When the Dogs took on the Pies last week I was on holidays, catching some sun, a couple of thousand kilometres away.
I was hoping against hope for one of those uneventful, comfortable, slightly dull wins. The type where our worst complaint is that we took our foot off the pedal in the last quarter. We should have been building percentage. Where, during the last quarter, the game well in our keeping, an earnest debate can begin: who should be in or out of the team for the next week based on form, instead of necessity as another injury strikes. Where we can even feign condescending admiration for the opposition's efforts. Some good kids there. That Darcy Moore looks a likely type, doesn't he.
Maybe even - but only if we've won by at least 15 goals - I'm looking forward to seeing that kid's career unfold.
Such indulgences are rarely the Bulldogs' lot. Certainly not in the second half of 2016. And so, inevitably, early in the third quarter we were struggling badly, down for the count. The weight of injuries, that perplexingly dire forward set-up, the absence of Dale Morris to marshall the defensive troops; all these things and more were painfully apparent. Jake "the Lair" (dictionary definition: "a flashy man who likes to show off") - was curiously ineffective. And all around the ground, we appear strangely subdued, bereft of answers.
We've seen these scenarios before, of course. The must-win game that we - don't. Bold club statements such as "Our destiny is now in our own hands" - striking terror, rather than hope, into the Bulldog faithful.
Yes, we've seen it before, over and over, but we didn't have Marcus Bontempelli then. We've had champions, plenty of them; for us, through long years of failure and disappointment, enjoying the singular gifts of individuals was our main consolation. But I'm not sure we've had someone like The Bont. Someone whose own indomitable will and competitiveness, allied with those freakish gifts, can single-handedly swing a game.
It may be a strange analogy; but he reminded me of those mothers who apparently finds the strength to lift a volkswagen to free their trapped children.
We've known it, we've sensed it, we've predicted a glorious career for The Bont, said proudly that he'll win a Brownlow one day, but even we didn't think it would be so soon. That he could be so great - so finished, complete - already.
Emboldened by the Bont's feats (of both varieties) in those flashy lime green shoes, everyone around him becomes inspired. Liam Picken, who has a particular relish in playing the Pies, locks down the dangerous Steele Sidebottom. The aftershocks of his crunching tackles shuddered through the stadium and could be felt even on the couch by an agitated Tragician in Far North Queensland.
And yet, though we bridge the three goal gap, we can't shake the Pies off. Far far away from my actual family, and my Bulldog family as well, the last quarter crawls by. It's a peculiar torture watching it on TV, the awful camera angles ensuring you have no idea whether it's going to be a Bulldog player who first lopes into the frame or several Magpies ready to link up smartly down the centre of the ground. You have no idea whether a desperate shanked kick was the best one of our players could do because of suffocating pressure, or whether he'd overlooked Bulldogs' team-mates leading purposefully into space. (This seemed unlikely given the way our forwards continually formed into a clump, but you never know).
We dominate, without impact; we lock down and fight and scrap time and again; our spirit, our effort, can't be faulted; we're ahead, still, and it's 30 seconds to go. We should be safe. (But - gulp - wasn't that the slither of time in which we were able to snatch the game from Sydney's clutches a few short/long weeks ago?)
There's a random free kick to the Pies, followed by another random free kick to the Pies. It's all too speedy even for the obligatory outrage, because the ball is being launched into the Collingwood forward line. Just the scenario in which promising young Darcy Moore could take one of his wretchedly promising marks, 30 metres out. But it's Bulldog hands, safe hands, those of Roughead and Boyd, that reach the ball first. They pump it forward and The Flashy Man Who Likes to Show Off, who'd looked a bit more his old self in the last quarter, takes a mark right on the siren.
We used to not know how to win; now it's as though we don't know how to lose.
Afterwards, I learn that this win has made history. It's the first time since 1946 we've beaten the Pies four times in a row. That's quite something, when you consider that in 153 matches against the Pies, we have won only 46 times.
I work out that our current 'streak' began in June 2014. And I'm almost instantly flooded with memories of that game. It's one of those that stands out from the rest, even though it should have been just a meaningless, mid-season, humdrum home and away match. Nothing of note was riding on it; hope of an improved year for the rebuilding Dogs had long since faded. We were well down the ladder, while the Pies were finals-bound. Our team was being mocked, trashed in the media; we were "irrelevant", a joke, the footy world agreed.
I trudged up LaTrobe Street to the stadium that day, ready to meet three equally stoic family members, with a spirit of fortitude rather than alacrity. This is what I wrote as I saw with sadness the small, forlorn numbers of Dogs' fans who'd also come along on this Mission Impossible that day :
The sentiments I wanted to express seemed old-fashioned, trite and banal, yet they're what I believe. That you don't get to pick and choose when to barrack for your club, disappearing from their orbit in the bad years, only to reappear with suspiciously new scarves in better times. That going along every week in these hard times, even if it's an effort, form a protective fortress and a core of resilience (harden up, you young scallywags, I've been there for at least a dozen 100 point losses!) and will make our triumph one day (- it will happen one day - won't it? -) extra poignant and unbelievably sweet.
A few things happened that day. The Dogs won; a defiant, glorious, against-the-odds victory.
Libber (the Second) played a breathtakingly brilliant game. Thirteen clearances. Ten tackles.
And an 18-year-old kid called Marcus Bontempelli was pivotal in a tight last quarter. It was still weird to see his rangy form in the number four guernsey, which had been worn more than 200 times by our beloved Daniel Cross. The Bont (maybe we still called him Marcus then) was playing his sixth game; his initiation to the red white and blue had involved five previous losses. His game that day earned him a Rising Star nomination. Afterwards, he shared a memorable hug with his father.
I called my blog post that day: We came, we saw, we believed. And I wrote of the moment when the siren went:
We take a photo of the four of us, celebrating wildly, to capture forever the memory of the day that We Were There.
The importance of being there, the mystery of why fans of unsuccessful clubs endure - these thoughts, on which I often muse, were on my mind for another reason. Last week my blog on our win against the Kangaroos did not find favour with at least one North Melbourne supporter. A person called "Shinboner" (I'm not making this up) got in touch to remind me that North had won four flags in his/her lifetime (a point already made in my blog), and then launched that not-so-thorny, not-so-tough question:
How many flags in yours?
Yes, the Shinboner had me there. I have to confess that I did not need to consult wikipedia, do a google search or use the more old-fashioned method of counting my fingers to unearth the answer. I've never seen Our Boys win a flag, or even come close.
But as an evasive politician might say to a Tony Jones' grilling: I don't actually accept the premise of Shinboner's question at all.
While the heartache of our failures is raw and can't be denied, something more than a simple win-loss ratio is what connects a football team and its supporters. It's the 'something' that compelled us to be there on that June day in 2014.
A Bulldogs premiership - especially after an epic wait of at least 61 years (thanks for reminding me Shinboner) - will be precious indeed. But I imagine (that's all I can do) that a flag, mysteriously enough, won't drastically change anything essential about my feelings about our club, or even be the thing that sustains me when the wheel of footy fortune dumps us back down the ladder again one day.
We can make a choice to go to a well-reviewed movie or walk out of a disappointing restaurant. And yet we will stoically attend matches 'just because' where our team is certain to lose, where we know the outcome is likely to be depression, frustration and even anger. We front up during those interminable seasons where the writing was on the wall virtually from Round One. We can - and do - question our sanity, wonder exactly why we're wasting our 'leisure' time on something that is so frequently, well, unenjoyable.
I watch the Olympics, and a particular triumph, or painful loss, might move, inspire, or sadden me. But I haven't invested enough in these athletes' stories to really care for long whether they've swum a personal best. I haven't been there, silently conveying my support and empathy, when they battled debilitating injury or form slumps. Their story really isn't mine. Yet the Dogs', somehow, is.
I cheer on a favourite player at the tennis but when they lose my disappointment is fleeting. I accept, quite logically, that whether they win or lose has nothing to do with me, tells no meaningful story about the random unfairness of the universe, just that one player played better than the other on a particular day.
I watch the Dogs and layers of memory are always, always, there. They form a collage of sounds and sights and even, for those of us old enough to have attended the Western Oval, smells. The losses, the wins. The years of just being there.
Like all Dogs fans, I feel a sense of awe and slight disbelief that the day may come when we are part of the excited, nervous throng filing into the MCG. We visualise Our Boys lining up for the anthem, dare to dream we'll see Bob lifting the premiership cup. Those miserable days, the days of heartbreak, our failures, they won't be forgotten or swept aside in our joy, our tears when that happens; in fact somehow, they will be the point of it all.
My story: We came, we saw, we believe
Just when did the Kangaroos morph into the least likeable, most irritating team in the competition?
I'm excluding, of course, the Acronyms - GWS. Because they're not a real club. And the Crows, for obvious reasons, because 'least likeable' seems far too mild for the hideous memories that team conjures up. As for the 'whatever it takes' arrogance of Essendon - well, I feel I'm in danger of digressing.
North are right up there. That's all I'm saying.
Our two clubs SEEM as though there should be an affinity, some sort of kindred spirit. Culturally, there are similarities; both smaller, working-class clubs, often struggling to make themselves heard among the clamour and din of bigger and more successful teams. (With four flags, North are well ahead of us; however, pretty much everyone is.) The two clubs are geographically close as well - though that's never brought about a sense of camaraderie with another neighbour of ours from across the posh side of the west's scenic attraction, the Maribyrnong.
But I may be digressing. Again.
The Tragician, as you may have gathered, holds no truck with ludicrous concepts such as having a second team, or (why?) having a 'soft spot' for an opposition club. However, given that North are not one of the teams against whom we have aparticularly abysmal win-loss ratio (these things are always relative, of course), I feel I should have - if not affection - at least less animosity toward them than I do.
I suspect, in fact I'm sure, it's the Scott brother factor. Honestly, is there any free kick to the opposition that the scowling, put-upon twins consider justified?
Petulant Brad and Morose Chris bring to mind a headline in an Australian newspaper when the England cricket team were losing, none too graciously. "Can the Poms be beaten fairly?"
Instead of running around kicking a footy with each other in their early days, the Scott brothers, I reckon, must have practised synchronised 'incredulous-that-can't-possibly-be-a-free' arm-waving routines in preparation for their future coaching careers.
Then there's North's squadron of fake tough guys, forever drawing lines in the sand and making 'statements', puffing out their chests with bumptious and hollow bravado. Like the time when they decided that the moment when Barry Hall was tying up his shoelace might be a good opportunity to push him over. And follow up with some ultra-courageous jostling and bumping as the Big Bad Bustling One attempted to leave the arena after three or four of them held him down in a headlock.
This - apparently - is known as Shinboner Spirit.
It was hardly unexpected, then, that before the first bounce, a group of North Melbourne Fake Tough Guys would attempt to rough up The Bont. Though, to be perfectly honest, my money would have been on 'Celeb' Daniel as the more likely target of their huffing and puffing.
However, The Bont had committed a heinous sin in the strange world of footy ethics. He had taken exception with the fact that in our previous encounter, Lindsay Thomas had launched a head high tackle on Lachie Hunter. One which put him in hospital over night.
In the interests of fairness, let's recap on the full extent of The Bont's outlandish accusations:
"We didn't really like it at all, we thought there was quite a bit of malice in it.
"[Hunter] will be OK, hopefully he can relax and be OK over the next couple of days. But we thought it was quite a bit unfair."
Shame, Bont, shame.
It was little wonder, with such provocation, that the North posse, led by the aptly named 'Spud' Firrito, decided to jostle and bump our superstar.
A few things soon emerged as significant flaws in North's master plan (for there needed no imagination to see Brad Scott's fingerprints all over it). The problem was, though he may not be Barry Hall (he has a lot more hair for one thing), Marcus Bontempelli is no longer a raw-boned and spindly 18-year-old. While, like a fond parent, I still haven't quite adjusted to the fact, the Bont stands shoulder to shoulder with many ruckmen; at an imposing 93 kilos now, he was far from daunted by the so-called physicality of the North players. And not one to launch a theatrical, Nick Riewoldt-style dive into the turf in response to North's attentions.
Nobody - especially Firrito - puts Bonti in the corner any more.
The Bont is, I always think, a mysterious mix of the calm and competitive. While the burning, intense desire to win is virtually imprinted on the faces of some players (Libber, both The First and Second, come to mind), The Bont looks affable, unruffled. He looks as though footy is still, somehow, a game, albeit one he is stupendously good at. His power, rather like our champ Chris Grant, is in his grace, rather than brute force. And yet, as Firrito and gang were about to find out, and as Joel Selwood discovered last week, it is unwise to overlook the fierceness, the ruthless side of Marcus Bontempelli.
There were more things to worry about, indeed, than how The Bont would stand up to the attempted intimidation. Last time we played, the Kangaroos had beaten us by 16 points; it felt like more. And the names we were missing from that day were painful reading; no Wallis, Liberatore, Macrae, Campbell or Adams, while Toby McLean and Koby Stevens are finding form at Footscray after their long lay-offs.
And yet, during the week, Bevo Our Saviour had said, when asked if this Dogs' group could still win a flag: 'You try telling them they can't.'
I try and hold that thought in my mind, even as we make a poor start, even as again, the question of how we can scrounge enough goals looms, and we go close to a goal-less quarter. Then after this shaky beginning, the perennially unlucky Clay Smith goes down with concussion, and we find ourselves in a far too familiar situation. One man down, unable to return for the match.
We gain the lead early in the second quarter (and won't lose it again) through sheer grit. Goals are still hard to come by; with Jake the Lair mysteriously subdued, new sources must, and do, bob up. There's one bloke, for example, who juggles a one-handed mark at centre half forward before going back and slotting a long goal. None other than the composed and lion-hearted 'Celeb' Daniel of course.
North, like a swarm of frustrated, angry ants, initiate more rough stuff at half time.
The Bulldogs crowd pulses with indignation. There is in reality so little that as supporters, we can do to affect any of the game's outcomes (talk of lucky socks and scarves aside). We yearn sometimes, to show them how much we're with them, to give them our thanks, share their disappointments and sorrows, demonstrate - in this case - our anger. We can't leap the fence and put one of the North antagonists in a headlock (for those familiar with the petite stature of The Tragician, this sight would be comic rather than frightening. Especially the part where I fail to leap the fence.)
But we can show them we're with them, and part of them, so we launch a chant.
Bulldogs! Bulldogs! Bulldogs!
It thunders around the stadium. It's primal and raw. People who are mild-mannered and gentle in real life, are yelling it out at the top of our voices. Grandmothers. Teenagers. Nurses, teachers, people with uni degrees, alongside pensioners and students. Kids who've dressed in little handknitted Bulldogs jumpers hours after they were born. People from the western suburbs, people who've only recently taken up the faith. Refugees and new arrivals to our country, for whom it's all a dazzling and intriguing spectacle and a bewildering blur.
People who've never seen a Bulldogs' flag. People who have. But it's oh so long ago.
The warring tribes separate, with little harm done, and head to their own caves.
Do our efforts, to support and lift Our Boys, make any impact, elevate and inspire them, as we hope? Or are we, the fans, just white noise rumbling in the background, barely relevant to the tight little cocoon of players and coaches and injured team-mates?
We all resume our seats, a little sheepishly, and go off in search of our half time snacks.
Our Boys go further ahead in the third quarter. 20 points up at the last break doesn't really reflect the dominance we've established. It's a lot, however, in the context of this low-scoring affair. But far from insurmountable. We squirm in our seats and half wish for another scuffle to break out.
With audacious faith in his troops, Bevo places 20-year-old Lukas Webb, and 19-year-old Josh Dunkley, in the centre square to begin the last quarter, one with so much riding on it for our finals aspirations, for 2016 as a whole. It's strange, and a little poignant - and a whole lot scary - to see these kids in the thick of the action, instead of the comparatively grizzly old hands, Wally and Libber. But Josh and Lukas are undaunted. They're not there to play bit parts, despite their fresh faces, their light frames in comparison to their North counterparts.
But our run has slowed. Fatigue has set in. It's a scrappy, tough arm-wrestle. North get two frees in front of goal. Brad Scott's reaction is not shown on the TV screens.
Our defence becomes besieged. But the 2016 Men's Department are so much more than the sum of its individual players. The reliable duo of Boyd and Morris know where to be, how to direct the youngsters around them. Raw, ungainly Fletcher Roberts keeps learning and growing, game by game, quarter by quarter, from these stalwarts. And we have the magnificent Easton Wood; these tight last quarters seem made for his bold reading of the play, his spectacular intercept marking.
But I still feel the familiar, jittery panic. It is not shared by Our Boys, these young men who burn with more single-minded belief than I've seen in any Dogs team, ever before.
You try telling them they can't.
The siren goes, and our brave and injury-struck team have defied the odds magnificently again. The players head over to the cheer squad, stopping endlessly for the selfies that are requested, for the brief touch of hands, those little moments that connect the fans with their dream. Our dream.
We hope, but don't really know, that in some way we spurred them on. That our chant, ringing around the arena, played just a tiny part in their motivation. Showed the opposition the strength of our unity, fans and players alike.
The boys sing the song a bit more raucously than usual. Another test has been passed. We've won a torrid physical battle, withstanding and triumphing over the bullying tactics and trash talk with which North tried, and failed, to intimidate us.
The win cements our place in the finals. That it makes our rivals' position in the eight that bit more precarious - well, there's a grim satisfaction about that too.
The Bont gives a TV interview, modestly defecting attention back to 'the kids' who've stepped up.“A lot has been spoken about our injuries but we’ve got so much depth and faith in these boys out here tonight and they delivered on it.
“We knew coming in with a bit of a younger group again, it was great to see the younger kids step up."
High praise, I guess, from a seasoned veteran such as The Bont, accumulator of 56 games now, and all of 20 years old.
The Bont had 19 disposals. Not many by his peerless standards, yet to my mind he was, if not the best, the most influential player on the ground.
There was a wonderful moment, right in front of where the Tragician Tribe sit. Firrito had the ball, close to the boundary, and tried to launch a booming kick out of the danger zone of our forward line. But The Bont was right there, and with an athletic leap and full deployment of those "go-go-gadget" arms, spoilt the kick and forced it out of bounds.
'Spud' looked crestfallen. And The Bont's reaction, visible only to us facing the two players, was a sight to behold. There was jubilation, and a full and utter appreciation of everything the moment meant.
And there was a touch of that facial expression, the one that generations of mothers have threatened to wipe off their children's faces.
And among all the sublime and audacious things The Bont did that day, the nine tackles, the long raking kicks, the strong contested marks, that smirk may very well be the thing that delighted me the most.
One day a few years ago, as I was leaving a Bulldogs' match, I came across a man pushing a twin pram. Fast asleep inside were two babies, only a few weeks old. They were wearing little Bulldogs’ jumpers, and their pram was decorated with red, white and blue ribbons.
This was deep in the interminable gloom of the BMac era. Ten goal drubbings, a grimly defensive style of footy, and a dearth of starpower: these were our lot. We were excruciatingly bad, once losing nine games on the trot.
I caught the eye of the twins’ dad as he trundled along with an all too familiar air of stoicism.
‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained with a wry smile.
Resilience. It's a term bandied about a lot in the lead-up to our match against Geelong.
The players were dealing with the aftermath of the horrific injury to their team-mate Mitch Wallis and a third knee reconstruction for Jack Redpath with 'resilience’, Bevo Our Saviour told the media scrum.
Endearingly, he could not hide his own tears and quavering voice as he spoke.
Another reason to love our Plantaganet-look-alike, Willy-Wonka-quoting, skateboard-riding coach.
But when the team selections were announced on Thursday night many wondered if even Bevo had already conceded the match as a certain defeat.
The losses of Wally, Redpath and Dale Morris were expected. But we had no inkling that we'd also miss the two Matthews, Boyd and Suckling, both out with Achilles' strains.
The team that was named would run out as the youngest and least experienced of all those fielded on the weekend. (Don't be fooled by the hype around the 'Baby Blues'; the despised 'Acronyms' - GWS; or even the deservedly enfeebled 'Bombres.' With an average of 23 years and 10 months and just 66 games, we'd eclipsed them all.)
And we were facing the Cats at their fortress; one from from which, as I seem to hear Craig Willis solemnly intone, so few Bulldogs’ teams have ever emerged victorious.
In fact, EJ Whitten, so the story goes, never once drove back down that highway a winner.
And whether at the Cattery or elsewhere, we've failed to defeat the Cats since way back in 2009. Even a few weeks ago, when our list was in much better health, they had no trouble dispatching us and inflicting the heaviest defeat of our season so far.
I always think of Geelong as holding up a two-way mirror to our club. After both clubs were seen as equally talented up-and-comers in 2006, their path diverged into premiership glory; ours of course did not.
Yet their very success also provides a window showing what can happen, how a flaky under-achieving club can finally smash through their history of non-achievement and then build a success-hungry dynasty, a new narrative of success, an aura of invincibility.
That dynasty is still very much alive, with at least six (it was too depressing to do an exact count) of those triple premiership players in the line- up.
In the time-honoured tradition of opposition players achieving milestones whenever they face us (how did Brent Harvey mis-time his record-breaking match?) the Cats would also be celebrating the glorious careers of two of their triple premiership heroes - and serial Bulldogs tormentors - Corey Enright and Jimmy Bartel. The crowd would be revved up, parochial, and at fever pitch. Only a small contingent of Dogs' fans would be there, given the exorbitant price the Geelong club demands for the small number of available seats, to attend this miserably cold night, when our depleted team is expected to cop a shellacking.
Our players, right from the opening bounce, had different ideas. They stunned us all with their intensity, their overwhelming determination to win.
You’d think that last week’s horrible events might have made them hesitant; that there might be moments of tentativeness, a sharper instinct for self-preservation. Yet they were fiercer, braver, more committed, than ever before.
Unlike a couple of other teams I could name Our Boys didn't resort to over the top fake toughness or bravado. There was no posturing, no 'line in the sand' statements. This was a different, more difficult form of courage. The footy world, we the fans, would all have forgiven, excused, accepted a heavy loss. But Our Boys hadn't abandoned their courage, the courage to believe.
Leading the way with an imperious performance was Libber (The Second). He was playing, you felt, for his fellow father-son recruit and lifelong mate, the wounded Mitch Wallis, as much as himself. Despite his own injury woes – last year’s knee reconstruction, a visit to hospital with busted ribs only a couple of weeks ago – Libber played as though, as his famous dad did so often, his own over-sized will could - and would - drag us over the line.
It was a little more surprising to see another Tom instrumental in our impressive start: everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Bulldogs’ answer to Jack Watts, he of the much discussed pay cheque, Tom Boyd. There’s always been a rather placid air about big Tom, little sense that he could use his big frame in the wrecking ball style of Clay Smith, no real evidence that inside him burned the competitive flame of a fierce athlete, but on Friday night it looked like he'd had enough of the gibes, enough of the caricatures. Under pressure that's unimaginable for a 20-year-old, he showed the 'blue chip' talent that Bevo talks about, the potential champion he can become if his fitness base builds up and injury fates (not, admittedly, our friend of late) a little kinder.
The first quarter siren sounded with the Dogs only one point down. The Cats looked, if not shell-shocked, nettled and aggrieved.
Our depleted team had somehow reached somewhere deep, somewhere perhaps even they didn't know they could, and had shaken a defiant fist in the direction of the footy universe. They were playing with heightened recklessness on behalf of - or because of - their injured comrades. And I wished that I was there, to stand with my fellow Bulldogs' fans, and applaud them and give them our thanks.
The second quarter unfolds: like soldiers, we begin to slowly concede ground in a war of attrition. The Cats start to realise that there is no need to join our players and scrabble at the bottom of the pack; they can afford to have one player standing outside, ready to coolly sweep the ball down field, where our defensive gaps are painfully exposed. The toll of our relentless efforts, our frenzied domination with so little effect on the scoreboard, threatens to - but never quite does - inexorably grind us down.
The days of dazzling Round One 'sexy' footy are long gone; it's hand-to-hand combat in which we now must engage.
And yet we see, with an air of disbelief, that our hardiest soldier, Libber, is off the ground. Yet again, the wretched sight of an essential player, squirming in pain, concerned doctors by his side. Libber will not return for the rest of the match.
Another of our best, Luke Dahlhaus, who's lit us up with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, begins to tire. Umpiring decisions don't go our way. The Geelong players begin to exude that air they've always had over us; they look taller, stronger, fresher, faster.
More ... uninjured.
Yet even though the Cats' authority over the match grows, it's never unchallenged. A few times, it seems a dam wall is about to break and they will rampage over the top of us, but we bob up irrepressibly again - I'll never quite know how.
We're still threatening, still surging, even in the last quarter, when we lose yet another player, Jack Macrae, that unobtrusive, tireless runner, who'd been doing a fine job on Joel Selwood and still got 20 possessions himself in three quarters.
Old-fashioned words come to my mind as the final siren sounds, and the Dogs register a 25 point loss. Gallantry, and grace.
We'd played the game, as a certain song that we've heard too many times goes, 'as it should be played'.
Our Boys stayed on the ground as Enright and Bartel were chaired off. Their heads were held high. They weren't losers. They'd just lost a game.
There are ten-goal wins that have not made me as proud as this.
In those painful BMac years, throughout those tedious, repetitive losses, it was sometimes all I could do to unearth one little nugget of hope, one little moment to be proud of. Maybe it was a first gamer in whom we could invest all our hopes and fantasies, or a plodding journeyman who had somehow, unexpectedly, had a breakthrough game. It might be - it often was - a moment of suicidal Daniel Cross madness as he backed fearlessly into a pack.
There were many nuggets to choose from on Friday. But there are two that I have decided I will always cherish in my memory bank.
The first one was the vision of Libber on the sidelines, heavily strapped, knowing - as he must have - that he faced weeks on the sidelines, the surgeon's knife. He was watching the game as intently as the most devoted fan, clapping his team-mates, urging them on.
The other nugget was the splendid sight of The Bont taking the opportunity to set Joel Selwood smartly back down on his derriere (this is a family themed blog). Like every Bulldog fan for so many years, The Bont looked sick and tired of being pushed around by Geelong.
Agh, The Bont. Exquisite skills - check. The leadership and character of a champion -check. Just the right amount of aggression, just the right time to send a statement - wouldn't you know it, our 'golden boy' has the right stuff for that as well.
And yet, while we're proud, we the fans, who have been patient so long, must absorb the knowledge that we must, it seems, be patient once again.
We'd all nurtured hopes that in this even season, with no standout team, we could snatch an unexpected flag (though, after a 61 year drought, the words 'snatch' and the phrase 'unexpected' aren't exactly what I'm reaching for).
It's getting harder to imagine us, with our injury toll, slogging our way through gruelling finals and featuring on that last day of September, 2016. But judging by Friday night, Our Boys aren't accepting that as an inevitability. Not one little bit.
The little twins, in their Bulldog jumpers, must be pre-schoolers by now. Maybe, like my own little boy at that age, they insist on starting the day by running through a banner - a makeshift sheet that I was required to hang from a doorway for this purpose. I imagine them running around the backyard, kicking a footy with their patient dad. They probably wear the numbers four and nine on their backs, like most western suburban kids I see wearing red, white and blue. Or they could be wearing 21, for Libber. Number 3, for Wally. They're learning resilience. Bulldog resilience.
Eighteen weeks ago our season began. I drove to our first match along the Great Ocean Road, past people revelling in the autumn sunshine, swimming and paddling in the aquamarine water.
We cheered our players onto the field, eager to start the much-anticipated 2016 season. Beneath the rarity of an open roof, we were ready to test our mettle against Fremantle, a team that had won the minor premiership the previous season, and played off for a grand final the year before that.
Our boys were tanned, fit, brimming with hope, confidence, desire and self-belief. We rattled on seven first quarter goals, with Jake the Lair at his explosive best. There was kamikaze, men-of-mayhem footy, daring dashes into the forward line at breakneck speed. Bob Murphy cut elegant swathes up and down the field, leading a posse of attacking half backs that reduced the Fremantle opposition to a measly five goals.
We basked, not only in the mellow warmth of the day, but in an overwhelming conviction that our surprise emergence as a 2015 finalist would not be a one-off. Not with this much talent. Not with this much hunger for success, the passion and commitment of our young group, the boys who were daring to dream.
Footy, the beautiful game, had us in its magical thrall. And all things were still possible.
That crisp and sunny day in March could not have felt further away as we arrived on Saturday night at the stadium to confront a team that has so often given us pain, the Saints. The roof was closed; even so, we were rugged up against the biting cold winds, the bleakness of a grey and drizzly Melbourne winter.
Since our bright, dazzling start to 2016, there have been more wonderful wins, mixed in with mundane 'get the job done' wins; some, even in this short timeframe, blurring into one. (Do you remember our Round 5 clash against Brisbane? Me neither).
There have been losses - but only a couple - that stung. Mounting injuries that we somehow overcame. Stirring victories in close matches, coming from behind, or holding off fast finishing opponents. Gritty wins on the road.
Despite a testing run with injuries and the loss of our talisman Bob, our Dogs, against the odds, sit in the top four. Yes, we're playing one of our bogey teams, yet surely, given what's at stake, our boys will meet yet another stern challenge and rack up the crucial four points.
When we walk out of the stadium, having lost the match and so much more, it feels like footy's version of the winter solstice has arrived. The darkest day, the point where hope seems to shrivel, where one too many obstacles are flung in our face.
At this point we don't know the full extent of Mitch Wallis' injury. Just that it's bad, real bad. We're pretty sure that Jack Redpath has done his knee, for the third time. No one can say why Dale Morris, our warrior brave-heart in the backline, was unable to take the field for the second half. But even the rare sight of him in his tracksuit top had brought shivers of unease. We knew well, and it was soon confirmed, that we would miss him badly, his braveness, his selflessness, his composure, his unobtrusive but essential leadership.
My mother, who's been barracking for the Dogs for 62 years, has stayed up in Cairns after the Dogs' win against Gold Coast last week. She sends a text imbued with Irish fatalism.
God doesn't like the Bulldogs very much.
My feet never thawed out the whole game. There hadn't been much jumping up and down with excitement, few inspirational passages to get us off our seats and get the circulation flowing. Not many moments where the stadium rocked with the Bulldogs' chant and chilblain-infested toes could do the stamp. Just a few instants when the Bont threatened, with a quarter of awe-inspiring individual brilliance, to single-handedly wrest the game back in our direction.
The Dogs lost by 15 points. We didn't score in the last quarter. Literally. We couldn't even scrounge a rushed behind.
There's a heaviness among the fans, mirroring what unfolded on the field. Doubts, never far away when you're a Bulldogs' fan, creep in. Our dysfunctional forward line. The calibre of our second tier players. The fatigue of the players, the missing dare and spark. The skills, or mystifying lack thereof, the wrong options taken time and again.
Footy. It's a stupid game after all.
I arrive home and with sinking heart begin reading about Wally's injury. He has broken both bones in his leg.
I listen to the harrowing description of the scenes in the room from an ABC reporter whose voice trembles on the verge of tears as he depicts the terrible scene. Mitch's screams in agony, heard and witnessed by his team-mates, friends and family. Shell-shocked players in tears. Bob Murphy breaking down, sobbing uncontrollably.
In the rooms with Mitch are men for whom this agony is all too real. Dale Morris and Jake Stringer know what it's like to fracture a leg. I recall a poignant article where Dale's wife talked about the dreary, awful details that an injury like this entails, of Dale in a wheelchair, needing help to be showered - yet only every second day because it was too difficult - and toileted.
Dale, aged over 30 at the time, the premiership window that he'd been part of seemingly slammed firmly shut, wondered if he would ever play again.
Jake Stringer broke his leg in the same almost ridiculous way as Mitch, somehow kicking into the back of his leg; he was 17 years old, touted as a number one draft pick. With the horrible injury he was suddenly hovering on the precipice of the footy scrapheap. Jake has spoken of what it is like to watch elderly neighbours lap him as he limped slowly around the footy oval in those tedious slow months of recuperation and rehabilitation.
In the rooms, too are Clay Smith, who at 23 has endured three knee reconstructions; and Tom Liberatore, who missed all of last year with one; and Bob who is recovering from his second and has resolved to play on, but must be shaken to the core as he hears Mitch's excruciating screams and sees his desolate team-mates.
We the fans can't know the pain, physical and emotional, that these players endure. The fear that they must experience every time they go out there, that this time it could be them, stretchered off to the polite but apprehensive applause of the subdued fans.
At times like this I have the feeling of the players inside their own bubble, a world that only they know - because to them, the club and their team-mates are home, workplace, friendship group and family all at once. Only they can truly appreciate Bob's grim humour when he tweeted about donning hospital-issued undies and hairnets before being wheeled into surgery. The indignities of needing help from a wife or girlfriend (worse still, a parent) whenever they need to use the toilet. The loneliness at 3 a.m.when you're racked with pain, or as Nathan Brown described, lying drenched in sweat from the painkillers and the agony that even a sheet over your injured leg can spark.
And the doubts, of whether you'll come back as good. Come back - full stop.
And now, our footy season lies in the balance. In Saturday night's performance even before the injuries, we saw a team whose resilience had begun to crack, who looked weary of the effort, who've seen one too many team-mates go down, who couldn't muster yet again the urgency, the intense approach of a must-win game.
The headiness of Round One, the joy of a new season with its tantalising horizon still ahead, seem like a technicolour dream. Now all things are monochrome. We're stranded in the bleakest and toughest stretch of a long and arduous season. The goal that kept them focused as they trained on 40 degree days or endured marathon sessions in the gym - the dream of spring days, finals footy and more - is, right now, so very far away.
For the fans, there is of course the pragmatic realisation that these new body blows make our 2016 dream that much harder. We know that not just these injuries but the cumulative effect of the unusually heavy toll this year could be starting to wear us down. Yet even as we try to turn our minds to the question of how we will regroup and who needs to step up, there is a sorrow at what has befallen our injured players that is more than just a calculation of the impact on our premiership hopes.
Quaint as it may seem in an era of fans re-badged as stakeholders, and ham-fisted gimmicks to enhance our 'match-day experience', the club and the players are so much a part of our lives that we too have our own sense of loss and sadness at what they're enduring.
While as fans we are outside the inner sanctum, it's not far-fetched to say that watching the pain of those injured and close to them - their pain both physical and mental - brings us our own measure of grief and mourning. Because as the carriers of our dream, the living representatives of our 130+ -year old club, we are connected and invested in them - even though we may have never spoken a word to any of them, or our contact might never have extended beyond a high five along the boundary line.
We start to bond with them as awkward spotty draftees, look forward with over-the-top enthusiasm to their first games, build stories around them based on a few stilted interviews, delight in their progress, and hope (and pray) for them to succeed.
Our knowledge of them is sketchy and incomplete, snippets based on how they present on the field and the carefully crafted images that clubs put forward.
But some of them we feel - we are sure - are special from the outset. Mitch Wallis has occupied a special place in our imaginings, the boy who grew up to wear the colours of his dad's footy club. A future captain, many who know him say, born to lead; he proudly wears the most famous Bulldog jumper of all: the number three of EJ and Chris Grant. There is no more romantic fable than the dream that he, and Lachie Hunter, and Tom Liberatore, will stand on that premiership dais one day, redeeming the heartache of their father's generations, and of course ours as well.
So we share just a little of the pain of Mitch, and that of fan favourite Big Jack Redpath, and become more than a tad misty-eyed whenever Clay The Beast Smith shows that after almost three years in total on the sidelines, his appetite for a crunching ferocious tackle has not diminished.
As I've tried to shrug off the Tragician persona built on too many years of under-achievement and disappointment, so too have I tried to rid myself of the feeling, so common among many of us, that our club is cursed. It's hard not to lapse back into that mindset as we ask why we could be so unlucky again - why when the future is as bright as we've ever imagined, so many have been randomly struck down. You could hear it in the voices of so many on Saturday night as we grappled with this new challenge, when we've had to weather too many. My mum indeed captured the mood. God doesn't like the Bulldogs very much.
Of course we will all begin to claw back optimism. As dogs do, we will retreat to lick our wounds, before slowly, painfully moving on. We'll start to talk about who'll come in for the injured players, how we can regain our mojo, how much of the season there still is to play. The holy grail is still there to be won.
The Cats at the Cattery? Jake will be back, and maybe even Dahl. Bevo Our Saviour's bound to have a few tricks up his sleeve. We've won 12, lost five; still a great season by anyone's standards. We're not done yet, we say, defiantly.
Photos begin appearing on Instagram: Wally in his hospital bed, looking pale, but giving a thumbs up.
The image makes me go searching for that article about Dale Morris. I need to read again about how, after almost 18 months on the sidelines, he made his way back to take his place alongside his club, his team-mates, and us the fans. Dale described those awful few hours after he broke his leg, moments that Mitch will be living his own version of now too:
"I'd had the x-rays and I was lying there with a million things going through my head and in walked Matty Boyd. He'd come straight from the game.
"I don't even think he'd had a shower, and he just sat with me. We had a little bit of a chat, but he didn't even have to say anything."
Another team-mate, the injury-plagued Tom Williams, brought over a laptop loaded with dozens of movies - "he knew what was ahead of me" - and Daniel Cross's wife Sam dropped off some containers of home-made pasta sauce at the Morris home.
Although Morris faced months on the sidelines, that weekend confirmed what he had always known: that Whitten Oval was and would remain his second home.
"If anything it really felt like I was even more a part of a team," Dale said. "That's the beauty of the Bulldogs."
Footy. The game of heartache.
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.