"Football, the game, the experience, the stuff of life, it exists for us to connect with a world that’s gone and the one that’s coming. It enlighten, enlivens, it bores, it frustrates, it gives us tiny moments of triumph along with long tracts of failure. Truly all human life is here, for football is the power, the glory, the misery, the humanity, the laughs and the loss, forever and ever. In the lives of so many of us, football is a light that never goes out."
Fans of the Western Bulldogs are facing year number 61 without a premiership, reeling from an off-season of heartbreak, the disastrous, messy walkout of a captain, and the ugliness which always surrounds the sacking of a coach.
Yet we are still eagerly awaiting Saturday night's first bounce of the ball.
In fact we feel just as much anticipation, the same nervous excitement, as the smugly complacent Hawks' fans (whose only concern is whether a three-peat is on the cards) or others who fancy themselves as flag contenders.
It's not because we genuinely, in our heart of hearts, doubt the predictions of those disappointingly pragmatic footy experts, and their unanimous consignment of us to the stragglers in the bottom four of the ladder. Though naturally, we've managed to rustle up an appropriate degree of righteous indignation at their lack of faith. We've indulged in feverish replaying of our NAB Challenge triumph against the Pies, proof that we could just surprise the tipsters, and even ourselves. (I mean - did you see THE BONT?). We pore over every word of that interview with our captain Bob Murphy (and doesn't that phrase itself put a spring in our steps) where he reckons the talent of this young group exceeds that of the 2008-10 contingent. We've imbibed all the hype about our new recruits; the new coach is enthusiastically embraced. A likely type, we agree, an assessment mainly based on alarmingly muscular arms and glimpses of that slightly crazed glint that only the best coaches have.
Yet despite everything, we know. We know that those annoying critics are predicting a realistic outcome for our club and where it's at right now. We know that there's been too many hundreds of games of experience lost; we know that the added wrench of seeing our elite player and best and fairest winner, Libber the Second, sidelined all year with a knee injury will mean that we are likely to be frequently hopelessly outclassed, despite the bright promise of our uber-talented, up-and-coming midfield (I repeat, did you see THE BONT). Especially as the season drags on, there are likely to be thrashings, dark days when our team of skinny striplings gets humiliated, dismal afternoons where we sit silent and stoic, days when we don't really want to get out the 'Bulldog for life' membership ticket, and take our seats with fake jauntiness and black humour.
Something has to sustain us when premierships are not remotely in the frame. There have to be other reasons why we care enough to attend. The AFL seeks to find the answer in improvements to the 'match day experience', but gimmicky songs and cheaper food aren't going to be what sway the faint-hearted when another unsuccessful season drags endlessly on. When it's a wintry July day, the injury list is long, the great white hopes are looking disappointingly fallible, we'll need to reach (deep) for other reasons:
Coaches are fond of saying, 'It might not be your match, but it could be your moment.' A fearful hiding might be on the cards, or even a mundane and plodding win, but you never know. Whole seasons. I confess, are just about completely lost to my memory, yet little time capsules are stored away forever, precious moments that are funny, silly, tragic, poignant, exhilarating or uplifting.
The day that Glenn Coleman breaks a point post. Searching in the Footy Record to find out more about this 17-year-old in the number 29 guernsey, C. Grant from Daylesford, who has just kicked four goals in his first match. Doug Hawkins jostling with Dipper on a Western Oval wing. The immortal line from a frustrated fan: 'The Dogs have had more passes than Bruce Ruxton on Mastermind'. Todd Curley being dubbed 'The Pubic One' by a wit in the crowd. Daniel Cross backs into a pack, eyes on the ball, in a match already well lost.
Libber the First's last game, chaired from the ground, eye closed and blackened, the most unlikely - and yet the truest - of football heroes. The moment some scrawny kid suddenly shows the stamp of the great he may or will become. That fragment of play in which an unpromising fringe player shows the intangible 'X' factor and you know he's going to make it. The mind-numbing, dreadful day that Neil Sachse became a paraplegic. Simon Beasley intercepting a Gubby Allen mark and kicking an after-the-siren goal. The night final where chords of 'Highway to hell' blared out of the sound system at the MCG instead of the national anthem.
If you've been there for these fragmentary moments, how could you risk that this week just might provide another gem?
Yep, we've had our share, and then some - only the Saints' fans could reasonably argue that they have had more. It might seem counter-intuitive to say that they're part of the reason we should still front up, yet they're part of our supporting psyche too. I may feel empathy as I see Pete Sampras or Roger Federer cry during a tennis tournament but I could never claim to share their pain in the same way that I share the anguish of the players and my fellow fans after a gut-wrenching loss.
Together, we've gone through heartaches like watching Chris Grant miss a Brownlow. Sat in a haunting bubble of disbelieving silence aswe watched a Grand Final berth slip from our grasp in 97. Cried as Daniel Cross was chaired off the ground for the last time, dumped by the club to which he could not have given more. A bright, sunny September day in 85 when our team made the finals after a long, long drought and I saw an elderly man with tears silently streaming down his face (we lost by a record margin). Headlines blaring: 'Death of the Bulldogs' in 89. All those preliminary final heartbreaks. Dale Morris' horrific broken leg. Brad Johnson's second last game, where the champ had lost his dazzling skills, was so obviously older and slower, floundering and hesitant, beaten badly in a contest, enduring the jeers and heckles of the ever-sporting Collingwood cheer squad.
Those heartaches are not, as it might seem, the opposite of our moments of triumph and ecstasy, but an essential component of them. If one day Bob Murphy/Nathan Hrovat/Jake Stringer/Caleb Daniel or some guy who's not even born yet lifts the premiership cup, that joy will be amplified and more precious because of the sorrow and troubles we've seen.
Grandfathers that stood in the outer. My mother, the star-struck 17 year old Irish immigrant, queueing from 4 am to see the 54 premiership. My father, the Footscray-born and bred rover and reserves player who didn't make the big time. My children, fast asleep in prams to see training on the terraces, wearing red, white and blue booties.My niece who cries when they lose. Young nephews and nieces jumping on the trampoline and chanting 'Browny is a winker' the day after Nathan Brown made his first appearance in Tiger colours. Kids being handed down number 14 jumpers that were signed by Luke Darcy, and then Callan Ward, and now by Clay Smith, while some of us still recall that it used to be the number of the legendary Robert Groenewegen.
"This club, every club, allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, on and off the field. We are here because our forefathers willed the game into existence, formulated it, supported it in good times and bad and created its ethos, its atmosphere" - Bowlers Delivery, Like a Religion
Those that came before us, silent ghostly spectators, a form of dreaming and collective memory in a club that is more than 130 years old.
Echoes of the playing generations that have gone still waft around this current crop of players; while we watch Luke Dalhaus bustling around the ground in his number six, we remember the 364 games of Brad Johnson that came before him, and further back the grainy footage of the nuggety Charlie Sutton. Bob Murphy soars for a mark in his number two guernsey and a vague memory stirs: Merv Hobbs' wearing the same number, in the iconic mark that graced dozens of western suburbs' fish and chips' shops. Michael Talia, raw and gangly, wearing the number of his grandfather, Harvey Stevens, the ruckman in our solitary premiership team, who still worked in a butcher's shop on the morning of the grand final. (He arrived for the match without his boots, prompting a hurried trip home and meaning he arrived at the MCG with only 30 minutes to spare).
We see the black and white photos of the first Footscray VFL match at the Western Oval, and marvel at some of the quaint differences, the men in their hats and suits (though I'd like to know more about the dame with the umbrella). Yet we wonder how much has really changed. Their stories, we somehow know, are still OUR stories, that even as we tweet or upload our photos or write a blog, we're just the next links in the long and mysterious chain of being a fan of the Footscray Football Club.
5. The crowd
It could be the anonymous, never-again-seen bloke sitting next to me with whom I shared a bone-crunching hug in 2001 when the siren sounded and we'd ended the Bombres' unbeaten run. It might be the old lady in the hand-crocheted red white and blue rug who used to give my little boys lollies in the EJ Whitten stand. It might be the little vignettes we share with strangers that sit around us, the exchanges of rueful smiles, grimaces and head shakes at fluffed opportunities; high fives when something unbelievable and improbable happens, to snatch a game.The guy with tiny Bulldog jumper-clad twins, fast asleep in their prams, who smiles at my interest and says he's teaching them resilience.
But as every interstate match proves too well, the 'match day experience' cannot be the same without our combined noise, anticipation, sorrow and joy, our nerves all jangling at the same time in a close match, our unified groans of despair, our collective intake of breath as a player does something crazy brave, our voices lifted together in our tribal song.
6. The chance to be silly
In real life, we can be concerned about world peace, angered at the treatment of refugees, earnestly doing our bit to speak out on worthy causes and issues of social justice.
At a footy match, a so-called mature adult can wear a Marcus Bontempelli badge, stand on seats and sing an off-key version of a not particularly good song, be unreasonably prejudiced against short bald male persons (otherwise known as umpires), give into irrational dislikes at people of other colours (I refer in particular to those wearing red and black, or black and white), and be militantly, viciously unforgiving about the slights inflicted by Ian Collins, Shane McInerney and the Adelaide fan who waved her scarf at my crying nine year old son in the wake of the 97 catastrophe.
It's refreshing, and good for the soul.
7. Just because
"Of course each of us has our different reasons for going to the game, but if you look across the broad sweep of football supporters, we do not come here to be entertained the way that we do if we go to the cinema or a concert or the theatre. We come here because we have to."
Bowlers Delivery, Like a Religion
We go along each week because, notwithstanding any of the above worthy sentiments, and despite - or maybe because of - the fact that 61 plus years is just a ridiculously long time to wait, still we dream of Our Day. Our Day when it will be different, and it's our team and our long-suffering fans that are sitting high in the MCG, listening to the national anthem, about to play off in a Grand Final, and all the fruitless years and the wintry July days when we get flogged will have a meaning. I imagine it like this:
I look around the crowd. Everyone’s got their own questions, about whether just being here is enough, whether this will be a day to always remember or another in the rollcall of bitter failure, whether our young pups can carry the crushing weight of all of our expectations and years of disappointment and live up to their own dreams. What it will feel like to win, or to lose. Why 22 men running around after a funny-shaped ball on a football field can mean so much to us. Why football really is, as someone that I can't recall once said, the most important unimportant thing in the world.
The quotes in this article are from a marvellous article by a fan of West Bromwich Albion, which rings true for us as well: Bowlers Delivery: Like a religion, January 2015
Memory lane: We played the Eagles in round one last year. Read 'It begins"
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.