Agh, Geelong. How you do annoy me. Let me count the ways.
Their home ground is so formidable, at one stage we had a 27-year losing streak against them.
They've feasted on us in finals; who among us isn't thankful that Sydney thrashed them in the 2016 preliminary final, and we didn't have to face the sight of those blue-and-white hoops, and endure Billy Brownless 'King of Geelong' flashbacks.
The Cats have always had the knack of dismantling our pretensions. In mid-2008 we headed to Geelong for an eagerly awaited 'top-of-the-table' showdown. The mood was maudlin on the train back to Footscray after a 10-goal drubbing, while Geelong fans around us artlessly discussed how many of their players had shockers, and expressed disappointment: they should have won by more.
'Taxpayer-funded stadium', as I call the Cats' home these days, does have at least one fond memory for me though. It was where a Geelong wit christened myself and my sister 'The Libba Sisters' because of our petite size; a nickname which has now endured and developed a life of its own.
The Libba Sisters always travel together to the match. At the game, she sits on the left, I'm on the right. We share the rhythms of the game together in unspoken ways. One glance is enough: 'We're switched on today'. Or it might convey the sinking feeling; 'This could be a very long afternoon.'
We're in synch, of course, in our clear-eyed analysis of the umpiring. We have our own private nicknames for the players. We are equally exasperated, and equally devoted, to our beloved team.
The Libba Sisters are too savvy to ever make bold statements that a match is in our keeping. This is because on one occasion, with less than three minutes to go, the Dogs were three goals up. One Libba Sister (okay, it was me) turned to the other and said: 'We must have it now! the Dees would need to get a goal straight from each centre bounce for us to lose.' Soon, we were doing the familiar, defeated trudge from the ground; the Dees, of course, had just done that.
In the wilderness years (which is actually most of our barracking lives) we used to smile when we saw pairs of elderly women, swathed in red, white and blue, arriving at the game together; this would be our fate one day. We extracted a pact from each other: whichever Libba Sister succumbed first to dementia, the other would visit regularly and lift their spirits by pretending that the Bulldogs had just won the premiership.
The trips home after a bad Bulldogs' loss can be a time of white-hot fury. In our safe space we vent our spleen and express wildly inappropriate views that never make their way to a sedate Tragician blog. On one such trip home, after an abominable performance in the first semi-final in 2008, we employed an imaginary red Texta to rate players' efforts. Through tears of laughter, we agreed it would save time if we just de-listed the lot and started again.
We make ludicrous statements, as we adjust, with black humour, to the pain of a loss. Despite no evidence whatsoever that either of the Libbas has any sporting prowess, one of us will claim that a sprayed shot at goal at a critical point was so easy that she, surely, would have kicked it. The other will say she definitely could have out-sprinted a player who'd been caught flat-footed. If things are really bad, we'll agree that our 83-year-old mother would have been more sprightly in the forward line than those who've let us down.
And yet one day in April 2015, driving home after a wonderful victory in Luke Beveridge's first year as a coach, the Other Libba Sister suddenly said: 'I think these boys can do it. I think they're the ones.' The rest of the trip was unusually silent, as we digested those words, barely even able to contain in our minds the hugeness of the idea: a Bulldogs' team running out to play on Grand Final Day.
Eighteen months later the Libba Sisters travelled to Sydney to see Our Boys make their latest tilt at winning a preliminary final. I don't think we stopped chatting or laughing for the whole eight-hour trip; yet we never really discussed the cherished, elusive goal that was yet again in front of us. Or how that same long journey home would feel if we lost.
When it was 30 seconds to go in The Greatest Preliminary Final Ever, and Jake the Lair centred the ball to Tory Dickson, I was too stunned to even understand we'd won. I couldn't hear a thing over the beating of my heart and the roar of the crowd. The only thing that penetrated the fog was my sister grabbing and hugging me, and her words finally made it real: 'We're in the grand final!! We're IN THE GRAND FINAL!!!'
But now... the Libba Sisters haven't sat together at the footy for nearly a year. We haven't even seen each other since the Stage Four Victorian Lockdown began.
Last Friday night I sat alone watching Our Boys take on Geelong. There were no Libba Sister high-fives as the Dogs played their best footy for the year in an outstanding first quarter. It was dazzling, brilliant, but traitorous thoughts lurked in my mind at quarter time. Even though we had smashed the Cats in every way, I knew we could still contrive to lose.
Ominous signs appeared right on cue. We'd lost Laitham Vandermeer, one of this year's brightest prospects, to a hammy. We stopped running, lost the audacious ball movement with which we'd sliced the Cats' defence open. 'Why are we kicking backwards? Please Lord, why is Dunkley in the ruck against Tom Hawkins, who must weigh 180 kilos?' I moaned. But there was no-one there to hear.
Momentum had shifted. Easton Wood was injured; our bench a forlorn collection of ice packs and sadly out-of-form players. We were still trying desperately to keep the Cats at bay, but I couldn't escape the feeling we'd run out of ideas. We were just hanging on while the goals that had flowed so freely were now a painstaking grind for the Dogs to manufacture. Those annoying Cats clawed their way back. They were patient, more professional, more experienced...more entitled.
If only we could have been there in person, the rows around us rocking, the Bulldogs chant becoming frenetic and urgent. Our shouts might have alerted Tim English to the Geelong player who came up behind him like a villain in a pantomime;
our roar of energy and passion might have given our team just an ounce more drive, sparked one more gut-wrenching run.
The Cats hit the lead, after we'd been in front for all but the last five minutes.
It's the worst kind of loss.
Straight after the siren I can only think of it as a capitulation, a continuation of a litany of collapses and failures we've seen so many times. It will take time to work through the reasons, to fit it into a narrative in my head. Were we gallant, and unlucky? Should we be proud of our first quarter blitz? or did it only bring home our fragility, the opportunity we should never have let slip?
Sometime around 11 pm my phone begins pinging; the Libba Sisters are ready to debrief. Anger, depression, bemusement, sorrow; we try to make sense of it all. In our bitter disappointment, it's not out of the question that we might deploy the dreaded red Texta. After all, there had been easy shots at goal missed, that surely one of the Libba Sisters could have nailed. And either of us would most certainly have had the peripheral vision, the quick reflexes, to avoid those slow-motion run-downs in the last, agonizing minutes of the game.
In Italy, people sang opera on their balconies to keep their spirits up during the COVID emergency. In locked down Melbourne, a city of masks and curfews, Libba Sisters send through rapid-fire messages; our mood begins to lift. Soon we're exchanging Gifs of elderly folk in zimmer frames to illustrate the lack of mobility of one of our players in the forward line. Two sisters who used to share a bedroom in Deer Park, who finally did see a premiership together, laughing in the night. We begin to understand that Our Boys did their best, and that footy is absurd as well as occasionally wonderful.
Below: Libba Sisters and a Deer Park childhood; and at West Footscray staion, heading to the 2016 Grand Final.
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.