Waiting for the great leap forward
With my Irish heritage, I'm a big believer in mystery signs from the universe to explain the meaning of our games. They mightn't feature in dry, fact-based Champion Data analysis. But I hold onto them as significant just the same.
In the leadup to our 2016 final against the Eagles, for example, a snatch of a song lodged persistently , even irritatingly, inside my brain. Even as I read gloomy statistics about our record in Perth and tried not to think too hard about who would play on our nemesis Josh Kennedy, I kept mindlessly humming Paul Kelly’s ‘To Her Door’. The line about ‘could he make a picture, and get it all to fit’ followed me around, haunted me as persistently as Libba The First's controversial tagging efforts on the other Paul Kelly, the Brownlow medalist for the Swans.
Our stirring - and completely unexpected - victory was the greatest win in modern-day Bulldog history (at that point of time of course). The line from the Kelly song had undoubtedly been telling me something, even if some might scoff and say I retro-fitted its meaning. Those boys made a picture to fit on that night. It carried them - and us - through the incredible weeks nobody but they could have dreamt would lie ahead.
This is all in the past, of course, except for the stubbornly nostalgic Tragician. Sometimes I think I need to be sent away for de-programming or subjected to an Adelaide-Crows-style bootcamp with the SAS; forced to let 2016 go, and view our current side and prospects afresh.
Because I still view everything through that prism, measure everything against that extraordinary month. When walking into the MCG last week before our match against the Pies, for example. I was disconcerted to see two premiership players. JJ - the Norm Smith medalist - and Zaine Cordy, the 19-year-old who kicked our first goal in the grand final. - also lining up to enter the ground. Wasn't this a bit lackadaisical, far too casual, arriving at the ground so late, and not looking wild-eyed and ready to chomp raw meat in preparation for the contest?. It took a few moments to recalibrate; to realise that, currently, they are playing in the humble VFL competition. (Yes. In Bevo we... sort of...anxiously... trust).
We also saw our only living premiership captain in the queue (though his omission is due to an interrupted pre-season) - the exceptionally handsome Easton Wood. (I felt, even though we were some metres away, there was a moment of electric connection between Easton and myself. But the Other Libba Sister said I must have imagined it).
Our win against the Pies was satisfying, especially in comparison to a disastrous showing against them at the same time last year, but some of the woes of seasons past were still on display.. Laborious entries into a sluggish forward line, skill errors, concentration lapses, inabilities to capitalise on our dominance. I felt, though, there was a harder edge, greater resilience when the Pies challenged. But the formidable Eagles will be a sterner test of how far we've evolved, what's really changed.
I've admired one noticeable change: the new retro touches on our 2021 guernsey. The splash of red around the collar brings back memories of Footscray teams sloshing around in the Western Oval mud in '70s, with the extravagant mullets of Bailey Smith and Aaron Naughton completing the connection. (I had secretly hoped at least one of them would don a Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe style headband, adorned perhaps with little red white and blue triangles).
One thing which hadn't changed as much as I'd like was the hulking figures of those Eagles. Kennedy, Darling, McGovern, NicNat. Are these guys EVER going to retire and stop tormenting us?
The match takes off at a cracking pace. It's a thrill to see our dash, daring, run, and commitment to the contest. After being starved of footy, just being part of a mainly Bulldogs crowd again is a thrill in itself. I'm mortified, though, to quickly realise our club is the latest to succumb to the trend of flashing up: Make some noise! messages, while the seconds between goals are filled with snatches of music.
Who goes to the footy for this numbing mindlessness? We are there to join with aisles of women and men in red, white and blue, rising to our feet in unison, part of spinetingling roars, riding the emotions that ripple through a crowd all at once. Expectation and disappointment. Amazement at the skills. Fear of the players' bravery and the risks they take. Moanings and mutters at umpiring injustices. Elation whenever the goal umpires march theatrically to signal the score. (It's much more anti-climactic when we await the 'Scoreboard Review completed' message').
The gimmicks are all the more unnecessary because the match itself is so enthralling. Our noses are in front for much of the first half, yet those monster forwards and defenders in Eagles' colours just won't bend to our will. Their footy seems simpler, less complicated. Kick it to some (extremely) big guys, who, just like The Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoos' Nest, pluck the ball effortlessly out of the hands of slighter, less experienced, opponents. Then ..this is the amazing part... they simply go back and kick a goal. When, for our Bulldogs, even in the premiership year, did footy ever seem so straightforward and easy?
Our style is taxing, even though it's frequently exhilarating.Yet, into the third quarter, our resistance begins to falter. We seem, ever so slightly, to be out of ideas. Those Eagles guys aren't getting any shorter; as the match goes on, their bulky frames are even harder to budge (anyone else think they must really scoff those Hungry Jack whoppers?), If the ball hits the deck there is Liam Ryan, whose brilliant efforts might have dazzled and entranced me....IF I were a completely different person, the sort who has a favourite player from another club. (The way I see it, they have plenty of fans from their own club, and certainly don't need my appreciation as well).
We're all reflective, thoughtful, when our seven point half-time lead has slipped to a 12 point deficit at three quarter time. We know that what comes next will tell us a lot about our new brigade.
And we know there is one thing and one player only who can guarantee a Bulldogs victory.
'Bont needs to go nuts,' I say, not even realising the words have somehow been said aloud.
At first, the Eagles pull further ahead, in their clinical, footy-is-easy, way. But The Bont (may have) heard the Tragician's call. The Boy Wonder, our superstar captain - maybe one day our greatest ever player - rises to another stratospheric level.
The Bont's brilliance shines bright: the work of others is less visible but just as important. Countless inches, metres, gained - by the man most home in the hottest of contests, Libba the Second; the relentless running of Jackson Macrae; the bravery of our undersized defenders in those excruciating moments when the Eagles relentlessly pound their way forward.
But we're the ones now pressing, charging; even in my anxiety I relish being part of the heaving, pulsing crowd again. How wonderful to to join with thousands of others when Lachie McNeil steals a handball and we swarm forward to get the ball in the hands of Laith Vandermeer.. To glimpse other fans also with heads in hands, unable to look, when those not-exactly-straight-shooters Josh Bruce, and the swashbuckling Aaron Naughton. take vital shots at goal. To jump up all at once with childish glee when they actually surprise us and nail them.
We ride the ball down the field into space after Bailey 'Ice Man' Williams coolly evades three Eagles and sends it towards Josh Bruce. Because it's that sort of day, it sits up obligingly for him to gather. The din turns into pandemonium when we see who ('You know it's Him!") is standing unmarked in the forward line. The Bont's kicking has been somewhat unreliable of late; he had missed a sitter last week, yet somehow I am certain that he will kick this one to seal the match.
The tedium of listless matches in front of TVs during the 2020 lockdown is gone, hopefully for good. Footy is back in our hometown. There's really no other place we'd rather be. We don't need to look to the guidance of the scoreboard for 'make some noise' prompts. In fact I can't even hear the siren. I only know it's happened by the joyous racket that's all around me.
We can sing our song again, while the players wave and salute us. (Though he was several hundred metres away, I thought I sensed an electric connection between myself and Bont, an understated acknowledgement perhaps of my role in spurring on his match-winning performance. But the Other Libba Sister said she didn't see anything of the kind. She can be a bit of a wet blanket sometimes, I'm afraid).
The Dogs have won, with the right balance of grit, and panache, against a fearsome opponent. It's the sort of game we would have routinely lost over the last few years, blaming our still problematic goalkicking, selection mysteries from Bevo Our Saviour, and everyone's favourite villain Razor Ray, but most of all, a curious brittleness that has been evident in our team in the biggest of occasions.
We savour the moment. We dare to wonder what it means for our future. Resistant to any de-programming efforts, the Bulldog Tragician sees remnants of that 2016 spirit, and recalls the words of commentator Matthew Richardson when we were seemingly out for the count, three goals down in the preliminary final against the Giants: "I think the Dogs will come back. Because that's just what they do."
I remember Terry Wallace saying there is always a point when a team, a group, comes to a heavy realisation: they have given their all. They know they can go no further in their climb up the mountain. I've witnessed those sorrowful moments many times in my Bulldogs journey.
There's another critical moment too, I reckon - a moment when a team understands, and truly believes in, its own potential. When the flame ignites, and individuals become greater than the sum of their parts. Now it all makes sense now in the Tragician brain: the catchy refrain of the Billy Bragg song 'Waiting for the great leap forwards", which I kept humming pre-match, may seem to be just about politics, revolutions and activism. Others may say struggle to see its mystical connection to a Round Two clash between the Bulldogs and the Eagles. But to me, the meaning could not be clearer. We've been waiting since 2016 for Our Boys to show us they're ready to challenge; waiting for them to take us again, on the great leap forward.
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.