Ode to the BullGods
We were therefore surprised, yet overjoyed, when the Bulldogs really did Come Out Snarling. We'd almost forgotten how sparkling our best could be; we'd seen it seldom in 2022. Bont was majestic. Our pressure reached 2016 Men of Mayhem levels. The Freo crowd were silent and subdued, while the small group of Bulldogs fans, who'd hung out a banner which said rather poignantly: 'We are here with you', were making a fearsome racket. The match was just about over at quarter time!
Sure, Freo would come at us, and regroup. That was a given. But give up a 41-point lead in a final? Even thinking of it (I was, of course) was the pre-2016 loser mentality that I've often claimed, unconvincingly, to have banished forever. Freo's charge, when it predictably arrived, made us tense, but with such a big lead, undoubtedly could be withstood. Their spirits would be broken, when Our Boys, who knew what finals success was like, steadied the ship. We waited for a Jordan Roughead moment, for someone, anyone really, to take control; to boldly declare a loss simply wouldn't happen on their watch.
We watched and we waited, as our lead was reeled in, as our goals dried up. We became too silent to cheer or barrack, as Our Boys laboured, as mistakes piled up, as a two-goal margin to the Dockers became totally insurmountable.
We were already dreading those labels that would be applied to our performance and had the ominous ring of old. Collapse. Capitulation.
I should have taken more notice when the song that came along straight after Daydream Believer was the Rolling Stones' classic:You can't always get what you want.
Our season was over. The match itself had encapsulated everything that was disappointing and frustrating in 2022. An inability to play four consistent quarters. A powerlessness whenever opponents, even those we ultimately defeated, streamed out of the middle and scored at will.
Now, instead of the busy chatter of finals excitement, unpalatable questions were asked: what went wrong, and why? And with us out early, a focus on horsetrading began with indecent haste. The first blow was predictable; Josh Dunkley announced that he wanted to be traded to Brisbane. Unlike on some other infamous occasions, this time we weren't shocked, blindsided, rocked to our foundations. It didn't mean we were happy about it all the same.
Some were sad, some were angry, many including the Tragician were both. There was a peculiar aspect related to Josh Dunkley the person colouring our views. He'd after all tried to break his contract two years before, which had already prepared us, weakened our connection to him. (The disapproving Libba Sisters had already stopped calling him Dunks, and always now called him with formal politeness Josh Dunkley - yes, a telling moment if ever there was one). There was the usual jarring realisation that players have very different investments in our club - wait, aren't they all brothers, jumping around joyously whenever a new player's debut is announced - rather than clinical professionals. It's somehow bewildering, that he could undoubtedly continue to play good footy with us, while engaged in discussions to leave. And there was something off, uncomfortable, about how the former BFF of Bont, current (ostentatiously so) BFF of Adam Treloar, now planned to leave them both behind; with mysterious references to disappointment with Bulldogs' culture (we immediately closed ranks at that idea: hmmm, Dayne Zorko, anyone?). There grew a growing conviction and annoyance that his decision was more about him building his own lucrative 'Brand.'
Many fans moved on quickly to an equally business-like footing. Analysing how the 'deal' could be done. Calculating what Dunkley is 'worth.' Adding up the trade points.
Some gave a brisk acknowledgement of what Josh Dunkley had meant to us, brief recognition that he was one of those rare individuals, a Bulldogs' premiership hero. But even those fans are not looking back or wallowing.
Leave that, instead, to the Bulldog Tragician. It's exactly these moments that I both dread and hate. Another mosaic in the 2016 wall has shattered, another domino has fallen. There could be a few other metaphors that I'm sure I could make if I just tried a bit harder.
Ostrich-like, I'd prayed for the 2016 players' glorious efforts to be forever frozen in time. Confusingly I also wanted us to somehow shoe-horn Bob Murphy, Jack Redpath and Mitch Wallis into the exact same line-up the following year when we went back-to-back, but logic's never been my strong point. Once that had been achieved I would hurriedly fast-forward to the prospect of a 10-year premiership reunion. Anything in between - them becoming injured, disappointing us either on-field or off, actually WANTING TO PLAY FOR ANOTHER CLUB - that wasn't really in the Tragician's preferred imaginings.
I didn't want to see the colder reality that has eventually played out. We've lost so many, already, of our 2016 'BullGods'. There are whispers that more of the dwindling band and not just Josh Dunkley might be on the way out, with uncertain futures as I write for Lachie Hunter, and our Norm Smith medallist JJ, and the man who only the Libba Sisters call 'Cordeaux.' In my stubborn refusal to let go of 2016 I've never sat back and really mourned their loss one-by-one, reflected on what each as individuals provided in those four weeks, that are full of so many bright and shining moments.
Some of those we've lost were expected, in the natural order of things, as even our durable premiership 30-somethings Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Dale Morris could not have played forever. And while Dale Morris' stirring tackle on Buddy in the Grand Final must surely be immortalised in a Whitten Oval statue one day, there's also a place in my heart for that moment that the unflashy but driven 'Keith' poked his toe out from the congestion towards JJ, so that he could accelerate away and drive the ball towards Bont in one of those heart-stopping moments of the Preliminary Final.
Easton Wood, our captain who held the cup aloft, has now left too, a shadow of himself as he battled injuries in his last years; I prefer to remember him soaring brilliantly for mark after mark in the first quarter of that same final, and even more importantly, in that last desperate scrimmage where the ball went deep into the territory of those wearing orange, flying across the pack to kill the ball and save the match.
Alongside him in our blue collar defence were two of the more unheralded BullGods who departed quietly and inconspicuously: Fletcher Roberts, who only came in for that match, contributed just 9 workmanlike disposals in that preliminary final (but far more importantly his glamorous opponent 'Jezza' Cameron only mustered five), while Joel Hamling was another of those, not household names to anyone but us. Fletch and Joel played their roles; no forwards got off the leash on their watch; they were part of all those moments both perfect and imperfect in that thrilling four weeks.
We will remember, always, the mark from Tory Dickson, in the frantic final seconds of the prelim; how he coolly held onto the ball to eke out the time rather than blaze the ball forward as a myriad of other Bulldogs players over time might well have done. His point after the siren may be the most euphorically greeted behind in our history.
Of the BullGods who've left, though, it is part of our sadness that many were so young, could indeed still be playing. We could not have foreseen that we would lose Tom Boyd, whose astounding Grand Final performance came when he was just 21, and retired less than three years later. He would now be a player well in his prime; perhaps we feel his loss in a football sense less than others, watching with admiration his work educating us on depression, giving us a healthy counterbalance to the idea that playing footy must be quite simply any person's dream come true. Yet we will never forget him grabbing the ball which came loose after Dale's tackle, knowing that it will tumble through as perfectly as everything else he did that day.
The injury toll of our brutal game saw the early departure at just 25 years old of another premiership hero. Clay Smith had already overcome unthinkable challenges - three ruptured ACLs in a row - before his bullocking, crazy-brave finals performances. In the preliminary, it was not just his four goals, but a moment that still makes me shudder, when he used his body as a battering ram in the third quarter, laying an incredible bump to clear the path for a Caleb Daniel goal. We were barely hanging on by our finger nails at that point. I'm certain we could not have prevailed in the preliminary without him.
There are other BullGods, though, whose departures have left us with emotions complex, confused and far from straightforward. Jake 'The Lair' Stringer, ruthlessly cut from our list, for reasons which as they slowly became clear made us rethink our adulation, made us wonder what's behind these men who we really only know for their footballing talent. There was heaviness when he left, and then grim and morbid satisfaction in seeing him continue to squander his gifts in the colours of our despised opponent across the river. There was Luke Dahlhaus, beloved and energetic sprite in our forwardline, who never recovered his trademark grit after the monumental season of 2016, and with talk of a famous lack of 'motovation', transferred to the Cats where he was serviceable but never more.
There was Shane Biggs, perhaps the most enigmatic of all; a football journeyman and diamond in the rough who didn't seem to take the game seriously at all; yet with the Dogs just one point up in the last quarter of the grand final, he contributed the most manic and frenzied series of acts ever seen by any one individual to ever wear red, white and blue. He hunted, and trapped, the ball, again. And again. And again. Just two years later, aged 27, he retired. As though, having painted his great masterpiece, there was nothing left to say.
It's hard though to explain or come to terms with the departure of Jordan Roughead, the quintessential good guy of impeccable character. He was the man who did what the 2022 version could not do, and stemmed a comeback in an elimination final in the west. The guy who dragged down a strong, match-saving mark in the suffocatingly tense moments of the Grand Final when an outrageous decision was made to overturn a JJ goal. It wasn't going to happen, another Bulldog hard luck story, not on Roughie's watch. Yet too soon we were watching him sing the Collingwood song, patting Jordan DeGoey on the bum; learning, in revelations painful and still baffling, that so stultifying had his footballing life become, that only leaving our club could preserve in him the desire to keep competing.
In our cobbled-together forward line the most consistently brilliant player was Liam Picken. Another of those unlikely heroes, his first goal in the elimination final steadied us when in time-honoured Bulldogs fashion we had had all the play and squandered untold chances. We rose out of our seats, electrified, when he leapt skywards in the Grand Final. 'Picken from behind! Picken from behind!' And it's the most crystal-clear image for most of us in the Grand Final, him streaming into kick the sealer in front of a sea of elated Bulldogs' fans: 'It's over. It's all over. The drought. The dam wall has busted. After 62 years.'
Yet now, Bob Murphy, the non-playing BullGod, sits in the Freo box, stony-faced and plotting our demise, aided and abetted by 'Keith' Boyd. And as the 2022 ebbs away, we only have left a handful of the fabled BullGods left. Bont of course, now leads our club as we always knew he would. For the moment, we have the irrepressible Libba, and the steely and professional Jackson Macrae. There is the man only the Libba Sisters call 'Cordeaux'...and Hunter, JJ and Daniel. And Toby McLean, who had the ball in his hands when the siren sounded in 2016, who has now seen footy life from another perspective, enduring two knee reconstructions.
My trip down memory lane has left me exhausted. As wrung out as though I too had even for one second put my body on the line like Clay Smith, or desperately made one smother after another like Shane Biggs, or flew higher than I had any right to fly like Liam Picken. I didn't know in those euphoric moments that our joy would be one day be mixed with a kind of - is it too much to call it - grief?... that their stories would move relentlessly on; because of course the men of 2016 would not, could not, remain static and constant in our memories.
It's been forever the case though. 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 final 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.
Yes, it's always been thus. It just seems more poignant, though, when a grand final group gradually disperses and fragments.
Yet my sadness is quickly eclipsed. I might have all the usual grumpiness that another year has been wasted and pedestrian, and I'll avert my eyes when Josh Dunkley is paraded in a Lions jumper, and meaningless words are uttered on both sides of thanks and regrets. But he and the other BullGods gave me memories that will last when such unedifying ones fade. Of the moment I saw OUR logo painted on the MCG in the Grand Final build up. Of the western suburbs, a sea of red, white and blue. Of the wall of sound that greeted their arrival onto the celebrated ground. Of the moment OUR Boys gathered on those benches for the traditional pre-match photo, and happily stuffed it up. And when I saw them organise themselves and make room for Bevo, and I somehow - me, the ultimate pessimist! - knew we were going to be ok.
I once tried - way back in the first year of writing this blog, in 2013 - to imagine any of those moments in a story I called Tomozz. It was about us making the Grand Final in (cue the spooky music) 2016. It was such an outlandish fantasy, and not just because the Dogs had finished a humble 15th on the ladder in another ho-hum year. After 60 years, to even make the Grand final was for just about every Bulldog fan something we tried to believe rather than genuinely thought could happen. It was such a stretch that my story came to an end as we fans stood to watch the national anthem, victory or defeat not yet assured; us actually winning the god-damn thing was even more ludicrous. Not really 'for the likes of us.'
Three years later our team delivered that dream in ways even more far-fetched than even I could possibly dare to have written. They were shooting stars, only appearing once. Which is why amid my anger and pettiness and grief and sorrow whenever one of them leaves us, I will always try to stop and give thanks for all that we are owed by every single one of those crazy-brave BullGods.
The stories we tell
Though my father had played for Footscray reserves and grew up only a few streets from the Western Oval, he was not a keen follower of their fortunes, and rarely attended games during my childhood. Working second jobs at night (as a milkman or cleaner to supplement his income as a draftsman) he could have been forgiven for pining for respite on the weekends; instead he always encouraged my mother (the true Bulldogs fanatic) to head off off each week to see her beloved team.
(He was so new-age that he even prepared dinner for when she and I - for as the eldest I was allowed the privilege of sitting with her in the John Gent stand - returned home. Daringly he replaced the usual three meat and veg with the occasional experiment with a new fangled product called Rice-A-Riso. But I am digressing. For not the first, and not remotely the last, time).
On one occasion as Mum forlornly steered the family car up the driveway after the last match of the season - another loss by the red, white and blue - my father was waiting for us on the front porch, cheerfully brandishing a wooden spoon. I had only a vague understanding, though this became clearer from my mother's reaction to his "humour", that the fact that the Dogs had just collected this spoon (do other sporting competitions call them this, I wonder?) was most emphatically not a good thing.
Carrying the fire
It's quarter time in our match against the Hawks and my feelings are ricocheting around from melancholy to exasperation. The Bulldogs are sitting outside the eight, with a very tough run home. Yet in this, the so-called most winnable match in the series, we had dished up one of those lamentably bad first quarters. The not-switched on, haphazard, bumbling and fumbling quarters, that we've seen rather frequently in our inconsistent 2022 season.
Quite apart from the looming fatal blow to our finals chances if we lose, it irks me further that the Hawks look good. Young guns, a team on the rise, playing an attractive brand of footy. Weren't we supposed to have swept past them imperiously in the premiership pecking order after 2016? surely our era was just beginning, while after their fabled three-peat, they were due to fade meekly away, and endure a much more lengthy stint as one of those inconsequential non-entities at the bottom of the ladder?
I shift my irritation elsewhere from the frustrating efforts of the men in red white and blue. It's easy enough to find a new target for my wrath. A Hawthorn supporter and his children are somehow sitting right in our midst. In our area, the place where we pay good money to ensure we're shielded from any unwelcome opposition contact. (Banter with the opposition has always seemed to me an overrated aspect of the spectating experience).
Nice guys finish first
'Let's be brutally honest, all I really do is play football. I, for one, am still unable to see why I'd be viewed as anything other than a footballer. Yes, footballers are viewed as role models by young kids but unless the kids know the player personally, this to me is silly." Chris Judd, 2005.
I wasn't all that surprised when this somewhat cold and aloof statement was made, not being at all a fan of the person who made it. Though it was perfectly in accord with the history of his actions and choices during his football career (Visy 'ambassadorship', anyone?).
However I vehemently disagreed. As a smarmy politician might say, "I don't accept the premise of the question."
It's always been just as important to me that our players are people whose public profile makes us proud as that they are good players. I've remained blindly convinced that we have more than our fair share of men of great character, filtering out anything that doesn't fit the narrative. I admit that this has sometimes involved some head-in-the-sand moments. I've been known to perform increasingly desperate contortions to find likeability in those with blemishes (normally, of course, these have been imported to our club, so their bona fides are already in question). I had to take this to ridiculous extremes when Jason Akermanis, - who I'd always detested - came to our club. I was forced into the most feeble of attempts to find a reason to cheer for him.: 'Apparently he learnt sign language to communicate with his wife's deaf parents.'
He was never 'one of us' all the same.
Taking care of our own
In the watery Ballarat sunshine, Our Boys have tenaciously held on for a hard-fought win. Patches of scintillating footy were interspersed with struggles, mistakes and lapses. The toll of injury and illness which has severely battered our team remains evident. And, I sense, the team still hasn't recovered fully from the devastating blow to our psyche of the 2021 Grand Final loss.
Neither has the Bulldog Tragician.
But for the first time this year, we've notched up two consecutive wins, while the injury list finally begins to shrink. Five wins, five losses - all of those losses could so easily have gone the other way.
I'm feeling cautious optimism, watching Our Boys gather near the race, celebrating the win and the 200-game milestone of Adam Treloar.
Aaron Naughton is one of those who hoist Adam onto his shoulders. The Astro-Naut had lived up to his nickname in a brilliant first half. Is there a more exhilarating sight than Aaron on song, where clumps of players in packs merely form a launching pad for him to soar, sometimes so high that he can mark the ball on his chest? You can hear, now, a distinctive sound from the crowd as we anticipate his flight, gasping when he lands safely with the ball in his mitts. Aaron hasn't lost the exuberance of kids when they first fall in love with footy; oblivious of whiteboard strategies and concepts of running patterns, zones and angles, wanting only to take speckies and kick goals.
Aaron has a swagger. Only he could really pull off the white headband look. In fact, he has just about become the Tragician's second favourite player. (If you're in any doubt about the identity of the first, allow me to welcome you to your first visit to the Tragician Blog).
It's hardly a surprise to see the other man carrying Adam off the ground. The bromance between Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley has been ostentatious. (At times a little 'cringe', as I believe younger members of our community might say). Yet the curious fact is that neither of these Bromance Buddies wanted to play with us at the end of the 2020 season.
Adam was unceremoniously cut from the Magpies' list, and has made no secret of the devastation and pain of being forced out. He speaks often about his ongoing love for his former teammates in black and white, the club as a whole, and its supporters. This didn't stop those famously parochial fans booing Adam in his first match in our colours against them, weird even by their standards since his departure was so far from his own choosing.
But later in that same match, as Adam stood on the wing, a slow rumble of noise built. Collingwood and Bulldogs fans were joining together to clap and cheer him. It was like a protective circle of thanks and goodwill. His new clan and his old clan joining together. A rare and precious moment of care and appreciation.
Coincidentally enough, at the same time as Adam was forced out, his future best mate Josh Dunkley wanted to jettison his contract with us, making a big play to join the Bombres. The reasons were perplexing and obscure to those of us outside the inner sanctum; undoubtedly a huge paycheck was part of the picture, but there were other vague whisperings. Of a loss of love for our club. Disappointment in things that went on inside the covid bubble. And perhaps more understandably, a desire to get more midfield minutes. And (sigh) to not play in the ruck.
Many things were strange and depressing about all of this - to me at least - but none more so than him informing several team-mates of his intention to defect while they were away on holidays. Vice-captain of the club at the time, he was delivering this blow to his skipper, and some of the other best mates with whom he went out into battle on the field every week.
Our club held firm: Dunkley, our youngest premiership player, remained a Dog. For the fans - or perhaps just this one - there was some sort of fracturing in our bond with him, a feeling of distance or caution replacing the usual blind loyalty and clannish protectiveness that we feel for 'Our Boys.' I noticed that, strangely, I now called him Josh Dunkley rather than Dunks, adopting a business-like and detached attitude to him without quite realising why.
I guess we'll never really know what the emotions were, how things played out, or what conversations were held when Josh returned to the club for the first training session. His performances certainly did not show any signs of 'checking out' or a reduction in the fanatical attack on the ball for which Josh is known. Nor did his team-mates show any signs of shunning him for his attempt to leave behind their 'brotherhood' or the implied criticisms or disillusionment that led him to that point.
Despite outdated 'playing for the jumper' rhetoric, the players' connections to the clubs they play for are complex and multi-stranded in comparison to the simple and unequivocal loyalty we like to believe in. Last week, Adam Treloar played a blinder against his old club. Pre-match he embraced his former team-mates and friends. Then he set out to clinically destroy their finals hopes and shore up the hopes of his new one. While afterwards, as he received his Robert Rose medal for best afield, he again expressed his love for those he'd left behind - or had chosen to leave him behind.
In the same match a former Bulldog was a solid contributor for the Pies; mercifully he was not booed by our fans. A teenage Patrick Lipinski had attended the 2016 Grand Final decked out in red white and blue; he then fulfilled his dream by being drafted to play alongside those he'd idolised from afar.
But last year he made the pragmatic, realistic decision that his footy career prospects were limited at our club, and slipped quietly away in an unobtrusive transfer to the Collingwood Football Club. Yet Pat still lives with Aaron Naughton; and after the match Bailey Smith ruefully acknowledged that his former team-mate, and still great friend, had hoodwinked him into hand-balling to him inside a pack.
Meanwhile there have been strange twists of fortunes (or should I say misfortunes) of the club that tried to poach Josh Dunkley. This year the Bombres (the Tragician's most despised club, if this REALLY is your first visit to this blog) have slid back to mediocrity after our club (smirk) turfed them out of the finals last year. This continues a remarkable streak where they have failed to win a final since 2004.
A recent mauling at the hands of the Swans has sparked a media storm questioning the commitment, desire and talent of the players. And after footage of their high-paid import Dylan Shiel being mocked, with no retaliation or even the most feeble push and shove by his team-mates, the Bombres' culture was called further into question.
Remarkably the ruthless club with 16 premierships now faces dark nights of the soul, their vitriolic fans loudly questioning - in a delicious irony if you've ever stood wedged in, vastly outnumbered and miserable on the Windy Hill terraces - why they should even bother attending and supporting this rabble! The solution advocated by some - Bring Back James Hird! - is an astonishing reminder that there is so much about the Don-the-Sash mob that I'll never even begin to understand.
Much of the red-and-black outrage has been directed at their captain Dyson Heppell. He has recently told critics of his good-guy persona to 'jam it' and defended the fact that post-defeat, he is seen smiling and joking with team-mates and opponents. He has failed to display the requisite degree of wretched despair.
Heppell has been ridiculed in a cruel video from an account called: 'We are Essington' which intercuts footage of his on-field bloopers with the stirring 'Captain! My captain!' scenes from Dead Poets Society.
Even the Tragician has stopped chortling by now, in fact I'm wincing with embarrassment and even pity. It gets me thinking about how club culture, brotherhood and loyalty are built - or more aptly in the case of the Bombres - brutally destroyed.
For Dyson Heppell, a lifelong Essendon supporter who worshipped James Hird as a child, became an unwitting victim of a chaotic and illegal supplements program, while he was a teenager in just his second year at the club.
His 'idol' was coach at the time.
Along with others, Dyson Heppell was eventually banned for a full year; a terrible toll, when he should have been in his prime as a 23-year-old. The 'drug cheat' stigma will be forever attached to his name.
Something cancerous entered their club, and I can't help but feel it is malignantly connected to the fact no-one rushed to the aid of Dylan Shiel. Doesn't it seem reasonable that the players, even those not directly involved in 'The Saga', may pull back a little? Why would they put on the line the bodies that their club was prepared to gamble with?
I wonder about how our team would have reacted if one of our players had been targeted in the way Dylan Shiel was. I may be just a tad biased, but I believe our club has a robust and thriving culture, nurtured by our empathetic coach, and built by outstanding men and one-club-players who have led our club over the same period when the red-and-black mob descended into the 'whatever-it-takes' darkness. We've been led by Chris Grant, Luke Darcy, Brad Johnson, Matthew Boyd, Bob Murphy and Easton Wood. (Yes I've left one out, but perhaps it proves my point, for the defection of Ryan Griffen rebounded mysteriously in ways that only strengthened our club and arguably caused a chain of events that led to the 2016 flag).
And now of course we have the latest in that series, Marcus Bontempelli. There would be no doubt that with him around the hackneyed phrase 'walking taller' actually means something. His leadership of our club, his care for his team-mates is natural and instinctive, authoritative without being pointlessly macho; The Bont learnt from the best.
In the country-footy-ground atmosphere of Ballarat we could hear the thwack of bodies and observe his greatness, even while clearly injury-hampered. We could see how slowly the Bont got up at times - yet hear his voice urging and organising his team. He somehow willed himself to drag down those last quarter marks and slot those goal that won us the game.
There would be at least one other Bulldog team-mate that you could always rely on to rush in and protect you in the clinches (even if it was, as it so often is, a skirmish that he himself had started). It's been a vintage year for our combative, cheeky, annoying - but to us always loveable Libba, recently pictured wearing a 'Honk for the Dogs' sign in Barkly Street. Maybe it was a result of losing a bet; maybe it showed that the frivolity so frowned upon by the critics of Dyson Heppell is alive and well at the Dogs; but there was something uniquely and mischievously Libba about it as well.
He's probably - ok, definitely - my equal second favourite player at the club!
Meanwhile, with a lump in my throat, I see a tweet from the Collingwood cheer squad.
Congratulations Adzy on 200 games today. The Magpie Army loves you. Thank you for taking care of him @westernbulldogs.
Beautiful, classy and elegant. And yes. We will.
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 AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.