Recently the 'Footy Almanac' (which Tony Abbott would call the 'suppository' of excellent writing from AFL fans about the game) published two articles which caught my eye.
The first was a passionate debate about tradition vs the corporatisation of footy. It was started by a fan who argued that he saw no cause to celebrate the success of the expansion clubs: "A unique product – Australian Rules – has fallen in to corporate hands who believe that only bigger can be better.
A disconnect from the game was inevitable, he believed. 'With no functioning “home” ground or community, a kid in Craigieburn or Cranbourne might as well barrack for Gold Coast."
While many replied, expressing sadness at the loss of tradition, community and soul, others returned fire with equal eloquence, defending the expansion of the game and pointing out that the good old days were not always brilliant and saw teams come close to extinction. One such point of view was:
"I reckon the AFL is an easy target to pot but they are selling a product that the people want: 24/7 entertainment. If people didn’t want it, the sponsors, the media and the supporters would turn off.
"The alternative, if I read the lamentations on this thread, are to somehow rekindle the suburban, tribal rivalries. I agree, those days were fun but times change. Back in those days, Fremantle was a seedy port and Fitzroy was a down at heel blighted, inner city suburb. Now, you can’t move in these suburbs for bearded hipsters running between art classes and coffee bars.
"The point is, the culture that used to pervade these areas has changed. People move on.
"TV, the internet and gambling are hand in glove with the game. It’s either move with the times or end up like the dinosaurs."
Another article that set this dinosaur thinking was from a disaffected Bombers' supporter, now living in the western suburbs. The intriguingly-named 'JoeFloh' outlined his growing disillusionment with the cancerous drug saga, James Hird's role, and the club's blind support of him; and how this led him to re-think his allegiance, especially when he saw our club's place in the heart of the western suburbs' community.
"Walking the streets of Sunshine, I saw a lot of people in tatty old bulldogs hats and scarfs. A lot of them looked like they didn’t have much else going for them, but they had the Bulldogs, something to look forward to every week.
"I couldn’t imagine the Bulldogs ever asking their cash strapped members to fork out for a multi millionaire former player who had brought the club to its knees through impatience, incompetence, vanity and pride. It was disgusting. Then I heard he would be welcomed back in the coaches box for finals. That was the last straw. "
JoeFloh has announced he will "attempt to do one of the hardest things a lifelong Melbournian can ever do. CHANGE FOOTY TEAMS. As the season approaches I already feel the sting of those winter friendships I’ve treasured being lost. I look bleary-eyed at the sports pages, not recognising any of the Dogs players, and trying to avoid Joe Daniher stories. It’s gonna be bloody hard, but after 34 years, I’m going to try to quit Essendon."
Both these Almanac articles were in my mind at half time of Sunday's match. Four goals have been kicked in an ugly scrum of ball-ups, semi-comical disposal errors, 'stacks on the mill' and a distinct lack of memorable moments. The match is, in fact, a stinker. Though the Tragician has shown uncharacteristic optimism by pressing the 'record' button on Foxtel before heading out for the game, I know this is one that, whatever the outcome, I would never be able to suffer through again.
Still, I'm here, of course. My connection to the club is not something that I can switch at will, just because we're languishing again in oh-so-familiar terrain at the bottom of the ladder - and, more depressingly, seem to have reverted to a style of footy that would not inspire any neutral observer or resident of Great Western Sydney to embrace it as a 'product' (unlike our last blitz towards premiership glory in 2006-2010, when, under Rocket Eade, we were renowned as one of the most watchable, skilful and entertaining teams. Still, we know where that ended up).
Is footy, though, a 'product'? In other forms of entertainment and sport, I am happy to cherry-pick the best available option. I can cheer on Roger Federer, marvelling at his grace, unbelievable talent, and elegance but turn off the TV when he's losing, feeling no knot of despair in my stomach. Mildly disappointed but easily disengaged, I will happily tune in again the next night, my support easily and painlessly transferred to the brute force and strength of Radal Nafal. I can choose a film, restaurant or comedy performance based on good reviews and value for money, and shrug my shoulders if it doesn't live up to the hype. My investment has not paid off, that's all. As a discerning customer I can exercise my right to walk away.
Barracking for the Bulldogs is something different though, hard-wired into my DNA through several generations, something to which I return because there's no choice, when even objective evidence says that this is by no means good for my health or sanity. Enjoyment hardly describes the experience of sitting in numb silence and watching 100 point defeats, or watching us self-detruct in finals series when we (relatively rarely) get there.
It makes me wonder how JoeFloh is faring, trying to learn to love our club, when we are, well, just not very good, toiling along with our draining, error-riddled style of play. Unlike me, he cannot tap into history, memory or tradition to sustain him in long afternoons like this. He's come from a club whose tradition is to expect and demand success (of course, that's a big factor in why he's alienated from them). It is depressing for me to think that he has already witnessed several premierships in his 34 years of support, while we have failed to even make one grand final in the same period. What do the unfashionable (though honourable, decent and - we fervently believe - drug-free) Dogs have to offer at present? Is the 'honourable, decent and drug-free' bit the answer to my question, or are these values just a quaint anachronism in today's sporting landscape?
What about that mythical kid from Craigieburn who chooses the Gold Coast Suns for his team - because right now, Gary Ablett is the best player in the competition and with all the squillions thrown at them by the AFL and an endless parade of Number One draft picks, an inevitable premiership not too far away? Will he or she still dig deep and keep coming when the Suns slide back towards the other end of the ladder (judging by the way Sydney and Brisbane crowds, who've had a glut of success, dwindle when hard times hit, I wouldn't bet on it). Conditioned to watch his team mostly on TV, will there be a whole generation of fans who choose to switch on only when their team delivers up the required dose of 24/7 entertainment, not the 'they-tried-hard-didn't-they' stoicism and loyalty that at present is the Bulldogs' fans lot?
On Sunday, my way of coping with the ugly spectacle is to take my solace in small moments of the game, trying to build them into an overall vision of our future. Our team at the moment is like photos in the darkroom, not yet emerged into a recognisable shape. I have to hold onto an image of Jackson MacRae loping effortlessly down the wing, taking elegant side-steps to bamboozle his opponents - and edit out the part where he landed the subsequent kick neatly on a North player's chest. I have to remember the energiser bunny zest of Dalhaus making something of nothing time and again with his quick hands and manic intensity at the ball, not focus on his simple misses of shots at goal which would have given us much needed reward for effort in this scrappy, low scoring contest. I must remind myself that Jake Stringer has played only 12 games and that I need to appreciate and revel in his physicality as he takes on a gaggle of North wannabe tough guys, his determination and intangible 'star-in-the-making' aura, not wince when he misjudges the bounce of a ball and it dribbles miserably over the line, another opportunity missed.
This bunch of raw youngsters, with others such as Hunter, Jong, Hrovat and Johanssien, may yet be the nucleus of an exciting side that gets the turnstiles ticking ( or should I say the bar-codes zapping). Or, as happens too often, young may not necessarily mean good. These kids may never grow together into their full potential, or may never cumulatively develop the chemistry, the hunger, the talent, the luck, that makes a premiership team. BMac's experimental dark room might instead be throwing up another Melbourne FC, where countless number one draft picks never seem to blossom, or a Carlton, where the talent pool proves to be good enough to take them into finals but never become a threat. We don't know anything for sure. Really all that keeps us coming every week is hope, and love of the club.
Before the game, I met my son outside the stadium. Last year we were travelling in New York together when overnight the joyous (and surprising) news came through that in the middle of another bleak season, the Bulldogs had had an unexpected victory over the West Coast Eagles. He donned his well-travelled red, white and blue jumper and set off for a jubilant run across the Williamsburg bridge, celebrating our win thousands of kilometres away from Melbourne and our western suburbs heartland.
On Sunday I handed over to him his 2014 membership ticket. It's his birthday present every year, making him, like me, a paid-up 'Bulldog for life'. We joked about the fact that even the most notorious convicted criminals, those that are 'lifers', have some prospect of release for good behaviour. No prospect of a pardon or respite for the Bulldog faithful, we agreed, before we headed into the ground to watch another game, and another Bulldog defeat.
Is the fish rotting from the head up?
Going west (from JoeFloh)
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.