May 4, 2015. Swans v Dogs
Bulldog Tragician story: "One more song"
"One day after a match at Geelong, when Tony Liberatore was at his pesky, annoying best, my sister and I (a petite pair) were walking out, proudly wearing our Bulldog scarves. A Geelong wit saw us, turned to his mate and rudely chortled: “Look! it’s Libber’s sisters!"
The nickname has endured. And at 2 pm on Saturday the 'Libber Sisters' are in position on the couch, ready to watch our Dogs take on their latest challenge, the Sydney Swans. Together we will be critiquing the match and offering a balanced, fair assessment of the opposition and the umpires.
The Other Libber Sister now lives in an apartment in the former Rising Sun hotel, a recognisable landmark whenever you travel over 'Mount Mistake', down Geelong Road. It still bears the quaint signage: Official suppliers of beer to the Footscray Football Club.
It's only a few hundred metres from the Western Oval. You can hear the crowd’s rumbling roar whenever our re-born Footscray team plays there.
For decades Dogs' fans would spill over the footbridge (now closed) and gather on Saturday afternoons at this traditional working class watering hole. I imagine a rambunctious atmosphere would have been the norm, as fans crowded in to celebrate the wins or obliterate their sorrows with the assistance of Footscray Football Club-sanctioned beer.
The Libber Sisters are not yet rambunctious. We’re excited, tense, hopeful, expectant, uncertain. The Dogs are about to face last year’s Grand Finalists, masters of contested footy, on their home turf."
2015: The Dogs win a famous victory by four points.
Western Bulldogs 11.1177 d Sydney 10.13 73
Highest disposals:Picken 33, Stevens 27, Dahlaus 27, Murphy 24, Bontempelli 23
Bob Murphy: It's the best win, ever.
July 2, 2016: Swans vs Bulldogs
The Libber Sisters are on the couch again
While the Libbers' location in the Rising Sun apartments block is the same, many other things are different as we go into the 2016 version of our encounter with the Swans.
Then, the Dogs' rise from the disastrous 2014 off-season was a mesmerising, but still unlikely, fairytale. Each win was a novelty to be celebrated for its own sake; with no expectations, we just enjoyed our spectacular rise, revelled in our devil-may-care style of play, and basked in the new-found freedom that our players so enthusiastically embraced under new coach Bevo (not yet 'Our Saviour'. But we had our suspicions).
In 2016, while we're still not favourites, much more is expected, indeed, should be expected. Brave, gallant showings will not suffice. Not for where we want to go.
Yet over the bye weekend, as the piercing cold of a Melbourne winter descended, our most recent loss, a disappointing showing against Geelong, loomed too large in our memory banks. It cast a shadow over our achievements in getting to nine-four despite an appalling run of injuries. And as we dropped to a more vulnerable position in the bottom reaches of the eight, a little shiver of apprehension went through us. A poisonous seed of doubt about whether the momentum could be sustained in the second half of the year.
Commentators scrambled to downgrade our premiership hopes: the chatter became a din. They agreed that we’re still too young, and the injury toll had unsettled us too much, to make a real impact in September. These critics reminded us that we had not yet beaten a top four side; they pointed to a lack of scoring power, especially in our losses, as a consistent and worrying theme.
In fact, on the morning of our match against the Swans I heard the 'experts' discussing the eight and who might be vulnerable to dropping out for Port Adelaide by seasons' end. The Bulldogs could be that team, they agreed. I wasn't sure whether to seethe at the unjustified lack of respect continually accorded to our club, or listen for a moment to the whispering ghosts of seasons past, saying just maybe they were right.
Bevo Our Saviour is attuned to a different vibe, as well as radio frequency. For our match against the Swans, he rattled the cage and brought in five new players. While it was exciting to at last see the names Wood, Johnannisen and in particular Clay Smith, there was surprise that he'd also punted on Lukas Webb and Will Minson. We wondered: was this too many changes, perhaps too many underdone players, returning too soon?
Before the match, my thoughts returned nostalgically to the thrilling 2015 win. How, I wondered, could moments like Easton Wood's brilliant "superman'-style goal, and his incredible leap and spoil to save us the game with seconds to go ever be surpass by anything that transpires today? Last year's win was so perfect, so wonderful; it still shines like a diamond in my memory. Yet in the wake of Bob's injury there's now a tinge of melancholy in that recollection. It is bitter-sweet now to recall how we shared his overflowing emotions post-match; his joy as he realised the premiership dream wasn't over and he could ride the magic carpet ride again with his precocious young team-mates. And though the match took place hundreds of kilometres away, somehow that day we couldn't have been any closer, more as one with our captain, and our team.
And so we go into the re-match of that celebrated afternoon, with that same crazy mix of excitement and apprehension. The Libber sisters take up our positions on the couch again: we ensure we sit in the exact same spots that we did in last year's win. (Sure, you COULD call it a silly superstition. But do you really want us to risk a situation where a gloomy Luke Beveridge, facing the media post-match, looks down his list of statistics, trying to explain what went wrong, and realises, in consternation, that the all-important "Libber Sisters On the Couch" metric had cost Our Boys the game?)
The first quarter unfolds, and to our relief the Dogs look sharp. Their intensity and spirit are good, but frustratingly, 13 entries into our 50 yield just one goal, one point.
The Libbers, of course, spot countless missed frees to the Dogs, freely disparage the commentary team, and shield our eyes in terror whenever Clay Smith goes near the ball. Hearteningly, this is often.
Since debuting at the age of 18 in 2012, Clay Smith has played only 34 games. He is still just 23. Yet three times he has endured the agony of a knee reconstruction, the pain, boredom and self-doubt of rehabilitation, the loneliness of being on the sidelines. The story goes that Clay went back on the field, knowing he'd done his knee, in last year's match against St Kilda, just because he believed - and for a moment accepted - that he would never play again.
It's impossible not to hold our breath whenever Clay goes near the ball. Fear for his well-being, though, is soon replaced by renewed appreciation: Clay is unswerving with his fanatical commitment, desperate and uncompromising. And as he lays crunching tackles and flings himself into every contest, we remember that this is not just a feel-good story of a comeback; this marks the return of a vital player, whose contribution and toughness are going to be of immense value as the season goes on.
The first quarter is something of a standoff, but the second quarter opens with the ever mercurial Jake 'The Lair' slamming two trademark goals. He threatens to single-handedly turn bust the game open in the same way that he monstered through the Swan's defence. But, as is his wont, his contribution too quickly fades away. There are worrying signs that the pattern of our losses is reasserting itself: lots of the ball, a stout defence, but too many aimless, energy-sapping entries into the forward line.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ground Buddy Franklin exudes danger and menace, dwarfing even the powerfully built Marcus Adams, who in the presence of this superstar looks every bit the inexperienced and nervous 11-gamer that he actually is.
The half-time break is an opportunity for contemplation. (And for the Libber sisters, cake, and cups of tea). Several players are down, we agree. The Bont isn't at his best, following up from a rare poor performance against the Cats. Jake is playing too much from behind. The Path has barely had a possession. Tory is having too many 'nearly' moments. Woody has looked tentative and a bit rusty so far. And Libber the Second - well, he's been quiet-ish too.
We're unprepared for a third quarter explosion. The Dogs crank up their attack on the ball to fearless, insane levels. Suddenly there are Dogs' players rampaging everywhere; there's run, there's space opening up. Our 'Men of Mayhem' stun the opposition and wreak havoc on the SCG.
Leading the charge is one Tom Liberatore. Three goals are either directly his or created by him. Some players float through games with all the time in the world, relying on languid ability and freakish talent; others like our Libber (the Second) will themselves into contests through burning intensity. He wrests balls out of hands, he dominates every contest, he tackles with the demented ferocity of his famous dad.
Not to be outdone (and in keeping with an Italian theme), Marcus Bontempelli enters the stage. Some of the things The Bont does in this third quarter, where he amasses 13 possessions, are downright ridiculous. There is an almost hypnotic passage of play where the Bont scoops the ball up from the turf in the Swans forward line, runs at full tilt, bounces the ball, handballs it to another player who returns it to him; and then as a Swans player closes in on him, handballsbackwards over his head perfectly to a running team-mate; he somehow keeps running and presents himself in the forward line. It was rather like those imaginary games little boys (and girls now too) play in their heads: 'Bonti to Bonti to Bonti and who does he kick it to? BONTI!!!' The fact that he didn't take the mark (though he very nearly did) was the only thing that showed you that the Boy Wonder is occasionally - just occasionally, mind - a human.
There's tension aplenty at three quarter time. Deep breaths, calm and nerves of steel are required.
It's probably the same among the playing group at the SCG.
We watch our boys gathered around Bevo. All teams, all players, no matter what stage of the game, each week do the ritualistic huddle and emit snarls of intent before a last quarter. But the Bulldogs' faces are something else as they listen to their coach. I see 'Celeb' Daniel, his eyes locked onto his coach; he's almost in the armpits of The Bont, who's in the same spell. These two different young men, one the power athlete, the other the pure footballer: both have that same look. That of young men who can't, and won't, contemplate losing.
And yet, you know the Swans will come back at us. We are, amazingly given our injury catastrophes, the number one defensive team in the competition; but Sydney are number two. We are the third best contested possession team; yet they are just ahead of us at number one. They've still got the aura, the know-how, the experience of a recent premiership team and regular finalist. And they have the X Factor: the competition's best player, Buddy Franklin, who is about to cut loose. He destroys us in only minutes. He's too big, too powerful, too strong. Too overwhelmingly talented.
The Swans take the lead. There's still 11 minutes to go. It doesn't seem melodramatic to feel our season is on the line. It's not just our top four prospects. It's the statement that we want to make to the footy world, the story we want to tell about a different Bulldogs future. One that has overcome the decades-long stigma of choking in big games. A new group, who will banish our reputation of frailty in close matches.
The Swans pound relentlessly into their forward line. We're like a bloodied boxer on the ropes. Just one more Swans' goal will surely sink us. Standing firm time and again are three leaders: Dale Morris, Matthew Boyd and our captain since Bob's injury, Easton Wood. Their desperation holds the Swans out, but you don't know how long their heroic efforts will keep holding up. And even if we succeed, there's a question: how are we to manufacture that answering goal, that precious, elusive goal?
The Libbers are no longer sitting demurely in their lucky spots in the couch. Once again there's pandemonium in the Rising Sun apartments. Our Boys have been so brave. But the minutes are relentlessly ticking by.
By sheer will we begin to turn the tide. Now it's the Dogs who are attacking, but with the advantage of the lead, the Swans turn our forward line into a sea of congestion, crowded with players of both sides. There is not a chink of room. Not an iota of space.
The Swans try to clear the ball out, but Jack Macrae sends it back in. Clay Smith applies a monster tackle, and Wally hands off the ball to 'Celeb'. In the frenzied atmosphere, this 19-year-old has the stillness, poise, and calmness to make the perfect decision and somehow execute a perfect kick to his team-mate. It's The Bont. Of course, it had to be The Bont.
He's kicked crucial goals to win us close games this year and re-write our history of failure in big games. It couldn't be in safer hands. Could it?
There's hardly time to ponder the question: the Bont makes his own perfect pass, to JJ. Jason Johannisen's game has proven two things: never doubt Bevo Our Saviour's selection decisions, and just how much we've missed his pace and electrifying runs. But ... JJ? Is he the man for a moment like this, to win us the game in a cauldron where 33,000 fans scream their lungs out?
I can't believe how calm he looks. I realise that in all the hype about some of our stars, a guy like JJ gets overlooked. I can't remember any massive anticipation around his first game, as I can with The Bont's or The Lair's; I can't remember a moment where we began to see him as an indispensable player, recognised him as an elite talent.
But as he steers the goal through, as though it's just a regulation snap at training at the Whitten Oval, I think - I know - that moment has well and truly arrived.
There's two seconds to go. Yes, I regret to report it was long enough for me to imagine a nightmare scenario where we stupidly allow six men in the centre square, the Swans are awarded a free kick, and then a 50 metre penalty is awarded against Will Minson for arguing about it. (I guess this 'hope and positivity' business is still a work in progress).
The siren sounds. Our magical, maddening, wonderful team have delivered us another jewel for the memory bank; along with that 2015 moment when Easton saved the game, we will remember, always, the day that JJ kicked his matchwinning goal. And, I will reflect afterwards, maybe the most telling thing of all was that JJ demanded the ball from The Bont. Unlike some of the more fragile teams of days gone by, he wanted to take the kick, and backed his own talent, not content to merely hope that his team-mate would deliver that goal.
The Dogs celebrate wildly before they run around the SCG. It's not rainy and sodden like last year, but we are victors again. Libber the Second, whose dynamic third quarter swayed the game, shares an embrace with his famous dad, who'll probably be very happy to be simply known one day as Tom Liberatore's father. The players run down the race. Bob, a spectator today as he will have to be all season, is there to greet them. The boys belt out the song with extra fervour; the Libbers, back in Footscray, provide an enthusiastic if off-key accompaniment.
When the song ends Woody, Boyd, and The Bont share an enormous hug. These three leaders have had to fill the void left by Bob. It's not a void, though, really, because the team that's out there still has Bob's heart, and young men, JJ, and 'Celeb' and Libber and Wallis, who are mastering new ways to win those close ones, learning the steel and the belief that we'll need in September. Watched over by those old stagers Boyd and Morris, who have the glint in their eyes of men saying: 'There's a flag coming soon and I've got to be a part of it.'
A few hours later, it's still hard to come down from the high of an extraordinary win. I find myself remembering again the brilliant third quarter played by The Bont, the once-in-a-lifetime player who we still can't quite believe we're privileged to watch.
A few weeks ago the Bont became the AFL's youngest-ever winning captain, leading us to victory in a high-pressure game against the Eagles. Just 20-years-old, he'd gathered the boys around him in the moments before the match. Who knows what platitudes or stirring phrases get uttered in these moments, and what difference they actually make? But the Bont must have done ok, because I saw Matthew Boyd, almost 15 years his senior and a former skipper himself, give him an affectionate ruffle of the head and pat on the back. A passing of the baton, I guess. 'The kid is all right,' I imagine the rather stern Matthew 'Keith' Boyd saying as he ran back to take up his backline position, a re-born defender playing his own part for the future that's so near.
2016: The Dogs win another famous victory, also by four points.
Bulldogs 13.5 83 d Swans 11.13 79
Highest disposals: Boyd 32, Hunter 31, Bontempelli 29, Picken 28, Wallis 25
Luke Beveridge: "This win is worth 10 wins. You hold your faith, you keep your nerve when the chips are down."
Read my story about our 2015 win: One more song
about the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the Western Bulldogs.