We've been in the media all week. I've got a bad feeling. We're going to get smashed.
Danny from Droop Street phones the Coodabeens:
I don't like it. I don't like it at all. We're being talked up everywhere. We're flavour of the month. I just know it. We're going to get smashed.
Bulldog Tragician rambling thoughts:
I'd like to enjoy ONE week of positivity, feel happy that we're in the news for all the right reasons, and have faith in these kids. (Reads Thursday night selections, sees that every tipster has selected us to win). We're going to get smashed!
Wooden spoons and club in-fighting. A headline screaming: Death of the Bulldogs. Woeful finals efforts where we looked like deer in the headlights. Turning points: after which we saw more of the same. Stirring wins followed by abject losses. Season-defining wins that, well, didn't end up defining anything.
These are OUR stories as Bulldogs fans: the troubles we've seen. And in reaction, we're masters of defensive pessimism, braced well in advance for another kick in the teeth. We almost feel smug, vindicated, when it comes, yet again. See? success is not for the likes of us.
You want to leave the past behind, believe in each new group that comes along, untainted by the shadows of our long history of failure. You want to believe that each new era of players, who start with such precocious confidence and innocent love of the game are different, and will make their own history, and so write a different story for us.
All week (in between playing the replay of the last quarter against the Swans and feeling the reflected glow of the footy world's current infatuation with our formerly 'irrelevant' team) we had a niggling fear our happiness was tainted, poisoned like Snow White's apple. Didn't such glory, such praise, such attention, really only mean that a fall was just around the corner? Were we 'getting ahead of' ourselves, whatever this mysterious phrase might mean, but certainly not something that the unfashionable Bulldogs should ever contemplate? Were we inviting fate by our rash calculations of the wins that were 'certainties' that could see us as unlikely finalists, maybe even, if all the cards fell right, a top four proposition? And when would that god-damn Tragician stop day-dreaming about Bob Murphy holding the premiership cup and get back to being gloomy and curmudgeonly?
And so began the pre-emptive excuse making, rationalisations and justifications mounting in the days before. The Dogs would be sore after their bruising, brutal encounter in the wet. It would have to be deflating, after such an emotional victory, to get motivated again in a match where we were (gulp) favourites.
The team selections added to the unease.
Matthew Boyd, Disposal Efficiency King, OUT!
Lin Jong, who has so rapidly become one of our most important players; who with his trademark dash has made us all say 'Ryan Who?'; the brave foot soldier who played the last ten minutes of the Sydney match with a broken hand - not to mention being (sorry, Ayce) our leading tapout ruckman last week - OUT!
The match was being billed as that of two very young, up and coming teams, but the reality was actually obscured by the Dogs' wonderful, barnstorming, surprising start to the season. The Saints, with the return of our old nemesis Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna, weren't anywhere near as raw and green as us; they actually had seven players with more than 100 games under the belt. Most of these seven would, I imagine, have played in their recent three Grand Final appearances: the Dogs by contrast, with Morris and Boyd on the sidelines, had just two 100+ gamers. With an average age of 23 years and seven months and only 43 games, this would have to be one of the youngest, most inexperienced Bulldogs' outfits ever.
Still, our fears seemed to be allayed with the way the Dogs started. The fanatical forward pressure was still there, the manic ball movement was as frenetic as ever; we seemed, in another mysterious footy phrase, to be 'up and about'. It looked like Tom Boyd was going to have a memorable, breakout game as he dragged in screamers in the first 15 minutes, prompting a foolhardy claim by an over-excited Tragician that this could be the day he kicked 10. Then came the first twinge of doubt when he, our best kick by a mile, shanked two appallingly easy shots. Still as we moved into the second quarter the Dogs were right on top, more and more dominant, building a lead that would, it seemed, be a buffer if we did begin to tire.
We weren't imagining, at the half time break, that we could lose. Our hearts were full of another kind of sorrow. Half way through the quarter Clay Smith, only a few games back from his second knee reconstruction, had moved awkwardly and gone to ground, just in front of us. The crowd gave an awful moan as we saw it, all of us rising to our feet, unbelieving that this kid - just 21 years old - may have suffered the cruel fate of another knee injury for a third time. As Clay limped off, I thought of the wonderful moment a few weeks ago when Clay kicked a goal in his comeback match and every player ran from far and wide to mob him. But a few minutes later there was delighted applause when Clay came back on, and some relieved, almost embarrassed chuckles that our fears had been so misplaced. You can't keep Clay down! we said; the kid's tough as nails.
When Clay's knee buckled again ten minutes later, in the most innocuous of movements, the atmosphere in the crowd was thick with emotion at the cruelty of the footy gods. As he was wheeled off on a stretcher to who knows what future - for who could blame him if he was unable to endure yet another round of gruelling, lonely rehabilitation - the cheers were ragged, from choked throats, as if we knew how hollow they must seem while his tears flowed.
I wondered what it would do to the spirit of our group, too, to walk into the rooms knowing that one of their number, who they'd seen in the gym for the last two years working and working to get himself back out there in the game he so loves, had gone down.
Yet the Dogs started the third quarter ok. Jake the Lair kicked a bomb from 50 (pretending not to see any of his team-mates in a better position, of course). Fifty five points up. Match-winning, surely, though Clay's injury had already muted our sense of anticipation about this likely result.
But then the rot set in.
The tackles weren't sticking. Koby Stevens limped up and down the boundary line, grimacing with pain with every step, yet having to keep returning to the filed while we tried to arrest the impact of Clay's injury. Jake the Lair leapt from behind trying to take mark of the year (he didn't) when there had been space to lead. Bob Murphy, who hasn't made a mistake for weeks, got caught trying to play on; a rare, Brian-Lake-esque brain fade. The sure hands of The Bont suddenly resembled the butter fingers of mere mortals. Lukas Webb, whose calmness and poise have been features even amid last week's Sydney cauldron, suddenly looked every bit the 18-year-old kid he is, fumbling and hesitant.
We looked tired, so tired.
There was a flurry in the opening minutes of the last quarter. Maybe, by sheer will, we could hang on, stem the tide. Ayce Cordy snapped brilliantly; Honeychurch roved another goal. It could have been enough, but it wasn't, as we almost literally stopped to a walk, while Saints players, full of run and zest, stormed irresistibly past us time and again. How we missed the hard head of Matthew Boyd directing the on-field troops and slowing the game down as we continued to try and launch kamikaze attacks on spent, aching legs. How we missed Lin Jong's running, the fact that he's somehow always there, when the ball is in dispute AND when it's free.
The Saints snatched the lead when last week's hero Easton Wood, who had been scintillating all day, slipped over in a contest at the critical moment. Last week his sure feet saved us the match; the footy gods love this sort of twist.
There was still three minutes to go. But there was not one person in the stadium who thought that the Dogs could do it, just that they were longing for the siren, that their young legs had had enough.
Seven days ago the sound of the siren had brought us wild jubilation, the delirium of a sweet victory. But now it brought us the familiar numbness. I didn't want to learn for what seems the thousandth time, that our foreboding had been right, that pessimism not hope was the right emotion after all.
The players aren't sprinting off the field this week, bouncing on their toes, high on adrenalin as they got ready to sing the song; they're a forlorn group, moving slowly and heavily off the field. It's a poignant moment when their wounded team-mate, even more slowly and heavily, comes out on the field to join them. Clay could have hidden in the rooms and nursed his anguish, but he hobbles out. The pain he's in as he makes his way towards them instantly obliterates for me my disappointment at the loss.
And the fact that Clay is still wearing his red substitute vest is somehow the most heartbreaking detail of all.
What will be the story of this loss? As our angry and despairing fans began absorbing the fact that we'd made history for all the wrong reasons (this being fifth biggest margin that a team had recovered from) it was only too easy to see it as another example of some invisible, fatal flaw in our club's make-up. Was it yet again, a depressing instance of our lack of success feeding on a lack of success? Had that kernel of doubt that was in every Dogs' fans' nervous mind in the build-up slowly, insidiously ground its way into these boys' psyches as well?
There could be another less dramatic explanation of course - that this is a meaningless blip in this group's story, something no one except footy historians will ever remember when and if they achieve the ultimate.
Hard though it is for us fans who have been through so much, the loss to the Saints tells us nothing about the calibre of this group; nor does it say something significant about the culture of our club, unless as fans we choose it to be so.
It doesn't confirm that it was 'just like us' to drop this match; nor does it mean that some sort of malevolent spirit will continue to blight us forever and a day.
All it really says is that a young, inexperienced, fatigued bunch of kids, who've given their all for weeks and taken us with them on a magical journey, finally ran out of luck and legs. We can equally choose to believe that they and their coach will continue to build upon the astonishing, exhilarating improvement, and banish the idea that there is any deep and meaningful lesson about the culture and psyche of our club to be learnt from this day.
Loss, failure and pain has been our story as fans but it doesn't have to be the story of Jake Stringer, Lukas Webb, Tom Boyd or Marcus Bontempelli. It's a tale that is still theirs to write, with us fans clinging to their coat-tails in their crazy magic carpet ride. No one would deserve more than Clay Smith to recover in time to be there too. After all, when he was drafted, Clay got a tattoo across his chest; it read:
Living the dream.