The Saints and Bulldogs, we’re fellow travellers on the highway of disappointment.
Our clubs are far and away the two worst performed of the original Victorian clubs. All that’s up for grabs is that timeless question: who deserves the ignominious mantle of ‘worst ever?’
As we each have claimed one single premiership, bragging rights would involve splitting hairs on whether you rate the Saints’ greater collection of wooden spoons (26, a mere four for us), as the most reasonable measure of diabolical failure, or whether grand final appearances are a fairer yardstick (only two ever for the Dogs, a more respectable seven for the Saints).
In 97 it seemed this gridlock of non-achievement would one way or another be broken. All was in place for a meeting of the perennial under-achievers: the ultimate, sentimental, tear-jerker grand final was on the cards. Like the fabled rivalry of Harry Potter and Voldemort, only one could have lived - in this case having finally escaped the title of the Worst Team Ever. The Dogs failed to keep their appointed Date with Destiny (don't worry, I'm not going to trawl through the reasons again); the Saints at least played their part by making the Grand Final, but a certain South Australian team over-ran them, winning their first flag after just seven years in the competition.
(However, I'm not bitter).
More recently, the Saints stood in the way of us getting to only our third ever Grand Final berth: Ross-Lyon created fortresses we were unable to overcome. They thwarted us in consecutive preliminary finals in ‘09 and ‘10. The first of these encounters was a gruelling, suffocatingly tense slog - and I still do believe we were the better team for most of the night. This may either indicate my capacity for delusion or our legendary frailty to finish off other teams in the tightest, toughest contests. I can (and frequently do) lament the eccentric, bewildering umpiring display (thank you Messrs McBurney, McInerney, Chamberlain, a sort of 'Anti-Dream-Team' panel assembled for the occasion), but in my occasional more rational moments, I have to acknowledge our inability to hit the scoreboard when it mattered, including five points in a dominant first quarter, and some 'look away now' inexplicable misses when it mattered in the last. In 2010, however, not even the Chip-On-The-Shoulder Tragician could blame the officiating. The Dogs were simply cooked, a team that had struggled into the finals beset by injury and illness, fortunate, really, to have made it into the preliminary after somehow coming off the canvas in the previous week's final against the Swans. Our era was over; our deficiencies on display; the core of our team ageing; our game style proven inadequate in the most intense battles, winning us only three of the nine finals we competed in our period at the top. We were a team about to slide back, from potential glory, to the more familiar but still depressing nether regions of the ladder.
The Saints didn’t emerge with flags from any of the three grand finals they played in 2009 and 2010, including an excruciating draw. Which always raises one of those twist-of-the-knife questions for me. Which would be the more heart-breaking experience as a fan – to never see a Grand Final, or to get there and witness soul-destroying losses? Dogs' fans under a certain age have never experienced the delirious excitement of the build-up, the chance to revel in every little ritual that we’ve only enviously witnessed from the outside - wearing scarves to work, the sleepless count down to the game, decorating our houses, part of 1000s at training sessions. The Saints fans in contrast at least got to experience all that incredible buzz, but also, hearts in mouths, sick in the stomach I'm sure, saw toe-pokes and errant bounces decide their fate, and still came away with the emptiness of defeat. Judging on our own agonising memories of 97, I wonder if oh-so-close is really just as awful a feeling as miles-away, even more devastating for being tantalisingly within reach, excruciating moments and split-second decisions deciding the outcome, haunting you for many years to come. Are Lenny Hayes and Nick Riewoldt, who've played in three grand finals, any more at peace with their fates than Brad Johnson and Chris Grant, who never got there? Does at least reaching a grand final alleviate to some degree the ache of constant failure, or does losing them by such close margins rub further salt into the wounds that run deep for fans of unsuccessful clubs?
The Saints' and Dogs' fans who were there on Sunday are now facing a different kind of pain. Re-learning patience and stoicism as the tedious business of rebuilding begins again. Accepting thrashings and mediocre performances with some degree of grace after our rare glimpse of success. Learning to be resolute when progress is under-whelming and inconsistent. Farewelling favourite sons who deserved kinder fates; trying to invest in an unfamiliar set of names and faces; lecturing ourselves that it's now 'all about the kids.' Watching, with quiet desperation, johnny-come-lately franchises trotting briskly past us in the race to premiership contention. You might think we're steeled and battle-hardened to this fate, but it's surprisingly hard to go back to 10-goal thrashings, to have the limelight snatched away again, to have to temper the dreams that we'd hardly begun to have. When you've got little to show for all the effort, graft and toil that went into just ... getting close.
Perhaps the hangover of all of this is the reason why the atmosphere at Sunday's game seemed to me, despite the whipped-up Lenny-Hayes emotion, just a little forlorn. This was, compared to the dramas of our recent clashes, an inconsequential match, unlikely to linger long in the memory bank. For Dogs' fans, it was one of only a handful of recent games where we were actually favourites - always something to stir up our inner 'Danny from Droop St.' While a win is expected, a loss will plunge us back into doubts and destroy the fragile self-belief that we're just starting to feel.
It's not much of a game to be honest. We play a lively first quarter but never seem able to put them away, and I can't escape the niggling fear that they'll storm home on a crescendo of Lenny-love. A spectacularly awful decision from the umpires (has the Non-Dream-Team re-assembled, perhaps?) to give Lenny a free has even the Saints fans looking sheepish, and doing that embarrassed little out-of-the-side-of-your-mouth-mutter that you do when you know you've been bloody lucky to get it. Not that it makes them too squeamish for a massive reverberating roar when he slots it through. As every Bulldog fan knew he would. Of course he would.
Still, even the Lenny-Love seems less intense than I expected. The Saints' fans used to be scarily ferocious; now they have to be cajoled, via the scoreboard, to 'Make Some Noise.' What would the inhabitants of the infamous Moorabbin Animal Enclosure make of the need for such a contrivance (perhaps a foretaste of the improved 'match day experience' that I devoutly hope the AFL does not inflict upon us).
Anyway, the Dogs' fans don't need any artificial inducement to cheer whenever Jake Stringer explodes into the fray. Jake prowls around the forward arc with some sort of brutal energy force. Two of his goals are audacious, improbable, almost ridiculous; he seemingly just wills them into existence as he breaks through the flailing arms of helpless, embarrassed tacklers. Best of all, I have a sneaking, secret delight in the thought that Jake may have more than a touch of Inner Lair. We've had so many decent, humble introverts in our team; second-year player Jake Stringer seems to relish the big stage, looks as though he wants to win the game through his own exuberance; today he does his best to do so.
In the last quarter his efforts fade, just as my sister, who really, REALLY, should know better, makes a rookie mistake and says: 'Six goals up..we can't lose from here can we?'
I know; can you believe it?
It's of course the impetus for a flurry of St Kilda goals, and genuine emotion from their fans starts to rock the stadium as they sniff victory and get within nine points. Our players suddenly look flummoxed and panicked; we begin gritting our teeth for another 'defeat from the jaws of victory' occasion. I give just a little glare in the direction of my sister who will shoulder the blame if it happens. But we steady as Cooney and Higgins show their class and experience linking up to carry the ball smoothly out of the danger zone,. There's some handy backup from a first year player who puts on a big last quarter, providing, as my young niece Stephanie has christened it: 'The Bont Factor'. A fierce, bone-crunching tackle from Wood. A timely intercept from Koby Stevens. We're home.
It's hard to know how to feel as the siren sounds. For me it's relief tinged with the realisation that, for all our young talent, we still have a way to go - concentration lapses that are costly, too much dependence on Morris and Murphy in a makeshift back six. And a melancholy resignation, as the players line up to form a guard of honour for Lenny Hayes (and we applaud the man who single-handedly destroyed us in so many matches), to the fact that our two clubs are back grinding it out in the bottom half of the ladder. The elusive premiership is still a mirage; the days of enthralling September battles behind us. For now at least.
Stephanie's presence, though, gives us cover to do something I haven't done in years - head over to the Bulldogs' race like star-struck adolescents to clap the boys off. The Bont delights Stephanie by handing her a signed cap before he wanders off the field, just a gangly, sweet-faced boy when you see him up close. The cheer squad have gathered and have launched into an energetic version of 'Sons of the West.' A Saints fan bellows; 'You're no good, it's just that we're crap!' but there's no heat in his insult, no offence taken as the crowd sing the song and then straggle away.
We stop at the merchandise stall. Only on Stephanie's behalf, of course; I'm not interested in such fripperies. She wants a Luke Dalhaus badge, naturally enough. But while we're there, somehow I end up getting a badge. To celebrate the 'Bont Factor'. And another win, another slow step along the way.
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.