50 shades of losing
Some losses make you angry, some losses make you frustrated. Some shatter your faith and break your heart. Some even make you proud.
There are excruciating, oh-so-close losses of under a goal when one unpredictable bounce of the ball, one missed shepherd, one baffling umpire adjudication, or one inexplicable brain-fade by a player makes all the difference between joy and despair. There are numbing 100 plus point losses, where your team is pounded relentlessly and the performance descends into clown-like farce, losing any semblance of footballing confidence, nous, desire and ability. There are brave losses where as a supporter you walk out of the ground strangely uplifted, knowing not one morsel of energy has been left unspent by your team; losses where you can accept that there is such a thing as an honourable defeat, and that these gallant efforts need to be celebrated and respected even when the final outcome is rightly mourned.
Then there are losses that give you a sobering perspective on where your team is at, and ultimately leave you just - sad seems to be the only word I can find. Sunday's loss to the Gold Coast was one of those for me.
I was sad that some of the inspiring moments of our first half performance - the courage of Griffen in weathering a smashing hit which led to a scintillating Cooney goal; Tutt's long-striding run bouncing the ball and his new-found composure in kicking two goals; Murphy's contortionist-style mark in his welcome appearance in the forward line - have been now well and truly overshadowed by a poor and lethargic third quarter, one of the worst we've played in ages. In this disastrous 30 minutes we saw a complete undoing of all the things our team has been striving towards, all the more depressing and infuriating because of its stark contrast with the commitment and endeavour of the first half. As our opponents pranced effortlessly around our leaden, listless efforts to give chase, it was dispiriting to see how quickly we capitulated, how helpless we seemed to stop the flow, how impossible it seemed for someone, anyone, to show defiance, grit and composure in the face of an avalanche of far too easy Suns' goals.
I was sad, too, that instead of recognition, respect and praise for Liam Picken's outstanding tagging performance on Gary Ablett, the incessant focus throughout the TV commentary was instead on whether this must have, surely, been the result of illegal tactics rather than Liam's fierce concentration and intensity (though in one of the private heart-to-hearts that Ablett seemed to feel his due with the umpire, even the umpire admonished him that 'it's not against the law to double team someone' - not sure why this was a revelation to Gaz). Ablett's disappointingly churlish reaction to the rare experience of being bested was in fact reminiscent of coverage of a losing streak of the English cricketing team, where a playful editor penned the headline: 'Can the Poms be beaten fairly?'
Even more insulting was later coverage of Ablett's decision to take the law into his own hands - reframed by the press as 'an errant elbow to pitbull Liam Picken' and 'an off-the-ball incident between the Suns’ skipper and the snarling Bulldog.' (Yes, these are actual quotes, from the Murdoch press). Liam, it seemed, needed to be dehumanised - a snarling pitbull, no less - to fit a pre-constructed media narrative, demonised as a thuggish, talentless hack trying to drag down footballing elite. (One with a weirdly configured body shape too, apparently, given that Ablett's 'errant elbow' to what looked like his head was instead conveniently redefined by a benign match review panel as his chest). As Dogs' fans who admire his quiet tenacity and selfless dedication to his task and the team week in and week out, I only wish there was a way to tell Liam simply, as Bob Murphy said so beautifully about Jordan Roughhead in his column a few weeks ago: 'We love him so.'
I was saddened that our club was clearly held in such little respect by the Channel Seven team. They seemed to have a pre-prepared script of the match which centered on fawning admiration for those exciting up and comers ('they could finish as high as third after today, Bruce!!!') who were facing - um, who are they again? Our players didn't even seem to be extended the courtesy of having their names known by the commentary team. Nothing insightful or thoughtful was offered about our club's strengths and weaknesses, our game style, how we could improve even. We were just the counterpoint. Bit players in the Gold Coast Are On The Rise narrative.
Decisions that didn't favour the Dogs (the sudden resurrection of the 'holding the ball' rule, which has been in hibernation all year, could have been worthy of comment) were quickly brushed aside and never shown or analysed again, with hurried cuts to ad breaks, while in contrast the cameras pored over any sign that the Suns might have been denied a free, or may have captured some new outrage from Pitbull Picken (perhaps he may have got off the leash and been mauling a grandmother at half time just for fun).
It made me sad too that close to best on ground was Jarrod Harbrow. In our colours he was one of my favourite players - his dash, ingenuity and creativity from the backline a joy to watch. Brave, too, as his bone-jarring collision with Jordan Lewis in one memorable game painfully attested. In my mind he came of age in the third quarter of the 2008 preliminary final against Geelong, where he took risks by launching some daring counter attacks from the backline, getting us back into the match. It's a cruel sort of pain, when you've watched a player grow up before your eyes (yes, we also remember that funny little rats-tail hairstyle) to see him further develop that talent and potential at another club. Jarrod is still only 25, and his pace and drive are exactly what our club badly needs right now. How much stronger would we be with Jarrod and Callan Ward, also lifted in the Great Expansion Clubs Heist, still in our line-up. (It's a further twist of the knife to recall that we squandered our Harbrow compensation pick on Justin Sherman who played two very forgettable seasons for us and never came close to replacing the talent of Harbrow).
I was sad because the match made me feel that the story I've been relentlessly preaching to myself about our promising future could well be an illusion. Our road ahead is long, but does it have to be SO long and so barren right now? I'd convinced myself, especially after our encouraging form in the second half of 2013, that the improvement would be linear, that this year we would be just a bit better than last year, that progress would keep building, small step by small step maybe, but with a clear foundation at its base. Sunday's performance shook that faith, maybe because the usual consoling platitudes about age and inexperience aren't, well, all that consoling. The Suns are younger and less experienced than us. They're just - better.
But the biggest cause of my sadness was what this game seemed to represent, the subtext of the direction of the AFL in general, its obsession with planting the flag in new territory, and what it means for us, one of the smallest and pretty much the most unsuccessful of clubs. It's clear to me that the Suns, a plastic, artificial concoction of a club, in their appropriately Ronald McDonald colours, will almost certainly win a flag - quite possibly more than one - before our Dogs come close. In fact their very existence is the reason that our wait will be even more prolonged. Granted endless concessions, allowed to skim off the cream of young talent of the land, and gifted millions of dollars, Gold Coast's path to success isn't a noble, heartwarming story to be admired and celebrated; it's simply what you'd reasonably expect from the advantages they've been granted. Their inevitable success should be seen as a return on investment, not a fairytale.
I can't even conceptualise them as a "club", as a warm, welcoming home to the usual range of crusty and eccentric characters like cranky old boot-studders, or people with mysterious tasks like holding the whiteboard, with fans who will passionately debate for hours exactly what went wrong in that last match - or another long-forgotten one decades ago. Fans who can feel actually physically sick when their lead is at risk in the last quarter, people who get the joke when someone calls out, 'You're a disgrace to Groenewegon's jumper'. Who can remember when Libber The First was just as reviled and feared as Pitbull Picken.
Much though I may loathe and resent our Victorian rivals and feel jealous of their success, I can recognise in them kindred spirits whose loyalty and passion have been shaped around a past that stands for something (yes, even Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon have known pain, bitter defeats and humiliation), a legacy and tradition handed down through generations. These teams still have the silent but ghostly aura of old tribal loyalties and neighbourhood animosities lingering. Dusty halls of trophies, quaint photos of players in lace-up guernseys and exotic waxed moustaches, lockers with the silent legacy of numbers of players long gone but still honoured.
But when I try and envisage the celebrations of a Gold Coast premiership and the excitement of their 'fans' (now there's a club that deserves to call them 'stakeholders') - even my imagination falters. It feels like it would just be a travesty, that's all. While our club has had to fight, scrounge and scrap for its very existence, how could it not be the most empty and vacuous of moments to watch a Gold Coast flag come to fruition? Where would be the tears of joy from long-suffering fans (sorry, stakeholders) at having weathered so much heartache and finally lived to see this day? It would be greeted with as much rapture and emotion as one of the more mediocre episode of one of those interminable TV cooking contests, with the remote control button employed just as hastily by me. Even Bruce McAvaney, surely, would struggle to inject the requisite voice tremble as he says: 'You just get the feeling they've worked so hard for all of this.'
There's an irony that not even Bruce could find delicious: while the establishment of these new 'franchises' may have brought in the humungous television dollars that have probably saved our team's existence, they're creating a landscape where we are at risk of being pigeonholed in our current role of unglamorous and unloved bit players, condemned to condescension and sidelined into irrelevance. We're not even diabolically bad enough or interesting enough to the media to even be the subject of back page inquisitions about poor form that greets Carlton or Richmond, along the lines of 'What the hell's wrong with those Dogs?' ... we're just trundling along in quiet desperation with the also-rans somewhere between 10th and 16th, most likely for the next few years. I could say it makes me sad. But maybe that's not the right word at all.
Bruce, the universe, and me
Not that I'm superstitious (touch wood) but sometimes in the lead-up to a match it feels like the universe is trying to tell me something. Obviously I haven't listened much to the universe - or I wouldn't soldier on as a Bulldogs supporter, continuing to turn up with blind loyalty to so many matches, year after year - but still, you can't help but tune into the omens sometimes.
Before making my way to our Essendon clash, the universe was blaring its warning like a foghorn. I couldn't find my car keys, was unable to remember which of my proliferating collection of Bulldogs' scarves is my 'lucky' one (there could be an obvious reason for that), took pointless 'short cuts' down one-way streets (when DID they close off so many streets near Footscray station?), and inevitably chose the lane where, as in the D-Gen skit, a stream of Datsun 120Ys, being driven by elderly pensioners, were crawling along at 40 km an hour.
So my usual battle between optimism and reality hasn't been much of a contest this week. It's crystal clear for me: I'm certain we'll be thrashed. Convinced that we're due for a good old-fashioned mauling from the 'In Hird We Trust' mob.
It's probably protective behaviour to cushion me from the unbearable thought of losing to the Dons. We're neighbours in location, but definitely not spirit.
It's an animosity traced back by some to our famous (haven't you heard of it?) triumph against them in the 1924 Champions of the League trophy; we were VFA premiers, the Dons had won the VFL flag, and we beat them convincingly in an end-of-season play-off. Dastardly allegations that Essendon had taken bribes and fixed the match have always swirled mysteriously around this game. Probably just rumours spread by the Bombers themselves to dilute the shame of their loss, I reckon.
But for me, dislike and fear of Essendon stems from those halcyon years of 1982 and 1983. That was when we suffered THREE consecutive losses of more than 100 points.
On one of these ghastly occasions, I have vivid, even traumatic, memories of us losing, gallantly - it may have been by a mere 132 points - at Windy Hill. (I wish I could say this was a record loss; that same year, though, we surpassed this lowlight, suffering a 146 point hiding at our home ground. And some of our younger fans, think our current performances are hard to bear. HARDEN UP!!!).
Wedged in like sardines, as fans were in those days, there was no respite. It was one of those occasions where I'm still bewildered by what drives some footy fans. Our complete and utter ineptitude - as the small band of Dogs' fans stood silently watching the bloodbath, we were hardly posing a threat - did not spare us from incessant heckling and howling down of a rare sighting of effective Bulldogs' play. (To the man who continually called out: 'Lock the gates! Don't let the Footscray fans out!': I don't know what went wrong with your life. But it must have been quite sad).
Trying to block out these dismal reflections, I turn on the radio. I am gobsmacked to hear that Melbourne are beating Adelaide. In Adelaide. This is deeply discouraging. I know I should have been focusing my anxieties about the Essendon match, but experience tells me that pre-emptive pessimism is rarely wasted energy. Any of the reasons for Bulldogs' losses this year - youth, inexperience, injuries - could equally apply to the Demons, yet they suddenly seem in danger of sprinting ahead of us in the slow climb from easy-beats to at least respectability.
And we will play them twice over the next eight weeks, including next week, just when they're hitting form. As the elite band of Bulldog Tragician Loyalists know, the So-called Laughing Stock Dees defeated us last year on my birthday. (Relive this catastrophe here, if you must). We're scheduled to play them next week and then AGAIN, in a fixturing peculiarity, a few weeks later on my birthday. Instead of getting the Good Friday clash, it appears a new AFL blockbuster tradition is going to be established, framed around my birthday.
The universe speaks, again.
I turn off the radio and switch to the shuffle on my Ipod. Perhaps this will bring some heartening, positive omens. The first song to come blaring out is from the Rolling Stones. You can't always get what you want, wails Mick Jagger. I hastily press the button to the next song. A wistful version of Don't dream it's over from Sarah Blasko. They come, they come, to build a wall between us. We know they won't win. What the hell...FORWARD! Hard times: James Taylor. Holding it together ain't always easy, croons James. FORWARD!! Elton John: Rocket Man. A twisted tribute to the Rodney Eade era, or a grim message in the chorus? And I think it's going to be a long, long time...
The universe is broadcasting its message loud and clear, and can no longer be denied.
I wish I'd had the foresight to bring along a banner: 'Remember we beat you in 1924!!' to unfurl in an emergency situation.
Such as if we're 100 points down at half-time.
Leaving behind the obstacle course of Datsun 120Ys, one-way streets, stirring memories of thrashings from the good ole days, and subliminal musical messages, I'm finally seated at Docklands. We're in unfamiliar territory at 'our' homeground, having scored one-off tickets to the rarefied surrounds of the Medallion Club, courtesy of a well-connected family member (thanks Lisa). I'm surprised at how different the view is from the second tier of the stadium compared to our usual ground-level seats on the wing. You can hear the umpires' whistles, get a different perspective on the players' size, feel that split-second horror as you know a player from either side is about to get crunched, watch the pattern of play unfold, hold your breath at the risks they're taking as they throw themselves at the ball.
For most of the first quarter the Dogs perform down to expectations. But I begin to notice the Dons aren't playing very well either. The Dogs begin to creep, tentatively, almost apologetically, into the lead. I'm bemused, but somehow not elated. The players look equally surprised and tentative at their success. We gain more and more control of the match, dominant in most areas, yet we don't have that buoyant look of a team that starts to sniff a win. Though we should be six or seven goals up, our work ethic around the ground isn't being matched by a merrily ticking scoreboard. It still seems like hard work.
The atmosphere at the ground is tepid, subdued. It's hard to get into the match; truth be told, it's a boring and uninvolving contest, even though we're ahead. The Dons' fans are quite well-behaved, saving their invective for their own players who are labelled 'sooks'; they leave the tentatively happy, and growingly optimistic, band of us Bulldogs fans largely alone - although one guy does perplex me by a tirade against Bob Murphy, who I'd have thought was one of those universally respected and admired players among virtually all fans; not, however, by our mate a few rows back, who has a one-man vendetta against this 'dud.' (Perhaps he's a long-lost relative of Mr 'Lock The Gates.')
Once it becomes reasonably clear to even the Tragician that the Dogs are, at the very least, not likely to eclipse the horrors of that 146 point record losing margin, I relax a little and start watching some of our individual players more closely from our elevated position. The Second Libber seems particularly fired up and motivated; I imagine I see an extra glint in his eyes, passed down from his dad who performed like a man possessed in our celebrated 2000 victory where we spoilt the Dons' unbeaten season. (See what I did there? weaving that glorious occasion, with the perfect fake balance of nonchalance and casualness, into the story). Shaun Higgins, at last blessedly free of the injuries that the universe has inflicted on him, is playing wonderfully, seeing space and possibilities where others see only a confused jumble of players. Dale Morris' return gives me appreciation anew of all that he brings to our backline; from our vantage point, I enjoy watching his selfless anticipation of when and where his younger team-mates need help; his speed and even elegance, as he times his interventions and places himself in front of marauding packs, aren't eye-catchingly brilliant like a scintillating coast-to-coast goal, (I think I remember them) but are just so brave. And Easton Wood, so long in that frustrating category where you could see his potential but wondered whether, partly because of his cruel spate of injuries, it would ever join up with footy smarts, has all of a sudden become an integral player, one who's mastered that difficult balance between defence and attack.
Still, for all these valiant efforts, there's painfully little reward. In the third quarter, inevitably, the Bombers seem to wake from their slumber; it looks so easy when they stir into action for them to rattle on a few goals, compared to our own painstaking efforts to marshall a score.
We go into the last quarter trailing, yet we're not content with a meek surrender, and scrap and claw our way back into the contest again. The last 20 minutes sees countless pushes into our forward-line, where it seems the whole Essendon team - and five Dustin Fletcher clones (there can't, surely, have just been one of him?) - are camped, taking turns to pick off our bombed skyscraper kicks.
I wonder, not for the first time, if a team just gets out of the habit of winning, whether dour scrapping begins to erode natural flair and the desire to score, and the concentration on those small and admittedly necessary one per centers starts to blind us to the imaginative and creative facets of the game. The Dogs' endeavour, tenacity and spirit make me proud. Its lack of pay-off just makes me sad.
When the siren goes, Marcus Bontempelli has the ball in his hands, but he's 100 metres from goal, and we're still nine points adrift. The reaction from both sets of fans is the same kind of weird crowd murmur that happens when there's a draw.There's no wild celebration from the Bombers' fans, who are simply relieved. And the flattest of feelings for us, as we absorb the fact that the match was winnable. Yet did not get won.
Tuning into the radio on the way home, I hear that we scored only nine goals from 50 forward entries. We outperformed the Bombers, touted as a top four team this year, in almost every statistical measure, except the one that mattered. Was it an honourable loss or just a badly missed opportunity? The stark facts say we're two wins, five losses, and haven't yet played the top four teams. It could seem as if we've barely improved from last year, yet I've no doubt we're a better, more resilient team. The question is whether the lack of reward for effort will keep sapping the confidence and will of the players and perhaps more ominously our fan base, for whom 'more patience' after 60 years without a flag is a tough message to sell.
I turn off the radio and put the music back on, hoping for some answers. I'm greeted by the melancholy, haunting opening of Bruce Springsteen's The River. Bruce, the poetic chronicler of disappointment and the shattered hopes and struggles of everyday life and working class people - and surely a Bulldog fan at heart - seems the perfect companion for my journey home, as he asks: Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?
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.