We were stranded at the bottom of the ladder, with the footy world lined up to jeer and sneer at our misfortunes. No longer everybody’s second favourite team, the Cinderella club was back sweeping up the chimney ashes.
There were rumours of disunity and in-fighting. Players were not kicking it to each other (here was me naively thinking that was just our skill level).
And Bevo – Our Saviour – had lost the players! (Goodness. Where?)
I flinched at every dismal headline. I shuddered at every unsubstantiated theory, even when it came from wise and knowledgeable sages such as Brendan Fevola.
Because there’s always that kernel of doubt, isn’t there? that fear that as fans we’d always be the last to really know. Confident and complacent in the loyalty of our 2014 captain, Ryan Griffen, we were blindsided by news of his defection and the poisonous mess that lay below. Hoping that in 2018 the penny would drop for Jake the Lair that a higher work ethic could reap rewards, we were poleaxed when his name emerged as 2017 trade bait, dumbfounded that it could have come to this when our club became hell-bent on getting rid of him at any cost. Some of the reasons gradually emerged; others may never surface beyond the inner sanctum from which we the fans are forever excluded.
Turmoil, unrest, injury after injury: it wasn’t the ideal build-up to tackling our most loathed adversaries. (Well, of the Melbourne clubs at least). My dislike of the Insufferables in Red and Black is of course legendary; it had something to do with a hellish afternoon in the early ‘80s when the Bombres inflicted our worst ever defeat, by 146 points. And at the Western Oval, no less. (We bounced back strongly in our next contest with them, however, hauling back the margin to a mere 132 point loss).
And there’s the class warfare aspect; it was one thing to have the citizens of the leafy eastern suburbs look down upon us, but to be scorned by those smug fans of the club just the other side of the Maribyrnong has always been another thing altogether.
The fact that in recent times we have been a better performed team than them, and have in fact beaten them over the last four matches, only makes the prospect of them trouncing us at this low ebb even more unbearable.
That we would be trounced appeared inevitable. With players going down like nine pins, we were the only team in this round whose average age was under 24; the only team whose games average was under 75 (ours was just 59.5). It’s the profile more often seen in a team that claims to be ‘rebuilding’ (Carlton, for example, had an average games of 83; even Brisbane has 78).
Our threadbare backline featured a pair of 18-year-olds. And our first – and second – ruck, Tim English, was playing just game number five; he might look like an eerie hybrid of Scott Wynd and Simon Beasley (let’s not think about that concept too much), but how on earth could the kid, raw and undoubtedly talented, compete, for virtually the whole afternoon, against the imposing bulk of Tom Bellchambers, listed at 108 kilograms (in other words, the combined weight of Dailey Bailey, Ed Richards and ‘Celeb’ Daniel?)
And if the anticipated thrashing unfolded, what about the horrific prospect of our former number nine, Jake Stringer, Frontrunner Extraordinaire, emerging from the shadows to dance on our grave, maybe even making rude gestures towards Bevo and the crowd OR – this possibility, which I could clearly visualise, enraged rather than alarmed me – after scoring some impossibly magic goal, running past and arrogantly ruffling the hair of the poster boy for good living, Our Golden Boy, The Bont!!
Still, despite these colourful scenarios (I was quite possibly the only one to conjure them up) you don’t get to pick and choose your times to be there as a fan. And after all, it’s a running joke in our family, whenever the Dogs got off to an atrocious start to the season (admittedly we’ve had plenty of opportunities to polish such running jokes), that my mother would remind us that the Bulldogs had lost their first two matches in 1954, and still gone on to win the flag.
So I headed to the match. Messages from the Universe weren’t promising; I was unsure what to make of one omen; walking around that river which divides Footscray and Essendon on the morning of the match, I’d been stung by a bee.
I'd finally banished the so-called Lucky Scarf. It was 30 degrees, and it had clearly had lost its magic allure.
I’m not saying the binning of the not-so-lucky scarf was DEFINITELY the critical factor, but who can say? Because Our Boys had switched back on to those demented ‘Men of Mayhem’ levels. The blue collar work ethic returned. You only realised how much it had been missing when you saw it again. Those acres of space in which oppositions had romped were shut down; players in red and black could not move without the suffocating pressure of three, four, five Bulldogs’ players. Luke Dahlhaus, so subdued in the first two weeks was immense, Jack Macrae was everywhere (but when was that ever a surprise?) and The Bont loped around like the elegantly talented thoroughbred we know him to be.
While Bont’s greatness was evident in his first few games, there are always players who surprise you; they’ve been pigeonholed early in their careers, and the hard work they'd put into quietly transforming their games often overlooked. Lachie Hunter had always featured in that category for me, etched into my mind as a lightweight half forward inclined to the flashy; I’ve been too slow to reappraise and value his efforts. Now as I watched him I realised how much my perception had shifted. Even in the debacle against West Coast, I’d seen him applauding and clapping Ed Richards who’d taken a risk in the backline which didn’t come off; it was Lachie left guarding the mark as yet another goal sailed over his head, but his encouragement of his young teammate caught my eye as one of the truer kinds of leadership.
Lachie Hunter is now a relentless runner both ways, one moment bobbing up to link in with our gallant young defence, seconds later presenting as a target in our forward line. In his linkman role, he took 13 marks on Sunday, the same as the combined efforts of Joe Daniher and Hale Cooker (or whatever that guy with the weird haircut calls himself). In fact seven of our players, including the diminutive ‘Celeb’ Daniel, took more marks than any single Essendon player (their highest being the perennially grouchy and aggrieved Brendon Goddard). It was a measure of just how hard Our Boys worked despite the sapping and fatiguing conditions.
The performance was full of heart if not always polish; we threatened, and threatened, to blow the game wide open and inflict a thrashing, and yet somehow the margin was never so wide that our opponents could not have easily dragged it back. Tragician nerves began to fray when the Bombres chipped away our margin in the last quarter (how did I survive a grand final?); when Joe Daniher dragged down a mark metres out, I feared the worst, most galling kind of defeat: the one where you capitulate after leading all day. My head was in my hands; only the roar of our supporters informed me that not only had Big Joe made a horrendous mistake, giving out a sloppy handball in the goal-square, but that out of nowhere ‘Celeb’ had materialised to ensure no goal was scored.
The Dogs found something more, in the stifling heat when every step must seem like a kilometre. Toby McLean had the ball and was charging, bouncing the ball, closing with electrifying speed on the goal, selflessly shepherded by Mitch Wallis and then Josh Dunkley. The crowd made the most amazing noise as the ball speared through the goals, a roar as loud and joyful as any since October 2016.
The match, at last, was ours, and all the more treasured for its unexpectedness.
Amid the angst of the last two weeks some furious fans dredged out the old-fashioned lament that our players were no longer ‘playing for the jumper.’ It’s always been a strange concept to me and one I doubt resonates with the players of today. And yet who could say, seeing Jake Stringer in the unfamiliar red and black, that his very donning of the sash hasn’t transformed our view of him.
He’ll be celebrated, of course, in time: one of the oh-so-few Bulldogs premiership players. But on Sunday we looked at him anew. Maybe it was those red and black colours, but he was in every conceivable way no longer our Lair. The brashness has disappeared. So has the Jake Stringer swagger.
Instead I saw a pallid and unfit player, a one-trick pony who may never attain the greatness that was his for the taking, a player who for quite some time has been surpassed by less showy but harder-working players like Lachie Hunter and his fellow 2012 draftee Jackson Macrae. In the last quarter he wheeled around hemmed against the boundary line in the forward line, the same manoeuvre we thrilled to dozens of times in his five seasons with us. When his premiership captain Easton Wood used every bit of his strength to corral him, our joy was fierce. Jake toppled like a tree trunk. No, not ours any more.
And our Bulldogs are no longer on the bottom of the ladder; in fact, in the euphoria of the victory, I was keen to remind everyone that we’re only two games off top spot.
And, let’s not forget: in 1954 we lost our first two games and still won the flag!!
I wasn’t really interested anymore in the number 25 for Essendon; it was far more important to cheer our victorious heroes off the ground. We hadn’t won a match since August 5, 2017; we wanted to sing the song with extra gusto. Inside the change rooms, Ed Richards, Aaron Naughtin and Billy Gowers got to sing it for the first time… and then a second, because Bevo (still Our Saviour) got them all to link in with the coaches and injured players and support staff, all those who’d worked to make the magic reappear in the past miserable fortnight. They sang it proudly, one more time.