Footy life, from both sides now
It was a busy weekend for the Bulldog Tragician.
Firstly, I was part of a panel discussion at the Williamstown Literary Festival. The topic was "Living footy", and the advertising blurb said:
Fans live footy. They fall into its clutches and are happy to be tossed about in a state of battered uncertainty. It’s all about hope and joy and other important stuff.
Whether you’re in the grip of footy or not, you can’t help but see the impact it has on people. It consumes them. Us! Reasonable, intelligent, capable people. Three footy fans, intrigued by the depth of their own feeling, have spent a lot of time thinking about what footy means to them – and writing of their own experience.
Flattered at being described as reasonable, intelligent and even capable, I joined fellow footy tragics John Harms and Yvette Wroby for our session. It's surely no coincidence that all of us have written about the pain of supporting an unsuccessful football team. John is a Cats' man; Yvette, who now goes everywhere magnificently attired in red, white and black, of course supports the Saints. Our magnificently flaky, frequently underperforming teams, have brought us as much heartache as joy.
Flaky no longer describes the Cats, though; John has now seen the unfolding of a Geelong dynasty which doesn't seem close to ending. Yvette has watched her Saints in three grand finals, including the agony of a draw. Yvette says she doesn't worry any more about when the Saints will get to experience the elation, the euphoria, that John and I now have. It will come one day, she says. A simple faith that I had never been able to achieve in the Dogs' long years in the footy wildnerness.
The three of us had no trouble yarning about why it all mattered, swapping nostalgic stories of our early footy memories, reminiscing about the old suburban grounds, confessing to ridiculous superstitions and paranoid beliefs that our items of clothing, positions on the couch, or other such factors were somehow resulting in runs of goals. Or the reverse.
A Saints' fan in his 80s raised a laugh when he asked whether I thought there was any cure to barracking for his team. I told him not only was there definitely no cure, but after what I'd experienced with last year's flag, he shouldn't wish for one anyway.
On Sunday I was a guest of the 3AW pre-match panel. Again I told the story of why my team has always mattered to me through years of failure, of my western suburbs' upbringing, of family, of a sense of place.
I was asked by Matthew Richardson when I first realised this group was something special. The final against West Coast, I replied, though the answer to these things is never quite as clear cut as that, is far too simple and pat to capture how doubt and hope and fear and joy ebb and flow in the mind of the barracker.
Before I left the commentary box, Richo said to me how much he wished that he would see a similar sort of joy one day for his team Richmond. Richo is one of those I once called The Unrewarded: loyal, beloved one-club players, who embody the spirit of their club, yet never taste the ultimate success. Our players have always been disproportionately represented in this cruelly unfair list: Chris Grant, Brad Johnson, Rohan Smith, Scott West, Daniel Giansiracusa.
Richo played 282 games for the club his dad represented as well. Kicked 800 goals (ten of these, regrettably enough, in a single game against us the Dogs in 2004).
Played just three finals. And only one of these was a win.
I didn't cross paths with the next guest who was to follow me, our captain Bob. Our performance against Melbourne, we all knew, would play a big part in determining whether Bob, currently suffering an injury setback, would remain a card-carrying member of the Unrewarded.
I returned to my seat in time for the first bounce, hoping to shake my uneasy sense that our faltering form of late would follow us into this vital match.
What unfolded was shattering, hard to watch. An apparent return to a past we prayed, and hoped, had been banished forever.
So stark was the gap between the 2016 heroes and the desperately out-of-touch Bulldogs I developed a theory that somehow, a crew of skilled impersonators had pulled a daring stunt, locking the actual Bulldogs premiers into the training rooms while, in the ultimate practical joke, they took the field in their stead.
Or perhaps what had happened was borrowed from one of those interminable, long-running soapies like The Bold and the Beautiful, in which a long-running character is suddenly replaced by a new actor, with only a voice-over as explanation. I began to expect an announcement at some point, along these lines: 'The part of Easton Wood is now being played by Lukas Markovic.'
None of us could comprehend what was happening. None of us really knew what our expected emotional reactions, after the premiership which was supposed to change everything, should be in this unfamiliar territory, the post-premiership world. Should we launch into irrational, Danny-from-Droop-st panic? (that bloody flag! it's the worst thing that ever happened to us). Should we sit back in resigned torpor, chanting rhythmically: I saw a premiership in my lifetime and that's all that matters?
Like the well-worn philosophical dilemma that used to be furiously debated by Bulldogs' fans - the question of 'was it ok be happy with an honourable loss?' - divisions broke out as we struggled to understand the perplexingly awful performance.
Many condemned our club for 'celebrating too hard'. There were actually calls from some fans for the sign, ever so proudly emblazoned on the Whitten Oval - 2016 premiers - to be removed. It was, some said, giving our players an inflated sense of self importance!
Driving home, I drew upon my well-worn strategy of a media blackout. An ungracious loser like myself (you'd think I'd be better at it after decades of practice) really didn't want to hear gushing, albeit well-deserved compliments, about the red-hot Dees, who had out-men-of-mayhem-ed us.
I began thinking about a light-hearted question I was asked in my 3AW interview, about whether I myself was suffering a premiership hangover. I'd fumbled for words to describe what our new world has been like since we'd surfed that tidal wave of raw and pure emotion. 'Hangover' is too glib a term to capture that kaleidoscope of feelings left behind by that month of brilliant, audacious footy, that lion-hearted win against all odds. Maybe some things can't be captured at all.
I turned on the music system. Somehow songs that bob up post-loss always feel portentous. Sure enough, my old soul-mate in teenage angst, Joni Mitchell was the first one to emerge from the ipod shuffle. (I've never before confessed to a dark phase of my Tragician journey. It's time to reveal that as a moody teen, I completely renounced footy. I'd retreated to my Deer Park bedroom to listen to introspective singer-songwriters such as Joni, James Taylor and Neil Young, and squabble with my Libba Sister, who much preferred Abba. Fortunately I came to my senses,embracing footy once more - just in time for the halcyon Royce Hart era and a year where we won just two matches).
You had to hand it to Joni, though, because a line from one of her best known songs tumbled out and, I felt, expressed what I couldn't capture, about the impact of the premiership.
Moons and Junes and ferries wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel, as every fairy tale comes real.
It's a lot more poetic than a mere premiership hangover, I decided.
I've found myself thinking about Richo a bit this week, as normality returns, Joni's mournful voice recedes, and I become resigned to the idea that for whatever reason, we are playing at nowhere near the same level as 2016. We could well miss the eight, and even with Bevo's wizardry, a second premiership this year no longer feels remotely possible.
There was such a wistful note in Richo's comment to me. It kept me thinking about about what he missed out on, what so many Tigers' fans have never known. A vivid memory recurred, of Richo out on the field on Grand Final Day. He was cradling a Channel seven microphone instead of a Sherrin, wearing a smart suit instead of mud-splattered yellow and black, and trying to corral our celebrating players for an interview while they embarked on that joyous victory lap.
How many times must he have envisaged these moments, fantasised about sharing this elation with his team-mates and the euphoric fans. Longing, yearning, to experience that 'hope and joy and other important stuff.'
In the background, Luke Dahlhaus was openly weeping. The Bont stood proudly astride the MCG fence, holding up the precious cup to us, the fans. Bob Murphy - who idolised Richo as a kid - walked the boundary line, crying with us and for us: the 'sons and daughters of the west.'
Richo laughed along as he cornered, and then tried to get a sensible answer from, the exuberant Tom Liberatore. Libba (The Second) had played all four taxing finals, two of them interstate, with an appalling ankle injury which should have ended his season.
'Happy days, Richo! happy days,' said our Libba, and then he ran off to join his teammates and Bulldog family in a shower of red white and blue confetti.
Listen to my interview on 3AW.
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.