In the best possible sense, this is not my team any more."
- Bob Murphy, July 16, 2014.
Just like Bob, as fans we've been sensing, yet up till now not fully grasping, the shifting power balance in our team. And just like him, it's taking us time to adjust, to transfer our hopes, our allegiances, even our love, to a new set of blokes in the red, white and blue.
At first the newbies feature only as pleasing, sometimes quaint, cameos to the main act when they make their debuts. They're endearingly young and fresh; they inject life, enthusiasm, new talking points, a novelty factor if nothing else.
But somehow we remain invested in the past, our affections and trust still lying with the guys that so nearly got us there in 2008-10. At a critical point of a match, we've come to expect there will be a burst through the lines by Griff, an act of courage by Morris, some crazily sacrificial desperation by Picken, gut-running by Boyd, a wily maneuver by the silver fox Gia, or a light-as-air sidestep by Murphy.
Yet quietly, almost invisibly, these stalwarts who've carried us for so long are gently fading into the background. They're the support act; having inspired the younger brigade by their words, deeds and examples at training and on the field, their parts are slowly diminishing, and a new order is being born.
It's a strange facet of football - or any team sport I guess - that fans have to keep re-calibrating their loyalties and emotions. We're required to move on, to accept the cruel fact those dedicated servants of our club, who would have been worthy of the highest rewards of the game, won't receive them, while we as fans, in an almost fickle way, can shift our devotion to the next, newest and brightest. It's a bitter-sweet reality, that even as we shed genuine tears when the dedicated warrior Daniel Cross gets chaired off the ground, the wheels are already in relentless motion for a new number four to take his place. At first the new pup will look weirdly unfamiliar in that well-loved guernsey, an unknown quantity when he's paraded in the draft. When he plays his first game there'll be jarring moments where it's hard to reconcile this number four persona - a tall and athletic youngster instead of a balding but crafty and selfless veteran. But soon the cheer squad will be chanting his name and blog posts will be written that are just All About Him - the Bont - just as I once wrote a tribute called "On Daniel Cross and Extraordinary courage."
We all know it's going to be like this - that it has to be like this - but it's no less poignant a process; while we might hold off just a little with our affection at first, our hopes and dreams will transition, inexorably, to a new generation.
These Young Ones are still untarnished, still blank canvases that could - might - be anything. For a club like ours that has wandered in the wilderness quite a few decades too long, we can project on them an endless range of possibilities. Our young blokes have not - we like to believe they will never - let us down at big moments, faltered at a critical point of a match, put in a disappointingly lacklustre performance. We're learning their strengths, and don't yet know their weaknesses.
It's actually a rather marvelous time to be a fan - or at least that's how I see it. Knowing where we are at as a side, there's not as much at stake; matches don't have that precarious, nerve-racking edge that comes from knowing the outcome will determine a spot on the ladder. I can actually remember in the 08-10 period going home disappointed with some six or eight goal victories because we hadn't in truth played all that well, or had coasted along without maximum effort against an inferior opponent. No place for such jaded ennui at present; wins are precious jewels, yet losses are still chances to see a new, potentially brilliant, future take shape.
At first there's just tantalising glimpses, enthralling us because they're rare and novel. That little thrill the first time you see draft pick number six - Jackson Macrae - spear a pass onto the chest of draft pick number five, Jake Stringer. The first time you see a string of players linking up, sharing and running down the ground, overlapping and supporting - and realise that none of them has played more than 10 games. The first time you see a flurry of Bulldogs players contesting and competing fiercely at the bottom of the pack, eventually shovelling out to another who's there to support his mates...and the names are not Boyd and Cross, or West, Johnson and Smith, but Libber and Wallis (the junior versions), Hrovat, Macrae, Dalhaus, Bontempelli...
Soon we're not just muttering, 'Hey that kid Macrae looks a bit of all right', but watching, almost unbelieving, as he becomes the youngest ever player to rack up 40+ possessions. We're not smiling with wry amusement at 19 year old Jake Stringer's strut and air of confidence in his first game; we're willing him on as in game number 23, he bursts through packs and nails five goals. We're not fooled any more by the baby faces of Nathan Hrovat and Lachlan Hunter; we've seen their ferocious competitive spirits, the way they hurl themselves into the fray, their neat finishing skills. The Bont, of course, has not so much stolen into our affections as crashed into our imaginations. The most exciting player in our colours since Chris Grant, he's an 18 year old prodigy, the player who already, in each of his 11 games so far, has done at least one thing that makes us turn to each other in amazement and delight: 'Did you see that?' 'The Bont!'
So though we could, maybe should, have won the match on Sunday, the crowds spilling out after our loss to our old foes (the villainous, infamous Dons) weren't shaking their heads about the usual tale of woe, lamenting how we let a lead slip, pondering what can we do about our height deficiencies in defence, bemoaning our decision to play Cooney when he was underdone, debating what might have been if Wally hadn't got injured and let Heppell off the hook, asking questions of the footy gods about why Carlisle had to suddenly bloom as a key forward just against us, questioning why that 50 metre penalty was paid when the Essendon player played on...all right, I concede we might have mentioned a couple of these things, but there was much more to our conversations as we headed home.
Our steps were brisk, energetic and light, our spirits still high. This was not the miserable trudge of losers.
'Did you see how high Lachie Hunter flew?' 'Could The Bont be a key forward? what about those hands? is he actually an alien, do you reckon?' 'Is Jake still eligible for the Rising star? he HAS to get a nomination this week.' 'Great little game from the Rat.' 'Thirty two touches again from Macrae, the guy is un-freaking-believable!'
We knew our young team ran out of legs, but not heart, not will.
Last week Bob Murphy signed up for one more year, energised, you feel, by the talent that's blossoming everywhere around him. I was relieved to hear that our heart and soul player will still be there in 2015; the day Bob retires is a prospect much too painful to contemplate. Yet running around some muddy ground somewhere is, I guess, the next number two for the mighty Dogs (unless, in my preferred scenario, Bob keeps playing until young Jarvis can take the field as a father-son). The beauty of footy is that it's all a bit of a 'write your own adventure' fantasy; the new number two could be, like Bob himself, a champion who plays more than 150 games (hopefully 200), or a Brownlow medallist like Allan Hopkins, or a premiership winning full forward like Jack Collins. He could, of course, be an honest journeyman like Keenan Reynolds, or Richard Cousins, or a plodder as you can perhaps infer Gene Sullivan (a mere three games in 1929) and Bernie Hogan (just two in 1949) may have been. But who knows, that yet-to-debut successor to Bob may be the next piece in the puzzle that BMac and Co are currently assembling - perhaps a match-winning centre half back in our next premiership team. After all, common sense says The Bont surely can't be expected to play full forward, centre half back AND in the midfield along Macrae, Hrovat, Honeychurch, Wallis and Libber..wait a minute...can he?