Last summer I was driving down Barkly Street near the Whitten Oval and spotted some teenage boys, wearing Bulldogs paraphernalia, out for a stroll. My first thought was how good it was to see local youths proud to be out in the red, white and blue, a sign of our recent successes. It was very different to my own childhood; even though my alma mater (the prestigious St Peter Chanel, Deer Park) was about as far west as you could then go, kids displaying allegiance to the battling Footscray team were few and far between. It could even get you beaten up in the schoolyard.
Then I did a double-take. There was something vaguely familiar about those kids. Were they - could they actually be? - some of our new recruits? Surely they were too young, with their spindly legs and pimply faces, to take the field, being niggled, monstered, bashed and punched by thugs like Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is and Toby Greene? (in fact, let's just say the whole Acronyms team).
Soon after, my sense of time passing was again turned on its head. I was disoriented by the news that Libba The Second had become a father. It wasn't that, so much, that disturbed my equilibrium, but the fact that it means that his feisty, competitive father is now a grandfather to little Oscar. (What it means for the Libba Sisters is too complex to untangle). And then, this week, we learnt that Mitch Wallis had also become a dad. I couldn't come to terms with the idea that Wallis & Libba Seniors, whose debuts I remembered clearly, whose careers I'd followed so closely, were now dandling the new generation from their (somewhat arthritic) knees.
There's been time a-plenty, in the downright weirdness of the 2020 season, for the Bulldog Tragician to contemplate that essential Tragician question. If a crowd isn't there, to chant, to yell, to boo, advise the umpires on decisions they may have got wrong, alert our players of an impending run-down, even to sit in glum silence: can it be said it really happened?
I've traditionally been a slow starter each season.Years of experience mean I ignore all those 'the Boys are flying' conversations; it takes me a while to regain my barracking mojo and invest in a new group. I usually spend most of round one confused by new hairstyles, numbers and tattoos, though I'm always up for some hypocritical criticism of those whose physical condition doesn't meet my exacting standards.
Watching in lockdown hasn't helped my rusty adjustment to 2020; I became excited hearing that 'Keath' was selected in the backline, before belatedly realising that this was no longer our former, flinty skipper.
I was confused at the sight of our new number 17: Josh Bruce looks uncannily just like its former inhabitant, now doing something even more important than footy, shining a light on depression and the mental health issues that saw him too soon lost from our game - a recollection that was both inspiring and melancholy.
A listless Round one performance in the shadow of coronavirus didn't really get me, as they say in footy circles, 'up and about'. Then came the great footy lull. The players, our club, the competition as a whole receded from our sight. Personally I hoped the whole season would just be cancelled. The valiant efforts of our social media team to keep footy relevant to us didn't hit the mark. Unfortunately the Tragician is not interested in awkward videos of our players quoting a line from their favourite movie, and my Mothers' Day in isolation was not enlivened by vox pops about which player is the biggest 'Mama's boy' (um, seriously?!)
When footy finally returned and we took on the Saints there was little to excite. Selections that even by the eccentric standards of Bevo Our Saviour were baffling, our skills were poor; we looked every bit a bottom four side. I viewed the dismal effort home in silence, though there may have been the occasional whimper at the prospect of another...surely not another?... wasted year.
And yet, despite... or was it because of?...our poor performance my interest was flickering back to life. I was turning to the back pages of the papers again; I felt those prickles of anger as the media piled mercilessly on, as Bont was pilloried. And I couldn't be indifferent when our next opponent was those Acronyms - a collection of the most unlovable individuals ever to appear on a football field. In our last encounter they'd launched cowardly and vicious attacks on our team. I only needed to think of Bont pinned to the ground and set upon by Toby Greene, and recall that the Obnoxious One got off scot-free, for that red mist of rage to re-appear.
They'd pummeled us in other ways too. Unprepared for their assaults, we'd put in a shocker. Remembering the humiliation, I was suddenly alert, even alarmed. I was 'up and about'.
We couldn't - we absolutely must not - lose this one.
The teams took to the field: the not-so-indifferent Tragician took to the couch.In another sign I was regaining my mojo, I speedily identified that yet again an unjust advantage had been gifted to the Giants; they were only too familiar with playing in empty stadiums and canned crowd noise (and who amongst us hasn't suspected the deployment of cardboard cutouts?) throughout their short and overly entitled history.
I was apprehensive for our Bont. How can this now be his weekly fate, to be set upon and bullied? My mind traveled back to 2016 (OK, this happens a lot), the first time I can recall him being physically targeted, by a posse of Fake Tough Guys from North Melbourne. In just his third season, Bont was unruffled, even amused by their snarling efforts. He was still in that carefree blissful state, where the sky was the limit on his potential; a media darling, a Golden Boy who could do no wrong.
Early in that contest Bont (who of course went on to be best on the ground) smothered a kick from one of those snarling Tough Guys (I believe his name is Ferret-oh, or something like that). Bont could not contain his delight as we rose to our feet, jubilantly applauding this victory for the Good Guy. I fondly dubbed his expression in that moment: 'the Bontempelli smirk.'
There was no smirk from our under-siege new captain; within seconds the predictable ambush began. Stuck at home, we were as impotent (though nowhere near as smiley) as those cardboard cutouts, unable to see whatever outrages the Giants were inflicting, having to rely on the commentators to excitedly inform us that there was a stoush between 'Celeb' Daniel and Jeremy Cameron. Though we needed no commentary to inform us who would have started it.
It was exactly like 2016.
It was nothing like 2016.
Our quest for a flag again depended on defeating the Orange-Clad Acronyms at Soul-Less Stadium. Hordes in red, white and blue were making the trek, where we would vastly outnumber the fans of the AFL’s youngest ‘franchise’ (never was a term more apt).
We had finished the season seventh. Just like in 2016.
But, back then, we’d been in the eight for the whole season. We’d spent large chunks of the year as a top four side, won an impressive 15 games, had featured in premiership discussions before a spate of injuries. In 2019, we’ve been, well, mediocre at times - inconsistent too - before running into form at the right time of year. It was still hard to know the full merit of our last three victories and how much we had genuinely improved.
Still, the Libba Sisters had to be there, just like in 2016. With more time to get organized we took a plane instead of recreating our legendary preliminary final roadtrip. (Could it be the Libbas are getting uppity due to their celebrity status – too big these days for their size five boots?)
Our plane was delayed. When we finally got into the air, the trip was bumpy. We circled Sydney endlessly because of howling winds. The turbulence was nauseating. People were vomiting.
It was a harbinger, in fact, of what was to come.
Our seats were in that same bay as 2016. In front of the spot where Easton took a screamer, near where 'Keith' Boyd did a desperate toe-poke of the ball to get it to JJ, resulting in the famous and electrifying goal by Bont.
We walked in, casting scornful looks at the spruikers handing out plastic orange flags. Many of the Dogs’ fans were still stranded at airports back in Melbourne. We joked, when a plane flew above us a few minutes before the match began, that desperate Dogs’ supporters would be clamouring to be parachuted straight down into the stadium.
The Dogs’ fans that had got there on time are wearing Fightback memorabilia and faithful old scarves. Mine has my badges: of Bont as an endearingly dorky 18-year-old, and of Jackson Macrae with his trademark shy smile. My little premiership cup symbol, bought at the Western Oval the day after we won the flag, is carefully affixed to its increasingly tatty fabric.
Many others are wearing the precious t-shirts that list the premiership 22. It’s still hard to fathom, that only eight will take the field today, such a short time later. And that even though we were one of the youngest ever premiership sides with a game average of only 82, here we are again with a list still more scarily youthful and inexperienced; we average just 76 games.
I find myself trying to recall my mindset in 2016. Strangely, for something I've relived so often, it's a bit of a blur. I don’t know if I expected Our Boys to win; it was more that I had an urgent and compelling conviction of having to be there, to be witness to, and validate, the strength of their dreams. They were so young, and unafraid. They swept us along, is the only way I’ve ever been able to describe it.
It would have been curmudgeonly, or at the very least impolite, to scoff at their innocent question: ‘Why not us?’
It felt, while the Libbas travelled all those miles in our car, almost as though the result didn’t count (not that we would have felt that way if we'd driven home as losers). Because this team weren’t shackled and burdened by our hopes, it seemed only good manners to show them that we were daring to dream as well. And instead of being crushed by that expectation, the 2016 heroes rode that yearning as lightly as though they were surfing a wave.
Here in 2019, I don’t have that same romantic mindset. I’m hopeful, but beset by some of those mundane questions of any home and away match rather than the trance-like fog of 2016. Were our selections right? How would the break affect our momentum? Would we withstand a more physical challenge from The Acronyms than they’d been able to offer only three weeks earlier?
I sense that my fellow fans share some of my air of caution, or perhaps it’s just that there’s not quite so much at stake. Of course, we give Our Boys a standing ovation, we boo the Acronyms. But the primal, raw edge is not quite there.
Maybe we think just being here, again, will be enough: to make lightning strike twice.
The marketing gurus of GWS have worked assiduously this time to counter the Bulldogs' fans raucous edge. Helpfully, those in rather new looking orange scarves are regularly implored to: ‘Make some noise!’ When this receives a tepid response, technology comes to the rescue, and some canned crowd applause floats out of the stadium’s speakers.
The match gets underway; the signs far too quickly point in the wrong direction. The Acronyms rough Our Boys up at the stoppages; every mark is accompanied by knees in the back of a prone player. (Little do we know, at that point, the worst of it).
Our youth and inexperience are exposed; we never get a chance to settle into the tempo of finals footy. Our most potent weapon, our midfield, are shut down and ineffective.
There are only a few minutes where a Bulldogs’ victory seems even slightly possible: when Bont lines up for a shot that would have put us in the lead (unlike 2016, he misses); and whenever the 19-year-old boy wonder, the ‘Astro-Naut’ flies for the ball. Even as the match slips away, I can't help but be captivated, drawn to watch him and him alone. At one moment he's energetically leading for the ball on the wing; then when that is foolishly ignored in favour of another lacklustre bomb vaguely in the direction of our forward line, he still offers a shepherd for whoever ended up with the ball. I utter a silent prayer of thanks, even amid the growing carnage. For years to come, the high-flying 'Astro-Naut' is ours.
Minutes later, he lies crumpled on the deck. A pall hangs over our crowd. Something worse than the defeat which is now inevitable, we fear, has just taken place.
We are silent by now, actually relieved that our opponents have so few rabid supporters or passion for their club to taunt us. Some of our own fans begin to slip away in the last quarter. We remain to the end, dry-eyed and somber. But there isn’t the gut-wrenching anguish that can accompany finals failure; the contest had been too one-sided for that.
We didn’t perform at our best, but even so, it's evident our best would realistically not have been enough for us to travel deep into this finals series. Next year could - will - be different. Especially with reports that Naughton’s injury wasn’t quite as bad as it initially appeared.
During the match one of my brothers back in Melbourne had texted us, saying Toby Greene had gouged the Bont, but we didn’t notice anything at the time, and in the initial few hours post-match, there was little commentary about any tactics that were untoward.
But soon the unsavoury details emerge. Our Golden Boy, Bont, had been relentlessly and illegally harassed. A crude punch to his stomach, over the boundary line, out of the field of play, had him doubled up in pain. He was set upon in a pack, the hands of Toby Greene clawing at his face, grabbing his hair, smacking his head on the ground like a bowling ball.
Our fans are red hot with anger as photos emerge, of Bont with scratches on his face and a black eye. Himmelberg is offered a fine for his punch; it is woefully inadequate. Greene is sent direct to the Tribunal. 'Serious misconduct' is the rather vague charge.
We hope our fears of lenient treatment are irrational and paranoid, for surely the sickening footage is too ugly to be ignored.
But then the penalty is announced – a fine, meaning Greene, despite his appalling record of 16 previous tribunal appearances, can continue to play in the finals series.
It’s laughable. But the Bulldog Tragician is not laughing at all.
My mind travels back to the 2016 Preliminary Final. There was a memorable, brutal clash between Clay Smith and Ryan Griffen. It was a pivotal moment in that gruelling contest. The Acronyms led by two goals in the third quarter. They were surging; we were tiring. Less than a minute remained in the quarter.
Multiple, exhausting, desperate pressure acts by Our Boys propelled the ball forward into our forward line. It dribbled towards Smith and Griffen.
Two men, former team-mates, friends outside the football field, were intent on one object, the ball. Each knew that he had to summon every ounce of strength and will to win it, if his team were to triumph.
It was Clay who prevailed in the most brutal of body clashes as he used himself as a battering ram, but there was no half-hearted effort by Griffen either. The ball spilled free, 'Celeb' Daniel pouncing, for a goal that was precious. Indeed, every goal was precious that night.
It was everything that is wonderful and frightening and awe-inspiring about our game: breathtaking courage and bravery by men hurtling into each other, unprotected by armour or helmets, prepared to break bones for their team, their cause, their fans.
I think of the contrast with the actions of Greene and Himmelberg, characterized by spite, meanness and most of all cowardice.
I hate seeing the footage of Bont, the incredulous look on his face as Greene attacks him on the ground. I hate thinking of his family having to watch and fear for their son and brother. I hate thinking of the kids wearing Bont's number four guernsey learning that this can happen, with virtually no consequences, on a football field.
I wonder what Bont's thoughts are now that his opponents’ malice is condoned and endorsed.
How does he feel about the fact many in the footy media chortled and enthused about the ‘toughness’ of his attackers, and some even questioned Bont’s mental fortitude?
He had failed in a big match, some crowed; was our worst player on the day, gloated others; needed to 'harden up,' opined still more.
i'm already beginning the gradual, yearly process of retreat into obliviousness about footy. The grand final will come around; Our Boys won’t be there, a familiar enough scenario in my many years of devotion to the Bulldogs’ cause. One thing’s certain: this year I’ll stay attuned long enough to barrack with extra venom for Anyone But The Acronyms. Uncharitable thoughts will cross my mind whenever Toby Greene or Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is goes near the ball. The sight of Leon Cameron in the box or arm-in-arm with the players who carried out these tactics will bring on the same nausea as that plane trip.
Still, however the finals play out, the 2019 season is drawing to a close. With luck, I’ll avoid any news of delistings or players out of love with our club long before we’re out of love with them.
Soon I’ll be doing my annual proclamation that I just don’t care about footy any more. It will have more conviction than usual this year as I contemplate the stupidity of footy machismo and the AFL’s feeble approach to player well-being when it conflicts with their determination that their franchise club must succeed.
Aaron Naughton will have surgery, and with the boundless resilience of a man not yet 20, begin flying for marks again in practice matches on 40 degree days (while The Tragician turns the airconditioning up full bore). It’s entirely possible that in 2020 a number 33 badge will make its debut on the Tragician’s not-so-lucky scarf (how many chances can that god-damn scarf get?). I'll pin it next to Jack Macrae. I don't need to update his, because he still looks the same as the day he was drafted, having failed to adopt strange mohawk haircuts, blonde tips, or mystifying Chinese character tattoos.
But I might get a new one of Bont, as he is now with his flowing locks and imposing frame, for next year he will be a 24-year-old man coming into his best years.
As I store away the precious badge featuring dorky young Bont, I’ll be remembering what I wrote in 2014, just a few games into his career. I was breathless with excitement about all the things he could be, predicting best-and fairest awards, premierships, Norm Smith medals and Brownlows (I could be right on those last ones some day too):
….And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I'm imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I'm all set to get one myself).
Some time soon, I guess it's possible The Bont may experience a natural form slump, and even play a shocker. Not yet 19, his body may soon cry out for a rest. As the years roll on, The Bont will experience (PLEASE, PLEASE let it be at our club for his whole career) the natural ebbs and flows of a footballing life. Disappointments, tough days at the office, and heartbreaking losses. Fickle fans. Injuries, maybe even lonely stints in rehabilitation. Times when footy does not seem as easy, joyous and carefree as it must at the moment.
There will be more brilliant, match-winning games from Bont. I'll look forward to seeing him glide with that mix of elegance and power through the hurly-burly of the match, doing things only Bont can.
But I still wish for him and all of us that love him, that in the wonderful career that he’s still carving out, there was never a place for those moments of violence from thuggish Toby Greene.
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.
You know the drill.
The Libba Sisters were, of course, on the couch. In the Rising Sun apartments, across the road from the Whitten oval. Just as we were for the loss to West Coast. And the loss to the despised Acronyms.
Those lucky spots on the couch – it's fair to say they're not proving all that lucky in 2017.
We were feeling nervous and apprehensive, even though the Tragician had boldly declared after the premiership victory, that the battle between hope and dread, optimism and fear - the hallmark of Bulldogs supporting experience - had been decisively, conclusively, won.
That Tragician. She sure can speak a lot of drivel.
All week I’d cringed at every mention of Ye Olde Kardinia Park Hoodoo. Grimaced at the parade of gloomy statistics about just how long it’s been since we beat our bogey team. Broken out in clammy sweats with each new article highlighting Geelong’s dismal tackling, the fact that they'd never lost more than three games in a row since 2006, the spotlight that was being shone upon Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield.
I was nervous and apprehensive that in a year where we’ve struggled to get our best players out on the field, we’d made so many changes.
Nervous and apprehensive that ten of our premiership players are missing – and most worryingly, some of them were omitted for reasons of form, not forced on us by injury.
Nervous and apprehensive that the media, by harping constantly on Geelong’s so-called lack of fire and physicality, were providing motivation and ammunition for a team that have never exactly needed it against us.
Mainly ... I was just nervous and apprehensive.
I was succumbing to that old style, defeatist, loser mentality, not befitting of the 2016 premiers.
That's why I double-checked the Geelong team-sheet, just to reassure myself that those tormentors of so many matches past: Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel, Billy Brownless, Gary Ablett (Senior, let alone Junior) – even Peter Riccardi (I once saw him winking, I repeat winking, to some mates in the crowd as he and his fellow Cats were demolishing us with ridiculous ease. And I still bear a grudge) – were not surprise selections.
Once that was established, our match-day experience went something like this:
Libba One: Our Boys are switched on. That's the best start we've had in ages. We've even kicked straight.
We’ve really locked down well on Corey Enright too. He’s been completely unsighted!
Libba Two: The Cats have thrown a whole lot of things at us, but we’ve withstood the challenge.
Sure, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield have been getting it a bit. They’ll probably get tired for the rest of the match.
Libba One: That was unbelievable. Unbelievably bad.
We didn’t even touch the footy. There’s no way we can come back from this.
Didn’t Geelong thrash us by 10 goals around this time last year? I can feel it in my bones – we’re in for a repeat.
Libba Two: Pass the chocolate.
Three quarter time
Libba One: I knew we'd come back! What a team! What self-belief! You can never write these boys off! We're the premiers, remember!
Libba Two: (massive eye-roll).
Libba one: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Selwood.
Libba two: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Dangerfield.
There were questionable umpiring decisions of course, but I’ve never been one to harbor grudges for years and years, or go childishly on, and on, and on, about them. That sort of person might point out that Bob Murphy’s “holding the ball” when he actually KICKED the thing, was just exactly like a spectacularly awful decision in the ’09 preliminary, against Ryan Hargrave, if I recall rightly. (Nobody is fooled - I recall it with crystal clarity). But hypothetically, IF I were one to harp about the umpiring and never let go of these horrendous injustices, even after we've won a flag, that’s the sort of thing I’d be banging on about.
Friday night was the first time I’ve seen Bevo (Our Saviour) looking genuinely dejected after a loss. And there was something in Our Boys’ reaction that made me uneasy. Bewilderment, annoyance at what’s going wrong. A weariness, that week after week, hungry challengers are fired up to the max, ready to knock us off our pedestal; and even when one is despatched, another lurks in the wings.
I don't think we're complacent. But there's a little edge that's been lost. The hunger isn't as acute. It's not sustained over entire matches, by all players, in every quarter, every week.
The last two years have been a journey, an exploration of how good we can be. Losses just pointed to where we needed to improve. Now there's frustration, even boredom, at having to absorb – again! - the painful lesson, that footy is hard, that success is precious but oh so rare. That to win another premiership, the mountain has to be climbed all over again; you don’t get to start half way up.This rather obvious fact hadn’t somehow percolated into my consciousness. I’m not quite sure why. I guess I haven't had much experience in this whole Post Premiership mindset.
But my thoughts, spinning around in the wake of the dispiriting loss, make me unaccountably tired.
I think about The Bont, brutally crunched several times during the match, getting up just a little more slowly and gingerly each time. It was a rarity, a game where our star had little impact. Next week and the week after, he will have to do it all over again. His name is the one circled on each opponents’ whiteboard. His body is the one that each opposition player hopes to slam into the turf at every opportunity. His influence is the one that every other team is most desperate to curb.
I think about Murph, the oldest man on the field, trying to create a last-minute spark by setting off on a dash into the forward line, hearing the thundering footsteps of Tom Hawkins behind him, feeling the indignity of the Cats' fans triumphant roar. Moments like that - they weren't quite what motivated him as he embarked on the grind of rehabilitation, the slow journey back to fitness and confidence.
I think about Libba (the Second) and Toby McLean and Fletcher Roberts and Shane Biggs and Zaine Cordy, trundling around at Footscray in front of a couple of thousand people for a pedestrian VFL encounter, wondering where the magic has gone. Wondering if they still have the fire. Remembering what it took. Unsure, right at the moment, whether they can pay that price again.
I think about ‘Matthew’ Keith Boyd. His preparation has been limited, his form not reaching the heights of last year’s All-Australian performances. The internet has begun to buzz as armchair critics circle, agreeing that he’s played one year too long. He’s ‘slowed up’. He’s making errors. Our valiant former skipper, the man whose tiny toe-poke to JJ in the preliminary final was just as vital, just as magnificent, as the chain of play to which it led, is already being ruthlessly written off, by our own fans no less. It’s a heartbreak to me whenever this speculation begins, accompanied by those inevitable words: ‘He’s been a great servant of the club. But...’
I think about those words, too. Of all the meanings and implications. It's a strange concept. 'A servant’ of a club.
I think about Mitch Wallis. The boy destined to succeed, with his distinguished footy pedigree, his leadership qualities, the boy who requested, demanded, the famous number three jumper, who was an important part of our 2015-16 rise. The boy who broke his leg horrendously last August, who had to sit in the MCG grandstand watching his team-mates living out his dream.
Mitch was our best player in his comeback match on Friday night. He was at the bottom of packs. He didn’t shy away from the bruises, the physicality, the slippery turf, the parochial crowd, the never-ending relentless of getting to one contest...and then the next.
For his team-mates, the road ahead over the next three months probably feels right now as though it's strewn with boulders. It might be hard to remember the scent of warm summer grass, the thrill of finals footy; the obstacles might be looming larger than the destination. Mitch won't be seeing those hindrances; the rewards, after what he's been through, must seem close enough to touch.
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.