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.
After we won the premiership, Channel Seven aired a segment in which Bulldogs' players listened, on headphones, while fans spoke about what the flag had meant to them.
It was, to say the least, a tearjerker.
The fans described the club as 'part of their family.' A woman who'd supported the club for 55 years said that as she cut her birthday cake each year, she'd made the same wish - to see a Bulldogs' premiership. One man said his dad had passed away a couple of years before the flag, and after the siren, he'd headed to the cheer-squad end, looked up at the 'beautiful blue sky', and said to his dad: 'We bloody did it.'
They were asked what they would say, if they had the chance, to those men who'd brought this joy to their lives. One by one, they uttered the heartfelt words: 'Just thank you.'
Liam Picken was one of the players who listened in another room to the fans' words, a smile breaking out on his often serious face. One of the fans said he was her favourite player because he embodied the Bulldog spirit and tenacity. He walked out from the other room and embraced her.
I loved the video, despite - (actually, being me, it's because of) - its corny moments. It recognised that most of us never have a chance to say, simply, thanks. In the strange compact between fans and players, we don't always know if they 'see' us as more than people clapping them behind the fence or requesting their autographs, understand that we have stories as individual and compelling as their own. The beauty of the video's concept was that it made those connections were real.
The chance to say thank you is the reason I arrive at whatever-our-home-ground-is called-this-year earlier than usual. Liam Picken, one of the 2016 premiership immortals, is retiring. One too many times our game, exhilarating, thrilling - but always, always dangerous - has taken its toll on the player universally acclaimed for his courage.
Liam didn't play all in 2018 after an injury in a practice match. It was a head clash with fellow hard nut Josh Dunkley, which exacerbated the impact of an equally sickening knock against Freo the year before. While awaiting Liam's return, we began to hear, with alarm, the stories of him suffering severe headaches brought on from the pounding music of the weight rooms. We moved from impatience to see our number 42 out there, sooner rather than later, to a growing dread that he might risk his health by competing again. For while the sight of Liam Picken instinctively putting his head over the ball used to inspire our applause, it had become a prospect to make us squirm with fear.
In the 2016 finals series Liam Picken was an irreplaceable part of an epic story. Even though there were so many little acts, so many kicks, marks, smothers, spoils, handballs — even the mistakes or umpiring howlers and how we responded — creating the picture, contest to contest, quarter to quarter, match by match...I’m not sure we would have won the flag without his competitive spirit.
The fact that his backstory was one of rejections, write-offs, discouragement and rebuffs led extra romance and poignancy to his tale, for by the time he’d made his debut, a 22-year-old rookie, he’d been passed over again and again. Too slow, too unskilled; even when he got his chance, he was pigeon-holed as a dogged tagger, and yet as so many of our rookies have done, once his opportunity opened up, he would never let it slip again, and even blossomed as a brave and attacking forward.
When we’d fantasised about what it would be like to win finals, (unfortunately we often had plenty of time on our hands to conjure up such daydreams) we routinely under-estimated the contributions that would be made by players that were more known for heart and determination than style and athletic gifts.
If we allowed ourselves to imagine the Bulldogs at last there on the MCG, with the longed-for second premiership in striking distance but the game still poised in the balance, we would have expected a charismatic superstar to take charge and will us over the line.
If we’d been allowed a tantalizing peak into that scenario – told only that there would be a player who would launch a specky at a critical moment of the last quarter – the names Bontempelli or Stringer or perhaps Boyd the Younger would have sprung to mind.
When we tried to imagine that moment when we knew, at last, that the drought was over, we wouldn’t have imagined a scruffy individual, known for most of his career as a niggly tagger, storming into goal, framed forever in time against the ecstatic, half-laughing, half-crying faces of our fans.
Now, we can only say thanks, in way that seems pedestrian and inadequate for the magnitude of what Liam Picken has done for us, before a game against the Gold Coast Suns.
Sunday's crowd is regrettably sparse, the atmosphere and the stakes a world away from those vivid 2016 memories. Liam travels around the half-empty stadium in a car with his three beloved children. We feel we know them – Malachy, who had his own moment of fame when he was pictured crying with joy and relief in his mother’s embrace after the preliminary final win against the Acronyms and got to take his dad's premiership medal to 'show and tell.' His twin girls, who celebrated with him out on the ground on grand final day. They all wear their dad's now famous number 42 guernsey.
Those there including myself clap as hard as we can, as though the force of our hands can somehow convey to Liam our thanks, our gladness and sorrow, our love. I hope, through tears, he feels how genuine that force radiating out at him is. I find myself thinking of his words in the time that he still hoped to get back to playing.
"It's an injury with symptoms less visible to others, unlike breaking a leg, it's hard for others to understand what you're going through," he once explained.
"In fact, it can be a lonely and dark road to travel."
Liam looks calm, at peace with his decision, as he waves at us the fans. I feel it anew: what dreadful risks these men and boys take on our behalf each time they take the field. I hope, for Liam and his family, the days of the dark and lonely place are gone.
The motorcade recedes from view. But what Liam Picken has done for us never will.
The match that’s about to be played feels anti-climatic. A round three battle where we are warm favourites against a team that even The Tragician can’t muster hatred for, one of those AFL chess pieces that I don't take seriously as a real club. Unlike The Acronyms, most times they've been a joke rather than a threat.
In the buildup, pre-occupied with Liam Picken-related nostalgia I'd been lulled into a false sense of security, refusing to bow to 'Danny from Droop Street' gloom, brushing aside thoughts about that surely outmoded pre-2016 concept.
The Danger Game.
From the start it felt like a glorified practice match. The roof open, the sun bearing down, a relaxed crowd, no opposition fans to banter with or ignore. The Suns don't even have pantomime villains such as their former charmless captain Gary ‘Voldemort’ Ablett to add depth and texture to our barracking. It’s just a 'Get the Job Done, Boys’ kind of day, four points to bank so that our 2019 form and confidence can continue to build.
Unfortunately Our Boys are in the same apathetic mindset as the misguided Tragician. Before we know it, the Suns are well ahead. We're playing catch-up, and not very well either. We rally to make the by now traditional hard-working-but-fruitless second quarter, where countless forward entries yield little result. In shades of the best-forgotten 2014 season, we seem totally unable to construct neat and precise patterns of play that could lead to a comparatively effortless goal.
In the last quarter, we threaten at last to over-run them, but truth be told, I don't get that sense of compelling urgency, the shift of momentum where you know you're somehow going to pinch the game. It would have been a travesty if after trailing all day we'd won...though this of course would not have prevented rousing renditions of our song while, with relieved chuckles, we acknowledge we didn't deserve to win, but gloat that four points is four points...
There are no relieved chuckles however, just the well-worn Trudge of Disappointment while a ghastly and rarely heard Suns theme song echoes in our ears. The Dogs have fallen short and let slip a game that could be of critical importance if we're to play finals this year.
Next week, though, we'll return to the MCG field of dreams. Playing one of the fiercest, proudest clubs with their raucous, energetic supporters, at a stadium thick with history and emotion. I know, however the Dogs perform, whatever the score, whether the match is thrilling or a dud, there will be moments when my mind drifts back to 2016 ... and the day we 'bloody did it.'
I'll look towards the Punt Road end and with a lump in my throat, travel back in time to those moments underneath the beautiful blue sky. When thousands of us willed Liam Picken to make that tackle on Dane Rampe, and our dreams held him in suspension as he soared for that mark, and we took every step with him as he raced in and kicked that winning goal. With all of us, and for all of us.
Gloomy clouds surround the MCG. With the Bulldogs five goals down at three-quarter time, the Land of Hope and Maybes has receded below the horizon.
There’s a sense of deflation, anti-climax. The Dogs have squandered this one after a dominant first half.
Sure, it’s only Round Two, But the way in which we were unable to capitalize on the countless opportunities we'd worked so hard to create - and the way our team retreated into their shell when the Hawks and their ultra-professional premiership veterans put their foot on the accelerator – well, we saw that playbook far too often during a painful 2018 season.
Momentum and belief and reward for effort are everything in footy. Getting this early reminder that we’re still a way off the pace will sap our self-belief, plant those seeds of doubts in our minds, crush our spirits.
But enough of us. It could affect our players too.
My thoughts turn, half-heartedly, to possible themes to explain this match — this looming defeat — in this week’s blog. Nothing very original springs to mind. Perhaps I’ll have to resort to cut-and-pasting from previous seasons, and hope my loyal band of readers are too dejected to notice or care.
It's well-worn, but I could always trot out a few observations on the tribal and cultural differences between the ‘Shoppers from Forges’ and the ‘Shoppers from Georges’. There’ll inevitably be a line or two about the leafy eastern suburbs brigade vs the downtrodden true believers from the west — though after the glut of Hawthorn premierships in recent times, their fans are just as likely to hail from Caroline Springs, St Albans, or even - perish the thought - the Tragician’s hometown of Deer Park. I could always make a cheap shot about Jeff Kennett, some sneers about pimply private school boys, and if things get desperate, I’ll just mock those horrid colours.
Maybe I can also recycle some reflections on the mirage of footy success, the folly of assuming footy fortunes move forward in linear, predictable steps. When we beat the Hawks on this very ground in the 2016 finals, it was hailed as a changing of the guard. The Three-peaters were on the slide, the hungry and youthful Bulldogs were the team of the future, all encapsulated in the iconic moment when The Bont outbodied Luke Hodge.
The reality is we haven’t beaten the Hawks since. And that annoyingly consistent club, which SHOULD have been bloated and self-satisfied with the indecent number of flags they’ve accumulated, again achieved top four status after just one year out of contention. While the Bulldogs…
I guess I’ll try and extract some comic mileage about the moments when ‘Celeb’ Daniel found himself one-out against taller Hawthorn players (in other words every single one of them). I'll remind everyone of our motto since 2015: ‘In Bevo We Trust’, and try to sound wise and knowledgeable about how this scenario was simply the consequence of the complexities of team defence.
But right now, wincing at the embarrassing memory, I’m not laughing at all.
I know I will struggle to get the right balance between pessimism and optimism. I'll need to focus on the second quarter, and not lament too much that those efforts yielded just a fragile four point lead. Limp references to this being a learning experience will get thrown into the mix, and then I’ll probably finish off with some stats to end on a rousing or at least not-too-depressing note, for facts don’t lie (do they?). After all the Hawks had eleven players who’ve played more than 150 games, while we had just one, Matthew Suckling (and after all he played a lot of those for the Hawks anyway, which somehow discounts things in the Tragician mindset).
The siren sounds, interrupting my musings; the fourth quarter is about to get underway. The five-goal margin is, surely, insurmountable considering the Dogs have struggled to score the seven they've kicked so far. Last year’s template suggests that with so many young players, we might not just lose, but capitulate. So often in 2018 gallant efforts came to nought. The dam would break, and we'd ended up losing by a hefty margin.
And yet. And yet…
‘We’re still in this, Dogs!’ I call out. Whether I actually believe my own words is not entirely clear.
But something makes me feel we’ll have another crack at the Hawks. Even when the Hawks immediately reply to the first goal that dents their comfortable margin, I see those intangible signs. The Dogs, mysteriously, improbably, are not done.
Just as feeble efforts can run like a contagion throughout a team, heroic ones become infectious, inspire others to greater deeds.
The Hawks’ lead unravels quicker than we could ever have hoped.
We’re winning the one-on-ones. Every time I blink, we’re launched another, and surprisingly effective, forward attack.
We’re running hard, swarming. We are teeming …and teaming...towards victory.
The goals rain down, with the technicolour intensity of a dream. We’ve no sooner taken our seats after applauding one, than we’re leaping up again to celebrate another.
Why should this be a surprise, I think, with the elastic mindset of the veteran supporter? After all... footy world and doubters (which had included The Tragician only minutes earlier)... WE have OUR special group of premiership heroes, too.
Of course, there are much fewer of them out there than we would ever have thought back on That Glorious Day… just ten in fact. But each of them does something important and influential as we storm the Hawks’ castle. Each of them will show that his will, his inner fire, still burns. Each will draw upon memories of all that it takes to win, that are more dramatic, more stirring, than this round two clash. Our leaders, Wood and Bont. The precocious young men of 2016, who won a flag before they’d even played 20 games, Dunkley, McLean and Cordy. The guy with the golden boot whose best we'd forgotten all about, Tory Dickson. The runners with huge aerobic tanks and even bigger hearts, Lachie Hunter and Jackson Macrae. ‘Celeb’ Daniel, the improbable defender whose clean skills and immaculate vision outweigh his, er, lack of immense height.
And most importantly, Tom Liberatore, our mercurial player who is somehow simultaneously the anti-footballer and the purest of footballers.
We didn’t really know Libba The Second was our heartbeat, but as he snaps a goal to put us - amazingly - two goals up, and we see the raw emotion when his team-mates mob him, we learn it anew.
Even the umpires are on the Barnstorming Bulldogs’ Bandwagon, but as I’ve frequently made clear in this blog, they are an under-appreciated, admirable bunch of individuals, doing a difficult job in trying circumstances, always well-placed to make the right call even if we occasionally see it a tad differently from 100s of metres away, and I will have no truck with ridiculous conspiracy theories about their impact on the game.
(And, let’s face it, Sicily is so bloody annoying).
The final siren brings manic laughter. It's like when you’ve been on the Big Dipper or hurtled down a water slide. There aren’t words to capture the craziness of those chaotic 23 minutes, the amazing escape Our Boys pulled off.
It’s the first time EVER an Alastair Clarkson-coached team has conceded a lead greater than 22 points in the last quarter. A Hawthorn supporter sitting near us graciously shakes our hands after the game, acknowledging us as the better team and deserving of our win. (He certainly doesn’t LOOK like a snooty, leafy-eastern-suburbs-residing, private school-boy type, though the Tragician, even while appreciating his gesture, won't entirely rule this out as a possibility). We try and curb our joyous celebrations until after he leaves our aisle.
There's no Forges or even Georges any more, but still, it's mainly Bulldogs’ scarves flying merrily from windows of cars heading back towards the west. Because those Men of Mayhem, so rarely sighted over the past two years as injuries, doubts, and team upheavals have taken their toll, have roared back into town like a gang of out of control Hells' Angels. They upended all those possible themes of this week’s blog. Somehow I don’t think any one will care about that very much at all.
It's deep into the last quarter, and the Dogs, who have been in front almost all night, are in danger of surrendering their well-deserved lead. Our Boys have surprised and delighted us with a splendid display of hard running, unveiled an unexpected marking target in the forward-line, and shown a renewal of the camaraderie and team spirit which was so important in…well, you know when.
Now, though, on this humid evening, with the match slipping from our grasp, the atmosphere is suffocating. Lungs are bursting; legs are heavy. There’s not one ounce of energy to draw upon to avert a looming catastrophe.
I always knew my lack of a solid pre-season would come back to haunt me.
I pride myself, you see, on maintaining an aloof distance from what goes on in my club, in fact the AFL world in general, once the footy season ends. It protects me from the grubby machinations of trade week. And it minimizes the pain of seeing beloved players choosing, or being shunted towards, other clubs.
But it also saves me from embarrassingly over-the-top post-season declarations, chief among them being: ‘There is absolutely no way I will EVER cheer for that revolting bleach blonde show-pony Jason Akermanis!!!!’ , ‘Let’s hope we never see that thug/borderline criminal Barry Hall in our colours!!!!’ and: ‘Since Daniel Cross was forcibly traded I will NEVER (ever, EVER) love another player wearing number four again!!!!’ (All pronouncements came complete with Donald Trump-style excessive exclamation marks!!!!!!)
But in the week before Round One, as I completed the first challenge of the season (locating my ‘Bulldog for Life’ membership ticket), a few snippets of information did break through my defences.
Apparently, we were going to wear a jumper so ghastly that even Easton Wood looks terrible in it.
And a rash of lairy haircuts that would have drawn a stern rebuke from Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd has broken out among younger members of the team.
I finally begin to look at the sports pages of the papers again. The pundits are firm in their conviction that we can’t play finals; many think we will be a bottom four team. Not having seen a single moment of our pre-season matches, I have no idea whether this is a well-founded prediction.
But that little niggle of annoyance at these assessments (the nerve of them!) is the first sign that the real stuff is about to get underway.
We arrive at the match; everyone's wearing shorts and thongs instead of the multiple layers that soon will be needed for the winter gloom, or our first match in Ballarat, whichever comes first. My nieces and nephews now tower over their aunties, the petite Libba Sisters. In the row in front of us sits a family where we have watched a woman throughout her pregnancy, appearing the next year with a little boy; we are pleased to see that now, between seasons, a new baby girl has joined their clan. She is enthralled rather than distressed at the peculiar behaviour around her. She claps her little hands when we clap, intrigued and alert at our antics, the flashing lights, the roar of the crowd.
My lack of a pre-season hit-out is soon on display. I’m sluggish in identifying some of our new-look players, especially in those cartoonish jumpers. I mean, Matthew Suckling has hair now, but Tory Dickson does not. I was so out of touch, I even mistook Tory for Nathan Eagleton, and that was even before he missed those shots on goal. And since when did Toby McLean stop looking frail and waif-like, and begin to sport a bushy beard?
Because I had no opinion or expectation of whether our team would prefer well or poorly, I observe the match initially with relaxed detachment. I regard it as a leisurely practice match, where I’m not all that invested in the result, just pleased to see promising signs, not fixated with the concept of winning or losing. I’m even in danger of expressing appreciation and good sportsmanship when a Swans player pulls down a spectacular mark, though I hastily pull myself together. I make a foolish comment that Jackson Macrae has been quiet, moments before the stats come up on the screen, showing he has, of course, accumulated more possessions than any other player on the ground. I don't beat myself up about these errors though. I'm just easing my way back into the tempo of a new season, I tell myself, an experienced pro, pacing myself into the 2019 year.
It all changes, of course, in the last quarter, when the Swans click ominously into gear. Buddy Franklin begins to wreak the havoc that only he can; their forward line is suddenly seething with possibilities. Our lead is cut back; it was never a reflection of our actual dominance. There’s no place for fake nonchalance now as I see the possibility, the only too real possibility, that Round One will end with the most soul-destroying sort of loss, the kind that saps morale and seeps into the psyche. The Loss When You Think You've Got The Game Won.
Now it all comes tumbling back to me, the sheer torture, the agony of the helpless fan, spectators who can do nothing to achieve what we most want. It doesn’t matter how much we do the Bulldog chant and stamp our feet — first-gamer Bailey Smith, who has probably never played in front of more than a few hundred fans, will not have the experience and nous to realise that this is not the time to play on. Our desperate attempts from the comfort of our seats (actually we’re standing most of the time by now) to urge Our Boys to run harder, to will them to make one more effort, to pray that they will make the right decisions whenever the ball comes hurtling into a suddenly wide-open Swans forward line: none of these matter. None of these can influence the result.
But, unlike the under-done Bulldog Tragician, Our Boys have been training, preparing, planning and working for moments like these. Their intensity rises; they find that intangible something, to break through the pain, the fatigue. I see, with relief, those indomitable runners, Hunter and Macrae, present at each sapping contest, and the one after that. With four minutes to go and the Dogs weathering furious attack after furious attack, there’s a crunching contest in the middle of the ground; new chum Sam Lloyd lays a wonderful tackle. In the half-second that follows, I realise two things simultaneously; one, that our forward line is now completely empty; and two, that The Bont, once the ball was won, has begun sprinting back into its open spaces. His fellow premiership ‘veteran’ Toby McLean launches the footy towards Our Golden Boy. It’s a beautifully weighted kick, but it still takes a champion – that guy who took Daniel Cross’s place in my heart - to judge the spinning ball in flight, mark it cleanly at full stretch, keep his feet, and make certain the goal.
Maybe last year Bont wouldn’t have had the fitness to make that last, lung-bursting run. Maybe last year he wouldn’t have had the confidence in our ability to win that contest, enabling him to immediately charge forward; to resolve to win the match not merely save it. Maybe 2019 will be one of those magical, unexpectedly joyful years, where momentum builds, injuries are kind to us, and faith, not self-doubt, grows steadily week on week. Libba The Second is back, after all, pesky and feisty and combative. Easton Wood played his best game for ages (and didn't look too shabby in that stupid jumper either). And what about 19-year-old Aaron Naughton, clunking marks with the composure of a young Chris Grant, and still running back to help out our besieged backline in the hectic final minutes, and ‘Celeb’ Daniel’s prolific and creative role in defence, and…...
I’m back, I realise, with a lurch of happiness and fear, in that land of hopes and maybes. A land we wouldn't even have glimpsed, if just those last five minutes of a two-hour contest had played out any differently.
The crowd files out, beaming faces, happy chatter, people milling around to cheer Our Boys down the race. We don't want to be poker-faced and sensible, saying: 'It's only round one', mouthing platitudes of 'not getting ahead of ourselves', or, even worse, focusing on how we nearly blew it. Not after the past two dreary years. We're tired and elated and relieved and hopeful, but mainly, I think as I study the faces in the crowd, elated.
The players have their rituals to mark the passing of the year that was: strange dress ups and mysterious in-jokes. But for the fans there is no ‘Mad Monday’, no clear delineation to mark the passing of an ultimately unsuccessful year, and definitely no opportunity to declare ourselves a bit ‘stale’ and request a trade to another club where our particular barracking talents are more in demand. (Or indeed for the club to force the issue, crafting a tactful and diplomatic message thanking us for our efforts, now no longer required, and wishing us well in our new careers as ambassadors for GWS).
Instead, we kind of…’skulk’ is the word I’m looking for…throughout the tedious off-season. Snippets of news about delistings and defections filter through: sometimes we’ve become resigned to their inevitability months earlier. We can only wait with a mix of anxiety and boredom, hoping that the right - the wise - decisions will be made.
We also feel relief when we survive an off-season with that ominous combination of words: ‘naked’ … ‘vomiting in the street’ … and ‘Bulldogs’ …referring to a rugby team in the uncivilized northern states.
And then we – I mean I - drift back into our post-season twilight zone, only emerging to be outraged that Essendon have got a new blockbuster match (Good Friday), and channelling that outrage into following a twitter account, which lifts my spirits by posting a daily tally of the number of days since Essendon won a final (well over 5000 now).
For those fascinated by arcane systems of picks and compensation points, an abomination known as Trade Radio exists. Some fans are enthralled by every machination, sub-plot and possible trade scenario; many have been analyzing and calculating the possibilities since well before the season ended.
The Bulldog Tragician, with a mix of hypocrisy and stubborn denial of reality, somehow wishes for two simultaneous yet conflicting outcomes: that NONE of the 2016 premiership heroes will ever play elsewhere, while wanting bold steps to be taken, so that success, and the euphoria of 2016, comes again – speedily too. My mindset is like Woody Allen’s famous saying: ‘I’m not all that scared of death – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’
Maybe for the seasoned pros, such as the fans of clubs wearing brown and gold, all the horse trading comes naturally. Getting rid of beloved premiership heroes - well, it's just the cost of doing business, a profit and loss transaction (you just know they have a disproportionate number of accountants among their boringly smug ranks). We’re a little – okay, a lot – less skilled in pragmatism. We’re still able to be brought to tears by some snippet of 2016 dreaming; the speedy fragmentation of the premiership team never featured in that fairytale script.
We’ve tried, of course, to grow thicker skins. Last year we made epic efforts to hastily recast Jake the Lovable Lair into Jake the Arch-Villain. Fortunately his hairstyle choices, mysteriously bad tattoos and the sheer fact of his appearance in the dreaded red and black eased the breakup pain.
But at the end of the 2018 season, the earthquake tremors became a tsunami. Premiership heroes indeed fell like skittles! (I admit, I become rusty with my choice of metaphors throughout the dreary off-season).
There were brittle, hollow jokes about Luke Dahlhaus being no longer ‘motovated’ as he left for more money (in truth our club was far from determined to keep him), squabbled with Bob (BOB!!) Murphy on social media, and posed in the Geelong hoops; yet our attempts at indifference struck a feeble note.
There was jittery waiting about the re-signing (that all important hyphen) of Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore. Bewilderment that it took so long.
It's not all one-way traffic of course; there are new recruits in our colours. We tried to latch onto their words of praise and admiration about their new home. Naturally, they are energized, enthusiastic, love the ‘vibe’ of their new workplace, are in awe of the wise and super-approachable coaching staff, and have already shared copious amounts of coffee with their welcoming, friendly, lovable new team-mates. We ignored, of course, the fact that our own former players were making identical statements - there'd obviously a template for them - which their new clubs were rolling out to inspire feverish optimism among their own fans.
As we heard the news of Jordan Roughead seeking ‘new opportunities’ elsewhere, we tried to shut out those abiding images of his stirring efforts in the 2016 finals series – in Perth, when he quelled our nerves with a strong grab, wheeled around and kicked a goal in the run, or THAT grand final mark which announced that whatever malign fate or AFL conspiracy hovered over us, our destiny was still in our – well, his – hands. It’s even harder, for the romantics in us, to shut out the touching memory of him as a quality, beautiful human being as well, bringing along to the Brownlow glitz his ‘date’, a young guy that Jordan mentored as part of his work with the charity Ladder.
Meanwhile the one-man band that put on the "Great Wall of Biggs Cameo" in the last quarter of the grand final has retired in a way as enigmatic and perplexing as the fact that it was this unlikely, off-beat player who found reserves of courage and determination that you might have expected from Daniel Cross, in the most intense and enthralling moments of the Bulldogs’ last 60 years. We didn’t cheer Shane Biggs off the ground one last time; he did not appear in a Grand Final motorcade, did not record a message for the fans on the club website. He just flashed briefly through our lives, and our club’s history.
Sometimes it feels like we the fans are the true and only keepers of these stories. Like mothers we hold close onto those memories while they leave us, going on to build new lives and new stories. But they hold memories that we can’t fathom too. Of the moments that they gather in the race before they emerge to face the menacing roar of an interstate crowd. Of how it feels to train in 40 degree heat while we the fans turn on the tennis and cricket. Of the quiet struggles of a team-mate, his desolation in the hard times and injuries; they alone know what he might be overcoming just to be out there each week. Of how it felt to run out onto the MCG, into the wave of emotion, on October 1 2016.
In time, they will gather for milestone reunions, reconnecting about these things only they can know. I try and imagine a paunchy Marcus Bontempelli and a balding ‘JJ’ sharing a beer and reminiscing about that thrilling moment they broke the game open in the 2016 preliminary final.
I envisage Dale and Riley Morris – the first father-son combination to take the field simultaneously (what, you thought Dale would retire?) – re-enacting the elder Morris’s famed tackle on Buddy Franklin, to the raucous and appreciative shouts of the group.
Towards the end of festivities, perhaps current day captain Jarvis Murphy will drop in and lead the now slightly maudlin men of 2016 out onto Barkly Street, where they will pose together – even Jake the Former Lair - in front of a statue of Bevo Our Saviour giving Bob his medal.
I sigh and shake my head, flooded with nostalgia. This is really no way to visualize a new future. I should be looking forward, not wallowing in the past; it's time, surely, to move on, to begin crafting daydreams about heroic moments in the years ahead. Perhaps that new recruit, some bloke we got from Hawthorn (his name will come to me in a moment) will run down some Essendon player I don’t like (could be any of them) in an epic final, and the ball spills free to, um, Little Red Richards, who snaps the winning goal in the 2019 Grand Final?
‘I’m not as … excited…about footy any more,’ I complained recently to Libba Sister Two.
She rolled her eyes. ‘You say that every year,’ she reminded me.
She could be right, I reflected, as I skulked around, checking the name of that new recruit from Hawthorn on the Bulldogs' website, and pressing ‘like’ on the number "5182" of the Days Since Essendon Won a Final twitter account.
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.