“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, and that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”... J. B. Priestley, about the meaning of their local football team to the citizens of a grimy (mythical) Yorkshire town called Bruddesford (1929)
It's September and spring is in the air. With our team in the finals, the western suburbs should be a hotspot of excitement and chatter: who'll be selected, what are our chances. Instead they are a hotspot of COVID anxiety.
Our mood every day is defined by case numbers instead of our ruck conundrum. And yet we find time - for it means more to us that ever - to think about our team and what they might do.
Their finals journey, in these strangest of times, has been more like an arduous pilgrimage. They departed Melbourne to play in Tasmania, not knowing whether their stay would be long or (at the time it seemed only too likely) embarrassingly short. The dads in the group - Libba, JJ, Easton Wood - were leaving behind their partners and small children. In these lockdown days those partners are heroes in their own right, unable to call upon friends and families to come around and help them with fractious toddlers.
For Bevo and his All-Travelling Western Bulldogs, maybe pilgrimage isn't the right word; perhaps Our Boys are like rock stars constantly waking up in new destinations on a never-ending road trip. Yet when they arrive at each new city there's no chance for hell-raising or trashing their rooms. In Brisbane they isolated in their own single rooms, unable to even mix with each other apart from one walk per day, a disembodied PA announcement alerting them to the fact they could open their door to get a meal. All the while knowing that it's not impossible that further mis-steps in Australia's COVID battle might end not only their seasons but close down the 2021 season for good.
Back in Melbourne our new matchday routine doesn't require any effort or planning. No anxiety for us any more about procuring finals tickets, no mingling with fans as we head towards the ground, smiling at outlandish costumes or as the Tragician loves to do, eavesdropping on snippets of people's conversations; it's only about plonking in front of the TV. And yet there's a frisson of excitement, as difficult to repress as it is to keep Cody Weightman from whooping and hollering on the forward line, as we watch Our Boys run out together on a balmy Brisbane evening, a thousand kilometres away from us in our locked-down homes.
Against the Bombres the match never rose to great heights (I could be mean and say this was due to the quality of our opponents, but as you'd expect, I rise above such pettiness). But right from the start, this night, this final...the temperature has risen from the events in drizzly Launceston in more ways than one. The pace is frenetic, with us looking initially the more switched on. But then comes a flurry of sheer brilliance from Charlie Cameron, which may well have made Easton Wood, helplessly clutching to reach him in his road-runner-style wake, wish he was back home with those fractious toddlers.
There is absolutely everything that is great about footy in this final. There are swings in momentum, periods of dominance from each team, yet never a sense that the team dropping temporarily behind isn't still dangerously in touch. There are individual acts of courage and dare - including virtually every one of maestro 'Celeb' Daniel's audacious kicks, in which he alone sees impossible opportunities in time and space.
Players from both teams fly recklessly for marks, scramble and scrounge in packs, wrap their arms around other strong muscular opponents and bring them toppling down like trees.
And the two best men on the ground in the first half are wearing red white and blue; they keep rising above the fray, keep intersecting with the match at the most telling of moments.
The first is our captain, a man very occasionally mentioned in the Tragician blog. How can be be both so powerful and graceful, a man taller than many ruckmen! loping around with poise, taking a nonchalant bounce (and then another), his elegance and vision floating above the frantic hurly-burly. And yet, he is somehow equally at home in that hurly-burly, when he isn't, of course, helping out the backline as well; or bobbing up at the end of a chain of running possessions which he himself began.
The second is Jackson Macrae, who should be long past any trite associations with adjectives 'unobtrusive' and 'low-key'. He has ten possessions before most players have even had one. To the casual observer he looks laconic. But every Bulldog fan knows, and is thankful for, the burning ambition, the drive to succeed, the pride in his craft that lies behind our second great superstar Jackson Macrae.
There are hundreds of metres of turf at the Gabba, yet the battle dwindles and condenses as all great matches do: to centimetres painfully gained or painfully lost. Toe-pokes, deflections, random bounces, interspersed with sudden electrifying bursts out into the open. The Lions edge three goals in front in the third quarter, but the Tragician, who'd been so maudlin about the likelihood of a Bombres' win the week before, starts to see signs that this group have the same spirit of the 2016 finals series. They too, exude a confidence and passion, a refusal to lie down. Maybe they won't win. But there's no way they will be split open, no chance that they will let this slip without leaving everything on the line.
Just like the fabled GWS preliminary final, we rally at the end of the third quarter. The momentum of the match twists and turns; we regain the lead. In our lockdown homes our agitated and incoherent directions to the players are even less likely to influence the outcome than if we were actually there. But that fact has never stopped the pandemonium. The terror. The magnificent hope.
Only eight of the 2016 premiership players are now out there, but their experience tells at critical moments. And beside these Usual Suspects, an amazing game is being played by a 20-year-old with a hairstyle that can no longer be simply called a mullet. Bailey Smith's extravagant locks have led one commentator to say 'he looks like Fabio and sometimes kicks like him.' The journo was referring no doubt to his unreliable left foot that can sometimes make Bulldogs' fans wince in horror - yet that's the one that drills a massively important goal, confirming 'Bazlenka' - still a precocious 20-year-old, people! - as a big occasion player.
Scores are level; there are two agonising minutes still to be played. I've long since lost the power to breathe, but I somehow spot at a ball-up inside Brisbane's 50 metre arc, one Bulldogs' player who beneath his moustache appears to have an impish half-smile. He looks as though he is simultaneously right there in the intensity of the furnace, yet able to savour both the gravity and absurdity of the occasion: the enigmatic heartbeat of our team, Tom Liberatore.
In 2021 the Dogs have had two heartbreaking losses in these suffocating, tight matches. We're only too aware we failed to play those big moments well. So when the ball goes forward to an open Brisbane forward line with Charlie Cameron sprinting towards it, even the sight of Taylor Duryea hot on his heels can't stop a nightmare vision; we feel we know too well just how this script is likely to end. But 'Doc' plays it beautifully. He stops the electric speedster from grabbing and sprinting off with the ball towards goal; equally importantly, he doesn't concede a free kick, tempting as it must be to try just one tiny jumper tug, one little not-well-enough disguised paddle towards the boundary line.
We play all the moments right, with Vandermeer getting his boot to the ball and kicking the celebrated handy point; with little time to go, JJ almost physically propels Aaron Naughton towards the backline to shore up our flimsy advantage. We've learnt from those bitter losses. This one doesn't slip.
For a few moments after the siren sounds we're all too busy jumping around and screaming in our loungerooms to absorb an event that happened in the chaos. I'd half noticed Bont leaving the field with a sore knee, but with the match so excruciatingly balanced, the most I'd had time to think was how much we needed him right then to direct traffic, needed his telescopic 'G0-G0-Gadget' arms in the backline for one last punch. But now my mind turns to our injured captain, subdued and sore on the sidelines. The reality begins to hit. Can we really win next week without The Bont?
It's a question that will preoccupy us all week.
Meanwhile, Our Boys pack up, like a carnival leaving town. They jet off once more, 4000 kilometres away to Perth. That's where they'll rest their aching legs, their exhausted bodies. And then they leave once again, to play in Adelaide, where our well-rested opponents will have slept in their own beds and strolled around unimpeded in their city. (Ungraciously the Tragician hopes at least some will have been at the mercy of some fractious toddlers.)
Meanwhile back in lockdown Melbourne, there's no need to worry about finals tickets. No bustle of cars and comings and goings at the silent Whitten Oval, no throngs of people rushing to see a glimpse of our heroes at training. The Libba Sisters won't be joining a convoy of Western Bulldogs' fans travelling down the highway with red, white and blue scarves proudly trailing out their windows. Living just eight kilometres apart, we won't even be able to sit together, as we did for all those miserable preliminary finals - and that bright and shining one which brought us all such joy.
We won't be there, but through Our Boys' grit, belief, and resilience, we get to escape some of the lockdown drudgery. We have the possibility, at least, as old mate J. B. Priestley said nearly 100 years ago about the trance-like state of the football fan, of entering: 'another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art.'
The 2021 season - every season really - is a mosaic of tiny little fragments. One point - one point! - over the entire season, with all its kicks, goals, points, injuries, separated us from Brisbane, and pushed us out of the top four. A kick after the siren at Geelong; a shot at goal from Bailey Smith, in our match against Port, which just failed to evade the outstretched fingers of the pack on the line; seconds in which Josh Bruce's knee wrenched the wrong way. All these shaped our destiny. And now, again, one desperate lunge from Laitham Vandermeer, one point - one point! has kept our season alive, and ended that of our opponents. We still have another story to be written in what Bevo so poetically and aptly called this often cruel and sometimes beautiful game.
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.