Given the choice between a romantic celebration at a fine dining establishment, or heading off to see the Bulldogs perform in a lacklustre match, there was little doubt, of course, where I’d be.
The fact that the Bulldogs were, probably for the first time this season, favoured to win, did not , as you might think, influence my inexplicable decision to join a mere 21,217 others at this blockbuster.
Being expected to win, in fact, only makes me and my fellow Dogs supporters jittery.
Nightmare scenarios kept floating before my eyes in the leadup, leaving me clammy.
I envisaged Jack Watts, everyone’s favourite under-achieving whipping boy, running around like a champion. Perhaps he would even kick four goals and take a match saving mark in the last minutes. Some Melbourne player I’ve never heard of, wearing, I don’t know, number 48, could slot a goal from an impossible angle on the boundary. Melbourne, the laughing stock of the competition, might even have more possessions than their opponent for the first time ever this season.
I could even imagine chunky, chubby David Rodan torching the grass, like Usain Bolt, while flatfooted players in red white and blue, inept and clueless, trail in his wake. What if "Grand old flag” is sung endlessly by tweedy Melbourne fans while silent Bulldog supporters, one of whom has missed a birthday celebration, sit in a surreal daze, questioning their sanity…???
I shake my head and give myself a stern lecture. This is what comes with succumbing to the over-heated terrors of a vivid imagination. I mean: as if!!
Sure, the Bulldogs are no great shakes. We mightn’t be worldbeaters, but, let's be realistic, this is Melbourne, after all. They’ve been called an embarrassment to the competition. The AFL are even thinking of giving them a priority pick (because even though they tanked to get the last one, they stuffed it up. And remind me how that works again..?). They’ve been compared to poor old Fitzroy’s terrible last days. Described as having one of the worst lists ever seen. (Memories are short).
I rev myself up further by checking some of the stats. Cold hard, non-negotiable, Ross Lyon-approved facts and key deliverables. These should dispell the fevered imaginings of an over-wrought Bulldog Tragician. Excellent. The Dees' lag behind even Great Western Sydney in just about all measures, number of kicks, disposals per game, creation of scoring opportunities. Which means, 18th.
Whereas we’ve still got some star quality: Ryan Griffen. Bob Murphy. I've run out of other names but none of OUR team is under investigation for performance enhancing drugs (obviously). Our players are good blokes and outstanding young men. They work hard. There have been signs of improvement. Kind of.
We should be okay. We’ll possibly be okay. I’d like us to be okay.
The morning of the match, my doubts revive when I hear the Coodabeens caller, the mythical ‘Danny from Droop Street’, archetypal gloomy Bulldogs pessimist, ring in to the show.
"I’m worried about tonight.’"
"Why is that?" asks the presenter.
"Well there are two matches we could lose tonight.’"
"Two? What do you mean?"
"There’s a Bulldogs’ women’s team playing in the curtain raiser. And that Daisy Pearce and Chelsea Randall for for Melbourne always tear us apart!’'
The thing is, the worse the Dogs’ season has panned out, the more determined I am to be there. I figure it’s easy to turn up when the going’s good and bask in the glory. I have scorn for the AFL’s cultivation of ‘theatre-goers’, the people who turn up in their suspiciously new looking scarves when their team is on a roll. Being there for these dismal days, when your team is struggling badly (*cough* rebuilding), when there are few highlights, when our performances often resemble a comical string of Benny Hill moments: they're all part of the deal surely?
Still, walking into the ground to watch 16th (us) and 17th (them) on the ladder squaring off, it's hard not to mourn the days, not so long ago, when we were premiership contenders. When our crisp foot skills and speedy ball movement were the talk of the town, when we were labelled the most exciting team to watch. We played with audacity, defended with poise, attacked with carefree abandon, moved the ball down the field in a dizzying whirl. We would turn up at the ‘G to play against big crowds; we were there in September sharing the excitement and terror of being finalists, a top four club, a week away (we never got closer than a week) from premiership glory.
It all seems like a million years ago.
Especially when we sit there at three quarter time and Melbourne have doubled our score. They’re not just hanging in the contest in a dour, low-skilled struggle. They’re killing us.
I could say we fans were stunned, flabbergasted. But we're not.
Part of us knew in our very bones that this could happen to us, and indeed only us.
We knew we were just the team to make Melbourne (the Laughing Stock) look like premiership contenders. That only against the Bulldogs would this team, derided for their poor skill levels and lack of system, be able to move the ball down the field and score a ‘coast-to-coast’ goal after a kick-in, untouched and untroubled by Bulldog opposition. Against us, this so-called rabble are sparkling, taking chances, fizzing around with energy and purpose, their confidence and energy growing by the moment. With every moment they're realising: ‘Scoring in footy isn’t so hard to do after all.’
Not for the first team this season, the Dogs have the balance between defence and attack horribly wrong. There’s little danger of a coast-to-coast goal-scoring opportunity from us, as we form in a lame huddle (I thought the point of the huddle was that players then sprint like maniacs to make position for the poor sorry sap who is on kick out duties, not remain in a tight bunch on the 50 metre line. But in fairness, it was a cold night).
Senior players miss gettable goals and drill passes which land again and again on Melbourne players’ chests. We’re horrid. We stink.
A typically befuddled text message is received by my mother. Even she has decided it is too cold and too depressing to be at the match. With her usual disregard for spellcheck and grammar, she says: Sacl the coach. And umpires.*
Maybe for the first time this season I am questioning the team’s effort, and how much they want to win. This is the first loss this season that has made me angry; I’ve been realistic, patient, forgiving, accepting, hopeful, resigned. But now I have to face reality: we're not a team going through a little spot of rebuilding or regeneration before glory days come again in the next couple of years. We are the battling Dogs all over again. The Scraggers. Poor old Footscray, everyone’s second favourite team( it’s not worth the effort of hating us), non-threatening, mediocre. It’s a moment when I hate being a fan.
The more so when I see our team suddenly come to life. We'd struggled to kick six goals in three quarters, and now rattle off nine. Go figure. We’re not slow, plodding, hesitant any more. With caution thrown to the wind, and urgency on the table, we are transformed.
Still, our blitz is too late: we don’t win, and don't deserve to. I can’t even begrudge the tweedy Dees supporters, who’ve gone through their own form of hell this year, their joyous celebrations of ‘Grand old flag’.**
We’re subdued as we leave the ground. How fitting that we encounter Pat and Jenny Hodgson, the die-hard mother and daughter fans from ‘Year of the Dogs.’ They’re still huddled under their blankets, their faces set in stoic resignation. They’ve seen it all before.
As have I.
* actual text received by Bulldogs’ Tragician's mother.
** this is a downright lie manufactured to make the Bulldog Tragician look sporting and gracious.
Footnote: the Western Bulldogs Women's team lost by five goals. Best for Melbourne were Daisy Pearce and Chelsea Randall.