All around me there's pandemonium. People are high fiving each other, jumping to their feet, faces alight, riding a wave of emotion and joy. I’d forgotten how much fun footy is at moments like this, how crazy/wonderful it is to be part of the din of screaming fans. Surely the MCG on Grand Final day couldn’t sound much louder than the racket we’re all making. (Not that I’d know). It's a pent-up delirium for the dwindling ranks that have soldiered on, week after miserable week, and had come along to this game expecting to be thrashed.
Instead... 'The Rat's' goal means we are only six points down, with 20 minutes to go, against a top four team!! We’ve worked courageously all day to get into this position, harassed, tackled, persevered even when the gap in skills, class and experience was painfully obvious. Every move forward for us was a struggle, every score hard-fought, but our boys have stuck to their guns and have taken the game on. Now the Dogs have all the momentum. We could actually pull off an upset against our north-western neighbours. And every Doggies fan knows just how sweet that can be.
It’s a few seconds before all the leaping around stops and the stunned murmurs begin. The word goes around: the umpire, inexplicably, has called the ball back and refused to pay advantage. Later I read that Nick Riewoldt has said in TV commentary, ‘That is the decision of someone who just does not understand the game.’ (A first for the Tragician: Whole-hearted agreement with Nick Riewoldt??)
The ball returns to Libba, but you can feel almost immediately a sense of anti-climax. Our more experienced and fancied opponents steady and re-group. Nothing comes of Libba’s kick, which is taken behind where the ball had slipped free and where ‘The Rat’ had pounced on it. If ever there was an occasion where the umpire had really done what so many of us often urge and swallowed his god-damn whistle, this should have been it. We are all outraged. But so what?
A few minutes later, the ball is down the other end of the ground about to be marked by Essendon’s Dyson Heppell. Lunging desperately to try and stop him, the player who has epitomised our fight and courage all day, Clay Smith, buckles over to the ground. Heppell runs around him as he lies prone (shouldn’t the umpire have blown his whistle and called time? Wouldn’t it have been sporting if Heppell, John Landy-like, had waited for his stricken opponent to be attended to?). He kicks a goal, sealing the match. Clay is carried from the ground by two trainers, in tears. At nineteen years of age, he’s done his ACL. He'll miss the rest of the year.
It’s been that kind of season. Or maybe we're just that kind of club.
When you barrack for a team like the Dogs it’s easy to think the footy gods are against us. Oh the injustice we have seen! The misery we have known! Our luck never seems to even out; a malevolent influence is always there to get in the way. The life lessons we learn are not bracing tales of resilience and sunny optimism, that's for sure.
Bizarre one-off, downright weird decisions like that seem to occur more often in matches involving us. Daniel Southern, Steven Kretiuk and Craig Ellis were reported in 1997 because they ran up to Michael Gardiner of the Eagles, bumped and jostled him, and informed him that it would be better if he didn’t go too near the ball. Okay, not too edifying, but we are the first and only club to have ever been reported for this conduct. Which has been seen, ever so occasionally, on the football field both before and after. (Daniel Southern, incidentally, is the only player ever to have copped a suspension for wrestling.)
Chris Grant is the only man (still) to have had his case directly referred to the tribunal when three umpires decided he had no case to answer yet Ian Collins went on a one-man campaign of vengeance to make sure he got suspended. Grant, one of the fairest I've ever seen play, missed a Brownlow as a result.
Those fates seemed again to be against us on Sunday, when a 'Bombre' ** player (I'm just being childish now) kicked a goal when clearly out of bounds; when Hrovat (gee, what do they have against this fresh faced kid?) seemed to have clearly marked the ball, to anyone but the officiating umpire; and when Koby Stevens was ruled to have dropped the ball, which would have perhaps been reasonable if he'd been tackled.
All the more galling because of who our opponent was. For many of us, the red and black mob from the posh side of the Maribyrnong are the most dastardly foes of all.
I could say we have a love-hate relationship with Essendon, but to be honest it’s mainly hate. The Coodabeens once described their fans as ‘Collingwood supporters who can read and write’. To me, many Essendon supporters display a fanatacism that actually surpasses even the Black and White Army, typified by a night that they were a good ten goals up against us and a young Rohan Smith was stretchered off the ground, completely motionless. Seriously injured players are normally clapped politely from the field. With memories of our player from the 1970s Neil Sachse’s tragic fate – the only man to ever have been rendered quadriplegic on a football field – in our mind, I don't think I will easily forget the many, many Essendon fans around who jeered and screamed abuse in Rohan’s direction, calling him ‘soft’ and ‘weak.’
Sunday's match and all others this season have been played, of course, in the shadow of Essendon's drug scandal. A sick culture and more than a little arrogance have been revealed ('Whatever it takes'). Week after week as I see the AFL subtly softening the footy world up for a light penalty (with a few token scapegoats hung out to make them seem to be doing something), my disillusionment grows. It's hard not to feel the Essendon wealth, power and influence, their status as one of the big drawing clubs gifted games like the Anzac Day match, the presence of Essendon royalty Watson and Hird, are factors in the AFL's reticence in condemning, their reluctance to speak out.
There's a chance we'll get back the four points that Essendon won on Sunday when penalties are finally announced, I guess. It won't matter. The outcome was relatively meaningless to the Dons in the context of their season, though the win may help them to a top four spot. And it really won't make much difference to us, marooned in the bottom four, a not very good side with a long way to go, to have one more 'W' chalked up for us when historians and Bulldog Tragicians look back at this forgettable season. But oh how I wish we had won, and that it had been our song being belted out in the end, and our players rewarded for sheer guts and hard work instead of another hard lesson along an interminable road.
Our theme song used to have the words, 'We'll come out smiling, if we win or lose.' You can see it as embarrassingly lame, a symptom of our losing culture. Isn't 'second is just the first loser' the mantra of the moment? I'm sure the Essendon club would see it that way, and pity us.
But still, on Monday morning my voice was hoarse. I'd forgotten that can happen when you've really barracked, yelled and cheered your way through a game of football, and been proud of your club. We didn't win. But we really didn't lose, either.