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.
One day when my children were young, we were visiting friends. Embarrassingly, as we were eating, ants began to march across their dinner table. While we diplomatically ignored it, my youngest son exclaimed: 'Look there's some ants!'
Into the awkward silence he added, with the artlessness of a three-year-old: 'Mummy calls them by their first name. Bloody ants!'
He's travelling through Europe at present, but as I contemplated, with some degree of gloom, our prospects against the Cats this week I realised some things hadn't changed. I definitely call Selwood and Dangerfield by the first name of 'bloody' whenever I think - make that fume - about their irritating skills, their cocksure talents, their endless capacity to run rampant against a team wearing red, white and blue, whatever the venue, whatever the occasion.
As for 'bloody Geelong': they've thrashed us when we were ordinary. They've thrashed us when we were under the illusion - until we came up against the men from Kardinia Park - that we were pretty good.
By some miserable quirk of fate we've played more finals against the Cats - ten - than any other team. In one year alone, 1992, they demoralised us with two ten-goal finals drubbings. Yes, with the way finals were then set up, we played them twice in the same finals series, losing on each occasion (you've got to admire our consistency) by 60 plus points.
I don't like paying squillions to sit in their taxpayer-funded stadium. I irrationally resent that once they broke their premiership hoodoo, they - unlike us - went on to create a dynasty. And there's the fact, which surely can't be overlooked, that their coach is a Scott brother.
I don't like bloody Geelong very much at all.
There are no signs that Friday night's game will depart from the hackneyed 'Geelong-handing-out-a hiding' script. We're fielding, yet again, an extremely young team. Our injury woes show no sign of clearing. The Cats are top four contenders, fresh from the bye. Their midfield still glitters with stars.
It's unclear how Our Boys will respond to last week's loss. Our season is down the drain. I'm worried that the last gasp errors, and Bevo's uncharacteristic fire and brimstone reaction, may have demoralised them, eroding the confidence of a group that are unsettled, have not yet had a chance to gell and work together.
The match falls on my birthday. Many would say there must surely be better things to do on your birthday than sit and watch Our Boys, who've now lost five on the trot, get mauled again by our bogey team. Some would point out that it's likely we will yet again endure a ten-goal loss, that to venture out on the coldest day so far this year, only to see the smug countenances of Bloody Selwood and co, and the 'We are Geelong' music blaring out, is a form of self-inflicted torture.
Such people actually make a lot of sense. Yet still, I know I have to be there.
Because - you never know - it's possible, theoretically possible, is all I'm saying - Our Boys might be so inspired, if news filters through about my attendance - that they could feel so motivated by my commitment, my tenacity, my sheer selfless heroism - that they could play out of their skins and WIN.
(I'm not saying it's likely, by any means. It's just a random thought, to throw out there into the universe).
Our team takes the field, running past some lit torches. I'm not sure if these are an oblique tribute for my birthday or just a way to keep us all warm.
I anxiously scan the Cats' lineup, looking for confirmation that Mackie, Scarlett and Enright have definitely retired; I wouldn't rule out them returning for a one-match frolic against us. I don't see them, but in the backline there is a Harry, and a dazzling newcomer called Narkle. And initially, I think there's even a Kardashian; disappointingly, it turns out it's Kolodjashnij. And Gary 'Voldemort' Ablett - a footballer I've never warmed to - is out there too, part of their so-called Holy Trinity. Their midfield cupboard is overflowing; ours, wrecked by injury, is threadbare.
Lin Jong is a late change into the team...so late that he had to borrow Shane Biggs' jumper, though I guess it could be part of a cunning strategy to bamboozle the opposition. The game hasn't been going long before he is dumped in a brutal tackle. We see almost immediately that Lin's shoulder - the one that probably cost him the chance to be a premiership Bulldog - has been injured. Our team's appalling bad luck continues. But for Lin himself - well, it is devastation beyond imagining.
Our Boys make a terrific start. I can't believe the transformation that's come on over the past couple of weeks. We're playing free-flowing footy, but we're just as good in locking down the contest. We've finally rid ourselves of the slow ball movement, the plodding entries into a stagnant forward line. We even kick straight. At last the painfully inexperienced group are developing a chemistry; it's reassuring to glance into the backline and see the sizeable figure of Marcus Adams in our defence, alongside the ever-reliable Dale Morris. Geelong still seem able to score more easily. But at least, if we lose this match, it won't be from the lack of effort.
At half time, we are one goal up, and my questions about whether the team will be scarred, or motivated, by last week's loss, have been answered. Our Boys form a close huddle in the middle before they leave the arena. Addressing them in animated style is the guy whose mistake in last week's loss has been endlessly analysed, the guy some say will not be at our club next year. His team-mates seem to be hanging on Mitch Wallis's every word. (I can't be sure, of course, but it's quite possible there was some mention of my birthday, just to provide the troops with that extra sense of urgency).
The team trots off, a united, determined group with a galaxy of stories. Three teenagers; ten others including our captain Bont who aren't yet 23. A bloke who couldn't get a game for Carlton. Rookies who've toiled away, wondering if they'd ever get this chance; highly rated draft picks who've been criticised and derided for not immediately delivering on inflated expectations. A heroic veteran, the only 'survivor' from the last time we beat the Cats, way back in 2009.
And inside the rooms is a luckless footballer who can't return to the field, who's broken his collarbone for the second time, who lost all of season 2017 after he ruptured his ACL, who's only been able to patch together 58 games in the seven years he's been at our club. Who's now facing more time on the sidelines, and an uncertain future after that.
The motley group have absorbed whatever Wally exhorted them to do; they come out breathing fire in the third quarter. There's a storm of goals, even some electrifying 2016-style footy where the ball gets swept down the ground, players overlapping, men sprinting hard to make an option for their team-mate. It's hard to believe Geelong will be able to withstand our intensity. But, of course, being Geelong, they do. In fact, it's depressing, how it is so easy for them to strike back. The treetrunk legs of Patrick Dangerfield aren't troubled by the prospect of a kick outside 50, after the three-quarter time siren. He inevitably converts. The Cats, older, stronger, more experienced than the Saltwater Lads, are two points ahead with one quarter to play. Maybe we've fired our best shot.
The Cats are fresh from the bye; we'd given everything, and then some, in our match against North. We have been down a rotation since early in the match. A valiant loss tonight will still draw praise, still bring optimism at the future ahead. But that's too far away for Our Boys' thinking; in fact, they aren't thinking that at all.
The way the goals come in the last quarter is in itself a portrait of the new energy centres in our team. There are two exquisite, opportunistic goals from Little Red. There is a 'Jake Who?' scissor kick goal from the guy who polarised our fans earlier in the year like no other since Nathan Eagleton: that Carlton reject, Billy Gowers. He's rewarding the coaches' faith. He's earning our respect, even our love, converting us with his bristling energy, his enthusiasm, his care for his team-mates, his increasing footy smarts.
We have a ten-point lead, but in the stands, our nerves are jangling. It's impossible not to have flashbacks to last week's disaster. The boys look more composed in their approach, but still as the clock runs down under two minutes, so much - and not just the sight of a scowling and petulant Scott twin in the coaching box - is identical to what transpired against North.
The tension could have blasted off the Etihad roof.
'They'd need to score two goals within 48 seconds,' the Other Libba Sister says. She means it to be consoling, but almost instantly, the light glints off 'Voldemort's' bald pate as he speeds through from absolutely nowhere for a goal.
The arena seems to ripple with our simultaneous emotions, as the ball is bounced with 30 seconds to go and us clinging to our lead.
Get it out of the centre boys. PLEASE just get it out of the centre boys!
There's a free - you knew there would be - to Selwood. There's a scrambled kick into their forward line. Everything unfolds in slow motion. Despite half our team being in the backline Harry Taylor cleanly marks the ball.
The words that spill from my mouth are not: 'Bloody hell.'
Years of Tragician agony mean I am in no doubt that he will go back and steer the ball nonchalantly through the big sticks, and heartbreak will be ours for the second week in a row. I was there - of course I was - for the hideous moment in a 1994 final when Billy Brownless kicked a goal after the siren to snatch a win; I've long been haunted by Sandy Roberts' famous shriek: 'Billy you are KING of Geelong!!!'
It's like a punch in the stomach, knowing that ignominious scenario is about to be repeated. There's despair, the worst kind of despair, as the siren sounds and we know Harry's kick will decide the match. My niece is crying. We are all, instantly, bereft, grieving in anticipation, knowing the embarrassment, the recriminations, the agonising post-mortem to come.
But a wall of Bulldogs has materialised behind the mark where Roarke Smith, in just his seventh game, is standing. They begin jumping around like marionettes. Thirty-five-year-old Dale Morris, 19-year-old lifelong Bulldogs fan Patrick Lipinski, our captain Bont, first-gamer Bradley Lynch. Tom Boyd, who has carried the ruck on his giant shoulders and played a massive game, isn't too tired or too cool to wave his arms around like a maniac. Someone is surely yelling: 'Chewy on your boot!' They're creating, with their enormous energy, their big hearts, a mysterious barrier that Harry T can't breach. The ball wobbles, veers lamely to the left. It's as though Bob Murphy is standing in the crowd operating a remote control device to steer it out of harm.
Can you believe it? Harry Taylor fails to make the distance!!
Our celebrations, in the stands, mirror our team's. We leap around, we hug, we are joyful, alongside them in their delight as we suffered with them last week in their dejection. We see Lin Jong come out, in his tracksuit, his broken wing tucked inside, a determined smile on his face; Brad Lynch, hearing what his latest injury is, plants a kiss on his cheek. Our Boys look as though they are just as dazzled, as surprised, as us...that we have vanquished Geelong at last.
We stay, everyone of us, until they go into the rooms. Then we wait.
We want to watch them sing our song.
Dale Morris, smiling like a kid, is interviewed. His desperate efforts on the last line had saved a goal, for the zillionth time in his career, during the frenetic last minutes. He says he doesn't have 'the ticker' for this sort of stuff any more. I never would have picked Dale Morris for a bare-faced liar.
As we file out, exhausted, elated, hoarse, and proud, our mood could not be more different than last week's devastation. To many, the blame for that loss lay squarely with one man, Mitch Wallis, who had kicked out on the full amid the chaos of that final minute.
Some argued that there were hundreds of other mistakes throughout the course of a match, and why should Mitch's error alone be singled out?
Others made a counter argument: that not all actions are the same throughout a game; an error in the first quarter can't be seen as equal to one in the most high-stakes moments of the match. A mistake, in the final moments, is so much worse, that line of thinking goes: because it reveals a crack under pressure, an inability to make the right decision when everything is on the line.
When Harry Taylor marked the ball, many hundreds of actions had already taken place over the previous 120 minutes and during four bruising quarters. Countless decisions were made; to centre a ball, to kick long, to handpass instead of kick, to shepherd, to take an opponent on. To punch or try to out-mark; to leave an opponent and run at one racing towards goal; to lead out in the forward line or wait for it to be crumbed. To run, even if you feel you cannot.
Coaches scanned the list, worked their whiteboards, made rotations, evaluated how the tide of play was flowing, decided who to clamp down on, who to back in for a centre square bounce or kick out.
The umpires blew their whistles, or called play on; video technicians made examinations, scrutinising the tiniest of millimetres to adjudicate a score.
The medical staff decided that Matt Suckling wasn't right to play, and pulled out a number 24 jumper for Lin Jong; he could have been watching the match safely from the grandstand, instead of his shoulder hitting the deck at the most vulnerable point when he was tackled.
Little Red's kick in the final quarter was a point until it mysteriously (the Bob Murphy theory's gaining traction) did a U-turn and became a goal.
So many actions, decisions, deflections, and yet this much was still true: Harry Taylor's kick was the only one that would really count, the only one that would determine whether we knew the pleasure or felt the pain.
I think about all these things as I make a cup of cocoa at home, finishing off my birthday in quite a genteel fashion for one who'd been screeching like a banshee for three hours solid.
Footy, I think. You've got to admit, it really is bloody fantastic.
You know the drill.
The Libba Sisters were, of course, on the couch. In the Rising Sun apartments, across the road from the Whitten oval. Just as we were for the loss to West Coast. And the loss to the despised Acronyms.
Those lucky spots on the couch – it's fair to say they're not proving all that lucky in 2017.
We were feeling nervous and apprehensive, even though the Tragician had boldly declared after the premiership victory, that the battle between hope and dread, optimism and fear - the hallmark of Bulldogs supporting experience - had been decisively, conclusively, won.
That Tragician. She sure can speak a lot of drivel.
All week I’d cringed at every mention of Ye Olde Kardinia Park Hoodoo. Grimaced at the parade of gloomy statistics about just how long it’s been since we beat our bogey team. Broken out in clammy sweats with each new article highlighting Geelong’s dismal tackling, the fact that they'd never lost more than three games in a row since 2006, the spotlight that was being shone upon Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield.
I was nervous and apprehensive that in a year where we’ve struggled to get our best players out on the field, we’d made so many changes.
Nervous and apprehensive that ten of our premiership players are missing – and most worryingly, some of them were omitted for reasons of form, not forced on us by injury.
Nervous and apprehensive that the media, by harping constantly on Geelong’s so-called lack of fire and physicality, were providing motivation and ammunition for a team that have never exactly needed it against us.
Mainly ... I was just nervous and apprehensive.
I was succumbing to that old style, defeatist, loser mentality, not befitting of the 2016 premiers.
That's why I double-checked the Geelong team-sheet, just to reassure myself that those tormentors of so many matches past: Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel, Billy Brownless, Gary Ablett (Senior, let alone Junior) – even Peter Riccardi (I once saw him winking, I repeat winking, to some mates in the crowd as he and his fellow Cats were demolishing us with ridiculous ease. And I still bear a grudge) – were not surprise selections.
Once that was established, our match-day experience went something like this:
Libba One: Our Boys are switched on. That's the best start we've had in ages. We've even kicked straight.
We’ve really locked down well on Corey Enright too. He’s been completely unsighted!
Libba Two: The Cats have thrown a whole lot of things at us, but we’ve withstood the challenge.
Sure, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield have been getting it a bit. They’ll probably get tired for the rest of the match.
Libba One: That was unbelievable. Unbelievably bad.
We didn’t even touch the footy. There’s no way we can come back from this.
Didn’t Geelong thrash us by 10 goals around this time last year? I can feel it in my bones – we’re in for a repeat.
Libba Two: Pass the chocolate.
Three quarter time
Libba One: I knew we'd come back! What a team! What self-belief! You can never write these boys off! We're the premiers, remember!
Libba Two: (massive eye-roll).
Libba one: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Selwood.
Libba two: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Dangerfield.
There were questionable umpiring decisions of course, but I’ve never been one to harbor grudges for years and years, or go childishly on, and on, and on, about them. That sort of person might point out that Bob Murphy’s “holding the ball” when he actually KICKED the thing, was just exactly like a spectacularly awful decision in the ’09 preliminary, against Ryan Hargrave, if I recall rightly. (Nobody is fooled - I recall it with crystal clarity). But hypothetically, IF I were one to harp about the umpiring and never let go of these horrendous injustices, even after we've won a flag, that’s the sort of thing I’d be banging on about.
Friday night was the first time I’ve seen Bevo (Our Saviour) looking genuinely dejected after a loss. And there was something in Our Boys’ reaction that made me uneasy. Bewilderment, annoyance at what’s going wrong. A weariness, that week after week, hungry challengers are fired up to the max, ready to knock us off our pedestal; and even when one is despatched, another lurks in the wings.
I don't think we're complacent. But there's a little edge that's been lost. The hunger isn't as acute. It's not sustained over entire matches, by all players, in every quarter, every week.
The last two years have been a journey, an exploration of how good we can be. Losses just pointed to where we needed to improve. Now there's frustration, even boredom, at having to absorb – again! - the painful lesson, that footy is hard, that success is precious but oh so rare. That to win another premiership, the mountain has to be climbed all over again; you don’t get to start half way up.This rather obvious fact hadn’t somehow percolated into my consciousness. I’m not quite sure why. I guess I haven't had much experience in this whole Post Premiership mindset.
But my thoughts, spinning around in the wake of the dispiriting loss, make me unaccountably tired.
I think about The Bont, brutally crunched several times during the match, getting up just a little more slowly and gingerly each time. It was a rarity, a game where our star had little impact. Next week and the week after, he will have to do it all over again. His name is the one circled on each opponents’ whiteboard. His body is the one that each opposition player hopes to slam into the turf at every opportunity. His influence is the one that every other team is most desperate to curb.
I think about Murph, the oldest man on the field, trying to create a last-minute spark by setting off on a dash into the forward line, hearing the thundering footsteps of Tom Hawkins behind him, feeling the indignity of the Cats' fans triumphant roar. Moments like that - they weren't quite what motivated him as he embarked on the grind of rehabilitation, the slow journey back to fitness and confidence.
I think about Libba (the Second) and Toby McLean and Fletcher Roberts and Shane Biggs and Zaine Cordy, trundling around at Footscray in front of a couple of thousand people for a pedestrian VFL encounter, wondering where the magic has gone. Wondering if they still have the fire. Remembering what it took. Unsure, right at the moment, whether they can pay that price again.
I think about ‘Matthew’ Keith Boyd. His preparation has been limited, his form not reaching the heights of last year’s All-Australian performances. The internet has begun to buzz as armchair critics circle, agreeing that he’s played one year too long. He’s ‘slowed up’. He’s making errors. Our valiant former skipper, the man whose tiny toe-poke to JJ in the preliminary final was just as vital, just as magnificent, as the chain of play to which it led, is already being ruthlessly written off, by our own fans no less. It’s a heartbreak to me whenever this speculation begins, accompanied by those inevitable words: ‘He’s been a great servant of the club. But...’
I think about those words, too. Of all the meanings and implications. It's a strange concept. 'A servant’ of a club.
I think about Mitch Wallis. The boy destined to succeed, with his distinguished footy pedigree, his leadership qualities, the boy who requested, demanded, the famous number three jumper, who was an important part of our 2015-16 rise. The boy who broke his leg horrendously last August, who had to sit in the MCG grandstand watching his team-mates living out his dream.
Mitch was our best player in his comeback match on Friday night. He was at the bottom of packs. He didn’t shy away from the bruises, the physicality, the slippery turf, the parochial crowd, the never-ending relentless of getting to one contest...and then the next.
For his team-mates, the road ahead over the next three months probably feels right now as though it's strewn with boulders. It might be hard to remember the scent of warm summer grass, the thrill of finals footy; the obstacles might be looming larger than the destination. Mitch won't be seeing those hindrances; the rewards, after what he's been through, must seem close enough to touch. here to edit.
One day a few years ago, as I was leaving a Bulldogs' match, I came across a man pushing a twin pram. Fast asleep inside were two babies, only a few weeks old. They were wearing little Bulldogs’ jumpers, and their pram was decorated with red, white and blue ribbons.
This was deep in the interminable gloom of the BMac era. Ten goal drubbings, a grimly defensive style of footy, and a dearth of starpower: these were our lot. We were excruciatingly bad, once losing nine games on the trot.
I caught the eye of the twins’ dad as he trundled along with an all too familiar air of stoicism.
‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained with a wry smile.
Resilience. It's a term bandied about a lot in the lead-up to our match against Geelong.
The players were dealing with the aftermath of the horrific injury to their team-mate Mitch Wallis and a third knee reconstruction for Jack Redpath with 'resilience’, Bevo Our Saviour told the media scrum.
Endearingly, he could not hide his own tears and quavering voice as he spoke.
Another reason to love our Plantaganet-look-alike, Willy-Wonka-quoting, skateboard-riding coach.
But when the team selections were announced on Thursday night many wondered if even Bevo had already conceded the match as a certain defeat.
The losses of Wally, Redpath and Dale Morris were expected. But we had no inkling that we'd also miss the two Matthews, Boyd and Suckling, both out with Achilles' strains.
The team that was named would run out as the youngest and least experienced of all those fielded on the weekend. (Don't be fooled by the hype around the 'Baby Blues'; the despised 'Acronyms' - GWS; or even the deservedly enfeebled 'Bombres.' With an average of 23 years and 10 months and just 66 games, we'd eclipsed them all.)
And we were facing the Cats at their fortress; one from from which, as I seem to hear Craig Willis solemnly intone, so few Bulldogs’ teams have ever emerged victorious.
In fact, EJ Whitten, so the story goes, never once drove back down that highway a winner.
And whether at the Cattery or elsewhere, we've failed to defeat the Cats since way back in 2009. Even a few weeks ago, when our list was in much better health, they had no trouble dispatching us and inflicting the heaviest defeat of our season so far.
I always think of Geelong as holding up a two-way mirror to our club. After both clubs were seen as equally talented up-and-comers in 2006, their path diverged into premiership glory; ours of course did not.
Yet their very success also provides a window showing what can happen, how a flaky under-achieving club can finally smash through their history of non-achievement and then build a success-hungry dynasty, a new narrative of success, an aura of invincibility.
That dynasty is still very much alive, with at least six (it was too depressing to do an exact count) of those triple premiership players in the line- up.
In the time-honoured tradition of opposition players achieving milestones whenever they face us (how did Brent Harvey mis-time his record-breaking match?) the Cats would also be celebrating the glorious careers of two of their triple premiership heroes - and serial Bulldogs tormentors - Corey Enright and Jimmy Bartel. The crowd would be revved up, parochial, and at fever pitch. Only a small contingent of Dogs' fans would be there, given the exorbitant price the Geelong club demands for the small number of available seats, to attend this miserably cold night, when our depleted team is expected to cop a shellacking.
Our players, right from the opening bounce, had different ideas. They stunned us all with their intensity, their overwhelming determination to win.
You’d think that last week’s horrible events might have made them hesitant; that there might be moments of tentativeness, a sharper instinct for self-preservation. Yet they were fiercer, braver, more committed, than ever before.
Unlike a couple of other teams I could name Our Boys didn't resort to over the top fake toughness or bravado. There was no posturing, no 'line in the sand' statements. This was a different, more difficult form of courage. The footy world, we the fans, would all have forgiven, excused, accepted a heavy loss. But Our Boys hadn't abandoned their courage, the courage to believe.
Leading the way with an imperious performance was Libber (The Second). He was playing, you felt, for his fellow father-son recruit and lifelong mate, the wounded Mitch Wallis, as much as himself. Despite his own injury woes – last year’s knee reconstruction, a visit to hospital with busted ribs only a couple of weeks ago – Libber played as though, as his famous dad did so often, his own over-sized will could - and would - drag us over the line.
It was a little more surprising to see another Tom instrumental in our impressive start: everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Bulldogs’ answer to Jack Watts, he of the much discussed pay cheque, Tom Boyd. There’s always been a rather placid air about big Tom, little sense that he could use his big frame in the wrecking ball style of Clay Smith, no real evidence that inside him burned the competitive flame of a fierce athlete, but on Friday night it looked like he'd had enough of the gibes, enough of the caricatures. Under pressure that's unimaginable for a 20-year-old, he showed the 'blue chip' talent that Bevo talks about, the potential champion he can become if his fitness base builds up and injury fates (not, admittedly, our friend of late) a little kinder.
The first quarter siren sounded with the Dogs only one point down. The Cats looked, if not shell-shocked, nettled and aggrieved.
Our depleted team had somehow reached somewhere deep, somewhere perhaps even they didn't know they could, and had shaken a defiant fist in the direction of the footy universe. They were playing with heightened recklessness on behalf of - or because of - their injured comrades. And I wished that I was there, to stand with my fellow Bulldogs' fans, and applaud them and give them our thanks.
The second quarter unfolds: like soldiers, we begin to slowly concede ground in a war of attrition. The Cats start to realise that there is no need to join our players and scrabble at the bottom of the pack; they can afford to have one player standing outside, ready to coolly sweep the ball down field, where our defensive gaps are painfully exposed. The toll of our relentless efforts, our frenzied domination with so little effect on the scoreboard, threatens to - but never quite does - inexorably grind us down.
The days of dazzling Round One 'sexy' footy are long gone; it's hand-to-hand combat in which we now must engage.
And yet we see, with an air of disbelief, that our hardiest soldier, Libber, is off the ground. Yet again, the wretched sight of an essential player, squirming in pain, concerned doctors by his side. Libber will not return for the rest of the match.
Another of our best, Luke Dahlhaus, who's lit us up with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, begins to tire. Umpiring decisions don't go our way. The Geelong players begin to exude that air they've always had over us; they look taller, stronger, fresher, faster.
More ... uninjured.
Yet even though the Cats' authority over the match grows, it's never unchallenged. A few times, it seems a dam wall is about to break and they will rampage over the top of us, but we bob up irrepressibly again - I'll never quite know how.
We're still threatening, still surging, even in the last quarter, when we lose yet another player, Jack Macrae, that unobtrusive, tireless runner, who'd been doing a fine job on Joel Selwood and still got 20 possessions himself in three quarters.
Old-fashioned words come to my mind as the final siren sounds, and the Dogs register a 25 point loss. Gallantry, and grace.
We'd played the game, as a certain song that we've heard too many times goes, 'as it should be played'.
Our Boys stayed on the ground as Enright and Bartel were chaired off. Their heads were held high. They weren't losers. They'd just lost a game.
There are ten-goal wins that have not made me as proud as this.
In those painful BMac years, throughout those tedious, repetitive losses, it was sometimes all I could do to unearth one little nugget of hope, one little moment to be proud of. Maybe it was a first gamer in whom we could invest all our hopes and fantasies, or a plodding journeyman who had somehow, unexpectedly, had a breakthrough game. It might be - it often was - a moment of suicidal Daniel Cross madness as he backed fearlessly into a pack.
There were many nuggets to choose from on Friday. But there are two that I have decided I will always cherish in my memory bank.
The first one was the vision of Libber on the sidelines, heavily strapped, knowing - as he must have - that he faced weeks on the sidelines, the surgeon's knife. He was watching the game as intently as the most devoted fan, clapping his team-mates, urging them on.
The other nugget was the splendid sight of The Bont taking the opportunity to set Joel Selwood smartly back down on his derriere (this is a family themed blog). Like every Bulldog fan for so many years, The Bont looked sick and tired of being pushed around by Geelong.
Agh, The Bont. Exquisite skills - check. The leadership and character of a champion -check. Just the right amount of aggression, just the right time to send a statement - wouldn't you know it, our 'golden boy' has the right stuff for that as well.
And yet, while we're proud, we the fans, who have been patient so long, must absorb the knowledge that we must, it seems, be patient once again.
We'd all nurtured hopes that in this even season, with no standout team, we could snatch an unexpected flag (though, after a 61 year drought, the words 'snatch' and the phrase 'unexpected' aren't exactly what I'm reaching for).
It's getting harder to imagine us, with our injury toll, slogging our way through gruelling finals and featuring on that last day of September, 2016. But judging by Friday night, Our Boys aren't accepting that as an inevitability. Not one little bit.
The little twins, in their Bulldog jumpers, must be pre-schoolers by now. Maybe, like my own little boy at that age, they insist on starting the day by running through a banner - a makeshift sheet that I was required to hang from a doorway for this purpose. I imagine them running around the backyard, kicking a footy with their patient dad. They probably wear the numbers four and nine on their backs, like most western suburban kids I see wearing red, white and blue. Or they could be wearing 21, for Libber. Number 3, for Wally. They're learning resilience. Bulldog resilience.
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.