It’s too early yet for consolation, for fierce pride in our valiant efforts and spirited performance, and this year of miracles. That will come later. Right now, it’s too raw to have perspective as that song, the anthem of our conquerors in The 1997 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named and The 1998 Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Really Very Good Either, blares out. Again.
My niece Stephanie is 11 years old and she is crying as only 11-year-olds can when their hearts are broken. She’s too young to know that this heartache and disappointment is not the opposite of the joy of winning, but part of the spectrum. That the emotion that lifted us out of our seats when Jake Stringer kicked the goal that put us in front can’t be separated from the horrified, heads-in-hands anguish, when the Crows too quickly hit back.
We start that slow, losing trudge up the MCG stairs. Two Bulldogs’ fans alongside us, men in their 30s, notice Stephanie’s tears.
‘Agh, darlin’! We weren’t even meant to be here, it’s just not our time yet,’ says one.
‘2016. You wait. That will be it. That will be our year,’ consoles the other.
She gives a weak smile, a response to their warmth and kindness as much as their words.
We head out into the cooler air, away from the thudding noise inside the arena. Stephanie’s starting to absorb what the men were saying and talking herself back around to hope. ‘Look at where we’ve come from. We were 14th. We didn’t even have a coach, or a captain.
‘Or a CEO!’ she adds, as though this was quite the most diabolical aspect of our infamous October 2014.
A moment later she says bleakly. ‘It’s just not fair.’
There isn’t very much to say to that. As I wonder if our fate will ever be different, a line from one of Springsteen’s aching odes to disappointment and shattered hopes rebounds in my head.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?
Finals polarise your feelings. It’s like a pendulum that swings wildly from one extreme to the other. The middle ground of hoping for honourable, respectable loss doesn’t cut it, not when there’s so much at stake.
The songs on my iPod that day are imbued with superstitious meaning, messages from the universe that transform me from buoyant hope one moment to fear of failure the next. Paul Kelly sings: ‘Before too long…every dog will have his day, every dog will win.’ The next moment Crowded House warns me: ‘Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over.' (I guess whether there's a comma after the word 'dream' makes all the difference to how you interpret that one).
Then on comes a delicate melody from The Smiths, patron saints of depressives everywhere:
‘Please, please, please, let me get what I want. This time…
'For once in my life, let me get what I want. Lord knows it would be the first time.
'Lord knows it would be the first time…’
We're at the G, at long last. It’s brilliant and beautiful in the inky twilight. I get a message from a Richmond-supporting friend. ‘We believe in fairy tales, enjoy the starry night, Bulldogs, a new beginning.’
Around me, just as nervously apprehensive, are the people I love; my family, with whom I have watched through heartache and joy. We all share love for our club. But, I find myself wondering, is ‘love’ the right word? What is it that I ‘love’, exactly? The 22 blokes who will take the field in our colours, people I’ve never met or spoken to, just because this year they’re the ones carrying our dream on their shoulders? The quixotic fairytale romance of the ‘under(Bull)dog’, our story of non-achievement becoming more mythic and epic with every passing year? The community of fans, whose expectant, hopeful, anxious faces as I look around echo mine, with their different stories of how they came to be here but with whom I'm now intricately connected by colours, flags, history and tribal allegiance?
There’s that stirring ripple through the crowd: our boys are about to run out on the ground. An electric current seems to hit me as the wave of sound lifts us all from our seats. It’s just about the biggest fiercest roar I remember. There’s no need any more for those questions about love, those questions that really have no sane answers.
And so begins an epic. I'll never watch it again, and there are long snatches of the game I later can’t recall, because there is never a lull, never a chance to ponder the rhythms or tactics of the match, just helter-skelter footy from end to end.
In the third quarter our efforts are immense. Time and again we are into our 50 zone; time and again our chances are squandered.
The Bont marks 30 metres out in our forward line. Bulldog crowds are so often introverted and subdued by our well-placed fear of what can happen to those who get too big for their boots. But this mark is greeted by the most extraordinary chant for an individual I’ve ever heard our fans produce. It’s spine-tingling, primal.
‘Bonti! Bonti! Bonti!’
We’ve all been waiting for moments like this, moments to see this new generation, unscathed by our awful record in too many finals past, poised and unafraid on the big stage. The Bont, our pride and joy, will surely not miss.
The Bont misses.
Minutes later, the ball hurtles towards him again and he marks with his long octopus arms outstretched, in almost the same spot. That miss was an aberration, surely.
The Bont misses again.
We’ve spent so much energy, going forward, time and again. The draining misses from easy shots are piling up, the harried, panicky entries into our forward line are taking their toll. We’re eleven points down at three quarter time. I’m not sure we have much left to give.
These Dogs don’t like losing. Their efforts lift yet again in the frenzied cauldron of 60,000 fans, the biggest crowd most of them have ever played before. They still believe.
Our momentum stops.
We need to regain the lead again. A posse of Bulldogs have broken through the defensive lines and are charging together through the middle. Only a sloppy, wayward disposal can thwart an inevitable goal.
A sloppy, wayward handball thwarts an inevitable goal.
There’s a couple of minutes left. But the Dogs are done.
In the car on the way home, conversation comes in fits and starts. We’re slowly, painfully making sense of it. How we lost, why we lost.
Stephanie’s talking herself around to optimism. ‘We only won seven games last year, and this year we’ve won fourteen.’
A moment later: ‘I’m glad we lost today. It would be worse to lose in a preliminary final. Because then we would have had our hopes up more.’
We can’t help but laugh. ‘Defensive pessimism,’ I say.
Stephanie is puzzled about what that means.
‘Being a Bulldogs’ fan,’ explains my sister.
The psyche of every Bulldogs fan after a loss like this can never draw consolation from the past and put the match in perspectie as a mere blip, a stepping stone along the way to inevitable improvement and success. We can never view the misses and the wasted chances without the ghosts of other such moments haunting our perceptions.
In the aftermath many fans, in their anguish at the loss of a game where we dominated every statistic, can’t help but see the parade of squandered opportunities as another chapter in a history of failure. They draw an unbroken line from the great chokes of the boys of 97 and 98 and too many other years. They see the misses, the lack of composure at key moments, as a soul-destroying continuation of our inability to deliver when it counts.
They fear that this new, shiny bright generation is already somehow tainted, that our past can never be escaped. That just by breathing in the Western Oval air, our uber-talented youngsters have been conditioned to repeat the mistakes that cost their predecessors in their colours a flag or maybe even two.
I don’t buy it. Or maybe I just don’t want to buy it.
I don’t want to burden Marcus Bontempelli, just turned 20, with that heavy history of disappointment; I prefer to think of his seven clearances, his 12 contested possessions, his seven ‘one per centers’ in his extraordinary finals debut.
I don’t want to think of Lachie hunter’s disastrous, clumsy final handball that maybe cost us the match, but the 28 times this formerly flighty and inconsistent 20 year old drove us forward, the thousands of metres his young legs ran to keep us in the contest.
Maybe it’s because we’ve got no choice but to talk ourselves around, like Stephanie, to resilience and hope. Otherwise we’re conceding that our dream really is 'a lie that don't come true', instead of remembering that unbelievable Bonti chant and believing that we're going to hear it again, on a much bigger occasion, one day very soon.
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