It was nothing like 2016.
Our quest for a flag again depended on defeating the Orange-Clad Acronyms at Soul-Less Stadium. Hordes in red, white and blue were making the trek, where we would vastly outnumber the fans of the AFL’s youngest ‘franchise’ (never was a term more apt).
We had finished the season seventh. Just like in 2016.
But, back then, we’d been in the eight for the whole season. We’d spent large chunks of the year as a top four side, won an impressive 15 games, had featured in premiership discussions before a spate of injuries. In 2019, we’ve been, well, mediocre at times - inconsistent too - before running into form at the right time of year. It was still hard to know the full merit of our last three victories and how much we had genuinely improved.
Still, the Libba Sisters had to be there, just like in 2016. With more time to get organized we took a plane instead of recreating our legendary preliminary final roadtrip. (Could it be the Libbas are getting uppity due to their celebrity status – too big these days for their size five boots?)
Our plane was delayed. When we finally got into the air, the trip was bumpy. We circled Sydney endlessly because of howling winds. The turbulence was nauseating. People were vomiting.
It was a harbinger, in fact, of what was to come.
Our seats were in that same bay as 2016. In front of the spot where Easton took a screamer, near where 'Keith' Boyd did a desperate toe-poke of the ball to get it to JJ, resulting in the famous and electrifying goal by Bont.
We walked in, casting scornful looks at the spruikers handing out plastic orange flags. Many of the Dogs’ fans were still stranded at airports back in Melbourne. We joked, when a plane flew above us a few minutes before the match began, that desperate Dogs’ supporters would be clamouring to be parachuted straight down into the stadium.
The Dogs’ fans that had got there on time are wearing Fightback memorabilia and faithful old scarves. Mine has my badges: of Bont as an endearingly dorky 18-year-old, and of Jackson Macrae with his trademark shy smile. My little premiership cup symbol, bought at the Western Oval the day after we won the flag, is carefully affixed to its increasingly tatty fabric.
Many others are wearing the precious t-shirts that list the premiership 22. It’s still hard to fathom, that only eight will take the field today, such a short time later. And that even though we were one of the youngest ever premiership sides with a game average of only 82, here we are again with a list still more scarily youthful and inexperienced; we average just 76 games.
I find myself trying to recall my mindset in 2016. Strangely, for something I've relived so often, it's a bit of a blur. I don’t know if I expected Our Boys to win; it was more that I had an urgent and compelling conviction of having to be there, to be witness to, and validate, the strength of their dreams. They were so young, and unafraid. They swept us along, is the only way I’ve ever been able to describe it.
It would have been curmudgeonly, or at the very least impolite, to scoff at their innocent question: ‘Why not us?’
It felt, while the Libbas travelled all those miles in our car, almost as though the result didn’t count (not that we would have felt that way if we'd driven home as losers). Because this team weren’t shackled and burdened by our hopes, it seemed only good manners to show them that we were daring to dream as well. And instead of being crushed by that expectation, the 2016 heroes rode that yearning as lightly as though they were surfing a wave.
Here in 2019, I don’t have that same romantic mindset. I’m hopeful, but beset by some of those mundane questions of any home and away match rather than the trance-like fog of 2016. Were our selections right? How would the break affect our momentum? Would we withstand a more physical challenge from The Acronyms than they’d been able to offer only three weeks earlier?
I sense that my fellow fans share some of my air of caution, or perhaps it’s just that there’s not quite so much at stake. Of course, we give Our Boys a standing ovation, we boo the Acronyms. But the primal, raw edge is not quite there.
Maybe we think just being here, again, will be enough: to make lightning strike twice.
The marketing gurus of GWS have worked assiduously this time to counter the Bulldogs' fans raucous edge. Helpfully, those in rather new looking orange scarves are regularly implored to: ‘Make some noise!’ When this receives a tepid response, technology comes to the rescue, and some canned crowd applause floats out of the stadium’s speakers.
The match gets underway; the signs far too quickly point in the wrong direction. The Acronyms rough Our Boys up at the stoppages; every mark is accompanied by knees in the back of a prone player. (Little do we know, at that point, the worst of it).
Our youth and inexperience are exposed; we never get a chance to settle into the tempo of finals footy. Our most potent weapon, our midfield, are shut down and ineffective.
There are only a few minutes where a Bulldogs’ victory seems even slightly possible: when Bont lines up for a shot that would have put us in the lead (unlike 2016, he misses); and whenever the 19-year-old boy wonder, the ‘Astro-Naut’ flies for the ball. Even as the match slips away, I can't help but be captivated, drawn to watch him and him alone. At one moment he's energetically leading for the ball on the wing; then when that is foolishly ignored in favour of another lacklustre bomb vaguely in the direction of our forward line, he still offers a shepherd for whoever ended up with the ball. I utter a silent prayer of thanks, even amid the growing carnage. For years to come, the high-flying 'Astro-Naut' is ours.
Minutes later, he lies crumpled on the deck. A pall hangs over our crowd. Something worse than the defeat which is now inevitable, we fear, has just taken place.
We are silent by now, actually relieved that our opponents have so few rabid supporters or passion for their club to taunt us. Some of our own fans begin to slip away in the last quarter. We remain to the end, dry-eyed and somber. But there isn’t the gut-wrenching anguish that can accompany finals failure; the contest had been too one-sided for that.
We didn’t perform at our best, but even so, it's evident our best would realistically not have been enough for us to travel deep into this finals series. Next year could - will - be different. Especially with reports that Naughton’s injury wasn’t quite as bad as it initially appeared.
During the match one of my brothers back in Melbourne had texted us, saying Toby Greene had gouged the Bont, but we didn’t notice anything at the time, and in the initial few hours post-match, there was little commentary about any tactics that were untoward.
But soon the unsavoury details emerge. Our Golden Boy, Bont, had been relentlessly and illegally harassed. A crude punch to his stomach, over the boundary line, out of the field of play, had him doubled up in pain. He was set upon in a pack, the hands of Toby Greene clawing at his face, grabbing his hair, smacking his head on the ground like a bowling ball.
Our fans are red hot with anger as photos emerge, of Bont with scratches on his face and a black eye. Himmelberg is offered a fine for his punch; it is woefully inadequate. Greene is sent direct to the Tribunal. 'Serious misconduct' is the rather vague charge.
We hope our fears of lenient treatment are irrational and paranoid, for surely the sickening footage is too ugly to be ignored.
But then the penalty is announced – a fine, meaning Greene, despite his appalling record of 16 previous tribunal appearances, can continue to play in the finals series.
It’s laughable. But the Bulldog Tragician is not laughing at all.
My mind travels back to the 2016 Preliminary Final. There was a memorable, brutal clash between Clay Smith and Ryan Griffen. It was a pivotal moment in that gruelling contest. The Acronyms led by two goals in the third quarter. They were surging; we were tiring. Less than a minute remained in the quarter.
Multiple, exhausting, desperate pressure acts by Our Boys propelled the ball forward into our forward line. It dribbled towards Smith and Griffen.
Two men, former team-mates, friends outside the football field, were intent on one object, the ball. Each knew that he had to summon every ounce of strength and will to win it, if his team were to triumph.
It was Clay who prevailed in the most brutal of body clashes as he used himself as a battering ram, but there was no half-hearted effort by Griffen either. The ball spilled free, 'Celeb' Daniel pouncing, for a goal that was precious. Indeed, every goal was precious that night.
It was everything that is wonderful and frightening and awe-inspiring about our game: breathtaking courage and bravery by men hurtling into each other, unprotected by armour or helmets, prepared to break bones for their team, their cause, their fans.
I think of the contrast with the actions of Greene and Himmelberg, characterized by spite, meanness and most of all cowardice.
I hate seeing the footage of Bont, the incredulous look on his face as Greene attacks him on the ground. I hate thinking of his family having to watch and fear for their son and brother. I hate thinking of the kids wearing Bont's number four guernsey learning that this can happen, with virtually no consequences, on a football field.
I wonder what Bont's thoughts are now that his opponents’ malice is condoned and endorsed.
How does he feel about the fact many in the footy media chortled and enthused about the ‘toughness’ of his attackers, and some even questioned Bont’s mental fortitude?
He had failed in a big match, some crowed; was our worst player on the day, gloated others; needed to 'harden up,' opined still more.
i'm already beginning the gradual, yearly process of retreat into obliviousness about footy. The grand final will come around; Our Boys won’t be there, a familiar enough scenario in my many years of devotion to the Bulldogs’ cause. One thing’s certain: this year I’ll stay attuned long enough to barrack with extra venom for Anyone But The Acronyms. Uncharitable thoughts will cross my mind whenever Toby Greene or Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is goes near the ball. The sight of Leon Cameron in the box or arm-in-arm with the players who carried out these tactics will bring on the same nausea as that plane trip.
Still, however the finals play out, the 2019 season is drawing to a close. With luck, I’ll avoid any news of delistings or players out of love with our club long before we’re out of love with them.
Soon I’ll be doing my annual proclamation that I just don’t care about footy any more. It will have more conviction than usual this year as I contemplate the stupidity of footy machismo and the AFL’s feeble approach to player well-being when it conflicts with their determination that their franchise club must succeed.
Aaron Naughton will have surgery, and with the boundless resilience of a man not yet 20, begin flying for marks again in practice matches on 40 degree days (while The Tragician turns the airconditioning up full bore). It’s entirely possible that in 2020 a number 33 badge will make its debut on the Tragician’s not-so-lucky scarf (how many chances can that god-damn scarf get?). I'll pin it next to Jack Macrae. I don't need to update his, because he still looks the same as the day he was drafted, having failed to adopt strange mohawk haircuts, blonde tips, or mystifying Chinese character tattoos.
But I might get a new one of Bont, as he is now with his flowing locks and imposing frame, for next year he will be a 24-year-old man coming into his best years.
As I store away the precious badge featuring dorky young Bont, I’ll be remembering what I wrote in 2014, just a few games into his career. I was breathless with excitement about all the things he could be, predicting best-and fairest awards, premierships, Norm Smith medals and Brownlows (I could be right on those last ones some day too):
….And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I'm imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I'm all set to get one myself).
Some time soon, I guess it's possible The Bont may experience a natural form slump, and even play a shocker. Not yet 19, his body may soon cry out for a rest. As the years roll on, The Bont will experience (PLEASE, PLEASE let it be at our club for his whole career) the natural ebbs and flows of a footballing life. Disappointments, tough days at the office, and heartbreaking losses. Fickle fans. Injuries, maybe even lonely stints in rehabilitation. Times when footy does not seem as easy, joyous and carefree as it must at the moment.
There will be more brilliant, match-winning games from Bont. I'll look forward to seeing him glide with that mix of elegance and power through the hurly-burly of the match, doing things only Bont can.
But I still wish for him and all of us that love him, that in the wonderful career that he’s still carving out, there was never a place for those moments of violence from thuggish Toby Greene.