I love this picture of excited young Footscray fans. camping out the night before the 1961 grand final. I can't help thinking they were lucky, though, that their vehicle, festooned with flags and banners, was not a DeLorean, able to catapult them forward to the 2016 future, and a glimpse of the Dogs' fortunes in the 55 years that lay between.
At the optimistic moment in which their exuberant celebrations were captured, the team from the west were about to compete in their second grand final in seven years. Their captain-coach was the man many say was the greatest footballer of all time, EJ Whitten. These buoyant fans, with their sign reading 'Bulldogs for Premiers 1961', would have expected good times to keep rolling in; they would have been astonished to learn about the barren years their team was about to endure.
That there would be no more flags, in 1961 or thereafter.
Not even one grand final appearance.
In stark contrast, during that same period, the Hawthorn team who were about to defeat us for their first ever flag, would go on to win 12 more.
The festive group, hunkered down in their sleeping bags - though it appears very little sleeping would be done - would have been dismayed to learn it would be 24 long years before the Dogs even returned to the MCG to feature in a final. (We lost two in the '70s in the miserable grey concrete surrounds of Arctic Park).
The Hawks - by then with five premiership cups glittering in their trophy cabinet - awaited us once again.
The year was 1985. It was the first time, since I started going to matches as a four-year-old, that I'd seen our team in a final. When the Footscray boys ran out onto the famous ground to a tremendous roar, I saw people weeping. Whether with joy that this day had finally come, or sadness that it had taken so long, it was impossible to say.
There were tears of a different kind when the Hawks demolished us by a humiliating 93 points.
Now here in the 2016 semi-final, the formidable might and power of the Hawks, who've won the last three flags and dominated the competition since the '70s, is on display. There's no pretence this is a neutral venue. Brown and gold flags circle the arena; footage on the big screen shows their many recent triumphs, on a loop.
Together the Dogs' fans have marched from Federation Square to the 'G, a place for us of great pain and few triumphs. The mood as thousands of us walk along is both joyful and tense. We've floated on air since last week's magnificent win. But we worry - we're extremely good at worrying - if that victory was our grand final, a match our battered team psyched ourselves up for. We fear - because we're also very used to being afraid - that we may not find that same determination and belief yet again, taking on this powerhouse opponent.
Twenty Tragician family members and friends find themselves surrounded by Hawthorn fans. They look - of course - unflustered, calm - well, smug is the word I'm reaching for. I look at them with fear and envy, thinking how different their experiences have been to ours, how few disappointments they've ever endured. How used they are to winning.
Our two teams have always had little in common. One from the leafy east, the other from the gritty west. A commentator once described that gap before one of our clashes: "The shoppers from Forges meet the shoppers from Georges."
Tonight the Hawks' banner, featuring a glitzy high-tech holograph photo, exudes money, entitlement and success. The long memory of The Bulldog Tragician for injustice and slights against my team is reactivated; in 1989, one of the Hawks' umpteenth premiership years, I recall standing in the outer of Princes' Park, the Hawks' home, as they, predictably, annihilated us. We were surrounded by pimply faced private schoolboys. (You could just tell - take it from me). Our club was on the brink of extinction (the attempted merger-takeover of our club was only weeks away, though we didn't know it then). As a Footscray player made yet another miskick, one of those callow private school boys jeered at us: 'Out on the full. Just like their club.'
I feel my western suburbs' hackles begin to rise at the memory.
It's a monster crowd. The Three-Peaters are accustomed to this atmosphere, the big game aura. But only two other Footscray/Western Bulldogs teams have played in front of crowds bigger than this. The 54 premiers, of course. And the 61 grand finalists.
The 2016 Bulldogs start well, but in a far too common occurrence, don't trouble the scoreboard sufficiently for all our effort. It doesn't bode well when Tory Dickson, our most reliable kick, misses two sitters; the Hawks of course score with imperious ease. We finally begin to graft our way back into the contest through a badly needed Easton Wood goal. I sense that we are settling into the tempo of the match when there's one of those moments - one of those 'it could only happen to us' moments. Toby McLean snaps a goal. But even as we celebrate we see Luke Hodge remonstrate with the umpire, adamant that it's been touched.
There's a scoreboard review. The goal is overturned.
It had all the elements to fit perfectly into the long litany of Bulldogs' hard-luck tales. A Danny from Droop St moment. A line-ball decision going against us; it could have turned the match, like the contentious Riewoldt free in the 2009 Preliminary final. It could have been lamented and discussed forever, like the growing mythology around the Tony Liberatore point/goal in the last quarter of that 1997 Preliminary Final That Must Not be Named.
This white noise, this ceaseless chatter, always rattling around in the minds of us, the fans. Our Boys are listening to a different beat. It's the one Bevo Our Savour keeps talking about. A burning belief that no matter what is thrown at them, a premiership is their destiny.
Because of this burning belief, Our Boys view the Hodge decision as just a minor setback, a hiccup. Cyril Rioli's tackles as he creeps up on our players like a pantomime villain are something to learn from, mistakes not to be repeated. Not something to inhibit us, stifle our run and carry.
With goals from Bont and Jake, we launch another spirited challenge at the Hawks early in the second quarter. But whenever we draw close, they're able to swat us away. They extend their lead to 23 points, consummate professionals absorbing our pressure, then coolly returning fire when their chances inevitably come.
I feel the beginnings of a seed of doubt. We've flung everything in our arsenal at them, but against this opposition, perhaps it won't be enough. Sixteen of their team, after all, have played more than 100 games (we have just seven). Shaun Burgoyne alone has played in 33 finals - more than the total games of Josh Dunkley, 'Celeb' Daniel, 'In-Zaine' Cordy, Joel Hamling and Toby Mclean. The Hawks' lineup is studded with men whose legends will go on forever, men have played in four premierships, men with Norm Smith medals.
It's just before the moment that these excuses are crystallising in my mind (I once called them 'defensive pessimism') that we make another surge forward. Clay Smith marks the ball.
He lines up for the shot, perhaps 40 metres out. We know Clay has an ungainly, some would say ugly, kicking action - just as we know he has an enormous heart. But when we've imagined these clutch moments, these absolutely critical opportunities, we've envisaged The Bont or Jake, the supremely talented emerging superstars, with the ball in hand.
But this moment requires more than talent. It also requires a fanatical self-belief, an inner strength forged in the worst kind of adversity; traits on which Clay had to draw as he endured three knee reconstructions by the time he turned 22. These qualities enabled him to withstand the awful months of pain and doubt and dreary rehabilitation, to resist the temptation to give away the game that has been so cruel to him. He's the right man to take the shot, after all. We aren't really surprised when it sails right through.
Clay's goal ignites his team-mates yet again. Nineteen-year-old Josh Dunkley has been just about our best player in the first half, unfazed by the football royalty in brown and gold, laying crunching fearless tackles, never intimidated when it's his time to stand in the centre square against battle-hardened opponents. He kicks a goal; Clay bobs up irrepressibly for another. We're pressing hard.
The momentum of the game is shifting.
The Hawks attempt to send a statement to the impertinent upstarts. There's a bit of a stoush at half-time, with us now just one point down.
Our Dogs, far from being intimidated, acquire extra zest, jostling right back and getting in the faces of the exponents of 'unsociable football'. Liam Picken positively bristles with excitement at the chance to be in the thick of it, while Libber the Second has all the competitive antagonism of his dad in the clinches.
There may have been - I'm sure I saw - a vintage Bontempelli smirk.
It reminds me of the melee that broke out at half time in one of our more famous victories, against the Bombers, in which we ended their unbeaten season in 2000. Just like that celebrated occasion, where even the affable Brad Johnson was seen to mouth expletives, Our Boys are galvanised, rather than diminished. The scuffle brings out that same spirit, that same glee at having got under their opponents' skin, that same togetherness as they eventually regroup and march together off the field, mates and brothers who aren't going to take shit from anyone. Our captain Easton Wood is bouncing on his toes as he leads them into the rooms.
I didn't know at that point whether we would win. But I was confident that if we lost, timidity would not be the reason. This would not be one of those ghastly finals spectacles - one of them was against just this mob in a horror display in 2008 - where our stage-fright, our unpreparedness for the physicality of a final, were embarrassingly laid bare.
That the Dogs planned to do more than grimly persist, and would instead embark on a third quarter rampage, was beyond our wildest hopes.
We begin slamming on goals. The Hawks can't even get their hands on the footy, or any of our players, as fleet-footed men in red white and blue storm in waves down the field, and manic forwards defend the ball in their zone as though their lives depend on it. The Hawthorn edifice is swaying in the wind, about to topple like the statues that are symbolically pulled down by marauding revolutionaries.
The moment we finally hit the lead was like the release of a pressure valve. Our Boys now throw caution to the wind, playing dazzling, thrilling footy.
Not coincidentally, we see the welcome return of the Jake the Lair Strut. There's a moment when he slams the ball to boot and we instinctively know what's going to happen. We are pulled from our seats as though magnets are attached to our heads. We know The Strut is back when he doesn't even look at the goals before his celebration. The ball is never going to miss; fittingly, it's at our cheer squad end, against the jewel-like colours of red white and blue. Pandemonium breaks out. It sounds, for one brilliant moment, as though every one of those 87000 people is cheering for the Dogs.
We've dreamt of seeing Bont take over the MCG stage. It's even better than we hoped and imagined. There are two big moments when he outclasses the renowned big occasion player Luke Hodge. For once Bruce McAvaney's hyperbole is justified. Yes, it really is the old buck against the new buck. The passing of a baton.
And our Bont is still just 20 years old.
Unlike last week against West Coast, we're there to share these moments with our magical team, as they build an ever greater lead. We are part of their joyous celebration, the deafening din, the Bulldogs' chant, when the siren finally sounds.
My niece and nephew, both 12-year-old, rush down to the fence. They're rewarded with high fives with their idols, Easton Wood and 'Celeb' Daniel. At this ground, this time last year, when we lost to Adelaide in an elimination final, my niece cried heartbroken tears as we left the ground. Two Bulldogs' fans saw her distress and consoled her, saying, 'Agh darling, this wasn't meant to be our year. But next year -next year! - that will be our year.'
Somewhere in the crowd those two kind men, I'm sure, are belting out off-key versions of our song, with all their might, for the umpteenth time.
And what of those starry-eyed young men, who camped out in sleeping bags in 1961, expecting a glorious future stretching ahead? They'd have to be into their 70s now, but I like to think they are here in the celebrating crowd too. Older. Wiser. A touch sadder. Believers, keepers of the faith.
It's bitter-sweet, among all the joyful pandemonium, to see Bob Murphy out there, embracing his boys. Bob had kicked the footy around in the pre-game warm-up, linked arms in the tight circle of the 'Men's Department' huddle. But when our team was struggling in the first quarter Bob was as helpless as the rest of us, a mere spectator, hoping that Easton Wood would nail that cliched 'captain's goal' to finally get us on the board.
It's nostalgic to see Chris Grant walking around the boundary, raising his arm to the crowd: the gentle graceful champion, who was denied both a Brownlow and a premiership in the same year. And there is another former captain, our games record-holder Brad Johnson. The lifelong Footscray fan beams from ear to ear, showing not a skerrick of objectivity in his supposed role as a foxtel commentator in the rooms.
Even amid our celebrations, I feel a pang of sorrow for these our champs whose cherished dreams never became a reality.
There's a lot for the Bulldog Tragician to think about as I join the throng that marches again, away from the 'G this time, back to the city.
It's not a raucous or triumphant crowd. People are lost in a reverie. We've all got our own stories about why we're here, what the Dogs mean to us.
I'm thinking about fate, and belief. This week, I know, there will be story after story, raking over the ashes of all those seven preliminary finals that we lost, by a little or a lot. One after another.
Were the losses a result of dastardly planetary alignments, abominable umpiring, AFL conspiracies? Is there a wretched, yet to be identified, curse on our club, the equivalent of The Curse of the Billy Goat afflicting the Chicago Cubs baseball team? (The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 or played in one since 1945. My kind of team, in other words).
Could it be the case - it seems so boringly prosaic - that those other Bulldogs' teams simply weren't quite good enough?
I'm wondering about the impact of all the sorrowful Bulldogs' tales, the missed opportunities, the what-ifs. Culture, someone once said, is about 'the stories we tell ourselves.' For the players to smash their way through that culture, our stories of heartache and disappointment - the very glue that binds the fans to our club - must become, to them, as remote and irrelevant as the sepia photos of the first ever Footscray team, the Prince Imperials in the 1880s.
I start to think about the match next week. We'll be playing a club only six years old. GWS - the Orange-Clad Acronyms as I rudely call them - have none of our history. They don't have those dusty photos of other players who've proudly worn their colours on their clubroom walls, lockers bearing fabled names, a home where thousands of players have played and thousands of fans have barracked for more than 130 years. Though The Acronyms are free of our baggage, they also have none of our soul.
I listen to snippets of conversations from my fellow fans as we walk along. About who was our best: the Bont or Jack Macrae, or Liam Picken. Of when we realised the match was won (the answer, of course: the final siren). Of how to get to Sydney to see our team, to be there for this latest tilt at our daydream.
Because our team is just one win away from a grand final. Our rollercoaster is making its dizzying climb upwards. And we're all strapped in for dear life again.
It had been such a rainy gloomy week, but it feels like spring as we walk together alongside the Yarra, a community of Bulldogs' fans and their dreams. There's a full moon peeking out from the clouds. The Melbourne skyline is dazzlingly lit, and our city has never looked quite so beautiful.
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.