faces from many places across the sea who've made the west their home. Babies are asleep nestled in their mothers' arms. Children aren't the only ones wearing face-paint, tri-coloured wigs, red white and blue nail art and hats with badges.
When I turn my face to hide those treacherous tears again, I see the Olympic Tyres and Rubber factory - or what's left of it now that it's been converted to sleek new apartments. Here, both my parents and grandparents once worked. When I was granted the long-awaited privilege of attending games when I was four, we often waved to my grandfather, in his grey dust-coat, who was the gateman there, as we headed to the game.
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.
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.