An ability to launch
While Our Boys took on Freo many kilometres away, exasperated text messages flew thick and fast between Tragician family members, all stranded helplessly on our respective couches at home.
Our blokes were trying so hard, battling away in hostile territory, for so little reward. As the missed opportunities piled up, so too did the level of angst, sprinkled with black humour, at the predictability of the wayward kicking for goal.
By the last quarter, we cringed rather than celebrated whenever we got inside 50 metres.
The poo emoji soon became an effective shortcut to convey our emotions. (It certainly would have been handy for most of the Tragician’s barracking career).
Yet as the final siren sounded, I made one of my bolder, indeed outlandish statements, confidently tipping a win against the Tigers.
Considering we’d just registered our fourth painful loss in a row I’m still not sure where this conviction came from. In the wake of the loss the gloom and doom around our club had reached epidemic and slightly hysterical proportions.
Among the Bulldog faithful, the mood was agitated. Skill development had gone backwards, fans lamented; premiership stars’ form had stagnated. The kids weren’t coming along as we’d hoped!
Selections were baffling. That’s been so ever since Bevo Our Saviour arrived, of course, but now there was open discussion on a previously unthinkable topic: ‘Was Bevo’s time up?’ (Nobody, I regret to report, was calling him Our Saviour either).
In support of this hideous question, a narrative, beloved of the outside world but previously angrily resisted by our own fans, took hold: The achievement of the premiership had been some kind of fluke, where an ordinary bunch of players and coaching staff got lucky, combining to pull off a daring heist on the competition, before slinking back into our usual well-deserved mediocrity.
I was astonished, not so much by the negativity, but by how familiar the tone of the commentary was. The Bontempelli ‘why not us?’ question had in the blink of an eye reverted to ‘why us?’
That undercurrent of thinking – that there’s something quintessentially wrong with our club – had somehow, like a plague of cockroaches, withstood the premiership win; mysteriously, it had re-emerged, reinforced, indeed confirmed, by the speed with which the Battling Bulldogs had reverted to type.
How come only our club could go spectacularly backwards, after a flag won by one of the youngest groups ever? Why hadn’t that day in 2016 liberated us, forever, from our dismal past, as it had with the Geelong and Richmond clubs, who once they got the sniff of success, chased it even more hungrily?
It wasn’t just that the questions were posed that startled me. It was that the same old bitterness, honed through decades of failure, still existed underneath them. I detected panic that our golden memory of 2016 was becoming another cruel joke at our expense, a bit like a child being informed that Santa wasn’t real.
Against this backdrop, my announcement that the Bulldogs would triumph was more than a little eccentric, especially coming from one who was just as strongly convinced (with good reason as it sadly turned out) that we’d lose to Carlton.
Yet apart from that abomination, which fortunately I’d avoided, I didn’t feel our team was actually playing badly. (A bit like Greg Chappell when he defended those seven ducks in a row by saying he wasn’t in the crease long enough to actually be playing poorly). I still saw spirit and heart and self-belief.
We just weren’t ... kicking goals, which is kind of an essential part of the game, I’ll admit.
The first quarter of the clash against Richmond contained moments that initially boded well for my reckless prediction. We won the ball, time and again. The Bont started in majestic form, as he wrested the ball from packs and then loped in his characteristic way into our forward line, calmly slotting a difficult goal. Whatever today’s outcome, I decided, I could sit back and revel in a peerless display from our Artist-in-residence.
But his team-mates were not able to emulate his effort. Again, the missed shots accumulated. You could see the mental struggle in which our players were stuck, like quicksand, dreading to be the one who would be next to create that moaning sigh of disappointment from our crowd (not to mention a barrage of poo emojis on social media).
My pre-game confidence wavered. Perhaps it was inevitable, the way the match would play out. The gallant Dogs would keep working tirelessly, fruitlessly; the ruthless, efficient Tigers would punish our turnovers, conjuring goals so much less painfully than us. The Tigers song would reverberate around the stadium, while I hastily deleted my ludicrous text message. Bevo would walk down from the coaching box, to sullen mutters among the restless crowd, wearing the blank expression of the coach under siege. We would head home, resigned, angry, baffled and heartsore. I would wonder if those troubling questions about our club had the tiniest kernel of truth.
We needed something, somebody to change that story. We were waiting. We just didn’t know what for.
Aaron Naughton entered the stage.
Suddenly every time he went near the ball, we hoped, and then came to expect, he would mark it. And..he'd then kick a goal! In an amazing blitz, he was electrifying, exhilarating, spectacular.
The degree of difficulty only spurred him on.
‘A crowded pack of players? I guess I’ll just have to jump over the top of you all.’
We once saw another teenager inspire us with his gift for marking, but Chris Grant, memorably described by Martin Flanagan as ‘the boy with the solemn hands’ marked in a different way. Smoothly, elegantly, the ball glided into his mitts. I can't find the words for what Aaron Naughton is doing out there. Players ‘drag down’ a mark’, or ‘grab’ the ball, or 'clunk' it or 'catch' it; but they are phrases too humdrum to describe what we were watching, with increasing awe. I find myself reaching for another sport for an analogy, for with his exquisite timing and feel for the ball, he resembled a surfer, catching the surge of the perfect wave.
Maybe it was even simpler: he was just playing park footy, a kid revelling in taking speckies over his mates.
The crowd mood shifted. Buoyant, excited, appreciative, spellbound. We wanted more.
Aaron Naughton (and the Herald Sun hit perfect pitch when they dubbed him the Astro-Naught) was only too happy to deliver. He was even having such a good time, that he gave a little wink after another brilliant mark. It could have been lair-like, but I don’t think (unlike ‘Somebody Else of a Lairy Disposition’ we could mention), it was about himself. It wasn’t cocky, or arrogant. It was more like what I've dubbed 'the Bontempelli smirk'.
‘How good, and simple, and fun is footy.
By the time we woke from the spell that he’d cast, we were six, seven goals up from the Tiges. The Tragician was looking smug and searching for a screenshot of that text message to show all and sundry she was a sage, an oracle, a soothsayer.
In between my attempts to somehow claim credit for the win, I thought about Luke Beveridge. Saturday night was his 100th game; Bob wrote a tribute trying to capture his enigmatic coach. He said that when he arrived at our despondent club in 2014, its players riven with doubt and haunted by failure, Bevo (who will forever be Our Saviour) began asking them: ‘How good could you be?’
I think of Aaron Naughton, who didn't manage even one contested mark against Freo, throwing himself carelessly, joyfully, towards the ball, and wonder if his coach’s words ring in his ear.
So much of my thinking, and I'm not alone, since 2016 has been about the premiership group. Would THEY re-discover the hunger? How had THEY coped with climbing the summit? When would THEY do it for us, again? Yet just as the fearless boys of 2016 didn’t care a jot about what had gone before, that flag is ancient history for the newbies whose hunger is raw. Tim English, Bailey Smith, Ed Richards - you can feel sure they're going to create their own story. I guess I'll need to strap myself in for another rollercoaster ride.
When Our Boys sang the song, Aaron Naughton, who won’t turn 20 until the end of the 2019 season, was the most exuberant of the exuberant. I couldn’t help but laugh; it was like his singing, and accompanying half-jig, echoed the carefree way he'd approached the ball.
I heard a journalist on the radio the next day, talking about an interview with "The Astro-Naught" at the start of the season.
‘Nothing fazes him,’ he said. ‘He's an uncomplicated guy. He just loves footy.
'But he did say one thing,' the journalist, too, began to laugh, remembering our number 33's amazing deeds: 'I like to launch.’
Watch Aaron Naughton sing the song:
6/5/2019 09:24:14 pm
These are my own sage like words to my Hawk mates who were bemoaning their inconsistency:
8/5/2019 12:20:14 pm
Now that was a fun night! He was electrifying -- I'd almost forgotten how much fun watching a game of football could be.
8/5/2019 11:45:18 pm
Naughton's sticky hands remind me of Tayla Harris. Gets them anywhere near the ball and it's a mark, uncanny.
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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.