They say that the Eskimos have at least 50 words for snow.
Perhaps Bulldogs' fans require a similar multitude of expressions for 'disappointing losses' to cover the spectrum that we have experienced over the years.
Our vocabulary was again stretched to its maximum on Sunday as the Dogs meekly succumbed in a match that they were inexplicably - at least to me - raging favourites to win, and win comfortably.
Some Bulldog fans, presumably younger, brasher, and less battle-weary than the Tragician, had even voiced the opinion we would win by more than 100 points. To my horror I actually spied the dreaded words: 'This could be a percentage boosting opportunity.'
(I mean, I'm all for the exuberance of youth, but seriously, there needs to be some old-fashioned discipline meted out to the culprits. Three days locked in a room watching The Preliminary Final that Must Not be Named on a loop should do the trick).
Mind you, I often feel a profound frustration about my own pessimism going into these so-called winnable matches. I'd really prefer to ditch, once and for all, that fatal instinct, honed over too many years, that tells me that the Dogs are likely to lose in situations involving any one of these key phrases:
But within minutes of our listless opening against the Dees it was evident that the Tragician's adoption of a 'Danny from Droop Street' 'doom and gloom' approach had been a master-stroke of anticipation and timing.
It didn't stop the hurt though.
Like an orchestra, our game style needs all its contributors to be note-perfect. But on Sunday the discordant notes of an out-of-tune ensemble were jarring in our ears; gone were the energy, zest and frenetic intensity. Our ball movement was slow and hesitant; clumsy, looping handballs landed metres away from team-mates' outstretched fingertips; our signature style, a confident chain of runners, willing to take off in the faith that their team mate would be running alongside, blocking, sharing, or covering for each other, was nowhere to be seen.
And there was that strange phenomenon that happens in a losing football match. I'll never quite understand how you can be simultaneously always outnumbered around the ball; yet bafflingly, when the ball finally clears the pack, countless opposition players are also romping around completely unattended. (This is surely material for a Professor Brian Cox-style 'Wonders of the Universe' series, where he sits in a dusty desert and draws squiggles in the sand, using quantum theory to explain this mysterious happening. It might also help me understand why NOBODY was on Nathan Jones, EVER).
Bamboozled defenders looked up-ground for non-existent forward options, and our kick-out strategies didn't seem to be strategies at all but random variations on the 'kick, pray and hope' theme. Soon it was evident that my own humbler contribution to a scientific explanation for ineptitude - the Catastrophe Performance Index - was about to sputter back into action after all but disappearing in early 2015. The CPI, as it's better known, was well and truly rumbling when four Bulldogs' defenders flew together for a mark, leaving some gleeful Demon player alone to gratefully pounce on the spoils. (Somewhat surprisingly, it was not Nathan Jones). And it reached full-throttle when The Bont was actually mown down in a tackle. (Yes. The Bont. Mown down in a tackle).
Meanwhile The Tragician was also struggling during the match, burdened by the cruel weight of high expectations. Last week's sparkling performance from brother Brendan, the new kid on the block, in his debut blog post, had led to unjustified speculation that the Tragician's prowess was on the wane.(After all, it's not unprecedented for seasoned veterans to end up languishing on the fringes while upstarts with so-called 'potential' are preferred). The flashy young recruit's story using 'F' words was a clever enough concept, I'll grudgingly admit, but it was one I found myself labouring to match on Sunday. Feeling the inferred pressure of his presence hovering over me, I resorted, lamely, to utilising ' A' words. (Possibly, not making any excuses or anything, I was brought back too early from injury). Here we go:
Abysmal. Our clearance rate of 14 to four at quarter time. The opposition weren't exactly the Brisbane-triple-premiership-winning Fab Four midfield either, making this statistic even more depressing. How much energy gets expended by our young group trying to wrench back those easy possessions out of the centre? How liberating would it be to see OUR team occasionally being able to zip forward through an effortless clearance.
Absent. Jackson Macrae, Nathan Hrovat, Jarrad Grant, Lukas Webb. Too good, surely to be playing at Footscray.
Atrocious. Kicking for goal by one of my favourite players, Jake 'The Lair' Stringer. When Jake came to our club, I was delighted to see that we finally had a player that looked like he WANTED to have the ball in his hands, to be The Man. Now like generations of Bulldogs' players before him, he misses sitters and his kicking confidence - from set shots at least - is just about non-existent.
All Australian. There's a serviceable, highly decorated ruckman who's been playing well in our reserves. Just saying.
Ayce. The last time I looked, a thread on the fan forum 'Woof' devoted to the issue of 'where to next?' for our number 49, had clocked up 26 pages of out-poured anger, puzzlement, rants, questions - and occasional rational explanations arguing that he is a strategic piece in the Beveridge jigsaw puzzle and unfairly maligned. I'm not going to weigh in one way or another, except to plead with Ayce: at least provide comic fodder and re-invent yourself in the Peter Street, Paul Dooley, Trent Bartlett (or reaching further back, Sockeye Salmon) tradition of goofy - but somehow loveably incompetent - tall players. I implore Ayce to fall over his own large feet, grow a mullet, or adopt some other strategy to at least become a cult figure.
Allegiances. A group of witty Bulldog supporters around us whiled away a miserable afternoon with an unswerving campaign to bring back Liam Jones. Our ineptitude, in their eyes, could have been alleviated if only Jones, now in Carlton colours, was still in the side, a fact they alluded to whenever Jake The Lair missed his numerous opportunities to goal. When Jake achieved a measure of redemption with a clever snap, there was a chorus of: 'You're no Liam Jones'. There was a momentary silence when Jake, preferring the impossible to the humdrum, followed up with an unbelievable dribble goal from the boundary, then they let fly: 'Now you're just making a mockery of Liam Jones!'
There's not much to say when we leave the 'G, the scene of so many of our recent heartbreaks, and so many despondent treks home.
The leaves are falling, the light is misty; winter is coming fast. Along with the shorter days and crisper nights, it's a reminder the bright promise of our start to the season is evaporating, and testing times await.
We knew at the start of the season that there would be days like these; it's just that our improvement had been so rapid, our wins so uplifting, that it's a flat feeling to be back in this sort of disappointing territory. Really good teams can often survive on days when their effort and intensity are down: we on the other hand can still be easily carved up whenever our endeavour is even five per cent askew.
This knowledge would be character building - if as Bulldogs' fans enduring a 61-year premiership drought, we weren't all filled up with character already.
Agonising. Abhorrent. Awful. Anguished.
Walking through the frosty night, I ponder my irrational despair when the Dogs stink it up. Such is our connection and belonging to our footy club that our emotions mirror theirs, their joy is ours, and so too is the pain of a sub-standard performance
When the Dogs were courageous, bold and brilliant in our Sydney victory (was it really only four weeks ago?), we all felt as much pride as though (instead of scoffing cherry ripes on the couch as, er, some of us did) it had been one of our own desperate lunges towards the ball that saved the match. We modestly accepted the compliments of our co-workers on Monday mornings and basked in the appreciation of the footy world, almost as if we'd been the ones enduring a Lin-Jong-style broken hand to get us over the line.
Conversely, we actually feel, personally, the ignominy of a shocker such as Sunday's performance - as though it's a reflection of our own inadequacy. I don't feel anything close to that emotion when Roger Federer plays an off-match and fails to meet his own high standards, even though I love his peerless skills and am barracking hard for him to win. His performance, whether sublime or pedestrian, is his and his alone, never part of me like those of my team.
I don't really understand why that's the case, but I know it to be true.
It's why, just as I held my breath and then groaned in disappointment in the long, shuddering moment that The Bont got tackled and he slowly toppled towards the turf, one day (very) soon I will be on my feet, cheering like a crazy Beatles teenage fan, when he stops looking like a fatigued kid who's getting pushed, buffeted and harassed, and thrills us with his magic once again.
It was a week of selection table shocks. Jackson MacRae surprisingly omitted. The continued non selection of out-of-favour Will Minson. But what really had the pundits agog was the mysterious non-appearance of The Bulldog Tragician at the critical Round Seven clash between the Dogs and Fremantle.
While the rumour mill went into overdrive about The Tragician's whereabouts, an even more Shadowy Figure emerged to fill the breach. For it's a team game. The Blog must go on!
Here's the story of our Round 7 match, from my brother Brendan...
It’s a lazy sunny Sunday in Melbourne.
Two football teams will clash today. My team, the red, white and blue Western Bulldogs (or as I still prefer to call them, Footscray) playing against the undefeated purple haze known as the Fremantle Dockers.
Footscray and Fremantle--the two F Teams.
Our F team and their F Team. Theirs with Fyfe, the F team’s very best player, and Sandilands the F team’s tallest player. The flag favorite against the team that has become the impartial football fans second favorite team. Our F Team has our own alphabet entrée, Ayce and Bailey. The former our F Team’s tallest and the latter our F Team’s newest. Fairness is a word that doesn’t come to mind when considering those facts, and I fear a long afternoon ahead.
I’m off the bench to ghost-write for The Tragician who has been rested with general soreness that is so severe she has travelled overseas to seek treatment, and has been forced to drag the other Libba sister with her.
I’m on the still rickety train for the journey to sunny, Sunday football – the F Teams awaiting my arrival – even though the roof will be shut blocking out the last vestige of that sweet and weak autumn sun that will only re-appear in September. Opposite me is my young daughter , well chronicled by the Tragician in other blogs , and her friend, Sarah. I’m bemused and bewildered that it is Sarah’s first ever game of AFL football she will have seen. I ask her if she’s excited. Youthful exuberance abounds, “It’s gonna be awesome – first game ever and so much fun”.
It’s a couple of minutes before the game is about to start, and things seem awry. I go to the footy as frequently as I can with a group of people – family and friends, all of them. And all of them, all of my family and friends, often bring others too – some football foes, some football friends, some football fiends, but always football fans. It’s always a big bunch of us – large, loud, lugubrious and lucky that we have the chance to gather our pack. But we are a little thin on numbers today and a sense of doom descends. Whereas, there is sometimes up to 15 of us together, today it is just seven. Too many empty seats, when normally they are fully occupied.
I’m reminded of the film clip that the American band, The Traveling Wilburys did for their song, “End of the Line”. One of the band members was Roy Orbison, with that magnificent falsetto voice.. He died shortly after they finished recording the song but before the obligatory music clip was filmed. The song features each of the band members (Orbison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne) singing a verse, and the music clip shows each of the musicians singing their particular verse. When the clip gets to Roy Orbison’s verse, it shows a guitar perched in a rocking chair that metronomically rocks to and fro, while he sings his verse so melancholically in the background.
I take a photo of the empty seats that would normally house The Tragician and her Libba sister.
But it’s still family, friends and fans that surround me and I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive.……..
The siren that coincides with the coin toss simultaneously clashes with two comments from the crowd around me. The first one (if a simultaneous comment can be first – indulge me, please) is raucous, good humored, accurate and prescient – “How F***ing tall is Sandilands?” It elicits much laughter, and my first time attendee, Sarah and my daughter Stephanie, look around behind them and laugh hysterically. They know it’s wrong, but also know it’s alright too. I try and keep a straight face, and put on a stentorian tone in my guffawed reply, “girls, the game is about to start, face the front please”
The second comment is quieter. It’s just whispered. But over the cacophony of the siren, the last minute exhortations from the General Manager – Match Day Experience (Fan Engagement), the flashing and blinding last second gambling ads, (and the comment on the other F Teams ruckman), it is almost crystal clear despite the ruckus around me.
I’ve been going to see my F Team nearly all of my fifty-plus years. Some years less frequently than others. Some years not very frequently at all, and some years fanatically frequently. And for the last 30 odd years I’ve attended my F Team games with a friend from a long way back, Colin. And we’ve shared so much together – life, love, family, births, marriages – and football. And of course, our F Team. We often only liaise outside football season to meet at the Boxing Day Test – each of us taking our sons – and talk footy, our F Team, and about our families and friends, our own private F words.
The second comment from Colin was succinct.
“Mum’s in the Royal Melbourne and is expected to die soon. I may have to scarper, I thought I’d let you know now”.
We held hands for a few seconds, and then we stopped, and then the game begins...
The game is a frantic blur. Before my F Team has a chance to attempt redemption for the second half fadeout against St Kilda the week before, their F Team has five unanswered goals and my F Team seems feeble, fatigued and fragile.
Forward fifty entries fruitless, free kicks fourteen to four (our flaming way), forlorn framework for frazzled forwards, friendly fire falling fellow F Team-mates, and frivolous frolics are infesting our boys. I think you know how we felt… F words everywhere …..
Then the blur comes in to focus – mysteriously, unexpectedly and wonderfully. The other F Team Fyfe has faded (for a while), our fellows no longer seem fatigued, our forward frolics find fruition and suddenly and miraculously we’re within a couple of goals.
Our Ayce is doing well, but not against Sandilands. Our drink master (known to most as Beveridge) has decided that we should forfeit any ruck contests and has placed our Ayce as a decoy up forward. This frees up our card-carrying Tory to scythe through the Dockers like Peter Reith tried to against the Maritime Union all those years ago—and I’m thinking that this is a deliciously ironic development. Our newest F Team player, Bailey, has also managed to snag a goal with the first kick of his career, and Sarah is beaming with my daughter.
Somehow, we draw level in the last quarter and I wonder can we get to the end of the line, on this strangest day of days.
Fyfe takes over and we bravely fail. Our Ayce and Bailey Dale are not quite there yet, not quite at the end of the line. But we’re proud of the effort and clap our players off the ground. Each of my family and friends prepare to leave the seats and the ground and make our way home. We’re not forlorn or faceless, but neither are we grinning winners. It’s a satisfactory melancholy that we feel.
I turn to Colin and we hug each other silently, as long time friends can, without the need for any particular words. We know that the end of the line has many meanings.
On the train on the way home, I look at my daughter and her friend Sarah. I look at the photo of The Tragician’s seat. I think of Colin and his Mum.
Later that night, when all my family are asleep, I played the Traveling Wilburys song, “End of the Line” on YouTube, and again marveled at the poignant clip, at the empty chair, and at the Orbison falsetto voice:
“Maybe somewhere down the road aways
You’ll think of me and wonder where I am these days,
Maybe somewhere down the road
When somebody plays Purple Haze
Well, it’s alright, even when push comes to shove,
Well it’s alright, if you got someone to love
Well it’s alright, everything will work out fine
Well it’s alright, we’re going to the end of the line.”
Fans, family, friends, and falsettos are all F words—and so is my team, the F team.
Libber Sister One text message:
We've been in the media all week. I've got a bad feeling. We're going to get smashed.
Danny from Droop Street phones the Coodabeens:
I don't like it. I don't like it at all. We're being talked up everywhere. We're flavour of the month. I just know it. We're going to get smashed.
Bulldog Tragician rambling thoughts:
I'd like to enjoy ONE week of positivity, feel happy that we're in the news for all the right reasons, and have faith in these kids. (Reads Thursday night selections, sees that every tipster has selected us to win). We're going to get smashed!
Darren Jarman. Shane McInerney. Libber's goal that was a point. Chris Grant's Brownlows that weren't. Nick Riewoldt's dive. The captains that walked out on us: Templeton, Dempsey, Griffen.
Wooden spoons and club in-fighting. A headline screaming: Death of the Bulldogs. Woeful finals efforts where we looked like deer in the headlights. Turning points: after which we saw more of the same. Stirring wins followed by abject losses. Season-defining wins that, well, didn't end up defining anything.
These are OUR stories as Bulldogs fans: the troubles we've seen. And in reaction, we're masters of defensive pessimism, braced well in advance for another kick in the teeth. We almost feel smug, vindicated, when it comes, yet again. See? success is not for the likes of us.
You want to leave the past behind, believe in each new group that comes along, untainted by the shadows of our long history of failure. You want to believe that each new era of players, who start with such precocious confidence and innocent love of the game are different, and will make their own history, and so write a different story for us.
All week (in between playing the replay of the last quarter against the Swans and feeling the reflected glow of the footy world's current infatuation with our formerly 'irrelevant' team) we had a niggling fear our happiness was tainted, poisoned like Snow White's apple. Didn't such glory, such praise, such attention, really only mean that a fall was just around the corner? Were we 'getting ahead of' ourselves, whatever this mysterious phrase might mean, but certainly not something that the unfashionable Bulldogs should ever contemplate? Were we inviting fate by our rash calculations of the wins that were 'certainties' that could see us as unlikely finalists, maybe even, if all the cards fell right, a top four proposition? And when would that god-damn Tragician stop day-dreaming about Bob Murphy holding the premiership cup and get back to being gloomy and curmudgeonly?
And so began the pre-emptive excuse making, rationalisations and justifications mounting in the days before. The Dogs would be sore after their bruising, brutal encounter in the wet. It would have to be deflating, after such an emotional victory, to get motivated again in a match where we were (gulp) favourites.
The team selections added to the unease.
Matthew Boyd, Disposal Efficiency King, OUT!
Lin Jong, who has so rapidly become one of our most important players; who with his trademark dash has made us all say 'Ryan Who?'; the brave foot soldier who played the last ten minutes of the Sydney match with a broken hand - not to mention being (sorry, Ayce) our leading tapout ruckman last week - OUT!
The match was being billed as that of two very young, up and coming teams, but the reality was actually obscured by the Dogs' wonderful, barnstorming, surprising start to the season. The Saints, with the return of our old nemesis Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna, weren't anywhere near as raw and green as us; they actually had seven players with more than 100 games under the belt. Most of these seven would, I imagine, have played in their recent three Grand Final appearances: the Dogs by contrast, with Morris and Boyd on the sidelines, had just two 100+ gamers. With an average age of 23 years and seven months and only 43 games, this would have to be one of the youngest, most inexperienced Bulldogs' outfits ever.
Still, our fears seemed to be allayed with the way the Dogs started. The fanatical forward pressure was still there, the manic ball movement was as frenetic as ever; we seemed, in another mysterious footy phrase, to be 'up and about'. It looked like Tom Boyd was going to have a memorable, breakout game as he dragged in screamers in the first 15 minutes, prompting a foolhardy claim by an over-excited Tragician that this could be the day he kicked 10. Then came the first twinge of doubt when he, our best kick by a mile, shanked two appallingly easy shots. Still as we moved into the second quarter the Dogs were right on top, more and more dominant, building a lead that would, it seemed, be a buffer if we did begin to tire.
We weren't imagining, at the half time break, that we could lose. Our hearts were full of another kind of sorrow. Half way through the quarter Clay Smith, only a few games back from his second knee reconstruction, had moved awkwardly and gone to ground, just in front of us. The crowd gave an awful moan as we saw it, all of us rising to our feet, unbelieving that this kid - just 21 years old - may have suffered the cruel fate of another knee injury for a third time. As Clay limped off, I thought of the wonderful moment a few weeks ago when Clay kicked a goal in his comeback match and every player ran from far and wide to mob him. But a few minutes later there was delighted applause when Clay came back on, and some relieved, almost embarrassed chuckles that our fears had been so misplaced. You can't keep Clay down! we said; the kid's tough as nails.
When Clay's knee buckled again ten minutes later, in the most innocuous of movements, the atmosphere in the crowd was thick with emotion at the cruelty of the footy gods. As he was wheeled off on a stretcher to who knows what future - for who could blame him if he was unable to endure yet another round of gruelling, lonely rehabilitation - the cheers were ragged, from choked throats, as if we knew how hollow they must seem while his tears flowed.
I wondered what it would do to the spirit of our group, too, to walk into the rooms knowing that one of their number, who they'd seen in the gym for the last two years working and working to get himself back out there in the game he so loves, had gone down.
Yet the Dogs started the third quarter ok. Jake the Lair kicked a bomb from 50 (pretending not to see any of his team-mates in a better position, of course). Fifty five points up. Match-winning, surely, though Clay's injury had already muted our sense of anticipation about this likely result.
But then the rot set in.
The tackles weren't sticking. Koby Stevens limped up and down the boundary line, grimacing with pain with every step, yet having to keep returning to the filed while we tried to arrest the impact of Clay's injury. Jake the Lair leapt from behind trying to take mark of the year (he didn't) when there had been space to lead. Bob Murphy, who hasn't made a mistake for weeks, got caught trying to play on; a rare, Brian-Lake-esque brain fade. The sure hands of The Bont suddenly resembled the butter fingers of mere mortals. Lukas Webb, whose calmness and poise have been features even amid last week's Sydney cauldron, suddenly looked every bit the 18-year-old kid he is, fumbling and hesitant.
We looked tired, so tired.
There was a flurry in the opening minutes of the last quarter. Maybe, by sheer will, we could hang on, stem the tide. Ayce Cordy snapped brilliantly; Honeychurch roved another goal. It could have been enough, but it wasn't, as we almost literally stopped to a walk, while Saints players, full of run and zest, stormed irresistibly past us time and again. How we missed the hard head of Matthew Boyd directing the on-field troops and slowing the game down as we continued to try and launch kamikaze attacks on spent, aching legs. How we missed Lin Jong's running, the fact that he's somehow always there, when the ball is in dispute AND when it's free.
The Saints snatched the lead when last week's hero Easton Wood, who had been scintillating all day, slipped over in a contest at the critical moment. Last week his sure feet saved us the match; the footy gods love this sort of twist.
There was still three minutes to go. But there was not one person in the stadium who thought that the Dogs could do it, just that they were longing for the siren, that their young legs had had enough.
Seven days ago the sound of the siren had brought us wild jubilation, the delirium of a sweet victory. But now it brought us the familiar numbness. I didn't want to learn for what seems the thousandth time, that our foreboding had been right, that pessimism not hope was the right emotion after all.
The players aren't sprinting off the field this week, bouncing on their toes, high on adrenalin as they got ready to sing the song; they're a forlorn group, moving slowly and heavily off the field. It's a poignant moment when their wounded team-mate, even more slowly and heavily, comes out on the field to join them. Clay could have hidden in the rooms and nursed his anguish, but he hobbles out. The pain he's in as he makes his way towards them instantly obliterates for me my disappointment at the loss.
And the fact that Clay is still wearing his red substitute vest is somehow the most heartbreaking detail of all.
What will be the story of this loss? As our angry and despairing fans began absorbing the fact that we'd made history for all the wrong reasons (this being fifth biggest margin that a team had recovered from) it was only too easy to see it as another example of some invisible, fatal flaw in our club's make-up. Was it yet again, a depressing instance of our lack of success feeding on a lack of success? Had that kernel of doubt that was in every Dogs' fans' nervous mind in the build-up slowly, insidiously ground its way into these boys' psyches as well?
There could be another less dramatic explanation of course - that this is a meaningless blip in this group's story, something no one except footy historians will ever remember when and if they achieve the ultimate.
Hard though it is for us fans who have been through so much, the loss to the Saints tells us nothing about the calibre of this group; nor does it say something significant about the culture of our club, unless as fans we choose it to be so.
It doesn't confirm that it was 'just like us' to drop this match; nor does it mean that some sort of malevolent spirit will continue to blight us forever and a day.
All it really says is that a young, inexperienced, fatigued bunch of kids, who've given their all for weeks and taken us with them on a magical journey, finally ran out of luck and legs. We can equally choose to believe that they and their coach will continue to build upon the astonishing, exhilarating improvement, and banish the idea that there is any deep and meaningful lesson about the culture and psyche of our club to be learnt from this day.
Loss, failure and pain has been our story as fans but it doesn't have to be the story of Jake Stringer, Lukas Webb, Tom Boyd or Marcus Bontempelli. It's a tale that is still theirs to write, with us fans clinging to their coat-tails in their crazy magic carpet ride. No one would deserve more than Clay Smith to recover in time to be there too. After all, when he was drafted, Clay got a tattoo across his chest; it read:
Living the dream.
One day after a match at Geelong, when Tony Liberatore was at his pesky, annoying best, my sister and I (a petite pair) were walking out, proudly wearing our Bulldog scarves. A Geelong wit saw us, turned to his mate and rudely chortled: “Look! it’s Libber’s sisters!"
The nickname has endured. And at 2 pm on Saturday the 'Libber Sisters' are in position on the couch, ready to watch our Dogs take on their latest challenge, the Sydney Swans. Together we will be critiquing the match and offering a balanced, fair assessment of the opposition and the umpires.
The Other Libber Sister now lives in an apartment in the former Rising Sun hotel, a recognisable landmark whenever you travel over 'Mount Mistake', down Geelong Road. It still bears the quaint signage: Official suppliers of beer to the Footscray Football Club.
It's only a few hundred metres from the Western Oval. You can hear the crowd’s rumbling roar whenever our re-born Footscray team plays there.
For decades Dogs' fans would spill over the footbridge (now closed) and gather on Saturday afternoons at this traditional working class watering hole. I imagine a rambunctious atmosphere would have been the norm, as fans crowded in to celebrate the wins or obliterate their sorrows with the assistance of Footscray Football Club-sanctioned beer.
The Libber Sisters are not yet rambunctious. We’re excited, tense, hopeful, expectant, uncertain. The Dogs are about to face last year’s Grand Finalists, masters of contested footy, on their home turf.
We're fielding the least experienced team of all 18 sides selected this round; nine of our blokes have not yet played 20 games. On average the Bulldogs' outfit have played 67 less games than their Sydney rivals, are conceding three years in age, and who knows how much brawn and big match experience.
Pitted against household names like Buddy Franklin (three Coleman medals, five times All-Australian, and dual premiership winner) and Adam Goodes (two Brownlows, four all-Australian honours, two flags) will be the likes of defensive hopefuls Fletcher Roberts, in game number eight, and Michael Talia in game 21.
The first five minutes aren’t promising. We’re brushed aside easily; the Swans have already gone inside 50 six times. Franklin and Goodes look like they might go on a rampage against the Bulldog defence. It's already raising memories of our recent loss against the Mean and Unsporting Hawks, where we were rudely reminded of our youth and inexperience, and taught how far we have to go.
So it's a relief to get on the board with virtually our first meaningful thrust forward. And a welcome surprise when we get the next. And then, amazingly, the Dogs score the next three and have the lead at the quarter time break.
Libber One: I knew we'd come back.
Libber Two: We'd be in front by more if the umpires had seen all those head high tackles that I noticed to our boys in every pack.
The second quarter is bruising. But there are heroes emerging everywhere in red, white and blue. Liam Picken with his deceptively innocent choirboy face loves this sort of slog; he's playing an epic game. Stewart Crameri seems to be everywhere, with his fellow Bendigo citizen Jake Stringer wreaking his usual bull-at-a-gate mayhem. Roberts and Talia refuse to concede against their more glamorous opponents. Luke Dalhaus is at the bottom of every pack, somehow getting quick boot to ball, springing to his feet after being dumped again and again.
It’s gruelling, exhausting, intense, suffocating. We’re just about out on our feet at half time, completely spent from the brutal contest. Drained of energy, having given our all, we welcome the chance to regroup. There's no doubt about it: the Libbers have certainly earned their cup of tea and the sustenance of a chocolate snack.
Libber One: Did you notice Buddy's got a bit of a pot tummy happening?
Libber Two: I thought so too. Ok, so do you want a Crunchie or a Cherry Ripe?
The Swans throw everything at us in the third quarter. We're starting to look tired, but we still withstand the enormous pressure. Our players don’t seem to get bowled over in tackles like they used to; even the youngest players is able to keep their feet and squirt a handball away.
Jordan Roughead has been switched into the ruck. With his pale skin, old-fashioned haircut, and moustache, you could imagine him, wearing a slouch hat, as a resolute Anzac; a picture in a dusty frame on a mantelpiece. Both shoulders heavily bandaged from the reconstructions he has endured in his short career, he’s playing a lone role against the Sydney tall timber in the waterlogged conditions, but never once does he flinch. It’s an injustice, agree the indignant Libbers, when a dubious 50 metre penalty against him, allows the Swans to creep within a goal in the last three minutes of the quarter.
Just as we’re looking shaky, The Bont, who's demonstrated his skills are just as brilliant in the wet, shows his unerring ability to enter the game when we most need it. His octopus arms stretch out to intercept an errant Sydney kickout. The cameras catch a close up of his face, calm and unflustered, as he goes back to take a shot at goal. Our wonderful Bont, still just 19 years old, playing his 20th game, and already the man for the big moment as he steers it through.
The Libbers aren’t sure what to think at three quarter time. Emotional, brimming pride at this terrific performance, sure, but a hint of resignation at the prospect of being over-run, that we may need to be satisfied with a gallant loss.
The Dogs are having none of the Libbers' wishy-washy notions. What follows is a last quarter for the ages. Not one player hesitates to put himself on the line, whether it’s baby faced teenager Lukas Webb standing in the hole as probably the best (albeit pot-bellied) player in the competition thunders out on a lead, or the swarm of Bulldog players that gut-run time and again, their legs burning as they get to the next contest. And the one after that.
The Libbers can’t sit still on the couch any more. Not even during the most raucous of six o'clock swills would the walls of the Rising Sun have heard such a commotion.
Because, despite the courage and desperation of our team, the Swans have hit the front. It seems to epitomise this day, and the quality of our opponents, that the goal that puts them in the lead comes after a passage of play featuring multiple inspirational acts by the Dogs, and a smother from Murphy that would be match-winning in almost any other contest.
It’s too frenetic to pause to ask whether the Dogs can come back. Or who among the exhausted ranks will step up to make it happen.
Jason Dunstall from the commentary team says: What the Dogs need now is just one special act. For once it’s not a cliché.
Almost as though they’ve heard Dunstall's words, the Dogs will themselves forward yet again.
They don’t want to lose. They most definitely do not want to lose.
Luke Dalhaus, working in a telephone-box sized space, kicks the ball toward our goal. Flying towards it, with a Swan hot on his heels, is Easton Wood. Like Superman he leaps in the air to meet the awkwardly positioned, bouncing, spinning, greasy ball. Like Superman he gets a toe to it. It's taken a miraculous, brilliant goal but we're back in front.
The jubilant high fives from the Libbers are short-lived as we realise that an excruciating five minutes remains on the clock. Minutes where a mistake could be made. Minutes where another Special Act, this time from our more experienced opposition, could intervene and break our hearts.
It’s a frenetic, breathless whir of smothers, fingertips to the ball, relentless tackles. There’s Bob Murphy, somehow finding something in his aching 32-year-old legs, running on pure adrenalin away from his opponent to clear it out of the danger zone. There's Jake Stringer, wrapping Buddy, who's doing his trademark strong fend-off, in a huge, wrestling style tackle, making himself a battering ram and an impassable object. There’s Dalhaus, pole-axed in a mighty, sickening clash, seconds later back on his feet.
There’s twenty seconds to go. We must surely have it won. But to our horror the Swans propel it forward once more. Twenty seconds is enough time for a long kick down the middle to their almost vacant forward line, enough time for them to snatch the game from our despairing fingertips.
'It’s a footrace!' shout the commentators, as excited and involved as the rest of us.
Loping across the slippery turf into the dangerous centre half forward spot, Easton Wood scoops up the ball with one hand, as effortlessly as a leisurely training drill on a calm summer’s day. He keeps his balance as he's tackled and handballs it to his team-mate who has run hard, so very hard, in support. It's Jason Johansien, who also holds strong in a tackle and gets it to Matthew Boyd. And the siren goes.
The Libbers are jumping around. All across Melbourne, our fellow Dogs’ fans are doing the same, yelling, screaming, crying, with joy, pride and elation — and all because Easton Wood elegantly, calmly, cradled that ball with such sureness and composure. When I watch it afterwards (again, and again, and again) I can't believe his poise. Such a tiny crack of fate and time there was - such a different torrent of emotions to be unleashed if he'd lost his feet or fumbled the ball. An infinitesimal moment of decision, belief, skill and courage, raising a roar from the neutral fans in the MCG bars, capturing the imagination of not just Dogs' fans but football romantics (they still exist) everywhere.
Our captain Bob is being interviewed, his face wreathed in smiles. It’s the best win ever, he says to Fox commentator Barry Hall, who’s not exactly looking dour and objective at all. Bob winks at Barry and runs joyously over to his men, his boys. He and former captain, Matthew Boyd, grab each other in the biggest and fiercest of bearhugs. How must they feel, the only two left now from our 2008-2010 premiership tilt? Having painfully reconciled themselves to the knowledge that a flag will elude them, now they are witness, tutors, and leaders of the progress of this young group. They must be feeling the merest flicker of hope. That they're not done with yet.
I leave my fellow hoarse and exhausted Libber sister and drive home. Bob is now on the radio, voice still cracking, with fatigue and emotion. As always, he has just the right words to capture what we've just seen. He says the match was like Rocky IV. Like an Under 12 match as players chased the ball up and down a boggy field.
They ask him if he's given up on the dream; does he hope, still, that he might be there if this group wins a flag? Bob quotes the musician Paul Kelly, and says he just thinks about one more song.
I find the Kelly quote the next day:
I wake up every morning and hope there's still one more tune ambling towards me down the road.
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.