Our rows at Etihad Stadium stood, for once, silent and empty two weeks ago when we played Port. We were at a different place of worship, celebrating the confirmation of the youngest family member of our Tragician family.
Yes - after my recent tear-jerking ‘Angela’s Ashes’ revelations of a deprived Deer Park childhood, it will hardly be a surprise to learn that our family are also Irish-Catholics. (A family friend of a similar ilk once despairingly summed up the triple disadvantage under which we labour: ‘Western suburbs. Footscray supporters. Irish-Catholics. No wonder we all have chips on our shoulders!’)
We sat fidgeting in the church, trying to furtively check scores on our phones and keep in check blasphemous language when we saw that the Dogs were, far too quickly, three goals down. Then we had to contain urgent mutterings when we began to glean that the tide at Etihad Stadium was turning, and turning quickly; the Dogs were storming over the top of Port.
We weren't there when what seemed like 50,000 Dogs fans rode our team home (with three generations of the Tragician family absent, the ranks were sorely depleted to only a smidgeon over 20,000).
At the end of the game (by this time, we were safely seated in front of a TV, scoffing party pies in hour of the Confirmee, and watching in delight, amazement and awe – the three emotions I’ll always associate with this season), we could hear the song being sung, the Bulldog chant go up, the din and jubilation of a great win. Another chapter in this year of miracles.
A little over a week later, we were back, walking down aisles and entering pews of a different kind. If I wished to strain my religious metaphor still further (oh, why the heck not?) our opponents are the Demons, who've recently given us hell. (Bizarrely enough - and yet perfectly comprehensible to every Dogs’ fan - the under-performing ‘Dees’ are somewhat of a bogey team for us.)
The Dogs launch into a first half that is simply breathtaking. We rattle on twelve goals that are all at once effortless and yet effortful. Has there been a more blistering, dazzling, irrepressible performance than this?
Earlier in the season I once wrote that I expected that our players might pause to perform cartwheels, such was their exuberance and infectious enthusiasm. But there would be no time for such antics at present; football, Luke Beveridge style, is played in perpetual motion. Our Dogs are playing something that’s a cross between ballet and acrobatics; there are so many moments where, just as in Cirque du Soleil, we gasp and look at each other: ‘Did you see that? Did you REALLY see that?’
If the ball hits the deck, there’s always a swarm of frenzied Dogs hunting it down. Kicks scythe through the opposition; angles and impossible space open up everywhere in the field with sublime footskills; audacious, almost ludicrous, handballs somehow pay off.
In soccer terms, we’re playing the beautiful game.
These are heady — and yet, because we’re, well, us — scary moments as a Bulldog fan. Surely we are the only fans in the competition who could still, nervously, after an admittedly poor third quarter after the stunning first half theatrics, be computing whether the Dees could run all over us in the last quarter and inflict on us the most humiliating defeat of all time.
Yes: for Dogs' fans, saying ‘anything can happen’ means we're bracing ourselves for the possibility of squandering a 72 point rather than allowing ourselves to dream of our players, at last, on the premiership podium.
Every week we wait for the bubble to burst, for our team to suffer a humiliation, for the young legs to tire and the zest and enthusiasm to fade. Protectively, we cling to talk of ‘danger games’ to ease the pain if or as we think of it, when, this return to normality occurs.
So long resentful of being overlooked by the media, now we’re jittery that there’s been ‘too much attention’ on us. When people start not only reaching for the ‘F’ word to describe our prospects but also the ‘P’ word, we’re torn between moments where the tantalising vision opens up in technicolour glory, and sheer panic. This can’t be for the likes of us, surely?
It’s easier to don the protective shell, ruthlessly clamp down on dreams of Bob Murphy with the Cup, and don the hair shirt of pessimism.
We hose down hope with recollections of some of our ‘rabbit in the headlights’ finals performances, our embarrassing inability to deliver on the big stage, sorrowful memories of under-achievement. They have left scars, wounds on our psyche, not only that yawning abyss of 60 years without a flag, but the knowledge that we’ve appeared in only 44 finals in our 90 years in the competition and won only 14 of them.
To believe. To hope. To invest in the roller coaster and rip aside the defensive, protective walls. They're the hardest thing when you’ve had a history like ours.
The Tragician admits to setting a poor example in the positivity stakes by wallowing in such depressing stats and harking back, on the odd occasion, to certain galling preliminary finals defeats. It's high time to redress the balance.
As fans WE should be doing those cartwheels of exuberant joy and celebrating how far we've come.
Whatever happens this year, wherever our journey ends, right now we should pause and give thanks for the bottomless delight that this most unexpected season has given us already. (I will shoulder the blame if we implode and miss the finals.)
Here are some of my reasons that 2015 has been one I'll always treasure.
Luke Beveridge brings a new game plan
Our coach has the most abundant locks in the business, wears his heart on his sleeve, and high fives the crowd as he walks among them.
Every week we say his selection tactics make no sense, and every week his bold moves and faith in the young brigade pay off.
He is reputed to skateboard to and from the Western Oval, surfs on the weekend, and tells 'dad' jokes to the players to relax them before a game.
This is my favourite Luke Beveridge quote. After he was appointed he said:
"I don’t feel you need to win 12 goals to nine or eight goals to five is a good result, just as long as you win.
“If we kick 20 and they kick 17 we win. That’s all I want, to win."
Matthew Boyd. 'Mark of the Year' contender.
On Sunday Matthew 'Keith' Boyd took a hanger. A spectacular, sensational, bona fide specky. A thing of beauty. Right in front of us. it may have been, almost certainly was, his first ever. But the way he's playing, you wouldn't bet on it being his last.
Matthew Boyd, the former Frankston reserves player who's modelled his game on work ethic and a fanatical commitment to training rather than the fancy stuff, was once derided as a player who could accumulate 40 possessions a week but wouldn't hurt the opposition with any of them. Now I've dubbed him the 'Disposal Efficiency King'. As a re-invented backman, his figures apparently rival those of Murph's.
And best of all, when Luke Beveridge confronted the team and asked whether anyone was daydreaming about finals, none dared own up to the cardinal footy sin of 'getting ahead of yourselves.'
But afterwards Matty Boyd, a 32-year-old with a sometimes stern countenance, admitted he may have been fibbing.
The kids are all right.
At times this year we've fielded five teenagers. At least three of those (Tom Boyd - he's still only 19 people!, Lukas Webb and Bailey Dale) were last week playing for Footscray. There's every sign they will become elite players.
Early in the year I thought our team resembled the carefree 'Kids of 2006', that's a mirage - but not in the way you might think. That team fielded no teenagers, and our average age when we thrashed Collingwood in an elimination final (that was fun) was almost 26.
In 2009, our closest premiership tilt in recent times, we were also much, much older than our current crop. As my stunningly ingenious graphic below demonstrates, the experience profile of the two teams is completely reversed. As history would show, that team needed to win the flag that year - or not at all.
But because this is the positivity post, let's just savour the fact that almost every week this season we've fielded the youngest team (even more than the 'franchises'). With a staggering total of 18 players with less than 100 games experience in the team that obliterated Melbourne last week, what could this group achieve as they mature and create an era together?
We get to see The Bont. Every week.
When 18 year old Marcus Bontempelli kicked THAT goal that made the whole footy world sit up and gasp last year, I wrote:
If the Bont becomes the superstar we hope he will be, how much excitement, magic and sheer entertainment could be bring and how much could he bring sparkle to the image of our battling club. And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I’m imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I’m all set to get one myself).
In his second season I've seen nothing to make me regret the hyperbole.
And my Bont badge gets proudly pinned to my scarf each week.
The hulking big key forward we've been crying out for? Right at the moment, that would be Jack Redpath, a 24 year old rookie-listed carpenter with two knee reconstructions, crashing packs around the forward line.
A dashing distributor from the backline to replace the peerless Lindsay Gilbee or (I can barely write the words, but Bob Murphy one day)? Apparently it's Shane 'PornStar' Biggs, a Sydney reject playing inauspicious footy for Footscray who has grabbed a spot in the backline and has no intention of giving it up without a fight.
That curly-haired tagger who didn't really seem to have enough outstanding tricks in his book to make the grade, despite an illustrious pedigree? Let's applaud Mitch Wallis, averaging more than 12 contested possessions per game and now our most important midfielder. (He doesn't tag any more. Bevo isn't that keen on taggers. Of course.)
The mysterious, mercurial, infuriatingly inconsistent Jarrad Grant? Recently seen performing one per centers. And nailing a clutch goal.
I did call this the year of miracles.
We have players that can and do bring a crowd to their feet, players where as soon as they get the ball, the fans begin to stir in delicious anticipation and hope of what might come next.
It could be Jason Johanissen careering through the middle on one of his exhilarating runs. Or Jake The Lair Stringer bustling towards the ball, making the impossible look simple and then celebrating as only a lair ('a flashy man who likes to show off', remember) can do. It could be Easton Wood's soaring marks, dazzling athleticism and remarkable bravery, or Bob Murphy's feather-light sidestep followed by a beautifully weighted 50 metre pass on his wrong side.
(It could even be Matthew Boyd taking a screamer. But I don't think anyone but Matty saw that one coming.)
Honouring the men of '54.
Last week some of the dwindling ranks of our solitary '54 premiership team were in the rooms and met Luke Beveridge after our 97-point win against Melbourne - the team they comprehensively defeated so many years ago.
Our team were wearing black armbands on Sunday to honour the memory of that brilliant young 'excitement machine' of the '54 legends, EJ Whitten. And we were told it was also a mark of respect for the Bulldogs' fans who have passed away this year too. There were some wry smiles at this announcement. So many of us have wondered, as the years drag by, if we will ever see the Dogs win a flag in our lifetime.
The vision of the premiership heroes makes me melancholy. And then strangely hopeful. Wasn't it the Boston Red Sox who waited 86 years between World Championships, breaking something perplexingly called the Curse of the Bambino in the process. Anything really can happen...
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.