Patchy. Inconsistent. Prone to go missing on the big occasions. It's true: it wasn't much of a year for the Bulldog Tragician Blog.
In fairness, it was a forgettable enough season...if it weren't for the umpteen ways that it was extraordinary. I don't think I was the only one, who watched our matches with a certain detachment. The losses were mere irritants; they rarely cut deep, as they do when you've been riding every kick, mark or fumble; neither do I have a vivid sense of any of the wins, which have slipped remarkably quickly from my memory bank. Is it fair that I vaguely recall them as workmanlike rather than enthralling?
Actually, the strongest emotion I felt all season was when Richmond won the grand final. The Tigers have grabbed three of the last four flags since our 2016 premiership - the one that was going to change everything.
The Tigers in fact have what we conspicuously failed to do. After their breakthrough flag in 2017, success has built relentlessly upon success. In contrast, we're at risk of a new chapter in the Bulldogs' long story of sliding door opportunities missed, roads less travelled; one entitled: 'How we blew the chance of a Bulldog Dynasty.'
Bleak enough thoughts, but they were easily discarded during the grey drudgery of the Melbourne lockdown. When footy burst back into my consciousness again, it was however in the most unwelcome of ways. First, what seemed ludicrous speculation; then the headlines; then the confirmation. Another of the sadly decreasing number of premiership heroes wanted out. Josh Dunkley announced he wished to break his contract and leave our club. It got worse - his preferred destination was with our traditional foe the Bombres.
It was disillusioning, it was heartbreaking. It was tasteless and tacky too.
Unwelcome questions came thick and fast, the more so because, unlike the scenario of the Ryan Griffen defection, by any measure it's our club that now has the stronger future than Dunkley's pursuers: the once-proudly arrogant but now clueless (yet still arrogant) Bombres. And Josh Dunkley isn't a washed-up hack, or a known troublemaker, or a fringe player. In fact, isn't he one of the tight circle of 'good blokes' at the club, best friends with our captain, always running down the race right near Bont? What on earth has gone wrong since he signed a contract just last year in good faith? Was this a sign of a rumoured crack in the bromance between the players and Bevo Our Saviour? Or was this all as simple - and revolting - as just money?
For some fans, the lure of that eye-watering contract explained everything, and the only question became what advantages could be extracted from a deal.
Needless to say the Bulldog Tragician was not among these pragmatists.
I've never been able to warm to the idea of players as chess pieces and commodities; never been able to understand how simultaneously players are 'brothers', training together through broiling hot summers; claiming to be ready to suffer hits and injuries and run that extra yard for each other; and at the same time somehow just 'employees' cold-bloodedly assessing their financial prospects and making a career move - even if that involves putting on a new jumper and going into battle next time against those former 'brothers.'
It's that contradiction which made me cringe when Josh Bruce grabbed his jumper in this year's final against his former club: a shallow gesture when he's now donned three different sets of colours - 'love the one you're with', I guess. (I'll tactfully refrain from any comment about it being his only highlight of the afternoon - oops, too late). Another reminder that while as fans our love for the club is permanent and enduring, it's not so for the players - a reality that's both inevitable and deeply depressing.
Countless Bulldogs' fans kept paying their memberships this year through the hardships of lockdown. Yet a player already earning more than most of us, who with his team-mates avoided the worst of lockdown, living in in a parallel universe (a bubble in more ways than one), was all set to leave his mates. It felt like an insulting return for the loyalty we'd collectively shown.
I wasn't sure how to feel when our club eventually refused to trade him. Grim satisfaction that we wouldn't see our youngest ever premiership player donning that sash was probably the predominant emotion. And there was a ripple of fear: that we withstood this first raid but ruthlessly cashed-up suitors will come again. For Josh Dunkley, and (I'll talk in riddles here in case the Bombres recruiters are reading) his best friend as well.
For a little while at least, my cheers for Josh Dunkley will be muted. Another chink in the romance of footy has been eroded. (And I know my own hypocrisy in this; the tears when Daniel Cross was unceremoniously delisted, discarded despite the many occasions he'd literally risked his life for our club, dried with indecent haste as I began to celebrate the deeds of the young man who took his number four guernsey).
It was all very dispiriting, even as we Melburnians finally stumbled out of the tedium of lockdown. And yet, I struggled to resume my usual state of post-season indifference. There was this kid that everyone was talking about, you see....
He had an unusual name, touted as the next Buddy. (Wry smile and shake of the head from The Tragician - as if, after decades in this barracking caper, I'd fall for that sort of hyperbole).
An Indigenous young man, the first in his family to complete VCE. (Ok, I admit I'd begun turning to the back-pages of The Age a little more often rather than the front. I was just sick of reading about COVID and the maniac in the White House, that's all).
He revels in, rather than shies away from, the Buddy comparisons, borrows The Bont's jeans, has a megawatt smile, and a charming, naïve confidence. (Apparently we need to have some sort of complicated points strategy to draft him!! This is about all I understand, or need to understand, though I'm supremely confident, because the Bulldogs have always been good at points. Still: 'Don't blow it Bulldogs!. I've heard this kid is the new Buddy!")
He's ours! (When will Jamarra Ugle-Hagan badges be available at the club? )
He's the welcome counterpoint for the post-Josh-Dunkley disillusionment.
He's paraded in our red white and blue colours, a little skinny as the new recruits always are. Within hours he's emblazoned on marketing material, asked if he is daunted by being the number one pick, spoken of being as an Indigenous role model in a code with a fraught history in its dealings with our First Nations players.
Though I have a flicker of motherly anxiety for him, he copes well with all the hype. 'Marra' as we've begun to call him, is blessedly not yet schooled in the dour corporate-speak which has infected our game. Endearingly he doesn't yet see the need for modesty, or studiously bland pronouncements (rest assured, they will soon come) of 'just playing a role and earning the respect of The Boys'. He even - blasphemy! - artlessly calls his new skipper The Bont 'a good kid'.
Everything for Jamarra is gloriously possible. I'm imagining the buzz before his first game. We'll jump from our seats for his first touch, his first goal, his first speckie. Especially if they're all in the same passage of play.
We will invest all our ridiculous hopes in him. There could be a Rising Star award, a Sutton medal. A Brownlow. A Norm Smith. Multiple Norm Smiths!
We're picturing match-saving marks, a heroic run-down tackle in a grand final. I can see it in my mind's eye: an audacious banana kick-goal from the boundary to win us our third premiership!
And yet even as these fantasies unfurl, I know enough of the toll of our game, and how few fairytales actually come true, to feel a stab of fear, and a wish to protect Marra from the less carefree, more heartbreaking days that will surely come.
This is the romance of footy that those who see it as business will never understand: that many of us love and care for the players as people and not just for the success they may one day bring our club.
It's why fears battle with my hopes: praying Marra will never know the crushing despair of injury, hoping I don't have to witness, as I have so many times, that slow leaching away of the sheer love of the game. I want him to keep flying for those exhilarating speckies (even though I already foresee the day that grouchy commentators or stern coaches chide him for unrealistic attempts). I hope he never reads spiteful social media posts, or comes to feel it's an effort to turn up at the footy club; that he doesn't get frustrated when his exuberant game gets dissected forensically in those lengthy video reviews; that our club will nurture and harness, but never subdue, his immense natural talents. That his huge smile never dims.
Marra - may you never encounter the ugliness of racism. May you make your family, community and our club proud. There's a whole army of us now walking beside you on your journey. I doubt the word 'workmanlike' will be ever used about you, and something tells me your career is likely to be more than enthralling.
Agh, Geelong. How you do annoy me. Let me count the ways.
Their home ground is so formidable, at one stage we had a 27-year losing streak against them.
They've feasted on us in finals; who among us isn't thankful that Sydney thrashed them in the 2016 preliminary final, and we didn't have to face the sight of those blue-and-white hoops, and endure Billy Brownless 'King of Geelong' flashbacks.
The Cats have always had the knack of dismantling our pretensions. In mid-2008 we headed to Geelong for an eagerly awaited 'top-of-the-table' showdown. The mood was maudlin on the train back to Footscray after a 10-goal drubbing, while Geelong fans around us artlessly discussed how many of their players had shockers, and expressed disappointment: they should have won by more.
'Taxpayer-funded stadium', as I call the Cats' home these days, does have at least one fond memory for me though. It was where a Geelong wit christened myself and my sister 'The Libba Sisters' because of our petite size; a nickname which has now endured and developed a life of its own.
The Libba Sisters always travel together to the match. At the game, she sits on the left, I'm on the right. We share the rhythms of the game together in unspoken ways. One glance is enough: 'We're switched on today'. Or it might convey the sinking feeling; 'This could be a very long afternoon.'
We're in synch, of course, in our clear-eyed analysis of the umpiring. We have our own private nicknames for the players. We are equally exasperated, and equally devoted, to our beloved team.
The Libba Sisters are too savvy to ever make bold statements that a match is in our keeping. This is because on one occasion, with less than three minutes to go, the Dogs were three goals up. One Libba Sister (okay, it was me) turned to the other and said: 'We must have it now! the Dees would need to get a goal straight from each centre bounce for us to lose.' Soon, we were doing the familiar, defeated trudge from the ground; the Dees, of course, had just done that.
In the wilderness years (which is actually most of our barracking lives) we used to smile when we saw pairs of elderly women, swathed in red, white and blue, arriving at the game together; this would be our fate one day. We extracted a pact from each other: whichever Libba Sister succumbed first to dementia, the other would visit regularly and lift their spirits by pretending that the Bulldogs had just won the premiership.
The trips home after a bad Bulldogs' loss can be a time of white-hot fury. In our safe space we vent our spleen and express wildly inappropriate views that never make their way to a sedate Tragician blog. On one such trip home, after an abominable performance in the first semi-final in 2008, we employed an imaginary red Texta to rate players' efforts. Through tears of laughter, we agreed it would save time if we just de-listed the lot and started again.
We make ludicrous statements, as we adjust, with black humour, to the pain of a loss. Despite no evidence whatsoever that either of the Libbas has any sporting prowess, one of us will claim that a sprayed shot at goal at a critical point was so easy that she, surely, would have kicked it. The other will say she definitely could have out-sprinted a player who'd been caught flat-footed. If things are really bad, we'll agree that our 83-year-old mother would have been more sprightly in the forward line than those who've let us down.
And yet one day in April 2015, driving home after a wonderful victory in Luke Beveridge's first year as a coach, the Other Libba Sister suddenly said: 'I think these boys can do it. I think they're the ones.' The rest of the trip was unusually silent, as we digested those words, barely even able to contain in our minds the hugeness of the idea: a Bulldogs' team running out to play on Grand Final Day.
Eighteen months later the Libba Sisters travelled to Sydney to see Our Boys make their latest tilt at winning a preliminary final. I don't think we stopped chatting or laughing for the whole eight-hour trip; yet we never really discussed the cherished, elusive goal that was yet again in front of us. Or how that same long journey home would feel if we lost.
When it was 30 seconds to go in The Greatest Preliminary Final Ever, and Jake the Lair centred the ball to Tory Dickson, I was too stunned to even understand we'd won. I couldn't hear a thing over the beating of my heart and the roar of the crowd. The only thing that penetrated the fog was my sister grabbing and hugging me, and her words finally made it real: 'We're in the grand final!! We're IN THE GRAND FINAL!!!'
But now... the Libba Sisters haven't sat together at the footy for nearly a year. We haven't even seen each other since the Stage Four Victorian Lockdown began.
Last Friday night I sat alone watching Our Boys take on Geelong. There were no Libba Sister high-fives as the Dogs played their best footy for the year in an outstanding first quarter. It was dazzling, brilliant, but traitorous thoughts lurked in my mind at quarter time. Even though we had smashed the Cats in every way, I knew we could still contrive to lose.
Ominous signs appeared right on cue. We'd lost Laitham Vandermeer, one of this year's brightest prospects, to a hammy. We stopped running, lost the audacious ball movement with which we'd sliced the Cats' defence open. 'Why are we kicking backwards? Please Lord, why is Dunkley in the ruck against Tom Hawkins, who must weigh 180 kilos?' I moaned. But there was no-one there to hear.
Momentum had shifted. Easton Wood was injured; our bench a forlorn collection of ice packs and sadly out-of-form players. We were still trying desperately to keep the Cats at bay, but I couldn't escape the feeling we'd run out of ideas. We were just hanging on while the goals that had flowed so freely were now a painstaking grind for the Dogs to manufacture. Those annoying Cats clawed their way back. They were patient, more professional, more experienced...more entitled.
If only we could have been there in person, the rows around us rocking, the Bulldogs chant becoming frenetic and urgent. Our shouts might have alerted Tim English to the Geelong player who came up behind him like a villain in a pantomime;
our roar of energy and passion might have given our team just an ounce more drive, sparked one more gut-wrenching run.
The Cats hit the lead, after we'd been in front for all but the last five minutes.
It's the worst kind of loss.
Straight after the siren I can only think of it as a capitulation, a continuation of a litany of collapses and failures we've seen so many times. It will take time to work through the reasons, to fit it into a narrative in my head. Were we gallant, and unlucky? Should we be proud of our first quarter blitz? or did it only bring home our fragility, the opportunity we should never have let slip?
Sometime around 11 pm my phone begins pinging; the Libba Sisters are ready to debrief. Anger, depression, bemusement, sorrow; we try to make sense of it all. In our bitter disappointment, it's not out of the question that we might deploy the dreaded red Texta. After all, there had been easy shots at goal missed, that surely one of the Libba Sisters could have nailed. And either of us would most certainly have had the peripheral vision, the quick reflexes, to avoid those slow-motion run-downs in the last, agonizing minutes of the game.
In Italy, people sang opera on their balconies to keep their spirits up during the COVID emergency. In locked down Melbourne, a city of masks and curfews, Libba Sisters send through rapid-fire messages; our mood begins to lift. Soon we're exchanging Gifs of elderly folk in zimmer frames to illustrate the lack of mobility of one of our players in the forward line. Two sisters who used to share a bedroom in Deer Park, who finally did see a premiership together, laughing in the night. We begin to understand that Our Boys did their best, and that footy is absurd as well as occasionally wonderful.
Below: Libba Sisters and a Deer Park childhood; and at West Footscray staion, heading to the 2016 Grand Final.
This week Terry Wallace, a former Bulldogs player and coach (I believe he also spent some time at Hawthorn) announced his retirement from footy media. In an interview marking the occasion he said his biggest regret was '30 minutes of footy that he could never get back.'
There was no need for any Bulldogs' fan under the age of 25 to puzzle over which 30 minutes 'Plough' was referring to. It was of course the infamous Preliminary Final that Must Not Be Named. The Dogs led all day, before collapsing ignominiously in the last quarter. In my memory our players transformed into immobile dummies around which the Crows ran rampant; I was surprised to learn later that we did generate six scoring shots - all points - to go down by two points. Memory tends to get distorted by pain.
Many fans say it no longer hurts any more, soothed by our triumph almost 20 years later, but I'm not one of them. It's my belief the nature of that failure - blowing a match-winning lead with barely a whimper - tainted other challenges we mounted. It not only denied us a shot at a flag in '97 but contributed to our appalling finals record in the years that followed.
So much can go wrong, be out of your control in any one season; when everything has gone right enough that you're 30 minutes from a grand final, it's a chance that should never be squandered.
And even if as supporters the 2016 flag erased that pain, could that really be so for the Men of '97? It's quite extraordinary to think that four of them went on to play 300 games for our club, yet never got to experience the premiership euphoria.
One of the magical and emotional elements of the 2016 campaign was the feeling that those champs of 97 were very much present, surrounding, maybe even (or so I fancied) gently cradling and supporting, our team on their crazy quest. They did so with open hearts, with none of the bitterness you might expect. Daniel Southern, who'd missed the 97 final with injury (if fit, could he have saved just ONE goal that day?) was in the rooms when we beat the Eagles in Perth. Plough said the last time he cried was the 2016 preliminary. Libba the First was a constant presence in TV coverage of the matches, riding every kick like a starstruck fan. Even Leon Cameron, who had a front row view of the '97 carnage as a 25-year-old defender, said that once we'd seen off his own club's chances, he'd barracked for a Bulldogs' victory.
And Luke Darcy, his voice shaking as he commentated the preliminary final, uttered those iconic words I can never hear without crying: 'I've been waiting all my life to say this: the Bulldogs are into a grand final!'
When the final siren went, with the Bulldogs premiers at last, Chris Grant and Rohan Smith stood on the sidelines watching Our Boys get their medals, on that same turf where surely their worst ever football memories were formed.
I think of them all, like in James Taylor's beautiful song Carolina in My Mind, as 'the holy host of others' standing round us.
I'm musing on these things as I wait for our match against the Dees to begin. It seems like everything's conspiring to catapult me back to 97. It's the Doug Nicholls round, and the pre-match vision shows highlights of the brilliant Indigenous player - and wrecker of Bulldogs' hopes in '97 and '98 - Andrew Mcleod.
Still with his trademark megawatt smile, panellist Brad Johnson muses: 'He really stitched us up in those finals; nothing we did worked on him.'
He sounds relaxed, like he'd made peace with it all; no sign of those painful recurring flashbacks of the Crows running amok, or all those other, unique and variable ways (we were inventive) the Dogs failed in the many finals Johno played in thereafter. Is that even possible?
Mitch Wallis spoke recently about coming to terms with his own experience of missing a premiership. From the way he's playing you can tell the pain of missing out in 2016 is now being channelled into an urgent mission; when the next premiership tilt comes around, Wally, now entering footy middle age at 27, will have done everything possible to ensure he'll be there.
Mitch looks fit and strong; not blessed with pace, he's transformed himself into a wily forward. He clunks marks he has no right to; he can't be budged when he wrestles himself into front position: he is our best kick for goal (sadly, this isn't much of a compliment); he's just about in All-Australian form.
I think about his back story; arriving at the club as a golden boy, son of a Bulldogs' legend, hailed as a future captain. A destiny interrupted by a sickening injury; he's spoken of the agony in the rooms as his boot and socks were cut off the leg that was broken in two places, while distressed teammates listened to his screams. He endured months of rehabilitation, setbacks where he was dropped...and all the while the Dogs moved further and further from the third flag which we thought, having banished the Preliminary Final Hoodoo, would be just around the corner.
Mitch's very future at our club was under question at one point when he mysteriously fell out of favour with Bevo; mysteriously because surely Mitch would always be sitting attentively up the front of team meetings (a model student alongside noted goody-two-shoes types like Dunkley and The Bont).
Mitch's dream isn't, can't, be over, whatever sensible and boringly pragmatic things he says about adjusting to the missed flag. But he'll never get back those minutes, just a milli-second of time really, when chased down in a tackle he somehow kicked and fractured his own leg. A tiny chasm of time and bad luck into which his premiership dream fell.
Wally's injury late in 2016 seemed, at the time, the final death-knell to dreams of a flag for the Bulldogs that year. Our injury list was mounting; Jack Redpath cruelly did his knee the same night, as the Bulldogs fell to lowly St Kilda. These blows were surely a brutal lesson: the footy gods, who'd never bestowed a smidgen of luck for our club, had other plans written for this new group.
Oddly enough, it was the very week that followed Mitch's injury that we first heard of the emergence of a new mantra among our bruised and depleted list; they were asking: 'Why not us?' I heard these naive and foolhardy words with a sense of horror. Yet when I looked for our battle-scarred veterans - 'Keith' Boyd, Dale Morris and Liam Picken - to put an end to this nonsense, I saw, with both hope and trepidation, that it was no use. They'd succumbed; they too had that far away look in their eyes.
Back in 2020, Wally is close to best on the ground as the Dogs notch up an important win; for now, we are in the eight. Foxtel returns its coverage to the Melbourne studio where Brad Johnson is - of course - beaming. (I remember Bob Murphy saying: 'Can anyone really be that happy all the time?'). The other commentators rib him about whether he'd like to join the boys in the team song; Johno, a Bulldogs' fan all his life, plays along with the joke.
Three hundred and sixty two times Brad proudly wore the red, white and blue guernsey. He played in 21 finals across a 16-year career. And just six of them were wins.
But on an April night in 2017 Johno was one of those carrying our cherished second premiership flag around the Docklands arena. Also present were men from 97: Libba, West, Smith and Grant.
And as I applauded them I was struck by two seemingly contradictory thoughts that were equally true; it could never really be their flag, and yet it was in every possible way their flag too.. belonging to the men of 97, and Murph and Wally...and all those others who were unrewarded, but never undeserving.
There were all the hallmarks of a Classic Bulldog Tragician Catastrophe.
A must-win match against lowly opposition. Rumours of player unrest (well, one player). A depleted line-up. A coach under siege (some are calling for the head of Bevo Our Saviour after we lost three games on the trot).
But in these times which have been called unprecedented an unprecedented number of times, the Tragician is less perturbed than usual. Not because I have undergone a dramatic change of mindset and am coasting along, as I did in 2016, in a surge of blind faith and optimism. I can envisage only too well the nightmare scenario unfolding: a winless, desperate team, derided as one of the worst of all time, roaring back into form against the hapless Bulldogs. I had been no means lost the ability to imagine, say, Tex Walker running rampant on the forward line, while a whole lot of Crows players (I actually don't know any of their names...is Darren Jarman still playing?) swarmed all over our guys, and humiliating headlines about a Club in CRISIS.
It's just that those fears aren't as dominant as usual. Even for The Tragician, there are other things to worry about. And watching Our Boys from a distance has perhaps not weakened, but subdued, my connection to my team. Perhaps it's also to do with my understanding that we are a team in some sort of transition; perhaps it's everything that's unique about season 2020.
The wins are still gratifying. But I'm finding it's easier to greet the losses with a philosophical shrug. You're less invested when you haven't ridden every bump and goal and miskick in person, haven't been part of the surge of the crowd mood..haven't even, half the time, figured out from the coverage who to blame when an opposition player has escaped out the back for a goal or worked out why an ugly floating kick into the forward line seemed like the best option. (Actually both these things occur regularly even when I'm at the match, but you know what I mean).
My commitment just isn't as intense, now that lockdown doesn't just mean a close tagging job on a damaging opposition player...and isolation isn't about coaches manufacturing scenarios where 'Celeb' Daniel is left one-out with a hulking seven-foot-three forward.
I've always preached the virtues of just 'being there' when times get tough. That can't sustain us in this moment. Meanwhile another key ingredient in the supporting arsenal, our affection for our players and our appreciation of their individual stories, stories and challenges, is also diluted. We can't understand what it might be like for them to be living in their strange bubbles in Queensland.
Maybe it's all paradise and sunshine, but it could easily be loneliness and homesickness. It could be tougher than usual to be going through rehabilitation, or missing out on selection, when you're surrounded by your team-mates 24-7.
They might be enjoying extra bonding and camaraderie. Or it could be claustrophobic and anxiety-producing, finding that the pesky team-mate who's always irritated you is now an inescapable presence every time you line up at the breakfast buffet... where a team official might also be closely scrutinising whether you've been a bit too eager to go back for that extra serve of crispy bacon.
Maybe there's a feeling of extra support and it's enjoyable to have extra access to the coaching staff. Or it might dread at the sight of Bevo in board shorts around the hotel pool, not long after he's given you a spray for a lack of qualitative sheen.
The Tragician can only imagine some of these realities, turn on the Kayo app and hope simply that we win. Because the Festival of Footy hasn't been very festive for the Dogs. Our endeavour hasn't been wanting; but a lack of polish and composure at key points has let us down, and found us slipping down the lower half of the ladder.
Watching Our Boys run out, I realise another reason for my sense of distance from my team and its fortunes: it's now more than 12 months since I have been there in person to see a Bulldogs' win. There've been umpteen debutants play their first game; I won't be able to look back nostalgically and recall my impressions of their early moments. I didn't even get to see Bont run out for his first time as captain, sharing with him that long-awaited moment that he was always so obviously destined to reach.
Our Boys follow our strapping Golden Boy down the race. It looks like a beautiful sunny day on their newly adopted home on the Gold Coast. That only increases the feeling of disconnection, or as any earnest first-year player would say: "it's surreal". For in Melbourne, we're wearing masks; our players are wearing sunscreen.
A listless start, with sloppy skills, doesn't inspire confidence. But having not followed any other matches than our own this year, I hadn't realised that the Crows are truly terrible. The last time I saw them play, in the last match of 2019 in Ballarat, they were still an outside chance of making the finals. I hadn't caught up to how badly they've plummeted. It's more their cavalcade of mistakes than our brilliance that leads to us skipping away in the first quarter. Just as I'm reassuring myself that this might be one of those rare occasions when I can relax as we deal out a shellacking, the Crows rattle on a few goals far too easily. They are only a goal adrift, with quarter time approaching.
Luckily we have a player (frequently mentioned in the Tragician Blog), wearing number four, who decides that he won't just watch while the rot sets in. He sharks a handball at the centre bounce, sends it forward before, yes, it's Him Again roving his own kick, and scoring an inspirational goal. I remember another time when he did something similar and I wrote that he was still a kid in the backyard, weaving around imaginary players: 'It's Bont to Bont and then he kicks it to Bont... and then Bont goals!'
I utter a silent prayer of thanks, yet again, that we have Bont in our team. Just how perfect , though, can one guy be? We've even seen pictures of him romping on the floor being 'Uncle Bont' to the gaggle of small children in the hub. You just know he wouldn't be the pesky annoying player that everyone's getting sick of in the hotel. I'd bet he's even setting a captain's example by not going back for that extra serve of crispy bacon at the breakfast buffet.
When 2020 started, Bont's vice-captain was a choice that surprised many: Lachie Hunter. They posed together in the pre-COVID promotional photos, symbols of a new Bulldogs' era.
Lachie is one of those players I've always found hardest to get a read on. Perhaps it's because when he began with us, he seemed like a flighty, maybe even cocky, half-forward that didn't work hard enough. I haven't sufficiently recalibrated over time to appreciate his full worth, as one of our club's hardest trainers and relentless gut-runners. The incident in March where he crashed several cars while drunk didn't really fit my understanding of his personality either, though that probably just confirms how little we know about what's going on in these young men's lives beyond what's carefully packaged up and presented to us.
Pre-match the rumour mill went into overdrive: it was claimed Lachie, who'd taken an additional period of personal leave after serving a club-mandated suspension, was disgruntled, looking to leave.
A little ripple of terror went through me at the the thought of losing yet another of the dwindling stocks of premiership players - so soon! ... and worried and perplexed, too, about the brutal toll that this game can extract; after all three of our players have disclosed mental health issues as requiring time out - permanently, in the case of Tom Boyd.
So there was extra joy in seeing Lachie playing well, and none of us missed the moment when he clutched his jumper after scoring an uplifting goal; a statement, he confirmed afterwards, of how much the club meant to him.
There were two other father-sons out there, and one of them (probably one of my preferred candidates if I had to guess the identity of 'most pesky' in the hub) was Tom Liberatore. He's in vintage form. While sometimes the Serial Antagonist title dominates our views of Libba The Second, he's got what I would call a high footy IQ. Afterwards, you don't often remember a scintillating highlight; but when you watch the game later, you see moment after moment that he's influenced; you wonder at his ingenuity, his creativity in close.
The story of the game, though, ultimately was about the return of Aaron Naughton, who delivered a potent reminder of his importance to our team. We call him The AstroNaught, but there's also something of the laid-back country bogan about him; he sauntered out pre-match wearing a fetching bucket hat, a healthy smear of sunblock, and a mullet which on him somehow doesn't seem self-consciously ironic.
He generates excitement that's a bit like another guy who used to play in our forward line (I've forgotten his name, he used to wear number nine for us; but Aaron also radiates competitiveness. He doesn't just fly for speckies; he works hard the whole match. I'd wondered if he'd be a little cautious and inhibited after a recent wretched run with injury, but he flies for mark after mark with carefree exuberance.
Watching him in full flight I felt for the first time the full loss of this 2020 season. We the fans can't rise out of our seats simultaneously willing him on as he soars for a mark. We can't exchange a little smile and murmur of appreciation to our neighbours at Docklands ("Astro, hey! the kid's on fire."). We can't share a laugh at his confidence, his swagger, his patented stare-down of any opponent he's just flown over the top of.
I can't even award him the ultimate accolade and pop into the Bulldogs' shop to buy a number 33 badge to fix on the Tragician scarf, for the Whitten Oval is silent and empty in these, unprecedented, times.
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.
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.