Sometimes before meeting a much more highly credentialled opponent, there's still a mysterious sliver of hope. A mild tingly feeling. The merest hint of anticipation. The feeling - the sniff - that an upset just might be brewing.
Sunday, though, was not one of those days.
The only tingle that a glance at the respective team lists provided was one of horror. Surveying the star-studded Sydney forward-line I contemplated, with a shudder, just how many goals they could rack up against our undersized, workman-like backline battlers.
I couldn't delude myself that we would be able to muster a win, or even save face with a highly competitive loss. Not when our opponent is the Swans, perched on top of the ladder and current premiership favourites, while we've just come off a really disappointing effort against a much less fearsome North Melbourne outfit. There were ominous signs in that lacklustre performance that the kids, who have given us rays of hope this year, are fatigued; that the effort of toiling away for respectable losses, worthy efforts, and some hard-fought wins (for none of them have in truth been easy) is starting to tell.
Occasions like Sunday bring about the forlorn, existential questions of why we bother. Donning the scarf, affixing the Bontempelli badge, and locating the membership ticket, with only a sense of ennui and trepidation, makes me question why I call this a 'hobby.' Most of the afternoon is likely to be depressing; maybe even a Melbourne-style capitulation could be on the cards for our young brigade. There could, and should, be better ways to spend a late Sunday afternoon than watching a lop-sided contest. I can already feel the anger and cynical despair at having to watch a belting from these opponents: a team that won the premiership only two years ago, yet able to somehow snare two expensive, high quality key forwards to further flaunt their competition dominance, leaving the have-nots even more mired in the ditch as they speed away.
In an attempt to whip up some enthusiasm, I run through a list of positives.
I realise my checklist is looking a bit threadbare.
I resolve to spell-check the word 'shellacking.'
But the internal 'will I go or won't I go' monologue is only an academic exercise really. I'm at the ground at the ludicrous start time of 3.20. But this week it's just myself and my sister in the dozen seats reserved for our family. Dwindling interest, other commitments, and scheduling designed for TV, not real lives and real people, mean there are empty rows everywhere, familiar faces missing from the ranks.
Within our family, my sister and I are known as the Libber sisters. We are both of rover size, and one day during the 1990s, when Tony Liberatore was at his prime as an aggravating, pint-sized antagonist, we were leaving Kardinia Park, wearing our scarves. A Geelong wit spotted us, turned to his mate and began to chortle, pointing in our direction: 'Look! It's Libber's sisters!' We feigned annoyance but were secretly rather tickled; in a family known for nicknames, the title of Libber's sisters is one that has stuck. (Abbreviated, of course, in the Australian way, to just the Libbers).
When 'the Libbers' first arrive, we are quite thrown by the sight of vacant spots near us where two die-hard fans, women that we know only through our shared love of the Dogs, usually sit. It's a rarity; they're always there well before us. Though the supporting ranks have thinned badly throughout the year, it's still a painful jolt to think that these two, always so staunch, may have flown the white flag today rather than turn up for the anticipated carnage. But a few moments later I turn around and see them taking up their seats, setting down their Bulldogs cushions, sorting out their thermos flasks and supplies for the day. We call out cheerful greetings and begin to chat and banter about the game, our recent form, today's prospects (they, unlike me, are always upbeat). We talk about the year that's nearly gone.
We strike up conversations, as well, with two other women who never fail to attend. One is now only three weeks away from giving birth; we've watched her gradually expanding girth throughout the year. (We joke that she won't, unfortunately, have to be too concerned about missing finals matches). We talk about the omission of Will Minson, the birth during the week of Jake Stringer's adorable baby daughter, the disappointing progress of enigmatic Ayce Cordy, the sad prospect that next week is Gia's last game.
I realise yet again how integral women are to the fabric of AFL footy. Though my dad played in the Footscray reserves, I really owe my supporting lineage to my mother. She is present and accounted for as usual today in her seat, on the opposite side of the ground to the Libbers. She's well-primed after 60 years of heartache and disappointment, ready and waiting for appalling umpiring decisions against our team; whenever we hear booing from that section of the ground, we always smile, certain that she's among the outraged. It was a woman, Irene Chatfield, who was prepared to be the litigant in the injunction which stopped the Fitzroy-Fooscray 1989 merger; women who were at the forefront of the tin-rattling that saved the club. Women who are not glamorous WAGs but simply there every week, maybe a bit more patient and forgiving than the blokes, but no less fervent, knowledgeable and passionate about the game. Women like the mother and daughter duo, Pat and Jenny Hodgson, who typified the uncomplaining, dedicated fan in the documentary 'Year of the Dogs.' Women who are just as committed to our club.
Just as devastated by an opening term which is a true shocker.
There's been a pattern for most of the year of a poor start by the Dogs, and this fits the template. Any faint hope of a boilover is quickly extinguished by three effortless Swans' goals within the first seven minutes. The ease with which the Swans sweep it down the ground, with their tall forwards ready to gobble up elegant, pinpoint passes, is well in tune with my worst nightmares. It's way past demoralising; on the rare times we have possession, we cough it up with inept disposal or sputter it forward to a stagnant, impotent forward line.
In line with the familiar template, we improve with a gritty second quarter which starts to slowly repair the damage. But it's grinding work, still peppered with mistakes, moments that could be comical. If you hadn't seen it all before.
Buddy Franklin and Kurt Tippet are, of course, having a field day. We're all unreasonably incensed that it's not enough for them to be taller, more talented, more athletic than anyone on the ground; it appears they also are protected from any defenders' efforts. The umpires ensure the slightest infringement is immediately pounced upon, affording the Twin Towers even more of an advantage. (Yes, I'm my mother's daughter after all).
We're making such hard work of it, with embarrassing moments like Jake Stringer missing a goal that even one of the Libber Sisters could surely have nailed. Then we have to endure seeing Buddy Franklin cockily attempt to play on from a mark and run around our tireless, heroic Dale Morris; get fairly and squarely tackled as he attempts to beat him; see him hold onto the ball for an eternity, yet the Dogs get no reward.
At times like this, football seems joyless, just a series of pointless insults; our team scrapping away, slowly attempting to grind our way up the ladder, our fans by turns resigned, infuriated, and helpless. The presence of the Million Dollar Men, and the realisation that our club could never be gifted such allowances, makes the loss somehow more bitter than it should have been, that much harder to bear.
At some point during the match, I realise that two Swans supporters have sneaked into seats in 'our' area, which is reserved for Dogs' fans who've paid extra money for this privilege. Though they're not being particularly obnoxious, it's an irritant to see them there, having clearly not paid their way; the Etihad attendant, when I question it, looks blank and says he normally checks tickets but didn't think 'anyone would mind'. He takes no action. A metaphor, it seems, for so much of what is wrong with our competition at the moment.
The game finishes. It's hard to know why the result seems quite so disappointing. We weren't expected to win (except by Jono), and the margin is pretty much in line with what you might have expected before the match. It wasn't a ghastly, Melbourne-style capitulation. I've certainly seen worse losses, more heartbreaking moments, darker days, and I know in my heart that this is just part of the footballing cycle, a loss that I won't even be able to recall in a few weeks or months. But maybe we're all just a bit tired of it, sick of being chipper, weary of being the good ole unthreatening, hard-working, ultimately unsuccessful Dogs, making up the numbers while the glamorous sides make hay.
We watch the crowd begin to disperse. There's a running joke between my sister and myself that at least one of us could well be in a nursing home before the Dogs ever win that elusive flag; but we have a pact that we will help each other break out, even if in a wheelchair, to see the match. As we see two snowy-haired old ladies who look like sisters, packing up their stuff, the scarves loaded with badges, the red, white and blue crocheted blankets, the old joke comes to life again. We share a grin. Our fate one day.
After the North match our former player turned ABC commentator Lindsay Gilbee was asked on radio how he rated the Dogs' 2014 season. I leant forward eagerly awaiting an inspirational, upbeat answer (a la the impartial, judicious Brad Johnson) only to hear a long-ish pause before Lindsay offered: 'The main thing is they've got more games into the kids.' Another pause. 'But you'd have to say they've stagnated.'
Crushing though the answer was, you'd be hard-pressed to deny it as a reality. For all that the very best of our kids is as promising as any other club's - not to mention the Bont Factor - this is not a side teetering on the cusp of success. As we see progress quickly followed by setback, inconsistent development rates, exciting individual efforts followed the next week by absolute stinkers, it's hard not to frame our slow halting journey back to the top in the grandiose Winston Churchill quote in World War 2. 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'
More reading : all in the family
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.