New favourite players will take their place on the stage and in our hearts. The man in front of me as I walk in, who is wearing number nine on his back, could be still honoring the brilliantly skillful 200-gamer Lindsay Gilbee, or looking forward and pinning his hopes on an outstanding career from young gun Jake Stringer. The army of kids now wearing number six revere the pint-sized dynamo Luke Dalhaus, yet only a moment ago, it seemed, the number could belong to no one other than the great Brad Johnson. To another generation, it was Wee Georgie Bissett. Way back further it was Charlie Sutton.
Time marches on. New players, new victories, new heartbreaks, new memories to treasure and dreams to cherish.
My family and friends have been watching it all unfold sitting in the same bay now, Aisle 17, for a surprising 13 years. I didn't think I'd ever get used to it, leaving behind the homely surroundings of the Western Oval with all its memories and layers of tradition. Yet when I walk in to Docklands, it's now our place - our home. There are familiar faces, people I feel I recognise; I may not know their names, but I'm sure I know their stories.
Maybe that's the guy, who I'd never met before in my life, that I bear-hugged when the siren went and we'd beaten Essendon in THAT match in 2000? Or perhaps that frail old guy, being pushed in a wheelchair, is the one I sat next to in 1985, next to his two sons, tears silently falling down his cheeks, because he was seeing, after such a long long absence, a Doggies team run out onto the MCG in September? That chubby, cheery-looking bloke strolling around with two little kids, all decked out in red, white and blue - maybe he's the distraught guy I saw kicking the tyres of a car with South Australian plates in the carpark after the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named?
Our journey goes on. The waiting and hoping can seem interminable, but another season always beckons. The players' time as Bulldogs, though, is short. We smile and shake our heads every year as we see the earnest, fresh-faced recruits awkwardly parading in their brand new jumpers, with their skinny little arms and wide-eyed innocence at making the big time. They have, they think, all the time in the world.
In the 1996 documentary 'Year of the Dogs' one of the last scenes shows The First Libba sitting on a bench after the season's last match. Typically bandaged and bloodied, he's talking about how that group, that bunch of team-mates, will never run out together in the exact same configuration again. Libba didn't know it, but he was one of those under threat. In a scene before that, Terry Wallace was sitting with a group of assistants pruning the list. Libba's name got moved, ominously, to the right of the whiteboard. Wallace said, with quite a bit of regret in his voice: 'I think he's in trouble.'
Libba, the great survivor, cheated that premature death notice and played on. But every year in the final match there are one or two players running out for the last time in our colours. We don't always know it - sometimes we can't farewell them until the next season, when they drive around in a motorcade, already somehow diminished, sitting in their suits, no longer part of it. Sometimes we have the time to absorb that it's happening and grieve that it must be so. This week it was Daniel Cross, the most courageous player I've seen since - yes, the First Libba. In another twist of history, Libba's son, whose outstanding season hints at a Brownlow one day, is one of the young midfielders whose form has squeezed out the unassuming champ in number 4.
At some point over the last couple of weeks Crossy's name got moved to that side of the whiteboard. Our coaches, I'm positive, must have moved it with heavy hearts, knowing that this man typified everything a footy club could ask for. The non-flashy guy, picked at number 56, self-effacing and unobtrusive, with one of the least promising ever starts to a footy career: just 10 forgettable matches in his first three seasons. The fanatical trainer who, legend has it, was seen out for a run on Christmas morning. The outstanding citizen who jumped into the Hong Kong harbour to rescue a drowning girl. The bloke who offered to do a blanketing role on Simon Black in a final and was happy to barely get a touch himself, only thinking about what he could do for the team. The man, we heard this week, who kisses both of his parents in the change room after each game, often after they have awaited the stitching of another head gash or injury in the name of the team.
I keep wondering how the news has hit his older team-mates, those men with whom he helped build a culture and a thirst for success that so nearly brought us the ultimate prize not so long ago. A few days before the news about Crossy playing his last game broke, I happened to hear Dale Morris speak about his recuperation from his horrific injury. Dale spoke about how the leadership team of Boyd, Murphy, Gia and, of course, Daniel Cross, insisted on moving their meetings to his hospital bedside to keep him involved. They even brought in sushi to spare him the god-awful meals. I can bet that it wasn't just Dale's insights and wisdoms into matchday strategies that brought his mates to his bedside. It was the unbreakable bond of mates that have lived through highs and lows, playing as much for one another as any other reason in this brutal sport, making sure that one of their own knew how much he mattered to them even as he wondered if and when he would play alongside them again.
I don't know what it's like for those guys to see your mate Daniel Cross, who's been beside you in the trenches, who's put his head over the ball time and time again to help you out, or ran down the other end of the ground to fly for one of those characteristic marks, be told that his time is up and witness his shattering pain. It must, I think, be in its own way a special and awful sort of grief.
For us the fans, all we can do is be there on Sunday. It's our own way to bear witness. We cheer like crazy when Crossy gets the ball. (He still does it a lot). We rise to our feet when he kicks a goal (fabulous though his career has been, there haven't been too many of them). The whole wing rises as one to give him thunderous applause in the last quarter, showing him a love and respect he may not have realised he had earned.
The match itself , especially in a laborious and boring second half, lives up to its lofty billing of 17th versus 15th. (Although I confess we enjoyed the half time fight, the more so because it was so ridiculous, despite commentator's half-hearted efforts to brand it a blight on the game. A match without spite and nothing riding on it, a yawn for so much of it, enlivened by a good old-fashioned push and shove and biffo. No one hurt, and the splendid sight of Will Minson towering over his team mates as he ran off like a bare-chested tribal warrior looking suitably angry about..something.)
Crossy doesn't move when the final siren goes - he huddles down on his haunches. Not a fan has left - the applause for the valiant number four is deafening. When he gets to his feet, he tells an interviewer: 'This will always be my home.' Boyd and Morris chair him off the ground. They too are over 30 years old. Their faces are sombre as they carry off their mate.
At the start of the match Gia, who's playing his 250th match, and Cross run through the banner together. Crossy has tried to avoid it, but Gia grabs his arm and insists on pulling him through with him.
A couple of bays further on I watch a group of young men in Bulldog suits filing up the stairs. They've been out on the ground to applaud Crossy and Gia. They walk or limp up the stairs. Clay Smith, Daniel Talia, Nathan Hrovat and Jake Stringer take their seats and wait for the game and their as yet unknown futures to begin.
Earlier this year not knowing Daniel Cross was about to retire, I wrote a story of admiration at his incredible courage.
Click here to read it.