On Friday, the day our flag was to be unfurled, a familiar tune floated out from my radio. Mark Seymour was performing an acoustic version of the Hunter and Collectors’ iconic song: ‘The holy grail.’
With just the songwriter and his guitar, I heard the song anew. Without those dominating horns, and played at a slower tempo, it was no longer an anthem of triumph and conquest. It was melancholy, wistful, poignant. A tale of yearning and survival, struggle and failure.
I’ve read that it’s actually about Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to invade Russia. But over time, renditions of ‘The Holy Grail’ have become unavoidably associated with hackneyed Grand Final pre-match entertainment.
And up until 2016, that link was a melancholy one for Dogs’ fans, as we watched enviously from the sidelines, year after year.
I was more likely to snap the TV off in irritation whenever its opening chords rang out (it didn’t help that I knew it would soon be followed by its inevitable sidekick: ‘Up there Cazaly’). I would suddenly decide the garden urgently needed weeding, or that the untidy state of the sock drawer could not be tolerated a moment longer.
Seeing club after club enjoy an occasion that seemed locked away from us forevermore, I became (you may find this hard to believe) mean-spirited and unsporting. When Collingwood was ascendant in the 2010 grand final re-match, a Magpie-supporting friend kept sending me updates that —childishly — I didn’t really want to hear. My answers became increasingly terse and insincere.
‘Eddie has left his seat to go down to the boundary!!!’
I’m at Bunnings.
But now, all of us who have spent our lifetimes ‘trying to get our hands, on the holy grail’, are about to see our history-busting team unfurl the flag. I’ve been curious about what it’s going to mean for us, now that it’s moved from remote fairytale to actuality. Pursuing a premiership cup after so many years had all the elements of a medieval myth. That holy grail glittered all the more tantalisingly because we’d never known it, never come close. Maybe we’re about to discover that we’ve imbued the idea of a premiership with magical and mystical powers that aren’t actually there. Maybe it won’t transform us as much as we think.
After all, you could say it’s just a silver cup. And yet we all lined up to get photos, to touch it with reverence.
And now, on Friday night, the flag is being borne around the ground like a sacred relic. You could see it as just a triangle of fabric. But it feels like every one of our dreams and heartaches and joys and sorrows have been stitched into it.
It’s being carried by the former champions, those who really did shed blood for it; the people who’ve been custodians of our club; the fans who’ve often just simply endured.
Yes, it’s just a triangle of fabric. But it’s got words on it that we’d almost given up hoping to see.
They are simple, but still thrilling. AFL Premiers. 2016.
2016: It was ten minutes into our sudden-death final against the Eagles. Our brave but battered team had peppered the goals, taken bold risks sweeping the ball through the corridor. Yet only points were registered despite their efforts and determination.
We were the most under of under-dogs. Seventh on the ladder, despite a season blighted by injury, consigned to the most difficult of assignments, a final in Perth. All week a series of gloomy statistics forewarned us of our fate. We’d never won an interstate final. We’d lost to bottom team Freo here only the week before. Our opponents, grand finalists the year before, were in menacingly hot form.
Now, after our early dominance, we attempted to clear the ball from the Eagles’ defence. An errant kick landed the ball straight onto the chest of our nemesis, serial Bulldog tormentor Josh Kennedy.
He didn’t miss. Of course, he didn’t miss. And another Eagles goal quickly - too quickly - followed.
Watching back home, we fans felt our slim hopes evaporate. Excuses - no, valid reasons for an imminent defeat, maybe even one of those horrific interstate shellackings - sprang readily to mind. There’d been too many injuries to key players. It wasn’t ‘time’ yet for our team, the youngest and most inexperienced of the eight finalists. 2016 – like so many before it- just wasn’t going to be our year.
The Dogs kicked the next 7 goals.
Well into the last quarter our team, miraculously, kept extending their lead. Yet still we shifted restlessly in our seats, fearing far-fetched ‘it-could-only-happen-to-us’ scenarios. Could there be a string of unprecedented 50-metre penalties, one after another, against our team? Or a team sheet filled in wrongly. A power blackout hitting Perth, forcing the game to be replayed.
But even as we fretted about these outlandish possibilities, The Bont kicked a monster goal from 50 metres and pointed to his heart. For faith. For belief.
We headed to the G the next week. A community of red, white and blue, marching as one to the famous ground where we’d known more heartache than joy. Though we were brimming with pride, those pesky worries tapped our shoulders like ghosts. Our opponents - The Smug Three-Peaters -boasted some serious cred; they were awash with Norm Smith medallists and premiership trophies. And after all, one of their players, Shaun Burgoyne, had alone played 33 finals, while our teenagers ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy and Josh Dunkley between them hadn’t even played that many home-an- away games.
Half way through the second quarter, things hadn’t gone our way. We were indignant when Luke ‘Good Bloke’ Hodge had successfully claimed he had touched the ball, leading to an over-rule of a goal. And frustratingly, those irritating Three-peaters kept calmly absorbing everything we threw at them. Their goals seemed more effortless, their players at home on this big stage, the largest crowd that any Footscray/Western Bulldogs team had ever played before, since 1961. We felt a familiar resignation settle over us. Sure, it had been a great season, but maybe this wasn’t our night. Perhaps we’d have more luck next year, the good old non-threatening battlers from the west.
Even as these thoughts gnawed into our minds, Our Dogs were busily working their way back. They matched the Unsociable Hawks scuffle for scuffle in a half-time barney and then stormed past the Three-Peaters in a brilliant third quarter.
We marched back home along the Yarra again. We relived the electrifying memories - Our Bont taking over the MCG, and twice eclipsing The Good Bloke. The astounding goal by Jake Stringer. Liam Picken’s amazing form.
The air was somehow charged, different. As we walked through the balmy night, I heard snatches of conversation. People were beginning to make plans. And a nervous, restless impulse was taking shape.
We felt compelled – we needed - to join Our Boys on the next stage of their quest. Somehow, some way - we had to join our team in Sydney, even though, or perhaps because, we’d witnessed, so many of us, all those seven heartbreaking preliminary finals losses.
The close ones, the humiliating ones, the downright embarrassing ones.
We made our way there by planes, trains - and for most of us automobiles. Our red, white and blue colours flew everywhere in Harbour City. We packed the ground, outnumbering, outcheering, even better, out-booing, the fans of the dreaded Orange-clad Acronyms.
Our team fell behind to the Number One Draft Picks in the last quarter. Their efforts had been valiant, heroic. But it was our third final in a row, the second on the road, and there were signs of fatigue.
So often we the fans retreat into our shells when this happens, bruised by traumatic memories of cruel defeats past. Yet from nowhere came the most spine-tingling Bulldogs chant. It rang, it echoed around the unfamiliar arena, so far from our western suburbs’ home. It seemed to propel JJ forward, galvanise him as he loped across the turf, kicking it towardsThe Bont, our star who’d asked that simple but difficult question: “Why not us?”
The Bont held our hopes in his hands. He steadied for the kick, one that could put us closer to a grand final than most Bulldogs’ fans had ever seen. We rose as one from our seats, praying, willing the ball home. And we were suddenly sure it could go nowhere but through the big sticks.
When the siren sounded and our team had made the grand final, suddenly – just like that – those worries and fears that had hovered over us for years floated away.
We watched our team in the grand final parade with joy. We saw our team run, at last, onto the MCG for a grand final, and our hearts were full of hope, a thrilling sense that all things were possible, that no boundary could contain what Our Boys planned to achieve.
Our outrage, when the potentially match-winning goal from JJ was disallowed, was fleeting. For Jordan Roughead immediately thwart the Swans’ move forward from the point, his strong hands pulling down a crucial mark, driving it back again to the relentless men and boys, the heroes in red, white and blue.
Nothing was going to stand in the way of their dream. And because they believed it, at last, through tears of joy, we did too.
2017: We’ve watched those four epic finals, each a jewel in their own way, over and over. We still leap up when Liam Picken kicks the matchwinning goal. We cry, again, when Bevo gives Bob his medal.
We get goosebumps whenever we hear the music from Boom Crash Opera, the backdrop as OUR team ran around with the cup amid a hail of red white and blue confetti:
This is the best thing that has ever happened to me
These are the colors that I've always wanted to see
Our Christmas trees are decorated in red, white and blue; we eat our turkey and ham from placemats created from photos of our premiership heroes; the Grand Final is on replay to accompany that gentle post-Christmas snooze. (Please don’t tell me it was only my family that did all these things?)
My 13-year-old niece. who used to cry whenever we lost, can now recite the grand final commentary, word for word, from that moment that Dale Morris launched his famous, thrilling tackle on Buddy Franklin, to the final siren.
Trams and buses now trundle past us every day, with The Bont emblazoned on their sides. The footy world knows, what we instantly grasped when we first watched the spindly kid in number four kick a freakish goal in a ho-hum match against the Dees. That The Bont is an outright star.
We don’t worry too much about the draft, or pre-season training or indifferent early form. Bevo ‘Our Saviour’ will have that all well in hand, we reckon.
Sometimes, though, we stop and wonder.
What will it be like to watch matches without that ever-present, jittery, sense of impending disaster hovering over our shoulders?
Will our first loss in 2017, whether that is in round one or round 20, hurt as much, now that terrible ache has been eased?
Who are we, if not the ‘battling Bulldogs’, the Cinderella club, ‘everyone’s second favourite team’?
Still, there will be new chapters for the men who couldn’t be out there on 1 October. We’re desperate to see Wally and Bob and Lin and Red know that euphoria too. And maybe there will be another awkward spotty recruit that emerges as a potential star, even while we pray that ‘Keith’ Boyd and Dale Morris keep up their evergreen form.
We confidently hope – and expect - there will be some lines that are intriguing and mysterious from Luke Beveridge. A fleeting mention of the tardis, or Willy Wonka. Maybe he’s got something preposterous in mind.
Such as seeing that Matty Boyd could be an All-Australian defender.
Almost on cue, we hear about Bevo’s speech at the season launch. He channels Dr Seuss. The footy world is puzzled, but we - who once were worriers – smile and know exactly what he’s talking about. That ‘everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. And the magical things we can do with that ball, can once again make us the winningest winner of all.’
The week of tears
It's Grand Final Week, and our Western Bulldogs' story has captured Melbourne. It's a dream that has swept and carried all neutral fans in a tidal wave of emotion and good will. There's hardly a mention of our opponents, the worthy but dull Sydney Swans.
We're a fable, an allegory, the good guys who everyone wants to win.
Our tale, our quest, are the very definition of 'quixotic.' I know because I looked it up in the dictionary:
Caught up in the romance of noble deeds and the pursuit of unreachable goals; idealistic without regard to practicality.
And yet in this happiest of weeks, all I can do is cry.
I shed tears, whenever I saw the words 'Bulldogs' and 'Grand Final' in the same sentence. And without the usual qualifying words, 1961 or 1954. Or 'never'.
Tears, whenever I view again the incredibly moving footage of our fans during the last, desperately tense minutes of the Preliminary Final against the Acronyms. I recognise myself in every frame.
Unable to watch, having to watch.
Unable to hope, but needing to hope.
Tears, when I see pictures of the Bulldogs' logo being painted on the MCG turf, or the famous arena lit up with our colours - at last - in the build-up to that match, the party from which we have been excluded for so long.
And finally it's Grand Final Eve. We, our beloved but luckless club with the most patient of fans, will be proudly on display in the Parade. That happy celebration, that window of opportunity when for both clubs, everything is still magically possible.
Making my way to meet the Other Libber Sister and set off for the big occasion, tears fall again as I drive down Barkly Street, seeing the African restaurants in Barkly Street, flying our colours, displaying their 'WOOF WOOF' signs. Footscray, the suburb where my father was born, has become unrecognisable to me these days, vibrantly multicultural, unexpectedly hip. In fact, the street in which Dad grew up was even spruiked by real estate agents recently as having a 'Paris end' (which may perplex those who've ever visited the Champs-Elysees).
Houses in the suburb everyone used to scorn and deride now sell for a million bucks.
And the new generation of young professionals, who've brought soy lattes and avocado smash to trendy cafe menus, now call West Footscray, where my parents married and I myself was christened (all in the right Catholic order of course, in case you're wondering) - WeFo.
The Libbers are catching the train from West Footscray. Even Metro have entered into the spirit, blaring out our song from the speakers as we do battle with the Myki machine. The platform sparkles with our red, white and blue colours: there are faded, hand-knitted scarves and retro bomber jackets from the 80s dragged out from cupboards and worn with pride. There's a resurgence, I feel, of the fierce Footscray and western suburbs' parochialism that I'd thought might have disappeared in our more urbane and cosmopolitan city.
I see craggy faces who look like they've been through a lot, and faces from many places across the sea who've made the west their home. Babies are asleep nestled in their mothers' arms. Children aren't the only ones wearing face-paint, tri-coloured wigs, red white and blue nail art and hats with badges.
When I turn my face to hide those treacherous tears again, I see the Olympic Tyres and Rubber factory - or what's left of it now that it's been converted to sleek new apartments. Here, both my parents and grandparents once worked. When I was granted the long-awaited privilege of attending games when I was four, we often waved to my grandfather, in his grey dust-coat, who was the gateman there, as we headed to the game.
The First Quarter. Looking for a sign
The moment the siren goes after our magnificent win against the Hawks, we know we have to, somehow, do whatever it takes to be there when our Dogs take on the Orange Clad Acronyms.
We’ve watched our Bulldogs through interminable dreary seasons. Seasons when we won only just one game. Seasons where we were the butt of jokes and ridicule, where ten goal losses were wildly celebrated as a major step forward. Tough times when we had to rattle tins, knock on doors and dig deep, just to keep a Footscray Football Club team out on the field.
We simply had to be there, all of us who had sat, numb and grieving, after the 97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named (not to mention 1998's Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Really Very Good Either). So we looked up flights and researched hotels and fretted about tickets: all of us who'd watched the 2008-2010 era of promise painfully evaporate. Who'd remained stoic during our slow and hesitant steps to a rebuild. Who'd shared the shock and disbelief of a beloved captain walking out.
And as we make our preparations to get there, even though nothing can ever really erase the heartache of all those lost preliminary finals, we shut our minds firmly to the possibility that it could happen again. Instead we cling to the words of our young champion The Bont who said: ‘Why not us?’ And even though I could personally rattle off dozens of reasons why this sort of glory has never quite seemed ‘for the likes of us', we make our choice and begin to ask that same question, but in a different and hopeful way, a way we never have before.
In last week’s blog I called us the Daydream Believers. Even I'm not sure whether I was referring to us, the fans, or our young team who keep carrying us with them on their magic carpet ride.
Three car-loads of The Tragician family have decide to drive to Sydney for the game. We meet up at an ungodly hour on Friday morning to make the nine hour trek. Everywhere on the long and boring stretch of the Hume, we see our red, white and blue colours are flying proudly. Whenever we stop for a break, I try and claim I'm suffering hayfever as I see large family groups who are on the same epic quest as us. People drape their scarves and pose for photos in front of the Gundagai 'Dog on the tucker box'. Flash cars and battlers’ cars, all making their pilgrimage, kids waving out the back at people they don't know. Fellow travellers in every sense of the word.
I'm travelling with my fellow Libber sister, of course. We’re in rollicking high spirits, on the alert for signs and omens as the miles fly by. We pass Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. The towns with unusual names don’t faze us either. ‘Mittagong? I’m sure I've read it’s an Aboriginal word for Western Bulldogs!’
We bypass any songs that are sad and maudlin on the sound system and sing along, loudly, to those that are uplifting and inspiring. We’re with Aretha in an off key version of ‘I Say a little prayer’. We're with Paul Kelly as he sings:
I'm high on the hill
Looking over the bridge
To the M.C.G.
And way up on high
The clock on the silo
Says eleven degrees
The live version of The Boxer comes on. Just like the Central Park crowd, we sing ‘lie lie lie’, the chorus, with all our hearts, the beautiful anthem of defiance, pain, struggle and resilience.
As usual, it was Bob who said it best.
The final on Thursday night, he said, would be all about belief.
"We don't have to manufacture it," Bob said. "It's already there."
My own belief, I know, is a more fragile thing. Too many times it has been trampled in the dust, exposed ruthlessly in finals on the big stage, in the big moment. Too many times there's been heartbreak. Too many times, the Dogs' teams in which we've placed our dreams have not been up to the task.
I've been there for all of those preliminary final losses, including, and since, 1985. Some were devastating, some were humiliating. I've seen our hopes dissolve like a cruel mirage before our eyes. I've watched again and again as our champion players, who gave their all to try and achieve the ultimate success, are chaired off the ground, waving bravely to us the fans, who must move on and transfer our faith to a new bunch of promising kids, a new wave of bright young talent.
And yet at some magical moment in the 2015 fairytale I made a conscious decision to jump on that rollercoaster ride again. I strapped myself in, eyes scrunched half-shut, doubt and fear banished - if not fully, as firmly away as any battle-scarred Bulldogs fan can ever manage. I signed over, again, my peace of mind to a bunch of blokes running around a football field. For who could resist this new breed's enthusiasm, their joy in playing beside each other, their talent, their determination to write a new narrative for our club?
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.