These days when I head to the footy, wisps and fragments of memories are always swirling around in the backdrop. Going to the MCG last weekend on a brilliant sunny day those thoughts drifting through my mind were not, surprisingly enough, the heartbreaks of THOSE preliminary finals, lost at this very arena over the last two decades. I found myself recalling instead a day, way back in 1983. The Dogs and Tigers were meeting at the ‘G for what turned out to be an epic, thrilling Round Five clash.
Footscray (as they then were) had finished ‘82 in a familiar spot: wooden spooners (we registered a paltry three wins for the year. However, this was nirvana compared to our ugly ‘81 season where we registered just two. Sheez!). We had roared out of the blocks in '83, though, and were somewhat stunned to find ourselves in fourth spot on the ladder, having won three of our first four matches. Richmond, meanwhile, had not started the season well, yet that intangible aura of success clung to them; they had played off in the '82 Grand Final, and in 1980 had won their tenth flag in an imposing performance, thrashing Collingwood by a record margin.
That day in ’83 was the biggest and most excited crowd that I had then seen: the first occasion that I recall the Dogs playing in front of more than 50,000 people - in fact, though I'm sure it's because my memory is faulty, it's the first match where I can recall at the 'G. As I grew up, it seemed the competition was dominated by the Big Four - Richmond, Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon, the successful, ruthless, well-supported clubs, forever kicking sand in our puny faces. My club Footscray, small, innocuous and forever languishing at the bottom of the ladder, existed on the margins of the competition. We were rarely on the replay, had little star power, and our performances occupied few column inches.
The Big Four had bold and brash colours: yellow and black; black and white; red and black; and navy. Our red, white and blue always looked tame and inoffensive. Their supporters had intimidating chants, ferocious slogans like ‘Eat ‘em alive' (they seemed to really mean them too); on the Saturday night replays, their cheer squads hung over the fences in blockbuster matches, triumphantly waving giant floggers amid a hail of confetti. These clubs and their fans exuded an expectation of success and, I felt, a contempt (though it was perhaps indifference) for our suffering; ours were apologetic and introverted. Their songs thumped out, rousing and strident; ours seemed tinny and forlorn. ‘We’ll come out smiling, if we win or lose’; yes, we knew our place, we were resigned to mediocrity, hiding within our shells, everyone’s second favourite (because perennially non-threatening) team.
To head to the 'G that day, to be part of what seemed to us an enormous, big occasion crowd, to come in as winners; it was like finally being invited to a party that the Big Four took for granted. It is my first memory of an electric, pulsing atmosphere at the footy. It was Anzac Day (remember when other clubs apart from Collingwood and Essendon got to play on that day?). The famous arena was bathed in glorious sunshine. Our red, white and blue colours looked bright and sparkling among the sparkling emerald green turf. They were flying, at last, on the big stage in a match that counted.
And at quarter time, our team had risen to the occasion with an amazing blitz. The boys from the west had kicked ten scintillating goals, while our star-studded opponents, boasting household names like Bartlett, Roach, Taylor and Weightman, had managed only three points. For once, it was our fans leaping to our feet, incredulous but deliriously happy. But the part of the match that has lodged deep in my memory is what was yet to come: the ominous sound of the Tigers’ fans rumbling noise and then their full-blooded, scary battle-cry, as they proceeded to outscore us for the rest of the match, regaining the lead in the last quarter.
The Dogs rallied and held them off: we won that day by two points. But despite a more than respectable record in the last 20 years in finals appearances and winning ratios against the Big Four, I'm still haunted by the fear of the sound and fury whenever we play the Big Four, that sense of their dangerous might and power, that nervous fear of awful their collective racket, the product of years of success and a winning culture, can be.
Back through the time tunnel, and it’s 2015: fifteen minutes into the third quarter, and I’m waiting for that menacing sound to break again. The modern-day Dogs had been terrific in the first half, but I can’t shake my sense that the Tigers will awaken from their slumber and hunt us down. It seems my pessimism is well-placed as the formerly quiet Jack Riewoldt, who seems when he’s on song to epitomise the Tiger strut of my nightmares, kicks a goal to put his team within reach.
I’m bracing myself for what might come, based on a long, long history of failure and non-achievement, instead of reading the game as it is in actuality unfolding and appreciating the Dogs are well in control.
I should be revelling in the manic pressure of our tackling (we are currently first on the ladder in that stat): the fact that a kamikaze squad of human clamps in our forward line are just refusing to let the ball out.
I should be delighting in the unbelievable improvement of Lin Jong, an 11-gamer who’s lightning fast and unafraid, bravely placing himself in front of marauding troops in the Richmond forward line. (He takes a courageous contested mark but who should be on the spot but the Tragician's old foe, Shane 'The Perm' McInerney, the only person at the ground who doesn't see it as a clear mark).
I should be lost in a reverie of awe at the poetic grace and artistry of Bob Murphy, his feet somehow just gliding across the ground as he moves through traffic with those delicate skills, the different sense of time and possibilities that sets the great players apart.
I should be enjoying what Rohan Connolly called a ‘sublime’ performance from The BONT. He's leading the competition in tackles, yet he's also pivotal to many of our attacking moves, as he roams effortlessly around the 'G. A place where we cannot help dreaming of seeing him perform his wizardry one September, very soon.
In actuality the Dogs never come close to surrendering the lead we have held all day; a composed Tory Dickson makes sure of it. And looking around me, I realise that the Tigers’ fans aren’t all that arrogant and scary any more. As they lose a match they would certainly have pencilled in for a win, I notice that despite their reputation for passionate volatility, their fans have a resigned, stoic, patient look - one that's all too familiar to me. They've gained an understanding in the last 30 years of something Dogs’ fans have mastered long ago, of how to endure heartbreak. Of how to, simply, endure.
Their misfortunes have been of a different ilk, a spectacular, cataclysmic fall from power and greatness, while ours is the dreary one of continued failure without even a glorious past to draw upon for solace. But what clairvoyant could ever have predicted on that autumn day in '83 that the lowly Dogs would go on to out-perform their proud opponents in the intervening years? And what crystal ball gazer could ever have guessed that our paths would converge in an even more unlikely way? For in 1990 the seemingly invincible Tigers had to launch a ‘Save our skins’ campaign and beat off threats of merger and relocation. It came only a few months after the Dogs had had the greatest near-death experience of all, saved by our fans, who proved to be not so humble, accepting and self-effacing after all when their club stared down the precipice of non-existence.
I think of the Tigers' fans' irresistible enthusiasm which swept up even a crochety Tragician as they charged into the finals last year. I understood their pent up joy, and then their sorrow when it came to nothing. Perhaps I am no longer fearful (in reality envious) of the fearsome Tigers' fans and their record of success, but feel empathy (perhaps they would scorn it) for a club that has stumbled so unexpectedly into the footy wilderness, and find themselves fellow travellers with the Dogs in that long and winding road to success.
Oh - and the aftermath of that ’83 epic? Cue a pretentious Craig Willis style voice-over recapping: 'What happened next?' as the final credits roll over a backdrop of a sea of red, white and blue celebrations at the 'G:
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.