2016: It was ten minutes into our sudden-death final against the Eagles. Our brave but battered team had peppered the goals, taken bold risks sweeping the ball through the corridor. Yet only points were registered despite their efforts and determination.
We were the most under of under-dogs. Seventh on the ladder, despite a season blighted by injury, consigned to the most difficult of assignments, a final in Perth. All week a series of gloomy statistics forewarned us of our fate. We’d never won an interstate final. We’d lost to bottom team Freo here only the week before. Our opponents, grand finalists the year before, were in menacingly hot form.
Now, after our early dominance, we attempted to clear the ball from the Eagles’ defence. An errant kick landed the ball straight onto the chest of our nemesis, serial Bulldog tormentor Josh Kennedy.
He didn’t miss. Of course, he didn’t miss. And another Eagles goal quickly - too quickly - followed.
Watching back home, we fans felt our slim hopes evaporate. Excuses - no, valid reasons for an imminent defeat, maybe even one of those horrific interstate shellackings - sprang readily to mind. There’d been too many injuries to key players. It wasn’t ‘time’ yet for our team, the youngest and most inexperienced of the eight finalists. 2016 – like so many before it- just wasn’t going to be our year.
The Dogs kicked the next 7 goals.
Well into the last quarter our team, miraculously, kept extending their lead. Yet still we shifted restlessly in our seats, fearing far-fetched ‘it-could-only-happen-to-us’ scenarios. Could there be a string of unprecedented 50-metre penalties, one after another, against our team? Or a team sheet filled in wrongly. A power blackout hitting Perth, forcing the game to be replayed.
But even as we fretted about these outlandish possibilities, The Bont kicked a monster goal from 50 metres and pointed to his heart. For faith. For belief.
We headed to the G the next week. A community of red, white and blue, marching as one to the famous ground where we’d known more heartache than joy. Though we were brimming with pride, those pesky worries tapped our shoulders like ghosts. Our opponents - The Smug Three-Peaters -boasted some serious cred; they were awash with Norm Smith medallists and premiership trophies. And after all, one of their players, Shaun Burgoyne, had alone played 33 finals, while our teenagers ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy and Josh Dunkley between them hadn’t even played that many home-an- away games.
Half way through the second quarter, things hadn’t gone our way. We were indignant when Luke ‘Good Bloke’ Hodge had successfully claimed he had touched the ball, leading to an over-rule of a goal. And frustratingly, those irritating Three-peaters kept calmly absorbing everything we threw at them. Their goals seemed more effortless, their players at home on this big stage, the largest crowd that any Footscray/Western Bulldogs team had ever played before, since 1961. We felt a familiar resignation settle over us. Sure, it had been a great season, but maybe this wasn’t our night. Perhaps we’d have more luck next year, the good old non-threatening battlers from the west.
Even as these thoughts gnawed into our minds, Our Dogs were busily working their way back. They matched the Unsociable Hawks scuffle for scuffle in a half-time barney and then stormed past the Three-Peaters in a brilliant third quarter.
We marched back home along the Yarra again. We relived the electrifying memories - Our Bont taking over the MCG, and twice eclipsing The Good Bloke. The astounding goal by Jake Stringer. Liam Picken’s amazing form.
The air was somehow charged, different. As we walked through the balmy night, I heard snatches of conversation. People were beginning to make plans. And a nervous, restless impulse was taking shape.
We felt compelled – we needed - to join Our Boys on the next stage of their quest. Somehow, some way - we had to join our team in Sydney, even though, or perhaps because, we’d witnessed, so many of us, all those seven heartbreaking preliminary finals losses.
The close ones, the humiliating ones, the downright embarrassing ones.
We made our way there by planes, trains - and for most of us automobiles. Our red, white and blue colours flew everywhere in Harbour City. We packed the ground, outnumbering, outcheering, even better, out-booing, the fans of the dreaded Orange-clad Acronyms.
Our team fell behind to the Number One Draft Picks in the last quarter. Their efforts had been valiant, heroic. But it was our third final in a row, the second on the road, and there were signs of fatigue.
So often we the fans retreat into our shells when this happens, bruised by traumatic memories of cruel defeats past. Yet from nowhere came the most spine-tingling Bulldogs chant. It rang, it echoed around the unfamiliar arena, so far from our western suburbs’ home. It seemed to propel JJ forward, galvanise him as he loped across the turf, kicking it towardsThe Bont, our star who’d asked that simple but difficult question: “Why not us?”
The Bont held our hopes in his hands. He steadied for the kick, one that could put us closer to a grand final than most Bulldogs’ fans had ever seen. We rose as one from our seats, praying, willing the ball home. And we were suddenly sure it could go nowhere but through the big sticks.
When the siren sounded and our team had made the grand final, suddenly – just like that – those worries and fears that had hovered over us for years floated away.
We watched our team in the grand final parade with joy. We saw our team run, at last, onto the MCG for a grand final, and our hearts were full of hope, a thrilling sense that all things were possible, that no boundary could contain what Our Boys planned to achieve.
Our outrage, when the potentially match-winning goal from JJ was disallowed, was fleeting. For Jordan Roughead immediately thwart the Swans’ move forward from the point, his strong hands pulling down a crucial mark, driving it back again to the relentless men and boys, the heroes in red, white and blue.
Nothing was going to stand in the way of their dream. And because they believed it, at last, through tears of joy, we did too.
2017: We’ve watched those four epic finals, each a jewel in their own way, over and over. We still leap up when Liam Picken kicks the matchwinning goal. We cry, again, when Bevo gives Bob his medal.
We get goosebumps whenever we hear the music from Boom Crash Opera, the backdrop as OUR team ran around with the cup amid a hail of red white and blue confetti:
This is the best thing that has ever happened to me
These are the colors that I've always wanted to see
Our Christmas trees are decorated in red, white and blue; we eat our turkey and ham from placemats created from photos of our premiership heroes; the Grand Final is on replay to accompany that gentle post-Christmas snooze. (Please don’t tell me it was only my family that did all these things?)
My 13-year-old niece. who used to cry whenever we lost, can now recite the grand final commentary, word for word, from that moment that Dale Morris launched his famous, thrilling tackle on Buddy Franklin, to the final siren.
Trams and buses now trundle past us every day, with The Bont emblazoned on their sides. The footy world knows, what we instantly grasped when we first watched the spindly kid in number four kick a freakish goal in a ho-hum match against the Dees. That The Bont is an outright star.
We don’t worry too much about the draft, or pre-season training or indifferent early form. Bevo ‘Our Saviour’ will have that all well in hand, we reckon.
Sometimes, though, we stop and wonder.
What will it be like to watch matches without that ever-present, jittery, sense of impending disaster hovering over our shoulders?
Will our first loss in 2017, whether that is in round one or round 20, hurt as much, now that terrible ache has been eased?
Who are we, if not the ‘battling Bulldogs’, the Cinderella club, ‘everyone’s second favourite team’?
Still, there will be new chapters for the men who couldn’t be out there on 1 October. We’re desperate to see Wally and Bob and Lin and Red know that euphoria too. And maybe there will be another awkward spotty recruit that emerges as a potential star, even while we pray that ‘Keith’ Boyd and Dale Morris keep up their evergreen form.
We confidently hope – and expect - there will be some lines that are intriguing and mysterious from Luke Beveridge. A fleeting mention of the tardis, or Willy Wonka. Maybe he’s got something preposterous in mind.
Such as seeing that Matty Boyd could be an All-Australian defender.
Almost on cue, we hear about Bevo’s speech at the season launch. He channels Dr Seuss. The footy world is puzzled, but we - who once were worriers – smile and know exactly what he’s talking about. That ‘everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. And the magical things we can do with that ball, can once again make us the winningest winner of all.’