I approached our match against the Blues with a familiar melancholy. The Dogs, 15th on the ladder, were playing for not much at all, against a team on the very bottom of the ladder, one that has recently been pretty much a rabble.
I've been here so very, very, very, many times before.
It wasn't enticing. I surely, surely, had better things to do.
It wasn't even because I dreaded the prospect that we could lose to the Blues as we memorably did a few short weeks ago. 'Dreaded' was too strong a word, implying anxiety, fear, investment, hope. I would have dreaded it, if we were a top side, playing for a finals spot, and losing to a bottom team would have been a major, genuine embarrassment.
No, as has happened rather frequently in my barracking career, I approached the probable loss with stoicism rather than terror. Because the Dogs, I've been realising, probably much more belatedly than I should have, are in the Footy Twilight Zone.
Our spot in the bottom reaches of the ladder is no longer completely mystifying, or an aberration, or constantly being defined against our premiership heroics. It's just where, presently, in mid-season 2019, we belong.
We are not especially woeful... I've got too much valuable perspective over the years about what 'woeful' looks like, and this isn't close.
Our team is just at present one of those shapeless hybrids, from which I can't yet get a read. Veterans nearing the end, but kids at varying stages - including the ominous 'I'm not that sure any more he's going to make it' stage. Some are languishing at Footscray; they have too much talent to stay there forever. Some have been promoted, but the reasons they languished are painfully obvious. Some have been promoted, and we don't have the foggiest idea why. There are our enigmatic - and dwindling - band of premiership heroes, from whom a ferocious drive to be the best again is not always apparent. That sense of a coherent story, of where our club is headed - whether to deeper pain and the dreaded 'bottoming out', or with just a smidgin of luck back into contention, soon-ish - is yet to emerge.
And so I'd watched our matches against the Cats, and then the Eagles, with a growing sense of apathy. We never REALLY looked like winning, and to that I was becoming sadly resigned.
I guess I'm well and truly in a mid-season slump.
It was when I switched off the TV before the end, as the Dogs were predictably overrun by the Eagles, and the memory of our most gallant and stirring finals victory over there receded that bit further into the distance, that I put a name to my condition. I was out of love with football, and out of love, right now and in these moments, with my club.
I didn't care very much, any more, as we racked up the losses. I was stoical, not incensed, as the Cats slammed on goals in their ritual, annual pounding of our team. I shrugged my shoulders, as Eagles' forwards monstered us, and our competitive start came to naught.
I couldn't join the lynch mob baying for blood. It was easier to just shut out the questions. But it also meant shutting off my emotions, so I didn't have to dig too deep to wonder what's going wrong.
I was sombre, but no longer distressed or surprised, as I read comments from our premiership ruckman Jordan Roughead (now quite handily holding down a defensive role at the second-on-the-ladder Magpies) about his last, unenjoyable season with us. He said that he wouldn't have continued to play this season if he couldn't transfer away from the Dogs, such was his disaffection. About the club he'd supported all his life. The club where he'd been part of a fairytale flag.
I listened, but with a certain indifference, to the clamour about what 'appropriate' barracking is all about, or ridiculous debates about whether it is okay for two Indigenous guys to share a laugh on the footy field.
I was trying not to think any more what the disturbing questions raised by theTom Boyd departure, even as news broke that the terribly luckless Lin Jong is taking time out to deal with his own mental health struggle.
I knew, because I am a grizzled veteran of the Royce Hart era, the Peter Rhode era, and all the miserable tail-ends of 'nearly there' eras, that there is only one tried and true cure for my condition.
Somehow, you keep going, dragging out the scarf and hauling yourself out to days and nights like these. Like the marathon runner who no longer remembers why she or he is competing, you put one foot in front of the other. You know, rather than feel, that this too will pass. You simply have to ride it out, until a spark of joy ignites, and the romance of footy returns.
With this quintessentially Tragician-like mindset I was disconcerted by our reasonably productive first half against the Ole Dark Bourgeois Blues. So deeply had I barricaded myself into my grim survival mode fortress that I was puzzled when we - how often does this happen these days? - got the first goal, and the one after that.
I got a little perky, my head raised from its protective slump, when Tim The Pom English, kept tapping the ball into the grateful arms of The Bont, who looked like he'd ingested some 'Patrick Cripps Who?' angry pills.
Goals were being scored without the usual 2019 laborious effort. Libba was protecting the Bont at stoppages and yapping at the Blues' heels like a Chihuahua, bringing on one of footy's guilty pleasures, the defiant satisfaction of having an unsociable player that you would loathe if he played for your opponents. Patrick 'Monica' Lipinski was having a wonderful match. Josh Dunkley hacked a goal out of a ruck contest and just kept getting the ball. JJ went for some runs. Yes, the Dogs were doing it all pretty comfortably. I wasn't leaping out of my seat, but I was pleased enough. Maybe this 'just-get-on-with-it-and-turn-up' approach of mine was paying dividends, as well as increasing my sense of virtuous superiority over less committed supporters, when the Dogs - and this too I know - come back into contention again.
There had to be a twist of the knife, of course. We had to play a lacklustre third quarter, so that the Ole Dark Navy Blue-baggers could stage a revival. But we staunched the bleeding. It was wise not to think too hard and too long about whether that was really because the Blues are not very good, rather than that our team were all that imposing.
In the first half of the last quarter, having survived the near-death experience, the young guns contributed to our comeback. A beautiful goal slotted by a nerveless Bailey Smith. A brave mark by The Pom. Hard running from Lipinksi. There were steadying efforts by the old hands.
With the match apparently lost, the Blues' supporters filed from the stadium, with the resigned and humble look that only years of failure help you to cultivate. (Ask the Tragician for tips).
I was relieved rather than euphoric. None of us would be rushing home to watch every sparkling moment, or even to re-live the howlers, but we'd built a six-goal lead with 10 minutes to go. Against one of the competition's worst ever performed teams, this lead was, surely, insurmountable.
That lead proceeded to be surmounted. (If that's not a word it should be).
I wasn't sure whether I was numb, or in pain, as the Blues stormed forward again and again, while we made dumb errors, again and again.
Maybe I wasn't really numb, because I whispered to Libba Sister Two that I had NEVER had a worse feeling at a footy game.
Objectively, given the reality of what I have experienced in my barracking life, this was a completely ridiculous statement.
But it felt true, in those agonising moments when the Dogs conspired to do everything possible to lose the game. It really felt true.
And even though I'd gone to the game in full expectation that we could lose... there is losing. And there is losing... like that.
I felt like I was glimpsing the final, emphatic, definitive exclamation point, that the era that began with the joyous, romping, fear-nothing Men of Mayhem in 2015 was over.
Didn't Our Boys have the hunger, still? Had they forgotten how to win? Would they feel the squandering of a five-goal lead against the bottom-of-the-ladder Blues, in the same way as us...the same humiliation and despair that we would irrationally and unreasonably feel if we lost - the flip side to the irrational and unreasonable pride we feel when they win?
Josh Dunkley won a free. I guess the stadium was... holding its breath. The siren finally, mercifully, sounded.
We'd been spared the bitterness of defeat. But it didn't feel like the sweetness of victory.
Somehow, even though we'd won, even though our song rang out, I wanted very much to cry. Because, whether we'd somehow, as we did, ended up with our noses in front, or as we so very nearly did, tasted ignominious defeat, that exclamation point was still there in my vision. I couldn't un-see it any more.
The Bulldogs faithful left the stadium. There was no hubris towards the relatively few Blues' fans who'd stayed to watch their improbable and yet oh so probable comeback. Nobody was prepared to gloat about our victory over our former arch-enemy. There weren't even those little chuckles as we exchanged glances with our fellow Bulldogs' supporters, the relieved 'we dodged a bullet there!' smiles.
The next day, perspective will return; we can see what we did right for so much of the night, be more realistic and logical about the impact on the match of the loss of Libba, remind ourselves that our team that night was younger than Carlton's. The resilient among us will say about our present 2019 predicament (and it will be true): This too will pass.
But right now, as we filed out of the arena in near-silence, it felt like one of footy's most singular experiences, the Win That Feels Like A Loss.
I'm walking my little dogs, after the club announced Tom Boyd's retirement. The autumn air is crisp; there's a blazing sunset but I barely notice it. Running alongside my tangled thoughts, a couple of lines from a Beatles song are, annoyingly, stuck in my head.
I heard the news today, oh boy,
About a lucky man who made the grade...
The news of Tom's retirement has hit me like a truck. There's a sadness and sense of loss that could be disproportionate about someone I've never even met.
It's got almost nothing to do with his on-field contributions or what he could have done for us on the football field. Something much more important is preoccupying me. His retirement crystallises all the things that are the other side of my love affair with footy. Players on pedestals, made to fit our preconceived ideas of their golden lives as they pose at the Portsea Polo. Snide media, hoping, barracking, for failure. Over-the-top adulation of young players, so quickly descending into spite and vitriol.
And I'm look backing through the time tunnel, to the end of 2014, when first Tom Boyd's name was linked to ours. Ryan Griffen had defected; days later we were also without a coach. Our club was further away from a premiership than ever before. We were incandescent with rage at Ryan Griffen. We scoffed when he said he had lost the enjoyment of footy. We weren't going to buy that feeble excuse, undoubtedly just code for: 'The Giants have offered me a crap-load of money and I want to play for a club that will soon win a premiership.'
We wanted our club to strike back, strike back hard. In our abject state, just hearing that Tom Boyd, who'd been picked as the nation's best young player, was considering our club as a destination, was a fillip. When he actually said he would come - to US, the battling Bulldogs - there was a tinge of hysteria in our joy. Cop that, footy world and naysayers!
The footy world mocked the amount we'd paid for a guy who, despite his lofty draft status, was still unproven, calling him the Million Dollar Man, but we were defiant. We'd dreamt big, for once. Was that really so wrong?
About Tom Boyd, the 19-year-old person, we knew little. He was a pawn, successfully used to checkmate the mess in which our club was floundering. If we worried about the impact of the fevered media attention on a teenager, our fears were quickly allayed, or rather we wanted them to be. Tom Boyd was well-spoken, thoughtful, mature, intelligent. Maybe if he'd been one of those spindly, frail-looking 19-year-olds, we'd have been more worried, but he looked so solid, so robust; we brushed the concerns aside. Maybe, just maybe, we were too desperate for that flag to think about it too deeply.
And, after all, the gamble worked, didn't it?. A whole chain of events flowed from the Tom Boyd trade. A new coach, a reset of that dream which was closer than we knew, and the man himself turning on a breathtakingly wonderful Grand Final performance. He was the Norm Smith medallist in most of our minds. His was the goal that brought on the famous description: 'the stadium holds its breath.' As it went through, Tom reached skywards in triumph. Triumph, and maybe release from the weight of the terrible expectations placed on his shoulders; he said afterwards that he wasn't even aware of Toby McLean jumping on his back.
The dramatic, famous last chord from 'A day in the life' could have rung out right then, reverberating around the stadium. Our sorry history overturned, the wicked spell cast on our club broken at last. Vindication for the Tom Boyd story!
Things are never as they appear though, are they?
In the months and years after 2014, I'd already begun reflecting differently on Ryan Griffen, who said he'd lost the love of the game. Now, I began to remember him looking stooped and burdened by the captaincy, no longer bouncing the ball and running down the wing, struggling with form, a heaviness in his demeanour. He didn't get that premiership with the Giants; Tom Boyd, to all intents and purposes, was the 'winner' of that controversial and fateful player exchange. There were so many meanings that could be constructed around the ways their careers intersected, including the fact that it was the Dogs, not the Giants, who got to the grand final first. There's an irony in the fact, though, that Tom Boyd, who did achieve the ultimate reward, has reached a similar turning point to Ryan Griffen and lost the joy of the game.
In 2017 we were initially bewildered, a little puzzled, then fiercely protective, when Tom announced he would stand aside from footy due to mental health concerns. When he was further down the path of recovery, he spoke, in a podcast with Bob Murphy, about how easily everything had come to him earlier in life, leaving him ill-equipped to deal with times of adversity. Tom became an ambassador for the mental health organisation for young people, Headspace; he spoke with beautiful eloquence of times that were dark, said that the apparent fairytale premiership performance had only papered over the cracks in his well-being. He talked of not sleeping for weeks, panic attacks, an inability to concentrate. I felt proud, as a mother of sons myself, that this sensitive, sincere young man was so open; hopeful that he would help others realise that they were not alone in their struggles, that fortune and talent and a so-called perfect life from the outside doesn't immunise you from depression, maybe makes the battle even harder because it is so at odds with what's within.
But over the next few weeks, when I saw trams and buses trundle through the city, with Tom's face emblazoned on the side in his ambassador role, I felt uneasy. It was somehow disconcerting. Did Tom have to be perfect, upfront and visible, in this role too?
Now at 23, and having played just 61 games, Tom has walked away from a substantial amount of money, and a game with which he was disenchanted. He did not attend a press conference, explaining his decision to us, the fans, or the media that have focused on him with a mean-spirited relentless. Nor should he have to.
But the debate about his retirement soon encapsulated everything that is at the heart of Tom Boyd's story. Sympathy and compassion are mixed with confusion; he is labelled (this riled me) an 'unfulfilled talent', and with indecent haste, discussion moves onto how this will free up the Bulldogs' salary cap.
And, again and again, the question of the value of the 2014 trade gets picked over. Even the well-meaning view expressed by many Bulldogs' fans, that Tom Boyd 'was worth every cent', made me wince; it seemed an answer to the wrong question. He was again, being measured as a commodity, an investment, a stock that had paid dividends.
Because it is actually Tom that has paid the price, for us.
There will be no motorcade to farewell Tom Boyd. We won't be able to clap him, as he's hefted on his team-mates shoulders, carried from the ground; there will be no space for a farewell. Meanwhile, there's a game to be played tomorrow. We will lose, or we will win, but for the moment, there's just apathy in my mind about the result. Instead, I prefer to think that, down the road from the Geelong stadium, Tom Boyd who loves to surf, will be chasing waves at Bells Beach, at peace, because in the saddest part of a sad day, his mood after retiring was said to be 'relief.'
Many of Tom's team-mates, who'd played alongside him, sat in boring strategy meetings, sweated through arduous pre-seasons, seen a different Tom Boyd than the one we will never know, posted on social media. It was restrained, but heartfelt. Just photos of him, few words, and the symbol of a heart. It felt like they were building a circle of kindness around him. And kindness was one of the things rarely extended to Tom Boyd.
Whenever I see a new player with the X factor emerge - Bont, and recently Aaron Naughton - beneath my delight, and the selfish hope that they will bring my club success -I find myself uttering a silent prayer.
Please remember what it feels like right now, the pure pleasure of flying for a mark, the fun when you sing the song in the rooms.
Please let the game not be too hard on you.
Please never leave our club.
Please make us proud.
Now there is something else I'll be muttering like a chant under my breath, to all of our players... including Tom Boyd, player of 61 games, number one draft pick, son, brother, mental health ambassador, surfer, photographer, and the bringer of so much joy to thousands of Bulldogs fans on that one unforgettable day.
Please just stay well.
At the end of 2018, the Libba Sisters, in need of recuperation from the trials and tribulations of the season, headed off for a holiday in Bali. As we took our seats in the plane (after the obligatory four-hour Jetstar delay) a tall and athletic figure appeared and strapped himself in, right next to us in the three-seat-aisle.
The Libba Sisters exchanged a significant glance. Because this was no garden-variety tall and athletic figure, but one of our 2016 premiership heroes, Fletcher Roberts.
But we played it cool. We figured that Fletch most likely didn’t want to spend six hours trapped alongside two gushing fans acting like excited teenagers, droning on about their thoughts and emotions about the premiership experience.
At some point of the long plane trip, though, small talk was exchanged. Fletch, endearingly, said he ‘had a week or two off work, and so was catching up with some mates.’ The Libbas nodded, poker-faced. We didn't let on that we knew Fletch wasn't your average person having a break from his boring job in a payroll office somewhere.
We all disembarked; our little brush with fame was at an end. On social media, though, we soon saw the three *ahem* workmates with whom Fletch was holidaying. His fellow premiership team-mate, Lachie Hunter, and two men who came heartbreakingly close to being premiership team-mates: Mitch Wallis, who played all 17 games of the 2016 season until he broke his leg, and Lin Jong, also a regular in that fateful year, who broke his collarbone in the first final in Perth. Neither Lin or Mitch has had a chance to play in a final again.
Since 2016 the careers of those four men have meandered in different ways.
Lachie has barely missed a match, and is our reigning Charles Sutton medallist. Mitch, after making a comeback from his dreadful injury, last year found himself on the outer. A lack of 'qualitative sheen' was identified as a shortcoming. There was talk of him leaving – maybe even joining – (deep breaths) – the Bombres, before he decided to remain with us. He's been a solid contributor in 2019.
Lin Jong has had a horror run with injury and struggled to regain form and consistency on the rare occasions that he has been able to get on the park.
But the career trajectory of Fletcher Roberts since the flag has been the most baffling of all. Stranded in the Footscray team last year even when we were decimated by injury, Fletch has been the forgotten man of the 2016 heroes.
I wondered, as the four blokes lazed around the pool (possibly trying to work out how to escape any chance encounters with the Libba Sisters), if the talk ever turned to the ‘what ifs’ that had seen two of them reach such heights, while the other two looked on.
I thought I knew a lot about the randomness of footy while we waited for that flag to come – the fine line between success and failure, the sliding door moments, the depressing truth that immense talent is no guarantee, in a team game like ours, of premiership success. I just never appreciated that unpredictability and randomness would not vanish once we achieved the ultimate goal.
Fletcher Roberts, a 23-year-old playing in a premiership in game number 37, seemed to have the world at his feet. Yet, called upon to play Brisbane this weekend, he is playing just game 50. The call-up indeed came only after our promising ruckman Tim English was a last minute withdrawal. No banner is prepared in honour of the milestone.
What were Fletch’s thoughts when, after such a long time in the wilderness, he ran down the race again with so many fresh-faced new team-mates as well as some - but not all - of those who'd played alongside him in the flag?
Had he quietly kept his faith that this day would come again?
Maybe it would be a turning point, the catalyst for an unexpected renewal of his career. (I began imagining an article, celebrating Fletch’s 200-game milestone, where he reminisced, with a chuckle, about a lean period when he thought he was done and dusted. 'There was a match in Ballarat; from that point, everything turned around for me. I knew it would all be ok if I just persevered.').
Then again maybe his appearance against Brisbane would be a cameo, before he returned to tiny crowds and the smaller stage of the VFL. (I began imagining an article, where in the usual prosaic style, the club thanked him for his service, and a disappointed but philosophical Fletch said that it had been an honour to play for the club. 'I knew my cards were marked when I got dropped after that game in Ballarat. Bevo told me then that I lacked qualitative sheen. Still, I'm looking forward to my new career with the Gold Coast Suns.')
Fletch, so familiar in his number 18 guernsey, took up his accustomed position deep on the full-back line. (He has never kicked a goal in his AFL career – even Dale Morris somehow has managed three). At the opposite end of the ground a teenage superstar-in-the-making – one of the boys who was preferred in defence to Fletch in 2018 – also prepared for the game to begin. Excitement has built about his future, this rare blue-chip talent, dubbed already: 'The Astro-Naught.'. Kids will want his number 33 jumper. Excitable fans, even those of a certain age, will most likely be unable to refrain from pestering him, maybe even requesting an embarrassing selfie, should they be seated next to him on a Jetstar flight to Bali.
Aaron Naughton starts slowly, as you might expect from a still raw 19-year-old. The Brisbane team were handling the wet conditions better than us, outplaying us in many areas. In 2018 we would have most likely folded under their pressure; even a few weeks ago, our earnest efforts to wrestle back the ascendancy would have collapsed under a barrage of missed shots at goal and aimless entries into the forward line. But in a sign of new maturity, Our Boys persist, working and working even when things aren't going right, and then beginning to take control of the game.
Aaron Naughton is a key factor in that turnaround.
After his quiet start, Aaron marks on the boundary line. The fact that he’d marked it, that he’d kept leading and presenting despite early signs that this may not be ‘his day’, was further evidence of his talent. The half-time siren sounds; he's now dealing with a difficult and tricky shot with the flukey wind. He slots it home with a superb kick, and the Dogs go into the half-time break, brimming with confidence, riding momentum.
In the last quarter the Lions press, again. They are four goals down, but still look dangerous. It's time for blue-collar footy, for making the right decisions with the wet and slippery ball, for weathering clash after clash on the heavy ground. A goal, against the run of play, would be handy too in killing off the Lions’ ambitions. The ‘Astro-Naught’ flies across the face of goal, bringing down what we’re already recognizing as his trademark – well, trademark mark, I guess. The pressure of being 'The Man' doesn't seem to weigh heavily on his 19-year-old shoulders.
Fletcher Roberts had nine disposals, though disposal numbers have never been what his performances are about. He was unobtrusive, which is not the same as ineffective. He did not attempt to resurrect his career and demonstrate qualitative sheen with some Naughton-style high marking. He did not make an unexpectedly daring dash to the forward line and wow the crowd with his first ever goal, an Ed Richards-style banana from the boundary.
He was dependable, playing well within what you imagine he knows, as much as anyone, are his limits.There was no real clue as to which of my imagined scenarios will play out for Fletch – a rejuvenated career, or a return to journey-man status. Somehow I can't escape the melancholy thought that his name will be the first to be tossed around as an 'out' when we play the Cats. It makes me much sadder than I could have imagined.
I find myself thinking about his finals performances in 2016, searching for memories. I had forgotten he only played in two of the four finals. Though he'd played most games, he was not selected for the matches against West Coast and Hawthorn; he only came into the preliminary final team after injury to Matt Suckling. I remember, vaguely, reading that, even then, he spent grand final week unsure whether he would be retained in the team.
I can't really remember much of his performances, except that they were solid. Nobody got off the chain against him, he made no glaring mistakes, he played his role.
He also served.
I search for something a bit more galvanising. When a sharper Fletcher Roberts memory finally emerges, it's vivid, those feverish minutes of the preliminary final against The Acronyms. Jackson Macrae had goaled; we were ahead, but there were agonising moments to endure,
Another devastating loss was still a real possibility when, with less than two minutes to go, the ball was pumped forward into The Acronyms' forward line. A forward line packed with glittering talent courtesy of the AFL: supercilious Jeremy Cameron, smarmy Toby Green, haughty Jon Patten, and others for whom I've run out of nasty adjectives. Ours was filled with rejects and rookies. Blue collar, not blue chip. Big-hearted, not big-headed.
As the kick spiralled into their star-studded forward line the hopes and dreams of thousands rested with those unheralded defenders all making the right decision, ensuring the wall would withstand the surge. Unobtrusive Fletcher Roberts was one of that wall. Easton Wood made a massive leap, crashing the contest. Danger still awaited; the ball hit the deck. Fletcher Roberts scooped up the ball. In that nightmare parallel universe into which Bulldogs' teams have so often tumbled, he would have fumbled it. But he handled it as cleanly as The Bont. Fletch launched a long bomb out of defence. It would have, in that parallel universe, skewed off his boot, gone out on the full, landed straight in the arms of someone wearing orange. But his kick landed in a pack inside the boundary line. And the ravenous Bulldogs were not going to let that ball back into the Giants' forward line again.
We remember JJ's dash, and Macrae's goal, and Clay Smith's ferocity, but Fletcher Roberts played his part in that night's story too.
What a strange thing it is, sitting at close quarters for six hours next to someone whose decisions and actions back in 2016 made such an immense difference to my happiness, and yet never exchanging a word to try and tell them so. I wish now, that I'd found a way - unobtrusive, of course - to let Fletcher Roberts know that I appreciate and cherish those moments, and hope there will be more. Maybe I could have just slipped a little note onto his tray-table when he was distracted by the safety demonstration. Just two words would do it. 'Thanks Fletch.'
While Our Boys took on Freo many kilometres away, exasperated text messages flew thick and fast between Tragician family members, all stranded helplessly on our respective couches at home.
Our blokes were trying so hard, battling away in hostile territory, for so little reward. As the missed opportunities piled up, so too did the level of angst, sprinkled with black humour, at the predictability of the wayward kicking for goal.
By the last quarter, we cringed rather than celebrated whenever we got inside 50 metres.
The poo emoji soon became an effective shortcut to convey our emotions. (It certainly would have been handy for most of the Tragician’s barracking career).
Yet as the final siren sounded, I made one of my bolder, indeed outlandish statements, confidently tipping a win against the Tigers.
Considering we’d just registered our fourth painful loss in a row I’m still not sure where this conviction came from. In the wake of the loss the gloom and doom around our club had reached epidemic and slightly hysterical proportions.
Among the Bulldog faithful, the mood was agitated. Skill development had gone backwards, fans lamented; premiership stars’ form had stagnated. The kids weren’t coming along as we’d hoped!
Selections were baffling. That’s been so ever since Bevo Our Saviour arrived, of course, but now there was open discussion on a previously unthinkable topic: ‘Was Bevo’s time up?’ (Nobody, I regret to report, was calling him Our Saviour either).
In support of this hideous question, a narrative, beloved of the outside world but previously angrily resisted by our own fans, took hold: The achievement of the premiership had been some kind of fluke, where an ordinary bunch of players and coaching staff got lucky, combining to pull off a daring heist on the competition, before slinking back into our usual well-deserved mediocrity.
I was astonished, not so much by the negativity, but by how familiar the tone of the commentary was. The Bontempelli ‘why not us?’ question had in the blink of an eye reverted to ‘why us?’
That undercurrent of thinking – that there’s something quintessentially wrong with our club – had somehow, like a plague of cockroaches, withstood the premiership win; mysteriously, it had re-emerged, reinforced, indeed confirmed, by the speed with which the Battling Bulldogs had reverted to type.
How come only our club could go spectacularly backwards, after a flag won by one of the youngest groups ever? Why hadn’t that day in 2016 liberated us, forever, from our dismal past, as it had with the Geelong and Richmond clubs, who once they got the sniff of success, chased it even more hungrily?
It wasn’t just that the questions were posed that startled me. It was that the same old bitterness, honed through decades of failure, still existed underneath them. I detected panic that our golden memory of 2016 was becoming another cruel joke at our expense, a bit like a child being informed that Santa wasn’t real.
Against this backdrop, my announcement that the Bulldogs would triumph was more than a little eccentric, especially coming from one who was just as strongly convinced (with good reason as it sadly turned out) that we’d lose to Carlton.
Yet apart from that abomination, which fortunately I’d avoided, I didn’t feel our team was actually playing badly. (A bit like Greg Chappell when he defended those seven ducks in a row by saying he wasn’t in the crease long enough to actually be playing poorly). I still saw spirit and heart and self-belief.
We just weren’t ... kicking goals, which is kind of an essential part of the game, I’ll admit.
The first quarter of the clash against Richmond contained moments that initially boded well for my reckless prediction. We won the ball, time and again. The Bont started in majestic form, as he wrested the ball from packs and then loped in his characteristic way into our forward line, calmly slotting a difficult goal. Whatever today’s outcome, I decided, I could sit back and revel in a peerless display from our Artist-in-residence.
But his team-mates were not able to emulate his effort. Again, the missed shots accumulated. You could see the mental struggle in which our players were stuck, like quicksand, dreading to be the one who would be next to create that moaning sigh of disappointment from our crowd (not to mention a barrage of poo emojis on social media).
My pre-game confidence wavered. Perhaps it was inevitable, the way the match would play out. The gallant Dogs would keep working tirelessly, fruitlessly; the ruthless, efficient Tigers would punish our turnovers, conjuring goals so much less painfully than us. The Tigers song would reverberate around the stadium, while I hastily deleted my ludicrous text message. Bevo would walk down from the coaching box, to sullen mutters among the restless crowd, wearing the blank expression of the coach under siege. We would head home, resigned, angry, baffled and heartsore. I would wonder if those troubling questions about our club had the tiniest kernel of truth.
We needed something, somebody to change that story. We were waiting. We just didn’t know what for.
Aaron Naughton entered the stage.
Suddenly every time he went near the ball, we hoped, and then came to expect, he would mark it. And..he'd then kick a goal! In an amazing blitz, he was electrifying, exhilarating, spectacular.
The degree of difficulty only spurred him on.
‘A crowded pack of players? I guess I’ll just have to jump over the top of you all.’
We once saw another teenager inspire us with his gift for marking, but Chris Grant, memorably described by Martin Flanagan as ‘the boy with the solemn hands’ marked in a different way. Smoothly, elegantly, the ball glided into his mitts. I can't find the words for what Aaron Naughton is doing out there. Players ‘drag down’ a mark’, or ‘grab’ the ball, or 'clunk' it or 'catch' it; but they are phrases too humdrum to describe what we were watching, with increasing awe. I find myself reaching for another sport for an analogy, for with his exquisite timing and feel for the ball, he resembled a surfer, catching the surge of the perfect wave.
Maybe it was even simpler: he was just playing park footy, a kid revelling in taking speckies over his mates.
The crowd mood shifted. Buoyant, excited, appreciative, spellbound. We wanted more.
Aaron Naughton (and the Herald Sun hit perfect pitch when they dubbed him the Astro-Naught) was only too happy to deliver. He was even having such a good time, that he gave a little wink after another brilliant mark. It could have been lair-like, but I don’t think (unlike ‘Somebody Else of a Lairy Disposition’ we could mention), it was about himself. It wasn’t cocky, or arrogant. It was more like what I've dubbed 'the Bontempelli smirk'.
‘How good, and simple, and fun is footy.
By the time we woke from the spell that he’d cast, we were six, seven goals up from the Tiges. The Tragician was looking smug and searching for a screenshot of that text message to show all and sundry she was a sage, an oracle, a soothsayer.
In between my attempts to somehow claim credit for the win, I thought about Luke Beveridge. Saturday night was his 100th game; Bob wrote a tribute trying to capture his enigmatic coach. He said that when he arrived at our despondent club in 2014, its players riven with doubt and haunted by failure, Bevo (who will forever be Our Saviour) began asking them: ‘How good could you be?’
I think of Aaron Naughton, who didn't manage even one contested mark against Freo, throwing himself carelessly, joyfully, towards the ball, and wonder if his coach’s words ring in his ear.
So much of my thinking, and I'm not alone, since 2016 has been about the premiership group. Would THEY re-discover the hunger? How had THEY coped with climbing the summit? When would THEY do it for us, again? Yet just as the fearless boys of 2016 didn’t care a jot about what had gone before, that flag is ancient history for the newbies whose hunger is raw. Tim English, Bailey Smith, Ed Richards - you can feel sure they're going to create their own story. I guess I'll need to strap myself in for another rollercoaster ride.
When Our Boys sang the song, Aaron Naughton, who won’t turn 20 until the end of the 2019 season, was the most exuberant of the exuberant. I couldn’t help but laugh; it was like his singing, and accompanying half-jig, echoed the carefree way he'd approached the ball.
I heard a journalist on the radio the next day, talking about an interview with "The Astro-Naught" at the start of the season.
‘Nothing fazes him,’ he said. ‘He's an uncomplicated guy. He just loves footy.
'But he did say one thing,' the journalist, too, began to laugh, remembering our number 33's amazing deeds: 'I like to launch.’
Watch Aaron Naughton sing the song:
I approached our match against Collingwood with a sense of foreboding.
It wasn't so much the prospect of doing battle with the infamous Magpie Army. I've just about forgiven, if not forgotten, the time a group of them, best described as exuberant, rocked my car and shouted obscenities after they'd beaten us, back in the '90s. The night they booed Brad Johnson, that well-known thug (maybe he smiled too much?) as he hobbled around in one of his last games - well that was a while ago too. Maybe just some high jinks, as they were in the finals for the first time in a while. And as for that stereotype of tattoos and toothlessness, surely Magpies fans are just as likely these days to be signing a Get Up petition about refugees or discussing the merits of a turmeric latte or a cheeky pinot. Maybe their feral reputation has been over-stated. It's just that there's - well, a lot of them, but I suspect they've mellowed.
My anxiety wasn't, either, about them giving us an on-field shellacking after our disappointing performance against the Suns. I wasn't unduly preoccupied with the idea of Nathan Buckley engineering match-ups between Mason Cox and 'Celeb' Daniel. Not did I spent too much time worrying about Steele Sidebottom getting off the leash now that Liam Picken will never again appear quietly at his side and curb his influence, or cringing at the prospect that Tim 'The Pom' English, playing game ten, would be ruthlessly thrown around by the hulking frame of Brody Grundy.
Okay, I may have given some of the above the occasional thought.
But, mainly, my unease related to Jordan Roughead.
A couple of weeks ago I idly flicked the TV remote to see who had won the Collingwood-Richmond match. I saw the Pies had triumphed, as they had assembled to sing their song and perform the extremely strange ritual known as a Gatorade shower, drenching players that had achieved their first win at their club. I was barely concentrating on the scene; then I was suddenly transfixed. There, in the inner circle, drenched in syrup, was one of OUR premiership heroes, Jordan Roughead. I was still in shock about this dreadful sight - Jordan Roughead, wearing number 23, but in the black and white stripes - when he linked arms with his victorious team-mates and joined them in a hearty version of: 'Good old Collingwood forever.'
What did this all mean? How had it come to this? and why oh why, had the out-of-touch, arrogant AFL ignored my perfectly reasonable suggestion that all premiership players should be forced to immediately retire after they achieve ultimate glory, saving us from the pain of moments like these?(Come to think of it, that suggestion has gathered very little, in fact, no support whatsoever, and people even seem to think I'm joking).
I'd been able to cope when Joel Hamling departed immediately for Freo - there were family reasons after all, and he'd never really in his handful of games imprinted himself on us as a favourite, much though his finals performances was full of bravery and heart.
And when Jake The Lair was controversially offloaded, I was one of the first to declare (with no evidence whatsoever) I'd always suspected character flaws, and we really didn't need the likes of him and his smart-alecky-lairy ways at our club, while living in secret terror that he'd find success at our mortal enemies The Bombres.
Luke Dahlhaus' departure hurt, but I managed to steel myself against too much emotion when he issued a series of rather childish comments about our club and even had a dig at Bob Murphy.
But my bag of defensive tricks to ease the heartache of losing Roughie was completely bare. He had left our club, not with pettiness or spite or lies or a trail of unpleasant behaviours, but because, as a player for the Dogs, his future no longer seemed assured. Better opportunities to play the game he loves presented elsewhere. While my mind accepts this pragmatic reality, and wishes our premiership ruckman and all--round wonderful person only good things, it is still jarring, shocking even, to see that he can sing the song of our enemies, go into battle for a new cause. Because while there are peculiar individuals who claim to have a second team or a 'soft spot' for another club (needless to say, The Tragician is not in their ranks), it is generally regarded as traitorous to outright switch barracking allegiances (I exempt those who realised the sickness at the heart of the Essendon doping scandal). It somehow breaks our fantasy that the players do it all 'for us' and 'the jumper' when we see them putting the same whole-hearted effort out there for a new group of supporters, another guernsey, singing another tribal anthem.
Yes, I dreaded seeing Jordan Roughead out there against his former 'brothers' on Friday night. I half-hoped that a minor niggly hamstring strain might cause him to miss the match. (Nothing too serious, because this is the man who took a young homeless person to the Brownlow). But I had no inkling that any of my fellow Bulldogs fans might see fit to boo him when he went near the ball. (In my mortification I was somehow perversely pleased that especially in the first quarter, Roughie featured in the play a lot).
Fans, including myself, are unpredictable, emotional, mercurial, irrational, inconsistent, parochial and downright crazy in their reasonings (see above for a Tragician proposition on the merits of a premiership-players-forced-retirement-scheme).
But there is no part of my barracking persona which understands the mindset of those that would boo Jordan. This bloke locked himself in a darkened room for the week before the 2016 grand final, for heaven's sake, because his very eyesight was threatened - and then took the field knowing that every knock could do further damage to the bleeding behind his eyes. It's a commitment that even I admit far overshadows my own heroism in venturing to Ballarat on extremely cold days, or turning up to all those wretched 'we're going to get killed' matches.
And did, could, these fans forget the mark he took when the game was in the balance of the grand final, the mark after an appalling decision to disallow JJ's goal, the mark that announced that unlike all those other fragile Bulldogs' teams, it would take more than bad umpiring excuses to seize this game from our grasp?
I blushed at the booing with the embarrassment of one whose family has somehow made a pact to perform as badly as possible in an all-too-public occasion. But before too long, my indignation was distracted by the performance of the Magpies fans who surrounded us at the game.
Let's just say my charitable comments about them mellowing of late proved ill-founded.
While a group of them celebrated Magpies goals by drinking beer from a boot (I mean, who hasn't done that on occasion?) it was the ultra-boorish young man behind us who somehow eclipsed even that behaviour, and re-acquainted me with the flip side of the Pat and Jenny Hodgsons of this world.
The (very) ugly supporter.
His barracking was foul-mouthed, monotonous. It was without wit, without charm, without humour. It was even, oddly, without passion for his own team.
But it was full of bile towards the opposition and mainly directed at the Bulldogs fans committing the cardinal sin of simply being anywhere near him.
There is a barracking phenomenon which is less about delight in your own team's performance than the fact that, clothed in your tribal colours, you have licence to denigrate others wearing different ones. Yet in stirring moments of Bulldogs' victories, even the famous triumph when we were the only ones to halt the Bombres' winning streak in 2000, I have never felt the urge to jeer and mock opposition fans. I've been too happy to waste time doing that, even if I feel the inner fierce tribal feelings from which footy emotion is borne; my only wish is to celebrate with my Bulldogs clan.
But there is another species for whom the hope for victory is secondary to the desire to bait and belittle opposition fans, and so it was with the ugly supporter who never let up for a moment. He ridiculed our excitement at the speckie taken by Hayden Crozier (indeed I was so excited I called him Hazier). He sneered when 'Celeb' got caught holding the ball. And he was full of advice for the Libba Sisters, when he believed the match to be in the Magpies' keeping, to catch the early train back to Footscray; this, he was sure, was an insult, because to live in the western suburbs, naturally, had to be a bad thing. (Though it has to be said, if I may be so petty, nothing in the vocabulary or demeanour of our friend the Ugly Supporter suggested that he himself hailed from Toorak or conducted ground-breaking studies as a nuclear physicist in between supporting the Magpies).
I wished, how I wished, that we would win, the ultimate way to silence his endless monologue. And perhaps my lofty resolutions about non-engagement with opposition fans would have been sorely tested if we'd won the match. But it was not to be; the Dogs played a strange kind of game. There were lulls when we looked like a bottom four team; highlights when we looked like we were going to storm to a win. Listless periods where we made too many errors, interspersed with glimpses of the run and dare of our premiership past. The Bont was brilliant, the team were never less than brave, but as signs of fatigue set in and Mason Cox failed to get shorter, the three-goal margin half way through the last quarter felt like so much more. In the first two weeks of the season I allowed myself to dream that we were definitely finals-bound, and that may be the case, but it's more accurate to see the Dogs as a work in progress, a hybrid of the proven premiership players and raw but exciting talent, and perhaps our best is still a year or two away.
We didn't leave early to get back to Footscray. We stayed till the end, but I certainly didn't want to see Roughie's interactions with his former or new team-mates. I was desperate to get out into the balmy autumn night and escape any further interactions with the ugly supporter.
It was hard to wrest thoughts back to the better moments of the match. The first goal from the young prodigy and the latest in a line of Baileys, our new number six, Smith. The moments when Aaron Naughton, just 19-years-old, on the big MCG stage, flew for and clunked a series of outrageous marks, the best I've seen since a young Grant (that's Chris, not Jarrod, in case you're wondering). On such players a premiership can be built, I think, trying to avoid thinking about the Dogs' fans who booed Roughie, and any other of the uncomfortable truths about why people barrack, or the vitriol, the hate, that resides within.
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.