Through the looking glass
We’re off to a flyer in the 2016 elimination final against the West Coast Eagles. Stunning the footy world and even ourselves, we are 22 points up. Despite being rank underdogs, our team are playing with that Men of Mayhem manic style. One of our best is 23-year-old Lin Jong, who has cemented his spot and played the last nine games of the season. But Lin gets buried in a heavy tackle. Our medical staff rush to his side.
Amid the euphoria of our unexpected and gallant performance, and sudden realisation that our finals campaign remains alive, we still have time for sorrow. Lin is in tears on the bench; his collarbone had cracked beneath the weight of Jeremy McGovern.
He will have surgery, and remarkably, recover enough to play in Footscray’s premiership, adopting the famed Charlie Sutton ploy of taping the wrong collarbone so it won’t be targeted by his opponents. Lin is one of our best. The Libba Sisters listen to the match as we drive back from Sydney, the day after our preliminary final victory.
The senior team had kept on winning, competition for spots is fierce, and Lin’s spot in the team has vanished. He will be an onlooker when his close mates run out on the ‘G; dressed in his suit and tie, not his number 46 guernsey; on the sidelines, as our team finally make history.
I was once asked which of the Bulldogs' players I'd most like to meet in person. Perhaps surprisingly for one who spends far too much time observing and worrying about them, I have little desire to do so. I fear it would throw an awkward light on the chasm between our very different perspectives on the game. Me the fan behind a fence, dependent on their decisions and mindset every week to secure my happiness, yet still removed from their struggles. The players with their own emotions, injury niggles, family worries: every mistake exposed out on the ground, every decision scrutinised and criticised by people just like me.
I fear I would be disappointed if our conversation was bland and cliched. I prefer, I suppose, to be able to project stories onto them, stories that are, if you get right down to it, more about me than them.
I've never met Lin Jong. He could be an exception though, someone with a tale I'd love to know more about. There’s his fascinating back story, the child of immigrants who arrived penniless, the Asian kid who’d never played competitive footy until he was 15. He's the first player of Timorese descent, receiving a phone call of congratulations from Xanana Gusmao when he was drafted as a rookie. There’s his loving and close family, including his mother, who’s become a social media hit for an intrepid dive off a pool and her quaint text messages to her amused son. (His mother, he says, has become such an enthusiastic convert, she goes to matches even if he's not playing).
There’s Lin himself. The 2016 injury, it turned out, wasn’t just a one-off unfortunate event. He’s missed 37 games since then; the word ‘luckless’ has become a permanent adjective attached to his name. It’s not even just one particular body part repeatedly letting him down: while he’s had another collarbone injury, he’s also suffered an ACL tear, a broken jaw, a ruptured appendix and an ankle injury that meant he only played three matches in 2020. He didn't even make it through the first quarter of his first match in almost a year on Friday night, before his hamstring gave way.
Again, cameras panned in on the poignant sight of him in tears on the bench.
Again, as he limped slowly, on crutches, into the team circle to join the song, we wondered just how much wretched luck one person could bear.
He’s approached it all with grace and wry humour. Lin is the first one to poke fun at his terrible run with injury and his fragile body. Though his resilience must be stretched to breaking point, he’s given no indication that he will give away this game which can be so cruel. After this latest setback, he posted: "Been through this before, can get through this again. Death, taxes, me injured... I have to go now, my planet needs me."
He’s taken time off in the past to deal with his mental health, and more importantly to speak honestly about what it means in a footballing context. He says he was reluctant to take the time out he needed: ‘“I put it off. I saw it as a selfish thing to do, given the team-first setting and culture I was in.”
He added: “It’s hard to hear from someone that you have depression, but the way I look at it is, it’s now a part of my identity. I’m male, I’m a footballer, I’m Asian, I am right footed, I have depression. None are more unusual than the other for me now. When I realised I didn’t have to hide away from that, and I didn’t have to be ashamed about what people would think, it all got a hell of a lot easier."
I’ve never met Lin’s close mate at the club, Jackson Macrae, either. He was close by on Friday night when, in the most innocuous of circumstances, Lin's hamstring gave way.
I came across a photo recently, of the two of them seated together in the Grand Final parade, one of them about to play (and be close to best on the ground) in a premiership; the other not knowing if he would ever get that opportunity again.
The words 'unassuming' and 'under-rated' are Jackson's adjectives just as 'luckless' is Lin's . He's been exceptionally durable: though he suffered a hamstring tear which kept him out of the last four matches of the 2016 season, it held up under finals pressure. I wonder if, seeing the bad luck of his mate, he'd played - surely all players do - with that gnawing fear, of how close injury always is, of how easily Lin's fate could have been his.
As I watch Jackson Macrae's outstanding 2021 season with ever-increasing awe, I'd also love to hear him talk about what drives him now, to get better and better – to have added to his repertoire the perfectly weighted kicks into the forward line that further complement his relentless work ethic and running. In unguarded moments, does he ever chafe at the lack of recognition from outside the club, somehow always mentioned second to The Bont, and even now overtaken to some degree by flashier new models like Adam Treloar?
I’ve never met Aaron Naughton either, but somehow I don’t think I need to meet him to understand everything about him. Unless I’m very much mistaken, footy is simple for the guy who loves to fly. I’m not sure Aaron would ever be weighed down by the expectations of fans; even after he misses those shots at goal, he doesn't seem to berate himself or have time to be more than mildly annoyed before he sees some pack forming 100 metres away, and thinks it might be fun to fly over the top of the whole lot of them and catch the ball.
I’ve never met Toby Greene either.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
I’d prefer to think about the good guys of footy, and one of them is, surely, Lin Jong. I remember, with some embarrassment, my own annoyance when he shanked his shot at goal in the first quarter. How trivial my petty irritation seems now when minutes later he fell to the ground clutching his hammy, compared to the enormous price he's continued to pay to be out there, while as an armchair critic I experience no hardship whatsoever.
My mind drifts into wondering how he really felt during the ‘TV moment’ when his team-mates insisted on bringing him into the circle to sing the song. Did he feel surrounded by warmth and care, or was his brave smile just for the cameras? I can’t fathom how he felt as he faced the later news of just how bad the injury is: he will undergo surgery and miss 12 weeks. He would have no illusions about the loneliness, self-doubt and sheer boredom of rehab that lies ahead. The love and care of his teammates as they wrapped their arms around him to sing the song, and the support of his devoted family, are the things that will sustain him, far more than the impotent but heartfelt sorrow of a Bulldog Tragician.
We’re off to a flyer in the 2016 elimination final against the West Coast Eagles. Stunning the footy world and even ourselves, we are 22 points up. Despite being rank underdogs, our team are playing with that Men of Mayhem manic style. One of our best is 23-year-old Lin Jong, who has cemented his spot and played the last nine games of the season. But Lin gets buried in a heavy tackle. Medical staff rush to his side.
Lin rises to his feet gingerly. After a quick check, Dr Gary Zimmerman gives the bench a quick thumbs-up. Fortunately, Lin Jong has escaped with just a bruised shoulder. Though a little hampered, he plays the match out.
Three weeks later Lin runs onto the MCG . He absorbs the huge wall of noise, the roar of the crowd, all of us with our desperate, desperate hopes for what he and his team-mates can do for us. In the crowd, his ecstatic parents are bursting with pride. When the match gets underway, their son is in the thick of everything, playing his part in our stirring win.
Lin jogs around the boundary holding the cup, side-by-side with Jackson Macrae. Our premiership captain Easton Wood lies on the turf like a snow angel, and the red, white and blue confetti falls all around.
The worrying kind
Lately, I've been worried.
Worried that I'm not really worried enough.
Anxiety and over-the-top fears are, after all, an integral part of my Tragician persona. I'm not alone in this, however - remember the quintessential gloomy fan, Danny from Droop Street, within a few hours of our 2016 triumph fretting that now we wouldn't get any high draft picks.
Yet so far, before each of our 2021 matches, I've been ... well, hopeful. Excited.
Before a 'must win' match against North I would normally have reached back ino the mental archives for all those similar occasions where the Dogs have turned in an insipid performance, leading to a morale-sapping, ignominious loss against lowly opposition. I should have been wringing my hands about the likely tactics of those North faux-tough-guys (are Scott Thompson and Firrito still playing?), and been in a state of high alert about one of their stars having a day out (Ben Brown? Glenn Archer? Drew Petrie? I realise I can't even name any of their players).
Anxiety should have been skyrocketing, given my legendary antipathy towards all things North. ('Why don't you like us?' a North-supporting colleague asked me plaintively one day, to which I could only reply: 'Maybe I'm just not a very nice person.').
Yet somehow I expected a win, and an easy enough one at that, though even the newly-minted Relaxed and Comfortable Tragician couldn't have foreseen how dominant our performance would be, or that, in an un-Bulldog-like fashion, we would continue to ruthlessly grind our undermanned and inexperienced opposition into the turf.
Then we headed to Ballarat for our next challenge. I should have been getting antsy about whether, after such a romp against North, Our Boys could rise to another level against sterner opposition. I should have been worried whether the wet, cold, bitter conditions (are there any other kind in our adopted home?) would suit our game style. Not only did these concerns barely cross my mind, but in cavalier fashion, I even rejected the idea that those strange little handwarmers would be needed, figuring I'd be too busy clapping Bulldogs' goals to get cold hands*.
*(I can confirm this was a mistake).
From where does this uncharacteristic tranquility come? I guess, like most things over the past 12 months, COVID has to take centre stage. When you've gone through harsh lockdowns, been unable to see people you love, need to wear masks and are confined to home apart from one hour a day, just being able to be at the footy is exhilarating. I even welcomed that bracing Ballarat wind.*
*(may not be strictly true).
The other reason I might not be as worried any more is the welcome return of what I can only call a more joyful style of playing. That joy felt like the biggest casualty of the past few years. The best times for footy teams and fans alike are when it all starts to come together, and possibilities seem endless. In contrast, so many of our post-2016 matches, even the wins, were often dour affairs, where we accumulated relentlessly, painstakingly, yet countless inside-50s didn't reap rewards. It was often quite painful to watch and somehow the players too seemed to be finding it grim, baffling and downright exhausting. I certainly did.
Now I see a briskness in their steps, renewed energy, the closeness and camaraderie that the best teams always have. Goals come easily, the 'look-away-now' moments aren't as common. This team, you feel, has started asking the audacious question Bob put up on the whiteboard before our 2016 final against West Coast: How good could you be?.
The fact that we sit in different locations each week to watch our team (usually somewhere ludicrously not 'Best available' - thanks Ticketmaster) has also given a novel and enjoyable perspective. Last year, of course, we'd been unable to watch games in person, having to depend on idiotic commentary for any insights into what was going on.
Admittedly, in the matches so far I've been located in the pocket, most of the time struggling to see a lot of the play down the other end (apart from multiple missed frees to those in red, white and blue). On the other hand we've been only a few rows from the front, much nearer to the action than usual. I've been able to see at close quarters Bailey Smith's strength as he pushes off an opponent, and his one-touch grab of the ball even while he wheels around to assess his next option. I've been able to watch how our defence work together, folding back and moving forward like lines in a battlefield, covering dangerous options or supporting a team-mate. I've seen how big and solid Alex Keath is as he marshals the backline, and been able to appreciate the speed and calmness of Bailey Williams as he sums up the danger and instantly makes the right judgement of when to stay and when to go.
All in all, even in Ballarat I wasn't going to waste time complaining about the poor location of seats* or whine about the cold*. I simply set myself to enjoy a day of country-style footy and feel in my increasingly frozen bones just how different things are in 2021.
*definitely not true
I realise too, that my own perspective is changing. The centre of gravity in our team has been shifting for a while, and even the sometimes reluctant Tragician is coming around to view the present-day team as more than just Bulldogs 2016 Lite, or unfairly seeing the newer talents as mere support acts to the dwindling numbers of premiership heroes.
Now, I'm dazzled by the sheer talent of the up-and-comers.
I'm part of the crowd's murmur of anticipation when the ball goes anywhere near our Astro-Naught, who can clunk the ball better than anyone I've seen, and then with cat-like reflexes hunts any that spill free. I'm enthralled by the agility, marking and (of late) straight kicking of Tim English, as well as being somewhat astonished by the idea that we - WE!! - have a glut of tall marking forwards.
I'm praying, hard, that Young, Lewis nails down that spot in the backline and doesn't let it go. I'm revelling in the transformation of Daily Bailey from slightly-built, enigmatic and injury-prone half-forward to still slightly-built and enigmatic but hopefully much more durable half-back. I love watching him glide around; I see a touch of Bob Murphy in the way he intersects with the game.
I'm enjoying the point-of-difference of star recruit Adam Treloar, bringing that pace and burst speed that isn't an overwhelming feature of our uber-talented midfield. (I also reflect on his bromance with Josh Dunkley, and wonder at the strange connection between one bloke who was traded from a club he still desperately wanted to play for, and another bloke who desperately wanted to be traded from a club that still wanted him; but after a while my head hurts a bit too much to think about it).
I feel relief watching Stef Martin's big frame absorbing the blows in the ruck, and I enjoy seeing a wry smile from Bevo Our Saviour in the coaching box when Josh Bruce kicked his tenth goal - while serial antagonist Libba and his promising sidekick Bailey Smith meanwhile were in the thick of a stoush (in which Our Boys were entirely innocent, undoubtedly caused by typically untoward faux-tough-guy tactics from North).
The New and Improved Non-worrying Tragician took time this week for a leisurely view of the Barkly Street podcast. This week it was in honour of our captain and hero Marcus Bontempelli, who is playing game 150 this weekend. He was interviewed by Bob who seemed almost as starstruck as if the Bulldog Tragician was the one behind the mike. I watched, bursting with pride, the Bont's relaxed and affable demeanour; whenever Bob praised him, Bont accepted the compliments with grace, rather than shuffling around with any fake humility. The Bont has always known how good he is, in an uncomplicated and hubris-free way, and that's part of his aura and also part of his playing style, for all champions reflect their own personality on the field.
Not for the first time I give thanks to the planetary alignments that led Bont to our club, this still young man without whom, I am sure, we would not have known the premiership euphoria. I find myself thinking about an early interview that Bont, just 18, did on one of the footy shows, with boorish Mark Robinson asking the teenager: 'Were you disappointed when you were drafted to the Dogs?' Bont's reaction was a slight flinch of annoyance and then a composed 'No, not at all' response. With his trademark politeness, he did the equivalent of the old politician-style favourite of 'not accepting the premise of the question.' He was there to change our club from within both by his outrageous talent and his equally outrageous question of 'Why not us?'
But...hang on, what's this? Moments after the podcast finished, my nerves begin to jangle, my radar for an impending catastrophe blares outon high alert.
Because Bont is a free agent this year (thanks for that dumb idea AFL) and already the whispers have started. Clubs are assembling a 'too-good-to-be-true' war chest in the hope of prising Bont away from our club.
My pulse quickens, as I try (and fail) to banish from my mind the thought of increasingly gloomy headlines ('Bontempelli contract talks stall'), speculation building throughout the season (it couldn't be Essendon could it? please God let it not be Essendon), the dreadful sight of Bont donning the colours of another club (Stop it right now!). I visualise crying children abandoning their number four guernseys, and a tearful Tragician melodramatically tearing a beloved badge from her scarf. I need some deep breaths as I try and replace the growing hysteria with more soothing images and tell myself that my worst fears won't come to pass.
For surely Our Golden Boy just wouldn't - couldn't - do it to us.
It's weirdly comforting, though, the return of the worrying. I'm not really built for Zen-like 'this too shall pass' response to footy heartbreak, even though I've had plenty of practice at it. I guess that's why footy is endlessly enthralling and gripping, that constant see-sawing between its highs and lows, because as Leonard Cohen (worrier extraordinaire) said, the cracks are where the light gets in.
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.