When the Dogs took on the Pies last week I was on holidays, catching some sun, a couple of thousand kilometres away.
I was hoping against hope for one of those uneventful, comfortable, slightly dull wins. The type where our worst complaint is that we took our foot off the pedal in the last quarter. We should have been building percentage. Where, during the last quarter, the game well in our keeping, an earnest debate can begin: who should be in or out of the team for the next week based on form, instead of necessity as another injury strikes. Where we can even feign condescending admiration for the opposition's efforts. Some good kids there. That Darcy Moore looks a likely type, doesn't he.
Maybe even - but only if we've won by at least 15 goals - I'm looking forward to seeing that kid's career unfold.
Such indulgences are rarely the Bulldogs' lot. Certainly not in the second half of 2016. And so, inevitably, early in the third quarter we were struggling badly, down for the count. The weight of injuries, that perplexingly dire forward set-up, the absence of Dale Morris to marshall the defensive troops; all these things and more were painfully apparent. Jake "the Lair" (dictionary definition: "a flashy man who likes to show off") - was curiously ineffective. And all around the ground, we appear strangely subdued, bereft of answers.
We've seen these scenarios before, of course. The must-win game that we - don't. Bold club statements such as "Our destiny is now in our own hands" - striking terror, rather than hope, into the Bulldog faithful.
Yes, we've seen it before, over and over, but we didn't have Marcus Bontempelli then. We've had champions, plenty of them; for us, through long years of failure and disappointment, enjoying the singular gifts of individuals was our main consolation. But I'm not sure we've had someone like The Bont. Someone whose own indomitable will and competitiveness, allied with those freakish gifts, can single-handedly swing a game.
It may be a strange analogy; but he reminded me of those mothers who apparently finds the strength to lift a volkswagen to free their trapped children.
We've known it, we've sensed it, we've predicted a glorious career for The Bont, said proudly that he'll win a Brownlow one day, but even we didn't think it would be so soon. That he could be so great - so finished, complete - already.
Emboldened by the Bont's feats (of both varieties) in those flashy lime green shoes, everyone around him becomes inspired. Liam Picken, who has a particular relish in playing the Pies, locks down the dangerous Steele Sidebottom. The aftershocks of his crunching tackles shuddered through the stadium and could be felt even on the couch by an agitated Tragician in Far North Queensland.
And yet, though we bridge the three goal gap, we can't shake the Pies off. Far far away from my actual family, and my Bulldog family as well, the last quarter crawls by. It's a peculiar torture watching it on TV, the awful camera angles ensuring you have no idea whether it's going to be a Bulldog player who first lopes into the frame or several Magpies ready to link up smartly down the centre of the ground. You have no idea whether a desperate shanked kick was the best one of our players could do because of suffocating pressure, or whether he'd overlooked Bulldogs' team-mates leading purposefully into space. (This seemed unlikely given the way our forwards continually formed into a clump, but you never know).
We dominate, without impact; we lock down and fight and scrap time and again; our spirit, our effort, can't be faulted; we're ahead, still, and it's 30 seconds to go. We should be safe. (But - gulp - wasn't that the slither of time in which we were able to snatch the game from Sydney's clutches a few short/long weeks ago?)
There's a random free kick to the Pies, followed by another random free kick to the Pies. It's all too speedy even for the obligatory outrage, because the ball is being launched into the Collingwood forward line. Just the scenario in which promising young Darcy Moore could take one of his wretchedly promising marks, 30 metres out. But it's Bulldog hands, safe hands, those of Roughead and Boyd, that reach the ball first. They pump it forward and The Flashy Man Who Likes to Show Off, who'd looked a bit more his old self in the last quarter, takes a mark right on the siren.
We used to not know how to win; now it's as though we don't know how to lose.
Afterwards, I learn that this win has made history. It's the first time since 1946 we've beaten the Pies four times in a row. That's quite something, when you consider that in 153 matches against the Pies, we have won only 46 times.
I work out that our current 'streak' began in June 2014. And I'm almost instantly flooded with memories of that game. It's one of those that stands out from the rest, even though it should have been just a meaningless, mid-season, humdrum home and away match. Nothing of note was riding on it; hope of an improved year for the rebuilding Dogs had long since faded. We were well down the ladder, while the Pies were finals-bound. Our team was being mocked, trashed in the media; we were "irrelevant", a joke, the footy world agreed.
I trudged up LaTrobe Street to the stadium that day, ready to meet three equally stoic family members, with a spirit of fortitude rather than alacrity. This is what I wrote as I saw with sadness the small, forlorn numbers of Dogs' fans who'd also come along on this Mission Impossible that day :
The sentiments I wanted to express seemed old-fashioned, trite and banal, yet they're what I believe. That you don't get to pick and choose when to barrack for your club, disappearing from their orbit in the bad years, only to reappear with suspiciously new scarves in better times. That going along every week in these hard times, even if it's an effort, form a protective fortress and a core of resilience (harden up, you young scallywags, I've been there for at least a dozen 100 point losses!) and will make our triumph one day (- it will happen one day - won't it? -) extra poignant and unbelievably sweet.
A few things happened that day. The Dogs won; a defiant, glorious, against-the-odds victory.
Libber (the Second) played a breathtakingly brilliant game. Thirteen clearances. Ten tackles.
And an 18-year-old kid called Marcus Bontempelli was pivotal in a tight last quarter. It was still weird to see his rangy form in the number four guernsey, which had been worn more than 200 times by our beloved Daniel Cross. The Bont (maybe we still called him Marcus then) was playing his sixth game; his initiation to the red white and blue had involved five previous losses. His game that day earned him a Rising Star nomination. Afterwards, he shared a memorable hug with his father.
I called my blog post that day: We came, we saw, we believed. And I wrote of the moment when the siren went:
We take a photo of the four of us, celebrating wildly, to capture forever the memory of the day that We Were There.
The importance of being there, the mystery of why fans of unsuccessful clubs endure - these thoughts, on which I often muse, were on my mind for another reason. Last week my blog on our win against the Kangaroos did not find favour with at least one North Melbourne supporter. A person called "Shinboner" (I'm not making this up) got in touch to remind me that North had won four flags in his/her lifetime (a point already made in my blog), and then launched that not-so-thorny, not-so-tough question:
How many flags in yours?
Yes, the Shinboner had me there. I have to confess that I did not need to consult wikipedia, do a google search or use the more old-fashioned method of counting my fingers to unearth the answer. I've never seen Our Boys win a flag, or even come close.
But as an evasive politician might say to a Tony Jones' grilling: I don't actually accept the premise of Shinboner's question at all.
While the heartache of our failures is raw and can't be denied, something more than a simple win-loss ratio is what connects a football team and its supporters. It's the 'something' that compelled us to be there on that June day in 2014.
A Bulldogs premiership - especially after an epic wait of at least 61 years (thanks for reminding me Shinboner) - will be precious indeed. But I imagine (that's all I can do) that a flag, mysteriously enough, won't drastically change anything essential about my feelings about our club, or even be the thing that sustains me when the wheel of footy fortune dumps us back down the ladder again one day.
We can make a choice to go to a well-reviewed movie or walk out of a disappointing restaurant. And yet we will stoically attend matches 'just because' where our team is certain to lose, where we know the outcome is likely to be depression, frustration and even anger. We front up during those interminable seasons where the writing was on the wall virtually from Round One. We can - and do - question our sanity, wonder exactly why we're wasting our 'leisure' time on something that is so frequently, well, unenjoyable.
I watch the Olympics, and a particular triumph, or painful loss, might move, inspire, or sadden me. But I haven't invested enough in these athletes' stories to really care for long whether they've swum a personal best. I haven't been there, silently conveying my support and empathy, when they battled debilitating injury or form slumps. Their story really isn't mine. Yet the Dogs', somehow, is.
I cheer on a favourite player at the tennis but when they lose my disappointment is fleeting. I accept, quite logically, that whether they win or lose has nothing to do with me, tells no meaningful story about the random unfairness of the universe, just that one player played better than the other on a particular day.
I watch the Dogs and layers of memory are always, always, there. They form a collage of sounds and sights and even, for those of us old enough to have attended the Western Oval, smells. The losses, the wins. The years of just being there.
Like all Dogs fans, I feel a sense of awe and slight disbelief that the day may come when we are part of the excited, nervous throng filing into the MCG. We visualise Our Boys lining up for the anthem, dare to dream we'll see Bob lifting the premiership cup. Those miserable days, the days of heartbreak, our failures, they won't be forgotten or swept aside in our joy, our tears when that happens; in fact somehow, they will be the point of it all.
My story: We came, we saw, we believe
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.