There’s something excruciating about Trade Week that makes true footy romantics want to hide under a doona until it’s finally all over. It’s so cold, so calculating, so ruthless, the worth of young men measured and reduced to points and likely draft positions.. Players and clubs alike discard contracts; the veneer of unity and professed love between clubs, players and fans, is brutally stripped aside.
But in 2012 even I abandoned my previous disdain and tuned into the ceaseless chatter and speculation. Because, after a depressing year, the Dogs would get to choose two draft picks within the top 10.
We held pick number five. That was by virtue of us being pretty awful and only winning five games.
We held pick six. That was by virtue of the fact that Callan Ward, our young star who was just hitting his straps, had defected to the Acronyms and would henceforth wear orange.
How would the Dogs handle these precious opportunities to nab the best young talent in the land? In an inexact science where luck was as important as instinct, could our recruiters get them right, choosing young men with temperaments and talents that would finally lead us to that second flag, further over the horizon in 2012 than ever before? Would they be wasted on those athletic types who never quite fired, the ominously named ‘ speculative picks’ who eked out a handful of forgettable games… before a subdued and embarrassing announcement thanking them for their services and wishing them well in future endeavours?
Then there was perhaps the most important question of all: would they just make us proud?
With countless stories to be told, a myriad of dramatic possibilities, it was enough for even a Bulldog Tragician to peek her head out from underneath the doona.
Soon our two prized selections were paraded to the media, looking as all recruits do, somehow pleased yet abashed, skinny and awkward, in their new red white and blue jumpers. Jake Stringer, taken at least nominally ahead of Jackson Macrae, looked more well-developed; he also had the more dramatic backstory. A horribly broken leg, perhaps the reason he had slipped down the draft order. There were murmurings. Of dazzling skills. A freakish ability to do something special.
The enthusiasm for Jackson was more muted. ‘A smart half forward who might end up in the midfield,’ was the cautious, rather uninspiring, assessment of draft guru Emma Quayle.
Though the new recruits first took the field for us on the very same night in Round 4, 2103 (a miserable wet evening where we were pummelled in Adelaide by the Crows) my blog was entitled: ‘On the couch: the day that Jake debuted.’
After enduring a couple of years of our dreary, stop-start game plan as we crept inexorably down the ladder, I, like all other Bulldogs’ fans, had eagerly anticipated his debut. I was enthralled by his aura, the tantalising possibility of at last having a forward who actually loved to kick a goal. Bonus points: he had a noticeable swagger. Our new number nine even played on after making the ball, and backed himself to kick a long goal!! (Well, he actually didn’t kick it, but still, what nerve, what chutzpah he’d displayed in that instant!) The fan forums lit up with excitement, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the Dogs had just registered their third heavy loss in a row (remember, it was only round four): this one by 52 points.
Of the debut of Jack Macrae, little was written (the Bulldog Tragician offered the feeble assessment that he looked overawed); somehow I overlooked that he had kicked half our goals. (Perhaps my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that these represented just two in a sorry tally of four).
By their second seasons, the narrative around the 2012 high draft picks was firmly established. Jake Stringer was explosive, mercurial, unpredictable, a matchwinner. I decided he must be called The Lair – the ‘flashy man who likes to show off.’ Most thrillingly of all, Jake’s showmanship was also un-Bulldog-like. We’d never had a true lair, never been a club for the outlandish individual. Jason Akermanis was asked to please, give up the handstands when he joined our ranks, while Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd could muster a killer scowl if any player’s goal celebrations were over the top.
Perhaps it was where we were at as a club, perhaps it was the sheer, fatiguing boredom of the Brendan McCartney gameplan, but there was something delightfully subversive in our cheers whenever Jake The Lair left team-mates in better positions stranded and bullocked through for a trademark goal. Mere mortals could do those necessary, unselfish, team-oriented centering kicks. We revelled, instead, in our hero taking on opponents who fell like skittles in his path as he snapped an improbable, team-lifting goal.
As for Jackson Macrae, he had no nickname, unless you count the words ‘under-rated’ and ‘unobtrusive’ that became mandatory any time he was mentioned. He didn’t take speckies, he didn't kick goals, he never made the highlight reel; after having a belated growth spurt he was most definitely a mid-fielder, one who just got the ball. A lot.
We were perplexed when Jackson was sent back to the twos at one point; what on earth was the match committee seeing that we did not? But Jackson Macrae only served a one match penance before returning and registering a staggering 43 possessions against Gold Coast. ‘I needed the kick up the bum,’ explained Jackson. He came second to Libba in the 2014 best and fairest, and then was asked by earnest first year player Marcus Bontempelli for tips in how to beat the so-called second year blues.
Jake the Lair had a photogenic young family. Comparisons to Gary Ablett were made: Brian Taylor screeched that he was ‘The Package.’ He was an All-Australian in 2015. Greatness, surely, beckoned.
We knew little about Jackson Macrae. I think I vaguely recall that he was once mentioned by his team-mates as the untidiest guy at the club. Or maybe he was the worst dressed? Or maybe it never even happened at all.
But in 2016, as we moved closer to premiership success, something began to shift in the stories we played in our heads, what we thought we know about the characters in our weekly drama, Jackson Macrae and Jake Stringer. Jake’s form dwindled: he flew from behind for mark of the year (only to spoil a team-mate in better position). He lurked lazily at the back of packs, The electric turbo-charge of speed he could summon when a goal beckoned went mysteriously missing when his opponent was high-tailing out of the backline. Maybe he’d always done all of these things, but now, crucially, the goals dried up too. Despite our long injury list, Jake got sent back to the Footscray team; yet despite this ‘kick up the bum’ his form remained indifferent. To our puzzlement, as we struggled to kick respectable scores, Jake The Lair languished for a few weeks in the reserves.
Jackson, of course, kept getting the ball. A lot.
And then Jackson Macrae, who never got injured, never tired in the most gruelling of last quarters, ripped his hamstring just three weeks before the finals. Even then, it was almost overshadowed by the fact that Libba also suffered a shattering ankle injury. But by now we knew exactly what Jackson, who still didn’t have a nickname, meant to our team. We knew that with his absence, our finals campaign - indeed our very spot in the finals - now hung by the most precarious of threads.
Both Jake and Jack returned for our finals campaign. With Jake, perhaps it was more in hope that he might do something spectacular, than that he had merited the recall (lairs can’t be expected to perform well on smaller stages like Footscray or Werribee, and reports were that his form remained patchy). But when I saw the familiar loping steps of Jackson Macrae in the pre-match warmup at Subiaco I felt a sense of relief that almost surprised me, as well as a nervousness about whether that hammy, which was supposed to have needed a two-month recovery period, would stand up. I shouldn’t have worried. Jackson, we heard later, had dedicated every moment to his recovery, had been meticulous in doing everything asked of him.
We won that final. Seeing Jackson linking up, in the middle of packs, was more important than we could ever have realised. In the next, against the Hawks, Jackson had 39 disposals, more than any other player on the ground. He was a vital cog in the fact that, with hope and trepidation in our hearts, we were heading to Sydney for our eighth preliminary final since 1961.
In a gripping third quarter we prayed and hoped for the stalemate to be broken. Jake appeared to answer the call, taking two strong marks. But each of his kicks fizzled. The crowd sighed as they faded, out on the full.
Scores were level and the nightmare of preliminary finals past hovered as Jack Macrae took a mark with just minutes to play in the last quarter. He lined up for the shot, this pale faced, serious young man. These were the kicks, these were the moments where champions before had faltered, the missed opportunities which had haunted our club for so long. There was no time to think of what Bob Murphy had once said in a word association test about Jack Macrae.
He wasn't the one we'd dreamt of taking this kick, Jackson with his frustrating dinky little kicks, the one always looking to pass the ball off to another person, who had kicked only one goal for the entire season. But almost in the instant that the ball left his boot, every Bulldog fan had risen to their feet, carrying his kick home. Weeping as we saw the most important goal in modern day Bulldogs’ history sail through, as if it could not possibly do anything else.
On grand final day Jake Stringer barely featured for the first three quarters, though that dangerous energy, the sense that he might do something freakish was always there . Sure enough, at the ten minute mark of the contest, when we were only a point up his moment of glory came; he snapped the kind of unbelievable goal that only he could; hemmed in on all sides, a millisecond of opportunity before he threw it on his boot, a triumph of reflexes and an unrivalled, audacious knowledge of just where the goals were.
In our euphoria, we didn’t see the man who, under siege from all around him in a pack, had squirted out the handball that fell in the hands of Jake the Lair. That other guy in the 2012 draft, Jackson Macrae.
I went to see the documentary, The Outsiders, a couple of weeks ago. It’s a beautifully told, emotional story. Yes, I cried all over again.
Yet later, I thought its title could have a double meaning, referring to us the fans, who only ever know these airbrushed tales of life within a footy club, who are naively unaware of what lies beneath the surface, who don't know, or frequently don't want to know, anything unsavoury, anything sordid, about the men who are our idols for their deeds for three hours each week.
Jake Stringer, after a Trade Week that certainly wasn't one for the romantics, is no longer a Western Bulldogs player. We've seen him now in the colours of our mortal enemies; we hear the smug gloating of the 'whatever it takes' Bombre fans. We feel a whole concoction of petty and unpleasant emotions; we do not wish him well.
We've travelled on a rollercoaster of confusion, anger and disillusionment. Resignation, at some stage, will come - it always does. Indifference - well, that will take longer.
And we cringe at the thought of Jake playing against us, of outlandish goal kicking celebrations that won't seem like loveable larrikin behaviour now that he’s not our Lair, just an immature, and entitled footballer who's behaved badly.
There’s probably a surplus of Jackson Macrae badges at the Bulldog Shop though. I'm starting to picture one, right next to my treasured one of 18-year-old Marcus Bontempelli on my tatty Bulldog scarf. Because the under-rated and unobtrusive Jackson Macrae has, like The Bont, always made us proud. And my abiding image of him isn't just that moment when with nerves of steel, he kicked us into a grand final. It's the footage, in the rooms afterwards, when our team that had broken that hoodoo sang the song, and I noticed that Jack Macrae's face was streaked with tears.
I haven’t ever met Bob Murphy.
But one day last year I was at a Carlton coffee shop. I looked out the window and saw him sitting outside. His beloved Arthur, the family Dachshund who’s featured in Bob’s columns, was with him, waiting hopefully for a morsel from his master.
It wasn't all that long since Bob had done his knee. No decision on whether he would play on had yet been announced. To my mind he looked sad, reflective, but for all I knew he may have just been annoyed that his coffee was taking too long to arrive.
I hesitated as I left the café, wondering if I should speak to him, express my gratitude, empathy, support. Everything I thought of saying was trite, banal, and quite possibly intrusive. I’d leave Bob and Arthur to their quiet reflections without being interrupted by another gushing fan, I decided, and I walked past them in silence.
I did meet Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd once, while he was still captain, at a supporters’ breakfast function. Knowing his famous commitment to training, I half expected to be fixed with that stern expression and challenged about whether I was actually 100 % committed to the team (I was scoffing a croissant at the time). But Keith was warm and unexpectedly funny, talking about the birth of his daughter only a few weeks earlier, sharing laughs with myself and my sister-in-law about sleep deprivation and the tribulations of new parenthood.
Of course I’ve received messages, letters even, from both of these two captains, thanking me for that automatic renewal of membership which confirms (sometimes condemns) me as a Bulldog For Life. (Cynics claim it’s not actually them, it's just the marketing department. People really try to bring you down sometimes).
I got one from Ryan Griffen too. Make of that what you will.
We don’t really know the players with whom we journey through matches and seasons, but we’re attached to them and they matter to us more than they can know. Each week our fate rests on their on-field actions and deeds. We will be uplifted, or disappointed, depending on their decision to pass instead of shoot for goal, a milli-second flinch of hesitation and fear as a thundering pack bears down on them, whether they can extract something from their exhausted bodies to make an extra lunge for a tackle, their composure or anxiety or state of fatigue as they take a last quarter shot at goal.
They are actors and entertainers, villains and heroes, in our weekly drama. They are our idols whose wondrous deeds make us inordinately proud; their stuff-ups, mistakes or failings are ours as well.
They are a family to us, yet many of us will never exchange a word with them. We paint pictures of them, invent narratives in our minds. We scan the faces of our new recruits, players number #999 (Young, Lewis) and #1000 (Patrick Lipinski, yet to be nicknamed). Will they be 200-game players for us, made of the right stuff, as we instantly knew when a raw and gangly Marcus Bontempelli graced the field? Will one of them line up for a vital shot in a preliminary final with minutes to go and deliver us either more heartache or joy of the purest kind? Is there someone else, yet to wear our colours, who will be the other kind of player, a Libba The First, a Daniel Cross or indeed a Matthew Boyd, taking us by surprise, overcoming shortcomings and maximising their potential through sheer grit and burning ambition?
The glimpses we get through the media are usually bland; we get inklings but far from the full picture from how they play on the field. Shane Biggs on his Instagram account plays the role of team prankster; last week he irreverently photo-shopped the faces of our two distinguished retirees onto a picture of elderly men with pipes and cloth caps sitting in a suburban park. Yet who would have thought that this apparently laid-back character, a Sydney reject and far from a household name, would trap the ball, again and again, in our forward line in a critical passage in the last quarter of the grand final, his unbelievable tackling and multiple pressure acts ensuring that longed-for cup would finally be ours?
And who would have foreseen that Tom Boyd, with his movie star looks, imposing and athletic frame would be having his struggles with the black dog, unimagined by those of us on the perimeter: a struggle that may have been brought on, paradoxically, by our over-the-top investment in him in more ways than one?
We don’t really know any of them, and we don’t know what they think of us, the loyal, capricious, fickle, irrational fans, as they sign autographs or oblige us with a selfie, as we clap and cheer or sigh with disappointment or make disparaging comments over the fence or, increasingly, online.
But when we hear they are retiring, there’s a lump in our throats, an ache in our hearts. We watch the videos where, with a balance of pathos and humour to their teammates, they announce their retirement. I have a secret wish to be there, silent and invisible in a corner just as I've been silent and invisible as over countless seasons, one more person in the crowd. Just by my unseen presence, conveying somehow what they’ve meant to us.
But because the fans can't all mill inside those training rooms, silent or otherwise, part of the inner sanctum, we do the next best thing. The only thing fans can ever do really. We head off to their last games. To celebrate. To mourn.
It’s, weirdly, a Hawthorn ‘home’ game. At the stadium we’ve reluctantly accepted as our own, we sit far from our so-called 'Bulldog for Life' seats, displaced high up in the stadium. The brown and gold branding is everywhere, the premiership-glutted fans outnumber us two to one.
The big screens are showing the epic deeds of Luke Hodge, who’s had experiences our Bob never got to know, of leading his team out and playing a blinder on more than one grand final day.
And Keith - well, he might concede that Hodge had skills he could not match, but you sense he would refuse to yield anything in any comparison of the fierceness of their competitive spirits.
About the match, I have few thoughts. I don’t expect us to win, and that’s no longer the ‘Danny from Droop St’ fatalism, It's clear-eyed reality of where we are and where we deserve to be. I only want to say goodbye, but here up so far from the action, it’s hard to feel close, hard to feel connected to the two men who we've watched for so many years.
But, with the game largely forgettable, my thoughts do wander to the last two times we played the Hawks. In the Round three 2016 match we were leading with 90 seconds to play. The ball spun from a pack; Bob was caught one out with two men in brown and gold. In slow motion, it seemed, he twisted and did his knee. The Dogs lost the match. At that wrenching moment 2016 was, it seemed, gone forever.
The more recent time we played the Hawks was last year's semi-final. We'd come off the bravest, most gallant of wins against West Coast in Perth, and now had to back up against the winners of the last three premierships. As we ran rampant over them in the third quarter, a new narrative was surely being written. We all sensed it when The Bont effortlessly out bodied and outmarked Luke Hodge. The new tyro versus the old warrior. Yes, that was the story of the night. The Dogs' trajectory was on the up and up; the Hawks was on the wane.
Yet here in 2017, it's not the story at all. Team 11 on the ladder is playing team 12. The skills confirm it if nothing else. The Bont looks lame, exhausted, a young guy who has carried too much of our load. Seven of his premiership team-mates are missing. The ball doesn't sing for Bont tonight.
But Boyd and Murphy each play individually grand games. Keith reminds us of his All-Australian form of last year, intercepting, reading the game, directing and choreographing alongside our other magnificent 30-something Dale Morris. If it wasn’t Keith you’d almost accuse him of showboating when he launches an exquisite kick, one that Dougie Hawkins would have been proud of, spinning inevitably into the arms of his leading skipper.
Bob doesn’t look tired and leg-weary as he often has this season. There’s that lightness of foot, that acceleration. He kicks a long goal after receiving Boyd's pass. Maybe he’s playing, not with the echoes of the Bulldogs’ sorrowful past or his own missed opportunities, but with the inner childlike wonder of his seven-year-old self.
The Dogs lift in the last quarter, after falling behind because of the usual 2017 hallmarks of sloppy disposal and that infinitesimal drop in 2016 intensity. We start coming at the Hawks strongly. You know where this well-spring of extra effort has come from, and it’s not the tiny chink of possibility that we will play finals. It's to send our heroes off as they deserve to be, as winners.
But shots are sprayed. The wrong decisions are made. Bob himself gallops forward, taking bounces, apparently about to score an uplifting, emotional goal.
The shot goes out on the full.
The match, and this year where nothing has gone right, are over.
We're on the wrong side of the ground to really see the reactions of the three veterans. From our vantage point Hodge, Boyd and Murphy are tiny specks. They're hoisted on their team-mates' shoulders, a ritual that always makes me think how primitive and tribal sport is at its essence, a step back to gladiators and warriors.
Over the next few days I watch some of the footage of the farewells that we couldn't really catch at the time. I see that Bob and Keith were interviewed out on the ground by Brad Johnson. Bob is characteristically droll; he says our future will be bright, now that some of the 'dead wood' has been cleared. But Keith is fighting tears, his voice thick with emotion.
Three captains standing there together: an astounding 966 games between them. They dreamt of big things together, in our agonising unsuccessful campaigns of 08-10. Jonno had seen even more heartache, debuting aged just 18 years and five days old in 1994; over his brilliant career, he played 21 finals for only six wins.
Three captains ... yet only one ends his career with a premiership medallion in his keeping.
These men were not only champions; they wrote a new Bulldog story. They set standards for our club. And they stayed loyal; they were that increasing rarity, one-club-players. I can't recall one drawn out contract negotiation, no theatrical roadshows or media circus about whether Jono, Bob, or Keith would stay or leave. They were the best of men, role models we were always proud of, no matter where our club was on the ladder, humble in victory, dignified in defeat. I can barely remember a time without them.
Alongside my sorrow as I watch them, there's a fear, a worry. What will our club stand for? what will we be without them?
I watch footage, too, of the 1000th player to don our colours. Not so many months ago, Patrick Lipinski was just like me (well, a little bit more talented and athletic): a starry-eyed fan bedecked in red, white and blue, celebrating our fairytale premiership. On Friday night he experienced what Bob says are the best moments in footy:
'The two minutes before you run out to play, walking up the race, I just don't think you get that in any other place — a deep sense of brotherhood and clan.'
Now, unlike me, he has sat in the inner sanctum. Wearing the number 27 on his back, the 19-year-old listened to Bevo's tribute to Bob and Keith:
They made footy big again.
The Bont was one of those who carried Bob off the field. Bont once described how Bob, a non-combatant in the 2016 finals series, had placed just a question mark on the whiteboard in the build up to that stunning West Coast match:
The question he was asking was simple - how good could we be?
I also come across a photo from Friday night which makes me smile, and realise my worries about what our club will stand for now are unfounded. Bob's daughter Frankie, wearing her dad's number two, has run up to The Bont. She is being swung exuberantly around, as kids love to do, by our champion in the number four.
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.
We’re packed into the train home from Etihad like sardines, after our loss to the Eagles.
The metaphors come thick and fast. Our season resembles the halting stop-start of the train, lurching erratically around. And the crowded carriage is every bit as congested as the Bulldogs' forward line of late.
As we all absorb the loss and try and make sense of our struggles, our mediocre form, the expressions of the Dogs' fans around me are perplexed, resigned, bewildered, philosophical, Some are heartened by a last gasp fightback in which we nearly pinched the game. Some are troubled, not just that it didn’t come off, but that it was ever required in the first place.
Me? I’m all of the above.
Missing the finals altogether is no longer just an imagined catastrophe. It’s now more likely than not. And there’s little chance for some deep breaths and a reset. Not with our dreaded enemies from the Preliminary Final That Must Not be Named, and the Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Very Good either, eagerly awaiting us over at their scarily formidable home turf.
Somehow, our club hasn't quite been able to navigate the post-premiership world. The reasons are just as elusive, as complex, as the fact that we ever won that premiership in the first place.
Yet I’d been upbeat, even confident before this match. I thought I’d detected that we were ‘back’ in our win against Brad Scott’s mob. I wasn’t all that troubled by the fact that we’d failed to go on with the big percentage (and morale) boosting that seemed likely at stages; it was annoying, rather than concerning, that we’d let our lead slip, had to (again) hang on for grim death. (Okay, there’d been an umpiring furore in which the hand of Brad Scott could be clearly seen but as you can imagine, I'd never be so childish as to theorise that the officiators would now just cravenly succumb to such a ridiculous controversy).
And our side would be strengthened by the inclusion of Bob. After four weeks on the sidelines, it would be great to see our captain glide smoothly around the arena, propel us forward with creative attacks. His very presence on the field would remind his teammates that footy life is short, chances at glory few.
And as an added bonus, having to keep Bob in check would mean less opportunity for the Eagles players to concentrate on the latest craze: harassing, bullying, and knocking JJ to the ground. (Didn’t we lose a preliminary final after a free kick was awarded to Nick Riewoldt for just this kind of harassment? – or that’s the kind of question I’d be asking, if I hadn’t moved on from being a rabid conspiracy theorist).
The stars were aligning still further - Eagles’ spearhead and Bulldog BogeyMan Josh Kennedy, blessedly, would be missing; the Eagles, poor travelers at the best of times, also had a long injury list. Yes, it was time for the Dogs to post an emphatic victory in which MICA personnel did not need to be on standby in the excruciating last minutes. Time to remind the footy world that we are the REIGNING premiers, climb a few spots back into our rightful place in the eight, and put paid once and for all to those rumours, those insidious whisperings of internal dissent, tensions, schisms, friendships torn asunder in our Bulldog family. (Wow - I hadn’t thought through the consequences, when in a recent blog I revealed that the Libba Sisters used to have petty squabbles over which music to play in our Deer Park bedroom. Who knew that such murmurings of in-fighting – her favouring Abba, me firmly in the Joni Mitchell faction - would spread so quickly, prompt such outlandish speculation?)
Now, wedged in the train beneath several armpits (such is the lot of being a petite Libba Sister) I feel mainly…melancholy. Not only do my optimistic reasonings seem a lifetime ago. So too does a much more euphoric train ride in October 2016, where moments of blissful reverie were broken up by energetic versions of ‘Sons of the west’, as we journeyed back to Footscray from the MCG, still teary-eyed, still in awe of what we’d just been part of.
Memories of the game I’ve just seen are mainly ones best left quickly behind. Head-in-hand groans about the miskicks, the wrong choices, the one handball too many, the faltering, laborious, BMac era, attempts at forward entries. There hasn’t been even one game this year, whether a win or now, an equal amount of losses, where there has been undiluted enjoyment.
Where had it come from, this grinding, dour approach, the grimness that has descended like a cloud on our effervescent Men of Mayhem? How is it that a player with the sublime talent of Jake the Lair can have a mere three touches by half-time, none of which I can even recall? When did our game style suddenly become so easily, transparently pulled apart, so that week after week other teams canter away with the ball while we are reduced to helpless lunges at their speedy shadows?
When did our players become so plodding, so … slow? Were we always so appallingly unskilled, with it only masked by our frenzied endeavor and quick movement from the stoppages?
And where, I wonder, is the Bontempelli smirk, as he prowls restlessly along the boundary line when it’s his turn to be interchanged, somehow no longer the carefree young man who asked ‘why not us?’, but looking for the first time I can recall as though right now footy is a burden, a frustrating game that serves up heartache much more often than joy?
Last year when adversity and misfortune piled up, Bevo responded to a media question, about whether Our Boys could still win the flag, by saying: ‘You try telling them they can’t.’
Where has that gone, that daring sense that footy was full of magic possibilities, the sheer joy of the unknown that was ahead, the infectious joy in playing with each other, the energy and self-belief that couldn’t be suppressed?
There are some who criticized Jake the Lair for an over-the-top celebration when he kicked a typically freakish goal to bring us within a point of the Weagles. I was not among their number, for surely that exuberance, that thrill, is what has mysteriously gone missing. And even if it is at first manufactured, artificial or not really befitting the stage of the game: isn’t that what needs to be urgently recaptured now that 2017 is rapidly flowing down the gurgler?
There’s a growing school of thought, that our premiership was a ‘fluke.’ We were only ever a seventh placed team: so this attempt to somehow cram our premiership narrative back into a retrospective box goes. We were an ordinary outfit who just managed to peak at the right time. We were handed a preposterous advantage by that week of the bye. Average, indeed mediocre, players somehow played ‘above themselves’, whatever this mysterious concept might mean. And lastly, of course, given an armchair ride by the umpires.
These prosaic, pedestrian explanations; they are like people trying to use mere words to describe a rainbow. They don’t do justice to the largeness of Our Boys’ dreams. They bring out all my western suburbs’ defiance, an anger that what at the time everyone said was the best footy story of all time must somehow now be reduced, re-written with a tedious overlay of retrospective facts and figures instead of romance and whimsy.
It doesn’t match the feeling. Of those of us that were there.
Sure, perhaps they – we – partied afterwards like there was no tomorrow. How could they - and we - not? Maybe that’s why the mood in the carriage doesn’t have that sharpness, that irrational anger and sense of us ‘being let down’ that used to accompany any defeat. There are rueful smiles, little headshakes about where we are at, not even any diatribes about umpiring that may have been (I said MAY have been) atrocious.
The train lurches into Footscray. We don’t so much as alight as tumble out of the carriage like those overloaded clown cars at the circus.
The station’s rather swish these days. As a teenager in the 1950s my dad used to sell The Sporting Globe on Saturday afternoons on this very platform. If the Dogs had won he’d be ambushed and his stock of papers immediately gobbled up, with quite a few cheerful fans waving away any change. If they lost he’d be left with a pile unsold and inky hands from the freshly printed papers. Dad wouldn't have been inundated on this day, that's for sure.
I know somehow that all my internal monologue and philosophical ramblings are designed to keep me from unwelcome thoughts, but they can’t be kept at bay much longer. I’m trying not to think about our trio of 30-somethings, of the implications if this year, as seems likely, is a bust.
Of Dale Morris, surely our club's best-ever defender, the unobtrusive, selfless star who could have been a deserving Norm Smith medallist for his multiple acts of heroism on grand final day: of his out-of-character fumbles today, his mistimed punches.
And our flinty Matthew Boyd, a few games adrift of the 300-game milestone; now his famously competitive spirit is being channelled at Footscray. The ultimate professional is playing for the reserves, our former captain just another hopeful waiting to see if his name appears on the team-sheet.
And our captain and heartbeat Bob? Well, the idea that Bob endured weeks and months of rehab and pain, and may never achieve his premiership dream - that's really not something I want to process right now.
Maybe it's best to just whip myself into an irrational yet somehow enjoyable frenzy about those umpires. Haven't they heard of the advantage rule, taking Jack Macrae's goal off him? and then one of them even knocked over Mitch Honeychurch and prevented him from getting a goal for God's sake! The only surprise was that the ump, having removed our player from the contest, didn't go onto mark it (a la Peter Carey) and then handball it smartly off to that player, number three for the Eagles - you may have noticed him, he seemed to get the ball rather a lot!! yes, umpiring conspiracies are much more comforting than thinking about Bob, and Dale, and 'Keith', footy immortality, and footy joy and footy sorrow.
All of the above was written before this week's news about Tom Boyd who, we have learnt, is now taking a break to deal with clinical depression.
I've been thinking - a lot - about our euphoria when he announced he was coming to our club. We were punch-drunk from the Ryan Griffen defection; ready to feverishly embrace Tom as our new saviour. Not knowing or thinking of him as an individual, we were just elated about the fact that he'd joined US rather than one of the glamorous cashed up clubs; the bonus detail that we'd delivered a good old western suburbs 'up yours' to the footy world and the Orange-Clad Acronyms; the lift it gave our battered and bruised club, in one of our darkest hours, just to be able to trumpet the news, to commandeer the headlines for reasons other than the ignominious departure of a captain. While the cynics scoffed at the size of his contract and the pros and cons of the Bulldogs' uncharacteristically brazen gesture, Tom became the face of our marketing campaigns; we seized on him, club and supporters alike, as the symbol of a new era.
Tom Boyd was just 19 years old.
I've been thinking, too, about our relationship with the players, that strange bond we have with them and yet how little we know them. This is what I wrote last year at one point:
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 know so little of what it's like to be Tom Boyd right now, no matter how earnest and sincere our fumbling wishes for him to be 'get better' are.
But I find myself thinking, again and again, of him rucking all through the GWS final against the man-mountain Mumford after Roughy got injured.
And that moment in the grand final, that moment when we knew it was won, when he wheeled around after the ball spilt free from Dale Morris' giant tackle on Franklin, and roosted the ball towards goal. The ball bounced just inches from the goal-line as we, who'd all risen from our seats, barely able to breathe, waited for an eternity to see which way it, and the match, would go: towards another fickle, sorrowful disappointment, or the culmination of more than six decades of yearning.
Tom raised his arms; the picture is one of those that has become iconic. In that precious instant it somehow felt like the playing out of an ancient myth, one man, one Hercules holding up the sky. A sky which was the weight of all those disappointments we'd collectively endured.
Tom Boyd is now a premiership immortal. We the fans, outside the club bubble, can only wish, and hope, that he will, simply, become well. We are comforted that he has the support of two of the wisest and most empathetic men in footy, his captain and coach. With their help we hope we'll see him again very soon, recapturing the sense of what we often forget, that footy is a game: a wonderful, infuriating but most of all joyful and beautiful game.
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.
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.