Lately, I've been worried.
Worried that I'm not really worried enough.
Anxiety and over-the-top fears are, after all, an integral part of my Tragician persona. I'm not alone in this, however - remember the quintessential gloomy fan, Danny from Droop Street, within a few hours of our 2016 triumph fretting that now we wouldn't get any high draft picks.
Yet so far, before each of our 2021 matches, I've been ... well, hopeful. Excited.
Before a 'must win' match against North I would normally have reached back ino the mental archives for all those similar occasions where the Dogs have turned in an insipid performance, leading to a morale-sapping, ignominious loss against lowly opposition. I should have been wringing my hands about the likely tactics of those North faux-tough-guys (are Scott Thompson and Firrito still playing?), and been in a state of high alert about one of their stars having a day out (Ben Brown? Glenn Archer? Drew Petrie? I realise I can't even name any of their players).
Anxiety should have been skyrocketing, given my legendary antipathy towards all things North. ('Why don't you like us?' a North-supporting colleague asked me plaintively one day, to which I could only reply: 'Maybe I'm just not a very nice person.').
Yet somehow I expected a win, and an easy enough one at that, though even the newly-minted Relaxed and Comfortable Tragician couldn't have foreseen how dominant our performance would be, or that, in an un-Bulldog-like fashion, we would continue to ruthlessly grind our undermanned and inexperienced opposition into the turf.
Then we headed to Ballarat for our next challenge. I should have been getting antsy about whether, after such a romp against North, Our Boys could rise to another level against sterner opposition. I should have been worried whether the wet, cold, bitter conditions (are there any other kind in our adopted home?) would suit our game style. Not only did these concerns barely cross my mind, but in cavalier fashion, I even rejected the idea that those strange little handwarmers would be needed, figuring I'd be too busy clapping Bulldogs' goals to get cold hands*.
*(I can confirm this was a mistake).
From where does this uncharacteristic tranquility come? I guess, like most things over the past 12 months, COVID has to take centre stage. When you've gone through harsh lockdowns, been unable to see people you love, need to wear masks and are confined to home apart from one hour a day, just being able to be at the footy is exhilarating. I even welcomed that bracing Ballarat wind.*
*(may not be strictly true).
The other reason I might not be as worried any more is the welcome return of what I can only call a more joyful style of playing. That joy felt like the biggest casualty of the past few years. The best times for footy teams and fans alike are when it all starts to come together, and possibilities seem endless. In contrast, so many of our post-2016 matches, even the wins, were often dour affairs, where we accumulated relentlessly, painstakingly, yet countless inside-50s didn't reap rewards. It was often quite painful to watch and somehow the players too seemed to be finding it grim, baffling and downright exhausting. I certainly did.
Now I see a briskness in their steps, renewed energy, the closeness and camaraderie that the best teams always have. Goals come easily, the 'look-away-now' moments aren't as common. This team, you feel, has started asking the audacious question Bob put up on the whiteboard before our 2016 final against West Coast: How good could you be?.
The fact that we sit in different locations each week to watch our team (usually somewhere ludicrously not 'Best available' - thanks Ticketmaster) has also given a novel and enjoyable perspective. Last year, of course, we'd been unable to watch games in person, having to depend on idiotic commentary for any insights into what was going on.
Admittedly, in the matches so far I've been located in the pocket, most of the time struggling to see a lot of the play down the other end (apart from multiple missed frees to those in red, white and blue). On the other hand we've been only a few rows from the front, much nearer to the action than usual. I've been able to see at close quarters Bailey Smith's strength as he pushes off an opponent, and his one-touch grab of the ball even while he wheels around to assess his next option. I've been able to watch how our defence work together, folding back and moving forward like lines in a battlefield, covering dangerous options or supporting a team-mate. I've seen how big and solid Alex Keath is as he marshals the backline, and been able to appreciate the speed and calmness of Bailey Williams as he sums up the danger and instantly makes the right judgement of when to stay and when to go.
All in all, even in Ballarat I wasn't going to waste time complaining about the poor location of seats* or whine about the cold*. I simply set myself to enjoy a day of country-style footy and feel in my increasingly frozen bones just how different things are in 2021.
*definitely not true
I realise too, that my own perspective is changing. The centre of gravity in our team has been shifting for a while, and even the sometimes reluctant Tragician is coming around to view the present-day team as more than just Bulldogs 2016 Lite, or unfairly seeing the newer talents as mere support acts to the dwindling numbers of premiership heroes.
Now, I'm dazzled by the sheer talent of the up-and-comers.
I'm part of the crowd's murmur of anticipation when the ball goes anywhere near our Astro-Naught, who can clunk the ball better than anyone I've seen, and then with cat-like reflexes hunts any that spill free. I'm enthralled by the agility, marking and (of late) straight kicking of Tim English, as well as being somewhat astonished by the idea that we - WE!! - have a glut of tall marking forwards.
I'm praying, hard, that Young, Lewis nails down that spot in the backline and doesn't let it go. I'm revelling in the transformation of Daily Bailey from slightly-built, enigmatic and injury-prone half-forward to still slightly-built and enigmatic but hopefully much more durable half-back. I love watching him glide around; I see a touch of Bob Murphy in the way he intersects with the game.
I'm enjoying the point-of-difference of star recruit Adam Treloar, bringing that pace and burst speed that isn't an overwhelming feature of our uber-talented midfield. (I also reflect on his bromance with Josh Dunkley, and wonder at the strange connection between one bloke who was traded from a club he still desperately wanted to play for, and another bloke who desperately wanted to be traded from a club that still wanted him; but after a while my head hurts a bit too much to think about it).
I feel relief watching Stef Martin's big frame absorbing the blows in the ruck, and I enjoy seeing a wry smile from Bevo Our Saviour in the coaching box when Josh Bruce kicked his tenth goal - while serial antagonist Libba and his promising sidekick Bailey Smith meanwhile were in the thick of a stoush (in which Our Boys were entirely innocent, undoubtedly caused by typically untoward faux-tough-guy tactics from North).
The New and Improved Non-worrying Tragician took time this week for a leisurely view of the Barkly Street podcast. This week it was in honour of our captain and hero Marcus Bontempelli, who is playing game 150 this weekend. He was interviewed by Bob who seemed almost as starstruck as if the Bulldog Tragician was the one behind the mike. I watched, bursting with pride, the Bont's relaxed and affable demeanour; whenever Bob praised him, Bont accepted the compliments with grace, rather than shuffling around with any fake humility. The Bont has always known how good he is, in an uncomplicated and hubris-free way, and that's part of his aura and also part of his playing style, for all champions reflect their own personality on the field.
Not for the first time I give thanks to the planetary alignments that led Bont to our club, this still young man without whom, I am sure, we would not have known the premiership euphoria. I find myself thinking about an early interview that Bont, just 18, did on one of the footy shows, with boorish Mark Robinson asking the teenager: 'Were you disappointed when you were drafted to the Dogs?' Bont's reaction was a slight flinch of annoyance and then a composed 'No, not at all' response. With his trademark politeness, he did the equivalent of the old politician-style favourite of 'not accepting the premise of the question.' He was there to change our club from within both by his outrageous talent and his equally outrageous question of 'Why not us?'
But...hang on, what's this? Moments after the podcast finished, my nerves begin to jangle, my radar for an impending catastrophe blares outon high alert.
Because Bont is a free agent this year (thanks for that dumb idea AFL) and already the whispers have started. Clubs are assembling a 'too-good-to-be-true' war chest in the hope of prising Bont away from our club.
My pulse quickens, as I try (and fail) to banish from my mind the thought of increasingly gloomy headlines ('Bontempelli contract talks stall'), speculation building throughout the season (it couldn't be Essendon could it? please God let it not be Essendon), the dreadful sight of Bont donning the colours of another club (Stop it right now!). I visualise crying children abandoning their number four guernseys, and a tearful Tragician melodramatically tearing a beloved badge from her scarf. I need some deep breaths as I try and replace the growing hysteria with more soothing images and tell myself that my worst fears won't come to pass.
For surely Our Golden Boy just wouldn't - couldn't - do it to us.
It's weirdly comforting, though, the return of the worrying. I'm not really built for Zen-like 'this too shall pass' response to footy heartbreak, even though I've had plenty of practice at it. I guess that's why footy is endlessly enthralling and gripping, that constant see-sawing between its highs and lows, because as Leonard Cohen (worrier extraordinaire) said, the cracks are where the light gets in.
With my Irish heritage, I'm a big believer in mystery signs from the universe to explain the meaning of our games. They mightn't feature in dry, fact-based Champion Data analysis. But I hold onto them as significant just the same.
In the leadup to our 2016 final against the Eagles, for example, a snatch of a song lodged persistently , even irritatingly, inside my brain. Even as I read gloomy statistics about our record in Perth and tried not to think too hard about who would play on our nemesis Josh Kennedy, I kept mindlessly humming Paul Kelly’s ‘To Her Door’. The line about ‘could he make a picture, and get it all to fit’ followed me around, haunted me as persistently as Libba The First's controversial tagging efforts on the other Paul Kelly, the Brownlow medalist for the Swans.
Our stirring - and completely unexpected - victory was the greatest win in modern-day Bulldog history (at that point of time of course). The line from the Kelly song had undoubtedly been telling me something, even if some might scoff and say I retro-fitted its meaning. Those boys made a picture to fit on that night. It carried them - and us - through the incredible weeks nobody but they could have dreamt would lie ahead.
This is all in the past, of course, except for the stubbornly nostalgic Tragician. Sometimes I think I need to be sent away for de-programming or subjected to an Adelaide-Crows-style bootcamp with the SAS; forced to let 2016 go, and view our current side and prospects afresh.
Because I still view everything through that prism, measure everything against that extraordinary month. When walking into the MCG last week before our match against the Pies, for example. I was disconcerted to see two premiership players. JJ - the Norm Smith medalist - and Zaine Cordy, the 19-year-old who kicked our first goal in the grand final. - also lining up to enter the ground. Wasn't this a bit lackadaisical, far too casual, arriving at the ground so late, and not looking wild-eyed and ready to chomp raw meat in preparation for the contest?. It took a few moments to recalibrate; to realise that, currently, they are playing in the humble VFL competition. (Yes. In Bevo we... sort of...anxiously... trust).
We also saw our only living premiership captain in the queue (though his omission is due to an interrupted pre-season) - the exceptionally handsome Easton Wood. (I felt, even though we were some metres away, there was a moment of electric connection between Easton and myself. But the Other Libba Sister said I must have imagined it).
Our win against the Pies was satisfying, especially in comparison to a disastrous showing against them at the same time last year, but some of the woes of seasons past were still on display.. Laborious entries into a sluggish forward line, skill errors, concentration lapses, inabilities to capitalise on our dominance. I felt, though, there was a harder edge, greater resilience when the Pies challenged. But the formidable Eagles will be a sterner test of how far we've evolved, what's really changed.
I've admired one noticeable change: the new retro touches on our 2021 guernsey. The splash of red around the collar brings back memories of Footscray teams sloshing around in the Western Oval mud in '70s, with the extravagant mullets of Bailey Smith and Aaron Naughton completing the connection. (I had secretly hoped at least one of them would don a Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe style headband, adorned perhaps with little red white and blue triangles).
One thing which hadn't changed as much as I'd like was the hulking figures of those Eagles. Kennedy, Darling, McGovern, NicNat. Are these guys EVER going to retire and stop tormenting us?
The match takes off at a cracking pace. It's a thrill to see our dash, daring, run, and commitment to the contest. After being starved of footy, just being part of a mainly Bulldogs crowd again is a thrill in itself. I'm mortified, though, to quickly realise our club is the latest to succumb to the trend of flashing up: Make some noise! messages, while the seconds between goals are filled with snatches of music.
Who goes to the footy for this numbing mindlessness? We are there to join with aisles of women and men in red, white and blue, rising to our feet in unison, part of spinetingling roars, riding the emotions that ripple through a crowd all at once. Expectation and disappointment. Amazement at the skills. Fear of the players' bravery and the risks they take. Moanings and mutters at umpiring injustices. Elation whenever the goal umpires march theatrically to signal the score. (It's much more anti-climactic when we await the 'Scoreboard Review completed' message').
The gimmicks are all the more unnecessary because the match itself is so enthralling. Our noses are in front for much of the first half, yet those monster forwards and defenders in Eagles' colours just won't bend to our will. Their footy seems simpler, less complicated. Kick it to some (extremely) big guys, who, just like The Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest, pluck the ball effortlessly out of the hands of slighter, less experienced, opponents. Then ..this is the amazing part... they simply go back and kick a goal. When, for our Bulldogs, even in the premiership year, did footy ever seem so straightforward and easy?
Our style is taxing, even though it's frequently exhilarating.Yet, into the third quarter, our resistance begins to falter. We seem, ever so slightly, to be out of ideas. Those Eagles guys aren't getting any shorter; as the match goes on, their bulky frames are even harder to budge (anyone else think they must really scoff those Hungry Jack whoppers?), If the ball hits the deck there is Liam Ryan, whose brilliant efforts might have dazzled and entranced me....IF I were a completely different person, the sort who has a favourite player from another club. (The way I see it, they have plenty of fans from their own club, and certainly don't need my appreciation as well).
We're all reflective, thoughtful, when our seven point half-time lead has slipped to a 12 point deficit at three quarter time. We know that what comes next will tell us a lot about our new brigade.
And we know there is one thing and one player only who can guarantee a Bulldogs victory.
'Bont needs to go nuts,' I say, not even realising the words have somehow been said aloud.
At first, the Eagles pull further ahead, in their clinical, footy-is-easy, way. But The Bont (may have) heard the Tragician's call. The Boy Wonder, our superstar captain - maybe one day our greatest ever player - rises to another stratospheric level.
The Bont's brilliance shines bright: the work of others is less visible but just as important. Countless inches, metres, gained - by the man most home in the hottest of contests, Libba the Second; the relentless running of Jackson Macrae; the bravery of our undersized defenders in those excruciating moments when the Eagles relentlessly pound their way forward.
But we're the ones now pressing, charging; even in my anxiety I relish being part of the heaving, pulsing crowd again. How wonderful to to join with thousands of others when Lachie McNeil steals a handball and we swarm forward to get the ball in the hands of Laith Vandermeer.. To glimpse other fans also with heads in hands, unable to look, when those not-exactly-straight-shooters Josh Bruce, and the swashbuckling Aaron Naughton. take vital shots at goal. To jump up all at once with childish glee when they actually surprise us and nail them.
We ride the ball down the field into space after Bailey 'Ice Man' Williams coolly evades three Eagles and sends it towards Josh Bruce. Because it's that sort of day, it sits up obligingly for him to gather. The din turns into pandemonium when we see who ('You know it's Him!") is standing unmarked in the forward line. The Bont's kicking has been somewhat unreliable of late; he had missed a sitter last week, yet somehow I am certain that he will kick this one to seal the match.
The tedium of listless matches in front of TVs during the 2020 lockdown is gone, hopefully for good. Footy is back in our hometown. There's really no other place we'd rather be. We don't need to look to the guidance of the scoreboard for 'make some noise' prompts. In fact I can't even hear the siren. I only know it's happened by the joyous racket that's all around me.
We can sing our song again, while the players wave and salute us. (Though he was several hundred metres away, I thought I sensed an electric connection between myself and Bont, an understated acknowledgement perhaps of my role in spurring on his match-winning performance. But the Other Libba Sister said she didn't see anything of the kind. She can be a bit of a wet blanket sometimes, I'm afraid).
The Dogs have won, with the right balance of grit, and panache, against a fearsome opponent. It's the sort of game we would have routinely lost over the last few years, blaming our still problematic goalkicking, selection mysteries from Bevo Our Saviour, and everyone's favourite villain Razor Ray, but most of all, a curious brittleness that has been evident in our team in the biggest of occasions.
We savour the moment. We dare to wonder what it means for our future. Resistant to any de-programming efforts, the Bulldog Tragician sees remnants of that 2016 spirit, and recalls the words of commentator Matthew Richardson when we were seemingly out for the count, three goals down in the preliminary final against the Giants: "I think the Dogs will come back. Because that's just what they do."
I remember Terry Wallace saying there is always a point when a team, a group, comes to a heavy realisation: they have given their all. They know they can go no further in their climb up the mountain. I've witnessed those sorrowful moments many times in my Bulldogs journey.
There's another critical moment too, I reckon - a moment when a team understands, and truly believes in, its own potential. When the flame ignites, and individuals become greater than the sum of their parts. Now it all makes sense now in the Tragician brain: the catchy refrain of the Billy Bragg song 'Waiting for the great leap forwards", which I kept humming pre-match, may seem to be just about politics, revolutions and activism. Others may say struggle to see its mystical connection to a Round Two clash between the Bulldogs and the Eagles. But to me, the meaning could not be clearer. We've been waiting since 2016 for Our Boys to show us they're ready to challenge; waiting for them to take us again, on the great leap forward.
Patchy. Inconsistent. Prone to go missing on the big occasions. It's true: it wasn't much of a year for the Bulldog Tragician Blog.
In fairness, it was a forgettable enough season...if it weren't for the umpteen ways that it was extraordinary. I don't think I was the only one, who watched our matches with a certain detachment. The losses were mere irritants; they rarely cut deep, as they do when you've been riding every kick, mark or fumble; neither do I have a vivid sense of any of the wins, which have slipped remarkably quickly from my memory bank. Is it fair that I vaguely recall them as workmanlike rather than enthralling?
Actually, the strongest emotion I felt all season was when Richmond won the grand final. The Tigers have grabbed three of the last four flags since our 2016 premiership - the one that was going to change everything.
The Tigers in fact have what we conspicuously failed to do. After their breakthrough flag in 2017, success has built relentlessly upon success. In contrast, we're at risk of a new chapter in the Bulldogs' long story of sliding door opportunities missed, roads less travelled; one entitled: 'How we blew the chance of a Bulldog Dynasty.'
Bleak enough thoughts, but they were easily discarded during the grey drudgery of the Melbourne lockdown. When footy burst back into my consciousness again, it was however in the most unwelcome of ways. First, what seemed ludicrous speculation; then the headlines; then the confirmation. Another of the sadly decreasing number of premiership heroes wanted out. Josh Dunkley announced he wished to break his contract and leave our club. It got worse - his preferred destination was with our traditional foe the Bombres.
It was disillusioning, it was heartbreaking. It was tasteless and tacky too.
Agh, Geelong. How you do annoy me. Let me count the ways.
Their home ground is so formidable, at one stage we had a 27-year losing streak against them.
They've feasted on us in finals; who among us isn't thankful that Sydney thrashed them in the 2016 preliminary final, and we didn't have to face the sight of those blue-and-white hoops, and endure Billy Brownless 'King of Geelong' flashbacks.
The Cats have always had the knack of dismantling our pretensions. In mid-2008 we headed to Geelong for an eagerly awaited 'top-of-the-table' showdown. The mood was maudlin on the train back to Footscray after a 10-goal drubbing, while Geelong fans around us artlessly discussed how many of their players had shockers, and expressed disappointment: they should have won by more.
'Taxpayer-funded stadium', as I call the Cats' home these days, does have at least one fond memory for me though. It was where a Geelong wit christened myself and my sister 'The Libba Sisters' because of our petite size; a nickname which has now endured and developed a life of its own.
This week Terry Wallace, a former Bulldogs player and coach (I believe he also spent some time at Hawthorn) announced his retirement from footy media. In an interview marking the occasion he said his biggest regret was '30 minutes of footy that he could never get back.'
There was no need for any Bulldogs' fan under the age of 25 to puzzle over which 30 minutes 'Plough' was referring to. It was of course the infamous Preliminary Final that Must Not Be Named. The Dogs led all day, before collapsing ignominiously in the last quarter. In my memory our players transformed into immobile dummies around which the Crows ran rampant; I was surprised to learn later that we did generate six scoring shots - all points - to go down by two points. Memory tends to get distorted by pain.
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.