"But I suppose like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger there was something in all of us that just wouldn't allow us to let go.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I heard his words as a statement, not an excuse. An explanation. Not an apology.
In 2017, we struggled in unfamiliar, perplexing territory. Observing the fallibility of our players, watching them perform as pale shadows of the manic Men of Mayhem, was maddening, irritating, confusing.
Strange and contradictory emotions swirled around. Sometimes, truth be told, they didn’t swirl around much at all in the Brave New Post-Premiership World. There was instead flatness, almost apathy, a boredom with the humdrum of the home and away series, an inability to get enthused as we (let alone the players) fronted up for a ‘must win’ game against the Brisbane Lions.
How could workmanlike performances in May ever compare with the theatrics of those finals? the heart-stopping moment when JJ took off with the ball to get it to The Bont in The Preliminary Final That Will Always Be Remembered; the ferocity of Clay Smith’s body-blow on Ryan Griffen in that desperate third quarter when our team were on the ropes; the extraordinary will that propelled Dale Morris, playing with a broken back, to make one more lunge to drag down Buddy Franklin in the dying moments of the Grand Final.
Everything that followed seemed beige. Vanilla.
It wasn’t quite a joke, that oft-quoted line after defeats that, truth be told, didn’t sting quite as much as they should: ‘I think I’ll just go home and watch the grand final replay.’
I always maintained that premierships, grand finals, weren’t the whole point of why we loved footy. (Of course, I had little choice but to invent, and then stick tenaciously with, this line of reasoning). I argued they couldn’t be the only things that kept fans going, otherwise the only people going to games for most of my lifetime would be Essendon supporters, or the likes of that smug Hawthorn fan at one of their interminable premiership celebrations, who COULD NOT REMEMBER, when asked by a reporter, how many premierships he had seen in his lifetime (Even after the heroics of 2016, he still holds a place in the overcrowded Tragician Hall of Infamy).
I hadn’t bargained on the transformative effect of the premiership itself, or the way in which it was achieved: the most quixotic, thrilling, unlikely, stirring manner possible. They were so perfect, those finals, each with stories within stories, unexpected heroes, improbable scripts that no screenwriter would have dared pen. They were a tune, a melody without compare, perfect even in their imperfections, even more epic in nature for their unexpectedness, the natural and right coming together of the different notes and chords from each of those 22 players who Bevo implored to bring their instruments on Grand Final Day.
Yet the 2016 band members were unrecognisable when our Bulldogs team took the field in Canberra last week. A mere 18 months later, only 13 of the premiership heroes were in the team; ours was the youngest, most inexperienced outfit to take the field in Round One.
Selections were bizarre even by the admittedly high standards of eccentricity Bevo Our Saviour has set.
Expectations were low; the team were playing away, always a downer; the off-season had been discordant. The heightened emotions that usually accompany our matches against the despicable Acronyms have somehow leached away.
I thought we would lose, maybe get hammered, and the prospect didn’t seem to hurt like it used to. Which was probably just as well.
The signs weren't promising even before one of those dreadful moments we’ve come to know too well over the past few years: a soul-destroying knee injury, with the season only 20 minutes old. (Are we leading the way in the mournful statistic of players who've succumbed to MULTIPLE knee injuries?)
The 2017 performance of our lovably eccentric Libba had been emblematic of whatever ailed us last year; on the other hand, tales of his renewed determination, and commitment to training (and not just for the Vietnam Swans), had given us hope that our still young, still evolving side, would bounce back, that 2017, not 2016, was the aberration. Was this cruel and random injury, our comprehensive drubbing - the first time we've lost a Round One match under Bevo Our Saviour - an ominous message from the universe that 2018 would be an unfulfilled, depressing season? (I know: wasn’t the 2016 premiership meant to cure me of my doomsday beliefs in the ‘messages from the universe’?)
With Libba gone - from the match and from the 2018 season - I watched Our Boys get totally outclassed. They were subdued, disorganised. There were at times those half-hearted efforts that you see in meaningless matches at the end of a season where there’s nothing to play for. Men in orange rang amok, while Our Boys were tentative, aimless, bereft of inspiration, outnumbered, physically bullied. How we missed the fierce determination embodied in our three oldest premiership warriors – Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd, Liam Picken, Dale Morris - one who will never take the field again, while the future of the other two hangs by a thread.
By three-quarter time, I’d seen enough. I had no desire to hear the monotonous tones of Garry Lyon or watch any more arrogant celebrations by surely the most unlovable group of individuals to ever pull on an orange and charcoal jumper. Every single one of them, I decided, as we pressed the 'off' button on Garry et al, would be granted automatic entry to the Bulldog Tragician Hall of Infamy. (Toby Greene is already in contention as a Legend).
Instead of dwelling on the loss, we headed off to hospital to visit my mum, the Tragician matriarch. Her good timing in adopting the Bulldogs as her team in 1954 was the fateful choice that set myself and my family on this strange and exhilarating journey, made it a certainty that we would be lifelong fans of the team from the west.
Mum is 80 and has been seriously ill. Sometimes there are more important things than a game of football.
After the visit, I drove past the Whitten Oval. The banner that proudly proclaimed the miraculous words ‘Premiers 2016’, right above the spot where my mum and I used to sit in the John Gent stand, quietly disappeared at the end of last year.
There had been furious demands, as we limped unconvincingly through 2017, that it should be removed pronto. It was a distraction, many fans fumed, an alarming symbol that our club hadn’t dealt properly with 2016’s euphoria, couldn't cope with the emotion of the ground-breaking premiership.
I didn’t see it that way, but then again, maybe Bevo Our Saviour was right. (Not about Easton Wood playing in the backline. That’s a shocker). About our inability to let go, that we were stuck, unwilling to move on. And there's an irony that's not lost on me. Our challenge as fans of a spectacularly unsuccessful club was always to shut out the past, not to dwell on the failures, the heartache, the downright misery. And now our battle is of a different kind. We must turn our eyes, reluctantly, from the best moments of our football lives.
I sometimes had the weird thought that it would have been better if our team's glorious rockstar appearance on the balcony, above that magical banner in October 2016, was their triumphant, final curtain call. The actors would be sent off with a flourish, golden burnished heroes whose legacy could never wane, their aura becoming even more mysterious and fabled with each year that went past. A completely new batch of players would be conscripted to wear the red, white and blue - so that we’d have other things to do apart from endlessly watching the 2016 final replays. In time, these recruits would create new stories, become fan favourites or villains, do deeds either epic or forgettable, allowing the men of 2016 to be forever young, preserved inside a magical, protective cocoon.
They would never disappoint us, then. We would never wince as we saw them in the colours of our despised enemies, never take part in fevered debates about whether one of them should be ruthlessly cut off like a cancer. We wouldn’t see their names lumped together with the ominous words ‘contract negotiations’ or offered up as trade bait by pragmatic officials.
We wouldn’t ever get that lump in our throat, the sad knowledge as we note their first grey hairs, the fear that those awful hits they've weathered time and again, on our behalf, have damaged their bodies forever. We wouldn’t have to witness their inevitable decline as they become veterans, slowing up, beaten badly in a contest, or even worse, taking themselves off to another club, a la Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell, for a seniors’ version of a gap year.
They would be freeze-framed, captured for all eternity in those moments when, clad in their brand new premiership t-shirts, they waved to us from the balcony.
Shooting stars, more breathtaking, brilliant and precious for the rarity of their achievement.
As I muse over this scenario and wonder if Stephen Hawking’s theories on black holes and big bangs (which I obviously don’t understand a word of) mean that this is somehow actually possible, a tune comes on the iPod shuttle. (The Bulldog Tragician, with more than her fair share of Irish heritage, is big on believing in Messages From The iPod Shuffle). The notes begin; yes, it's that haunting, wistful refrain, the perfect moment when the string quartet makes their melancholy entry. My thoughts had found an ally, in the famous song, beautiful despite its umpteen mangled cover versions - Paul McCartney's ballad about the fruitless longing for yesterday.
It could be a message from the universe. If I wasn’t, of course, cured of such silly superstitions in 2016.
Because there are more games to play. Unlimited contenders could emerge for the Tragician Hall of Infamy., some of them not even players from GWS. There are possibilities aplenty in 2018 (who could give up on their team after just one belting?) There's a guy selected to play his first game this week, an 18-year-old redhead with a distinguished pedigree. I don't even know his number, but I'm keen to know more about him. You never know when you're about to see a key part of our tomorrow, more steps in the Brave New Post Premiership World.