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.
I guess I wouldn’t be the Bulldog Tragician if it wasn’t for my mum. I described her love for the club in another story:
I attended my first Footscray match in utero. My mother, a passionate fan, prided herself on missing only one match for each of her four pregnancies, which, to her annoyance, coincided with the winter months. She would stand for three hours at a time in the outer, rain trickling down her neck, while my dad minded a gaggle of small children at home. When we would press her for snippets about the days when we were born, her reminiscences focused on the football games.
“You were born the day after we played Hawthorn. We lost that one by a kick. The umpiring…!”
The second ever match that Mum ever attended happened to be the 1954 premiership. Newly arrived in Australia, she went along with little knowledge of the game. You could actually just queue up on the day to get into a grand final. I love the footage showing that the crowd are actually spilled onto the ground, sitting, rather perilously, inside the boundary line. I imagine courteous players pulling themselves up in gentlemanly fashion instead of running full pelt, lest they spreadeagle the fans, wearing their hats and Sunday best.
Mum’s never again seen that premiership glory, but she’s never had any doubt that they’re her team. She ensured too that we would never have a choice in selecting our own football teams. My brother once boldly announced that he was sick of copping stick at school for barracking for the dogs, and could he please instead support the Lions? It was explained this would involve him never seeing a live match, and he would never have a jumper or flag bought for him. I believe the threat of not having dinner that night may also have been made. He continues to support the Dogs to this day.
While other mothers express noble sentiments like, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything’, my mum applies mysterious jinxes on players that have had the gall to leave the club. It started when Gary Dempsey had the temerity to depart, joining a North Melbourne team that had just won back-to-back flags, saying he wanted to play finals. Reasonable enough, but an outraged Mum made the big call that he would never play in a final. The Roos duly missed the finals for the next few years. Mum’s career as a feared curser had begun.
Remember Kelvin Templeton suffering a career-ending knee injury when he left the Dogs for Melbourne and a squillion bucks? It just seems a bit too much of a coincidence that my mum had proclaimed that he would live to regret it.
When Nathan Brown crumpled over in agony with a broken leg, not long after joining the Tigers, our family did, however, worry that she’d gone too far. We also wondered: Why can’t mum use these legendary powers for good (like - I don’t know - a bulldogs flag) instead of, well, evil? It’s a bit like she’s the befuddled auntie on Bewitched who gets most of her spells mixed up.
All the same, Brian Lake and Callan Ward would do well to look nervously over their shoulders after their recent defections.
In a recent Bulldogs magazine the club, in a lovely gesture, listed all the supporters that had gone to every single Victorian match. Mum’s name was there, of course. Today is her 76th birthday. She’s moved into electronic communication with us about Bulldog performances, which means that if the dogs win, we get rather interesting auto-corrected texts that say: ‘Wood wood’ or ‘Dairytale!’. Yet we know exactly what she means.
Exhilirating. Surprising. A whole lot of fun too.
Of course, we're keeping a lid on it, not getting ahead of ourselves, taking it one week a time, and a few other cliches, but as I write, the Bulldogs are on top of the AFL ladder.
To me the wins where expectations have been low are always the sweetest. We arrive up only hoping to see improvement - many commentators have us wooden spooners. I'm not that pessimistic, but I know we have a long way to go, with, apparently, half our list under 21 years old.
Etihad stadium has had quite a few name changes since we moved there in 2000, yet it's become a home of sorts. I've written before about the transition from the Western Oval to this new ground. Some things lost, some things gained..but there's a kinship there now, friends and acquaintances that we've now sat near for many years, people whose babies are now young kids with numbers on their back. It's home, I guess. I realise it's good to be there, our new field of dreams.
There's lots of firsts to the day. The first goal, of course, with the gangly Ayce Cordy, who still seems like a colt that hasn't grown into his impressive frame the unlikely scorer. The first burst of indignation at the umpires (can't remember what it was for now, but definitely, certainly, we were hard done by). The first puns on the name of our new recruit, Brett Goodes. The first calls of 'Go for percentage, Dogs' and 'Blow the siren!' Actually, they were both after Ayce's goal, come to think of it.
We greet each of the Bulldogs' six first quarter goals with high fives and that slightly deranged laughter which comes from having expected a belting. Instead we see a team that not only were desperate and hard-working (as they were last year) but which from somewhere had picked up polish, poise and, somehow, a sense of fun and adventure that had gone sadly missing in the dour, aimless and dreary year that was 2012.
The players seem, well.. effervescent, as though they had freedom and belief. Our motley crew of friends and family come to life too, with high fives all round and new nicknames. Confusion about identifying the pale skinned, red-headed lookalikes Cooney and Tom Young means that the latter gets christened 'Coon Two.' Either that or one of them will have to get a spray tan, is the general consensus.
We hold our breaths every time Dale Morris went near the ball with his characteristic braveness, yet he never flinched or missed a beat. It's been, amazingly, 595 days since he suffered a career-threatening broken leg. Reading about his rehabilitation - months using a bedpan, having the indignity of being showered by his heavily pregnant wife - you realise just what players and their families suffer. He was the feel-good story of the afternoon.
At halftime we still can't quite believe what we were seeing. 'We could be on top of the ladder tonight,' muses one friend after realising we're 37 points ahead. 'Of course,' he added, being a seasoned Bulldogs' fan, 'We could also lose.'
We didn't lose, we increased our lead, strolling out 68 point winners.
We still don't know yet if the improvement is an illusion, the product of an opposition that were well off their game. Yeah, yeah, all that sounds sensible, level-headed and sober. And probably right.
I'd prefer to hold in my mind the freak goal from Bob Murphy. it might be an unlikely comparison given Bob's Celtic complexion, but something about the way he plays seems to have been conjured up from an Indigenous dreamtime. In the split second before he kicked that goal, it somehow felt that the crowd held their breath, knowing something outrageous was going to happen, knowing that he saw a possibility that no one else did. And then we all roared.
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.