The hunger game
You know the drill.
The Libba Sisters were, of course, on the couch. In the Rising Sun apartments, across the road from the Whitten oval. Just as we were for the loss to West Coast. And the loss to the despised Acronyms.
Those lucky spots on the couch – it's fair to say they're not proving all that lucky in 2017.
We were feeling nervous and apprehensive, even though the Tragician had boldly declared after the premiership victory, that the battle between hope and dread, optimism and fear - the hallmark of Bulldogs supporting experience - had been decisively, conclusively, won.
That Tragician. She sure can speak a lot of drivel.
All week I’d cringed at every mention of Ye Olde Kardinia Park Hoodoo. Grimaced at the parade of gloomy statistics about just how long it’s been since we beat our bogey team. Broken out in clammy sweats with each new article highlighting Geelong’s dismal tackling, the fact that they'd never lost more than three games in a row since 2006, the spotlight that was being shone upon Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield.
I was nervous and apprehensive that in a year where we’ve struggled to get our best players out on the field, we’d made so many changes.
Nervous and apprehensive that ten of our premiership players are missing – and most worryingly, some of them were omitted for reasons of form, not forced on us by injury.
Nervous and apprehensive that the media, by harping constantly on Geelong’s so-called lack of fire and physicality, were providing motivation and ammunition for a team that have never exactly needed it against us.
Mainly ... I was just nervous and apprehensive.
I was succumbing to that old style, defeatist, loser mentality, not befitting of the 2016 premiers.
That's why I double-checked the Geelong team-sheet, just to reassure myself that those tormentors of so many matches past: Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel, Billy Brownless, Gary Ablett (Senior, let alone Junior) – even Peter Riccardi (I once saw him winking, I repeat winking, to some mates in the crowd as he and his fellow Cats were demolishing us with ridiculous ease. And I still bear a grudge) – were not surprise selections.
Once that was established, our match-day experience went something like this:
Libba One: Our Boys are switched on. That's the best start we've had in ages. We've even kicked straight.
We’ve really locked down well on Corey Enright too. He’s been completely unsighted!
Libba Two: The Cats have thrown a whole lot of things at us, but we’ve withstood the challenge.
Sure, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield have been getting it a bit. They’ll probably get tired for the rest of the match.
Libba One: That was unbelievable. Unbelievably bad.
We didn’t even touch the footy. There’s no way we can come back from this.
Didn’t Geelong thrash us by 10 goals around this time last year? I can feel it in my bones – we’re in for a repeat.
Libba Two: Pass the chocolate.
Three quarter time
Libba One: I knew we'd come back! What a team! What self-belief! You can never write these boys off! We're the premiers, remember!
Libba Two: (massive eye-roll).
Libba one: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Selwood.
Libba two: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Dangerfield.
There were questionable umpiring decisions of course, but I’ve never been one to harbor grudges for years and years, or go childishly on, and on, and on, about them. That sort of person might point out that Bob Murphy’s “holding the ball” when he actually KICKED the thing, was just exactly like a spectacularly awful decision in the ’09 preliminary, against Ryan Hargrave, if I recall rightly. (Nobody is fooled - I recall it with crystal clarity). But hypothetically, IF I were one to harp about the umpiring and never let go of these horrendous injustices, even after we've won a flag, that’s the sort of thing I’d be banging on about.
Friday night was the first time I’ve seen Bevo (Our Saviour) looking genuinely dejected after a loss. And there was something in Our Boys’ reaction that made me uneasy. Bewilderment, annoyance at what’s going wrong. A weariness, that week after week, hungry challengers are fired up to the max, ready to knock us off our pedestal; and even when one is despatched, another lurks in the wings.
I don't think we're complacent. But there's a little edge that's been lost. The hunger isn't as acute. It's not sustained over entire matches, by all players, in every quarter, every week.
The last two years have been a journey, an exploration of how good we can be. Losses just pointed to where we needed to improve. Now there's frustration, even boredom, at having to absorb – again! - the painful lesson, that footy is hard, that success is precious but oh so rare. That to win another premiership, the mountain has to be climbed all over again; you don’t get to start half way up.This rather obvious fact hadn’t somehow percolated into my consciousness. I’m not quite sure why. I guess I haven't had much experience in this whole Post Premiership mindset.
But my thoughts, spinning around in the wake of the dispiriting loss, make me unaccountably tired.
I think about The Bont, brutally crunched several times during the match, getting up just a little more slowly and gingerly each time. It was a rarity, a game where our star had little impact. Next week and the week after, he will have to do it all over again. His name is the one circled on each opponents’ whiteboard. His body is the one that each opposition player hopes to slam into the turf at every opportunity. His influence is the one that every other team is most desperate to curb.
I think about Murph, the oldest man on the field, trying to create a last-minute spark by setting off on a dash into the forward line, hearing the thundering footsteps of Tom Hawkins behind him, feeling the indignity of the Cats' fans triumphant roar. Moments like that - they weren't quite what motivated him as he embarked on the grind of rehabilitation, the slow journey back to fitness and confidence.
I think about Libba (the Second) and Toby McLean and Fletcher Roberts and Shane Biggs and Zaine Cordy, trundling around at Footscray in front of a couple of thousand people for a pedestrian VFL encounter, wondering where the magic has gone. Wondering if they still have the fire. Remembering what it took. Unsure, right at the moment, whether they can pay that price again.
I think about ‘Matthew’ Keith Boyd. His preparation has been limited, his form not reaching the heights of last year’s All-Australian performances. The internet has begun to buzz as armchair critics circle, agreeing that he’s played one year too long. He’s ‘slowed up’. He’s making errors. Our valiant former skipper, the man whose tiny toe-poke to JJ in the preliminary final was just as vital, just as magnificent, as the chain of play to which it led, is already being ruthlessly written off, by our own fans no less. It’s a heartbreak to me whenever this speculation begins, accompanied by those inevitable words: ‘He’s been a great servant of the club. But...’
I think about those words, too. Of all the meanings and implications. It's a strange concept. 'A servant’ of a club.
I think about Mitch Wallis. The boy destined to succeed, with his distinguished footy pedigree, his leadership qualities, the boy who requested, demanded, the famous number three jumper, who was an important part of our 2015-16 rise. The boy who broke his leg horrendously last August, who had to sit in the MCG grandstand watching his team-mates living out his dream.
Mitch was our best player in his comeback match on Friday night. He was at the bottom of packs. He didn’t shy away from the bruises, the physicality, the slippery turf, the parochial crowd, the never-ending relentless of getting to one contest...and then the next.
For his team-mates, the road ahead over the next three months probably feels right now as though it's strewn with boulders. It might be hard to remember the scent of warm summer grass, the thrill of finals footy; the obstacles might be looming larger than the destination. Mitch won't be seeing those hindrances; the rewards, after what he's been through, must seem close enough to touch.
The getting of wisdom
In the euphoric weeks and months that followed our second premiership I was convinced that my barracking experience had been changed forever.
I visualized myself, calm and unflustered by whatever unfolded in season 2017. Perhaps I might even become one of those good sports who politely applauds a piece of opposition good play.
Childish superstitions about lucky badges and scarves would be banished.
I’d greet setbacks or mistakes, whether from Our Boys or the umpires, with the Zen-like serenity of the Dalai Lama (though for obvious reasons I wouldn’t be donning those robes, which veer a little too much in the direction of orange for my liking).
It was unclear in my imaginings whether this expected state of tranquility would be reached because after the extraordinary events of 2016:
And when, after trailing all day, we finally hit the lead, that footy phenomenon, that distortion of time that means a mere eight remaining minutes lasted a complete eternity (I don’t care what Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking has to say) was as excruciating as ever.
Our elation when the siren rang out and we’d held on with sheer grit was – in that micro-second at least - as joyous as it was in the 2016 finals.
As fierce and powerful as it ever was in some of those wretched seasons when a win only signified that we’d staved off another wooden spoon.
Sadly, my forecast that our premiership would mean a seismic shift in my "matchday experience" was, like many of my predictions, ludicrously inaccurate (I'm still trying to forget my tearful declaration upon the retirement of Daniel Cross that I would never love another player in the number four as much as him).
I’ve failed to appreciate, it seems, that the extremes of joy and angst are simply integral to the barracking experience when you follow a club, successful or otherwise. I’d thought the nature of those highs and lows was unique to us as Dogs’ supporters, an over-the-top intensity borne from our many - er - non-victories.
But maybe the emotional rollercoaster, within a game, a quarter, a season, doesn’t vary as much as you’d think, whether you’re a Hawthorn supporter punch-drunk on premiership success, or a Richmond fan dealing with years of disappointment. Our identity is so closely intertwined with our team - that irrational sense of belonging and ownership of performances whether good or bad - that the joy of winning, or the sting of defeat - never really change.
And for us Dogs' supporters, now we’ve seen how marvellous those highs can be, we watch our performances with extra hope, higher expectations, yet extra vulnerability. We’re hyper-vigilant to the idea that we might slip back to mediocrity. Already, it's difficult and quite unbearable to imagine returning to ineptitude. We're nowhere near ready to accept that it might be some other team's turn this September, or graciously concede that at some point in the footy cycle, hard times will inevitably come again.
There's another difference in our perceptions now. Before, all our performances used to be viewed through the prism of the failures. That often distorted a straightforward appreciation of the gifts of any one crop of players, and made impossible any sensible and philosophical response to the cycle of footy fortune. We anxiously assessed each player, each new group that showed promise through a lens where we asked, hoped, prayed: could these be the chosen ones? If they won or lost a close game, we saw it as having extra meaning, a portent, a harbinger of things to come – as well as a reflection of everything that had gone before it.
Simultaneously a message from the universe that our history was incapable of being turned around. And yet somehow caused by all those failures past.
These thoughts, which are not tranquil, serene, or zen-like, are in my mind at various stages of our match on Saturday. Especially at a critical point in the third quarter, when The Bont took a strong contested mark 40 metres out from goal. As he lined up for a shot which was critical given our recent goalkicking yips, I had a flashback to May 2016, recalling a hotly contested match against that team which features so prominently in the well-stocked Tragician Hall of Infamy: the Adelaide Crows.
In that 2016 game, we'd held the lead all day but were in danger of capitulating in the last quarter (cue, of course, flashbacks to The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named), when The Bont took a mark in our forward line. I recall feeling as though the story this young group was going to write - whether of a team known for fragility, or one of uncommon resilience and strength - was now resting in The Bont’s over-sized hands. He had missed two gettable shots in a 2015 final, one that we'd narrowly lost (more ghastly flashbacks) against those same opponents. If he sprayed this one as well, and we lamely surrendered our lead, you just knew that our fans would have reacted with over-the-top despair. However unfairly, we’d somehow link it with all those other misses by Bulldogs’ players past. It would confirm our deep-seated fear, that our lamentable record in really big games would go on to taint generation after generation.
If this seems melodramatic, even by my standards, my reaction when The Bont (bless) DID NOT miss, was equally hysterical. I was sure our champ had drawn a line in the sand, made a statement that the Bad Old Days were gone. At last – at LAST!! - we had the cool calm champion with a steely inner belief, one who was not afraid of pressure, who in fact ate pressure for breakfast (did I mention my reaction was melodramatic and hysterical?)
Yet as 2016 progressed, and time after time we won those close games we inevitably used to lose, I felt sure I'd been right. Kicking that goal had created, I believed, a butterfly effect. It had achieved something momentous, something that magically (I was vague on the actual technicalities) transformed us into a team where Jackson Macrae could kick THAT clutch goal in the 2016 preliminary final. Where his team-mates, legs aching, lungs bursting, could then find a way to withstand the excruciating pressure of those last few minutes. Where the next week they could carry all our dreams on their shoulders and deliver us that flag.
Yes, all this - and more - was the result of that kick by The Bont in May 2016!
But here we are, on a wintry night in 2017, playing the Tigers. The Bont, again, is lining up for goal. We'd made another slow start. There had been countless, frustrating disposal errors, and early on, Our Boys hadn't matched the run, dare and commitment of our opponents. Now, we're bridging the gap, but we badly need, expect, Bont to again show his mettle and nail a not particularly difficult shot at goal.
But ... The Bont misses. The crowd groans, gives a restless, panicky shuffle. I feel that familiar elevator ride lurch in my stomach. I recall, superstitiously, that earlier in the match, he'd also sprayed a handball, an unthinkable event for one of his extraordinary gifts.
So if The Bont’s goal in 2016 was a pivotal, season-defining moment (gulp) – then what does this miss mean?
Not much at all, it turns out.
The Bont elevates his efforts still further. He lays crunching tackles, including a superb one on the rampaging Dusty Martin. He storms around the field; he is there in every stoppage. One moment he is mopping up in front of us, seconds later he is somehow there in the frenetic last two minutes, when Richmond launch their final assault on our precarious lead. I spot him gliding towards a pack from which it is only too possible someone in yellow and black will emerge to break our hearts.
I don’t know if I say it or think it - BONT!! – but I know he will judge the mark perfectly.
'What a mark, what a star,' the commentators say. We knew all that already, of course.
I drive various exhausted, but exhilarated family members home to their western suburbs outposts. Four red, white and blue scarves of varying vintages and condition fly proudly out the car windows. They remind me of the display of colours of medieval jousting tournaments.
When my passengers are all safely deposited home to watch the replays, I turn on the radio for the rest of my drive. A news bulletin is almost finishing.
'The reigning premiers have prevailed in a tight contest against Richmond,' the announcer says.
Sometimes, like now, those words still give me an unaccountable shiver of joy, of surprise, of delight.
The 'reigning premiers' - that's our team, you know - have notched up another win.
We're still getting used to it, this premiership feeling. Sixty one years of heartache were always behind us in the rear vision mirror. Now, there's a different view. Hungry challengers are snapping at our heels. Our wretched luck with injuries persists. We're not the heartwarming story of the battlers of the west any more. We're flying under the radar, drawing on that premiership experience to find ways to win. And our 2017 story seems to be emerging just fine.
I notice when I get home that my lucky scarf's a little the worse for wear, after a match-day incident which may have involved a hot jam donut. It probably won't do any harm to chuck it in the washing machine, even though I've been strangely reluctant to do so. Because, notwithstanding my attempts to become serene, calm and zen-like, it means something primitive to me, something those medieval jousters would understand, that I carried it with me for each epic final. Even though it's an inanimate object, it somehow must have absorbed the sounds and sights and tears of our premiership journey. Still, it would be irrational, illogical, to think it had anything to do with Dale Morris' brilliant tackle on Buddy Franklin, or Liam Picken's hanger, or Shane Biggs' desperate lunges and tackles in the last quarter of the grand final.
I decide to just give my scarf a minor spot scrub in the sink. You can't be too careful. Not when you've known so many years of non-victories.
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.