It wasn't so much the prospect of doing battle with the infamous Magpie Army. I've just about forgiven, if not forgotten, the time a group of them, best described as exuberant, rocked my car and shouted obscenities after they'd beaten us, back in the '90s. The night they booed Brad Johnson, that well-known thug (maybe he smiled too much?) as he hobbled around in one of his last games - well that was a while ago too. Maybe just some high jinks, as they were in the finals for the first time in a while. And as for that stereotype of tattoos and toothlessness, surely Magpies fans are just as likely these days to be signing a Get Up petition about refugees or discussing the merits of a turmeric latte or a cheeky pinot. Maybe their feral reputation has been over-stated. It's just that there's - well, a lot of them, but I suspect they've mellowed.
My anxiety wasn't, either, about them giving us an on-field shellacking after our disappointing performance against the Suns. I wasn't unduly preoccupied with the idea of Nathan Buckley engineering match-ups between Mason Cox and 'Celeb' Daniel. Not did I spent too much time worrying about Steele Sidebottom getting off the leash now that Liam Picken will never again appear quietly at his side and curb his influence, or cringing at the prospect that Tim 'The Pom' English, playing game ten, would be ruthlessly thrown around by the hulking frame of Brody Grundy.
Okay, I may have given some of the above the occasional thought.
But, mainly, my unease related to Jordan Roughead.
A couple of weeks ago I idly flicked the TV remote to see who had won the Collingwood-Richmond match. I saw the Pies had triumphed, as they had assembled to sing their song and perform the extremely strange ritual known as a Gatorade shower, drenching players that had achieved their first win at their club. I was barely concentrating on the scene; then I was suddenly transfixed. There, in the inner circle, drenched in syrup, was one of OUR premiership heroes, Jordan Roughead. I was still in shock about this dreadful sight - Jordan Roughead, wearing number 23, but in the black and white stripes - when he linked arms with his victorious team-mates and joined them in a hearty version of: 'Good old Collingwood forever.'
What did this all mean? How had it come to this? and why oh why, had the out-of-touch, arrogant AFL ignored my perfectly reasonable suggestion that all premiership players should be forced to immediately retire after they achieve ultimate glory, saving us from the pain of moments like these?(Come to think of it, that suggestion has gathered very little, in fact, no support whatsoever, and people even seem to think I'm joking).
I'd been able to cope when Joel Hamling departed immediately for Freo - there were family reasons after all, and he'd never really in his handful of games imprinted himself on us as a favourite, much though his finals performances was full of bravery and heart.
And when Jake The Lair was controversially offloaded, I was one of the first to declare (with no evidence whatsoever) I'd always suspected character flaws, and we really didn't need the likes of him and his smart-alecky-lairy ways at our club, while living in secret terror that he'd find success at our mortal enemies The Bombres.
Luke Dahlhaus' departure hurt, but I managed to steel myself against too much emotion when he issued a series of rather childish comments about our club and even had a dig at Bob Murphy.
But my bag of defensive tricks to ease the heartache of losing Roughie was completely bare. He had left our club, not with pettiness or spite or lies or a trail of unpleasant behaviours, but because, as a player for the Dogs, his future no longer seemed assured. Better opportunities to play the game he loves presented elsewhere. While my mind accepts this pragmatic reality, and wishes our premiership ruckman and all--round wonderful person only good things, it is still jarring, shocking even, to see that he can sing the song of our enemies, go into battle for a new cause. Because while there are peculiar individuals who claim to have a second team or a 'soft spot' for another club (needless to say, The Tragician is not in their ranks), it is generally regarded as traitorous to outright switch barracking allegiances (I exempt those who realised the sickness at the heart of the Essendon doping scandal). It somehow breaks our fantasy that the players do it all 'for us' and 'the jumper' when we see them putting the same whole-hearted effort out there for a new group of supporters, another guernsey, singing another tribal anthem.
Yes, I dreaded seeing Jordan Roughead out there against his former 'brothers' on Friday night. I half-hoped that a minor niggly hamstring strain might cause him to miss the match. (Nothing too serious, because this is the man who took a young homeless person to the Brownlow). But I had no inkling that any of my fellow Bulldogs fans might see fit to boo him when he went near the ball. (In my mortification I was somehow perversely pleased that especially in the first quarter, Roughie featured in the play a lot).
Fans, including myself, are unpredictable, emotional, mercurial, irrational, inconsistent, parochial and downright crazy in their reasonings (see above for a Tragician proposition on the merits of a premiership-players-forced-retirement-scheme).
But there is no part of my barracking persona which understands the mindset of those that would boo Jordan. This bloke locked himself in a darkened room for the week before the 2016 grand final, for heaven's sake, because his very eyesight was threatened - and then took the field knowing that every knock could do further damage to the bleeding behind his eyes. It's a commitment that even I admit far overshadows my own heroism in venturing to Ballarat on extremely cold days, or turning up to all those wretched 'we're going to get killed' matches.
And did, could, these fans forget the mark he took when the game was in the balance of the grand final, the mark after an appalling decision to disallow JJ's goal, the mark that announced that unlike all those other fragile Bulldogs' teams, it would take more than bad umpiring excuses to seize this game from our grasp?
I blushed at the booing with the embarrassment of one whose family has somehow made a pact to perform as badly as possible in an all-too-public occasion. But before too long, my indignation was distracted by the performance of the Magpies fans who surrounded us at the game.
Let's just say my charitable comments about them mellowing of late proved ill-founded.
While a group of them celebrated Magpies goals by drinking beer from a boot (I mean, who hasn't done that on occasion?) it was the ultra-boorish young man behind us who somehow eclipsed even that behaviour, and re-acquainted me with the flip side of the Pat and Jenny Hodgsons of this world.
The (very) ugly supporter.
His barracking was foul-mouthed, monotonous. It was without wit, without charm, without humour. It was even, oddly, without passion for his own team.
But it was full of bile towards the opposition and mainly directed at the Bulldogs fans committing the cardinal sin of simply being anywhere near him.
There is a barracking phenomenon which is less about delight in your own team's performance than the fact that, clothed in your tribal colours, you have licence to denigrate others wearing different ones. Yet in stirring moments of Bulldogs' victories, even the famous triumph when we were the only ones to halt the Bombres' winning streak in 2000, I have never felt the urge to jeer and mock opposition fans. I've been too happy to waste time doing that, even if I feel the inner fierce tribal feelings from which footy emotion is borne; my only wish is to celebrate with my Bulldogs clan.
But there is another species for whom the hope for victory is secondary to the desire to bait and belittle opposition fans, and so it was with the ugly supporter who never let up for a moment. He ridiculed our excitement at the speckie taken by Hayden Crozier (indeed I was so excited I called him Hazier). He sneered when 'Celeb' got caught holding the ball. And he was full of advice for the Libba Sisters, when he believed the match to be in the Magpies' keeping, to catch the early train back to Footscray; this, he was sure, was an insult, because to live in the western suburbs, naturally, had to be a bad thing. (Though it has to be said, if I may be so petty, nothing in the vocabulary or demeanour of our friend the Ugly Supporter suggested that he himself hailed from Toorak or conducted ground-breaking studies as a nuclear physicist in between supporting the Magpies).
I wished, how I wished, that we would win, the ultimate way to silence his endless monologue. And perhaps my lofty resolutions about non-engagement with opposition fans would have been sorely tested if we'd won the match. But it was not to be; the Dogs played a strange kind of game. There were lulls when we looked like a bottom four team; highlights when we looked like we were going to storm to a win. Listless periods where we made too many errors, interspersed with glimpses of the run and dare of our premiership past. The Bont was brilliant, the team were never less than brave, but as signs of fatigue set in and Mason Cox failed to get shorter, the three-goal margin half way through the last quarter felt like so much more. In the first two weeks of the season I allowed myself to dream that we were definitely finals-bound, and that may be the case, but it's more accurate to see the Dogs as a work in progress, a hybrid of the proven premiership players and raw but exciting talent, and perhaps our best is still a year or two away.
We didn't leave early to get back to Footscray. We stayed till the end, but I certainly didn't want to see Roughie's interactions with his former or new team-mates. I was desperate to get out into the balmy autumn night and escape any further interactions with the ugly supporter.
It was hard to wrest thoughts back to the better moments of the match. The first goal from the young prodigy and the latest in a line of Baileys, our new number six, Smith. The moments when Aaron Naughton, just 19-years-old, on the big MCG stage, flew for and clunked a series of outrageous marks, the best I've seen since a young Grant (that's Chris, not Jarrod, in case you're wondering). On such players a premiership can be built, I think, trying to avoid thinking about the Dogs' fans who booed Roughie, and any other of the uncomfortable truths about why people barrack, or the vitriol, the hate, that resides within.