“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, and that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”... J. B. Priestley, about the meaning of their local football team to the citizens of a grimy (mythical) Yorkshire town called Bruddesford (1929)
It's September and spring is in the air. With our team in the finals, the western suburbs should be a hotspot of excitement and chatter: who'll be selected, what are our chances. Instead they are a hotspot of COVID anxiety.
Our mood every day is defined by case numbers instead of our ruck conundrum. And yet we find time - for it means more to us that ever - to think about our team and what they might do.
Their finals journey, in these strangest of times, has been more like an arduous pilgrimage. They departed Melbourne to play in Tasmania, not knowing whether their stay would be long or (at the time it seemed only too likely) embarrassingly short. The dads in the group - Libba, JJ, Easton Wood - were leaving behind their partners and small children. In these lockdown days those partners are heroes in their own right, unable to call upon friends and families to come around and help them with fractious toddlers.
For Bevo and his All-Travelling Western Bulldogs, maybe pilgrimage isn't the right word; perhaps Our Boys are like rock stars constantly waking up in new destinations on a never-ending road trip. Yet when they arrive at each new city there's no chance for hell-raising or trashing their rooms. In Brisbane they isolated in their own single rooms, unable to even mix with each other apart from one walk per day, a disembodied PA announcement alerting them to the fact they could open their door to get a meal. All the while knowing that it's not impossible that further mis-steps in Australia's COVID battle might end not only their seasons but close down the 2021 season for good.
Back in Melbourne our new matchday routine doesn't require any effort or planning. No anxiety for us any more about procuring finals tickets, no mingling with fans as we head towards the ground, smiling at outlandish costumes or as the Tragician loves to do, eavesdropping on snippets of people's conversations; it's only about plonking in front of the TV. And yet there's a frisson of excitement, as difficult to repress as it is to keep Cody Weightman from whooping and hollering on the forward line, as we watch Our Boys run out together on a balmy Brisbane evening, a thousand kilometres away from us in our locked-down homes.
Against the Bombres the match never rose to great heights (I could be mean and say this was due to the quality of our opponents, but as you'd expect, I rise above such pettiness). But right from the start, this night, this final...the temperature has risen from the events in drizzly Launceston in more ways than one. The pace is frenetic, with us looking initially the more switched on. But then comes a flurry of sheer brilliance from Charlie Cameron, which may well have made Easton Wood, helplessly clutching to reach him in his road-runner-style wake, wish he was back home with those fractious toddlers.
There is absolutely everything that is great about footy in this final. There are swings in momentum, periods of dominance from each team, yet never a sense that the team dropping temporarily behind isn't still dangerously in touch. There are individual acts of courage and dare - including virtually every one of maestro 'Celeb' Daniel's audacious kicks, in which he alone sees impossible opportunities in time and space.
Players from both teams fly recklessly for marks, scramble and scrounge in packs, wrap their arms around other strong muscular opponents and bring them toppling down like trees.
And the two best men on the ground in the first half are wearing red white and blue; they keep rising above the fray, keep intersecting with the match at the most telling of moments.
The first is our captain, a man very occasionally mentioned in the Tragician blog. How can be be both so powerful and graceful, a man taller than many ruckmen! loping around with poise, taking a nonchalant bounce (and then another), his elegance and vision floating above the frantic hurly-burly. And yet, he is somehow equally at home in that hurly-burly, when he isn't, of course, helping out the backline as well; or bobbing up at the end of a chain of running possessions which he himself began.
The second is Jackson Macrae, who should be long past any trite associations with adjectives 'unobtrusive' and 'low-key'. He has ten possessions before most players have even had one. To the casual observer he looks laconic. But every Bulldog fan knows, and is thankful for, the burning ambition, the drive to succeed, the pride in his craft that lies behind our second great superstar Jackson Macrae.
There are hundreds of metres of turf at the Gabba, yet the battle dwindles and condenses as all great matches do: to centimetres painfully gained or painfully lost. Toe-pokes, deflections, random bounces, interspersed with sudden electrifying bursts out into the open. The Lions edge three goals in front in the third quarter, but the Tragician, who'd been so maudlin about the likelihood of a Bombres' win the week before, starts to see signs that this group have the same spirit of the 2016 finals series. They too, exude a confidence and passion, a refusal to lie down. Maybe they won't win. But there's no way they will be split open, no chance that they will let this slip without leaving everything on the line.
Just like the fabled GWS preliminary final, we rally at the end of the third quarter. The momentum of the match twists and turns; we regain the lead. In our lockdown homes our agitated and incoherent directions to the players are even less likely to influence the outcome than if we were actually there. But that fact has never stopped the pandemonium. The terror. The magnificent hope.
Only eight of the 2016 premiership players are now out there, but their experience tells at critical moments. And beside these Usual Suspects, an amazing game is being played by a 20-year-old with a hairstyle that can no longer be simply called a mullet. Bailey Smith's extravagant locks have led one commentator to say 'he looks like Fabio and sometimes kicks like him.' The journo was referring no doubt to his unreliable left foot that can sometimes make Bulldogs' fans wince in horror - yet that's the one that drills a massively important goal, confirming 'Bazlenka' - still a precocious 20-year-old, people! - as a big occasion player.
Scores are level; there are two agonising minutes still to be played. I've long since lost the power to breathe, but I somehow spot at a ball-up inside Brisbane's 50 metre arc, one Bulldogs' player who beneath his moustache appears to have an impish half-smile. He looks as though he is simultaneously right there in the intensity of the furnace, yet able to savour both the gravity and absurdity of the occasion: the enigmatic heartbeat of our team, Tom Liberatore.
In 2021 the Dogs have had two heartbreaking losses in these suffocating, tight matches. We're only too aware we failed to play those big moments well. So when the ball goes forward to an open Brisbane forward line with Charlie Cameron sprinting towards it, even the sight of Taylor Duryea hot on his heels can't stop a nightmare vision; we feel we know too well just how this script is likely to end. But 'Doc' plays it beautifully. He stops the electric speedster from grabbing and sprinting off with the ball towards goal; equally importantly, he doesn't concede a free kick, tempting as it must be to try just one tiny jumper tug, one little not-well-enough disguised paddle towards the boundary line.
We play all the moments right, with Vandermeer getting his boot to the ball and kicking the celebrated handy point; with little time to go, JJ almost physically propels Aaron Naughton towards the backline to shore up our flimsy advantage. We've learnt from those bitter losses. This one doesn't slip.
For a few moments after the siren sounds we're all too busy jumping around and screaming in our loungerooms to absorb an event that happened in the chaos. I'd half noticed Bont leaving the field with a sore knee, but with the match so excruciatingly balanced, the most I'd had time to think was how much we needed him right then to direct traffic, needed his telescopic 'G0-G0-Gadget' arms in the backline for one last punch. But now my mind turns to our injured captain, subdued and sore on the sidelines. The reality begins to hit. Can we really win next week without The Bont?
It's a question that will preoccupy us all week.
Meanwhile, Our Boys pack up, like a carnival leaving town. They jet off once more, 4000 kilometres away to Perth. That's where they'll rest their aching legs, their exhausted bodies. And then they leave once again, to play in Adelaide, where our well-rested opponents will have slept in their own beds and strolled around unimpeded in their city. (Ungraciously the Tragician hopes at least some will have been at the mercy of some fractious toddlers.)
Meanwhile back in lockdown Melbourne, there's no need to worry about finals tickets. No bustle of cars and comings and goings at the silent Whitten Oval, no throngs of people rushing to see a glimpse of our heroes at training. The Libba Sisters won't be joining a convoy of Western Bulldogs' fans travelling down the highway with red, white and blue scarves proudly trailing out their windows. Living just eight kilometres apart, we won't even be able to sit together, as we did for all those miserable preliminary finals - and that bright and shining one which brought us all such joy.
We won't be there, but through Our Boys' grit, belief, and resilience, we get to escape some of the lockdown drudgery. We have the possibility, at least, as old mate J. B. Priestley said nearly 100 years ago about the trance-like state of the football fan, of entering: 'another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art.'
The 2021 season - every season really - is a mosaic of tiny little fragments. One point - one point! - over the entire season, with all its kicks, goals, points, injuries, separated us from Brisbane, and pushed us out of the top four. A kick after the siren at Geelong; a shot at goal from Bailey Smith, in our match against Port, which just failed to evade the outstretched fingers of the pack on the line; seconds in which Josh Bruce's knee wrenched the wrong way. All these shaped our destiny. And now, again, one desperate lunge from Laitham Vandermeer, one point - one point! has kept our season alive, and ended that of our opponents. We still have another story to be written in what Bevo so poetically and aptly called this often cruel and sometimes beautiful game.
The date was July 24. It was a top-of-the-table clash, at the G. But Victoria was stuck in lockdown 5.0. No fans were there, to revel in the excitement, to urge our two teams on.
Unlike our encounter with the Dees earlier in the season, also played with no crowd, Our Boys were switched on, playing with verve, and most importantly NOT kicking it all the time to Steven May and the other bloke with a bad moustache who looks like Stan from On the Buses. And sometime in the third quarter a young fella with a mop of yellow hair leapt over a pack, his feet grazing Max Gawn's bald skull, and somehow took an exquisite mark.
We didn't know - you never do know - that it was in more than one way a high point of the season. The Dogs were now in top spot, having survived a bad run with injury. A hot contender for the flag. A team with the right balance of youth and experience. A potent forward line, a miserly defence which also had superb runners, and a midfield brimming with talent (which would soon be bolstered by two more A-class runners and competitors returning). And our next three games were against competition 'easy-beats' (not that the battle-scarred Tragician ever really sees it that way), by which point our place in the top four, quite likely top two, would be comfortably secured.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I used to be convinced that the Bulldogs' storylines of heartbreak and failure were somehow scripted by the gloomy Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. He always contrived a far-fetched and miserable outcome for his heroes and heroines (the Bob Murphy injury in 2016 was some of his finest, most inventive work). As our season began to implode it appeared that Ole Tom, far from being permanently vanquished, had been quietly regrouping since failing to control the 2016 narrative. He'd effectively used the intervening years to plot a cunning new set of improbable events planned for the boys in red white and blue.
The first was when, after seven years of dominance over the Bombres, we registered a loss, and even worse, with seconds to go (that's when I first sensed the resurgence of Ole Tom) Josh Bruce suffered an ACL.
The second was when, flat, tired, and all of a sudden hopelessly out of form, we lost, badly, to Hawthorn, with even our impregnable percentage advantage being .... whatever the opposite of impregnable is.
We now needed to beat Port to hold onto the top four spot we'd held down for pretty much the entire season.
In other words all the ingredients were there for a catastrophic cluster of Tragician-style calamities. (Excuse the overwrought purple prose - I'm obviously as out of touch with blogging as our team had become in winning clearances, contested possessions, and games of footy).
Against Port our top four position vanished in the heart-stopping milliseconds in which it took Bailey Smith's shot in the dying moments to : a) fail to clear the 900 men stationed in the goal square; and b) evade the usually sticky hands of Aaron Naughton.
The next day we watched with apprehension as Brisbane attempted to defeat West Coast by just enough to snatch our spot in the four. We could almost have laughed (but our sense of humour had long since deserted us) that a time-clock malfunction, and dodgy umpiring calls, conspired against us). We tumbled out of the top four at the worst possible moment.
Ole Tom was hard at work with some laborious coincidences to ratchet up the drama. Our opponents would be our historic arch enemy from days when Footscray and Yarraville were far from cool; those sneering and smug citizens from across the river. Yes, the unlovable Bombres: far from their premierships-winning heyday, many years into a finals-win drought (that a panic-stricken Tragician knew they surely had to break sometime).
There was a collective shudder among the Bulldogs faithful as we imagined all too vividly the wretched possibilities.
Most of these involved Jake The Former Lair Stringer (supposedly re-invented and allegedly not even pudgy any more) pulling out a dazzling array of tricks, kicking goals over his head, taking screamers, or kicking a booming torpedo from outside 50 with an after-the-siren kick to win the game. The other scenarios featured someone called Two-Meter Peter, who three weeks ago had triumphantly entered the distinguished Hall of Fame of Not Very Good Players Who Somehow Kicked A Bag of Goals Against the Bulldogs. (It's a more crowded Hall of Fame than it should be).
We were banished to cold wet Launceston. It was a sudden-death final; after all the bravery and hard work of 2021, we could be unceremoniously dumped out the finals in the most ignominious of fashions. Maybe the Karma Gods were ready to punish the Tragician for all those times she'd childishly pressed 'like' on her favourite twitter account: Days Since Essendon Won a Final.
There was none of the fun of a finals buildup. Fear of losing was all-consuming, much more overwhelming than the hope of winning, while the prospect of Our Boys in another grand final, which had seemed so real way back on July 24, had long since become a mirage.
Our start wasn't auspicious. To the raptures of the commentators Jake The Former Lair produced the first goal of the match. The Dogs still seemed to have that mysterious malaise, a lethargy, a flatness mirrored by those of us watching helplessly at home. It seemed a chore, to manufacture each goal, to run to contests, as the drizzly rain settled in for the afternoon.
Though we were a few points ahead at half time, the Libba Sisters weren't chirpy in a half-time FaceTime catch-up. 'I just feel sad,' said a subdued Libba Two. 'We won't do damage, even if we win,' said a melancholy Libba One, 'but I just want us to win.' We agreed that Umpire 22 had 'always had it in' for the Dogs, but even this attempt to manufacture some 'us against the world' animosity failed to ignite.
The third quarter began. That young man with the blonde hair had been 'managed' in our previous match against the Bombres, which in retrospect was a huge mistake. Cody, and Umpire 22, were now suddenly everywhere. Totally justified free kicks rained upon us. All of them were completely deserved. (In the interests of impartiality for which this blog is rightly acclaimed, I checked this out with Libba Two, and then a further opinion was sourced from my mother). It was hardly Cody's fault if he kept getting in good positions and the Bombres didn't know how to tackle properly!
Our mid-field, who'd been so listless over the past few weeks, were getting on top. And in a sign that always augurs well for our team, Chief Antagonist Libba The Second (how I would LOVE to hear what he murmurs into his opponents' ears) was in the thick of things. (I also firmly believe that the Sons of Guns share my - our- antipathy into all things red and black, and Libba The Second was undoubtedly channeling the herculean efforts of his father whose crunching tackles played such a crucial role in the epic encounter where we spoilt Essendon's chance to go through a season undefeated).
With each moment Our Boys looked stronger, with each goal that mysterious lack of energy returned. The Bombres faded, out of ideas.
In line with our imaginings, Jake The Former Lair had the ball when the siren sounded, but his attempted torpedo shot at goal only registered a point. The most it could have achieved, anyway, was to save the Dons from a humiliating milestone. Because it was the first time since the 1950s that a team had failed to score in the second half of a final, the kind of dismal stat that our Bulldogs used to have a stranglehold on.
(It gladdened my heart that the more low-key of the pair of 2012 Bulldogs draftees, Jack Macrae, was best on the ground while his more talked-about former team-mate did very little when the match was on the line.)
I was relieved, euphoric, and newly hopeful that we could go further into the finals series, as I hastened over to twitter to press 'like' on the newly updated Days Since Essendon Won A Final account tally.
I couldn't help smiling as I thought about our effervescent' Cody-19'. He is the sort of player that would annoy me to distraction if he played for anyone else, a real 'Dennis the Menace'. When he was little one of my sons used to call people who annoyed him 'pesky penguins.' Cody is a pesky penguin beloved by his own fans, while loathed by pretty much everyone else.
His exuberance, his sheer love of playing footy (have you ever seen him BOUNCE down the race whooping and hollering) is something we so sorely need to have in our lives, as grim lockdowns drag on, and a COVID -constrained finals series means we won't be there in in person to see whatever unfolds. (And now, inevitably, he is subjected to sickening online abuse, a 20-year-old being viciously attacked by trolls with hate in their hearts).
As fans, we have seen so little of this bundle of dynamic energy in real time. We could only watch him on television in his debut match in 2020, when he threaded the most audacious of bananas to join the ranks of those who kicked a goal with their first kick. Unlike the careers of other new players in our colours, we haven't been able to follow his every step, form opinions on his strengths, indignantly gloss over his weaknesses.
While we leapt from our couches and jumped in the air with excitement at his screamer over Gawn, our cheers fell into a void. There was no Libba Sister beside me to high-five. The Tragician family and friends weren't part of the gasps of excitement, sensing a second or two before his launch, that 'Cody-19' was going for the big fly. We couldn't relive it together on the big screen, settle back into our seats chuckling at the bravado of this young guy, whose enthusiasm and smile make Brad Johnson look like a grouchy old curmudgeon.
In fact, we've only seen him 'live' twice, since he debuted. In times which already seem impossibly far away. That brief window of time in the first half of 2021, when coronavirus restrictions were on hold, and we got to cheer for our team in person. Now we follow Cody and his team-mates from a literal and figurative distance. Their efforts are filtered through the annoying and constricted television lens, as they zig-zag around the continent just one step ahead of the virus, to win games of footy and make us proud, wearing masks as they sing our song.
Believe it or not, I've actually seen us win at Kardinia Park (or whatever they call it these days: my preference is TFS for Taxpayer-Funded Stadium).
It was 2003. The surprising thing about pulling off this rare feat was that it was in a year we added to our stellar collection of wooden spoons. In fact we only won three games for the year; astonishingly enough this included defeating the Cats twice.
Geelong's team that day contained many of the players who'd form the nucleus of the great era which was yet to dawn. Our team included luminaries such as Daniel Bandy and Patrick Bowden, a few ageing remnants from our tilts in the '90s, and some newish players who would go on to find Geelong an insurmountable hurdle in the years 2008-2010.
There was also an unheralded rookie called Matthew Boyd, wearing number 42 and playing his fifth game.
Still, as someone famous once said, we've all passed a lot of water since those days.
I used to have a grudging admiration for the achievements of the Geelong dynasty later that decade. Now I've allowed myself to wallow in just the grudging.
About that benighted ground, where we can just about pencil in the loss of four points each year, yet where, in an unfairly lopsided fixture, Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton and Richmond never have to play.
About my well-known antipathy towards anything Scott-brother-related; now that Petulant Brad has departed, all my angst can be directed squarely at Morose Chris, who's added a George Hamilton-style tan to reasons to dislike him.
About how they're always able to attract and top up with blue-chip talent - with one new addition being among my (admittedly bulging) all time list of Most Detestable: 'Jezza' Cameron, no less.
About the air of entitlement that hangs over their players, who are genuinely astonished if ever a free is paid against them.
About why they can't just bottom out, rebuild and stop annoying me so much.
As a counterpoint, however, I remind myself the Bulldogs have won a premiership more recently than the Cats.
That's all I've got.
In contrast to the 2003 clash which had little riding on it, in this 2021 match there is much at stake. The Cats are scratching at our top two spot on the ladder. We need a win for our credibility as a top four aspirant, having failed tests against Richmond and Melbourne.
It must be time, at last, to rid ourselves of the TFS monkey.
Fortunately, even if I wanted to, I was unable to purchase an exorbitantly priced seat at the stadium. It saved me from being condemned to watch most of the match on the scoreboard anyway given the weird shape of the ground. COVID restrictions mean 7000 of their supporters are allowed at the match, and only 200 of ours - I guess it preserves the usual ratio between the two clubs' attendance even without a pandemic.
The Libba Sisters are far from sorry that instead of huddling in the cold surrounded by Feral Cats, we'll be watching the clash on the couch. Settling into our accustomed positions, we don't really talk about what we expect, or hope for, on this wintry Friday night. At this ground, against this opponent, anything, sadly, is possible.
In the first quarter, though, we begin giving each other those silent nods of acknowledgement. Our Boys are 'on.'
Their execution isn't always matching the intent. Blessed with the Docklands stadium roof, we play less outdoor footy than most, which means we don't handle the wet and slippery conditions cleanly. But there is no doubt of their endeavour, no sign of that curious flatness which marred our game against the Dees.
By the third quarter, our hopes have gone beyond just a 'let's not capitulate' low bottom line. Our engine room purrs into life. Jackson Macrae, Tom Liberatore and The Bont rip the ball from the centre time and again. Our efforts are often kamikaze, our delivery to the forward line haphazard, but our intensity, our will, can't be faulted. And there are enough moments of brilliance - Josh Bruce's superb 50 metre goal on the run from the boundary, the Bont's brilliant snap - for us to be in the match up to our eyeballs. We've lost our wonderful forward, the Astro-Naut, but maybe in these conditions, it's not as big a loss as it might normally be, much though I mourn the loss of his exhilarating leaps in his retro long-sleeved guernsey
The Cats, however, are always in touch. Of course they are. Their goals somehow seem easier, more methodical, more calmly crafted and less energy-sapping than ours.
But early in the last quarter I murmur the words: 'I think we can do this.' Libba Sister Two nods in silent agreement. We miss some sitters, but our efforts, our desperation, our focus, are magnificent. They will - surely - be rewarded.
Maybe they would have been rewarded, if it was any other team, any other venue.
Toby McLean puts us in front. The Tragician had earlier been proclaiming his inclusion as a mistake. But as we jump to our feet, I swiftly change my tune; I always knew it would be another selection masterstroke from Bevo Our Saviour!
But... there are three minutes to go. Will we bottle up the play, clog the backline with every Bulldogs player? or will we keep pushing forward, trying to manufacture another goal, strike a final killer blow against these seasoned pros... who've been in this position, and escaped, so many times before?
We have no way of knowing which option to take. Instead, as fans, we enter what I call the fever dream. Only footy fans can understand it: a fugue state, those last few minutes of a match when you're in front and trying to hold on. Reality is both heightened and blurry. Time slows down and accelerates, warps, has no meaning. Mesmerised, hypnotised, barely able to breathe: the actions of those out there on the field are momentarily the very most important on the planet.
In the fever dream, we become inarticulate, unable to even barrack coherently. There's just snatches of agitated, racing thoughts, made worse by having no full perspective of the ground or the match context: 'Not there..oh...don't kick it...good boy...what...they can't ... they can't, can they??'
And somehow time for anticipatory grief, for all that's at stake.
Gary Rohan has the ball in his hands. He will kick for goal after the siren. In so many homes across Melbourne's west like ours, the last quarter din has fallen silent.
I try and imagine him duffing the kick and it slewing out of bounds on the full. I know it won't happen.
It doesn't happen.
The Libba Sisters scramble for the remote, but not in time to avoid the nauseating celebrations of the Solarium-faced One, not so morose now, rubbing further salt into the wounds of every Bulldogs fan.
We slowly, painfully, emerge from the fever dream.
There are the 'if onlies', of course. Surely a fit Astro-Naut would have clunked a crazy-brave mark in those last dying minutes as we struggled to fend off the insurgents. Our injured players, especially the Bromance Buddies, would have been so vital with their extra run in that last quarter. There were those costly misses; the fact that the Cats still had so much space in their forward line with seconds to go; the decisions players made under white-hot pressure. I can't criticise any one of them, for I can see how much our team tried, how much this loss - an after the siren kick is the absolutely worst way to lose - will sting.
And there's the sinking knowledge of what lies ahead; a trip to Perth, with another hungry, fresh challenger hoping to bring us down. A week in strict quarantine will strain Our Boys' physical and mental wellbeing. And now, 'Big Boys Month', as Damien Hardwick calls the gruelling month of July, is now just around the corner
I leave Libba Sister Two and drive home. There is roadwork everywhere, and I twice become lost. I swerve to avoid a fox, running stealthily across the grim shadows beneath the Westgate Bridge. In the semi-deserted streets, I pass knots of Bulldogs' fans clustered outside pubs, still dissecting the loss, emerging from their own fever dreams to lament the 'if-onlies'.
Finally at home, I try to understand what went wrong and what it will mean for our 2021 campaign. I see the footage of Joel Selwood, clawing at the face of Dailey Bailey (an 'ear massage' chortle the commentators, who love to maintain the myth of his courage) and in a separate incident, drawing blood as he steps back "accidentally" onto the calf of Taylor Duryea ('and he pokes him in the eye and then stands on his foot,' they titter) acts for which he will only be fined. There's one pithy statement on Twitter that captures my anger, defiance and heartbreak for our club. 'We'll kill these pricks in September.'
We’re off to a flyer in the 2016 elimination final against the West Coast Eagles. Stunning the footy world and even ourselves, we are 22 points up. Despite being rank underdogs, our team are playing with that Men of Mayhem manic style. One of our best is 23-year-old Lin Jong, who has cemented his spot and played the last nine games of the season. But Lin gets buried in a heavy tackle. Our medical staff rush to his side.
Amid the euphoria of our unexpected and gallant performance, and sudden realisation that our finals campaign remains alive, we still have time for sorrow. Lin is in tears on the bench; his collarbone had cracked beneath the weight of Jeremy McGovern.
He will have surgery, and remarkably, recover enough to play in Footscray’s premiership, adopting the famed Charlie Sutton ploy of taping the wrong collarbone so it won’t be targeted by his opponents. Lin is one of our best. The Libba Sisters listen to the match as we drive back from Sydney, the day after our preliminary final victory.
The senior team had kept on winning, competition for spots is fierce, and Lin’s spot in the team has vanished. He will be an onlooker when his close mates run out on the ‘G; dressed in his suit and tie, not his number 46 guernsey; on the sidelines, as our team finally make history.
I was once asked which of the Bulldogs' players I'd most like to meet in person. Perhaps surprisingly for one who spends far too much time observing and worrying about them, I have little desire to do so. I fear it would throw an awkward light on the chasm between our very different perspectives on the game. Me the fan behind a fence, dependent on their decisions and mindset every week to secure my happiness, yet still removed from their struggles. The players with their own emotions, injury niggles, family worries: every mistake exposed out on the ground, every decision scrutinised and criticised by people just like me.
I fear I would be disappointed if our conversation was bland and cliched. I prefer, I suppose, to be able to project stories onto them, stories that are, if you get right down to it, more about me than them.
I've never met Lin Jong. He could be an exception though, someone with a tale I'd love to know more about. There’s his fascinating back story, the child of immigrants who arrived penniless, the Asian kid who’d never played competitive footy until he was 15. He's the first player of Timorese descent, receiving a phone call of congratulations from Xanana Gusmao when he was drafted as a rookie. There’s his loving and close family, including his mother, who’s become a social media hit for an intrepid dive off a pool and her quaint text messages to her amused son. (His mother, he says, has become such an enthusiastic convert, she goes to matches even if he's not playing).
There’s Lin himself. The 2016 injury, it turned out, wasn’t just a one-off unfortunate event. He’s missed 37 games since then; the word ‘luckless’ has become a permanent adjective attached to his name. It’s not even just one particular body part repeatedly letting him down: while he’s had another collarbone injury, he’s also suffered an ACL tear, a broken jaw, a ruptured appendix and an ankle injury that meant he only played three matches in 2020. He didn't even make it through the first quarter of his first match in almost a year on Friday night, before his hamstring gave way.
Again, cameras panned in on the poignant sight of him in tears on the bench.
Again, as he limped slowly, on crutches, into the team circle to join the song, we wondered just how much wretched luck one person could bear.
He’s approached it all with grace and wry humour. Lin is the first one to poke fun at his terrible run with injury and his fragile body. Though his resilience must be stretched to breaking point, he’s given no indication that he will give away this game which can be so cruel. After this latest setback, he posted: "Been through this before, can get through this again. Death, taxes, me injured... I have to go now, my planet needs me."
He’s taken time off in the past to deal with his mental health, and more importantly to speak honestly about what it means in a footballing context. He says he was reluctant to take the time out he needed: ‘“I put it off. I saw it as a selfish thing to do, given the team-first setting and culture I was in.”
He added: “It’s hard to hear from someone that you have depression, but the way I look at it is, it’s now a part of my identity. I’m male, I’m a footballer, I’m Asian, I am right footed, I have depression. None are more unusual than the other for me now. When I realised I didn’t have to hide away from that, and I didn’t have to be ashamed about what people would think, it all got a hell of a lot easier."
I’ve never met Lin’s close mate at the club, Jackson Macrae, either. He was close by on Friday night when, in the most innocuous of circumstances, Lin's hamstring gave way.
I came across a photo recently, of the two of them seated together in the Grand Final parade, one of them about to play (and be close to best on the ground) in a premiership; the other not knowing if he would ever get that opportunity again.
The words 'unassuming' and 'under-rated' are Jackson's adjectives just as 'luckless' is Lin's . He's been exceptionally durable: though he suffered a hamstring tear which kept him out of the last four matches of the 2016 season, it held up under finals pressure. I wonder if, seeing the bad luck of his mate, he'd played - surely all players do - with that gnawing fear, of how close injury always is, of how easily Lin's fate could have been his.
As I watch Jackson Macrae's outstanding 2021 season with ever-increasing awe, I'd also love to hear him talk about what drives him now, to get better and better – to have added to his repertoire the perfectly weighted kicks into the forward line that further complement his relentless work ethic and running. In unguarded moments, does he ever chafe at the lack of recognition from outside the club, somehow always mentioned second to The Bont, and even now overtaken to some degree by flashier new models like Adam Treloar?
I’ve never met Aaron Naughton either, but somehow I don’t think I need to meet him to understand everything about him. Unless I’m very much mistaken, footy is simple for the guy who loves to fly. I’m not sure Aaron would ever be weighed down by the expectations of fans; even after he misses those shots at goal, he doesn't seem to berate himself or have time to be more than mildly annoyed before he sees some pack forming 100 metres away, and thinks it might be fun to fly over the top of the whole lot of them and catch the ball.
I’ve never met Toby Greene either.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
I’d prefer to think about the good guys of footy, and one of them is, surely, Lin Jong. I remember, with some embarrassment, my own annoyance when he shanked his shot at goal in the first quarter. How trivial my petty irritation seems now when minutes later he fell to the ground clutching his hammy, compared to the enormous price he's continued to pay to be out there, while as an armchair critic I experience no hardship whatsoever.
My mind drifts into wondering how he really felt during the ‘TV moment’ when his team-mates insisted on bringing him into the circle to sing the song. Did he feel surrounded by warmth and care, or was his brave smile just for the cameras? I can’t fathom how he felt as he faced the later news of just how bad the injury is: he will undergo surgery and miss 12 weeks. He would have no illusions about the loneliness, self-doubt and sheer boredom of rehab that lies ahead. The love and care of his teammates as they wrapped their arms around him to sing the song, and the support of his devoted family, are the things that will sustain him, far more than the impotent but heartfelt sorrow of a Bulldog Tragician.
We’re off to a flyer in the 2016 elimination final against the West Coast Eagles. Stunning the footy world and even ourselves, we are 22 points up. Despite being rank underdogs, our team are playing with that Men of Mayhem manic style. One of our best is 23-year-old Lin Jong, who has cemented his spot and played the last nine games of the season. But Lin gets buried in a heavy tackle. Medical staff rush to his side.
Lin rises to his feet gingerly. After a quick check, Dr Gary Zimmerman gives the bench a quick thumbs-up. Fortunately, Lin Jong has escaped with just a bruised shoulder. Though a little hampered, he plays the match out.
Three weeks later Lin runs onto the MCG . He absorbs the huge wall of noise, the roar of the crowd, all of us with our desperate, desperate hopes for what he and his team-mates can do for us. In the crowd, his ecstatic parents are bursting with pride. When the match gets underway, their son is in the thick of everything, playing his part in our stirring win.
Lin jogs around the boundary holding the cup, side-by-side with Jackson Macrae. Our premiership captain Easton Wood lies on the turf like a snow angel, and the red, white and blue confetti falls all around.
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.
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.