One day a few years ago, as I was leaving a Bulldogs' match, I came across a man pushing a twin pram. Fast asleep inside were two babies, only a few weeks old. They were wearing little Bulldogs’ jumpers, and their pram was decorated with red, white and blue ribbons.
This was deep in the interminable gloom of the BMac era. Ten goal drubbings, a grimly defensive style of footy, and a dearth of starpower: these were our lot. We were excruciatingly bad, once losing nine games on the trot.
I caught the eye of the twins’ dad as he trundled along with an all too familiar air of stoicism.
‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained with a wry smile.
Resilience. It's a term bandied about a lot in the lead-up to our match against Geelong.
The players were dealing with the aftermath of the horrific injury to their team-mate Mitch Wallis and a third knee reconstruction for Jack Redpath with 'resilience’, Bevo Our Saviour told the media scrum.
Endearingly, he could not hide his own tears and quavering voice as he spoke.
Another reason to love our Plantaganet-look-alike, Willy-Wonka-quoting, skateboard-riding coach.
But when the team selections were announced on Thursday night many wondered if even Bevo had already conceded the match as a certain defeat.
The losses of Wally, Redpath and Dale Morris were expected. But we had no inkling that we'd also miss the two Matthews, Boyd and Suckling, both out with Achilles' strains.
The team that was named would run out as the youngest and least experienced of all those fielded on the weekend. (Don't be fooled by the hype around the 'Baby Blues'; the despised 'Acronyms' - GWS; or even the deservedly enfeebled 'Bombres.' With an average of 23 years and 10 months and just 66 games, we'd eclipsed them all.)
And we were facing the Cats at their fortress; one from from which, as I seem to hear Craig Willis solemnly intone, so few Bulldogs’ teams have ever emerged victorious.
In fact, EJ Whitten, so the story goes, never once drove back down that highway a winner.
And whether at the Cattery or elsewhere, we've failed to defeat the Cats since way back in 2009. Even a few weeks ago, when our list was in much better health, they had no trouble dispatching us and inflicting the heaviest defeat of our season so far.
I always think of Geelong as holding up a two-way mirror to our club. After both clubs were seen as equally talented up-and-comers in 2006, their path diverged into premiership glory; ours of course did not.
Yet their very success also provides a window showing what can happen, how a flaky under-achieving club can finally smash through their history of non-achievement and then build a success-hungry dynasty, a new narrative of success, an aura of invincibility.
That dynasty is still very much alive, with at least six (it was too depressing to do an exact count) of those triple premiership players in the line- up.
In the time-honoured tradition of opposition players achieving milestones whenever they face us (how did Brent Harvey mis-time his record-breaking match?) the Cats would also be celebrating the glorious careers of two of their triple premiership heroes - and serial Bulldogs tormentors - Corey Enright and Jimmy Bartel. The crowd would be revved up, parochial, and at fever pitch. Only a small contingent of Dogs' fans would be there, given the exorbitant price the Geelong club demands for the small number of available seats, to attend this miserably cold night, when our depleted team is expected to cop a shellacking.
Our players, right from the opening bounce, had different ideas. They stunned us all with their intensity, their overwhelming determination to win.
You’d think that last week’s horrible events might have made them hesitant; that there might be moments of tentativeness, a sharper instinct for self-preservation. Yet they were fiercer, braver, more committed, than ever before.
Unlike a couple of other teams I could name Our Boys didn't resort to over the top fake toughness or bravado. There was no posturing, no 'line in the sand' statements. This was a different, more difficult form of courage. The footy world, we the fans, would all have forgiven, excused, accepted a heavy loss. But Our Boys hadn't abandoned their courage, the courage to believe.
Leading the way with an imperious performance was Libber (The Second). He was playing, you felt, for his fellow father-son recruit and lifelong mate, the wounded Mitch Wallis, as much as himself. Despite his own injury woes – last year’s knee reconstruction, a visit to hospital with busted ribs only a couple of weeks ago – Libber played as though, as his famous dad did so often, his own over-sized will could - and would - drag us over the line.
It was a little more surprising to see another Tom instrumental in our impressive start: everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Bulldogs’ answer to Jack Watts, he of the much discussed pay cheque, Tom Boyd. There’s always been a rather placid air about big Tom, little sense that he could use his big frame in the wrecking ball style of Clay Smith, no real evidence that inside him burned the competitive flame of a fierce athlete, but on Friday night it looked like he'd had enough of the gibes, enough of the caricatures. Under pressure that's unimaginable for a 20-year-old, he showed the 'blue chip' talent that Bevo talks about, the potential champion he can become if his fitness base builds up and injury fates (not, admittedly, our friend of late) a little kinder.
The first quarter siren sounded with the Dogs only one point down. The Cats looked, if not shell-shocked, nettled and aggrieved.
Our depleted team had somehow reached somewhere deep, somewhere perhaps even they didn't know they could, and had shaken a defiant fist in the direction of the footy universe. They were playing with heightened recklessness on behalf of - or because of - their injured comrades. And I wished that I was there, to stand with my fellow Bulldogs' fans, and applaud them and give them our thanks.
The second quarter unfolds: like soldiers, we begin to slowly concede ground in a war of attrition. The Cats start to realise that there is no need to join our players and scrabble at the bottom of the pack; they can afford to have one player standing outside, ready to coolly sweep the ball down field, where our defensive gaps are painfully exposed. The toll of our relentless efforts, our frenzied domination with so little effect on the scoreboard, threatens to - but never quite does - inexorably grind us down.
The days of dazzling Round One 'sexy' footy are long gone; it's hand-to-hand combat in which we now must engage.
And yet we see, with an air of disbelief, that our hardiest soldier, Libber, is off the ground. Yet again, the wretched sight of an essential player, squirming in pain, concerned doctors by his side. Libber will not return for the rest of the match.
Another of our best, Luke Dahlhaus, who's lit us up with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, begins to tire. Umpiring decisions don't go our way. The Geelong players begin to exude that air they've always had over us; they look taller, stronger, fresher, faster.
More ... uninjured.
Yet even though the Cats' authority over the match grows, it's never unchallenged. A few times, it seems a dam wall is about to break and they will rampage over the top of us, but we bob up irrepressibly again - I'll never quite know how.
We're still threatening, still surging, even in the last quarter, when we lose yet another player, Jack Macrae, that unobtrusive, tireless runner, who'd been doing a fine job on Joel Selwood and still got 20 possessions himself in three quarters.
Old-fashioned words come to my mind as the final siren sounds, and the Dogs register a 25 point loss. Gallantry, and grace.
We'd played the game, as a certain song that we've heard too many times goes, 'as it should be played'.
Our Boys stayed on the ground as Enright and Bartel were chaired off. Their heads were held high. They weren't losers. They'd just lost a game.
There are ten-goal wins that have not made me as proud as this.
In those painful BMac years, throughout those tedious, repetitive losses, it was sometimes all I could do to unearth one little nugget of hope, one little moment to be proud of. Maybe it was a first gamer in whom we could invest all our hopes and fantasies, or a plodding journeyman who had somehow, unexpectedly, had a breakthrough game. It might be - it often was - a moment of suicidal Daniel Cross madness as he backed fearlessly into a pack.
There were many nuggets to choose from on Friday. But there are two that I have decided I will always cherish in my memory bank.
The first one was the vision of Libber on the sidelines, heavily strapped, knowing - as he must have - that he faced weeks on the sidelines, the surgeon's knife. He was watching the game as intently as the most devoted fan, clapping his team-mates, urging them on.
The other nugget was the splendid sight of The Bont taking the opportunity to set Joel Selwood smartly back down on his derriere (this is a family themed blog). Like every Bulldog fan for so many years, The Bont looked sick and tired of being pushed around by Geelong.
Agh, The Bont. Exquisite skills - check. The leadership and character of a champion -check. Just the right amount of aggression, just the right time to send a statement - wouldn't you know it, our 'golden boy' has the right stuff for that as well.
And yet, while we're proud, we the fans, who have been patient so long, must absorb the knowledge that we must, it seems, be patient once again.
We'd all nurtured hopes that in this even season, with no standout team, we could snatch an unexpected flag (though, after a 61 year drought, the words 'snatch' and the phrase 'unexpected' aren't exactly what I'm reaching for).
It's getting harder to imagine us, with our injury toll, slogging our way through gruelling finals and featuring on that last day of September, 2016. But judging by Friday night, Our Boys aren't accepting that as an inevitability. Not one little bit.
The little twins, in their Bulldog jumpers, must be pre-schoolers by now. Maybe, like my own little boy at that age, they insist on starting the day by running through a banner - a makeshift sheet that I was required to hang from a doorway for this purpose. I imagine them running around the backyard, kicking a footy with their patient dad. They probably wear the numbers four and nine on their backs, like most western suburban kids I see wearing red, white and blue. Or they could be wearing 21, for Libber. Number 3, for Wally. They're learning resilience. Bulldog resilience.
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.