I’m driving to our match at Ballarat from Lorne: a two-hour trip. For reasons deeply obscure even to me, I'm finishing off a pleasant beachside weekend by travelling to this game where the forecast (weather-wise) has been for icy rain, bone-chilling winds interrupted by hailstorms, while the forecast (footy-wise) is for another drubbing for our injury-stricken team.
Unsure of the route, I place my trust in the GPS. (This is essential as my appalling sense of direction is legendary; I once ended up in Port Melbourne while walking back to my car, parked in Crown Casino, after a match at Docklands).
There are no convoys of Bulldogs fans to follow. Within five minutes of leaving Lorne the roads are empty and bleak. I’m the only traveller, to football or elsewhere, for tens of kilometres at a time.
There are majestic windfarms, horses wearing coats, and long stretches of Australian nothing-ness. I lose radio reception but actually I’m not sorry that I am unable to listen to anything footy-related. The previous day when I’d travelled to Lorne, I’d tuned in, listening to a discussion about the AFL’s ham-fisted attempts to trial the rules in live games featuring teams whose season has turned hopeless and meaningless (that would be the Bulldogs). Then I heard a conversation about whether it was okay for Gold Coast Sun player and co-captain Tom Lynch to be openly meeting with rival clubs while the season is still playing out. Jimmy Bartel mounted a heated defence of this. ‘The players are realistic about what’s going on; they understand,’ he said.
In neither of these discussions did I hear anyone voice concerns about what the fans might think. How are we meant to turn up to, and care about, games that the AFL has deemed so worthless that they will contemplate the introduction of rule trials more befitting of the pre-season competition? Why should fans stay loyal and blindly committed, when even the thinnest of veneers about ‘playing for the jumper’ and ‘bleeding for the club’ are peeled aside?
So it's a relief to tune out from inane AFL in-talk. I switch on music instead. The shuffle selection, after all, usually somehow synchronises with the Tragician psyche, and the first song which comes on is yet another example:
What can you do when your dreams come true
And it's not quite like you planned?
It’s After the thrill is gone, a song from The Eagles – the ‘70s rock band, that is, not that team from Western Australia. (Though if Josh Kennedy wore bell-bottom embroidered jeans…)
Yes, the premiership thrill is gone, and yet somehow, here I am, clocking up the miles on desolate backroads as the rain lashes the windows. I try and remind myself why it’s important. My reasons are all vaguely illogical and superstitious. I imagine them being torn apart by a supercilious lawyer should I somehow be cross-examined and forced to justify them in the dock.
Sneering lawyer: So let’s get this straight, Ms .. (raises an eyebrow, lays heavy sarcastic emphasis on the word).. Tragician…you believe that because you celebrated a premiership win with the players, you are now duty bound to go to matches where they are certain to lose, and furthermore you are of the opinion this somehow earns you moral superiority when the good times come around again?
Me (faltering voice): it sounds silly when you put it like that. But yes, it's just, um... being there for the bad times as well as the good.
Lawyer: I put it to you that your delusions about the impact of your attendance go further. That, on more than one occasion, you’ve claimed your mere presence has some supernatural connection to the outcomes of matches. (Turns to address the judge). Your Honour, we’d like to tender into evidence a badge with an image of a Mr Marcus Bontempelli. Ms…Tragician..has made the grandiose claim that her wearing of this badge was influential in the securing of a grand final berth for a previously unsuccessful team known as the Western Bulldogs.
Me: I never really said that. It wasn’t just the Bonti badge. (Lawyer raises eyebrow, smirks as he waits for me to finish). There was also a lucky scarf!
I blink, realising that while I feebly endured my imaginary cross-examination, I've missed critical information from the GPS, and now need to execute a hasty U-turn. While getting bogged and stranded in a ditch would provide a splendid metaphor for this journey and indeed the 2018 season, it's a relief to evade this catastrophe and get back on track. I continue to muse about my confused and irrational reasons on why is somehow essential for me to attend at the match. It's a way to show gratitude, appreciation for the joy this club has often brought me, solidarity when everything is going wrong. To show empathy, particularly in the recent news items about Tom Boyd and Clay Smith, for all the terrible costs that the game extracts, physical and mental, for these young men.
And it’s the 100th game of The Bont, the young bloke who sparked hope in the dismal year of 2014, the player who almost every game, even if he’s not in vintage form, does something to cherish. I was there for his first game; I have looked on, in awe, at his talent, his composure, the way his self-belief drove his team-mates towards a flag.
Just this week he announced that he couldn’t see himself playing anywhere else but our club.
‘The way I am, particularly how I feel about the football club that’s not something (free agency) that would ever really cross my mind. I’m so committed to the Western Bulldogs Football Club and how much they’ve been able to do for me and the journey that I’ve been on so far.’
What would Our Golden Boy think, making this stirring commitment to our club, if he knew The Bulldog Tragician was too faint-hearted and fickle to bother to attend his 100th match, just because it’s a little bit, okay extremely, cold?
Lawyer: Ms Tragician, I put it to you that football is a business. I point you to similar emotional statements about love of the club (theatrically produces a Herald-Sun clipping) previously made by a Mr Ryan Griffen, and l now tender images of him in an orange jumper. I contend that players ultimately make decisions based on their financial prospects, not old-fashioned concepts such as those you cling to. Meanwhile, your own club is almost planning to delist or trade players that helped win you that premiership that you keep going on about. What do you have to say to that?
Me: (long pause): Not much, I guess. It's the vibe, like in The Castle. I just feel I have to be there.
I finally arrive at the ground. I park the car and begin wrestling myself into four extra layers of clothing. Before I’ve even taken three steps, a hailstorm begins. I put my second coat over my head and walk, almost sideways, through the driving rain. I feel I must resemble the man in the gloomy post-apocalyptic movie The Road, staggering blindly through a barren and scorched landscape, putting one foot in front of the other, no longer knowing his destination, long past understanding what he will do when he gets there.
The Dogs perform as expected. They are trying (yes, very trying at times). Someone has decided music should blare out after we score a goal. I should be irritated but, firstly, it doesn’t happen very often, and secondly, I’m pre-occupied with finding ways to return circulation to my chilblain-infested toes, and wondering what it means that the hand-warmers thoughtfully handed out by our club unfortunately explode when you rub them together.
The players aquaplane at times on the slippery turf. I’m sure the commentary team (one good part of being there is you don’t have to listen to them) have already found multiple occasions to use the term ‘slippery cake of soap.’ I wonder if some of the players revel in the conditions, a throwback to uncomplicated, pure footy days when they played as kids on muddy suburban grounds and success was measured by how many times they touched the greasy ball, while their mums waited patiently in cars with a thermos of Milo.
Or whether they are just wishing, as I secretly do, that this season, this game, this quarter, would end.
As the gloom descends, in more ways than one, I pine for those matches where every kick, mark or tackle had a thrilling urgency, where Our Boys performed extraordinary deeds, where the grandest stadium in the country throbbed with our energy. Instead, among the small ranks of the die-hards, there is a fatalistic acceptance, after a reasonable first half effort, that we will not be able to go the distance. As our efforts begin to wane, and the fatigue created by the heavy conditions takes its toll, there is an absence of anguish, of anger, among the muted crowd. There is no abuse of the players; maybe the most vitriolic have stayed home, though there is head-in-hands mutterings at some of the worst moments. Mainly from me.
At three quarter time, instead of feverishly wondering whether Our Boys could bring the match home with a big last quarter, we stamp feet when the song Sweet Carolinegets played. (After all, it has a chorus which features.. ‘Warm…touching warm…’ and I'm too cold to feel indignation about the gimmick). The Dogs put on a last little spurt of effort, the ball in our forward line in the first few minutes but there is pitifully little reward and a sense of inevitability now about the result.
The stadium is not holding its (icy) breath.
At the other end of the ground, strongly built and bearded Port players (they could also play in an Eagles tribute band) handle the ball cleanly, dragging down mark after mark. The margin blows out, like we knew it would. The Dogs supporters begin straggling out of the ground. Our team did not win. But that was never, after all, why I was there.