During the week after our painful loss to the Crows, a meme did the rounds on Facebook. It was The Bont, holding up a sign saying: ‘Stick with us.’
Bulldogs’ fans spirits were so low that many were heartened by this apparent (though slightly forlorn) message from our young star.
Soon, though, it was exposed as a mock-up. As Donald Trump would have protested (huffing, puffing, blustering and ramping up the excitable exclamation marks and capital letters); yes, it was indeed ‘FAKE NEWS!!!!’
There was an air of anticlimax after this revelation. Entirely in keeping with most of this season in fact.
Not long after, inspiring words did indeed come our way: this time there was no doubt. The Real Bont had spoken!
At a press conference he spoke of optimism, hope, belief. Knowing what they'd achieved, knowing what they were capable of, would spur this team on. This week, Bont said, Our Boys were ‘galvanising.’
Bont flinched for a milli-second when asked to respond to the wounding assessment of Wayne Carey, who had said, apparently, that our team last week had been playing like men who were ‘broken.’
Then The Bont continued in his usual composed, articulate fashion. The season still had a way to play. Our Boys would keep fighting on. In a phrase that delighted nervy souls such as myself who always fear our champions will leave us, Bont said he was looking forward to playing the next five years alongside JJ who has recently signed a lengthy contract extension.
The Libba Sisters are not exactly ‘galvanising’ as we huddle stoically beneath umpteen layers of clothing at the MCG. In a new climate change phenomenon, apparently that Antarctic iceberg which broke away last week has somehow dispersed breakaway frozen crystals in the direction of the G. Many of these icy splinters have, I'm certain, taken up residence inside my shoes.
At this low point of the season, the Libbas had needed to draw upon the fundamental tenets of Bulldog Tragician thinking to inspire - make that force - ourselves to resolutely make the trek to the ‘G. The importance of simply being there.The hope of even just a few moments to file away in the memory bank.
Waiting for Our Boys to take the field, I alternate between energetic foot stamping to try and break up those crystals, and trips to the ladies simply to place my hands underneath the warm air of the dryers. There is time, too much time, to mull over the emotions the MCG evokes in us now in the post-premiership era. The famous ground was always linked, for our club, with heartache and failure. Now, as I look around, much more wonderful memories assail me. The spot on the forward flank where The Bont himself had elegantly nudged out Luke ‘Good Bloke’ Hodge to take a brilliant mark in the semi final. The "Shane Biggs’ pocket" where in one glorious minute of the grand final, the porn-star lookalike took on sole responsibility for not allowing the ball to travel more than two metres without him materializing to thwart it. The moment Liam Picken stormed towards that open goal, the famous photo of him with a sea of red white and blue emotion behind him.
Just as I used to wonder whether those ghosts of failure were somehow rattling at our windows constantly, now I’ve found myself wondering whether the very grandeur and largeness of those moments is in its own way shadowing us at every step. Can you actually be haunted by your own success?
I don't dwell too long on this great existential question. In the circumstances I move quickly to others: if the AFL is serious about improving our Match Day Experience can they introduce seat warmers? and what exactly are those weird Blues figures and the bongo drums all about?
Our Boys run out: in their midst is wide-eyed first-gamer Lewis Young. I hadn't anticipated his inclusion and know virtually nothing about him, except that he is the youngest player in the entire competition. In order to feign knowledge of his credentials, I’d needed to visit the club website to swot up - I thought it could be useful to have a few statistics at hand to nonchalantly mention at strategic moments of the match. I learnt that, in a highly original twist, his nickname at the club is either ‘Lewi’ or ‘Youngy.’ He is 197cm tall and, more surprisingly, it is claimed he weighs 88 kilograms. ‘Dailey Baley’ had surely hopped on the scales with him when this measurement was taken.
The first ten minutes of Lewis Young’s AFL career do not augur well. He looks all at sea as he is out-marked against the brute force of some of the Carlton he-men (I don’t trouble myself to swot up on their credentials or even names). I wince in sympathy as ‘Lewi’ is brushed aside: I feel alarm at the bruises both mental and physical that are being inflicted. Surely Bevo Our Saviour and the other selectors have got this one wrong, throwing the poor kid to the wolves too early in his fledgling career.
We clap vigorously when he takes his first mark (this has the added bonus of providing a much needed circulation boost).
We clap even more vigorously (this one is for encouragement, to give the kid a boost) when one of his kicks skids alarmingly along the ground (has my all-time hero Daniel Cross really taken over as our skills coach?).
Then we begin to nod and smile whenever he goes near it, delighting in his Easton Wood-style athleticism and dare. Yes, the kid in the long sleeves is doing ok.
‘He was only eligible for the draft by 11 days and was selection 49,’ I say to no-one in particular. ‘I'm reasonably sure his 2.97 second time for the 20m run was the second-best of the 17 players who tested.'
‘Lewi’ is playing alongside the oldest man in the competition, our captain Bob. Murph (some guys just never get interesting nicknames) plays a sadly subdued match.
The man who I like to imagine will be 'Lewi's' captain one day is simply superb. Bont's marking is wonderful, his vision creative. (These things tend to stand out when for large portions of a pedestrian game, it appears BOTH sides have employed Crossy as their kicking coach). His imperious performance is even more remarkable as at times (why, oh why?) he is thrown into the gruelling role of ruckman. (Doug Hawkins said about Chris Grant: ‘You don’t take a Rolls Royce out in the mud.' I get palpitations whenever I imagine the impact of one huge knee into the ribs of our best and most important player.)
The Bont, to my mind, has only one competitor for best-on-ground honours: that cruisy, quiet accumulator Jackson Macrae, the reliable VW to Bont the Ferrari. He alone in the past few dismal weeks has not tapered off in commitment and performance; a Charles Sutton medal may well be coming his way. I’m chuffed when our unflashy but brave and hardworking number 11 goes for a JJ-style gallop through the middle and even bounces the ball.
Our performance wasn't brilliant, or spectacular, but The Bont may have been right again: ‘galvanising’ could be just the most apt description of the Dogs’ resolute efforts, for their palpable commitment to ensuring our season isn't over. Sure, you can still see the dents in their confidence but I feel somehow they have decided to: ‘fake it till you make it'; to self-consciously, deliberately, mimic the intensity, the audacity, the courage of 2016 until they again become innate.
We grind out a 20 point win; we’re still in the finals race, even though those ominous words ‘mathematically possible’ are starting to enter the calculations of whether we can get there. For a week, at least, we’ve staved off that accompanying, even more ominous phrase: ‘If other results fall our way…’
Lewis Young, the 999th man to represent our club, has experienced a win first up. In a post-match interview, he says it’s the best day of his life. There are stars in his eyes as he tries to speak the right footy lingo. ‘We’re working hard, to get back to how we played last year,’ he says endearingly (despite the fact that last year he was an even more splindly 17-year-old and was playing in a junior competition in South Australia).
His face is alight. Footy is still a dream, the game one of delight; he hasn’t yet (how I wish he would never) known its darker side, its heartache.
And with his innocent enthusiasm, he’d given the Libba Sisters that Reason To Be There on this freezing day; in this lacklustre match, he'd given us That Moment to Treasure.
And not just for the eye-catching stuff. There were other, tiny things, that said he would be a keeper. Before the first bounce, he gamely tried, with all the force of those alleged 89 kilos, to intercept and prevent the now obligatory shoving and pushing of his team-mate, the reigning Norm Medallist. Like an irrepressible puppy, he ran down the ground to be part of the head-ruffling and back-patting whenever a Bulldog goal was scored. And when Levi Casboult missed a crucial last quarter shot from 15 metres out (‘my grandmother could have kicked that’ groaned a Carlton fan behind us), ‘Lewi’ went up and decided to let him know all about it,; quite possibly grandmothers got a mention at that moment as well.
Some players explode spectacularly onto the stage in their first games; yet there are so many others whose debuts I can’t remember at all, whose greatness only slowly dawns on you. I vividly recall Chris Grant, a 17-year-old even younger even than ‘Lewi’ kicking four goals in his first astounding debut: yet the first games of Brad Johnson, Easton Wood, Matthew Boyd or indeed Marcus Bontempelli have been consigned to the mists of memory. I remember eagerly awaiting the debut of Jake Stringer, which occurred in hostile territory in Adelaide; even watching from the couch, I sensed something outsized in his temperament; yet I don’t recall the first game of Jackson Macrae, the young man with the inelegant kicking style who somehow nailed the most important 'clutch' goal of modern-day Bulldogs history.
I'd walked out of Princes Park on a day, 17 years ago, when Bob made an inauspicious debut and kicked a wobbly last minute goal; I was jubilant about our unlikely victory but had no inkling that I’d just seen a 300-gamer and a beloved future captain. Yet I’d walked out of Princes Park just as excited on a day in 1988 when our new recruit John Georgiades kicked an amazing eight goals in his first match against those hated Bourgeois Blues. He scrounged together just eight more games, in a year where we finished second-last and faced extinction, and is now best known now as a trivia question.
Yes... as I leave the ground, thinking about the unpredictability of first game form, I know I’m far too battle-scarred, have had my expectations dashed too many times over the years, to fall for the hype around one promising match.
I’ll be reserving judgment. Cautiously biding my time.
BUT... Lewy did take an absolute screamer, must be a shoe-in for the Rising Star, and will most likely have to be tagged next week just to try and curb his sensational matchwinning qualities!!
‘I'm not one to be critical of Bevo, but I'd been calling for this kid's inclusion for several weeks. I also believe he was a standout in the vertical jump results,’ I say, though sadly, no one seems to be listening to me at all.
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.