We’ve watched our Bulldogs through interminable dreary seasons. Seasons when we won only just one game. Seasons where we were the butt of jokes and ridicule, where ten goal losses were wildly celebrated as a major step forward. Tough times when we had to rattle tins, knock on doors and dig deep, just to keep a Footscray Football Club team out on the field.
We simply had to be there, all of us who had sat, numb and grieving, after the 97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named (not to mention 1998's Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Really Very Good Either). So we looked up flights and researched hotels and fretted about tickets: all of us who'd watched the 2008-2010 era of promise painfully evaporate. Who'd remained stoic during our slow and hesitant steps to a rebuild. Who'd shared the shock and disbelief of a beloved captain walking out.
And as we make our preparations to get there, even though nothing can ever really erase the heartache of all those lost preliminary finals, we shut our minds firmly to the possibility that it could happen again. Instead we cling to the words of our young champion The Bont who said: ‘Why not us?’ And even though I could personally rattle off dozens of reasons why this sort of glory has never quite seemed ‘for the likes of us', we make our choice and begin to ask that same question, but in a different and hopeful way, a way we never have before.
In last week’s blog I called us the Daydream Believers. Even I'm not sure whether I was referring to us, the fans, or our young team who keep carrying us with them on their magic carpet ride.
Three car-loads of The Tragician family have decide to drive to Sydney for the game. We meet up at an ungodly hour on Friday morning to make the nine hour trek. Everywhere on the long and boring stretch of the Hume, we see our red, white and blue colours are flying proudly. Whenever we stop for a break, I try and claim I'm suffering hayfever as I see large family groups who are on the same epic quest as us. People drape their scarves and pose for photos in front of the Gundagai 'Dog on the tucker box'. Flash cars and battlers’ cars, all making their pilgrimage, kids waving out the back at people they don't know. Fellow travellers in every sense of the word.
I'm travelling with my fellow Libber sister, of course. We’re in rollicking high spirits, on the alert for signs and omens as the miles fly by. We pass Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. The towns with unusual names don’t faze us either. ‘Mittagong? I’m sure I've read it’s an Aboriginal word for Western Bulldogs!’
We bypass any songs that are sad and maudlin on the sound system and sing along, loudly, to those that are uplifting and inspiring. We’re with Aretha in an off key version of ‘I Say a little prayer’. We're with Paul Kelly as he sings:
I'm high on the hill
Looking over the bridge
To the M.C.G.
And way up on high
The clock on the silo
Says eleven degrees
The live version of The Boxer comes on. Just like the Central Park crowd, we sing ‘lie lie lie’, the chorus, with all our hearts, the beautiful anthem of defiance, pain, struggle and resilience.
A Harbour City awash with red white and blue
Everywhere you turn, people are wearing our colours with pride; kids are everywhere in the inordinately popular number four guernseys. We strike up conversations everywhere we go with our fellow true believers.
How did you get here? Where are you staying? Do you know how to get to the ground?
We talk about lucky scarves, and how we came to barrack for the Dogs, and do we know anyone who was actually there in ’54?
But for some reason I can't quite explain, we don’t talk about the game, or match-ups, or how we might win, or whether we will win.
I don’t see a single Giants' ‘fan’ before the match. I must disclose, to the shock of many of my loyal readers that I haven’t been an enthusiastic supporter of the Acronyms, failing in my usual obstinate way to appreciate the necessity of spending millions of dollars to create and then sustain them.
I’ve variously described them as a bullet point on a strategic plan. A soul-less and artificial construct. A manufactured entity with stakeholders, not fans.
And that was even BEFORE they not only lured that player who used to wear number 16 for us. And then thought it would be hilarious to do a little bit of social media banter showing two of our life members – that former captain, and their coach, along with Callan Ward smiling broadly under a Lost Dogs Home sign.
Almost as strong as my desire to win for all the hundreds of reasons I can muster, is the bitter insult it would be to our club, to see that team, gifted millions of dollars and countless draft concessions, garner a flag before us who’ve waited so long.
Of families. And stories
Our row is packed with family members. Barracking for the Dogs for us has been a way of life, never a choice, never a conscious decision, and for reasons I've never quite understood, never ever discarded when times have been hard. We’re the sort of family where red, white and blue scarves are hung on cots as soon as a baby is born, where kids run around the yard pretending to be Bulldogs' players the moment they can toddle, where the team and their prospects are an every present hum in the backdrop of all our get-togethers.
A new generation of Dogs’ supporters are growing up, my nieces and nephews. I’ve seen each of them cry with anger, pain and mortification whenever the Dogs have - and even in their young lives, this has been far too frequent - shattered their hopes and dreams. They used to wear number 14 for Callan Ward, and wrote him a letter asking him not to leave the Dogs. Now they’re here, with Luke Dahlhaus badges and Easton Wood’s numbers on their backs. There's hope shining in their eyes.
I’m not wearing the Bontempelli badge that I bought when I made the grand prediction, in just his third game that our number four would one day captain the club, win a Brownlow and a Norm Smith medal, quite possibly in the same year.
I’ve got another talisman though. I’m wearing a treasured necklace that my father gave to my mother for her 21st birthday.
My mother is here today; there aren’t too many games she’s missed since, as a naïve Irish immigrant aged 17, she saw her first game of footy in 1954 and rashly anointed them her team.
My dad, the rover who grew up a stones’ throw from the Western Oval and played with Footscray reserves, is not. He was just 46 when he passed away. Dad designed the Olympic clock that was always a Western Oval landmark, perched on the hill overlooking the ground and ominously called Mount Mistake. People stood for decades beneath that clock, on stony terraces, in icy rain and howling winds, to watch a team that mainly lost.
We all have stories such as these, the hordes that made this journey, who are now sitting on the edges of our seats, restless, anxious, hopeful, patient, and yearning. Always yearning.
The Giants’ big screen keeps telling us: ‘Our time is now.’ Probably, as our banner would cheekily suggest, it tested well in Great Western Sydney stakeholder focus groups. I fight off the awful image of them prevailing, what it would mean for all of our Bulldogs’ tapestry of memories and acts of belief if this five-year-old club got to run out on the G, in a grand final, when our wait has stretched an almost ridiculous 55 years.
My sister says, looking around at the thousands who've joined us in this epic journey: ‘Surely our hearts can’t get broken yet again.’
I’m not sure if it’s a question or a statement. But I don’t have an answer anyway.
Because we are all rising to our feet, at the first sign that our players are running out for their warm up. We sit down, grinning sheepishly. Word has spread among the over-enthusiastic crowd. It was only two club officials coming down the race.
Minutes later, though, our team actually does run out. The roar is spine-tingling. The Bulldogs’ chant reverberates around the arena.
The game is scheduled for 5.15pm on this beautiful spring day. Half the ground is in light and half in shadow. We’re three hours from finding out how far the rebirth overseen by our coach – the coach that has never been afraid to show his emotions and has embraced and been embraced by us – will take us tonight.
There are always, always for us fans, memories, of games botched, opportunities not taken, chances squandered, matches lost.
Myths and memories of what could have been.
Again and again our new breed say that it’s the past. That it's not their story, not on their minds, even young men like Tom Liberatore and Lachie Hunter, who saw their dads unable to achieve what they’re now striving for.
Unlike most clubs, there aren’t many stories of triumph, and epic battles won, to draw on and sustain us when doubts creep in. I sometimes fear the doubts and anxieties of the fans will have seeped through, whether they think so or not, to each new group, becoming reinforced and creating a narrative of failure that becomes self-fulfilling.
Our Boys run through the banner to the most deafening of roars. I hold on to my other talisman, the words of Bevo Our Saviour, when questioned whether our relentless injury misfortune would derail our season and deny this group a flag this year.
‘You try telling them they can’t.’
The first goal to the Dogs is greeted with a wave of pent-up emotion. It’s from Clay Smith: the man who now wears the jumper Callan Ward relinquished to go north. We don’t know yet the story of Clay’s week, that he had lost a close mate only days earlier. But we know – we’ve been there for – other parts of his story. We’d watched in horror as his knee crumpled beneath him, three times. We’d shared his joy, and that of his team-mates, as he came back, still a human wrecking ball, throwing himself into kamikaze situations, tackling as though – well, he knows better than most. That each game could be his last.
There are two Giants fans sitting - I'm not sure why - among the Bulldogs' fans. One of them calls out, monotonously, if ever he perceives that the Dogs have lost a contest: “They don’t want it.”
Which just goes to show that the Giants’ supporters, who think their 'time is now', have an awful lot to learn about this game of ours.
There's a game to be played
There have been herculean efforts all over the ground. We were sitting right in front of the spot where Easton Wood soared majestically in a brilliant first quarter. We’d seen our defence stand tall against the Number One Draft Picks. With Easton in the trenches are two men who'd battled to get onto our list as rookies but have now played 500 games between them - the re-born attacking back-man Matthew Boyd, and the bravely committed Dale Morris. These leaders have marshalled and supported their less experienced young team-mates in the 'Men's Department'. There’s no Heath Shaw style tantrum and abuse if a mistake is made, just a tap on the arm, a word of encouragement. Fletcher Roberts, a little ungainly, a little unsure of himself at times, probably thought he wouldn’t get to play a final this year after he was dropped in week one. Now, though he has had his nose smashed early on, he has kept glamour recruit Jeremy Cameron to only a couple of possessions.
Clay Smith had continued his manic attack on the ball, and had notched up four. Luke Dahlhaus and Liam Picken had committed so many desperate, barely noticed acts, smothering, fighting, scrapping for every ball. Tom Boyd had gamely shouldered all the rucking responsibilities and covered enormous territory, hauling his large frame around the ground on a warm and taxing night. His makeshift rucking ‘partner’ was ‘In-Zaine’ Cordy, doing his bit against the man-mountain Shane Mumford, who had refused to shake the hand of Jordan Roughead before the start of the game in a display of the fake tough guy machismo that I find particularly childish. Roughie, who's grown in stature every week of the finals, was sidelined in the second quarter when hit full-force by a ball. We were getting thrashed in the ruck, but still kept winning and clearing the ball, mainly because, despite the in-depth insights of the Giants fan behind us, we simply just wanted it more.
Yet now we've fallen behind. There's only 20 more minutes to play and the Acronyms have momentum. They should be fresher, have more run in reserve; over the past few weeks we’ve travelled to Perth twice, had to take on and defeat both of last year’s grand finallists to get here in the first place. The outcome takes on an inevitable shape, the script running to predetermined plan. Brave gallant Bulldogs. Not quite there. Not ready yet. A bit unlucky, but after all, hasn’t our history always been, as an arrogant and ungracious Carlton president once said, one of ‘tragedy’? Maybe there will be next year for the good old, unthreatening, battlers from the west. Or maybe not.
Every Bulldogs’ fan finds their thoughts flickering, like a bad 3-D horror movie, for an instant - or more - to those other seven preliminary final losses.
Every Bulldogs’ player is thinking something else entirely.
Why not us?
Our Boys go forward. Again. And again. Tired legs that must feel like concrete somehow find the courage to run. Our players, younger, despite the hype, than the Acronyms, find strength and will. Whether it’s our oldest player, 34-year-old Matthew Boyd, or our youngest Josh Dunkley who’s only played 16 matches, none of them want to lose. Each one of them will do whatever they can to make sure it doesn't happen.
All night the Bulldogs chant has rocked the stadium. In these moments it's frenetic, the most extraordinary wall of noise. We’ve made another goal happen through Tory Dickson. Then somehow Matthew Boyd hacks the ball out of the air to get it to JJ. He sees the game open up before him, space in which to use his electrifying pace. He launches the ball to the one player who’s left in our forward line. That player is none other than the hero of a thousand little boys and girls and even a Bulldog Tragician, Marcus Bontempelli.
The moments in which The Bont makes his characteristic long strides towards the bouncing spinning ball, hotly pursued by a person clad in orange, is like a microcosm of the battle between fear and belief that is the hallmark of the Bulldogs’ fans’ experience tonight.
Fear: he might trip over. He might fumble. He’s not, though he is so many other amazing things, quick. He’s been hampered by an injury, had to leave the ground for treatment. The bounce could be awkward. So many things can, could, go wrong.
Belief: ‘cos it’s The Bont.
And because it's the Bont, he grabs the ball cleanly and spears the goal to put us back in front. We’re out of our seats, screaming, a wave of red, white and blue fans who’ve been through so much.
We scramble another one through Zaine Cordy. There’s still time. But time for what?
The Acronyms promptly reply. But we’re riding the wave with our team now. There's a delicate tap from The Bont, to Libber, whose famous dad who knew preliminary final heartbreak has been riding every kick form the stands. His well-placed kick lands with Jackson Macrae, so often the unobtrusive quiet achiever. After tearing his hamstring weeks ago, Jackson worked for hours each day to get himself fit for these finals, for moments like these, as he kicks the sort of nerveless clutch goal that so often our club has been unable to nail, in matches like these.
There's harrowing moments, desperate acts of courage, brilliant work from our defence, to hold the Acronyms out in the longest three minutes we've ever endured. We're getting texts from friends and families in Melbourne, telling us how long it is to go. So we know, when Dickson marks the ball, that we must have it won. But it's too unbelievable to take in, even as our fans exhale the loudest roar of relief, of ecstasy, of joy, and our tears instantly begin.
They are tears for the sorrows we have known. For the times we've left games, heads held high, gallant and brave losers, but losers nonetheless. For the champions who were brave, loyal, committed, who never knew and will never this moment. For Bob, who's crying too, our captain and heartbeat. For Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, who played in those losing prelims and had undoubtedly acknowledged to themselves that they were destined to retire with their dream unfulfilled, who are now running towards us the fans, their unabashed delight bringing on new waves of tears in the stands.
Families are hugging, strangers are hugging. Photos are taken. The crowd spill over onto the ground, the foreign turf where our boys have bulldozed their way through one of the longest sporting droughts. My niece brings back a handful of the grass where we won this famous victory to her mother, who just can't stop crying.
The Libber sisters are on the road again. We keep repeating it over and over again. We're in a grand final. We're in a grand final.
We've watched other fans, fans of clubs newer to the competition than ours, experiencing this joy. Fans who experience it year after year, taking for granted the idea that success is always but one season away.
We've been wistful, envious, shirty and downright miserable, watching them strolling the streets and looking smug in their scarves, heading off jauntily to the grand final parade.
We'll be doing all of those things, because our cinderella team is at last at the ball. And we know Our Boys aren't going to be happy, just to be there.
How do these things work, I wonder, as we leave Sydney behind and join the thousands of other travellers, scarves waving gaily out windows, on the Hume.
Was it our belief, our acts of faith, our wall of noise, our commitment to be there with them that lifted Our Boys over the line?
Or was it the other way around - was it THEIR unwavering self-belief, that fierce light in their eyes, their genuine determination to write a different story from those sad old Bulldog tales, that galvanised US, compelled us hop in our cars or fork out too much money on inflated plane tickets, just to be there, bearing witness as they created their slice of history, this amazing night that will never, ever, be forgotten?
There hasn't been much sleep for the Libbers, but our journey is full of joy and anticipation. We turn the music up loud.
There's a song we know we must play.
We're in full if rickety voice as we sing 'Daydream Believers', flying down the Hume highway as though we're on wings instead of wheels.