Before making my way to our Essendon clash, the universe was blaring its warning like a foghorn. I couldn't find my car keys, was unable to remember which of my proliferating collection of Bulldogs' scarves is my 'lucky' one (there could be an obvious reason for that), took pointless 'short cuts' down one-way streets (when DID they close off so many streets near Footscray station?), and inevitably chose the lane where, as in the D-Gen skit, a stream of Datsun 120Ys, being driven by elderly pensioners, were crawling along at 40 km an hour.
So my usual battle between optimism and reality hasn't been much of a contest this week. It's crystal clear for me: I'm certain we'll be thrashed. Convinced that we're due for a good old-fashioned mauling from the 'In Hird We Trust' mob.
It's probably protective behaviour to cushion me from the unbearable thought of losing to the Dons. We're neighbours in location, but definitely not spirit.
It's an animosity traced back by some to our famous (haven't you heard of it?) triumph against them in the 1924 Champions of the League trophy; we were VFA premiers, the Dons had won the VFL flag, and we beat them convincingly in an end-of-season play-off. Dastardly allegations that Essendon had taken bribes and fixed the match have always swirled mysteriously around this game. Probably just rumours spread by the Bombers themselves to dilute the shame of their loss, I reckon.
But for me, dislike and fear of Essendon stems from those halcyon years of 1982 and 1983. That was when we suffered THREE consecutive losses of more than 100 points.
On one of these ghastly occasions, I have vivid, even traumatic, memories of us losing, gallantly - it may have been by a mere 132 points - at Windy Hill. (I wish I could say this was a record loss; that same year, though, we surpassed this lowlight, suffering a 146 point hiding at our home ground. And some of our younger fans, think our current performances are hard to bear. HARDEN UP!!!).
Wedged in like sardines, as fans were in those days, there was no respite. It was one of those occasions where I'm still bewildered by what drives some footy fans. Our complete and utter ineptitude - as the small band of Dogs' fans stood silently watching the bloodbath, we were hardly posing a threat - did not spare us from incessant heckling and howling down of a rare sighting of effective Bulldogs' play. (To the man who continually called out: 'Lock the gates! Don't let the Footscray fans out!': I don't know what went wrong with your life. But it must have been quite sad).
Trying to block out these dismal reflections, I turn on the radio. I am gobsmacked to hear that Melbourne are beating Adelaide. In Adelaide. This is deeply discouraging. I know I should have been focusing my anxieties about the Essendon match, but experience tells me that pre-emptive pessimism is rarely wasted energy. Any of the reasons for Bulldogs' losses this year - youth, inexperience, injuries - could equally apply to the Demons, yet they suddenly seem in danger of sprinting ahead of us in the slow climb from easy-beats to at least respectability.
And we will play them twice over the next eight weeks, including next week, just when they're hitting form. As the elite band of Bulldog Tragician Loyalists know, the So-called Laughing Stock Dees defeated us last year on my birthday. (Relive this catastrophe here, if you must). We're scheduled to play them next week and then AGAIN, in a fixturing peculiarity, a few weeks later on my birthday. Instead of getting the Good Friday clash, it appears a new AFL blockbuster tradition is going to be established, framed around my birthday.
The universe speaks, again.
I turn off the radio and switch to the shuffle on my Ipod. Perhaps this will bring some heartening, positive omens. The first song to come blaring out is from the Rolling Stones. You can't always get what you want, wails Mick Jagger. I hastily press the button to the next song. A wistful version of Don't dream it's over from Sarah Blasko. They come, they come, to build a wall between us. We know they won't win. What the hell...FORWARD! Hard times: James Taylor. Holding it together ain't always easy, croons James. FORWARD!! Elton John: Rocket Man. A twisted tribute to the Rodney Eade era, or a grim message in the chorus? And I think it's going to be a long, long time...
The universe is broadcasting its message loud and clear, and can no longer be denied.
I wish I'd had the foresight to bring along a banner: 'Remember we beat you in 1924!!' to unfurl in an emergency situation.
Such as if we're 100 points down at half-time.
For most of the first quarter the Dogs perform down to expectations. But I begin to notice the Dons aren't playing very well either. The Dogs begin to creep, tentatively, almost apologetically, into the lead. I'm bemused, but somehow not elated. The players look equally surprised and tentative at their success. We gain more and more control of the match, dominant in most areas, yet we don't have that buoyant look of a team that starts to sniff a win. Though we should be six or seven goals up, our work ethic around the ground isn't being matched by a merrily ticking scoreboard. It still seems like hard work.
The atmosphere at the ground is tepid, subdued. It's hard to get into the match; truth be told, it's a boring and uninvolving contest, even though we're ahead. The Dons' fans are quite well-behaved, saving their invective for their own players who are labelled 'sooks'; they leave the tentatively happy, and growingly optimistic, band of us Bulldogs fans largely alone - although one guy does perplex me by a tirade against Bob Murphy, who I'd have thought was one of those universally respected and admired players among virtually all fans; not, however, by our mate a few rows back, who has a one-man vendetta against this 'dud.' (Perhaps he's a long-lost relative of Mr 'Lock The Gates.')
Once it becomes reasonably clear to even the Tragician that the Dogs are, at the very least, not likely to eclipse the horrors of that 146 point record losing margin, I relax a little and start watching some of our individual players more closely from our elevated position. The Second Libber seems particularly fired up and motivated; I imagine I see an extra glint in his eyes, passed down from his dad who performed like a man possessed in our celebrated 2000 victory where we spoilt the Dons' unbeaten season. (See what I did there? weaving that glorious occasion, with the perfect fake balance of nonchalance and casualness, into the story). Shaun Higgins, at last blessedly free of the injuries that the universe has inflicted on him, is playing wonderfully, seeing space and possibilities where others see only a confused jumble of players. Dale Morris' return gives me appreciation anew of all that he brings to our backline; from our vantage point, I enjoy watching his selfless anticipation of when and where his younger team-mates need help; his speed and even elegance, as he times his interventions and places himself in front of marauding packs, aren't eye-catchingly brilliant like a scintillating coast-to-coast goal, (I think I remember them) but are just so brave. And Easton Wood, so long in that frustrating category where you could see his potential but wondered whether, partly because of his cruel spate of injuries, it would ever join up with footy smarts, has all of a sudden become an integral player, one who's mastered that difficult balance between defence and attack.
Still, for all these valiant efforts, there's painfully little reward. In the third quarter, inevitably, the Bombers seem to wake from their slumber; it looks so easy when they stir into action for them to rattle on a few goals, compared to our own painstaking efforts to marshall a score.
We go into the last quarter trailing, yet we're not content with a meek surrender, and scrap and claw our way back into the contest again. The last 20 minutes sees countless pushes into our forward-line, where it seems the whole Essendon team - and five Dustin Fletcher clones (there can't, surely, have just been one of him?) - are camped, taking turns to pick off our bombed skyscraper kicks.
I wonder, not for the first time, if a team just gets out of the habit of winning, whether dour scrapping begins to erode natural flair and the desire to score, and the concentration on those small and admittedly necessary one per centers starts to blind us to the imaginative and creative facets of the game. The Dogs' endeavour, tenacity and spirit make me proud. Its lack of pay-off just makes me sad.
When the siren goes, Marcus Bontempelli has the ball in his hands, but he's 100 metres from goal, and we're still nine points adrift. The reaction from both sets of fans is the same kind of weird crowd murmur that happens when there's a draw.There's no wild celebration from the Bombers' fans, who are simply relieved. And the flattest of feelings for us, as we absorb the fact that the match was winnable. Yet did not get won.
Tuning into the radio on the way home, I hear that we scored only nine goals from 50 forward entries. We outperformed the Bombers, touted as a top four team this year, in almost every statistical measure, except the one that mattered. Was it an honourable loss or just a badly missed opportunity? The stark facts say we're two wins, five losses, and haven't yet played the top four teams. It could seem as if we've barely improved from last year, yet I've no doubt we're a better, more resilient team. The question is whether the lack of reward for effort will keep sapping the confidence and will of the players and perhaps more ominously our fan base, for whom 'more patience' after 60 years without a flag is a tough message to sell.
I turn off the radio and put the music back on, hoping for some answers. I'm greeted by the melancholy, haunting opening of Bruce Springsteen's The River. Bruce, the poetic chronicler of disappointment and the shattered hopes and struggles of everyday life and working class people - and surely a Bulldog fan at heart - seems the perfect companion for my journey home, as he asks: Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?