As our Anzac round match against the Crows approaches, I reflect with sorrow on the futility of the battle. The shattered dreams of a youthful generation. The pointlessness of gallant but fruitless campaigns. The senseless waste. The bodies lying prone, desolate, on the theatre of war while the enemy celebrates.
Yes, I'm still haunted by our preliminary final losses to Adelaide.
Time marches on, of course. Like the dwindling band of soldiers in the Anzac Day parade, the veterans from our defeats, in 1997 and 1998, have disappeared from the arena. Chris Grant now sits on the Bulldogs' Board as our Director of Football; Brad Johnson, for so long the evergreen sole remnant of those losses, has retired, and taken his surly, grumpy countenance and relentless negativity to Fox Footy.
On match day at Etihad, we usually catch glimpses of two other veterans of that campaign running briskly from the box onto the field; they're members of our coaching staff these days. Rohan Smith - now greying - was in 97 the emblematic image of our loss, the devastated player pounding the turf when we lost by two points; in 98, his misguided selection as a small centre half back against Matthew Robran summed up an awful afternoon when we were thumped by more than 11 goals. Brett Montgomery - now balding - also played in both those different, though equally devastating, defeats; however, Monty - who I can recall kissing our jumper in celebration after a goal - went on to be a premiership player at Port.
I don't know if these former players or others are scarred or at peace with those losses. I've heard Geelong players saying that even after their premiership triumph in 2009, that flag never atoned for their loss the year before. I'd certainly like the chance to find out whether, if we win three flags over the next decade (okay, I'll settle for one), the pain of 97 and 98 will somehow be erased.
As for the 50-something female Crows supporter who felt the most fitting way to celebrate her team's 97 triumph was to go out of her way to approach our forlorn little huddle - standing shell-shocked and attempting somehow to console our crying children - and wave her scarf right in their tear-stained faces and say: 'Go Crows!'...I guess she was fortunate enough to be there to see her club win two premierships. Who says there's such a thing as footy karma?
Though I've wondered whether the ghosts of 97 and 98 hovered over us in other ways, that's probably more of an issue for us as fans than the current players. They probably feel as little connection to this ancient history as if it were Grandpa Simpson banging on about some boring event from his youth. Among our present-day brigade, perhaps Libber the Second was one of the bewildered crying children in the morgue-like rooms after 97 (so many still debate whether his dad's final quarter 'point' was really a goal). Others though, like Bontempelli, Macrae and Stringer were barely toddlers at the time. Even our older players, such as Gia, Morris and Murph, were only pimply gawky teenagers, (well, maybe not Gia, he was probably always devastatingly handsome), hoping and expecting to make their own history and fulfill their own destinies.
In truth, playing the Crows these days, while it will always bring a deep wellspring of regret and 'if onlies', doesn't bring out the stomach-churning hatred it once did for us fans either. I want to win this week, not as some sort of foolish 'redemption' for those long-gone Grand Final berths squandered - that, I realise, will never come - but because last week against Carlton we took some worrying steps backwards. It's a more immediate salvation that we're searching for against the Crows.
There have been big statements coming out of the Kennel in the lead-up, about the need to address our shortcomings from last week's loss, stirring talk about the need for greater defensiveness and promises of a more whole-hearted team approach. The Dogs, heeding the message, certainly come out snarling. Their attack on the footy is relentless, almost reckless. If there are still some troubling signs in the first quarter, of haphazard disposal and over-use of the footy, they're more than compensated by our undoubted endeavour, and willingness to take the game on and make something happen. Maybe it's the unaccustomed open roof, which means there's a swirling, if not quite Western-oval-esque wind, and shadows across the ground making it hard to detect if a nearby player is team-mate or foe, that's leading to some of the errors; but the effort and pleasing intensity can't be denied, and we're quickly four goals to nothing and looking impressively switched on, or 'up and about' as is often said (I don't really know what it means, either).
Slowly, inexorably, though, our lead is reined in. Our runners now are tired and lethargic, the forward spaces have all closed up. Jake Stringer, who seemed to be holding his own against triple premiership player and massive unit James Posiadly, now looks like the 10-game boy that he actually is; Michael Talia and Tom Young seem swamped and directionless without the leadership of the injured Dale Morris. It's Crows' bodies now ripping the ball out of our hands, Crows' numbers swarming around every contest. Our ball use becomes slow and hesitant, lacking dare and imagination. We surrender the lead meekly, and by the third quarter look to have little chance of getting back into the match; there are ominous signs that a heavy defeat, with the Crows' storming home all over us, is on the cards.
It doesn't happen often, but at times like this a treacherous thought pattern creeps across my mind. Yes, more treacherous than the scandalous excuse: "It's only a game." More alarming than my traditional fall-back: "Gee I wish Mum hadn't gone to that premiership in 1954 in her second ever game of footy, and made us all barrack for the Dogs." (More frequent, though, than: "Gee the umpires are giving us a good go today!")
It's this traitorous thought: "Are they actually trying?"
Yes, it's a ridiculous, unworthy thought, really. Winning games of footy is the players' life, their livelihood, their everyday goal. They can't ever not be trying, surely. It must, should, mean more to them than us fans who will go home unbruised and unbloodied, and quickly become resigned to the loss. We can choose to avoid the papers, the internet and the headlines; it's not 'our' performance analysed and criticised in excruciating detail in media reports, and slowed down into frame-by-frame video lowlights selected by the coaching staff.
Yet when a team's performance dwindles so alarmingly, as a despairing supporter, unable to influence the outcome, you wonder what's going on. Players aren't running hard to present an option, taking those extra steps to sprint alongside a team-mate and encourage him; there's no blocking and shepherding, no second efforts, certainly not a third. When in the third quarter, we begin mindlessly kicking it around to each other on the backline - not to protect a matchwinning lead, but because we don't seem to have any other clear strategy in place - our morale as supporters slumps. Are the players just too used to losing? Are they not 'buying in' to the BMac mantra? Is the BMac mantra going to actually get us there? Did we make bad decisions at the selection table? Is our fitness level what it should be? Are we, simply, not as good as even our very modest expectations of this year allowed? (And why DID my mum go to that bloody Grand Final at the MCG that day in 54, leaving this as our legacy?)
Just as I square my shoulders ready for the defeat, our players begin another, surprising last quarter surge. The missing ingredients of desperation, kamikaze commitment, and frenetic running, return, exemplified by the pocket dynamo Luke Dalhaus. Unfortunately, the other first quarter ingredients - of poor skills and baffling decision-making - have not disappeared. There are desperate whirlwinds of almost insane activity as our players find that extra gear - and yes, there's no doubt, their fierce desire to win - with Dogs' fans all finding our voices and willing them over the line; but our opponents always seem to have a clinical answer. Scoring is more effortless for them. It seems to sum it all up that our frantic thrusts forward lead to us hitting the post twice in the last couple of minutes, while the Crows are gifted two comfortable goals by our clumsy turnovers in the back half.
It's hard to know what to make of the defeat as we begin that slow 'we've lost' shuffle out of the stadium. It's been a poor crowd, only 17,000; those that are present are a dejected bunch, wondering where to from here, and puzzled and disheartened by the inconsistent performance. Two good quarters, two awful quarters; yet despite glaring weaknesses, our inexperience, and the inexplicable mid-game torpor, we so easily could have emerged as victors. Meanwhile the photo of Easton Wood (easily one of our best) on the turf after the match, with the Crows' banners waving in the background, looks chillingly like Rohan Smith in 97.
I try and replace that mental image, instead, with a photo I came across this week, of the unfurling of the premiership flag in 1955 at the Western Oval. (There's another image of that day, taken from a different angle, in the banner at the top of this blog). I read a little bit about it to cheer myself up: a capacity crowd of more than 40,000 - imagine that! - crammed into the Western Oval for this proud and historic moment. And yes, my mum remembers being there. She was with my auntie, and they were on the fence somewhere, in that vast sea of delirious fans, a proud memory that's just as much part of our tapestry as the sorrowful ones from 97 and 98.
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.