The temperature gauge on my car is showing four degrees, but that doesn't allow for a wind-chill factor of reportedly minus five.
I’m driving to our match at Ballarat from Lorne: a two-hour trip. For reasons deeply obscure even to me, I'm finishing off a pleasant beachside weekend by travelling to this game where the forecast (weather-wise) has been for icy rain, bone-chilling winds interrupted by hailstorms, while the forecast (footy-wise) is for another drubbing for our injury-stricken team.
Unsure of the route, I place my trust in the GPS. (This is essential as my appalling sense of direction is legendary; I once ended up in Port Melbourne while walking back to my car, parked in Crown Casino, after a match at Docklands).
There are no convoys of Bulldogs fans to follow. Within five minutes of leaving Lorne the roads are empty and bleak. I’m the only traveller, to football or elsewhere, for tens of kilometres at a time.
There are majestic windfarms, horses wearing coats, and long stretches of Australian nothing-ness. I lose radio reception but actually I’m not sorry that I am unable to listen to anything footy-related. The previous day when I’d travelled to Lorne, I’d tuned in, listening to a discussion about the AFL’s ham-fisted attempts to trial the rules in live games featuring teams whose season has turned hopeless and meaningless (that would be the Bulldogs). Then I heard a conversation about whether it was okay for Gold Coast Sun player and co-captain Tom Lynch to be openly meeting with rival clubs while the season is still playing out. Jimmy Bartel mounted a heated defence of this. ‘The players are realistic about what’s going on; they understand,’ he said.
In neither of these discussions did I hear anyone voice concerns about what the fans might think. How are we meant to turn up to, and care about, games that the AFL has deemed so worthless that they will contemplate the introduction of rule trials more befitting of the pre-season competition? Why should fans stay loyal and blindly committed, when even the thinnest of veneers about ‘playing for the jumper’ and ‘bleeding for the club’ are peeled aside?
So it's a relief to tune out from inane AFL in-talk. I switch on music instead. The shuffle selection, after all, usually somehow synchronises with the Tragician psyche, and the first song which comes on is yet another example:
What can you do when your dreams come true
And it's not quite like you planned?
It’s After the thrill is gone, a song from The Eagles – the ‘70s rock band, that is, not that team from Western Australia. (Though if Josh Kennedy wore bell-bottom embroidered jeans…)
Yes, the premiership thrill is gone, and yet somehow, here I am, clocking up the miles on desolate backroads as the rain lashes the windows. I try and remind myself why it’s important. My reasons are all vaguely illogical and superstitious. I imagine them being torn apart by a supercilious lawyer should I somehow be cross-examined and forced to justify them in the dock.
Sneering lawyer: So let’s get this straight, Ms .. (raises an eyebrow, lays heavy sarcastic emphasis on the word).. Tragician…you believe that because you celebrated a premiership win with the players, you are now duty bound to go to matches where they are certain to lose, and furthermore you are of the opinion this somehow earns you moral superiority when the good times come around again?
Me (faltering voice): it sounds silly when you put it like that. But yes, it's just, um... being there for the bad times as well as the good.
Lawyer: I put it to you that your delusions about the impact of your attendance go further. That, on more than one occasion, you’ve claimed your mere presence has some supernatural connection to the outcomes of matches. (Turns to address the judge). Your Honour, we’d like to tender into evidence a badge with an image of a Mr Marcus Bontempelli. Ms…Tragician..has made the grandiose claim that her wearing of this badge was influential in the securing of a grand final berth for a previously unsuccessful team known as the Western Bulldogs.
Me: I never really said that. It wasn’t just the Bonti badge. (Lawyer raises eyebrow, smirks as he waits for me to finish). There was also a lucky scarf!
I blink, realising that while I feebly endured my imaginary cross-examination, I've missed critical information from the GPS, and now need to execute a hasty U-turn. While getting bogged and stranded in a ditch would provide a splendid metaphor for this journey and indeed the 2018 season, it's a relief to evade this catastrophe and get back on track. I continue to muse about my confused and irrational reasons on why is somehow essential for me to attend at the match. It's a way to show gratitude, appreciation for the joy this club has often brought me, solidarity when everything is going wrong. To show empathy, particularly in the recent news items about Tom Boyd and Clay Smith, for all the terrible costs that the game extracts, physical and mental, for these young men.
And it’s the 100th game of The Bont, the young bloke who sparked hope in the dismal year of 2014, the player who almost every game, even if he’s not in vintage form, does something to cherish. I was there for his first game; I have looked on, in awe, at his talent, his composure, the way his self-belief drove his team-mates towards a flag.
Just this week he announced that he couldn’t see himself playing anywhere else but our club.
‘The way I am, particularly how I feel about the football club that’s not something (free agency) that would ever really cross my mind. I’m so committed to the Western Bulldogs Football Club and how much they’ve been able to do for me and the journey that I’ve been on so far.’
What would Our Golden Boy think, making this stirring commitment to our club, if he knew The Bulldog Tragician was too faint-hearted and fickle to bother to attend his 100th match, just because it’s a little bit, okay extremely, cold?
Lawyer: Ms Tragician, I put it to you that football is a business. I point you to similar emotional statements about love of the club (theatrically produces a Herald-Sun clipping) previously made by a Mr Ryan Griffen, and l now tender images of him in an orange jumper. I contend that players ultimately make decisions based on their financial prospects, not old-fashioned concepts such as those you cling to. Meanwhile, your own club is almost planning to delist or trade players that helped win you that premiership that you keep going on about. What do you have to say to that?
Me: (long pause): Not much, I guess. It's the vibe, like in The Castle. I just feel I have to be there.
I finally arrive at the ground. I park the car and begin wrestling myself into four extra layers of clothing. Before I’ve even taken three steps, a hailstorm begins. I put my second coat over my head and walk, almost sideways, through the driving rain. I feel I must resemble the man in the gloomy post-apocalyptic movie The Road, staggering blindly through a barren and scorched landscape, putting one foot in front of the other, no longer knowing his destination, long past understanding what he will do when he gets there.
Sodden and saturated, I join the 6449 other supporters at the match. About a third of them, I’d say, are Port fans. The weather, or maybe the fact that the Dogs’ season is over, neutralises any tribal feelings of enmity. Queueing to get in, we exchange friendly comments about the Ballarat climate, the timing of the match, the expected dire nature of the spectacle ahead of us.
The Dogs perform as expected. They are trying (yes, very trying at times). Someone has decided music should blare out after we score a goal. I should be irritated but, firstly, it doesn’t happen very often, and secondly, I’m pre-occupied with finding ways to return circulation to my chilblain-infested toes, and wondering what it means that the hand-warmers thoughtfully handed out by our club unfortunately explode when you rub them together.
The players aquaplane at times on the slippery turf. I’m sure the commentary team (one good part of being there is you don’t have to listen to them) have already found multiple occasions to use the term ‘slippery cake of soap.’ I wonder if some of the players revel in the conditions, a throwback to uncomplicated, pure footy days when they played as kids on muddy suburban grounds and success was measured by how many times they touched the greasy ball, while their mums waited patiently in cars with a thermos of Milo.
Or whether they are just wishing, as I secretly do, that this season, this game, this quarter, would end.
As the gloom descends, in more ways than one, I pine for those matches where every kick, mark or tackle had a thrilling urgency, where Our Boys performed extraordinary deeds, where the grandest stadium in the country throbbed with our energy. Instead, among the small ranks of the die-hards, there is a fatalistic acceptance, after a reasonable first half effort, that we will not be able to go the distance. As our efforts begin to wane, and the fatigue created by the heavy conditions takes its toll, there is an absence of anguish, of anger, among the muted crowd. There is no abuse of the players; maybe the most vitriolic have stayed home, though there is head-in-hands mutterings at some of the worst moments. Mainly from me.
At three quarter time, instead of feverishly wondering whether Our Boys could bring the match home with a big last quarter, we stamp feet when the song Sweet Carolinegets played. (After all, it has a chorus which features.. ‘Warm…touching warm…’ and I'm too cold to feel indignation about the gimmick). The Dogs put on a last little spurt of effort, the ball in our forward line in the first few minutes but there is pitifully little reward and a sense of inevitability now about the result.
The stadium is not holding its (icy) breath.
At the other end of the ground, strongly built and bearded Port players (they could also play in an Eagles tribute band) handle the ball cleanly, dragging down mark after mark. The margin blows out, like we knew it would. The Dogs supporters begin straggling out of the ground. Our team did not win. But that was never, after all, why I was there.
In 2013, the third ever instalment of the Bulldog Tragician blog posed a question: Cheers and jeers: what makes a fan?
I was still trying to decide the point of my fledgling blog (it was not an internationally acclaimed sensation at that point). It may have only been round three of that year, but I was astute enough to realise that I wasn't going to be chronicling a 2013 Bulldog premiership. I thought I'd better come up with another theme. Yet of course I'd always known what it would be about; that there wouldn't be too much about marks and kicks and stats and draft picks and 'qualitative sheen' (sorry Bevo). It would be about my bittersweet relationship with my perennially unlucky club, and the mysterious experience of being a fan.
The reason I posed my question was because there had been furious debate, after fed-up Melbourne fans had booed a less than glorious performance from their team, about whether this was acceptable. There were lots of intriguing questions bundled up in that debate. Are fans obliged to be loyal, no matter what? especially when that 'loyalty' can be an easily discarded concept, torn up very quickly from either player or club? Are we entitled to express anger if they perform poorly, just as we would switch off a movie that is boring or badly acted? In framing my answer, I thought of two supporters who typified the idea of commitment in good times, and extra commitment in the bad. I wrote:
In 1996 my team, playing as Footscray for the last time, lurched from crisis to crisis both on and off the field. A ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, ‘Year of the Dogs’, showed the season through the eyes of mother-and-daughter fans, Pat and Jenny Hodgson. Their love and loyalty for the team is poignant, the more so after regular thrashings of 100+ points. 'Poor darling boys', says Pat after one such hiding.
At one point, we see a training session of the besieged club at the Western Oval. It’s the depths of winter. The camera pans back to see Pat and Jenny, decked in their scarves, huddled under an umbrella in the pouring rain. They seem to be the only supporters there.
The players run past in a dis-spirited looking bunch. Pat leans over the fence to applaud them. ‘And they’ll get another clap,’ she says defiantly, presumably to the bemused cameraman.
I never met Pat and Jenny Hodgson, but there was another occasion when I shared a moment of silent kinship with them. Only three months after I penned the 'Cheers and jeers' blog, the Dogs put in one of their own less-than-glorious performances, on a wintry night at the G. Our opponent was that same supposedly inept Melbourne team that had attracted the footy world's scorn and derision; their fans had plenty to cheer about on this occasion. It was - of course it was - my birthday, and again, for reasons both masochistic and inexplicable, I was in attendance. After the Dogs succumbed meekly to the So-Called Laughing Stock, I wrote this:
We’re subdued as we leave the ground. How fitting that we encounter Pat and Jenny Hodgson, the die-hard mother and daughter fans from ‘Year of the Dogs.’ They’re still huddled under their blankets, their faces set in stoic resignation. They’ve seen it all before.
As have I.
Last week Pat Hodgson passed away. She'd lived to see her beloved Dogs win a second flag, though I'm of a mind to think that the lure of a premiership was never really the reason she'd been there under the umbrella on that atrociously wet evening.
On hearing of her passing, I remembered too when I'd seen the 'Year of the Dogs' documentary for the first time. It was playing at the cinema, in the spring of 1997. Memories of the wretched season it portrayed were long gone; the Dogs in just 12 months had risen from bottom of the ladder and amazingly had finished top four. In fact, the week before the documentary was released, the Dogs had unleashed a brilliant performance against Sydney, assuring our place in the 1997 preliminary final.
All that stood between us and a Grand Final were the Adelaide Crows and a man called Jarman.
Twenty years passed from the season portrayed 'Year of the dogs', and the night Jenny Hodgson was selected to walk around our Docklands home, holding a bit of the flag that had eluded us that year (and quite a few others in the interim). She was as much a part of it, as integral to the fabric of our club, as the footballing giants that walked around as well, John Schultz, Chris Grant, Tony Liberatore, Brad Johnson, Ted Whitten Jnr. Watching her, the words from the James Taylor song came into my mind: there was, truly, 'a holy host of others standing round her.'
I thought about Pat and Jenny again, at some point during our trouncing by Hawthorn. My sister silently showed me a Facebook post on her phone. A person - let's not call him a supporter - had posted, after one of our young rookies, in game number eight, had made an error: 'Why don't you F### off? I hope you do another knee!' Because yes, the player in question, aged just 21, has already had two knee reconstructions, and the poster, in his wrath, felt he was justified in wishing on him the heartache, the pain, the long-term impacts, the fear and uncertainty of enduring another.
Reading the post I felt that balance between my sometimes love-hate relationship with footy veer alarmingly towards hate. I even felt a mortification, as though one of my family had somehow been exposed as desecrating a war memorial. I thought of Pat Hodgson, her compassion, the sincerity of her barracking. Her words, her kindness to the players, whether they delight us and even more so when they disappoint us. Poor darling boys.
The poor darling boys were doing it tough in the second half of Saturday night. As the Hawthorn troops put their pedal to the metal our team, who had started brightly, simply had nothing more to give.
I thought how rarely if ever footy stories run in straight and predictable lines. For when in 2016 we overpowered them in the semi-final, a new era was hailed by one and all. The old, slow Three-Peater Hawks were finished! (Rumour has it that was exactly what the young and carefree Bulldogs, led by a feisty Liam Picken, had to say about our brown-and-gold opponents in the half-time brawl, from which we emerged energised, brimming with the supreme confidence of youth, to run over the top of them in our march towards the flag). We were the club of the future! they were of the past! (One of their supporters sitting near us, was in tears at the end of the night, but as there is nothing charitable I can say, I will only 'note it for the record.')
Jackson Macrae was best on the ground; The Bont was immense. But there had been plenty of moments that a win seemed beyond us. In the second quarter, the Hawks were out in front by 23 points. I wrote:
I feel the beginnings of a seed of doubt. We've flung everything in our arsenal at them, but against this opposition, perhaps it won't be enough. Sixteen of their team, after all, have played more than 100 games (we have just seven). Shaun Burgoyne alone has played in 33 finals - more than the total games of Josh Dunkley, 'Celeb' Daniel, 'In-Zaine' Cordy, Joel Hamling and Toby Mclean. The Hawks' lineup is studded with men whose legends will go on forever, men have played in four premierships, men with Norm Smith medals.
It's just before the moment that these excuses are crystallising in my mind (I once called them 'defensive pessimism') that we make another surge forward. Clay Smith marks the ball.
He lines up for the shot, perhaps 40 metres out. We know Clay has an ungainly, some would say ugly, kicking action - just as we know he has an enormous heart. But when we've imagined these clutch moments, these absolutely critical opportunities, we've envisaged The Bont or Jake, the supremely talented emerging superstars, with the ball in hand.
But this moment requires more than talent. It also requires a fanatical self-belief, an inner strength forged in the worst kind of adversity; traits on which Clay had to draw as he endured three knee reconstructions by the time he turned 22. These qualities enabled him to withstand the awful months of pain and doubt and dreary rehabilitation, to resist the temptation to give away the game that has been so cruel to him. He's the right man to take the shot, after all. We aren't really surprised when it sails right through.
Clay Smith announced his retirement this week. He is 25. He played just 55 games in a career wracked by injury, including that third ACL that the hate-filled Facebook poster was so keen to inflict upon another of our players.
Amid all the terrible luck that Clay experienced, there was just a smidgin of good fortune, for him and our team and us as fans. His battered body and iron held for those weeks in 2016 when we needed them most. Four of Clay's modest total of games were winning finals. In them Clay Smith alone laid an astonishing 38 tackles.
His preliminary final performance was brutal, epic, fierce, extraordinary. He bullocked his way to four goals, but it was another moment in which he featured that represented even more. We looked to be tiring; the Acronyms were ahead, pressing in the dying stages of the third quarter. An incredible, exhausting, gruelling series of acts willed the ball into our forward line - I still feel tired remembering them. Clay Smith used his body as a battering ram to knock Ryan Griffen off the ball. He was the last line in a chain of Bulldog desperation. That body, which had endured so much, cleared a path for 'Celeb' Daniel. And a famous Bulldog goal.
I think again, how footy doesn't run in strange, predictable lines, the surprises, the dramatic twists and unpredictable stories that are always around the corner, the real reason for the Tragician blog (I was only joking about the international acclaim). Silky players with three times Clay Smith's talents are not premiership players. Gifted athletes, men who could make the ball sing, players who danced lightly upon the turf, could not have done what the moment required, Clay Smith's act of such necessary ferocity.
Clay has written a story about his travails, just last week before he retired. My eyes misted over when I read how hard his injuries had been for his mum, who'd take time off from her job in the Patty's Pies factory to come and look after him, cleaning, cooking, even bathing him. He explained the circumstances of his third knee, often wrongly attributed to negligence by our medical team. He knew, and they knew, he'd done his knee, but said he could not damage it further, so he elected to return to the field.
I went back out and ran around for another 10 minutes. My teammate Mitch Honeychurch came up to me on the half-forward flank and asked if I was alright. I said, ‘Nup, I’ve done my ACL again. It’s gone’. He asked me what the hell I was doing and I said, ‘I can still run!’
In this game of attrition, Clay is now one of four premiership players that will not wear our colours again. It was expected. And yet I'm still stunned by the sense of loss.
And this weekend we take on those Dees again. A twilight match at the G in the bitter weeks of July, Melbourne apparent contenders rather than a Laughing Stock, us just limping to the end of a year that we can only wish to come quicker.
We learn that The Bont has appendicitis, the last of a list of 2018 misfortunes that could almost be comical. Almost.
Our team are so depleted that you wouldn't be surprised if the Libba Sisters get a call-up from Bevo Our Saviour, though my sister insists we will need to don 'Celeb' Daniel helmets.
Our chances of winning are slim. Probably as slim as the chance that a nuggety guy from Gippsland with no particular party tricks could be best on ground and drag us over the line in a torrid preliminary final. Still, it could get ugly, even with three 'Celeb Daniels' out there. But assuming that Bevo doesn't make that phone call, it's not going to be easy, travelling to the G, freezing our butts off to watch a contest that seems hopeless. Our Boys will need all the claps, all the encouragement they can get. After all I'm pretty sure Pat Hodgson never asked herself any deep and meaningful questions about why footy mattered, or what made her a fan. She just was one, the truest and best of them all.
One day when my children were young, we were visiting friends. Embarrassingly, as we were eating, ants began to march across their dinner table. While we diplomatically ignored it, my youngest son exclaimed: 'Look there's some ants!'
Into the awkward silence he added, with the artlessness of a three-year-old: 'Mummy calls them by their first name. Bloody ants!'
He's travelling through Europe at present, but as I contemplated, with some degree of gloom, our prospects against the Cats this week I realised some things hadn't changed. I definitely call Selwood and Dangerfield by the first name of 'bloody' whenever I think - make that fume - about their irritating skills, their cocksure talents, their endless capacity to run rampant against a team wearing red, white and blue, whatever the venue, whatever the occasion.
As for 'bloody Geelong': they've thrashed us when we were ordinary. They've thrashed us when we were under the illusion - until we came up against the men from Kardinia Park - that we were pretty good.
By some miserable quirk of fate we've played more finals against the Cats - ten - than any other team. In one year alone, 1992, they demoralised us with two ten-goal finals drubbings. Yes, with the way finals were then set up, we played them twice in the same finals series, losing on each occasion (you've got to admire our consistency) by 60 plus points.
I don't like paying squillions to sit in their taxpayer-funded stadium. I irrationally resent that once they broke their premiership hoodoo, they - unlike us - went on to create a dynasty. And there's the fact, which surely can't be overlooked, that their coach is a Scott brother.
I don't like bloody Geelong very much at all.
There are no signs that Friday night's game will depart from the hackneyed 'Geelong-handing-out-a hiding' script. We're fielding, yet again, an extremely young team. Our injury woes show no sign of clearing. The Cats are top four contenders, fresh from the bye. Their midfield still glitters with stars.
It's unclear how Our Boys will respond to last week's loss. Our season is down the drain. I'm worried that the last gasp errors, and Bevo's uncharacteristic fire and brimstone reaction, may have demoralised them, eroding the confidence of a group that are unsettled, have not yet had a chance to gell and work together.
The match falls on my birthday. Many would say there must surely be better things to do on your birthday than sit and watch Our Boys, who've now lost five on the trot, get mauled again by our bogey team. Some would point out that it's likely we will yet again endure a ten-goal loss, that to venture out on the coldest day so far this year, only to see the smug countenances of Bloody Selwood and co, and the 'We are Geelong' music blaring out, is a form of self-inflicted torture.
Such people actually make a lot of sense. Yet still, I know I have to be there.
Because - you never know - it's possible, theoretically possible, is all I'm saying - Our Boys might be so inspired, if news filters through about my attendance - that they could feel so motivated by my commitment, my tenacity, my sheer selfless heroism - that they could play out of their skins and WIN.
(I'm not saying it's likely, by any means. It's just a random thought, to throw out there into the universe).
Our team takes the field, running past some lit torches. I'm not sure if these are an oblique tribute for my birthday or just a way to keep us all warm.
I anxiously scan the Cats' lineup, looking for confirmation that Mackie, Scarlett and Enright have definitely retired; I wouldn't rule out them returning for a one-match frolic against us. I don't see them, but in the backline there is a Harry, and a dazzling newcomer called Narkle. And initially, I think there's even a Kardashian; disappointingly, it turns out it's Kolodjashnij. And Gary 'Voldemort' Ablett - a footballer I've never warmed to - is out there too, part of their so-called Holy Trinity. Their midfield cupboard is overflowing; ours, wrecked by injury, is threadbare.
Lin Jong is a late change into the team...so late that he had to borrow Shane Biggs' jumper, though I guess it could be part of a cunning strategy to bamboozle the opposition. The game hasn't been going long before he is dumped in a brutal tackle. We see almost immediately that Lin's shoulder - the one that probably cost him the chance to be a premiership Bulldog - has been injured. Our team's appalling bad luck continues. But for Lin himself - well, it is devastation beyond imagining.
Our Boys make a terrific start. I can't believe the transformation that's come on over the past couple of weeks. We're playing free-flowing footy, but we're just as good in locking down the contest. We've finally rid ourselves of the slow ball movement, the plodding entries into a stagnant forward line. We even kick straight. At last the painfully inexperienced group are developing a chemistry; it's reassuring to glance into the backline and see the sizeable figure of Marcus Adams in our defence, alongside the ever-reliable Dale Morris. Geelong still seem able to score more easily. But at least, if we lose this match, it won't be from the lack of effort.
At half time, we are one goal up, and my questions about whether the team will be scarred, or motivated, by last week's loss, have been answered. Our Boys form a close huddle in the middle before they leave the arena. Addressing them in animated style is the guy whose mistake in last week's loss has been endlessly analysed, the guy some say will not be at our club next year. His team-mates seem to be hanging on Mitch Wallis's every word. (I can't be sure, of course, but it's quite possible there was some mention of my birthday, just to provide the troops with that extra sense of urgency).
The team trots off, a united, determined group with a galaxy of stories. Three teenagers; ten others including our captain Bont who aren't yet 23. A bloke who couldn't get a game for Carlton. Rookies who've toiled away, wondering if they'd ever get this chance; highly rated draft picks who've been criticised and derided for not immediately delivering on inflated expectations. A heroic veteran, the only 'survivor' from the last time we beat the Cats, way back in 2009.
And inside the rooms is a luckless footballer who can't return to the field, who's broken his collarbone for the second time, who lost all of season 2017 after he ruptured his ACL, who's only been able to patch together 58 games in the seven years he's been at our club. Who's now facing more time on the sidelines, and an uncertain future after that.
The motley group have absorbed whatever Wally exhorted them to do; they come out breathing fire in the third quarter. There's a storm of goals, even some electrifying 2016-style footy where the ball gets swept down the ground, players overlapping, men sprinting hard to make an option for their team-mate. It's hard to believe Geelong will be able to withstand our intensity. But, of course, being Geelong, they do. In fact, it's depressing, how it is so easy for them to strike back. The treetrunk legs of Patrick Dangerfield aren't troubled by the prospect of a kick outside 50, after the three-quarter time siren. He inevitably converts. The Cats, older, stronger, more experienced than the Saltwater Lads, are two points ahead with one quarter to play. Maybe we've fired our best shot.
The Cats are fresh from the bye; we'd given everything, and then some, in our match against North. We have been down a rotation since early in the match. A valiant loss tonight will still draw praise, still bring optimism at the future ahead. But that's too far away for Our Boys' thinking; in fact, they aren't thinking that at all.
The way the goals come in the last quarter is in itself a portrait of the new energy centres in our team. There are two exquisite, opportunistic goals from Little Red. There is a 'Jake Who?' scissor kick goal from the guy who polarised our fans earlier in the year like no other since Nathan Eagleton: that Carlton reject, Billy Gowers. He's rewarding the coaches' faith. He's earning our respect, even our love, converting us with his bristling energy, his enthusiasm, his care for his team-mates, his increasing footy smarts.
We have a ten-point lead, but in the stands, our nerves are jangling. It's impossible not to have flashbacks to last week's disaster. The boys look more composed in their approach, but still as the clock runs down under two minutes, so much - and not just the sight of a scowling and petulant Scott twin in the coaching box - is identical to what transpired against North.
The tension could have blasted off the Etihad roof.
'They'd need to score two goals within 48 seconds,' the Other Libba Sister says. She means it to be consoling, but almost instantly, the light glints off 'Voldemort's' bald pate as he speeds through from absolutely nowhere for a goal.
The arena seems to ripple with our simultaneous emotions, as the ball is bounced with 30 seconds to go and us clinging to our lead.
Get it out of the centre boys. PLEASE just get it out of the centre boys!
There's a free - you knew there would be - to Selwood. There's a scrambled kick into their forward line. Everything unfolds in slow motion. Despite half our team being in the backline Harry Taylor cleanly marks the ball.
The words that spill from my mouth are not: 'Bloody hell.'
Years of Tragician agony mean I am in no doubt that he will go back and steer the ball nonchalantly through the big sticks, and heartbreak will be ours for the second week in a row. I was there - of course I was - for the hideous moment in a 1994 final when Billy Brownless kicked a goal after the siren to snatch a win; I've long been haunted by Sandy Roberts' famous shriek: 'Billy you are KING of Geelong!!!'
It's like a punch in the stomach, knowing that ignominious scenario is about to be repeated. There's despair, the worst kind of despair, as the siren sounds and we know Harry's kick will decide the match. My niece is crying. We are all, instantly, bereft, grieving in anticipation, knowing the embarrassment, the recriminations, the agonising post-mortem to come.
But a wall of Bulldogs has materialised behind the mark where Roarke Smith, in just his seventh game, is standing. They begin jumping around like marionettes. Thirty-five-year-old Dale Morris, 19-year-old lifelong Bulldogs fan Patrick Lipinski, our captain Bont, first-gamer Bradley Lynch. Tom Boyd, who has carried the ruck on his giant shoulders and played a massive game, isn't too tired or too cool to wave his arms around like a maniac. Someone is surely yelling: 'Chewy on your boot!' They're creating, with their enormous energy, their big hearts, a mysterious barrier that Harry T can't breach. The ball wobbles, veers lamely to the left. It's as though Bob Murphy is standing in the crowd operating a remote control device to steer it out of harm.
Can you believe it? Harry Taylor fails to make the distance!!
Our celebrations, in the stands, mirror our team's. We leap around, we hug, we are joyful, alongside them in their delight as we suffered with them last week in their dejection. We see Lin Jong come out, in his tracksuit, his broken wing tucked inside, a determined smile on his face; Brad Lynch, hearing what his latest injury is, plants a kiss on his cheek. Our Boys look as though they are just as dazzled, as surprised, as us...that we have vanquished Geelong at last.
We stay, everyone of us, until they go into the rooms. Then we wait.
We want to watch them sing our song.
Dale Morris, smiling like a kid, is interviewed. His desperate efforts on the last line had saved a goal, for the zillionth time in his career, during the frenetic last minutes. He says he doesn't have 'the ticker' for this sort of stuff any more. I never would have picked Dale Morris for a bare-faced liar.
As we file out, exhausted, elated, hoarse, and proud, our mood could not be more different than last week's devastation. To many, the blame for that loss lay squarely with one man, Mitch Wallis, who had kicked out on the full amid the chaos of that final minute.
Some argued that there were hundreds of other mistakes throughout the course of a match, and why should Mitch's error alone be singled out?
Others made a counter argument: that not all actions are the same throughout a game; an error in the first quarter can't be seen as equal to one in the most high-stakes moments of the match. A mistake, in the final moments, is so much worse, that line of thinking goes: because it reveals a crack under pressure, an inability to make the right decision when everything is on the line.
When Harry Taylor marked the ball, many hundreds of actions had already taken place over the previous 120 minutes and during four bruising quarters. Countless decisions were made; to centre a ball, to kick long, to handpass instead of kick, to shepherd, to take an opponent on. To punch or try to out-mark; to leave an opponent and run at one racing towards goal; to lead out in the forward line or wait for it to be crumbed. To run, even if you feel you cannot.
Coaches scanned the list, worked their whiteboards, made rotations, evaluated how the tide of play was flowing, decided who to clamp down on, who to back in for a centre square bounce or kick out.
The umpires blew their whistles, or called play on; video technicians made examinations, scrutinising the tiniest of millimetres to adjudicate a score.
The medical staff decided that Matt Suckling wasn't right to play, and pulled out a number 24 jumper for Lin Jong; he could have been watching the match safely from the grandstand, instead of his shoulder hitting the deck at the most vulnerable point when he was tackled.
Little Red's kick in the final quarter was a point until it mysteriously (the Bob Murphy theory's gaining traction) did a U-turn and became a goal.
So many actions, decisions, deflections, and yet this much was still true: Harry Taylor's kick was the only one that would really count, the only one that would determine whether we knew the pleasure or felt the pain.
I think about all these things as I make a cup of cocoa at home, finishing off my birthday in quite a genteel fashion for one who'd been screeching like a banshee for three hours solid.
Footy, I think. You've got to admit, it really is bloody fantastic.
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 Western Bulldogs.