There's been time a-plenty, in the downright weirdness of the 2020 season, for the Bulldog Tragician to contemplate that essential Tragician question. If a crowd isn't there, to chant, to yell, to boo, advise the umpires on decisions they may have got wrong, alert our players of an impending run-down, even to sit in glum silence: can it be said it really happened?
I've traditionally been a slow starter each season.Years of experience mean I ignore all those 'the Boys are flying' conversations; it takes me a while to regain my barracking mojo and invest in a new group. I usually spend most of round one confused by new hairstyles, numbers and tattoos, though I'm always up for some hypocritical criticism of those whose physical condition doesn't meet my exacting standards.
Watching in lockdown hasn't helped my rusty adjustment to 2020; I became excited hearing that 'Keath' was selected in the backline, before belatedly realising that this was no longer our former, flinty skipper.
I was confused at the sight of our new number 17: Josh Bruce looks uncannily just like its former inhabitant, now doing something even more important than footy, shining a light on depression and the mental health issues that saw him too soon lost from our game - a recollection that was both inspiring and melancholy.
A listless Round one performance in the shadow of coronavirus didn't really get me, as they say in footy circles, 'up and about'. Then came the great footy lull. The players, our club, the competition as a whole receded from our sight. Personally I hoped the whole season would just be cancelled. The valiant efforts of our social media team to keep footy relevant to us didn't hit the mark. Unfortunately the Tragician is not interested in awkward videos of our players quoting a line from their favourite movie, and my Mothers' Day in isolation was not enlivened by vox pops about which player is the biggest 'Mama's boy' (um, seriously?!)
When footy finally returned and we took on the Saints there was little to excite. Selections that even by the eccentric standards of Bevo Our Saviour were baffling, our skills were poor; we looked every bit a bottom four side. I viewed the dismal effort home in silence, though there may have been the occasional whimper at the prospect of another...surely not another?... wasted year.
And yet, despite... or was it because of?...our poor performance my interest was flickering back to life. I was turning to the back pages of the papers again; I felt those prickles of anger as the media piled mercilessly on, as Bont was pilloried. And I couldn't be indifferent when our next opponent was those Acronyms - a collection of the most unlovable individuals ever to appear on a football field. In our last encounter they'd launched cowardly and vicious attacks on our team. I only needed to think of Bont pinned to the ground and set upon by Toby Greene, and recall that the Obnoxious One got off scot-free, for that red mist of rage to re-appear.
They'd pummeled us in other ways too. Unprepared for their assaults, we'd put in a shocker. Remembering the humiliation, I was suddenly alert, even alarmed. I was 'up and about'.
We couldn't - we absolutely must not - lose this one.
The teams took to the field: the not-so-indifferent Tragician took to the couch.In another sign I was regaining my mojo, I speedily identified that yet again an unjust advantage had been gifted to the Giants; they were only too familiar with playing in empty stadiums and canned crowd noise (and who amongst us hasn't suspected the deployment of cardboard cutouts?) throughout their short and overly entitled history.
I was apprehensive for our Bont. How can this now be his weekly fate, to be set upon and bullied? My mind traveled back to 2016 (OK, this happens a lot), the first time I can recall him being physically targeted, by a posse of Fake Tough Guys from North Melbourne. In just his third season, Bont was unruffled, even amused by their snarling efforts. He was still in that carefree blissful state, where the sky was the limit on his potential; a media darling, a Golden Boy who could do no wrong.
Early in that contest Bont (who of course went on to be best on the ground) smothered a kick from one of those snarling Tough Guys (I believe his name is Ferret-oh, or something like that). Bont could not contain his delight as we rose to our feet, jubilantly applauding this victory for the Good Guy. I fondly dubbed his expression in that moment: 'the Bontempelli smirk.'
There was no smirk from our under-siege new captain; within seconds the predictable ambush began. Stuck at home, we were as impotent (though nowhere near as smiley) as those cardboard cutouts, unable to see whatever outrages the Giants were inflicting, having to rely on the commentators to excitedly inform us that there was a stoush between 'Celeb' Daniel and Jeremy Cameron. Though we needed no commentary to inform us who would have started it.
Our Boys, it was soon blessedly clear, were switched on. Their hands in close were quick and clean; they refused to be wrested away from the ball, in fact the likes of 19-year-old Bailey Smith just ripped it away from those in Orange, while every time Bont was bumped and pushed, men in red, white and blue were instantly on the scene.
Right in the centre of things was Libba The Second, with his familiar crab-like gait, his dodgy knees, the big heart inherited from his dad. 'Serial Antagonist' would be his title on a business card. From the moment I saw his pesky little fake arm-of-consolation around Coniglio when he gave away a free, I knew we'd somehow be all right.
In typical Bulldogs-style our dominance all over the field didn't translate into the sort of comfortable buffer it deserved. We were wasteful, our despised rivals always just a little close to comfort.
Right on three quarter time the brawl we all knew was coming finally broke out. Every Bulldogs player was in there; new guys Keath and Bruce; the young bull Bailey Smith; frail-looking Toby McLean and Dailey Bailey, the second-gamer Laith Vandermeer; Bont's staunch good mates Dunkley, Wallis and Crozier who'd all been superb; and needless to say the mustachio-ed hard-nuts Cordy and ...of course... Libba.
'GWS and the Bulldogs ab-so-lutely hate each other!' shouted BT with barely disguised glee.
He got most of the players' names wrong all evening, but BT certainly got that one right.
As the brawl finally broke we could see, for the third time in the match, that Aaron Naughton's jumper was ripped to shreds. But as he donned a spare number 40, I'm pretty sure I spotted ... yes, it had to be... a smirk on the face of our young, carefree up-and-comer.
(Mysteriously, later on, the AFL fined a raft of players from both teams for the quaint offence of 'engaging in a melee' ... while failing to identify some clear cuffs to Bont's head from behind by two of those wearing orange. Their names, just in case any of you at AFL headquarters need clarification, were Sam Jacobs and Jeremy "One Grand Final possession" Finlayson).
When the final siren sounded, I suddenly realised that we hadn't won a game since last August - though unlike other Bulldogs teams I've followed, at least a coronavirus intervention rather than ineptitude explained the long gap between wins.
We couldn't stand on the seats and cheer them off the arena, but we were still with them as they marched behind their young captain, entered the change rooms and, a respectable 1.5 metres apart, danced on their toes and clapped their hands. How young they all looked, just kids really, back able to do what they loved, together: nothing could stop a huge emotional pile-on to celebrate the win and what it represented.
Bevo was in top form at the press conference. He may have come close to a smirk himself, as he described as 'peculiar' the weird (and spectacularly unsuccessful) Acronym tactic of getting Haynes to do the coin toss, a tactic supposedly designed to instill into Bont a state of nervous terror and remorse for his many crimes.
The brawl was described by Bevo as a 'brouhaha.' (Dictionary definition: an episode involving excitement, confusion, turmoil, etc., especially a broil over a minor or ridiculous cause).Well-played, sir!
He outdid himself when referring to the controversial Haynes incident in 2019, alleged to be the catalyst of the rivalry by the Acronyms camp (still fail to understand how they view Toby Greene's vicious eye-gouging as morally equivalent to Bont's bump). What occurred between Bont and Haynes last year, explained Bevo, was: 'incidental contact when Haynes left his kick late and slipped under the shoulder of Marcus.'
The Bulldogs' players aren't the only ones who regained their mojo on Friday night.
As for the Tragician I woke the next morning with a raspy throat. There was no need for me to present at Bunnings for a coronavirus test, however; the source of the ailment was familiar. I'd been, perhaps, a little exuberant (I'm sure Bevo could find a better word) on the couch throughout the evening, particularly during the brouhaha. I'd strained my voice as I yelled and booed; I'd even identified a couple of players whose physical condition didn't meet my exacting standards. I'd prayed and barracked and cheered for Our Boys to bring this one home, finally invested in whatever lies ahead in this strangest of footy seasons.
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.