Now, though, on this humid evening, with the match slipping from our grasp, the atmosphere is suffocating. Lungs are bursting; legs are heavy. There’s not one ounce of energy to draw upon to avert a looming catastrophe.
I always knew my lack of a solid pre-season would come back to haunt me.
I pride myself, you see, on maintaining an aloof distance from what goes on in my club, in fact the AFL world in general, once the footy season ends. It protects me from the grubby machinations of trade week. And it minimizes the pain of seeing beloved players choosing, or being shunted towards, other clubs.
But it also saves me from embarrassingly over-the-top post-season declarations, chief among them being: ‘There is absolutely no way I will EVER cheer for that revolting bleach blonde show-pony Jason Akermanis!!!!’ , ‘Let’s hope we never see that thug/borderline criminal Barry Hall in our colours!!!!’ and: ‘Since Daniel Cross was forcibly traded I will NEVER (ever, EVER) love another player wearing number four again!!!!’ (All pronouncements came complete with Donald Trump-style excessive exclamation marks!!!!!!)
But in the week before Round One, as I completed the first challenge of the season (locating my ‘Bulldog for Life’ membership ticket), a few snippets of information did break through my defences.
Apparently, we were going to wear a jumper so ghastly that even Easton Wood looks terrible in it.
And a rash of lairy haircuts that would have drawn a stern rebuke from Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd has broken out among younger members of the team.
I finally begin to look at the sports pages of the papers again. The pundits are firm in their conviction that we can’t play finals; many think we will be a bottom four team. Not having seen a single moment of our pre-season matches, I have no idea whether this is a well-founded prediction.
But that little niggle of annoyance at these assessments (the nerve of them!) is the first sign that the real stuff is about to get underway.
We arrive at the match; everyone's wearing shorts and thongs instead of the multiple layers that soon will be needed for the winter gloom, or our first match in Ballarat, whichever comes first. My nieces and nephews now tower over their aunties, the petite Libba Sisters. In the row in front of us sits a family where we have watched a woman throughout her pregnancy, appearing the next year with a little boy; we are pleased to see that now, between seasons, a new baby girl has joined their clan. She is enthralled rather than distressed at the peculiar behaviour around her. She claps her little hands when we clap, intrigued and alert at our antics, the flashing lights, the roar of the crowd.
My lack of a pre-season hit-out is soon on display. I’m sluggish in identifying some of our new-look players, especially in those cartoonish jumpers. I mean, Matthew Suckling has hair now, but Tory Dickson does not. I was so out of touch, I even mistook Tory for Nathan Eagleton, and that was even before he missed those shots on goal. And since when did Toby McLean stop looking frail and waif-like, and begin to sport a bushy beard?
Because I had no opinion or expectation of whether our team would prefer well or poorly, I observe the match initially with relaxed detachment. I regard it as a leisurely practice match, where I’m not all that invested in the result, just pleased to see promising signs, not fixated with the concept of winning or losing. I’m even in danger of expressing appreciation and good sportsmanship when a Swans player pulls down a spectacular mark, though I hastily pull myself together. I make a foolish comment that Jackson Macrae has been quiet, moments before the stats come up on the screen, showing he has, of course, accumulated more possessions than any other player on the ground. I don't beat myself up about these errors though. I'm just easing my way back into the tempo of a new season, I tell myself, an experienced pro, pacing myself into the 2019 year.
It all changes, of course, in the last quarter, when the Swans click ominously into gear. Buddy Franklin begins to wreak the havoc that only he can; their forward line is suddenly seething with possibilities. Our lead is cut back; it was never a reflection of our actual dominance. There’s no place for fake nonchalance now as I see the possibility, the only too real possibility, that Round One will end with the most soul-destroying sort of loss, the kind that saps morale and seeps into the psyche. The Loss When You Think You've Got The Game Won.
Now it all comes tumbling back to me, the sheer torture, the agony of the helpless fan, spectators who can do nothing to achieve what we most want. It doesn’t matter how much we do the Bulldog chant and stamp our feet — first-gamer Bailey Smith, who has probably never played in front of more than a few hundred fans, will not have the experience and nous to realise that this is not the time to play on. Our desperate attempts from the comfort of our seats (actually we’re standing most of the time by now) to urge Our Boys to run harder, to will them to make one more effort, to pray that they will make the right decisions whenever the ball comes hurtling into a suddenly wide-open Swans forward line: none of these matter. None of these can influence the result.
But, unlike the under-done Bulldog Tragician, Our Boys have been training, preparing, planning and working for moments like these. Their intensity rises; they find that intangible something, to break through the pain, the fatigue. I see, with relief, those indomitable runners, Hunter and Macrae, present at each sapping contest, and the one after that. With four minutes to go and the Dogs weathering furious attack after furious attack, there’s a crunching contest in the middle of the ground; new chum Sam Lloyd lays a wonderful tackle. In the half-second that follows, I realise two things simultaneously; one, that our forward line is now completely empty; and two, that The Bont, once the ball was won, has begun sprinting back into its open spaces. His fellow premiership ‘veteran’ Toby McLean launches the footy towards Our Golden Boy. It’s a beautifully weighted kick, but it still takes a champion – that guy who took Daniel Cross’s place in my heart - to judge the spinning ball in flight, mark it cleanly at full stretch, keep his feet, and make certain the goal.
Maybe last year Bont wouldn’t have had the fitness to make that last, lung-bursting run. Maybe last year he wouldn’t have had the confidence in our ability to win that contest, enabling him to immediately charge forward; to resolve to win the match not merely save it. Maybe 2019 will be one of those magical, unexpectedly joyful years, where momentum builds, injuries are kind to us, and faith, not self-doubt, grows steadily week on week. Libba The Second is back, after all, pesky and feisty and combative. Easton Wood played his best game for ages (and didn't look too shabby in that stupid jumper either). And what about 19-year-old Aaron Naughton, clunking marks with the composure of a young Chris Grant, and still running back to help out our besieged backline in the hectic final minutes, and ‘Celeb’ Daniel’s prolific and creative role in defence, and…...
I’m back, I realise, with a lurch of happiness and fear, in that land of hopes and maybes. A land we wouldn't even have glimpsed, if just those last five minutes of a two-hour contest had played out any differently.
The crowd files out, beaming faces, happy chatter, people milling around to cheer Our Boys down the race. We don't want to be poker-faced and sensible, saying: 'It's only round one', mouthing platitudes of 'not getting ahead of ourselves', or, even worse, focusing on how we nearly blew it. Not after the past two dreary years. We're tired and elated and relieved and hopeful, but mainly, I think as I study the faces in the crowd, elated.