(Not) singing the blues
Sometimes I think the old suburban rivalries have long since disappeared, their intensity diluted by the corporatisation of football and the loss of those tribal home grounds which each had their own identity, feel and (at the Western Oval at least) smell. Maybe those hatreds have become meaningless in the modern era of The Truly National Competition.
But then I hear the Carlton theme song. And I instantly know that isn't the case at all.
We were a couple of blocks away from arriving at the blandly anonymous Marvel stadium when we heard it. Those familiar, triumphant opening chords blared out from a vehicle close by. We looked around apprehensively, expecting to see plumes of cigar smoke and a cavalcade of Rolls Royces carrying captains of industry. But it was a humble pedicab containing four or five Blues fans, adopting a novel way to get to the ground.
They looked ordinary enough. I could have smiled and regarded it as harmless and quirky. But after decades of antipathy towards the Olde Dark Navy Blues and everything they stood for I've lost my sense of humour where they are concerned.
And then ... the swarm of Bluebagger fans around us began to join in with the song.
For God's sake, we weren't even inside the stadium!
I was bewildered at how their chutzpah survives even their recent unsuccessful years. I mean, weren't they this very week on the ropes, under the pump, getting the blow-torch applied to them? (and a few other footy cliches) after their underwhelming start to the year thrust them into the spotlight.
I couldn't make sense of it. Here they were, as brazen and bumptious as ever; I couldn't imagine the Tragician family making a similar grand entrance to the ground. It was surprising too because in other ways there has been a shift in Carlton's usual boastfulness. This week, when their poor performances were being constantly discussed, the Blues' top brass had reacted, not with fire and brimstone and thundering declarations that at Carlton they only existed to win premierships. There were no ominous hints of axes were being sharpened, no dark threats they would soon be ruthlessly deployed.
No, their response was Un-Carlton Like. Meek. Almost humble.
It wouldn't be a disaster or a season wasted if the Blues didn't make the finals, they said. They only just stopped short of cliches about valuable learning opportunities. I could almost hear a snarl of 'Pigs Arse' from one of their former presidents, uttered behind a wreath of cigarette smoke, if he'd been around to hear such arrant nonsense.
Despite this apparent new-found warm and cuddly persona I couldn't escape a visceral dislike. If I wondered why, I had my answer when their team broke through the banner and their song blared out again. In my youth I'd mis-heard the lyrics and thought they were openly bragging about their ability to buy premierships:
With all the champions! We like to spend up! To keep our end up.
My scowl intensified.
The barrage of criticism, and the fact their own supporters had booed them the previous week, didn't spur the Bluebaggers into a ferocious attack in the first minutes. (Maybe they were reassured to know finals aren't everything). Our Boys asserted an early control over the game while the Carlton team looked - has such a concept ever been associated with this club? - down on confidence. They missed gettable shots, they gifted us goals with miskicks. And there appeared to be more evidence that Carlton were comfortable with their new, more self-effacing reality; when they finally scored their first goal, well into the second quarter, the scoreboard flashed up what I thought was a message of encouragement: 'We're on the board!"
However, when pictures of a charcuterie board and an advertisement for a brand of ham instantly followed, I felt weirdly comforted that at their core, they remained the same.
At half time the Blues had kicked just one goal. It brought back memories of a gloriously soggy, windswept afternoon at the Western Oval in the 1990s, when we almost kept the high flying Carlton team goal-less for the entire match. Such were our thrills, our version of premiership success, back in the day, alongside the celebrated occasion in 2000 when we inflicted on the Bombres their only defeat for the year. I grudgingly concede, however, fans of these two clubs are likely to be busier dwelling on their abundance of premierships, rather than still fretting over losses to the lowly Dogs.
It was now the start of what previous generations of Blues' fans used to call the premiership quarter. Usually this featured an avalanche of goals from the likes of The Dominator, Sticks, Buzz and The Flying Doormat (these were players, not professional wrestlers, should there happen to be any younger readers of this blog). So I was alert and - as always - significantly alarmed. But our team initially built on our lead. We looked as though the match was in our keeping, as though we would actually pull further away.
But the Blues crept, rather than stormed, back into the match. They were painstaking rather than dazzling. The match had been low-scoring. Now, they made fewer mistakes. They were within two goals at the last break, and a rumbling roar took over the stadium. They were 'coming' as their immodest slogan bragged one season not too long ago.
An infamous Bulldogs collapse was on the cards.
'I feel sick,' moaned Libba Two.
'I have a headache,' I whined.
At times like these I can simultaneously realise how ridiculous it is to be a footy fan whilst being unable to be anything but.
I expected the Dogs to lose, of course. A lowlight reel, of days of thrashings at Princes Park flashed before my eyes. I could anticipate the noise of the Blues' fans, their jubilation, as their team swept over the top of us. I could see the headlines, anticipate the questions, feel the irrational emotions of shame and embarrassment that come from losing a game where you've been more than five goals up and comfortably in control.
There were an important few minutes to start the last quarter; we knuckled down and fought gallantly to stop their momentum. We were hoping, of course, for Bont, our saviour so often, to produce some magic. But we couldn't seem to score. Carlton grabbed the lead, for the first time in the match, with just ten minutes to go. The stadium rocked. Blues' players began thumping their chests and pointing to their jumpers. I was unclear whether, this being Carlton, this was an expression of emotion, or a preplanned marketing tactic to highlight one of their sponsors.
Most of all I was just steeling myself for That Song. Preparing my most stoic expression. It's been well-practised over the years.
Libba (the player, not one of the Sisters), quick of mind, conjured up a goal against the odds. Yet the Blues replied, far too quickly. I thought we were out of ideas. I wasn't confident if this group had the fanatical zeal and desperation to rally again.
The ones who rallied weren't just the old reliables, Bont, Libba, Macrae. Bailey Smith, the last quarter specialist, was gut-running when all around were fatigued. Our re-fashioned defensive group - I've begun to call them the Mean Boys - kept repelling the Blues. And there was a brilliant cameo from everyone's favourite player at the moment (sorry Bont) the irrepressible Arty Jones.
I'm convinced crowds have particular noises, for particular players. A murmur of appreciation when Bont glides into the frame. A theatrical gasp when Naughton launches. And now a buzz of excitement...ARTY!!...as he put us back in front.
We somehow blasted out four goals to win in a matter of minutes. Strangely enough it could have been more; two absolute sitters were missed.
We sang the song, our song. Unsurprisingly headaches and nausea had disappeared.
The Blues' fans had long since filed home. Astonishingly, many gave up the ghost after LIbba's goal. I wondered, afterwards, do they feel any sense of heightened rivalry or bitterness towards us, or is it just a one-way street? Are we insignificant and inoffensive still in their minds compared to their long-standing identity as a superpower? Do they save their venom for the Pies and the Bombres, even though those two teams have been, on the whole, less successful than us over the past two or three decades?
Once, long ago, one of those nondescript, battling Footscray teams pulled off an upset against the highly fancied Blues. A footy writer at the time reported that Carlton fans afterwards said they didn't mind losing to us occasionally. It was good for the game, good for the competition, they said magnanimously. 'What would be better for the game and the competition,' said the journo very wisely, ' was if they hated being beaten by those Dogs because it happened all the bloody time.'
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.