These are tricky times to be a Bulldog Tragician.
Just when you think you've come to terms with our place in the pecking order, accepted, even embraced, our mediocrity - what should happen to disturb your equilibrium? Our team is improving, that’s what.
And it means this blog is veering off into perilous directions, as wobbly and unreliable as a Daniel Cross floater into the forward line.
I've lost my hard edge. I’ve capitulated into the warm and fuzzies.
There’s been more references to hope, faith, and belief than you’d see at an American Deep South evangelists convention. The word ‘scintillating’ has been used (and not to describe the opposition). Phrases like ‘bright future’, ‘promising kids’ and 'McCartney is a mastermind!!' are being indiscriminately bandied around.
Next thing you know I’ll be changing the blog title to ‘Bulldog Optimistician’, putting little smiley emoticons everywhere, and looking to folk songs for inspiration.
The reason this is tricky? Well, the Dogs getting better puts us in the danger zone again - where we can start to dream. There was a drab comfort in turning up for the first half of the season and expecting to be crap. Grim humour in the ineptitude, the startling lack of skill, the astonishing variety of stuff-ups, the long quarters where it was possible to forget we had a forward line. 'We're hardly in uncharted waters,' one friend who's been alongside me for so many dark times consoled me.
Sure, being terrible hurt, but we could brace ourselves for that sort of pain. The 'daring-to-believe-and-getting-kicked-in-the-guts' kind of pain? Maybe we've had that once too often.
For fans of a club like the Bulldogs it’s as hard sometimes to really enjoy and celebrate the good times, and invest in a better future, as it is to endure the lean times. We don’t have a deep well-spring to draw upon, a proud legacy of bad times being immediately followed by success, the capacity to point to history and say, ‘Sure, things aren’t brilliant at present, but wasn’t it great when we won that flag (or two)?’ It's actually one of the saddest things about barracking for this club that even when sunnier skies dawn, we can’t believe that this is the beginning of another grand new era. (A shrink, or even the Women's Weekly, would probably diagnose us with trust issues).
Because, let's face it, we’ve seen a lot of those grand new eras. And we’ve seen how they end. I’ve been there for the Mick Malthouse renaissance of 1985; the Terry Wheeler teams of the early 90s who kept running up against slick Geelong outfits; the Terry Wallace era, which included the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named, and when we'd barely recovered the following year, the Other Preliminary Final That It Wouldn’t Be Very Good To Talk About In Polite Company.
Recently, we've had more carpe diem moments. Three consecutive preliminary finals, the first in 2008 where in my view we just doubted our own capacity to beat the Geelong super team which showed itself to be mortal the following week against the Hawks; the second in 2009 where I could not have been prouder of their steel and courage but wretched umpiring seemed to conspire against us; the third in 2010 where our era imploded. Gallant, injured, hobbling through the final, knowing our time was not going to be now.
There’s a unifying theme there. And it’s not just malign fate or sinister AFL conspiracies, much though these are tempting explanations. However much I might rail against the controversial Riewoldt free kick; despair about the Billy Brownless after the siren goal; agonise about whether The First Libba’s ‘point’ in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named was actually a goal; fume that Leigh Matthews pulled out his final cameo in one painful quarter to destroy us…each of those Dogs’ teams wasn’t quite good enough, for whatever reason, on the day.
I've never seen a Bulldog team that's good enough. The closest was probably the one that blew its chance to reach the Grand Final in 97. (Cue the nightmare flashbacks). That awful day, and the accumulated layers of disappointment in all the others, have made us hesitant to hop on the rollercoaster again, strapping ourselves in, bracing ourselves for another dizzying ride.
Right now we're slowly ascending that rollercoaster hill, the wind on our faces, the tracks clicking beneath us, not quite sure what's on the other side.
Could there be a flag, built on the back of some famous Bulldog names - Hunter, Wallis, Liberatore? Could Tom Campbell, our unlikely forward hero of late, be the one who stands tall in the goalsquare on grand final day, pulling in a strong mark when we are two points down? (The Tragician, meanwhile, attended by a squad of paramedics). Will it be Jackson McRae loping down the wings of the MCG, landing daisycutter passes on the chest of the brute Jake Stringer? Might Bob Murphy and Ryan Griffen still be in the side, defying age and probability, Griff bursting through packs and Murph floating around making it all look so easy, the steadying veterans playing supporting roles to the precocious pups?
When the final siren sounded on Sunday, all things seemed possible. Seventeen thousand people were making enough racket to lift the roof when the Dogs, (who last time these teams met could only manage four goals for the whole match), stormed home in the last quarter with seven. At three quarter time our blokes looked fatigued, down and out, barely holding the Crows to a relatively respectable lead. Floodgates were about to burst. There was no inkling that the team about to launch into a goal-kicking rampage, running around like a fleet of demented mosquitoes, would be our team. My young nieces and nephews decked out in their jumpers leapt up and down, starting the Bulldog chant in our aisle and stamping their feet. For them there's still the sheer joy of footy, untainted by what ifs, could have beens, or ghosts of preliminary finals past. Just their team, winning and playing their hearts out.
There might have been a tear in the Tragician's eye, but it could have just wonderment at what I'd been seeing, Lachie Hunter's mark and 10 possessions in the last quarter, Wallis shutting down the Adelaide DangerMan and finishing with an ice-cold kick at goal, or the Real DangerMan (Tom Campbell, of course, practising for his role in my daydream) slotting four.
The only thing that misfired all day was the PA system, which played the Bulldogs' song so softly it seemed someone had literally put a sock in it. (Chief suspect? You're not fooling me, Ian Collins.)
Walking out and marvelling at the joy on the faces of all my fellow ecstatic fans, snatches from another song has started strumming in my brain, a golden oldie from Buffalo Springfield, an invite to our seats on the next Bulldogs rollercoaster:
there's something happinin here
what it is ain't exactly clear...
it's time we stop, children
what's that sound
everybody look what's goin down
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.