Before Saturday night's game, the youngest member of the Bulldog Tragician clan, my nine-year-old nephew exhibits a disturbing degree of pessimism — or perhaps pragmatism.
“Dad...if we’re getting smashed at half time, can we go home early?” he asks hopefully.
Agh yes - the Tragician spirit lives on.
My nephew Joel (that’s him on the far left in the photo above) is the youngest of four generations to barrack for the Dogs. My two grandfathers stood in the outer when their dodgy tickers permitted; my father played in the reserves and designed the Olympic clock that stood on Mount Mistake for many years (at right). My son ran up and down the steps of the John Gent stand in 1985 wearing his hand-knitted Footscray jumper, on a glorious sunny September evening when we were among 1000s of excited fans who thought anything was possible, watching the team train when they’d made the finals for the first time in 10 years. (Around this time my son also insisted on starting every morning by ‘running through the banner’ — an improvised sheet hanging from the doorway — commentating to himself about his favourite player at the time ‘Stephen The Person’ – McPherson to the rest of us).
Families, generations, the passing on of traditions, and the circle of history – they're what I'm thinking about before the Richmond clash. I'm nostalgic because there's a new member of the Bulldog clan making his debut. I see him for the first time just after the players complete their on-field warm up. A baby-faced kid (surely he’s not old enough to be out there against brutish looking thugs in yellow and black) protected by a tight-knit wall of team-mates, having his new guernsey passed on to him by senior members of the team. His name is Lachlan Hunter. His dad Mark was player number 790 to ever appear for the Dogs. Lachie now joins our ranks, number 975 to represent our club.
After the circle disperses, Lachlan gets an enthusiastic ruffle on the head from others, including veteran player Nathan Hrovat. (He’s an old hand, now, in his third game.)
In this topsy-turvy fixture, it’s our first re-match of the season. In round three our performance against Richmond had dampened down the misguided expectations that I confess I’d developed after a relatively bright start to the season. We were brought down to earth in a 67 point old-fashioned drubbing where we never gave a yelp. Playing the same opponent would, I decide, be a chance to measure how far we’d progressed. Are we more competitive? Is genuine, if slow, progress is being made? I’m hoping to see a picture that tracks an orderly path, an encouraging tale about the future, steady progress, and regeneration.
Yet I realise quickly, it's impossible to make a neat, straightforward comparison. There's already been an enormous transition in two short months. No fewer than eight players from that match did not run out with Saturday night’s team. Missing from the Round Three line up are: the chronically injured who’ve missed virtually all the season: Shaun Higgins, Tory Dickson, and Easton Wood. Blokes who were missing because of short term injury but have been regular and solid contributors: Tom Young and Koby Stevens. Two young hopefuls who haven’t seemed to thrive: Mitch Wallis and Tom Campbell. An old dog whose card now seems to have been marked: Daniel Cross (the earlier Richmond match had been his 250th ).
Lachlan Hunter gets quickly involved. His debut is lively and impressive, though he doesn’t remind me at all of his old man in either looks or style of play. Later I read a beautiful account by a Footy Almanac contributor, Andrew Fithall, who knows both Mark, and Lachlan’s mother Colleen – a sporting legend in her own right who captained Australia in lacrosse. He wrote of the moment that Lachlan lined up for a shot at goal with his second ever kick:
As he went back, Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt was heard to say ‘You won’t kick this you f*cken midget.’ But he did kick it. Colleen is grateful the TV cameras hadn’t yet located them in the crowd – they would have seen her tears.
Lachlan Hunter is playing alongside Tom Liberatore, another father-son. Libba Senior was the shortest ever player to win the Brownlow. I believe he’s still the record holder for the most tackles in the VFL/AFL. We all shed a tear in his last ever game in 2002, when this most unlikely of football heroes got chaired off the ground. It was only fitting that he was sporting a broken nose, shattered in the first couple of minutes in a sickening though accidental clash with a fearsome man-mountain three times his size, Sav Rocca.
In that final match, one of Libba's team mates was a young Daniel Giansiracusa. Now grey-haired and playing as an almost permanent sub, on Saturday night Gia paces up and down the sidelines, offering support, advice and encouragement to his former team mate's son, who is still learning the game, and learning about life too, from his 'big brothers', men he would have idolised as a star-struck little boy.
Gia is playing game number 240. One hundred and seven of these have been wins, probably an average that’s better than most in our Bulldog rollcall. Saturday night was not one of them.
Four of the newcomers from the Round 3 side are our draft picks from 2012, a group of 18 and 19 year-olds playing together for the first time this year. One of them, of course, is Lachie Hunter. Another is Jake Stringer, who somehow seems to crackle and bristle every time he goes near the ball.
Jake nails a goal on the half time siren (thwarting Joel's hopes of an early exit). He goes up and chests a Richmond player, sparking a tepid brawl, but it brings us to our feet. Stringer !!!!!! – player number 973 to pull on the red, white and blue guernsey. (In our family it seems significant that it's the maiden name of my mother — the Bulldog Tragician matriarch). I don’t think Jack Riewoldt would be game to call him a ‘f*cken midget’. Long may Jake exhibit his strut.
We don’t lose by 67 points this time. We lose by 60. We’re more competitive for stretches of the game, especially early. But what’s painfully apparent is the waning of the older players. They look slow, uncertain. There is little in between, a massive gulf between the raw young kids and some veterans. If I needed any confirmation that glory days are not going to come around quickly, Saturday night confirms it.
Writing about a losing sports team, according to Martin Flanagan, is a difficult task: like ‘trying to play with an orchestra in which the various instruments drop out until you are left in silence, holding the baton.’ Players like Gia are holding that baton, passing on our traditions, shaping a future that they won't be part of . What the young guys do in the silence that will come when he and other older players leave the arena, just as Libba and Mark Hunter have done, is a story alll of its own, still to be written.
Postscript: there's more about the clock, and my dad, here and at Scoreboard Pressure
The Footy Almanac story on the Hunter family is here.
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.