The Tragician has been lying low. Coughs, colds, fevers. Soaring temperatures. Bone rattling chills and clammy sweats that come on suddenly (not even accompanied by the sight of Shane 'The Perm' McInerney marching onto the arena, or flashbacks to the '97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named).
An ominous array of symptoms. Overlaid, of course, with the Bob Murphy Blues. A depression, at thinking of a year without our heartbeat player. An even worse melancholy, if the dreadful thought pokes through, that we may never see him out on the field again, except through tears as he is driven around in some meaningless MCG motorcade.
Dear Bob. Say it ain't so.
The media, of course, have kindly advised fans and players, to 'put Bob's catastrophe behind us'. I heard Gerard Healy pontificating about this. We should be treating Bob's injury as though it had happened to any player on our list, and just move on and be rational, advised Gerard, moments before I - a little too energetically - punched the dial to turn his infernal inanity off.
'What would you expect from a footy mercenary who left his club and took the big bucks to go to Geoffrey Edelston's pink helicopter Swans?' I fumed (a bit of hyped-up, manufactured, vaguely illogical anger is, I find, a tonic in fighting the mournful Bob Murphy Blues).
Seemingly determined to increase our suffering, the club released the first instalment this year of The Ride: a continuation of the 2015 series, the main focus of which was the parallel journeys of Bob and Luke Beveridge; 'the coach Bob had always been waiting for.' There again was that terrible slow motion footage of Bob's injury. The faces of our devastated fans, seeing but barely believing, that Bob could go down, at that moment, like that. There was the emotion in Luke's voice, the rasping throat and red eyes. The footage in the inner sanctum as Luke addressed the team, confirmed that the injury was exactly as bad as it looked, and told them all to look after each other. There was Bob's daughter, Frankie, looking up at him and his crutches with trusting but bewildered eyes, then reaching out to pat his sore knee.
It somehow made me think about the story I wrote at the end of one of our more dismal years, 2013: 'Tomozz' . This was my imagining of the 2016 Grand Final: a Bulldogs' team running onto the 'G at last. I can hardly claim to have been a soothsayer: in my story, we were still of course coached by Brendan McCartney, with Ryan Griffen our valiant captain, and Bob a veteran whose spot in the team was in doubt until, at the VERY last minute (the Tragician loves a fairytale) he ran out onto the 'G with his boys.
Versions of this daydream have played out in my mind again and again over the decades. Of course, I've had to cross names out and insert new ones as the unsuccessful years rolled by: perhaps Rocket and Johnno might lead us to the promised land. Before then, it was Wheeler and Grant holding up the Cup, or Wallace, Libber The First and Crofty (I'm not sure why but Crofty, in my view a long-lost Krakouer brother, was just the kind of ungainly cult hero to cement a strong place in my affections).
It's no wonder I'm feeling poorly; I feel a sort of tiredness, a sorrow and fatigue, at the thought at having to energise myself to mentally re-write the dream again if it's not to include Bob Murphy, premiership player.
So on Saturday night as I headed to the ground for our game against the Lions, it somehow felt as though some of the thrill of the 2016 Ride had begun to dissipate. Already so many are missing from the group that jumped out of the blocks and dazzled the footy world in Round One: Tom Boyd. Caleb Daniel. Josh Dunkley. Bob. Jason Johanissen.
Though each match has been at Docklands this season, we've alternated 'home' games there with others where we are the 'guests'. How strange it was last week when we played the Blues, to see all that proud arrogance and the sense of money, power, privilege and entitlement that seeped from the very Princes Park turf, stripped away. The once mighty Blues are just another struggling Etihad tenant and bottom four certainties. Their display of hubris, as in a weird display cartoon characters representing 'The Blues', ran out carrying their 16 premiership cups seemed rather misplaced given the last decade or so. I wished we'd parodied it by the Dancing Dogs running out brandishing our wooden spoon collection.
Now, back in OUR familiar seats, we watch the Dogs make a shaky and error-riddled start to the first quarter. But very soon the result is beyond doubt. While our lead builds, I begin to concentrate my energies on two different pairs of players: our two elder statesmen Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, and the two Boy Wonders on which our premiership dreams are built, the outlandish talents of The Bont and Jake Stringer.
Our two oldest men out there, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, have between them played 473 games for us. Yet each came to the club as rookies. Boyd in fact rose from the ranks of the Frankston seconds.
Because Bob has so often beautifully articulated his premiership dream and his longing for a flag has so mirrored ours, it's easy to overlook that his two fellow senior citizens may be burning just as fiercely in their desire for the ultimate success. The three of them are the last remnants of the preliminary finals heartaches and together have endured the plunge to mediocrity of 2011-2014, the apparently certain knowledge that their flag 'window' had come and gone.
One of the most joyous things about last year's Year of Wonders was seeing the effect on our three thirty-somethings. Their enthusiasm rekindled week by week; as the young beanie-clad brigade kept barging through expectations the realisation dawned on them that it might not be over; it was worth sticking around. No longer did they have to resign themselves to being teachers, role-models and influencers for a group whose maturity they wouldn't be around to see. Their dream wasn't dead, buried and cremated.
Yet two weeks ago, the ranks of the three stalwarts, rejuvenated by the precocious talents around them, thinned down to two. No wonder there was such terrible sorrow on Matthew Boyd's face when he saw Bob on crutches after the Hawks' match; he shared with him the longest, closest and saddest of hugs.
For some reason Boyd has always been respected rather than loved by the Dogs' fans - including myself. But as I concentrated on watching his efforts on Saturday night I was unsure and slightly ashamed of why this has been the case. Maybe it's because he is rather dour in public; maybe it's because he's always been about workrate rather than flashiness; maybe it's because his disposal skills have often irked us. But I watched the kilometres he covered against the Lions, the second and third efforts which belied his 33-year-old body, saw the times that he willed his way into contests to help his younger team-mates, and I wondered afresh why we have never fully appreciated our two-time Sutton medallist and former captain and the immensity of his efforts for our club.
By contrast Dale Morris is one of our most well-loved players; yet many an opposition fan would probably struggle to name him. Like Matty Boyd he is approaching his 34th birthday, and it is hard to believe that he spent 18 months on the sidelines after a horrific broken leg. I always like to remember the tale of how the Dogs' leadership group moved their meetings to his hospital bed to include him. So selfless and unassuming is Dale that you could easily forget the single-minded ambition and self-belief that drove him when he was a 24 year old Werribee player. He kept sending the Dogs' brains trust videos of his play until they relented. How lucky are we that he did.
The other pair that I watched on Saturday night have never had to fight and scrap to prove the doubters wrong; they were the cream of their crop, high draft picks, elite talents from day one. From the moment that Jake Stringer and Marcus Bontempelli came to our club they were marked out for greatness, seized upon by success-starved fans; in only his second year Marcus even had the nickname from his team-mates of 'Footch'. It stood for 'The Future'.
Initially, the euphoria of the fact that these talents were OURS was overwhelming, but now as though we can't quite believe our luck, we've started to become critical, a little picky, projecting on them the stories of a lifetime of bulldogs-supporting failure and disappointment, worrying a little too much if they have a poor match or don't dominate week after week.
I watch The Bont closely this week. There's less of the dazzling freakish talent, but heaps of grunt. He's at the bottom of packs. His tackles are strong and courageous. I see that whenever there's a ball-up, he's one of the organisers, directing his team-mates, talking, encouraging, blocking. He spends time on the forward line, an imposing sight, a nightmare match-up with his height, power and mobility.
The Bont has not yet turned 21, but he's in our leadership group; he's played 42 games and last year ranked sixth in the competition for inside 50s. He topped our Brownlow votes with a staggering 13 votes.
He's The Bont. Our Bont. He's going to be a star.
I watch Jake 'The Lair' Stringer. His bristling energy, the forcefield of his outsized personality, has seemed a little confined over the last few weeks. Three, four, defenders always seem to be surrounding him. He's actually been - I wouldn't have ever thought this was possible? - down on confidence.
The ball's in our forward line - like many of our kicks on this night, it's a scrappy entry. Suddenly a steam train bearing the number nine crashes through our forward line. Lions' players fall like skittles around Jake Stringer as he turns - inevitably - towards the goals. The fans begin to rise the second they see who has the ball and what is his intent. There's a special distinctive sound reserved for some players, an ooh, an appreciation of artistry. We hear it now as Jake snaps the goal. As only he can.
As we leave the ground I'm reflecting again on Boyd and Morris, remembering their unflashy one-per-cent contributions in the backline, unheralded, solid, leading by example, doing the right thing time and again. The fans are never going to stir in our seats in anticipation as one of them launches a blistering run through the centre; we're not likely to chant their names as we did with The Bont in last year's final. How do they feel when they look down the ground and see their freakish younger team-mates? I imagine them praying, hard, that their bodies will hold up for one more year, two more years, whatever it takes to be out there when The Bont and The Lair light up the 'G.
Perhaps my 'Tomozz' fantasy was just one season too soon. We've waited a long time, such a very long time; what's another year? It wouldn't be right if it didn't feature three thirty-somethings, who've played their hearts out, side by side in a miserly backline. I can imagine them exchanging a few quiet glances as the light begins to fade in the dying moments of the 2017 Grand Final and they know what they've played for all these years has finally arrived.
Long before I commenced my illustrious career as a blogger, I was a literature student at Melbourne University. There I became a devotee of the Victorian novels of Thomas Hardy.
Though I loved his beautiful writing and portrayal of a fading rural England (he was also a poet), his plotting and bleak view of human nature drove me to distraction. No other novelist is so determined to deprive his characters of a happy ending. Relentless layers of improbable coincidences pile up to ensure a dismal outcome. A letter that would have brought two lovers together is slipped under a door but of course falls undiscovered through a crack; characters who are doing their best to reform will inevitably come across, just at the critical moment, the one person who knows their secret past and can deprive them of their happy new life. This is the guy whose most famous character, the blameless and beautiful Tess of the D'Urbervilles, is hanged, with Hardy exhibiting a morbid glee as he tells us: ‘the President of the Immortals … had ended his sport with Tess.'
You know where I'm going with this, of course. (Do you?) I've come to suspect that Ole Tom didn't actually die in the 1920s but has somehow been pulling the levers and is now employed as a ghostwriter penning the sorrowful history of the Footscray/Western Bulldogs football club. How else can you account for the relentless accumulation of misfortune that we and many of our players have experienced - the Chris Grant non-Brownlow, almost merged out of existence in '89, the endless series of finals failures, the solitary and so-long-ago premiership?
How else can you explain a plot twist in which our beloved captain - the very best of people, exemplifying loyalty and something pure, quixotic and joyful in footy, perched on 295 games and within touching distance of the flag that almost all of the footy world badly wants for him - crumples to the deck in the last dying seconds of the enthralling match against the Hawks? (Yep, Thomas Hardy was pulling the levers for sure; only he would extract a further masochistic pleasure in deciding that the awful sight of Bob writhing in pain on the turf wasn't sufficient. We had to lose the match as well to grind the message home).
The signs from the outset perhaps foreshadowed our fate. Seconds into the game, the Dogs zipped forward with restless energy with the exhilarating sight of Jake Stringer metres from goal and certain to do something freakish and magical. Instead, though, there was a collective deflated groan from our crowd, as in a confused and distinctly unfunny 'comedy' of errors Jake's wild handpass went astray.
We'd all been looking forward so much to this match, the chance to measure ourselves against the Three-Peater yardstick, an opportunity to find out whether we were the Real Deal. The answer in the first quarter was definitely not what we were looking for. Not for the first time, the Dogs looked overawed and out of place on the big stage. As we nervously fumbled and bumbled, while the Hawks moved the ball around with calm and clinical precision, I had flashbacks to our mortifying, embarrassing deer-in-the-headlights performance against the Hawks in the first final of 2008.
There were signs we could be humiliated, the footy world again sneering at our pretensions and mocking our brave talk of it all being somehow different, this time, for this group. Our effervescent energy and quick ball moment were so easily shut down by the ultimate professionals - those guys who knew more than most about winning. You could tell our opponents, despite the loss of (their) Roughead and Hodge, were used to this pressure; an amazing 14 of them compared to our five had played more than 100 games.Their hands hadn't turned into concrete mitts like those of our blokes; they had time, and space, and with their dazzling skills, were rendering the Dogs flatfooted, slow and reactive.
As the first quarter siren sounded there was a murmur in the crowd. A sigh of disappointment - quickly shifting into the usual resigned fatalism. But we sit close to where Luke Beveridge and his lieutenants make their way onto the ground. Watching Luke pass us, a study in calm and purposeful concentration, I felt unexpected hope that he would have the answers. That the game that for me looked like a shapeless mass of blunders and errors was unfolding before his eyes as a series of problems that could, and would, be solved. In Bevo it seems, we really do trust.
There wasn't an immediate turnaround; in fact the Hawks further extended their lead. But there were little signs, chains of play that began to pay off, an imperceptible lift in confidence, moments where, even when we still hadn't goaled, I found myself saying: 'That looks like us.' We might lose, but I was glad to see we weren't going to capitulate - not this group. The goals slowly began to come, and with it signs of verve and flair. I wished that the half time break wouldn't come, that the tiny building blocks of momentum wouldn't topple over during the long interval, while Alastair Clarkson and his coaches rejigged and adjusted, unfazed by the latest impertinent newcomers.
The third quarter - well, I wish it wasn't forever tainted by what was to come. I'd love to watch it again, free from that sickening knowledge, to see our Bulldogs - conceding almost two years on average of experience - not just outplaying the ThreePeaters but, incredibly, smashing them in contested possessions by an unheard-of 58 to 29. Holding strong in tackles, fanatically attacking the ball and the man, emerging with the ball in contest after contest to drive it forward. Not the pretty football with which some had thought we might overpower the Hawks, but grinding, desperate, ferocious will for the contest. And driving it all, not as you might expect, the glamour pair on which all our hopes usually reside, The Bont and Jake Stringer, but a duo who epitomise what is so wonderful about our game; our two smallest but bravest and most determined players, the 'Energiser Bunny' Luke Dalhaus and 'Celeb' Daniel (after his performance I've decided it's disrespectful for me to keep calling him the Wee Man.
The Dogs' fans were making a tremendous racket. Chants were echoing around the arena, feet were being stamped on concrete like the Western Oval glory days. It was a kind of group delirium, a trance-like state, pride and yes amazement that we could play like this against the very best. We were three goals up - it definitely should have been more. Yet somehow failure didn't seem an option - and this is from me, who is always restlessly calculating whether even a 10 goal lead could be overturned, with 5 minutes on the clock.
Oh foolish Tragician. Your lesson is never learnt.
The Hawks weren't buying into the euphoria. With their well-founded self belief, they came at us again. We were somehow caught by surprise, stunned and a bit affronted that they hadn't surrendered to our burning will and passion in the third quarter. 'Oh?' our exhausted looking troops seemed to be saying. 'We've got to do this all over again?' And we did.
We hit the lead again. We'd hold on this time, surely, for an epic, brilliant win in the most enthralling of games. But in a slow-motion scene that I can't bear to remember yet will never forget, the ball began sailing towards the Hawks' centre half forward spot. And somehow Bob Murphy was alone, competing against two Hawks' players.
Little collages, memories of Bob, and his career, and what he's meant to us, kept flashing before me in the minutes and hours after the match, when our worst fears were confirmed. Yes, I was there, the last time I think that I stood in the terraces at Princes Park, when Bob played his first match, a freckle-faced, gangly looking kid who popped up to kick a wobbly winning goal. I saw his brilliant 2006 season, where he played as an unconventional and undersized centre half forward, one who relied on skills, speed and run rather than brute strength. I was there the first time his knee first buckled, beneath a massive Sav Rocca tackle at the MCG. I remembered reading how Bob writes letters for the players on their debuts and slips them in their lockers. I pictured the wry smile on his face, as he stood with the team for the playing of the national anthem in a final in 2009 when the sound system accidentally blared out an AC-DC track; our whimsical, quirky Bob could see the ridiculousness of the moment. I thought of our epic win against Sydney last year, and Bob wreathed in smiles, calling it the best win he'd ever played in, and us basking with him in this unexpected moment; the gratitude we felt when he put his hand up to be captain, such a natural and inevitable fit that we wondered why it had ever taken so long to happen.
I remembered all the things he'd talked about in the club's video of season 2015 The Ride, as much a chronicle of Bob's journey as that of the club he'd unexpectedly found himself leading and inspiring. There is such a sweetness to Bob, the dad eating McDonald's with his daughter, the guy who is still awe-struck because our Brownlow medalist John Schultz sends him an email to congratulate him after a game. I thought of Chris Grant, our gentle and gracious champ, and the light in his face as he described Bob Murphy as a 'beautiful person.'
It can't end - it mustn't - end this way, I thought. Not even Ole Tom could be so cruel.
After our win against Freo, Luke Beveridge spoke about the tardis. I wish there was a time machine to take us back and wipe clean, forever, all the moments of Sunday's match that led to Bob trying to get around Luke Breust and spoil the ball as it spun into the Hawks' forward line. If only we could unravel all those countless actions, the kicks and handballs, the good and bad decisions, the goals and points, bounces and tackles, the random ricochet of the ball off hands or shins. If only we could undo the fateful moment on Sunday morning, when Easton Wood's troublesome hamstring twanged, and he was ruled out of the match. If Easton had been there, in those excruciating seconds when Bob was about go go down, he'd have been hurtling fearlessly across the turf, ready to support and protect his captain. He'd have jumped and flown and spoilt, and we'd never have known how close we'd come to the desolation of seeing Bob go down, and the terrible fear that we may not see him out there ever again.
It's one of the legacies of barracking for a not-so-successful team: ghosts are always hovering.
It can't be a coincidence surely, that The Perm (I thought, hoped, he'd retired) is back on centre stage for Riewoldt's milestone. With conspiracy theories jangling as I recall that moment on the MCG grassy knoll, a nightmare scenario for the last few seconds of tonight's match begins to flash before me.
Each year, during October I keep an eye out for any unexpected news items concerning my football team - an announcement that we've been merged out of existence, for example (1989) or that our captain would rather, well, not be (2014). But from that point on, in the twilight world called the off-season, I develop a mellow, detached perspective.
I reach the philosophical realisation that having my well-being tied to the deeds of 22 blokes, three oh-so-fallible umpires, the fickle bounce of a Sherrin, lamentable decisions by players to handpass too high in the dying moments of a winnable final, is far from ideal.
I have only the most passing interest in the draft, and avoid any mention of trade week, which is far too pragmatic and ruthless for my sensibilities. (I was crushed, though, when Ayce Cordy was cut from our list. Not because I thought the gangly one, who didn't even attain Extremely Tall Player Cult Status, was potentially the next Scott Wynd, or even a Peter Street. It was chagrin, as I lamented that I would now never be able to use my long-planned blog heading if Ayce and brother Zaine took the field together: The A to Z of Cordys).
I'll 'fess up to the odd moment of deranged fury if I spot people wearing 'Three-peat' t-shirts, and agitated moments when I wake from a clammy nightmare muttering: 'But who's on Eddie Betts?'
But apart from such understandable lapses, I develop something approaching tranquility.
In fact, I hadn't even got around to watching the video 'The Ride', chronicling our 2015 season. That's how zen and uninterested I was.
And then, two weeks ago, I did. And the veneer of fake tranquillity was smashed to smithereens.
I became so excitable, reliving our Year of Wonders, that I began firing off feverish texts to unsuspecting family members: This is OUR year! We have the team to win a flag NOW! I can feel it!
( I may have even strayed into triple exclamation mark territory).
My equilibrium was, you could say, seriously disturbed. And then, just as quickly, I plunged into terror. Because to Bulldogs fans, there's nothing more scary and threatening than that ominous, detestable, four letter word: hope.
After all, 'The Ride' ended with our loss to Adelaide rather than improbable premiership glory. Even knowing the outcome, it hurt. Another finals disappointment. Another match where we were dominant but profligate, thrown away by lack of composure. A tale too familiar. A story too often told.
The emotions that 'The Ride' had stirred up kept floating back to me as I made my way to our Round One match against Fremantle. It was a trip that took a lot longer than usual - I was driving in from Lorne, where I'd spent the Easter weekend.
Any doubt about whether I'd interrupt my holiday to make the two-hour trek, was banished when on Thursday I received a personal - yes, you got it right, directed at me only - text from Bob Murphy, taking time out from training, sponsor obligations, and media commitments to implore MY presence. If Our Boys needed me there, in the red, white and blue, who was I to argue?
First quarter: the Dogs exploded from the blocks like men possessed. Our fears that our exhilarating but high energy football couldn't be sustained, that wily foxes like Ross ('The Process') Lyon would have been scheming on ways to ruthlessly dismantle our game plan, that the carefree abandon on 2015 would of necessity have to be tempered and modified, already seemed ridiculous when by the 14-second mark we'd hit the scoreboard.
In the almost stunned moments of the quarter time break, after a seven goal to none opening quarter blitz, 'The Ride' was back in my thoughts again. I remembered Bob recounting the words of his new coach just before a 2015 NAB match, words that gave me goosebumps to recall. Beveridge warned his fresh-faced charges: 'There's going to be an ambush.' A theatrical, dramatic pause. 'And that ambush is going to be us.'
The things I'd fretted about - whether we could recapture our freewheeling, devil-may-care style, and the follow-up fear (there's always a few stashed away in my repertoire), whether this would have to be curbed if we were to go the next step - were both being answered in compelling style.
Easton Wood was still going for - and achieving - stupendously acrobatic, fearless, marks, yet he wasn't letting his opponents have a sniff either. His fellow Men's Department employees cruised effortlessly forward time and again. They made it look so much fun that a rather startled Dale Morris found himself caught in their slipstream, charging towards goal and launching a wobbly shot. If it had been a goal, the tide of affection towards our most selfless and unobtrusive champion would have surely had even Ross 'The Process' on his feet and applauding. (Maybe). Meanwhile Shane 'Pornstar' Biggs and Nathan Eagleton (sorry, JJ) were not only racking up midfielder style numbers but, in a bizarre case of 'Trading Places', emulating Dale Morris's scrooge-like approach to shutting down their opponents.
The 2016 Bont is stronger yet just as graceful and creative; the under-rated Jackson Macrae set up so much of the blitz with his deft little touches; 'Wee Man' Caleb Daniel uncannily made something of nothing every time he went near it. And the guy who missed all the 2015 fun, Libber the Second, played like a man who knew that footy mortality can come quicker than you think. The roar of emotion from the crowd when he kicked a goal on his wrong foot within minutes of the start was enough to sweep up even Ross 'The Process' in its wake and bring a smile to his face. (Perhaps).
Telling though our so-called 'sexy' football was, the fact that last year's minor premiers and masters of defensive football could only manage five goals while we rattled them on at will, said that we had improved, that the hunger for success still burnt.
There was also another player who you may have heard of. He wears, like an increasing number of awe-struck young fans, number nine.
Our somewhat introverted fans often, I think, have a fear of the cult of personality. A cringing 'stop that' reaction when the media gushes over Jake's Ablett-style prodigious talents. Embarrassment when BT shrieks that he's a 'package.' But it's getting harder and harder not to embrace and revel in the Jake Stringer hype, to watch his highlight reels again and again. You could feel a ripple of amazement and then crazy laughter go through us when, in one moment he launched himself to the heavens to attempt to steal mark of the Year from Easton, and in the next half second soccered a goal, on his left foot, past three flatfooted opponent.
Our coach fronted the media post-match, after a win that brought that four letter word stealthily creeping back into our hearts. There was little talk of The Process from our Plantaganet-look-alike, lycra wearing, Men-of-Mayhem-creating coach.The media pack instead heard this pronouncement: “We need to be good in the phone box and we need to be good in the TARDIS. We were good in both today.’’
The TARDIS stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. The police box where Dr Who travels instantaneously in time and space. Or, perhaps, the milli-second in which Libber knows where to squirt out those handballs, the fraction of a blink in which Bont decides to blind turn an opponent, or Bob thinks he will launch a 50 metre switch kick across the ground to Easton Wood running at full tilt. Or Jake The Lair sees a goal, where none should really exist.
It was the moment that I knew - or maybe I decided, for footy is all about faith - that the 2016 Ride was going to sweep me along again and that I'd be need to hang on again for dear life in its irrepressible wake.
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.