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.
2016: It was ten minutes into our sudden-death final against the Eagles. Our brave but battered team had peppered the goals, taken bold risks sweeping the ball through the corridor. Yet only points were registered despite their efforts and determination.
We were the most under of under-dogs. Seventh on the ladder, despite a season blighted by injury, consigned to the most difficult of assignments, a final in Perth. All week a series of gloomy statistics forewarned us of our fate. We’d never won an interstate final. We’d lost to bottom team Freo here only the week before. Our opponents, grand finalists the year before, were in menacingly hot form.
Now, after our early dominance, we attempted to clear the ball from the Eagles’ defence. An errant kick landed the ball straight onto the chest of our nemesis, serial Bulldog tormentor Josh Kennedy.
He didn’t miss. Of course, he didn’t miss. And another Eagles goal quickly - too quickly - followed.
Watching back home, we fans felt our slim hopes evaporate. Excuses - no, valid reasons for an imminent defeat, maybe even one of those horrific interstate shellackings - sprang readily to mind. There’d been too many injuries to key players. It wasn’t ‘time’ yet for our team, the youngest and most inexperienced of the eight finalists. 2016 – like so many before it- just wasn’t going to be our year.
The Dogs kicked the next 7 goals.
Well into the last quarter our team, miraculously, kept extending their lead. Yet still we shifted restlessly in our seats, fearing far-fetched ‘it-could-only-happen-to-us’ scenarios. Could there be a string of unprecedented 50-metre penalties, one after another, against our team? Or a team sheet filled in wrongly. A power blackout hitting Perth, forcing the game to be replayed.
But even as we fretted about these outlandish possibilities, The Bont kicked a monster goal from 50 metres and pointed to his heart. For faith. For belief.
We headed to the G the next week. A community of red, white and blue, marching as one to the famous ground where we’d known more heartache than joy. Though we were brimming with pride, those pesky worries tapped our shoulders like ghosts. Our opponents - The Smug Three-Peaters -boasted some serious cred; they were awash with Norm Smith medallists and premiership trophies. And after all, one of their players, Shaun Burgoyne, had alone played 33 finals, while our teenagers ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy and Josh Dunkley between them hadn’t even played that many home-an- away games.
Half way through the second quarter, things hadn’t gone our way. We were indignant when Luke ‘Good Bloke’ Hodge had successfully claimed he had touched the ball, leading to an over-rule of a goal. And frustratingly, those irritating Three-peaters kept calmly absorbing everything we threw at them. Their goals seemed more effortless, their players at home on this big stage, the largest crowd that any Footscray/Western Bulldogs team had ever played before, since 1961. We felt a familiar resignation settle over us. Sure, it had been a great season, but maybe this wasn’t our night. Perhaps we’d have more luck next year, the good old non-threatening battlers from the west.
Even as these thoughts gnawed into our minds, Our Dogs were busily working their way back. They matched the Unsociable Hawks scuffle for scuffle in a half-time barney and then stormed past the Three-Peaters in a brilliant third quarter.
We marched back home along the Yarra again. We relived the electrifying memories - Our Bont taking over the MCG, and twice eclipsing The Good Bloke. The astounding goal by Jake Stringer. Liam Picken’s amazing form.
The air was somehow charged, different. As we walked through the balmy night, I heard snatches of conversation. People were beginning to make plans. And a nervous, restless impulse was taking shape.
We felt compelled – we needed - to join Our Boys on the next stage of their quest. Somehow, some way - we had to join our team in Sydney, even though, or perhaps because, we’d witnessed, so many of us, all those seven heartbreaking preliminary finals losses.
The close ones, the humiliating ones, the downright embarrassing ones.
We made our way there by planes, trains - and for most of us automobiles. Our red, white and blue colours flew everywhere in Harbour City. We packed the ground, outnumbering, outcheering, even better, out-booing, the fans of the dreaded Orange-clad Acronyms.
Our team fell behind to the Number One Draft Picks in the last quarter. Their efforts had been valiant, heroic. But it was our third final in a row, the second on the road, and there were signs of fatigue.
So often we the fans retreat into our shells when this happens, bruised by traumatic memories of cruel defeats past. Yet from nowhere came the most spine-tingling Bulldogs chant. It rang, it echoed around the unfamiliar arena, so far from our western suburbs’ home. It seemed to propel JJ forward, galvanise him as he loped across the turf, kicking it towardsThe Bont, our star who’d asked that simple but difficult question: “Why not us?”
The Bont held our hopes in his hands. He steadied for the kick, one that could put us closer to a grand final than most Bulldogs’ fans had ever seen. We rose as one from our seats, praying, willing the ball home. And we were suddenly sure it could go nowhere but through the big sticks.
When the siren sounded and our team had made the grand final, suddenly – just like that – those worries and fears that had hovered over us for years floated away.
We watched our team in the grand final parade with joy. We saw our team run, at last, onto the MCG for a grand final, and our hearts were full of hope, a thrilling sense that all things were possible, that no boundary could contain what Our Boys planned to achieve.
Our outrage, when the potentially match-winning goal from JJ was disallowed, was fleeting. For Jordan Roughead immediately thwart the Swans’ move forward from the point, his strong hands pulling down a crucial mark, driving it back again to the relentless men and boys, the heroes in red, white and blue.
Nothing was going to stand in the way of their dream. And because they believed it, at last, through tears of joy, we did too.
2017: We’ve watched those four epic finals, each a jewel in their own way, over and over. We still leap up when Liam Picken kicks the matchwinning goal. We cry, again, when Bevo gives Bob his medal.
We get goosebumps whenever we hear the music from Boom Crash Opera, the backdrop as OUR team ran around with the cup amid a hail of red white and blue confetti:
This is the best thing that has ever happened to me
These are the colors that I've always wanted to see
Our Christmas trees are decorated in red, white and blue; we eat our turkey and ham from placemats created from photos of our premiership heroes; the Grand Final is on replay to accompany that gentle post-Christmas snooze. (Please don’t tell me it was only my family that did all these things?)
My 13-year-old niece. who used to cry whenever we lost, can now recite the grand final commentary, word for word, from that moment that Dale Morris launched his famous, thrilling tackle on Buddy Franklin, to the final siren.
Trams and buses now trundle past us every day, with The Bont emblazoned on their sides. The footy world knows, what we instantly grasped when we first watched the spindly kid in number four kick a freakish goal in a ho-hum match against the Dees. That The Bont is an outright star.
We don’t worry too much about the draft, or pre-season training or indifferent early form. Bevo ‘Our Saviour’ will have that all well in hand, we reckon.
Sometimes, though, we stop and wonder.
What will it be like to watch matches without that ever-present, jittery, sense of impending disaster hovering over our shoulders?
Will our first loss in 2017, whether that is in round one or round 20, hurt as much, now that terrible ache has been eased?
Who are we, if not the ‘battling Bulldogs’, the Cinderella club, ‘everyone’s second favourite team’?
Still, there will be new chapters for the men who couldn’t be out there on 1 October. We’re desperate to see Wally and Bob and Lin and Red know that euphoria too. And maybe there will be another awkward spotty recruit that emerges as a potential star, even while we pray that ‘Keith’ Boyd and Dale Morris keep up their evergreen form.
We confidently hope – and expect - there will be some lines that are intriguing and mysterious from Luke Beveridge. A fleeting mention of the tardis, or Willy Wonka. Maybe he’s got something preposterous in mind.
Such as seeing that Matty Boyd could be an All-Australian defender.
Almost on cue, we hear about Bevo’s speech at the season launch. He channels Dr Seuss. The footy world is puzzled, but we - who once were worriers – smile and know exactly what he’s talking about. That ‘everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. And the magical things we can do with that ball, can once again make us the winningest winner of all.’
To be or not to be…
At the ground when your team gets a pummelling…or watching from the safety and anonymous comfort of your couch?
Advantages of being at the game are the camaraderie and shared anguish of fellow sufferers, and there's always the possibility of a memorable, humorous comment by aforesaid fellow sufferers to leaven the gloom.
Being at the ground, you can at least see the patterns of play and, depending on your strength of character, make an optimistic appraisal of what that seemingly aimless kick was trying to achieve. (It may have looked to all the world like a grubber that went five metres, but perhaps being there, you would appreciate it was actually an audacious attempt to hit one of our forwards on the chest; it was just unfortunate that it hit an ankle and went out of bounds on the full).
There were, however, quite a few reasons to be thankful not to be at the match this week: it was cold. It was wet. It was in Adelaide. We sucked.
All things considered, being on the couch was the better option. But when you lose, it can be agony.
Watching more than an hour of footy where we only score a point seems even more prolonged and dreary on television (and of course, you have helpful commentators, happy to update us, minute by painful minute, at just how long it’s been since the Dogs stirred the goal umpire into action). The close-in camera-work only highlights what's becoming already the story of this season: that we are, at best, grinders who painfully accrue possessions, but seem to have lost sight of the fact that these possessions should result in a goal.
In fact, we could scrap the in-depth Monday statistical analysis, frame-by-frame video review, and GPS data and stick to what Bulldog Tragician observed: Our whole team seemed to be always around the ball. And when it came out, we didn’t have anyone to kick it to.
It reminded me of an under-9 football match that my son played at Hoppers Crossing. Anchored on the last line of the forward line of a losing team for 95 per cent of the game, any expectation that the ball would come his way had long since evaporated. When it finally did dribble ever so slowly in his direction (pursued, rather comically, by 30 or so muddy teammates and opponents) he’d forgotten that this was a possibility, and was, instead, engaged in some delicate blind-turning and pretend baulking of an imaginary opponent.
Despite our enthusiastic yells of encouragement, my son was unable to switch onto the idea that there was a real, live possibility of scoring a goal. The Dogs on Sunday were very much of that ilk. When I saw Liam Jones fall over in the goal square trying to evade an opponent that wasn’t actually there, my son’s efforts came vividly to mind.
But there was something else going on yesterday, and it's the reason that despite our dismal efforts I still wish I’d been there - the debut of Jake Stringer. I don’t remember a young recruit whose arrival has been so eagerly anticipated at the club, maybe because he’s what we’ve been crying out for over so many years, even when we were at our peak in 2008-10: a forward.
His fellow debutant Jackson Macrae looks skinny, wide-eyed and baby-faced. I'm reminded of Bob Murphy’s quip at his own expense, that in photos when he was drafted he looks as though he hasn’t yet gone through puberty. His skills remind me of Bob’s too, elegant and precise. There are promising signs in a lovely snap for goal. But a lot of the time he looks a bit lost, as you’d expect from an 18 year old first-gamer thrust into a slogging, grim contest.
But Jake, the man-child, has a body made for footy. He looks poised; he isn’t afraid, straight after his first mark, to play on immediately and curl the ball around his body to a team-mate. Something about him makes him look as though he’s the real deal.
There have been many false messiahs for the Dogs, many great white hopes that look the goods before fading into trivia questions.
Our last champion forward, Chris Grant, snuck under the radar in his first ever game, as low key and unassuming as he was throughout a wonderful career. Fans were rustling through Footy Records, trying to find out more about this scrawny kid from Daylesford. He was 17, kicked four goals, and just kept marking the ball. Martin Flanagan called him, beautifully, ‘the boy with the solemn hands.’
It was a game against St Kilda, the first, emotional match at our ground since the failed merger. Just like Sunday, the Dogs got thrashed.
Chris went on to play 341 games for us and a goodly proportion of them were the best I’ve ever seen from a player in the red, white and blue. I was there that day to see a champion make his debut.
My son, (the little boy from the Hoppers Crossing match), was at the Adelaide match yesterday. He ended up cold, wet, frustrated and dis-heartened, but maybe one day he’ll be able to say he was there the day Jake Stringer played his first ever game.
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.