When the flame still burns
Scene: Western Bulldogs medical rooms. Bandages, crutches, braces, wheelchairs – even a prosthetic leg – are strewn around the cluttered room.
Glum-faced medical gurus, Dr Zimmerman and Dr Landsberger, are in conversation with a pensive Luke Beveridge about the injury carnage.
On the whiteboard (make that two whiteboards) is a long list of those missing in action.
Bevo: So what exactly is a compound dislocation of the finger?
Dr Zimmerman: That’s what happened to Tom Boyd on the weekend, Bevo. The bone actually protruded out of his finger.
Bevo (wincing): Not so good for a bloke who’s our number one ruck then?
Dr Z: Nah, he’ll be right to go.
(Tom Boyd’s name gets moved into the ‘available’ column).
Bevo: It didn’t look great when Bont did that weird action with his knee. What’s the story?
Dr L: A hyper-extension is the term, Bevo, but nah, he’ll be right to go.
(Bont’s name gets moved into the ‘available’ column).
Bevo: Ok, what about an update on Dale Morris?
Dr Z pauses, shuffles papers, glances nervously at Dr L., and takes a deep breath. Well Bevo, as you know, in the past Dale has suffered a broken leg, a fracture in his back, and at the start of the season, a torn…
Bevo (testily): Yeah, we know all that. Ancient history. I’m asking about the CURRENT state of play.
Dr L: Let me handle this one, Zimma. Dale is 35 and his body’s taken a battering. Just this week he went in for surgery to clear out that knee. He had blood tests, and I have to be upfront about what we’ve just heard. He’s – well, he’s just been diagnosed with the Ebola virus.
Silence, and then all break into relieved chuckles. Bevo slaps Dr L on the back. The way Zimma was carrying on, I thought he must have had a career-threatening ailment or something. You old fox, Zimma! Okay, good news at last... Dale is right to go!
(The name of Dale Morris is moved to the ‘available’ column).
With the amount of footy I've watched over the years, I don’t always remember each individual player’s debut, even that of legends.
But I do vividly recall the first game played by Dale Morris. The year was 2005. Our new coach Rodney Eade pulled a surprise, selecting the mature age rookie for the tough role of shadowing Mark Ricciuto, then one of the most damaging players in the competition. Dale had never even played TAC Cup, had trained with us for four years just hoping for this opportunity. He ran out for the first time alongside captain Luke Darcy, and future captains Brad Johnson, Matthew Boyd, Ryan Griffen, and Bob Murphy. Legendary players Scott West, Rohan Smith and Chris Grant jogged with Dale down the race. He entered for the first time the brightly lit field of his dreams.
So superlative was the performance of this mystery debutant that the commentary team joked that he could be a smokey for the Brownlow, with Gerard Healy hamming it up further: "The All-Australian committee has already convened an emergency meeting."
Last week, 13 years later, Dale was a guest on Foxtel's On the Mark program. It almost shaped as an obituary on a stellar career apart from the fact there was no way that Dale saw himself that way. As the discussion roved around the injuries and heartaches, I had a poignant sense of all that he had been through, and how much his body had endured on our behalf. His young son, he said, was completely turned off football after watching his dad spend 18 months recuperating from a broken leg. He didn't want to play footy because "footy hurts dad."
When Dale finally returned from the arduous rehabilitation and all the setbacks, it was to a side that was a dismal rabble, further off a premiership - it seemed - than ever. The year was 2013.
And yet, Dale explained to the incredulous reporters, he never, ever, stopped visualising himself as a premiership player. What it would be like to run onto the ground. The roar of the crowd.
To stand on the premiership dais, collecting his precious medallion from an Auskicker wearing number 38.
In 2016 Dale achieved his dream. We didn’t know that his back was literally broken for the entirety of the finals series; the only inkling I had was a moment in the late stages of the second quarter when the momentum was with the Swans. As the ball got swept to the other end, I saw how slowly Dale got up from a contest. That was before he performed smothers, desperate lunges, the ultimate one-per-centers in a gruelling third quarter.
Before Lance Franklin wheeled imperiously through the centre of the G, about to make one more counter-attack to wrest the game from our keeping in the dying minutes of the game. Dale ended up almost horizontal as he launched himself at the competition’s star player. It may have been the most epic moment, of the most epic of matches.
I feel that gnawing fear, even through my pride and admiration, as I listen to Dale talk about the possibility of playing in a second premiership. The fear we feel when our players get near the end; the desperate wish that they do not play too long, that our club will not have to make the toughest of calls. For when would a man like Dale Morris ever concede that his body has had enough?
Dale takes the field for the 243rd time on Saturday night. It's only his second game in an injury-plagued season.
The nearest player in age to Dale is Jackson Trengove, a mere 27-years-old. Dale’s skipper for the evening is 22-year-old Marcus Bontempelli, who was aged 10 when Dale debuted. Yet even with the presence of our 35-year-old skewing the stats, we retain our dubious honour of presenting the youngest team to take the field as we have virtually each week.
It’s a frenetic, fast-paced match. Our Boys look switched, on, urgent, but they’ve shown this for a quarter here and there in all our heavy losses. Sustaining it, standing firm when the momentum shifts: this has been where our struggle has been.
Bevo has thrown all the cards up in the air. Defenders Naughton and Cordy are surprise figures in the forward line; even more surprisingly given the makeshift team, scoring doesn't seem quite as excruciatingly impossible as it has so often been this year.
North are a better team this year, and they are tenacious. One of their best, unfortunately for us, is Shaun Higgins. There is nothing so former as a former player, even though his departure at the time was amicable enough. Higgins thought that North were closer to premiership glory than the bedraggled, divided team that limped to the end of 2014. We on the other hand had grown frustrated about whether he would never get his injury-plagued body right, even though we knew the talent he possessed. Irrationally, it hurts that it's finally come together for him and we never got to benefit. More rationally, we're incensed to see he's adopted North's Fake Tough Guy Persona nurtured by Brad Scott (Foundation Member of the Tragician Hall of Infamy) as he executes cheap shots on our players if they're lying prone on the ground.
With him in brilliant form the Kangaroos begin winning more contests. Their forward line has a matchwinner that even the Bulldog Tragician struggles to hate, the guy who always reminds me of an over-eager puppy dog, Ben Brown. North gain a 10 point lead. Our Boys look weary; oh what we would give to have another of our injured players Jack Macrae, who always runs as hard in the last quarter as in the first, to be out there as North seem set to romp away with the match. But somehow, we find that elusive will to win. Somehow, an unlikely hero, Billy Gowers, runs into an open goal after a beautiful pass from Josh Schache. Somehow, our Bulldogs are ahead.
Such joy there is, at the thought of a win. Such a racket do we all make, rising to our feet. So loudly does the Bulldog chant go up, so hard do we stamp our feet on the concrete floors, urging our boys to hang on.
There are just two minutes to go. This was the scenario where we were at our best in 2016. Our structures, our decisions, our will, our desire, stood up, after all, in that fiery cauldron, the heart-stopping Preliminary Final. But too few of those warriors - just nine of the premiership team - are out there. A mistake is made, with only 40 seconds left. Ample time, it turns out, for the ball to be swept down the ground by North easily, so easily. It seems so cruel, it is so cruel. But the Dogs have lost.
We applaud them still, but Bevo is awaiting them with white hot fury and a scathing analysis of all the mistakes - ALL THE MISTAKES - that cost us the game.
Two 18-year-olds, Ed Richards and Aaron Naughton, played for us on Saturday. Maybe they'll tell their kids one day, about playing alongside Dale Morris, a gentle man in all senses and a legend to us all, even though he has never, to my recollection, taken a specky. He's never made an electric dash down a wing, bouncing the ball (has Dale EVER bounced the ball?) He kicked the most recent of his three career goals way back in 2011; the odds are against him adding to that tally. Remarkably for one who plays in defence, he's never been cited by the Tribunal, let alone been suspended. Dale has never been in the news, thrown out the worse for wear from a nightclub or disrespecting a woman. He has never walked the Brownlow red carpet. He's not going to appear in a HQ shoot. He will not adopt a man bun.
I like to think - perhaps I hope - that he chats to Ed and Aaron about all the things he knows and all the values he's lived in his time with us. He might tell them, too, of the low points. That, eight years before he wrapped his arms around Buddy and ensured that we won a flag, he was part of a Bulldog defence that was humiliatingly torn apart in a final by that same Buddy Franklin. The power forward destroyed us almost single-handed in that match, kicking eight goals. Dale was the first of his hapless, under-sized, defeated opponents.
But that didn't destroy Dale's dream, even when he went through three preliminary final failures, even when he got pitted against other forwards he had no right to be playing on like Nick Riewoldt, even when he spent time in with a plaster cast up to his hip and in a wheelchair. That dream carried him through to the premiership dais in October 2016, when some lucky Auskicker wearing number 38 got to present a premiership medallion to the great man Dale Morris.
Living in the now
On October 2, 2016, while waiting for OUR team, the 2016 Premiers, to step out and greet us from the Whitten Oval balcony, the Libba Sisters fulfilled a long-held pledge of what action we would take should The Unimaginable ever occur. Amid the thousands of amazed, hungover, elated revellers, we lay down on the muddy turf, smelled the earthy smells, and looked up at the sky.
I felt then that the Bulldog Tragician story was at an end. The premiership had brought to a close, forever, the heartache, the bitterness of the ‘what ifs.’ Our Boys had written the most spectacular, brilliant, and most improbable of stories. Was there, could there, be anything left to say?
The meaning of that story seemed something pure and lasting. Yet it has become hotly contested, as events in history so often are. Reframed, far too quickly, in terms of what has come after: a mediocre 2017, and an increasingly disastrous 2018. The ‘we won it too soon’ explanation, of a team that ‘over-achieved’ in a flukey month of footy, has gained currency... even, perplexingly, from within our own club. (Too soon, when we last won in 1954? Surely we didn't have a secret mission statement in which we aspired to win a flag once every 65 years or so?)
Bob said this week that for other, regularly successful clubs, winning a premiership is like climbing Everest; a massive endeavour, from which you recover and then gather strength to launch again. For us, he says, it was more like landing on the moon.
Meanwhile Bevo (Our Saviour) sounds increasingly plaintive as he endures his weekly grilling on what went wrong. He implores everyone to move on, to realistically assess our performances and progress through a different lens from the constant harking back, the endless focus on how we did it in 2016 and why we can’t replicate it. He asks us all to live in ‘the now’.
Whether this is a message to the players, the fans, the media —or maybe a forlorn appeal to the universe — I couldn’t rightly say.
I didn’t see our performances against Collingwood and Melbourne. I was 1000 kilometres away on holiday; but I probably could have, as I would have in other years, found a way to tune in. I felt an apathy which was bigger than the certainty that we would lose these games; more disturbing than just the fact that our performances, so earnestly, painfully dire, are difficult to watch. I’ve abundant experience in weathering both scenarios, after all.
No, the reason for my disturbing indifference is something else less familiar. An uncertainty about the meaning of our story in the 'now' of 2018.
It was for so long a story which revolved around our noble, fruitless quest for a premiership. Years when we were close to it and stuffed up. Years where we weren’t contenders at all - that was a story too.
Of course I always argued (sometimes with a note of desperation) that the story of supporting a club is about more than premierships. But even those alternative stories, from which I’ve drawn strength in bad times, lately fail to inspire.
The story of sharing the story of beloved veterans, of being present as their journeys unfold, of bearing witness to their struggle, their injuries, their heartaches and their joys?
Well, the quixotic character of Bob Murphy is now a media identity. Still beloved of course, but Bob, in his new guise, even picked us to lose to Port Adelaide by 15 points. Which was probably generous, but still…
‘Keith’ Boyd is now a ‘development’ coach at Collingwood, wearing the dreaded colours black and white. I imagine him with a meticulously well-organised clipboard, giving a fixed stare of disapproval to players with outlandish hairstyles, or those who wear beanies to training.
The travails of holding up our backline for 13 years have taken their toll on the body of our heroic Dale Morris. Liam Picken, the most courageous of men, has taken too many knocks to the head; the damaging effects of concussion have left his footy future uncertain. We now fear, rather than yearn, to see these warriors in our colours again.
What about another romantic element of our story, of sons living out their fathers’ dreams? Libba, with his second knee reconstruction, has missed this year. The career of Mitch Wallis, hailed early as a future captain, is languishing. Bevo, with his quaint mangling of the language, explains that he wants Wally to add a ‘qualitative sheen’ to his current attributes. An unimpressed Wallis is linked (could there be anything worse?) to the Bombres.
Could we seek solace in embracing the story of young guns whose future, brimming with possibility and potential, might deliver us another flag? It seems a little indecent to turn our allegiances towards them, when the core of our premiership team is still in their early 20s. And even though we've been heartened by the little signs, the obvious raw talent in youngsters Tim English and Aaron Naughtin, they’ve disappeared too quickly down the never-ending injury tunnel for us to truly bond with them, build a new story around them.
I guess the story that I don’t want to write is where our anticipated dynasty went, why and how our justifiable hopes of sustained, consistent success, becoming ‘just like Geelong’ or ‘just like Hawthorn’ dissipated so quickly. Why instead, as our growing circle of critics say, we reacted to the premiership by being 'just like us'. Why only 11 of our 2016 premiership team are out there on Thursday night, and the array of disillusioning reasons that the other 13 aren't able to be there with them.
This season, I’ve realised, is at best one of those lulls, a stalling, an aimless spinning of wheels while we wait for a new story to emerge. I've seen many of them before. They are forgettable but necessary. It’s just that writing about it, when success was so recent, and the feat so grand, doesn’t have any appeal.
Still, the Libbas get together to watch the match against Port, from my sister’s apartment in Seddon – our vantage point for some of the wonderful, surprising, joyful events of 2015 and 2016. And recently, some terrible defeats. We’re not wearing our scarves, lucky or otherwise. There’s no sense of anticipation, no anxious chat about our prospects, no discussion about selections. Alarmingly, the Libbas can not even muster anticipatory indignation about how horribly biased the umpiring is likely to be before the parochial South Australian crowd.
Having missed the past two matches, I’m unprepared for just how dreadfully our injury-riddled team are going. The first quarter is stunningly bad.
Libba One: Who’s that blonde guy wearing long sleeves? He’ll never make it.
Libba Two: The one who just kicked it to Port again? I’m not sure.
Libba One: He’s got a porn-star moustache, just like Shane Biggs. But it can’t possibly be him. Can it?
Pained silence as the architect of the Great Wall of Biggs in the 2016 Grand Final, kicks the ball to a Port player. Again.
Libba Two: I know we were going to have a cup of tea at half time. We might as well have it now.
Libba One: I guess there’s not much point in waiting until we score a goal.
We’re not angry, even at the umpires. ( Okay, just a little. I mean, what was that free against Toby McLean in the first minute all about? Honestly, if that were Bloody Joel Selwood…!)
Sometimes we chuckle at our team’s overall ineptitude. It's laughter with a hollow sound, as in rare forays into the forward line, players miss from 20 metres out.
But there is a sorrow there too. The premiership heroes are pale imitations, wearing the frustrated expressions of men who can’t remember how all the pieces used to fit. The second tier players, promoted more because of our injury toll than scintillating form, have failed to thrive. Our skills are awful. In the box, Bevo wears the careworn expression of the struggling coach.
It may only be quarter time, but we’re facing a belting. No one seems capable of turning the carnage around. Ryder, Dixon, one of those Jesus-lookalike-Westhoffs - we are being rag-dolled by a production line of big strong men with barista beards.
In the second quarter, someone at last steps forward, an unexpected hero: a first-year player, the youngest man on the ground.
‘Little Red’ Richards, who was busy even in the diabolical first quarter, kicks the first goal of his career. His team-mates flock to him; suddenly there’s a flicker of energy. He kicks another; the depressed Libbas sit up from our slumped positions and do a high five, while an excited text comes from our teenage niece who’s watching the game. ”Little Ed!”
Now the young man with the flame of red hair is hemmed in on the boundary, 50 metres out, a long way for a slightly built 18-year-old on a wet and heavy ground. He has the calm look, the self-assurance of the young player secure in his own talent. He’s not looking to pass it off; he’s not hesitant about grabbing his moment. We don’t expect, after the efforts of his team-mates, that he will even make the distance. And yet the ball sails through.
The Libbas clap; we beam, like proud aunties. “GO LITTLE RED!”
His team-mates flock to him again; there’s something irresistible about his smile. There are freckles on his nose, stars in his eyes. It’s as though Little Red alone remembers how much fun, how simple, this can be. You win the ball. You kick a goal. Then you try and do it again.
Easton Wood rips a hammy; you know straight away it’s something bad. The defining image of the night could be the forlorn sight of our captain huddled in our race, helplessly watching our depleted team fail again, knowing his season is over, the hours of rehab and frustration ahead. When Jackson Macrae joins him it's hard to believe the injury gods could continue to be so cruel.
But amid the gloom, somehow we keep waiting for Little Red to enter the frame, to waltz with his light steps across our TV screen. After his superb second quarter, he does it less often, but it’s always worth the wait. We rejoice in his balance, the extra time he always seems to have. His courage. His nimble steps. His quickness of mind.
At the final siren Ed Richards jogs off the soggy ground with his weary team-mates. He has played 11 games for just four wins. Many of those losses, like tonight, have been lopsided, painful affairs. But his efforts alone mean their heads are held a little higher.
Some time over the next few days, a little phrase keeps coming into my mind. I trace it back, way back, to a long-ago match, in an era when games were taped, not streamed, and my sons liked to re-watch the games (at least they said they did when I plonked them in front of the TV). There was some gushing commentary about the emergence of a possible superstar. The memory is too faint for me to remember if it was even one of our players. The hyperbole came from the likes of Peter Landy; maybe it was Sandy Roberts.
But their usually garrulous co-commentator was uncharacteristically understated before he said anything about the new bloke's future. ‘He’s gonna be a player,’ murmured Lou Richards, the great-uncle of our Little Red. I like the memory. I sit down, and begin to type.
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.