One day after a match at Geelong, when Tony Liberatore was at his pesky, annoying best, my sister and I (a petite pair) were walking out, proudly wearing our Bulldog scarves. A Geelong wit saw us, turned to his mate and rudely chortled: “Look! it’s Libber’s sisters!"
The nickname has endured. And at 2 pm on Saturday the 'Libber Sisters' are in position on the couch, ready to watch our Dogs take on their latest challenge, the Sydney Swans. Together we will be critiquing the match and offering a balanced, fair assessment of the opposition and the umpires.
The Other Libber Sister now lives in an apartment in the former Rising Sun hotel, a recognisable landmark whenever you travel over 'Mount Mistake', down Geelong Road. It still bears the quaint signage: Official suppliers of beer to the Footscray Football Club.
It's only a few hundred metres from the Western Oval. You can hear the crowd’s rumbling roar whenever our re-born Footscray team plays there.
For decades Dogs' fans would spill over the footbridge (now closed) and gather on Saturday afternoons at this traditional working class watering hole. I imagine a rambunctious atmosphere would have been the norm, as fans crowded in to celebrate the wins or obliterate their sorrows with the assistance of Footscray Football Club-sanctioned beer.
The Libber Sisters are not yet rambunctious. We’re excited, tense, hopeful, expectant, uncertain. The Dogs are about to face last year’s Grand Finalists, masters of contested footy, on their home turf.
We're fielding the least experienced team of all 18 sides selected this round; nine of our blokes have not yet played 20 games. On average the Bulldogs' outfit have played 67 less games than their Sydney rivals, are conceding three years in age, and who knows how much brawn and big match experience.
Pitted against household names like Buddy Franklin (three Coleman medals, five times All-Australian, and dual premiership winner) and Adam Goodes (two Brownlows, four all-Australian honours, two flags) will be the likes of defensive hopefuls Fletcher Roberts, in game number eight, and Michael Talia in game 21.
The first five minutes aren’t promising. We’re brushed aside easily; the Swans have already gone inside 50 six times. Franklin and Goodes look like they might go on a rampage against the Bulldog defence. It's already raising memories of our recent loss against the Mean and Unsporting Hawks, where we were rudely reminded of our youth and inexperience, and taught how far we have to go.
So it's a relief to get on the board with virtually our first meaningful thrust forward. And a welcome surprise when we get the next. And then, amazingly, the Dogs score the next three and have the lead at the quarter time break.
Libber One: I knew we'd come back.
Libber Two: We'd be in front by more if the umpires had seen all those head high tackles that I noticed to our boys in every pack.
The second quarter is bruising. But there are heroes emerging everywhere in red, white and blue. Liam Picken with his deceptively innocent choirboy face loves this sort of slog; he's playing an epic game. Stewart Crameri seems to be everywhere, with his fellow Bendigo citizen Jake Stringer wreaking his usual bull-at-a-gate mayhem. Roberts and Talia refuse to concede against their more glamorous opponents. Luke Dalhaus is at the bottom of every pack, somehow getting quick boot to ball, springing to his feet after being dumped again and again.
It’s gruelling, exhausting, intense, suffocating. We’re just about out on our feet at half time, completely spent from the brutal contest. Drained of energy, having given our all, we welcome the chance to regroup. There's no doubt about it: the Libbers have certainly earned their cup of tea and the sustenance of a chocolate snack.
Libber One: Did you notice Buddy's got a bit of a pot tummy happening?
Libber Two: I thought so too. Ok, so do you want a Crunchie or a Cherry Ripe?
The Swans throw everything at us in the third quarter. We're starting to look tired, but we still withstand the enormous pressure. Our players don’t seem to get bowled over in tackles like they used to; even the youngest players is able to keep their feet and squirt a handball away.
Jordan Roughead has been switched into the ruck. With his pale skin, old-fashioned haircut, and moustache, you could imagine him, wearing a slouch hat, as a resolute Anzac; a picture in a dusty frame on a mantelpiece. Both shoulders heavily bandaged from the reconstructions he has endured in his short career, he’s playing a lone role against the Sydney tall timber in the waterlogged conditions, but never once does he flinch. It’s an injustice, agree the indignant Libbers, when a dubious 50 metre penalty against him, allows the Swans to creep within a goal in the last three minutes of the quarter.
Just as we’re looking shaky, The Bont, who's demonstrated his skills are just as brilliant in the wet, shows his unerring ability to enter the game when we most need it. His octopus arms stretch out to intercept an errant Sydney kickout. The cameras catch a close up of his face, calm and unflustered, as he goes back to take a shot at goal. Our wonderful Bont, still just 19 years old, playing his 20th game, and already the man for the big moment as he steers it through.
The Libbers aren’t sure what to think at three quarter time. Emotional, brimming pride at this terrific performance, sure, but a hint of resignation at the prospect of being over-run, that we may need to be satisfied with a gallant loss.
The Dogs are having none of the Libbers' wishy-washy notions. What follows is a last quarter for the ages. Not one player hesitates to put himself on the line, whether it’s baby faced teenager Lukas Webb standing in the hole as probably the best (albeit pot-bellied) player in the competition thunders out on a lead, or the swarm of Bulldog players that gut-run time and again, their legs burning as they get to the next contest. And the one after that.
The Libbers can’t sit still on the couch any more. Not even during the most raucous of six o'clock swills would the walls of the Rising Sun have heard such a commotion.
Because, despite the courage and desperation of our team, the Swans have hit the front. It seems to epitomise this day, and the quality of our opponents, that the goal that puts them in the lead comes after a passage of play featuring multiple inspirational acts by the Dogs, and a smother from Murphy that would be match-winning in almost any other contest.
It’s too frenetic to pause to ask whether the Dogs can come back. Or who among the exhausted ranks will step up to make it happen.
Jason Dunstall from the commentary team says: What the Dogs need now is just one special act. For once it’s not a cliché.
Almost as though they’ve heard Dunstall's words, the Dogs will themselves forward yet again.
They don’t want to lose. They most definitely do not want to lose.
Luke Dalhaus, working in a telephone-box sized space, kicks the ball toward our goal. Flying towards it, with a Swan hot on his heels, is Easton Wood. Like Superman he leaps in the air to meet the awkwardly positioned, bouncing, spinning, greasy ball. Like Superman he gets a toe to it. It's taken a miraculous, brilliant goal but we're back in front.
The jubilant high fives from the Libbers are short-lived as we realise that an excruciating five minutes remains on the clock. Minutes where a mistake could be made. Minutes where another Special Act, this time from our more experienced opposition, could intervene and break our hearts.
It’s a frenetic, breathless whir of smothers, fingertips to the ball, relentless tackles. There’s Bob Murphy, somehow finding something in his aching 32-year-old legs, running on pure adrenalin away from his opponent to clear it out of the danger zone. There's Jake Stringer, wrapping Buddy, who's doing his trademark strong fend-off, in a huge, wrestling style tackle, making himself a battering ram and an impassable object. There’s Dalhaus, pole-axed in a mighty, sickening clash, seconds later back on his feet.
There’s twenty seconds to go. We must surely have it won. But to our horror the Swans propel it forward once more. Twenty seconds is enough time for a long kick down the middle to their almost vacant forward line, enough time for them to snatch the game from our despairing fingertips.
'It’s a footrace!' shout the commentators, as excited and involved as the rest of us.
Loping across the slippery turf into the dangerous centre half forward spot, Easton Wood scoops up the ball with one hand, as effortlessly as a leisurely training drill on a calm summer’s day. He keeps his balance as he's tackled and handballs it to his team-mate who has run hard, so very hard, in support. It's Jason Johansien, who also holds strong in a tackle and gets it to Matthew Boyd. And the siren goes.
The Libbers are jumping around. All across Melbourne, our fellow Dogs’ fans are doing the same, yelling, screaming, crying, with joy, pride and elation — and all because Easton Wood elegantly, calmly, cradled that ball with such sureness and composure. When I watch it afterwards (again, and again, and again) I can't believe his poise. Such a tiny crack of fate and time there was - such a different torrent of emotions to be unleashed if he'd lost his feet or fumbled the ball. An infinitesimal moment of decision, belief, skill and courage, raising a roar from the neutral fans in the MCG bars, capturing the imagination of not just Dogs' fans but football romantics (they still exist) everywhere.
Our captain Bob is being interviewed, his face wreathed in smiles. It’s the best win ever, he says to Fox commentator Barry Hall, who’s not exactly looking dour and objective at all. Bob winks at Barry and runs joyously over to his men, his boys. He and former captain, Matthew Boyd, grab each other in the biggest and fiercest of bearhugs. How must they feel, the only two left now from our 2008-2010 premiership tilt? Having painfully reconciled themselves to the knowledge that a flag will elude them, now they are witness, tutors, and leaders of the progress of this young group. They must be feeling the merest flicker of hope. That they're not done with yet.
I leave my fellow hoarse and exhausted Libber sister and drive home. Bob is now on the radio, voice still cracking, with fatigue and emotion. As always, he has just the right words to capture what we've just seen. He says the match was like Rocky IV. Like an Under 12 match as players chased the ball up and down a boggy field.
They ask him if he's given up on the dream; does he hope, still, that he might be there if this group wins a flag? Bob quotes the musician Paul Kelly, and says he just thinks about one more song.
I find the Kelly quote the next day:
I wake up every morning and hope there's still one more tune ambling towards me down the road.
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.