It’s late afternoon on Preliminary Final Day and I head out for a walk. It’s been another grey day in locked-down Melbourne. Under leaden skies, my mood is melancholy. I’m preoccupied with thoughts of the last time our team featured in a preliminary final, and how different absolutely everything is today.
No crazy-brave road trips where somehow, despite an appalling record of seven preliminary finals losses, Bulldogs’ fans - who had every right to fear more of the same - resolutely made our way there. No laughter from the Libba Sisters travelling down the Hume, seeing signs of hope when we passed towns called Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. (The Libbas, and the Libba Sisters alone, now call Zaine Cordy ‘Cordeaux’ after seeing a sign pointing to a dam of that name). No off-key versions of ‘Say a little prayer’ or the catchphrase I felt best described our quest: ‘The daydream believers’. We were part of a journey, a mission with thousands of others, wanting to see if Our Boys would defy the odds, and our own history, and win a preliminary final at last.
Tonight, though, the Libba Sisters, like most Bulldogs’ fans, will be watching this Preliminary Final from our separate ‘isolated’ homes. Unlike the primal roar that echoed out when we ran out to play our arch enemies The Acronyms, tonight’s cheers for our team will fall flat in our own lounge-rooms. Our Boys won’t even have their parents, brothers and sisters, sweethearts and children in the crowd. (Hell, the way the South Australian government is treating them, with the obsequious agreement of the AFL, we're starting to think it’ll be a miracle if they’re even allowed inside the ground at all. Why don't they just get on with it and call it a forfeit!).
Despite umpteen clear COVID tests our team is again confined to our hotel rooms for most of our flying visit to South Australia. Bevo was doing his best to hide his irritation at the unreasonable situation we were in, claiming, unconvincingly, that a ‘wry smile’ was his response to the restrictions. But I thought he looked a little careworn as he fronted the press.
News keeps trickling out about the difficulties, the endless petty little grievances we’ve endured, cold eggs, and even running out of food at our Brisbane quarantine hotel. (I immediately picture Tim English and Aaron Naughton holding out empty bowls of gruel in the style of a 19th century novel and pleading: 'Please sir, can we have some more?')
Things get bleaker, as we hear we have lost the bedrock of our defence, the steely-eyed Alex Keath who’s done such a superb job all year on tall forwards and, in particular, has had the measure of Port’s giant Charlie Dixon.
Walking round, the gloomy skies are a match for my state-of-mind. I realise my thoughts are already about ‘missed opportunities’, retreating into the well-worn path of Bulldogs' hard luck stories, even while yes, I lament that our own late-season implosion has placed us in this precarious position.
The ‘why not us?’ mantra of 2016 isn’t resonating this year. I'm reverting to type, shaking my fist at the sky with the plaintive cry: ‘Why do these things always happen to us?’
I think you can guess: I'm really not all that sure we can win.
Our opponents have had an extra week off, have slept in their own homes, and will meet us in ominous form, having won seven straight matches. They are heavily backed favourites. They didn't have to hold their bowls out to plead for more gruel!
Our Boys had to fight to the death to win against Brisbane. We've endured anxieties about the state of Bont’s banged-up knee and whether he's fully fit. Cody Weightman (who now has ‘livewire’ attached to his name as surely as Jackson Macrae has ‘under-rated’) will also miss with concussion.
Meanwhile we've taken the huge risk of recalling a ruckman who’s geriatric in football terms (and even has the silver hair to prove it), hasn’t played since round 12, and was last heard of as being ‘very sore’, in fact rumoured to retire, after limping through whatever passes for a practice match these days.
Bevo had indicated Stef Martin would only be selected in a 'break glass in an emergency' act of desperation. It looks like that emergency has come.
Pre-match the Tragician clan attempt to manufacture some camaraderie and Bulldogs’ fighting spirit in a Zoom catch up. But our appearances in our separate little on-screen windows only highlight the vast difference between tonight's 'build-up' and the way three generations of our family came together in Sydney for The Greatest Preliminary Final Ever. In the subdued discussion of our chances, an announcement of belief in our team comes from a rather unlikely source; my mother, aged 84, is normally not of an optimistic temperament, but is the only one to declare outright that the Bulldogs can win.
Her show of faith is at odds with her usual mindset, tried and true over more than 60 years of barracking. To tell the truth I’ve often been suspicious of whether it can actually be a coincidence that her adoption of the team in 1954, as a 17-year-old recently arrived from Ireland, was followed by decades of failure. She couldn't have known, though I doubt it would have swayed her from following our team, that she would only see one more (losing) grand final until she was almost 80. In the meantime her beloved club would notch up five wooden spoons. At one point we entered an almost comically bad 24-year stretch where the Dogs didn't win a single final. (In the interests of fairness I must point out they'd only played two).
On Zoom, no-one outright contradicts my mother's 'fighting words', but we all shuffle around uneasily saying things like: ‘it will be tough’; ‘if we have a good start and get the crowd out of it’; and ‘our midfield need to have a real day out.’
Which all seem like code for: ‘Maybe this one is a bridge too far.’
A red-hot Melbourne had already demolished Geelong in the first preliminary final the night before; I found myself again drifting back to a similar situation in 2016. From our hotel in Sydney we’d seen the news that Geelong had been thrashed in their preliminary. I recall my pronouncement: ‘There’s always a blow-out Preliminary, and a close one.'
At which point the Libba Sisters had clutched each other’s hands in panic-stricken terror.
I don’t know if my statement of how preliminary finals usually play out has any base in fact, but it feels correct: if we did happen to win against Port, surely it would only be after a nail-biter – something brave, and grinding; maybe a wet night where we could make it a scrap. At best, it would definitely be a low-scoring, dour affair (with Cody and Bruce out, who on earth would kick the goals? With Alex Keath out, who would stop the goals?)
Yes, I could only foresee a battle of attrition, where desperation was more important than skill.
Though the Tragician has been known to be wrong about Preliminary Finals before, of course, this may have been her most epic failure of foresight. Which is quite saying something.
Grinding, scraping, creeping painstakingly forward in rainy conditions into a clogged low-skilled forward line; this may have been the only blueprint the Tragician could conjure.
It is, quite evidently, not the game plan favoured by Bevo Our Saviour and his All-Travelling All-Stars.
Almost before the last notes of ‘Never tear us apart’ have sounded (why do they sing that?), the Bulldogs have rattled on five goals. Fleet-footed men propel the ball forward again and again. Mitch Hannan, whose spot in the team has been relentlessly debated, does a passable imitation of Jake Stringer (without the attitude and that ridiculous tattoo); he takes contested marks; he actually kicks goals.
Josh Schache and Tim English perfectly implement a plan to let the star of the forward line have a clean run at the ball. Aaron Naughton has been a little tentative since his mid-year concussion, perhaps wisely putting self-preservation ahead of kamikaze marking attempts. Some of his confidence had begun to return in the victory against Brisbane; now, with so much at stake, he is back to the fearless, reckless attack on the ball that's his trademark.
Feeding those ravenous forwards (maybe the cold eggs and paltry rations in quarantine had had an impact) are our pride and joy, our elite running midfield. Bont with no sign of that knee injury about which we fretted all week; Libba cheeky and irascible as he works in his phone box space; Jack Macrae being 'just' Jack Macrae; Bailey Smith more outrageously strong in fending off each tackle than any 20-year-old has any right to be.
We don’t have to worry about our key defenders 'Cordeaux' and Gardner; they’re hardly ever stranded one-out on their opponents, because on the rare occasions Port players scramble the ball forward, they firstly have to navigate the impenetrable wall of our half-back line. From there, the sublimely skilled trio ‘Celeb’ Daniel, ‘Dailey Bailey’ and Bailey Williams launch counter-attack after counter-attack.
Watching the onslaught, almost as disbelieving as the Port crowd, I think again of a Bob Murphy story about a Bevo speech before a practice match in his first months as coach. ‘There’s going to be an ambush,’ the Plantaganet-lookalike (a little less careworn in those days) told his bemused charges, before a theatrical pause.
‘And the ambush will be us!’
The Libba Sisters can’t squeeze hands, elbow each other in disbelief, high-five each other as though we personally were instrumental in the goal avalanche. There’s barely even time for a text message of celebration before the three little dots say another is being typed out. The messages are succinct. ‘Is this a dream?’ ‘What’s happening?’ and ‘F-Star-C-K’!! (the last one being from a family joke when one of my sons had heard someone swear but, sweet soul that he is, didn’t want to repeat the ‘bad word').
There have been plenty of other preliminary finals where those three phrases, especially the latter, had been regularly employed by the Libbas. It’s just gloriously unexpected that this time, they are words of rapture, not despair.
We talk over Facetime in the main break. Shell-shocked, in the best of ways: for Our Boys are, incredibly, 58 points up. Even if those in teal are able to rally, surely …well, hopefully …we can’t...won't... capitulate from here?
(The Tragician is trying very hard to avoid googling: what is the greatest comeback win in AFL history?)
As fans, we are still, of course, scarred, by our preliminary finals failures, the most disastrous of all in 97. The memory of that day when our players turned to stone and surrendered a five-goal lead in the last quarter is one not even erased by the 2016 heroics. But it’s as far away to our current day team as the quaint and grainy footage of the 54 premiership. If they need a reference point it’s 2016, not 97. Or 98. (Or all those other ones that still make me tired to think about).
Our Boys are not tired, though, continuing to bullock their way forward time and again. They survive a token effort at a revival from Port with maturity. If there’s any chance of pulling off the greatest ever AFL comeback (all right, I did sneak a look, and it was 69 points in 2001), it’s snuffed out, appropriately, by the Hand of Bont. He manages to get a fingertip to a shot at goal. A goal that would have put the Power back in the race (well, within a flimsy, gossamer-like, precarious, extremely gettable 40 points margin) is averted by the octopus-like reach of our superstar captain.
We can - what strange concept is this? - enjoy the last quarter. The rain that begins to fall isn’t a welcome relief – greedily, we want to win by more, as party tricks like Bailey Smith’s stupendous 60-meter goal are rolled out. The only ‘bad luck’ being discussed is which unfortunate player in this most wonderful of wins might lose his spot. Waiting for the minutes, seconds to go by, isn’t the suffocating yet exquisite torture of 2016; we're mainly begging for the siren to go, PLEASE, to make sure Bont, and Naughton, are safely seated on the interchange bench, unable to suffer a catastrophic last minute knee injury a la Josh Bruce.
It’s when the siren does go, though, that I feel the first pangs, a kind of grief. The inexpressible joy we felt in 2016 is not the same – maybe it could never have been the same - even though the achievement is arguably even more immense.
Because back then, we felt we had been part of every moment, ridden the emotional wave with Our Boys. We'd impelled Clay Smith to make those crunching tackles. Bont had, surely, run that bit faster towards the goal because we were urging him forward. We'd willed Jackson Macrae's kick to sail straight through the sticks.
Secretly I was always convinced they couldn’t have got there without us, and most definitely not without the Tragician’s lucky Bont badge.
And they had given us the gift, of finally knowing what other teams took for granted, but we had learnt to accept was not ‘for the likes of us’ - of celebrating it with them, in our town. Wearing our colours proudly around the streets, going to training, meeting up for a grand final parade. Claiming to be stressed and nervous but revelling in every moment denied to the other 16 clubs, who this time are the ones who look on in envy. Being right there at the heart of the dizzying fever that comes over sports-mad Melbourne in Grand Final week.
As the Libbas drove back from Sydney back in 2016, as exhausted as though we too had laid some Clay-Smith-style monster tackles, we kept looking at each other and saying the unbelievable words again and again.
‘We’re in the grand final!’
We barely knew how to feel, or react, or think about what might come next.
‘We’re in the grand final.’
We say it again, when we phone each other after our thrashing of Port Adelaide. We’re fiercely, emotionally proud. We don't discuss a grand final watched from a living room, and focus on the idea of the amazing times we’re living in. A second grand final in five years, after I’d begun to think God had taken a bit too literally my forlorn plea: ‘Just one premiership in my lifetime oh lord!’
While Our Boys are still celebrating on the field, applauded by the small but vocal posse of fans in red white and blue who’ve been lucky enough to be there, I spot a familiar face. Our former player Nathan Eagleton is there in the crowd congratulating Bevo, with at least one apparent look-alike son (albeit with a full head of hair) also wearing red, white and blue.
The ‘Bald Eagle’ was sometimes - sadly often - one of our most maligned players, but in a 10-year career he wore our guernsey 221 times. He’s all smiles now, looking genuinely delighted about our win, but I can’t help be transported, as only perhaps a Tragician can be, to the last time we saw him.
It was 2010, after our third losing preliminary final in succession. The loss wasn't unexpected; our team were injury-raddled and ageing. We knew even then there would be no 'next year': the premiership window had screeched shut. We watched ‘Ego’ distraught in the rooms, crying in the arms of his captain, Brad Johnson, who’d also played the last of his 364 games with us. Each of them knew, despite all they'd achieved, they would never know what it was like to run out in a grand final.
The camera cuts back to the studio: it’s the beaming and totally non-objective ‘Johnno’ himself, as delighted by our brilliant win as any fan. (Wasn’t one of the joys of our Johnno that he always looked like a wide-eyed fan even when he was playing?)
Yet in a career which began when we were Footscray and matches were still played at the Western Oval, Brad played 21 finals, for just six wins.
Now the camera turns to an interview with Bailey Smith, the current wearer of Johnno's number six guernsey. The 20-year-old (with an abundance of hair that both 'Ego' and 'Johnno' would have envied) is about to play a grand final in his 67th match.
The members of the squad who have missed out celebrate just as hard, belting out the song with their team-mates. Our vice-captain Mitch Wallis is in the thick of it: he's a near-certainty to miss this grand final just as he did in 2016, yet he's a rare human being who is capable of pure joy for his club and his mates.
We see the players face-timing Joshua Bruce, who played such a role in getting us into finals in the first place, back in Melbourne looking genuinely thrilled for his mates rather than sorry for himself.
Toby McLean, who'd suffered a second catastrophic knee injury within 12 months, is nevertheless also on the road with the group, and has the role of team barber, cutting the more outlandish styles to sometimes dubious effects on the hotel balconies (I sincerely hope with a strict mandate to go nowhere near Easton Wood.)
Ambling around the rooms with a huge beaming smile is Zaine Cordy, who famously kicked the first Bulldog's grand final goal in 55 years as a raw 19-year-old; despite a solid game, 'Cordeaux' is tipped as likely to be one of the heartbreaking omissions to accommodate the return of Alex Keath.
Their stories make me realise grand finals and premierships are too precious, too rare, for our club for me to wallow in the ‘not-being-there’ sadness. I need to give myself over to the pure joy of their stunning achievement.
Bevo speaks to the team post-match: about love and care for each other as the essence of our club. He says: ‘I’m so moved by the players and what they achieved.’ I wonder if any other coach but Bevo could speak about being moved by what they did, rather than proud; as though it was something they alone did, while he looked on as a bystander.
At times this year I have thought Our Saviour has looked tired and flat, even uncharacteristically brittle. Yet he has shepherded and guided and supported him through throughout the challenging 2021 season. He somehow rebuilt them from the devastated group who sat motionless in the rooms after Round 23, when our top four spot had disappeared, and most accepted our premiership dream was fatally derailed. What a short time (yet it already seems an aeon ago) to turn around a group that we fearfully anticipated would struggle to even get past the Bombres in week one.
Astoundingly enough, Bevo has coached 33% of ALL Bulldogs finals wins. We'd been in the competition 90 years before he even arrived in 2015! which shows both the magnitude of his coaching achievement, and the long history of heartache we've endured. And why this win must be cherished.
I get ready to dress up my house in red, white and blue. An email from the club, telling us about the process to secure our grand final ticket, brings tears for a second, then, like most Bulldogs’ fans I on-forward them to those who could use them in WA.
I think about what Bob said about our premiership in 2016 and the subsequent malaise: that winning a flag for other clubs is like climbing Mt Everest; for us, it was like landing on the moon. With terror and awe I realise our team is ready, again, to launch.
The Libba Sisters manage to meet up in Seddon. The streets are largely deserted, yet the empty cafes and shops are still adorned with red, white and blue. Our smiles are wide beneath our marks, as we clink our takeaway coffees in a park.
'We're in the grand final!
'We're in the grand final!'
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.