There are excruciating, oh-so-close losses of under a goal when one unpredictable bounce of the ball, one missed shepherd, one baffling umpire adjudication, or one inexplicable brain-fade by a player makes all the difference between joy and despair. There are numbing 100 plus point losses, where your team is pounded relentlessly and the performance descends into clown-like farce, losing any semblance of footballing confidence, nous, desire and ability. There are brave losses where as a supporter you walk out of the ground strangely uplifted, knowing not one morsel of energy has been left unspent by your team; losses where you can accept that there is such a thing as an honourable defeat, and that these gallant efforts need to be celebrated and respected even when the final outcome is rightly mourned.
Then there are losses that give you a sobering perspective on where your team is at, and ultimately leave you just - sad seems to be the only word I can find. Sunday's loss to the Gold Coast was one of those for me.
I was sad that some of the inspiring moments of our first half performance - the courage of Griffen in weathering a smashing hit which led to a scintillating Cooney goal; Tutt's long-striding run bouncing the ball and his new-found composure in kicking two goals; Murphy's contortionist-style mark in his welcome appearance in the forward line - have been now well and truly overshadowed by a poor and lethargic third quarter, one of the worst we've played in ages. In this disastrous 30 minutes we saw a complete undoing of all the things our team has been striving towards, all the more depressing and infuriating because of its stark contrast with the commitment and endeavour of the first half. As our opponents pranced effortlessly around our leaden, listless efforts to give chase, it was dispiriting to see how quickly we capitulated, how helpless we seemed to stop the flow, how impossible it seemed for someone, anyone, to show defiance, grit and composure in the face of an avalanche of far too easy Suns' goals.
I was sad, too, that instead of recognition, respect and praise for Liam Picken's outstanding tagging performance on Gary Ablett, the incessant focus throughout the TV commentary was instead on whether this must have, surely, been the result of illegal tactics rather than Liam's fierce concentration and intensity (though in one of the private heart-to-hearts that Ablett seemed to feel his due with the umpire, even the umpire admonished him that 'it's not against the law to double team someone' - not sure why this was a revelation to Gaz). Ablett's disappointingly churlish reaction to the rare experience of being bested was in fact reminiscent of coverage of a losing streak of the English cricketing team, where a playful editor penned the headline: 'Can the Poms be beaten fairly?'
Even more insulting was later coverage of Ablett's decision to take the law into his own hands - reframed by the press as 'an errant elbow to pitbull Liam Picken' and 'an off-the-ball incident between the Suns’ skipper and the snarling Bulldog.' (Yes, these are actual quotes, from the Murdoch press). Liam, it seemed, needed to be dehumanised - a snarling pitbull, no less - to fit a pre-constructed media narrative, demonised as a thuggish, talentless hack trying to drag down footballing elite. (One with a weirdly configured body shape too, apparently, given that Ablett's 'errant elbow' to what looked like his head was instead conveniently redefined by a benign match review panel as his chest). As Dogs' fans who admire his quiet tenacity and selfless dedication to his task and the team week in and week out, I only wish there was a way to tell Liam simply, as Bob Murphy said so beautifully about Jordan Roughhead in his column a few weeks ago: 'We love him so.'
I was saddened that our club was clearly held in such little respect by the Channel Seven team. They seemed to have a pre-prepared script of the match which centered on fawning admiration for those exciting up and comers ('they could finish as high as third after today, Bruce!!!') who were facing - um, who are they again? Our players didn't even seem to be extended the courtesy of having their names known by the commentary team. Nothing insightful or thoughtful was offered about our club's strengths and weaknesses, our game style, how we could improve even. We were just the counterpoint. Bit players in the Gold Coast Are On The Rise narrative.
Decisions that didn't favour the Dogs (the sudden resurrection of the 'holding the ball' rule, which has been in hibernation all year, could have been worthy of comment) were quickly brushed aside and never shown or analysed again, with hurried cuts to ad breaks, while in contrast the cameras pored over any sign that the Suns might have been denied a free, or may have captured some new outrage from Pitbull Picken (perhaps he may have got off the leash and been mauling a grandmother at half time just for fun).
It made me sad too that close to best on ground was Jarrod Harbrow. In our colours he was one of my favourite players - his dash, ingenuity and creativity from the backline a joy to watch. Brave, too, as his bone-jarring collision with Jordan Lewis in one memorable game painfully attested. In my mind he came of age in the third quarter of the 2008 preliminary final against Geelong, where he took risks by launching some daring counter attacks from the backline, getting us back into the match. It's a cruel sort of pain, when you've watched a player grow up before your eyes (yes, we also remember that funny little rats-tail hairstyle) to see him further develop that talent and potential at another club. Jarrod is still only 25, and his pace and drive are exactly what our club badly needs right now. How much stronger would we be with Jarrod and Callan Ward, also lifted in the Great Expansion Clubs Heist, still in our line-up. (It's a further twist of the knife to recall that we squandered our Harbrow compensation pick on Justin Sherman who played two very forgettable seasons for us and never came close to replacing the talent of Harbrow).
I was sad because the match made me feel that the story I've been relentlessly preaching to myself about our promising future could well be an illusion. Our road ahead is long, but does it have to be SO long and so barren right now? I'd convinced myself, especially after our encouraging form in the second half of 2013, that the improvement would be linear, that this year we would be just a bit better than last year, that progress would keep building, small step by small step maybe, but with a clear foundation at its base. Sunday's performance shook that faith, maybe because the usual consoling platitudes about age and inexperience aren't, well, all that consoling. The Suns are younger and less experienced than us. They're just - better.
But the biggest cause of my sadness was what this game seemed to represent, the subtext of the direction of the AFL in general, its obsession with planting the flag in new territory, and what it means for us, one of the smallest and pretty much the most unsuccessful of clubs. It's clear to me that the Suns, a plastic, artificial concoction of a club, in their appropriately Ronald McDonald colours, will almost certainly win a flag - quite possibly more than one - before our Dogs come close. In fact their very existence is the reason that our wait will be even more prolonged. Granted endless concessions, allowed to skim off the cream of young talent of the land, and gifted millions of dollars, Gold Coast's path to success isn't a noble, heartwarming story to be admired and celebrated; it's simply what you'd reasonably expect from the advantages they've been granted. Their inevitable success should be seen as a return on investment, not a fairytale.
I can't even conceptualise them as a "club", as a warm, welcoming home to the usual range of crusty and eccentric characters like cranky old boot-studders, or people with mysterious tasks like holding the whiteboard, with fans who will passionately debate for hours exactly what went wrong in that last match - or another long-forgotten one decades ago. Fans who can feel actually physically sick when their lead is at risk in the last quarter, people who get the joke when someone calls out, 'You're a disgrace to Groenewegon's jumper'. Who can remember when Libber The First was just as reviled and feared as Pitbull Picken.
Much though I may loathe and resent our Victorian rivals and feel jealous of their success, I can recognise in them kindred spirits whose loyalty and passion have been shaped around a past that stands for something (yes, even Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon have known pain, bitter defeats and humiliation), a legacy and tradition handed down through generations. These teams still have the silent but ghostly aura of old tribal loyalties and neighbourhood animosities lingering. Dusty halls of trophies, quaint photos of players in lace-up guernseys and exotic waxed moustaches, lockers with the silent legacy of numbers of players long gone but still honoured.
But when I try and envisage the celebrations of a Gold Coast premiership and the excitement of their 'fans' (now there's a club that deserves to call them 'stakeholders') - even my imagination falters. It feels like it would just be a travesty, that's all. While our club has had to fight, scrounge and scrap for its very existence, how could it not be the most empty and vacuous of moments to watch a Gold Coast flag come to fruition? Where would be the tears of joy from long-suffering fans (sorry, stakeholders) at having weathered so much heartache and finally lived to see this day? It would be greeted with as much rapture and emotion as one of the more mediocre episode of one of those interminable TV cooking contests, with the remote control button employed just as hastily by me. Even Bruce McAvaney, surely, would struggle to inject the requisite voice tremble as he says: 'You just get the feeling they've worked so hard for all of this.'
There's an irony that not even Bruce could find delicious: while the establishment of these new 'franchises' may have brought in the humungous television dollars that have probably saved our team's existence, they're creating a landscape where we are at risk of being pigeonholed in our current role of unglamorous and unloved bit players, condemned to condescension and sidelined into irrelevance. We're not even diabolically bad enough or interesting enough to the media to even be the subject of back page inquisitions about poor form that greets Carlton or Richmond, along the lines of 'What the hell's wrong with those Dogs?' ... we're just trundling along in quiet desperation with the also-rans somewhere between 10th and 16th, most likely for the next few years. I could say it makes me sad. But maybe that's not the right word at all.