Our golden boy
It was late in the last quarter. Daily Bailey had just kicked a point. We'd clung to an eight point lead for what seemed like forever (have you ever noticed that - appropriately enough like dog years - minutes stretch into hours in a close last quarter?).
We'd been in front for all but the first few minutes of the match. We'd smashed them in clearances, in possessions, in forward entries. Even frees. (You may have been wondering if you'd get an impartial assessment of the free kick furore from me. I've reviewed the match and I have to acknowledge, there were some howlers. How they ever paid that out-of-bounds free kick to Eddie Betts is beyond me. And as for allowing the self-same Eddie Betts to tackle Dahl from within the protected zone..but apart from that, I thought the umpires did quite well).
The Crows kicked out.
But instead of going for the relative safety of the boundary line, one of their backman (it would have been a further indignity if it was Daniel 'Phone-a-friend' Talia, but it's all a blur) launched a massive kick straight down the centre. We all seemed, spectators and players, alike, caught by surprise, our eyes elsewhere, absorbed in watching the usual efforts to close up space.
Surprise didn't seem to quite be the right word to describe the split second where it dawned on us, simultaneously, that one man alone had escaped out the back and was lurking ready to snaffle the ball, with all our defenders stranded further up the ground. As Eddie Betts pounced and the inevitable goal came, our fans let out a particular excruciating groan. The groan that comes when, after we've been by far the better team all night, a match is about to slip through our increasingly sweaty palms.
Not again, Dogs. Not again.
We, the fans, have a collective memory. We remember when number four was Daniel Cross, and number six was Brad Johnson. When number three was a graceful, smooth-moving, silky champion, not a curly headed tough-as-nails midfielder.
As our affections and hopes latch onto our new, oh so young group, the stories and disappointments of these men, their luckless predecessors, are still lodged, for better and often for worse, in our memories, a form of dreaming.
And for we, the fans, too many times that collective memory has been of failure and humiliation. Games lost in dying seconds, a well-deserved reputation for losing the close ones, whether it was Billy Brownless (not yet a Footy Show bufffoon) kicking an enormous kick after the siren to sink us in a final. Or our nightmare capitulation on that glittery Saturday afternoon, against just this foe, in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named. Or the mocking moment when Alastair Lynch sneeringly taunted Scott West with a 'choking' gesture in a final against Brisbane (we were being thrashed).
We shared those moments, impotent, sorrowful fans, unable to change the outcome, no matter how hard we clap, scream, curse, implore or frequently pray.
I don't know if our former champs have made their peace with all these harrowing moments. It is the blessing and sometimes the curse of the fans, that we have new opportunities for redemption. And, our memories tell us ominously, new opportunities, just like the Eddie Betts goal, for further pain and heartache.
They, the players out there tonight, have no such collective memory. They were toddlers, infants, unborn, or gangly teens indifferent at the time to our moments of heartbreak. Their story has (as yet) nothing to do with our story.
Yet it's one of my irrational fears that somehow each sparkly new generation will slowly absorb that collective memory, tighten up in the big moments, repeat the mistakes, self destruct, blow their chances when success beckons. I find myself anxiously watching them, like an overprotective new parent, alert for the telltale signs that they've finally been infected by the dreaded contagion of Bulldogs' failure.
But ... the ball's going forward again. The men in red, white and blue look fierce and determined. Daily Bailey somehow has it again, and guides a perfect, clever kick to the centre half forward spot. The man who marks it, 50 metres out, is none other than The Bont.
No one exemplifies the tussle between the past and the future more than fans' expectations of Marcus Bontempelli. In last year's elimination final The Bont missed two gettable goals as, in a match far too much like tonight's, we squandered our dominance while our more clinical opponents nabbed them all. Straight away we, the fans, began to project our anxieties in The Bont's direction; footy forums everywhere began anguished debates about whether he and his other precocious teammates were also destined to fall short, unable to reserve their absolutely greatest moments for when we need them the most?
Which for me at least, raised another tormenting question: is it the very fact that we worry like this which makes the weight of our restless hopes and desperation for success too heavy to bear, the reason that these kids like Griffen and Cooney or Grant and Johnson before them, begin to lose their starry-eyed, the-sky-is-the-limit idealism?
My head is in my hands: I don't think I can bear to watch as The Bont prepares to take his kick. The Dogs are now only three points ahead; if he kicks a point, there's the far too real possibility of another Crows' sweep down the ground, defensive mis-steps from us, a goal either hard-earned or flukey to snatch the game. I'm already thinking of what it would mean, the frustrations and venting on social media, the smug commentators and jealous opposition fans opining that the Boy Wonder isn't such a hero after all, chortling that the good old Dogs are losers once again.
But I do look up, and see with relief, The Bont looking determined, serious, but not over-awed. (I don't quite know what I expected; him in the arms of the trainers being treated for an anxiety attack?) He strikes the ball with everything in his young but strong legs. The roar begins when the ball is in mid-flight. We don't need to be told to MAKE SOME NOISE!!!. We're laughing, yelling, screaming. There may have been some tears.
This is not just an ordinary kick to win a game. This was, at last, our man who handled the big moment. Who maybe even wanted the big moment.
I think of a moment in Socceroos history, when Harry Kewell, who had begun to have his share of doubters kicked a magical goal. Commentator Simon Hill captured the euphoria of the moment perfectly: 'Australia's golden boy has come up with a golden goal!'
All the dreams of success-starved fans, projected onto The Bont, hoping for a moment just like this. Our golden boy.
What a strange experience it is to be a fan, I think, not for the first time, as I leave the ground, elated, euphoric and mysteriously enough for a person whose greatest exertion was locating a half-time snack, bone tired.
If The Bont hadn't kicked the goal, if we'd lost the match, it's as though it would have wiped out forever all the other magical moments of the match, swept them away as if they never existed.
I wouldn't have wanted to watch, again and again, some classic Lair Moments, or even his marvellous intuitive tap to an equally smart thinker in 'Celeb' Daniel.
There would have been no revelling in four quarters of men of Mayhem footy, no excited chatter at how Bevo Our Saviour managed to rejig the flat and listless team from last week.
I would have tried to ruthlessly wipe from the memory bank all the efforts of our gallant and undermanned defence and refused to get misty-eyed over the splendid sight of an all-Australian intercept marker and quality ball user in top form (I'm referring of course to Matthew Boyd).
The clearance work of Libber, the immensity of effort from Wally, the heartening sight of Big Red prowling around our forward line and giving Jake some respite, the footy smarts of the only player on the ground that makes Dailey Bailey look like a hulking brute, Toby McLean: all these memories would have all been like ashes in our mouths if we lost the game. They should, of course be moments worth cherishing and celebrating on their own. yet we all know they're not. Even the immensity of the game of The Bont himself up to that critical moment, the brilliance of his one-handed taps, clearances and tackles, would all have been lost, overshadowed, if instead of a goal he'd wobbled a miserable point or failed even to make the distance. It was unlikely it would be forgiven and seen in context, as a tired shank from a still very young player who'd given his all; with our history it would have seemed like yet another message from the universe - (I think we've taken the hint by now) - another stab of pain right into the nerve centres of our collective memories.
For some reason I think of the Steve Martin movie Parenthood (I know. Tommo Hardy one moment, Steve Martin the next. Such great value in a Tragician blog). Anyway, Steve Martin stars as the ever anxious father coaching his nine year old son's baseball team. Kevin is a timid boy and not much of a player. In the last game of a winless season, the team is somehow a chance to win their only game of the season. The batter skies a ball and propped underneath it is poor Kevin. It will either be a home run or a match-winning catch. He fumbles the ball but then retrieves it. He's chaired off the ground by his jubilant team-mates.
Afterwards Steve, wearing his best contorted, tightly wound expression, begins musing about that pivotal moment. Again and again.
'But what if he'd dropped it?' he asks his long suffering wife.
'But he didn't,' she says patiently.
''Yes but if he did...'
'But,' she says, 'he didn't.'
What went through the mind of Our Golden Boy (wearer, of course, of the iconic Daniel Cross number four guernsey) as he went back for his kick? Did he think, at least for a fleeting moment, of his misses in last year's final? If he did, was it with the calm, inner self-belief that the great players have? Maybe he was able to focus only on how many times he'd nailed these at training, remembering the work he'd done and keeps doing, to get better and the best he can be. Thinking only: 'That was then. This is now.'
Watching the game that night was one of our greatest players, Chris Grant. He was shown a couple of times on the big screen, a husband and father, looking relaxed. A face in the crowd, as the new generation took on the team that twice thwarted his premiership dreams.
Somewhere in the crowd, I'm sure, is The First Libber. Was it a goal, or was it a point, in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named? His son, the phenomenal talent and clearance machine, is playing his part in erasing some of the pain of that day, but if it happens, it will be Tom's story, not Tony's; he'll rejoice as a dad. And with us, the fans.
As our song is being belted out, the coaching staff walk down the aisles. There's Rohan Smith, our defensive coach, who has Our Boys playing as a unit that's so much greater than the whole. That 1997 photo of him, crouched over on the MCG turf and punching the ground, has become an iconic one of failure, the outward demonstration of the pain that we the fans felt, in those nightmare moments when we lost that match.
And behind Rohan walks, or limps, Bob Murphy. As we applaud him, Bob doesn't have the roguish twinkle, the 'wasn't that fabulous' expression, that I thought or hoped he might. Already in a few short weeks, they're not his boys, his team in the same way. Like an impotent fan - like us - he'd had to watch those wrenching, exhilarating crazy last moments, unable to take a saving mark, to shriek at a team-mate to cover Eddie Betts, to play his role. Nor was he part of the exuberant huddle, the band of brothers that swamped The Bont at that pivotal moment.
After we'd thrashed the previously undefeated Adelaide early in the 2015 season the conviction that this team was going to deliver something special took hold in my mind. I've somehow never forgotten my sister saying, out of the blue, as we floated out after the match: 'They're going to do it, this group. They're going to win us a flag.'
I've reached for those words like a mantra when there have been moments of doubt, when miserable flashbacks to other moments when I had the same ultimately false belief, intrude on the sheer joy that our team under Bevo Our Saviour brings us. '
They're drumming around in my brain now, as the joyful crowd disperses, delighted that our boys had the steel to at last win a close one: They're going to do it. This is the group.'
Just one of those nights
It's halfway through the last quarter. We're three goals down - a far from insurmountable margin. Jordan Roughead takes a strong contested mark, only 10 metres out from goal.
Roughie's night has either been wretched, if you look at the paltry three possessions he has amassed, or selfless, if you are of the school of thought that he sacrificed his own game to keep one of the competition's leading ruckmen, Todd Goldstein, to a modest eight touches.
As Roughie lines up, it should be a suspenseful, dramatic moment: a kick that could put us that step closer with time still in hand, setting the scene for a barnstorming finish where we overpower the Roos.
But I feel none of the usual tension, the excruciating agony of the wait to see the goal umpire march to the line to signal if it's a goal. You see, I'm convinced that Roughie will miss.
Which he duly does.
I'm not quite sure why I felt so pessimistic (that is, if you discount a lifetime of Bulldogs barracking - ok, that IS the explanation). But for me there had been an earlier moment where my finely tuned antenna for disaster had been activated. The Dogs had made a hesitant start where, sadly, we'd appeared overcome by the occasion; the brave statements that we would relish the big stage spotlight of Friday night footy rang hollow as we fumbled and bumbled around.
But we'd clung on, always within reach. And there were signs of gathering momentum in the third quarter; it was still a struggle, but you sensed that just one goal, one uplifting, inspirational moment, would change the landscape completely.
The Bont looked like he would be That Man. He loped toward the goal at the 50 metre mark. This was IT: our prodigy was about to swing around with that booming left foot and transform our stodgy efforts with a moment of sheer individual brilliance.
The Bont handballed instead. The alarmed recipient was a flat-footed, over-awed Dailey Bailey. We knew what was going to happen. We feared what was going to happen. We groaned as it happened. Dailey Bailey's 45 kg frame nearly snapped in half as he was tackled by some 48 year old North Melbourne brute, and the ball crashed to earth. The groan reverberated around the ground, one of those pivotal moments that said it all. This was just not our night.
The stats said differently, of course, belying the evidence of our own eyes. All but the tackles (yet how telling a measure) were in our favour.
But it was impossible not to travel back in the time tunnel (unfortunately, not the one that would have forestalled the Bob knee injury) and wince; we saw so many of these performances in the unlamented BMac era. Effort reigning supreme, our contested ball stats worthy and respectable, yet ultimately meaningless without flair, skill and polish to deliver their reward.
There was our forward line, seemingly awash with glittering talent when we slammed on seven unanswered goals in the opening quarter of season 2016, battling to put together six for the whole evening.
Our opponents, North Melbourne, are a team that should be kindred spirits to us; another small, unglamorous club that battles for recognition and respect in the footy world.
However in recent years my dislike of them has grown and grown; with previous villains of my footy world, perennial nasties Carlton, Essendon and Collingwood not currently posing a threat, the Roos have rocketed up a prestigious ladder. The Ladder of Teams The Tragician Hates The Most.
Is it their fake 'tough guy' culture, the sort of aggression which manifests itself in knocking over Barry Hall when he bends over to tie up his shoelaces? The shinboner spirit these days is more about targeting the lightest and youngest guy among their opposition, or an array of sniping tactics such as knees 'accidentally' crashing into backs after a mark.
Is it their petulant morose coach?
Is it their supporters who have a braying sense of injustice, whinge and call out 'BALL' incessantly, never seeing anything beyond free kicks to their own players (in complete contrast to the even-handed approach for which the Tragician is well-known)?
Is it the fact that they have adopted the most ridiculous of practices, a pulsating sign on the screen accompanied by pumped up sound entreating their fans to "MAKE SOME NOISE"? Worse still, they dutifully obey; like sheep rather than flesh and blood supporters they bleat out some cheers on cue.
What next, thinks a grouchy Tragician: "STAKEHOLDERS!! PLEASE TAKE UP THIS UNPRECEDENTED ENGAGEMENT OPPORTUNITY!"
Though it was at our 'home' venue, as the 'away' team, we were displaced onto the top level. Sitting surrounded by unloveable North supporters I concluded that the thrust and parry of sparring with opposition fans is vastly over-rated. I much prefer to be in the midst of my fellow die-hards, the kindred spirits with whom I may never have exchanged a word, but who, just like me, have spotted that abominable missed free kick, with whom I will share crazy disbelieving laughter when Jake does something outrageous, and share the sigh of disappointment when an opportunity is missed.
Another disadvantage of being up so high is that the birds' eye view makes it harder to forgive mistakes and easier to condemn missed chances. Perched on the highest level, the game's pattern unfolds far too obviously before us, leading to whimpers of anguish as a player rebounds from defence, fails to spot the unattended guy who's run hard to make space, and instead picks out four North players who've camped out on the wing in anticipation of just such an opportunity.
From our vantage point we watch in despair as four of our defenders cannon into each other to spoil the ball; as Jake opts for ridiculous speckies instead of leading into the space that we can see stretching before him; as tired-looking players give up the chase a little too easily.
Even worse is the slow-motion view that is afforded of the dreaded run-down from behind. While we shriek like kids at a pantomime: "WATCH OUT!! HE'S BEHIND YOU", a person (who may have been Fletcher Roberts but I'm not one to single out individuals) takes one too many lumbering steps forward, seemingly the only person in the entire stadium oblivious to the hot breath of a North player on his neck.
Watching this and other disasters unfold, I realised with sinking heart that a phenomenon that I thought had been relegated to the not-so-nostalgic sepia-coloured, BMac era, past had re-emerged, just when we needed it least.
Yes, loyal readers: as you can see above, the Catastrophe Performance Index (CPI to insiders) a tried and true, illustrated representation of our BMac era gameplan, consisting of aimless chaotic attempts to go forward, was rearing its unloved and ugly head again.
This is not to be confused with Chaos Theory, the style implemented with such magical results since the arrival of Bevo Our Saviour. In this much more pleasing version, we hold our breath as waves of defenders stream out of the backline in kamikaze formations, shooting daredevil handpasses out (wait! that can't come off!) to another red white and blue player who launches a manoeuvre equally implausible (did he just do that?) before the ball arrives in a forward line teeming with opportunities (WOW! GO DOGS! )
That form of chaos, though, normally had Bob Murphy at its heart, with his elegant lope through the middle, or those kicks that scythed through the opposition's press. They often featured a JJ dash to connect up the red white and blue Men of Mayhem. Their absence means we are not simply two elite ball-users and line-breakers down; it's like we're cutting and pasting less skilled men into the same frenetic game plan. Without these sublime talents Chaos Theory just looks like suicidal madness.
For a 17 point loss to the competition ladder leader, Friday night's performance has thrown up a disproportionate amount of angst, as we grapple again with that gigantic battle between hope and pessimism, much more stark in a team so long without success. Unsurprisingly, not only the CPI, but its usual sidekick - Flawed Tragician thinking - have materialised. (And judging by the rants on fan forums this month, I'm not alone. DROP JAKE STRINGER, PEOPLE?? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MINDS?)
It felt far too easy to over-state the meaning of the loss, to begin the panicky internal monologue of preparing myself for the possibility that this group, too, will break my heart like so many others have. It's a state of unnecessary gloom and doom that only fans of unsuccessful clubs can understand. I try and channel the mindset of successful club supporters to ward off these evil thoughts.
Flawed Tragician thinking
Our game style has now been exposed. Other teams have worked us out. It's THE END.
Reasonable, rational, smug, premiership-glutted Hawthorn supporter type thinking
If even one of Bob, JJ, T Boyd or 'Celeb' Daniel had played, the Dogs would have won. Simple as that.
Flawed Tragician thinking
Last year was so much more fun. We've gone back into our shells. We don't 'believe' any more.
Reasonable, rational, smug premiership-glutted Hawthorn supporter type thinking
The season is a marathon, not a sprint. It's about holding on to a top four spot; of course there are bumps along the way. It's how you regroup that matters.
And let's not forget, the Dogs lost to St Kilda, Brisbane and Melbourne last year.
Flawed Tragician thinking
We never win the big games. Our culture of failure is now seeping into this promising group. There's something wrong with our very DNA!!!
Reasonable, rational, smug premiership glutted Hawthorn supporter type thinking
What a load of tripe. The Dogs' list is the second youngest in the competition, already well ahead of where they should be, and with an incredible amount of upside. The Roos are a bunch of geriatrics, THREE WHOLE YEARS older than the Dogs on average, and with all their players fit. Yet even playing poorly the Dogs still had many opportunities to win the game; the rematch will be a different story.
Flawed Tragician thinking
Our goal kicking is hopeless. We never nail that crunch goal. It's like a disease, handed down through the generations. Breathed in from the Whitten Oval mud. Like a dark malevolent cloud, wafting off the John Gent stand.
Reasonable, rational, etc
Oh for heaven's sake, you do love a melodrama. Settle down and take a breath.
Goal-kicking is fixable: the coaching team are aware of, and working on, this issue.
Why on earth should the points kicked in the 2009 Preliminary Final, have anything to do with Jordan Roughead missing an absolute sitter at a critical moment, just when we really really really needed him? (Sorry, I may be getting my personas mixed up).
Flawed Tragician thinking
I just don't like losing very much.
Reasonable, rational, smug premiership glutted Hawthorn supporter type thinking
Winning's much more fun. And I should know.
But you're going to find that out a hell of a lot over the next few years.
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.