As usual my chuckle at Danny’s relentless negativity (this was, after all, the guy who grouched that winning the flag meant we’d lose high draft picks) was laced with anxiety. Sustaining success over a period of time is, surely, an even more difficult challenge that fighting and scraping to get there in the first place. While my blood pressure soars every time I hear certain moronic commentators saying our premiership was just an aberration, a flash in the pan...is it possible - surely, surely not - that Danny is right?
As we headed down the highway to our match in Ballarat I noticed that the chatter in our car didn’t have the urgency, that compelling mix of hope and dread, the adrenaline and nerves that usually accompany a ‘must win’ game. It confirmed for me that I’d long since stopped expecting or hoping that 2017 would bring a second premiership. At some point, maybe after the way we’d capitulated to Sydney, I'd began to accept that even if we made the finals, it was unlikely that we would reprise 2016’s heroics and sweep all before us. For reasons that we’re all struggling to make sense of, 2017 just hasn’t taken off; strangely enough, it’s also been largely unenjoyable.
Perhaps because of these low expectations, our road trip had a sense of fun, of occasion, as we sped down the Western Highway alongside many other cars sporting those ‘Bulldogs 2016 Premiers’ stickers that still give me a secret thrill. The Libba Sisters were accompanied by our 13-year-old niece Stephanie. She could perhaps be an Apprentice Libba Sister. Sadly the fact that she is already much taller than her two petite aunties has probably disqualified her.
We’d brought along toe, hand and feet warmers despite our scepticism that these strange little items could actually work; anything was worth trying against the predicted wind chill of an August day in Ballarat.
Once we’d parked, it took us almost as much time just to don all our clothing layers and walk - make that waddle - to the stadium.
Inside, the atmosphere was festive. There was a large standing room area on the wing where some of the more hardy or optimistic individuals had even brought picnic rugs – probably they’d double as clothing to huddle in if the expected rain, hail and sleet duly arrived.
The only thing missing was a traditional, country-footy-style, ring of vehicles around the oval, all gaily tooting their horns whenever there was a Bulldog goal.
At this endearingly quaint venue, you could hear the thump as the air was kicked out of the footy, catch the players’ calls to each other as they dashed down the ground, wince as you felt that ferocious thwack as hardened bodies met. We felt so close to the action, watching Dale Morris – did this guy have a bionic arm attached? - directing the baby of the team, Lewis Young (wearing his sensible long sleeved jumper… maybe his mum also packed him some toe-warmers) on where to run, how to move.
Our Boys looked lively from the start. Switched on. Goals weren’t quite as hard to come by as they’ve been of late. But Jake the Lair, who unfortunately has been more like Jake the Puzzlingly Subdued, was out of the contest early with a hammy.
Port didn't bend to our will after our frenzied start.
And as the match wore on, a familiar pattern for 2017 started to emerge.
One handball too many. Hesitation, or was it confusion, in moving the ball down the ground. Our forwards waited, with trepidation, underneath the next high, ugly floater kick which hung endlessly in the air. The Bont was parked there a lot of the match. With the poor ball delivery, he constantly had to crash the packs. I noticed last week against the despicable Acronyms how slowly he got up from a brutal tackle, how sore he looked moving off the ground at half time. Our Golden Boy shouldn’t have to be a battering ram, shouldn’t have to be the sole hope to lift us over the line, week after week.
There was uncharitable laughter when feisty umpire ‘Razor’ Ray Chamberlain got bowled over. Stephanie suggested there should be a hashtag movement: #prayforrazor. Maybe she can make the grade as an honorary Libba Sister after all.
We were in front early in the last quarter. Maybe our tenacity, if not our skill, would be rewarded. Dailey Bailey, who had stood out with his calm and poise all day, slotted his fourth goal. Jack Macrae (surely a Sutton medal is in his keeping?) was everywhere, marking in defence, tackling, linking up time and again.
But Port Adelaide's men built like tree trunks kept clunking effortless marks against our undersized defenders. The Dogs kept fumbling; like an under-9s squad, we were often caught out all milling around the ball, with no forward targets left if a turnover occurred. We were trailing when Bob featured in a critical contest, somehow getting a finger to the ball, somehow keeping the ball in our forward half with minutes to go. It seemed like one of those defining moments, an outstanding moment of courage and determination, for Bob had been pole-axed only a short time before. Perhaps in 2016 it would have turned the match, been that pivotal moment that saved our season, a moment we would cherish and relive all the way home. Instead an undisciplined team-mate give away a foolish free kick. The ball – and that tiny flicker of hope for 2017, and for Bob – was swept away. The momentum was gone. We didn’t win it back.
We left our new home, the Port anthem blaring in our ears.
The rush of cold air was bitter. Yet somehow our mood was not.
Peeling off toe and feet warmers that had ended up in unlikely locations over the course of the day, we piled into our car. We were a bit bedraggled, yet strangely philosophical.
The purchase of piping hot jam donuts may have been a factor.
A rainbow appeared in the distance: to my fanciful mind, it surely must have arced right over the empty Whitten Oval. The laidback atmosphere in Ballarat, the cold, the unusual sight of people standing in the outer, had reminded me so much of our beloved home ground; and it suddenly occurs to me that this very weekend, the second last round of the season, was the 20th anniversary of our final match at our fortress. The last time people had gathered on the open terraces on the Gordon Street wing (there were definitely no picnic rugs to be seen). The last contest for premiership points, at our historic ground, where generations had endured that icy wind, shivered as the rain came in like splinters in our faces.
I’d made melodramatic statements at the time, claiming that I’d continue to follow the Dogs even if they played on the moon. Even I did not foresee: that in 2017 we’d be playing on Mars.
That historic last game was against the Eagles; after a disastrous 1996, our resurgent team was playing to secure a fairytale top four finish. Before the first bounce, three of our players marched up to an Eagles player, jostling, bumping him and uttering the sinister words "Welcome to the kennel.". (Variations of these tactics have been meted out to JJ for most of this year - but as Bulldog conspiracy theorists all know, in 1997, they resulted in charges of intimidation. Yes, for the first, and apparently last, time in AFL history.).
As our sodden fans ran out after the final siren to celebrate a win, or perhaps just to jump start their circulation, (toe-warmers hadn't then been invented) we fortunately had no inkling that the season would end in our ignominious collapse in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named – the closest we would get to a grand final until 2016.
Marcus Bontempelli and Jake Stringer would have been over-sized toddlers. Young, Lewis had not even been born.
A nuggety rover called Luke Beveridge was eking out a nondescript career at his third club, St Kilda.
Princess Diana was still alive but on that nightmare preliminary final day a few weeks later the Western Bulldogs cheersquad would respectfully express our club’s condolences at her passing on their banner, undoubtedly soothing some of the royal family’s heartache. (However, not meaning to be critical of our valiant stalwarts, but I can’t help wishing they’d just stuck to the basics: ‘Don’t stuff up, and in the last quarter beware of a guy called Jarman!’).
Among the men out there on that final day on the Western Oval were, extraordinarily, four champions who would go on to reach the 300 game milestone.I'd rather not think about how many games I personally have clocked up, but it must be in the vicinity of five or six hundred games. In ten of those years we played finals, yet this led to just one grand final appearance and one premiership; those that are scoffing at our premiership (I’m looking at you Matthew Lloyd) should remember just how hard a flag is to win.
Twenty years! filled with ho-hum or inspirational wins; brave and encouraging losses, or embarrassing defeats that curdled in your heart.
Thousands upon thousands of umpiring calls; yet oddly enough, over those two decades, only those paid in favour of the Bulldogs showed insight and sound judgment by the umpiring fraternity (they simultaneously managed to miss umpteen infringements on our players spotted by the keen eye of the Bulldog Tragician.)
There have been countless balls bouncing randomly; last minute wobbles of the spinning ball on the wrong side of the post determining our joy or sorrow.
We’ve watched careers begin; in some cases they spluttered out with barely a whimper. Scrappy battlers somehow crept towards 100 games and became indispensable. Magnificent champions gave their all; we watched with sadness as they were chaired off the field.
Next week we may see – my heart sinks at the thought - two more.
And in that 20 years, there was a ride like no other, a brilliant. technicolour rollercoaster of courage and belief and the purest joy. Twenty-two men who on 1 October 2016 gave us our dream, and a twenty-third who wore his number two jumper underneath his match-day attire. We couldn’t have done it without him.
The rainbow has faded away as the wintry day closes in. The Libba Sisters are reflective, resigned, as the miles go past, absorbing this year that’s been so strangely anticlimactic, wondering how and why it fell apart. Bevo’s words as he stood on the podium on Grand Final Day are the closest explanation we can find:
Our players; their hearts are so big. They’re completely spent. They couldn’t have given any more.
Maybe amid all the endless debates - about a changed game style and clearance work and rule changes and premiership hangovers and injuries and suspension - the answer is as simple as that.
Danny from Droop Street meanwhile has been scouring the history books. He's dredged up another cheery statistic: that within five years of our first premiership we'd slumped to last on the ladder.
Danny really is a nincompoop sometimes.
I can't quite contemplate life without two former Bulldog captains 'Keith' Boyd and Bob Murphy - one with a precious premiership medal, one who has given his to the Bulldogs museum - but the core of the magnificent Men of Mayhem they leave behind, are still so young. They've known the joy, now this year they've known the pain. And they will go into 2018 with stories still to be written.