In June 2014 a stirring - but completely unexpected - victory against the Pies was one of the highlights (it may in fact have been the only one) of a miserable season. The Pies had been flying at that point while the outlook for the Dogs was depressed and gloomy; we limped into the match with only one victory from our previous seven outings. We were a battling, dour scrappy team, showing almost no improvement from the year before.
Morale in the build-up was further deflated when a journalist from The Age penned a stinging article in which we were rated in bottom position in the Victorian clubs' 'relevance' ladder. Our club, he claimed, had become 'invisible' and was 'unable to tell a story about itself' or contribute to the football conversation.
Against this cheery backdrop, even making the decision to attend that 2014 match loomed as a pure test of character as a football fan. It raised existential questions. Why on earth do we go, when so little joy can be expected? what does the game offers us as fans when all hope is gone, and certain, painful defeat lies ahead?
They are not questions at the forefront of Dogs' fans' minds as we prepare, in a much more buoyant mood, for the 2015 re-match. Though it's little more than 12 months on, it's hard to even recall the despondent, brittle mindset of the club that was then so under siege. We enter this match perched on sixth spot in the ladder. A finals spot - you heard me, a finals spot! - is up for grabs. An even more unlikely top four finish is not out of the question.
The transformation between the 2014 Dogs that pulled off that stirring but ultimately futile backs-to-the-wall heist (for we won only three more matches for the year) and their counterparts who lined up last Sunday, is nothing short of astonishing. The dramatic change in personnel was illustrated in the fact that only ten 'survivors' remained in Sunday's team from those who took the field in last year's miraculous win.
This isn't because of a sloughing off of under-performers either. Missing from our ranks, forever, are the experienced quartet of Giansiracusa, Cooney, Higgins and Griffen - and the 780 plus games of experience they had amassed between them. Still on our list, but missing through injury or form issues are last year's best and fairest winner Tom Liberatore as well as Minson, Roughead, Stevens and Hrovat. Meanwhile, Liam Jones and Jason Tutt, who both actually played well that day, endure their own form of football hell at Carlton. (If I may be so cruel, the Blues must be regretting those supremely arrogant 'They know we're coming' posters and billboards).
Despite, or maybe because of, our extraordinary rebirth, my attitude before the game still failed to reach heights of sparkling positivity. If it's good enough for Tony Abbott to describe himself as the love-child of Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard, the Tragician's thinking was an equally bizarre hybrid of Coodabeen characters Danny from Droop Street, and his perennially hard-done-by Collingwood equivalent, 'Digger'.
I grumbled that I didn't like the team selections or our form going into the match, one little bit. My considered view was that Shane 'Great Train Robber' Biggs was one of those serviceable VFL types that would never make it; that Lachie Hunter was not showing enough to earn his stripes; that our backline had experienced too much recent upheaval through injury and appeared under-sized and shaky. The Dogs, I said, had been looking lethargic and out-of-sorts for weeks; the carefree, intoxicating abandon of the first few weeks had slowly been ground down; our run from the backline had been forensically analysed and stopped.
All excellent reasons, of course, why a call up to contribute my insights to the match committee or partake in team strategy deliberations is probably unlikely.
Mind you, in the hushed silence in the arena at the 30 second mark of the first quarter, when the Pies had swept the ball forward for an easy-as-you-like goal without a Bulldog player even getting fingernail to the ball, it appeared far too likely that my pessimism was about to be vindicated.
Yet within minutes, as the Dogs began rattling on the goals, it was clear that we had brought a different mindset to this match. Whether it was because Collingwood allowed us to play on our terms, or we had simply regained our mojo, as the ball whipped up and down the ground in an entertaining first quarter, it was evident that this fast-paced, frenetic style of game would suit us to a tee.
Earlier this year we learnt that the Dogs under Luke Beveridge had adopted the motto 'Men of Mayhem' to sum up the way our team aspired to play. Selfless, always competitive, prepared to apply manic pressure.
The Men have looked mired in the stodge of a Melbourne winter lately. But not so on Sunday. We were flinging the ball about with dare and flair, taking heart-in-mouth risks, streaming down the ground running in waves together, as though the prospect of a turnover simply could not be contemplated. Sometimes it didn't come off. But oh! how wonderful it was when it did!
We should have had the game in our keeping quite early; the Pies scored through our mistakes rather than great play, and a constant bug-bear of this year, infuriating inaccuracy, continued to cost us frequently. (If I ever do get that call up to the match committee, one of my innovations will be this: when Jake The Lair Stringer lines up for a routine set shot, several Bulldogs' players should charge wildly at him and attempt to tackle him to the ground. The Lair will be forced to revert to his preferred goal-kicking technique of taking on three guys that are hanging off him, snap from an impossible angle over his shoulder, and the ball will sail merrily through, post height).
Our team was again the youngest to take the field for the entire round, making the performance even more (as Rocket Eade was so fond of saying) 'pleasing'. But while our veterans are few, it's still worth marvelling at in the form of the our only three over-30 players. Matthew Boyd (bar one heart-in-throat play-on-from-kick-out disaster midway through the last quarter) remains an amazing accumulator of the ball and effective link-man. The peerless Dale Morris is surely the most unflustered and serene of backmen, calmly repelling attack after attack, never missing a beat despite the injury problems he has endured this year. And Bob Murphy romped around in a smart. lively cameo on the forward line - not that he's ever far from the limelight when he's back in his more traditional position in the 'Men's Department'.
Then there's a middle tier of players who have raised their game several notches further: Mitch Wallis, who shows the attributes of the greats by somehow always bobbing up with That Goal That We Desperately Need; Luke Dahlhaus who is transitioning to a genuine gut running midfielder; and Liam 'Marcus' Picken who every week in a Clark Kent-Superman performance abandons his weekday persona of gentle father of three toddlers to become the most hard-nosed of midfielders.
Alongside them, brimming with extraordinary gifts and potential are the P-Plater brigade comprising The Lair, the Bont, Jackson Macrae ( it usually takes a second viewing on the replay to appreciate the full contribution this guy has made to our wins), 'Bailey Dailey' (surely he's not even on P-plates), and Lachie Hunter (I knew he could play!).
And then there's two men with a handful of games between them; the success of each of them would be a football fairytale. Playing game number six: 'Big Jack' Redpath, a 24-year-old carpenter, a hulking 194cm, 100kg forward, rookie listed after two knee reconstructions. At the other end of the spectrum, the 'Wee Man', the tiny but big-hearted 'Celeb' Daniel. At just 63 kg, 167 cm he shows some of the fire and determination of The First Libber. But with his elegant one handed pick up and clever goal the 'Wee Man' demonstrated that his bag of tricks could one day surpass our most Dogged of small Dogs.
Collectively our Men (and Boys) also showed the ability to withstand a white-hot challenge as the Pies stormed within eleven points of us in the last quarter. I'd have probably preferred a little bit less of the 'Mayhem' moments to be honest, as Boydy committed his brain fade, Michael Talia inexplicably conceded a needless 50 metre penalty, and the umpire equally needlessly chimed in to award one against Jackson Macrae.
But even a panicking Tragician was happy to see that we wrested back the initiative by playing OUR way rather than reverting to our shells; the two goals that steadied the ship both came from bold attacking moves from defence.
I just escaped an icy shower as we left the ground. It was followed by the appearance of a rare, luminous double rainbow in the leaden late afternoon sky. It may have been my imagination, of course, as I basked in the win and the growing likelihood of a Bulldogs' finals appearance, but it seemed to me its arc began somewhere near the MCG and ended up over Barkly St.
A few days after the match, the same journalist who painted such a damning picture of our future last year wrote another article, this time in praise of our magical resurgence, and Bob Murphy's leading role in it by committing as captain of the ragtag group of kids and shellshocked teammates when everything went so horribly wrong last year. He wrote:
Bob the Premiership Dog. That is a story even Bob thought would not be written but now it is one football would love to read. Maybe not this year, but maybe next year or the one after, for he is still a spritely dog. And he knows how to stay.
MORE: my story on last year's emotional win against the Pies: 'We came, we saw, we believed' was published in last year's Football Almanac collection of best football writing. Read it here. (It was also the match where The Bont, in his second game, won a Rising Star nomination.)
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.