Today marks an auspicious day for all fans of the Western Bulldogs. Let an imaginary fanfare from the Hyde Street Band blare out: it is now six years (that's 2092 days) since we were last defeated by the Bombres.
With no memory of that occasion, I decided to look back at the Tragician blog to check whether I was there (naturally I was), and what I had to say at the time. As we'd been defeated, I expected to read gloomy memories of shellackings at Windy Hill; enraged recollections of their snipers, such as Roger Merrett and Dean Wallis, beating up on Our Boys in the Sheedy-era; the obligatory memory of the Chris Grant goal that scuppered their chances of going through a season undefeated. This, I expected, would all be accompanied by sneers at the drug saga in which the Bombres were then hopelessly embroiled.
To my surprise, our unlovable opponents barely rated a mention. You'd actually think the Dogs had achieved a stirring victory rather than a five-point loss. My blog was filled with excitement about the future. I enthused about the performances of the pups who were just beginning to strut their stuff. About Jack Macrae and The Bont; and Libba and Wally; and Stringer and Hunter and Hrovat (ok, I couldn't get everything right).
The blog title was: 'The Young Ones'.
I was reveling in watching the kids, the sheer exuberance of seeing a new generation emerge. (Despite my enthusiasm, I can't say there was the slightest premonition that these could be The Ones to take us to the Promised Land). I wrote:
"Our young blokes have not - we like to believe they will never - let us down at big moments, faltered at a critical point of a match, put in a lacklustre performance.
'We're learning their strengths and don't yet know their weaknesses."
Last Friday night, it was (how soon it happens) a new set of The Young Ones capturing my imagination.Unlike the match on July 20 2014, I wasn't huddled alongside my Libba Sister, energised by the cheers and boos of 34000 other diehards at Docklands, making a racket to try and will Our Boys over the line.
Yet even though this time I had to rely on the Kayo app and some extraordinarily bad commentary, it didn't stop me being swept away again by the glorious and unlimited potential of youth.
The two who excited me were the tallest, and almost the shortest, on the ground. Though he's already played 36 games Tim 'The Pom' English hasn't really 'crashed into our imaginations' (as I described the impact of Bont's first few games; he was still just 18 years old back in 2014). There's been furious debate about whether 'The Pom' would even 'make it'; he was gangly, and raw. He'd started the season up against the competition's best ruckman Brodie Grundy who'd dealt him a fearful hiding; I wondered if the kid, playing in such a bruising position, was going to be one of those who burnt out too quickly. Yet that horror match proved to be the aberration; he's kept improving, working on his craft.
Nothing, though, prepared us for a complete and dazzling display on Friday night. Tim had party tricks: a one-handed pick-up that would have done the Bont proud. He had midfielder-like stats: 22 disposals and four tackles. He roamed far and wide, saving our bacon on the defensive lines, then mysteriously reappearing seconds later in the forward line, as though his cardboard cut out was being moved around at will by Bevo Our Saviour.
He looks like a weird hybrid of Simon Beasley, Scott Wynd and club legend John Schultz. And when he speaks (after an endearing moment when Bont assumed he was being called to the microphone post-match, only to be awkwardly informed that, well, they'd prefer to speak to Man-of-the-Moment Tim) ... we heard a thoughtful, articulate young man who thinks deeply about his game and has worked assiduously on getting better.
Our other 'Young One', debutant Cody Weightman, is just 19 yrs old. (It's scary to think that Bailey Smith, who's played 30 games and last week attracted a tag, is only two months older). His eyes were full of stars when his mentor Mitch Wallis told him he would make his debut. I did a little bit of research on our new number 19. I smiled indulgently when I read the teenager saying going to the draft had been 'on his bucket list'. (I was prepared, in the circumstances, to overlook a niggling concern: I could nowhere find him stating, as all aspiring footballers must, that 'The Shawshank Redemption was his favourite movie. After all, there is ample time for him to add this finesse to his game).
It's disappointing not to see him Cody run out for the first time. Normally I like to keep a protective eye on our debutantes, watching them behind the play. Reliant only upon the coverage, how would I know if some ugly Essendon brute was threatening and monstering him? (after all, I'd spotted the name Merrett in the Bombres line-up).
Cody's first touches will lodge forever in our memory banks. In a blur of flowing blonde locks, he flew to mark the ball. He lined up, on a difficult angle. There was a token look-around as (with the full approval of the Bulldog Tragician) he pretended to see if any team-mate was in a better position ('earning the respect of my team-mates' was another of Cody's stated ambitions.) And then he let loose with the most audacious of kicks, a quite ridiculous right foot banana that never looked like missing.
We were still drooling about the first goal when he appeared from nowhere to snap a second. I was so excited that I spilt my cup of tea all over the keyboard.
At the end of the night, Cody was interviewed. (The Bont, yesterday's news, again overlooked in favour of a precocious youngster!). I'm not sure what brought me to shedding a tear first: the purity and innocence of Cody's delight at living his dream. Or him telling his mum and dad, who couldn't be there in person, that he loves them.
As I sit back to enjoy the win, a friend sends me a link to the infamously feral Bombre fan website 'Bomber Blitz', which has gone into meltdown post-match. I make a second cup of tea, smirking as I read their initial expectations of an easy10-goal victory against the 'Labradoodles'; though I guess that's a term of affection compared to the usual name apparently applied to us on their site: 'Those ****s.'
Alternatively, they called us Footscray. This was not a knowing nod in recognition of our long-term suburban rivalry, it seems, as much as a jeering reminder of our more lowly and humble position compared to those on the more salubrious side of the Maribyrnong.
'Imagine following a club that's only won two flags in 90 years,' gloated one.
'We need to be in front before the due sets in,' fretted another, thus disproving the Coodabeen Champions classic line that 'Essendon supporters are just Collingwood fans who can read and write.'
Soon the mood turned. Now it was not only the Bulldogs who were ****s, but their own players. (If you thought the abusive term 'pansies' had gone out the window, you haven't visited BomberBlitz). The umpiring wasn't just poor; BomberBlitz knew they had been paid off... by the same dark and corrupt forces that had gifted the Labradoodles a flag!! (The boys from Footscray couldn't, surely, have won a flag any other way!)
It wasn't even half time, with the Bombres trailing by less than a kick, and a poster moaned: 'We're gonna get smashed AGAIN my this tin pot fkn club'. I closed the browser, no longer finding the vitriol funny any more; the last post I saw was one hoping that the umpires would get COVID.
After the 2014 match, the two clubs took - as they have, for much of their long rivalry - divergent paths.
Essendon made the finals. But they were swiftly bundled out.
In October, many of the players who'd taken the field in our July clash were issued with 'show cause' notices by ASADA; 34 of them were eventually suspended. To this day none of them know what was in the infamous 'supplements.'
James Hird was welcomed back as a messiah to coach the club in 2015, after serving a 12 month suspension. Bombres' fans held 'Stand By Hird' signs in solidarity with their coach. They refused to see any problems in his role with the program (another AFL conspiracy!) and were untroubled that he never admitted responsibility for endangering the health of Essendon's young players, and having a Brownlow ignominiously stripped from one of their Favourite Sons.
Meanwhile 'Bomber' Thompson, who'd coached them in 2014, appeared in court last year on drug possession and trafficking charges.
Essendon has not won a final since 2004.
Despite the Tragician's feverishly optimistic view of the future in July 2014, the Bulldogs lost next week to the Hawks by 64 points. We won just one more match for the season.
Our October 2014 may not have been as dramatic as having most of your club facing doping charges, but we did our best to attract some headlines. Our captain defected, our coach was sacked, and our club was in disarray.
Yet somehow, among the rubble, Luke Beveridge and Bob Murphy emerged as new leaders of our club.
Two years later, twelve of those who played in the 'Young Ones' match won for us that most precious second flag.
And we haven't lost to the Bombres ever since.
Last summer I was driving down Barkly Street near the Whitten Oval and spotted some teenage boys, wearing Bulldogs paraphernalia, out for a stroll. My first thought was how good it was to see local youths proud to be out in the red, white and blue, a sign of our recent successes. It was very different to my own childhood; even though my alma mater (the prestigious St Peter Chanel, Deer Park) was about as far west as you could then go, kids displaying allegiance to the battling Footscray team were few and far between. It could even get you beaten up in the schoolyard.
Then I did a double-take. There was something vaguely familiar about those kids. Were they - could they actually be? - some of our new recruits? Surely they were too young, with their spindly legs and pimply faces, to take the field, being niggled, monstered, bashed and punched by thugs like Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is and Toby Greene? (in fact, let's just say the whole Acronyms team).
Soon after, my sense of time passing was again turned on its head. I was disoriented by the news that Libba The Second had become a father. It wasn't that, so much, that disturbed my equilibrium, but the fact that it means that his feisty, competitive father is now a grandfather to little Oscar. (What it means for the Libba Sisters is too complex to untangle). And then, this week, we learnt that Mitch Wallis had also become a dad. I couldn't come to terms with the idea that Wallis & Libba Seniors, whose debuts I remembered clearly, whose careers I'd followed so closely, were now dandling the new generation from their (somewhat arthritic) knees.
I was still bewildered about how time was speeding past me when I drove to the new home of Libba Sister Two last Thursday night. She's no longer living in the Rising Sun apartment blocks, where five short years ago we sat together on the couch, watching us defeat the Swans.
The memory of that victory holds a special place in all our hearts. It was THE win; the one which made everyone sit up and take notice. Bob Murphy called it 'the best win ever'. I can still remember the look in the eyes of the stalwarts, Dale Morris, Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Bob himself: they knew something special was brewing, that there'd be another crack at a flag. If their ageing bodies could just hold up...
Yes, it was a watershed, a glimpse of the talent, drive, and self-belief nurtured by Bevo Our Saviour, a taste of the rampaging, unafraid Men of Mayhem-style footy that would become our 2016 trademark.
Actually...some of the facts don't really fit that narrative.
Immediately after, we lost the next four games. And 16 months later when we lined up in the Grand Final, only 12 players from the 'watershed' victory took the field. Michael Talia, Nathan Hrovat, Koby Stevens, Ayce Cordy, Lukas Webb, Lin Jong, Mitch Honeychurch and Stewart Crameri: all these were among those who fell by the wayside.
Who could have known then, that Bob himself, starry-eyed and in love with the game that afternoon, dreaming of seeing just 'one more song', would be watching from the sidelines as Our - His - Boys fulfilled their destiny.
How quickly does the footy caravan move on - brutal, swift, relentless. Tonight, there are only three 'survivors' (Bont, JJ and Macrae) from that 'coming-of-age' 2015 encounter; yet again, the Western Bulldogs team is the most youthful of the round.
The two new fathers are playing this evening, alongside two other father-sons; Zaine Cordy, a premiership player at just 19, and Rhylee West (quite possibly the only player who has come back from the pre-season shorter). It's a moment for the romantics when all four Sons Of Guns combine together at one stage in a passage on the wing.
They're playing alongside our charismatic captain, who's putting on quite the masterclass. Over recent times I've been preoccupied by worrying about Bont; whether he is ready for the captaincy, how he's dealing with the pressure of being identified as susceptible to physical niggle (make that outright harassment). I've had a sense of regret that he's experiencing now the brutality and disappointments of footy, fearful that he could lose his sheer enjoyment of the game. Tonight, those fears are vanished; I can just revel in his artistry, his unique mix of grace and power. And yet when he flies for a breathtakingly courageous mark, I'm reminded that he's not that kid any more. His big frame smashes against his equally brave opponent; the Bont 2020 is quite the beast.
Playing as he did this night, there is surely no better player in the competition.
Around Bont the other 'kids' are more than all right. I haven't seen a 19-year-old as strong and tenacious as Bailey Smith...maybe he's what we thought The Long-Departed Lair Jake Stringer would turn out to be. The deeds of 205 cm Tim English, who covered more than ten kilometres on the night (I feel fatigued just thinking about it) are astonishing. And as Bont (all of 24-years-old himself) reminded the media afterwards, Tim is 'only 22 and still developing.'
We also had a debutant on the night. Maybe 18-year-old Louis Butler was one of those scrawny kids I saw outside the Whitten Oval. (I was reassured to read that the kid had prepared meticulously, leaving no stone unturned to ensure he meets required professional standards; in his little interview on the Bulldogs website he answered, as all aspiring AFL footballers must, that his favourite movie was: 'The Shawshank Redemption.' )
It's one of my favourite parts of the game, seeing new players, with their innocent joy about just being out there, their sense of wonder and adventure still intact. This time last year Louis was a schoolboy captaining Brighton Grammar, watching games on TV; now he's playing against 250-game player Josh Kennedy and joining in the scrum of players running to congratulate Bont on a huge goal, reaching up to ruffle his skipper's mane of sweaty hair.
It was a promising debut: Louis was neat, brave and composed. Yet mixed with my hopes for his future I felt a familiar pang of loss when I saw him run out for the first time. He is now the bearer of number 18, last worn by Fletcher Roberts in 51 games that could easily be described with lukewarm phrases like serviceable; last season Fletch was quietly, and with little apparent acrimony, delisted.
Other clubs didn't come knocking for our premiership full-back; at 26, his career as an AFL footballer is over. Few, but all those of us who were there, would remember that he had two kicks, and two marks, in the 2016 premiership team. And now Fletch works with homeless young people; he has a degree in psychology; and was recently made a life member of our club.
In more ways than one Fletch has left big shoes for Louis to fill.
Louis is of course, in one of those confusing rituals that I don't understand, doused with Gatorade after playing in his first win; after the injuries we'd suffered on the night, I was on tenterhooks fearing that several of our players would slip and collide with each other on the wet surface, rupturing multiple ligaments and developing career-ending concussions in some sort of cartoonish nightmare.
I kept thinking, the next day, about how fast the seasons spin by. At this rate, it will only be a blink of an eye before I see Oscar Liberatore and Charlotte Wallis debuting in the red, white and blue. I imagine myself drowning in nostalgia; telling tales of how I was there in 2000 won a famous night when Grandpa Tony Liberatore wrapped Scott Lucas in crunching tackles, making sure our arch rivals the Bombres did not go through the season undefeated.
I'll be reminiscing about the day in Perth when Grandad Steve Wallis split Brett Heady fairly down the middle with a brutal shirtfront, triggering a wild brawl and years of animosity between ourselves and the West Coast Eagles. But I'll be trying NOT to remember the day that Charlotte's dad Mitch suffered an agonising broken leg, and like Bob, missed playing in the 2016 premiership.
Maybe I'll be eagerly awaiting news about other additions to the dynasty, having heard on the grapevine promising reports of young Horatio and Hortense Cordy (they can't go back to names like Neil and Brian ever again I guess).
I'm drifting backwards as well as forward in time, thinking about the men who played in the 2015 'greatest win ever'; how some of them went on to be part of the 'greatest ever' premiership, but plenty didn't. Sorrowful that we never really got to say goodbye to Fletcher Roberts whose career was so much more than serviceable; hoping that footy and life is ...just...kind... to our new number 18 Louis Butler.
Drift back on the 'carousel of time' (a phrase from a Joni Mitchell song) to the 2015 blog post about the match against Sydney ... where we all began to believe.
Bont was playing just his 20th match, and Fletcher Roberts was playing his eighth.....
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.