The twilight zone
I approached our match against the Blues with a familiar melancholy. The Dogs, 15th on the ladder, were playing for not much at all, against a team on the very bottom of the ladder, one that has recently been pretty much a rabble.
I've been here so very, very, very, many times before.
It wasn't enticing. I surely, surely, had better things to do.
It wasn't even because I dreaded the prospect that we could lose to the Blues as we memorably did a few short weeks ago. 'Dreaded' was too strong a word, implying anxiety, fear, investment, hope. I would have dreaded it, if we were a top side, playing for a finals spot, and losing to a bottom team would have been a major, genuine embarrassment.
No, as has happened rather frequently in my barracking career, I approached the probable loss with stoicism rather than terror. Because the Dogs, I've been realising, probably much more belatedly than I should have, are in the Footy Twilight Zone.
Our spot in the bottom reaches of the ladder is no longer completely mystifying, or an aberration, or constantly being defined against our premiership heroics. It's just where, presently, in mid-season 2019, we belong.
We are not especially woeful... I've got too much valuable perspective over the years about what 'woeful' looks like, and this isn't close.
Our team is just at present one of those shapeless hybrids, from which I can't yet get a read. Veterans nearing the end, but kids at varying stages - including the ominous 'I'm not that sure any more he's going to make it' stage. Some are languishing at Footscray; they have too much talent to stay there forever. Some have been promoted, but the reasons they languished are painfully obvious. Some have been promoted, and we don't have the foggiest idea why. There are our enigmatic - and dwindling - band of premiership heroes, from whom a ferocious drive to be the best again is not always apparent. That sense of a coherent story, of where our club is headed - whether to deeper pain and the dreaded 'bottoming out', or with just a smidgin of luck back into contention, soon-ish - is yet to emerge.
And so I'd watched our matches against the Cats, and then the Eagles, with a growing sense of apathy. We never REALLY looked like winning, and to that I was becoming sadly resigned.
I guess I'm well and truly in a mid-season slump.
It was when I switched off the TV before the end, as the Dogs were predictably overrun by the Eagles, and the memory of our most gallant and stirring finals victory over there receded that bit further into the distance, that I put a name to my condition. I was out of love with football, and out of love, right now and in these moments, with my club.
I didn't care very much, any more, as we racked up the losses. I was stoical, not incensed, as the Cats slammed on goals in their ritual, annual pounding of our team. I shrugged my shoulders, as Eagles' forwards monstered us, and our competitive start came to naught.
I couldn't join the lynch mob baying for blood. It was easier to just shut out the questions. But it also meant shutting off my emotions, so I didn't have to dig too deep to wonder what's going wrong.
I was sombre, but no longer distressed or surprised, as I read comments from our premiership ruckman Jordan Roughead (now quite handily holding down a defensive role at the second-on-the-ladder Magpies) about his last, unenjoyable season with us. He said that he wouldn't have continued to play this season if he couldn't transfer away from the Dogs, such was his disaffection. About the club he'd supported all his life. The club where he'd been part of a fairytale flag.
I listened, but with a certain indifference, to the clamour about what 'appropriate' barracking is all about, or ridiculous debates about whether it is okay for two Indigenous guys to share a laugh on the footy field.
I was trying not to think any more what the disturbing questions raised by theTom Boyd departure, even as news broke that the terribly luckless Lin Jong is taking time out to deal with his own mental health struggle.
I knew, because I am a grizzled veteran of the Royce Hart era, the Peter Rhode era, and all the miserable tail-ends of 'nearly there' eras, that there is only one tried and true cure for my condition.
Somehow, you keep going, dragging out the scarf and hauling yourself out to days and nights like these. Like the marathon runner who no longer remembers why she or he is competing, you put one foot in front of the other. You know, rather than feel, that this too will pass. You simply have to ride it out, until a spark of joy ignites, and the romance of footy returns.
With this quintessentially Tragician-like mindset I was disconcerted by our reasonably productive first half against the Ole Dark Bourgeois Blues. So deeply had I barricaded myself into my grim survival mode fortress that I was puzzled when we - how often does this happen these days? - got the first goal, and the one after that.
I got a little perky, my head raised from its protective slump, when Tim The Pom English, kept tapping the ball into the grateful arms of The Bont, who looked like he'd ingested some 'Patrick Cripps Who?' angry pills.
Goals were being scored without the usual 2019 laborious effort. Libba was protecting the Bont at stoppages and yapping at the Blues' heels like a Chihuahua, bringing on one of footy's guilty pleasures, the defiant satisfaction of having an unsociable player that you would loathe if he played for your opponents. Patrick 'Monica' Lipinski was having a wonderful match. Josh Dunkley hacked a goal out of a ruck contest and just kept getting the ball. JJ went for some runs. Yes, the Dogs were doing it all pretty comfortably. I wasn't leaping out of my seat, but I was pleased enough. Maybe this 'just-get-on-with-it-and-turn-up' approach of mine was paying dividends, as well as increasing my sense of virtuous superiority over less committed supporters, when the Dogs - and this too I know - come back into contention again.
There had to be a twist of the knife, of course. We had to play a lacklustre third quarter, so that the Ole Dark Navy Blue-baggers could stage a revival. But we staunched the bleeding. It was wise not to think too hard and too long about whether that was really because the Blues are not very good, rather than that our team were all that imposing.
In the first half of the last quarter, having survived the near-death experience, the young guns contributed to our comeback. A beautiful goal slotted by a nerveless Bailey Smith. A brave mark by The Pom. Hard running from Lipinksi. There were steadying efforts by the old hands.
With the match apparently lost, the Blues' supporters filed from the stadium, with the resigned and humble look that only years of failure help you to cultivate. (Ask the Tragician for tips).
I was relieved rather than euphoric. None of us would be rushing home to watch every sparkling moment, or even to re-live the howlers, but we'd built a six-goal lead with 10 minutes to go. Against one of the competition's worst ever performed teams, this lead was, surely, insurmountable.
That lead proceeded to be surmounted. (If that's not a word it should be).
I wasn't sure whether I was numb, or in pain, as the Blues stormed forward again and again, while we made dumb errors, again and again.
Maybe I wasn't really numb, because I whispered to Libba Sister Two that I had NEVER had a worse feeling at a footy game.
Objectively, given the reality of what I have experienced in my barracking life, this was a completely ridiculous statement.
But it felt true, in those agonising moments when the Dogs conspired to do everything possible to lose the game. It really felt true.
And even though I'd gone to the game in full expectation that we could lose... there is losing. And there is losing... like that.
I felt like I was glimpsing the final, emphatic, definitive exclamation point, that the era that began with the joyous, romping, fear-nothing Men of Mayhem in 2015 was over.
Didn't Our Boys have the hunger, still? Had they forgotten how to win? Would they feel the squandering of a five-goal lead against the bottom-of-the-ladder Blues, in the same way as us...the same humiliation and despair that we would irrationally and unreasonably feel if we lost - the flip side to the irrational and unreasonable pride we feel when they win?
Josh Dunkley won a free. I guess the stadium was... holding its breath. The siren finally, mercifully, sounded.
We'd been spared the bitterness of defeat. But it didn't feel like the sweetness of victory.
Somehow, even though we'd won, even though our song rang out, I wanted very much to cry. Because, whether we'd somehow, as we did, ended up with our noses in front, or as we so very nearly did, tasted ignominious defeat, that exclamation point was still there in my vision. I couldn't un-see it any more.
The Bulldogs faithful left the stadium. There was no hubris towards the relatively few Blues' fans who'd stayed to watch their improbable and yet oh so probable comeback. Nobody was prepared to gloat about our victory over our former arch-enemy. There weren't even those little chuckles as we exchanged glances with our fellow Bulldogs' supporters, the relieved 'we dodged a bullet there!' smiles.
The next day, perspective will return; we can see what we did right for so much of the night, be more realistic and logical about the impact on the match of the loss of Libba, remind ourselves that our team that night was younger than Carlton's. The resilient among us will say about our present 2019 predicament (and it will be true): This too will pass.
But right now, as we filed out of the arena in near-silence, it felt like one of footy's most singular experiences, the Win That Feels Like A Loss.
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.