Dogs v GWS: Gia's last dance
It was the last match of 2014. A depressing year was limping to its end. A year where we'd at best stagnated,. A harsher and more accurate assessment was probably that we'd gone backwards from some modest improvements the year before.
There were only 14725 of us there, fans voting silently with their feet about the state of our club, which had been dubbed 'irrelevant', and was playing a brand of joyless footy that was hard to watch. But it was a milestone, albeit a sad one, for one of our champs; for the 265th and last time Daniel Giansiracusa was taking the field in our colours.
The stage was set for the Dogs to go out with on a high against another club with little to play for, to sell some desperately needed faith that we were on the right track, and to celebrate, with a win, all the deeds of a man who's played the seventh highest number of games for us of all time.
By half time we know something's amiss. The Dogs are sluggish and sloppy. A strange, disturbing, listless pall hangs over the match and the crowd.
We're clueless about the reason for the malevolent vibes that we later learn were swirling around the playing group. We couldn't know it was the last game as a Bulldog, not just for honest plodders Mark Austin and Tom Young, but for Adam Cooney and Shaun Higgins. We couldn't have dreamt that our captain would not only never take the field for us again, but was already making the decision that would shatter our club, to defect to our opponents that day.
With a minute to go, we've lifted just enough to be within a goal. It's Jake Stringer who comes charging towards a well-weighted pass. If he marks it, you'd think, even with his erratic kicking, he'd be able to goal. But Jake, who's even been played as a defender and been in the reserves for parts of the year, spills the ball in a way that brings to mind one of my great-aunt's sayings at the footy: "If it was a plum pudding it would have burst."
There is no fairytale finish for Gia. Unfortunately it would be wrong to declare this as the worst lowlight of my years of supporting the Dogs. But as we clapped off the forlorn group, who looked so many zillions of miles from ever forming a competitive unit, a strange vision enters my head:
'There should be signage, like a royal warrant, with elegant calligraphy, fluttering in the breeze outside the Western oval. It would read:
'The Western Bulldogs. Purveyors of Disappointment.'
The Tragician previews the season
The reverberations of Shock-tober have almost passed. We understand a bit more, though not everything, about the unsettling torpor that hung around the club in 2014. And it's a new season, after all.
Our best and fairest winner, Libber The Second, has gone down with a season-ending knee injury. But Bob's our captain and with his charisma, warmth and love for the club, the hurt of Griffen's defection is slowly healing.
There are whispers about incredible performances on the track by The Bont (his team-mates dub him 'Fooch' for 'The Future') and Jake 'The Lair' Stringer. Bob says that this is the best group of young players he's ever played alongside.
Luke Beveridge is an unproven quantity, his resemblance to the Plantaganet kings, or the possibility that he was once an extra in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so far the most noteworthy aspect about him.
Luke's been experimenting with Matthew Boyd in the backline. We all have a little chuckle about that one. Well, at least the new coach isn't afraid to mix it up.
We thrash the Pies in a practice match but The Tragician is too experienced a campaigner to fall for this Fool's Gold.
So I take it upon myself to write a blogpost with some stirring, uplifting reminders of how we all needed to stick tight when things got tough. I counselled patience when this inevitable scenario unfolded:
As the season drags on, there are likely to be thrashings, dark days when our team of skinny striplings gets humiliated, dismal afternoons where we sit silent and stoic, days when we don't really want to get out the 'Bulldog for life' membership ticket, and take our seats with fake jauntiness and black humour.
A week later, the Dogs beat the Eagles in Round One. Bob, who's been at this twinkle-toed best, gets interviewed after the match.
He reminds us that the boys need to keep this up: for 'the next 25 weeks.'
Dreaming too loud: Dogs v Crows
A spirited, dazzling performance by the Dogs has the footy world sitting up and taking notice. Our nemesis, the Pride of South Australia, had been undefeated before meeting Our Boys. Though we were coming off a thumping by the Hawks in Launceston, we blitzed them with audacious, fast, furious footy. And there's a feel-good, poignant moment when Clay Smith, recovering from two knee reconstructions, kicks a goal and every one of his team-mates swamp him, young men in love with the game and its possibilities.
We've won three of our first four matches. And for the first time in oh so long, I'm getting the spine-tingling feeling that this is not a flash in the pan, not the result of other teams 'taking us too lightly', and not simply youthful exuberance that is bound to splutter to an end.
I drove home with my sister in a buoyant mood.
We could talk about this win forever. And I realise that not once today have I looked back or thought about the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named, or The Other Preliminary Final That Wasn't Really Very Good Either.
My sister says, suddenly: 'I just think they can do it. I think this group are going to do it for us. They're going to win us a flag one day.'
I called the blog that week: Dreaming too loud.
It's one of Ned Kelly's whimsical Irish phrases, a warning that he gave to the schoolteacher at Glenrowan, and salutary advice, I thought, to romantics everywhere, who dare to 'get too far ahead of themselves'.
Dogs v Pies: The Men of Mayhem close in on a finals berth
The winter had been tough at times, much as The Tragician had so cheerfully foretold. But the Dogs had defied expectations and kept winning.
Winning Ugly, at times.
Winning even when, as I'd predicted, we lost the carefree abandon of early season, when games had become a grind, when slugging it out in a grim battle against lowly stragglers on the ladder could have been too hard for this unbelievably young list.
Winning when we had no right to win, unleashing a ten-goal quarter in the heat in Cairns.
Winning after we lost the hard nut Koby Stevens whose strong body so often bullocked a path for his younger team-mates.
Winning despite the heartache of seeing Clay Smith do his knee for the third time, only two weeks after his long-awaited comeback.
There was a flame inside these guys, you could see. It burnt bright and fierce. They wanted more than an honourably improved season. They weren't willing to concede that this wasn't yet their time.
Against the Pies, a finals spot is up for grabs. It's the sort of crunch game where so often the Dogs have retreated into their shells, and when the Pies goaled within 30 seconds of the opening bounce, it seemed history would repeat. But the Daring Dogs of early in the season, the 'Men of Mayhem', full of vim and run, had returned. Beating them was the first time I really believed we could make the finals, would make the finals.
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.
Dogs v Lions: Salty and grumpy
When my oldest son was in grade prep I got a phone call from the school asking me to collect him as he was feeling unwell. I rushed to his classroom, fearing a major emergency. But as we walked back to the car with him showing no particular signs of illness, he explained to me that he’d decided to opt out of school for the day because he was feeling ‘salty and grumpy.’
This splendidly apt description has become a family catchphrase for otherwise inexplicable ennui and crankiness. And it was this condition to which I succumbed as the siren sounded in Brisbane earlier this week, and the Dogs had been defeated by the lowly Lions.
Of course, the outcome didn’t REALLY matter; with nothing on the line, self-preservation had clearly kicked in and the Dogs were intent on playing ‘bruise-free’ footy. But as I stomped around a little too loudly in the kitchen post-match, muttering the names of offenders whose efforts had not been to my satisfaction, I realised I was definitely exhibiting all the signs of Salty and Grumpy syndrome.
It wasn’t very rational (but when has this ever been a strength of mine?). But was it too much to ask for the Dogs to soothe our pre-finals nerves by a straightforward, effortless romp in the park – I’d have taken even a pedestrian four goal win — to finish off this amazing season?
Instead, the loss felt like a sneering, ill-timed interjection into our momentum. A cunningly placed smirk in my direction from the universe, especially once it became clear that we would be playing That Certain Team From South Australia (like a member of some superstitious pre-historic tribe, I don’t even want to name them our enemies) - at the MCG, no less. I seem to recall it didn’t turn out too well there at various points in the past.
But I knew in my heart the real reason for my over-the-top reaction to the loss. It’s been such fun, riding the wave, joyously accepting our unexpected, amazing progress. Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, it all matters again.
Making the finals means the Dogs have crossed a line. We’re on the threshold, now, of the Land of Hope, Faith and (gulp!) Possible Premiership Glory.
There was after all a smug safety in being able to say: ‘All I expect from this year is seeing the kids develop.’ Chronic failure may hurt, but it’s familiar, comfortable, cosy-slippers stuff. Now it feels like we’re about to jump out of a plane, strapped to and invested in those kids, not knowing if and where our parachute is going to land. And a crash-landing could risk that pain, that dreadful fist-in-the-stomach pain that is finals defeat.
The magic carpet ride
For eight sides in the competition the season is over. But the Dogs are not one of them. Not this year.
There's the usual roll-call of retirements. Champs who carried the Geelong fans to the ecstasy of three flags are given their marching orders; they're farewelled with dignity, but none of them feels it's really 'their time'.
Daniel Cross ends his career with yet another suicidal, 'eyes-on-the-ball' act of reckless courage; he gets carried off by stretcher. You know for certain that Crossy would most definitely not have felt it was 'his time.' His best mate Matthew Boyd stands in the Melbourne race, applauding him off the field though the warrior now wears another team's colours. Boydy will be playing in September again.
Spring is in the air, finals talk is all around. The 'Dogs fans aren't on the sidelines, we're among the conversation, hungry for every snippet of news about our team, holding our breath when we hear about injuries to JJ and Roughie, debating possible selections (though second guessing He Who Has Led Us Into the Promised Land is futile).
We're moving forward, as fans have to do, about what might come next on this journey that only a handful of our team have embarked on before. Only rarely do we pause for a second and remember with a bitter-sweet pang that The Bont's jumper four was once Crossy's. There's a shiver of happiness and more than a bit of regret when I hear an anecdote from our match against Port. The Bont delivered an enormous crunching tackle, minutes before the final siren when we were 10 goals up against Port. Among the crowd that rose to their feet to applaud the Boy Wonder was a rosy-cheeked man with a receding hairline; our record-holder Brad Johnson, our skipper the last time we were there in September.
I see news footage of Dogs' fans queueing up overnight in the cold and rain to secure their finals tickets - this for a match where you could probably walk up and get tickets an hour before. The image of their dedication, the steadfastness of their hope and loyalty, brings on that mix of laughter and tears that this crazy business of being a supporter evokes in me so often.
There's no use feigning the Salties and Grumpies. We're going to see our kids, who've given us this year of boundless fun, running out on the G. Jake The Lair and The Bont will be under the lights on the big stage; the coin will be tossed by the man who was born to be our captain. We'll shout ourselves hoarse in the massive roar that can only happen when the ball is bounced for the first time in a final. We'll be with them for all the excitement, fear, terror and joy of whatever's to come on the magic carpet ride.