After we won the premiership, Channel Seven aired a segment in which Bulldogs' players listened, on headphones, while fans spoke about what the flag had meant to them.
It was, to say the least, a tearjerker.
The fans described the club as 'part of their family.' A woman who'd supported the club for 55 years said that as she cut her birthday cake each year, she'd made the same wish - to see a Bulldogs' premiership. One man said his dad had passed away a couple of years before the flag, and after the siren, he'd headed to the cheer-squad end, looked up at the 'beautiful blue sky', and said to his dad: 'We bloody did it.'
They were asked what they would say, if they had the chance, to those men who'd brought this joy to their lives. One by one, they uttered the heartfelt words: 'Just thank you.'
Liam Picken was one of the players who listened in another room to the fans' words, a smile breaking out on his often serious face. One of the fans said he was her favourite player because he embodied the Bulldog spirit and tenacity. He walked out from the other room and embraced her.
I loved the video, despite - (actually, being me, it's because of) - its corny moments. It recognised that most of us never have a chance to say, simply, thanks. In the strange compact between fans and players, we don't always know if they 'see' us as more than people clapping them behind the fence or requesting their autographs, understand that we have stories as individual and compelling as their own. The beauty of the video's concept was that it made those connections were real.
The chance to say thank you is the reason I arrive at whatever-our-home-ground-is called-this-year earlier than usual. Liam Picken, one of the 2016 premiership immortals, is retiring. One too many times our game, exhilarating, thrilling - but always, always dangerous - has taken its toll on the player universally acclaimed for his courage.
Liam didn't play all in 2018 after an injury in a practice match. It was a head clash with fellow hard nut Josh Dunkley, which exacerbated the impact of an equally sickening knock against Freo the year before. While awaiting Liam's return, we began to hear, with alarm, the stories of him suffering severe headaches brought on from the pounding music of the weight rooms. We moved from impatience to see our number 42 out there, sooner rather than later, to a growing dread that he might risk his health by competing again. For while the sight of Liam Picken instinctively putting his head over the ball used to inspire our applause, it had become a prospect to make us squirm with fear.
In the 2016 finals series Liam Picken was an irreplaceable part of an epic story. Even though there were so many little acts, so many kicks, marks, smothers, spoils, handballs — even the mistakes or umpiring howlers and how we responded — creating the picture, contest to contest, quarter to quarter, match by match...I’m not sure we would have won the flag without his competitive spirit.
The fact that his backstory was one of rejections, write-offs, discouragement and rebuffs led extra romance and poignancy to his tale, for by the time he’d made his debut, a 22-year-old rookie, he’d been passed over again and again. Too slow, too unskilled; even when he got his chance, he was pigeon-holed as a dogged tagger, and yet as so many of our rookies have done, once his opportunity opened up, he would never let it slip again, and even blossomed as a brave and attacking forward.
When we’d fantasised about what it would be like to win finals, (unfortunately we often had plenty of time on our hands to conjure up such daydreams) we routinely under-estimated the contributions that would be made by players that were more known for heart and determination than style and athletic gifts.
If we allowed ourselves to imagine the Bulldogs at last there on the MCG, with the longed-for second premiership in striking distance but the game still poised in the balance, we would have expected a charismatic superstar to take charge and will us over the line.
If we’d been allowed a tantalizing peak into that scenario – told only that there would be a player who would launch a specky at a critical moment of the last quarter – the names Bontempelli or Stringer or perhaps Boyd the Younger would have sprung to mind.
When we tried to imagine that moment when we knew, at last, that the drought was over, we wouldn’t have imagined a scruffy individual, known for most of his career as a niggly tagger, storming into goal, framed forever in time against the ecstatic, half-laughing, half-crying faces of our fans.
Now, we can only say thanks, in way that seems pedestrian and inadequate for the magnitude of what Liam Picken has done for us, before a game against the Gold Coast Suns.
Sunday's crowd is regrettably sparse, the atmosphere and the stakes a world away from those vivid 2016 memories. Liam travels around the half-empty stadium in a car with his three beloved children. We feel we know them – Malachy, who had his own moment of fame when he was pictured crying with joy and relief in his mother’s embrace after the preliminary final win against the Acronyms and got to take his dad's premiership medal to 'show and tell.' His twin girls, who celebrated with him out on the ground on grand final day. They all wear their dad's now famous number 42 guernsey.
Those there including myself clap as hard as we can, as though the force of our hands can somehow convey to Liam our thanks, our gladness and sorrow, our love. I hope, through tears, he feels how genuine that force radiating out at him is. I find myself thinking of his words in the time that he still hoped to get back to playing.
"It's an injury with symptoms less visible to others, unlike breaking a leg, it's hard for others to understand what you're going through," he once explained.
"In fact, it can be a lonely and dark road to travel."
Liam looks calm, at peace with his decision, as he waves at us the fans. I feel it anew: what dreadful risks these men and boys take on our behalf each time they take the field. I hope, for Liam and his family, the days of the dark and lonely place are gone.
The motorcade recedes from view. But what Liam Picken has done for us never will.
The match that’s about to be played feels anti-climatic. A round three battle where we are warm favourites against a team that even The Tragician can’t muster hatred for, one of those AFL chess pieces that I don't take seriously as a real club. Unlike The Acronyms, most times they've been a joke rather than a threat.
In the buildup, pre-occupied with Liam Picken-related nostalgia I'd been lulled into a false sense of security, refusing to bow to 'Danny from Droop Street' gloom, brushing aside thoughts about that surely outmoded pre-2016 concept.
The Danger Game.
From the start it felt like a glorified practice match. The roof open, the sun bearing down, a relaxed crowd, no opposition fans to banter with or ignore. The Suns don't even have pantomime villains such as their former charmless captain Gary ‘Voldemort’ Ablett to add depth and texture to our barracking. It’s just a 'Get the Job Done, Boys’ kind of day, four points to bank so that our 2019 form and confidence can continue to build.
Unfortunately Our Boys are in the same apathetic mindset as the misguided Tragician. Before we know it, the Suns are well ahead. We're playing catch-up, and not very well either. We rally to make the by now traditional hard-working-but-fruitless second quarter, where countless forward entries yield little result. In shades of the best-forgotten 2014 season, we seem totally unable to construct neat and precise patterns of play that could lead to a comparatively effortless goal.
In the last quarter, we threaten at last to over-run them, but truth be told, I don't get that sense of compelling urgency, the shift of momentum where you know you're somehow going to pinch the game. It would have been a travesty if after trailing all day we'd won...though this of course would not have prevented rousing renditions of our song while, with relieved chuckles, we acknowledge we didn't deserve to win, but gloat that four points is four points...
There are no relieved chuckles however, just the well-worn Trudge of Disappointment while a ghastly and rarely heard Suns theme song echoes in our ears. The Dogs have fallen short and let slip a game that could be of critical importance if we're to play finals this year.
Next week, though, we'll return to the MCG field of dreams. Playing one of the fiercest, proudest clubs with their raucous, energetic supporters, at a stadium thick with history and emotion. I know, however the Dogs perform, whatever the score, whether the match is thrilling or a dud, there will be moments when my mind drifts back to 2016 ... and the day we 'bloody did it.'
I'll look towards the Punt Road end and with a lump in my throat, travel back in time to those moments underneath the beautiful blue sky. When thousands of us willed Liam Picken to make that tackle on Dane Rampe, and our dreams held him in suspension as he soared for that mark, and we took every step with him as he raced in and kicked that winning goal. With all of us, and for all of us.
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.