Though I loved his beautiful writing and portrayal of a fading rural England (he was also a poet), his plotting and bleak view of human nature drove me to distraction. No other novelist is so determined to deprive his characters of a happy ending. Relentless layers of improbable coincidences pile up to ensure a dismal outcome. A letter that would have brought two lovers together is slipped under a door but of course falls undiscovered through a crack; characters who are doing their best to reform will inevitably come across, just at the critical moment, the one person who knows their secret past and can deprive them of their happy new life. This is the guy whose most famous character, the blameless and beautiful Tess of the D'Urbervilles, is hanged, with Hardy exhibiting a morbid glee as he tells us: ‘the President of the Immortals … had ended his sport with Tess.'
You know where I'm going with this, of course. (Do you?) I've come to suspect that Ole Tom didn't actually die in the 1920s but has somehow been pulling the levers and is now employed as a ghostwriter penning the sorrowful history of the Footscray/Western Bulldogs football club. How else can you account for the relentless accumulation of misfortune that we and many of our players have experienced - the Chris Grant non-Brownlow, almost merged out of existence in '89, the endless series of finals failures, the solitary and so-long-ago premiership?
How else can you explain a plot twist in which our beloved captain - the very best of people, exemplifying loyalty and something pure, quixotic and joyful in footy, perched on 295 games and within touching distance of the flag that almost all of the footy world badly wants for him - crumples to the deck in the last dying seconds of the enthralling match against the Hawks? (Yep, Thomas Hardy was pulling the levers for sure; only he would extract a further masochistic pleasure in deciding that the awful sight of Bob writhing in pain on the turf wasn't sufficient. We had to lose the match as well to grind the message home).
The signs from the outset perhaps foreshadowed our fate. Seconds into the game, the Dogs zipped forward with restless energy with the exhilarating sight of Jake Stringer metres from goal and certain to do something freakish and magical. Instead, though, there was a collective deflated groan from our crowd, as in a confused and distinctly unfunny 'comedy' of errors Jake's wild handpass went astray.
We'd all been looking forward so much to this match, the chance to measure ourselves against the Three-Peater yardstick, an opportunity to find out whether we were the Real Deal. The answer in the first quarter was definitely not what we were looking for. Not for the first time, the Dogs looked overawed and out of place on the big stage. As we nervously fumbled and bumbled, while the Hawks moved the ball around with calm and clinical precision, I had flashbacks to our mortifying, embarrassing deer-in-the-headlights performance against the Hawks in the first final of 2008.
There were signs we could be humiliated, the footy world again sneering at our pretensions and mocking our brave talk of it all being somehow different, this time, for this group. Our effervescent energy and quick ball moment were so easily shut down by the ultimate professionals - those guys who knew more than most about winning. You could tell our opponents, despite the loss of (their) Roughead and Hodge, were used to this pressure; an amazing 14 of them compared to our five had played more than 100 games.Their hands hadn't turned into concrete mitts like those of our blokes; they had time, and space, and with their dazzling skills, were rendering the Dogs flatfooted, slow and reactive.
As the first quarter siren sounded there was a murmur in the crowd. A sigh of disappointment - quickly shifting into the usual resigned fatalism. But we sit close to where Luke Beveridge and his lieutenants make their way onto the ground. Watching Luke pass us, a study in calm and purposeful concentration, I felt unexpected hope that he would have the answers. That the game that for me looked like a shapeless mass of blunders and errors was unfolding before his eyes as a series of problems that could, and would, be solved. In Bevo it seems, we really do trust.
There wasn't an immediate turnaround; in fact the Hawks further extended their lead. But there were little signs, chains of play that began to pay off, an imperceptible lift in confidence, moments where, even when we still hadn't goaled, I found myself saying: 'That looks like us.' We might lose, but I was glad to see we weren't going to capitulate - not this group. The goals slowly began to come, and with it signs of verve and flair. I wished that the half time break wouldn't come, that the tiny building blocks of momentum wouldn't topple over during the long interval, while Alastair Clarkson and his coaches rejigged and adjusted, unfazed by the latest impertinent newcomers.
The third quarter - well, I wish it wasn't forever tainted by what was to come. I'd love to watch it again, free from that sickening knowledge, to see our Bulldogs - conceding almost two years on average of experience - not just outplaying the ThreePeaters but, incredibly, smashing them in contested possessions by an unheard-of 58 to 29. Holding strong in tackles, fanatically attacking the ball and the man, emerging with the ball in contest after contest to drive it forward. Not the pretty football with which some had thought we might overpower the Hawks, but grinding, desperate, ferocious will for the contest. And driving it all, not as you might expect, the glamour pair on which all our hopes usually reside, The Bont and Jake Stringer, but a duo who epitomise what is so wonderful about our game; our two smallest but bravest and most determined players, the 'Energiser Bunny' Luke Dalhaus and 'Celeb' Daniel (after his performance I've decided it's disrespectful for me to keep calling him the Wee Man.
The Dogs' fans were making a tremendous racket. Chants were echoing around the arena, feet were being stamped on concrete like the Western Oval glory days. It was a kind of group delirium, a trance-like state, pride and yes amazement that we could play like this against the very best. We were three goals up - it definitely should have been more. Yet somehow failure didn't seem an option - and this is from me, who is always restlessly calculating whether even a 10 goal lead could be overturned, with 5 minutes on the clock.
Oh foolish Tragician. Your lesson is never learnt.
The Hawks weren't buying into the euphoria. With their well-founded self belief, they came at us again. We were somehow caught by surprise, stunned and a bit affronted that they hadn't surrendered to our burning will and passion in the third quarter. 'Oh?' our exhausted looking troops seemed to be saying. 'We've got to do this all over again?' And we did.
We hit the lead again. We'd hold on this time, surely, for an epic, brilliant win in the most enthralling of games. But in a slow-motion scene that I can't bear to remember yet will never forget, the ball began sailing towards the Hawks' centre half forward spot. And somehow Bob Murphy was alone, competing against two Hawks' players.
Little collages, memories of Bob, and his career, and what he's meant to us, kept flashing before me in the minutes and hours after the match, when our worst fears were confirmed. Yes, I was there, the last time I think that I stood in the terraces at Princes Park, when Bob played his first match, a freckle-faced, gangly looking kid who popped up to kick a wobbly winning goal. I saw his brilliant 2006 season, where he played as an unconventional and undersized centre half forward, one who relied on skills, speed and run rather than brute strength. I was there the first time his knee first buckled, beneath a massive Sav Rocca tackle at the MCG. I remembered reading how Bob writes letters for the players on their debuts and slips them in their lockers. I pictured the wry smile on his face, as he stood with the team for the playing of the national anthem in a final in 2009 when the sound system accidentally blared out an AC-DC track; our whimsical, quirky Bob could see the ridiculousness of the moment. I thought of our epic win against Sydney last year, and Bob wreathed in smiles, calling it the best win he'd ever played in, and us basking with him in this unexpected moment; the gratitude we felt when he put his hand up to be captain, such a natural and inevitable fit that we wondered why it had ever taken so long to happen.
I remembered all the things he'd talked about in the club's video of season 2015 The Ride, as much a chronicle of Bob's journey as that of the club he'd unexpectedly found himself leading and inspiring. There is such a sweetness to Bob, the dad eating McDonald's with his daughter, the guy who is still awe-struck because our Brownlow medalist John Schultz sends him an email to congratulate him after a game. I thought of Chris Grant, our gentle and gracious champ, and the light in his face as he described Bob Murphy as a 'beautiful person.'
It can't end - it mustn't - end this way, I thought. Not even Ole Tom could be so cruel.
After our win against Freo, Luke Beveridge spoke about the tardis. I wish there was a time machine to take us back and wipe clean, forever, all the moments of Sunday's match that led to Bob trying to get around Luke Breust and spoil the ball as it spun into the Hawks' forward line. If only we could unravel all those countless actions, the kicks and handballs, the good and bad decisions, the goals and points, bounces and tackles, the random ricochet of the ball off hands or shins. If only we could undo the fateful moment on Sunday morning, when Easton Wood's troublesome hamstring twanged, and he was ruled out of the match. If Easton had been there, in those excruciating seconds when Bob was about go go down, he'd have been hurtling fearlessly across the turf, ready to support and protect his captain. He'd have jumped and flown and spoilt, and we'd never have known how close we'd come to the desolation of seeing Bob go down, and the terrible fear that we may not see him out there ever again.