I was looking forward to Saturday's match. It was a chance, I thought, to savour a nostalgic journey down memory lane. Grassroots footy as it used to be, played at the last of the Victorian suburban grounds, with the added novelty of a traditional Saturday afternoon timeslot. No roof blocking out the watery winter sunshine; no need for Fan Engagement Strategies or flashing lights reminding us to 'Make some noise'.
Our opponents are an historic VFL foundation club, the second oldest continuously existing club of any code in the world. A club rightly celebrated for playing the game 'as it should be played'. Still connected to its heartland and community.
So last Saturday afternoon I travelled down the 'Corio Bay' Highway. Unlike some I could mention, my mode of transport was the humble automobile rather than a helicopter, as I prepared to watch the Dogs take on the Cats.
Legend has it that even the great EJ never rode home victorious on the Footscray Football Club team bus, after making what was then the game's longest - and for many years its toughest - road trip.
Yet despite what the cold hard facts would say about our poor record at the ground, I actually harbour quite a few memories of us winning at Kardinia Park. There were two sensational come-from-behind victories in 2001 and 2002, with Brad Johnson taking a screamer in one of them.
Most vividly remembered, though, is a day in 1995, when, perched on a milk-crate, I viewed - or attempted to view - the match from the standing room terraces in the outer. Despite my elevated position I remained unable to see any of the action, and had the match relayed to me by taller members of my family. (In other words all of them).
The fact that I couldn't actually glimpse anything of the game, wedged in as I was among other people's none-too-aromatic armpits, didn't, of course, prevent me joining in the chorus of outraged boos when word was passed down to me that Gary Ablett Senior had ironed out Rohan Smith with a bone-shattering shirtfront. He got two weeks for it, and the Dogs got home by 15 points.
The oval's been extensively redeveloped since that halcyon 1995 day. A new grandstand has been erected above my former, precarious, milk-crate location. (I'm not sure, however, if a plaque respectfully marks the spot).
I was, as always, with my fellow 'Libber sister' - particularly apt, as Kardinia Park was where, years ago, a smart-alecky Cats' fan first bestowed our nickname. (And many thanks to the wit who has suggested it's time for an update, and that we should now get with the times and be known as the 'Caleb Daniel Sisters'. Droll).
The first shock to the nostalgia script came when we discovered that, in 2015, at what is now 'Simonds Stadium', we would pay $61 (each) for the privilege of attending the match.
These were the cheapest seats we could get too; standing room sets you back $29.
Considering that Federal and State governments have poured money into the redevelopment of the stadium, I perhaps naively thought that admission would have remained a bit more in reach of the average fan.
I found it equally outrageous that Dogs' fans couldn't use their Victorian memberships to at least get into the arena; the match was mysteriously classified as an 'interstate' one. (Perhaps this explains why our Speaker got a little mixed up about which mode of transport was necessary to attend a 'fundraiser').
Much lighter of pocket, the 'Libber-Caleb-Daniel' sisters (I'm not really sure this is going to stick) trooped around the arena towards our exorbitantly priced seats.
Inside the stadium we came across walls of photographic displays that somehow brought my mood down, even though I thought what they portrayed was quite magnificent. They were stirring crowd shots of thousands of euphoric Cats' fans celebrating Geelong's three recent premierships.
My gloom was because these jubilant scenes of success-starved fans partying with their beloved team brought home - yet again - one of the recurring themes in the Tragician blog. Yep - you guessed it. The path not taken. The sliding door missed. The alternative, rosy, wonderful future, heartbreakingly glimpsed in a rear-view mirror.
You see, almost ten years ago, the up-and-coming Dogs' and Cats' squads seemed equally poised at the threshold of brilliant futures. In two thrilling, high quality encounters in the 2006 season, no more than two points split the teams, with each recording a one-point victory.
Two youngsters with long manes of hair tore up and down the wings in the free-spirited affairs. One was the son of That Thug who had flattened our Rohan Smith in 95; the other an equally talented kid and future captain of the Dogs. He was wearing the number 16 guernsey.
Premiership glory beckoned, surely, for these two young and talented outfits. Our club seemed to leap ahead in the race, when we went onto make the finals that year and knocked off Collingwood in the first week; the Cats meanwhile fell away and missed the eight.
The relative flag-readiness of the two clubs proved, though, to be an illusion. Geelong played one of the all-time great seasons and stormed to a premiership the next year: two others soon followed. The Dogs missed the eight in 2007. Though we featured in the next three finals series, we came nowhere near the achievements of the team we'd appeared the equal of in 2006.
Somewhat dampened by these recollections, we eventually found our seats. For the price we'd paid, I'd expected our views would at least afford us outstanding views of the action. But as the Tragician should know by now, high expectations are destined to be quickly squashed.
Our seats were behind the goals. At this long skinny ground, this meant following the action at the opposite end of the ground was only marginally better than the day I tottered on my milk-crate (and fractionally worse than watching last week's match on an app). We were unable to discern which red-clad stick figure was playing well and who wasn't (we had a serious discussion on the way home bemoaning the fact that Luke Dahlhaus had been 'quiet', only realising later that he'd notched up 37 disposals).
Each quarter apparently had its own 'sponsor' - so I learnt from a scoreboard positioned so that it could only be viewed through flinging my neck around Joel-Selwood-style. It was not visible any other way.
The game was, like so many of late, tedious, congested and scrappy. Was it the dismal standard of the contest, or something about the ground itself, that meant that the atmosphere was surprisingly dull and muted, despite the closeness of the scores?
The Dogs reverted to some of the worst characteristics of our football over the last three years - graft and endeavour let down by sloppy decision-making. We reaped precious little reward for effort. In a damning statistic, our 15 forward entries in the third quarter resulted in only one miserable goal, while the Cats made the most of only three entries.
Our opposition are no longer the formidable outfit that swept all before them for so long. But there were still painfully familiar names bobbing up to keep us at arms' length. Steve Johnson. Jimmy Bartel. Corey Enright. James Kelly. Andrew Mackie. Tom Lonergan. Triple premiership players who, even in a team that's finally beginning to falter, know how to get the job done. In contrast, lack of composure kept costing the Dogs, especially in the final few minutes when the game was still winnable, and yet the mountain to climb for the Dogs to grab the lead seemed somehow insurmountable.
We trudged from the ground, disappointed and resigned, having been dealt yet again the lessons Dogs' fans should be adept in. Patience. Realism. Resilience. Perspective. The dreary realisation that we've got a long way to go, having to be absorbed and accepted by fans that have already waited far too long.
I found myself thinking again, though, about the story of the divergent paths of the Dogs and Cats from 2006 onwards. It was not, after all, quite as it seems.
The Dogs were not, in reality, anywhere near as precociously young and talented as the Cats' squad that went on to become one of the greatest ever seen. With ageing champions like Chris Grant, Rohan Smith, Scott West and Brett Montgomery still in our ranks in 2006, we were a full two years older on average than the Geelong team. They were on the cusp of greatness. You just couldn't see it at the time.
On Saturday, the mirage distorts things the other way. Their empire might be slowly crumbling but the Cats still fielded nine players with over 150 games experience compared to our three. Their view is backwards, in the rear vision mirror; ours can be, should be, of a clear highway ahead. Twelve of our boys had less than 50 games; in the same category, the Cats had seven. The Dogs may, or may not, make the finals this year. That's unlikely, though, to be a yardstick of the future we have ahead.
Glancing at the joyous faces captured for posterity on the Kardinia Park walls as we departed the ground, I wondered what the emotions of those same fans had been at the end of '06, when their gifted young team had under-performed and missed the finals, Coach Bomber Thompson was under siege; angst and self-doubt gripped the club. Had they felt like Dogs' fans so often do - that it will never be our time, that the ultimate success is somehow 'not for the likes of us'? Never knowing, in their despondency as they entered what was then a 44 year premiership drought, the thrilling and magical ride they, and their club, were about to embark upon.
As for those two kids running up and down the wing - Gary Ablett Junior has two premiership medallions and two Brownlow medals. Ryan Griffen has none. They move towards the end of their footballing journeys in the colours of soul-less franchises that didn't even exist when they were pitted against each other, in those days that seem so recent, and sometimes so very far away.
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.