Our 'Men of Mayhem'
In June 2014 a stirring - but completely unexpected - victory against the Pies was one of the highlights (it may in fact have been the only one) of a miserable season. The Pies had been flying at that point while the outlook for the Dogs was depressed and gloomy; we limped into the match with only one victory from our previous seven outings. We were a battling, dour scrappy team, showing almost no improvement from the year before.
Morale in the build-up was further deflated when a journalist from The Age penned a stinging article in which we were rated in bottom position in the Victorian clubs' 'relevance' ladder. Our club, he claimed, had become 'invisible' and was 'unable to tell a story about itself' or contribute to the football conversation.
Against this cheery backdrop, even making the decision to attend that 2014 match loomed as a pure test of character as a football fan. It raised existential questions. Why on earth do we go, when so little joy can be expected? what does the game offers us as fans when all hope is gone, and certain, painful defeat lies ahead?
They are not questions at the forefront of Dogs' fans' minds as we prepare, in a much more buoyant mood, for the 2015 re-match. Though it's little more than 12 months on, it's hard to even recall the despondent, brittle mindset of the club that was then so under siege. We enter this match perched on sixth spot in the ladder. A finals spot - you heard me, a finals spot! - is up for grabs. An even more unlikely top four finish is not out of the question.
The transformation between the 2014 Dogs that pulled off that stirring but ultimately futile backs-to-the-wall heist (for we won only three more matches for the year) and their counterparts who lined up last Sunday, is nothing short of astonishing. The dramatic change in personnel was illustrated in the fact that only ten 'survivors' remained in Sunday's team from those who took the field in last year's miraculous win.
This isn't because of a sloughing off of under-performers either. Missing from our ranks, forever, are the experienced quartet of Giansiracusa, Cooney, Higgins and Griffen - and the 780 plus games of experience they had amassed between them. Still on our list, but missing through injury or form issues are last year's best and fairest winner Tom Liberatore as well as Minson, Roughead, Stevens and Hrovat. Meanwhile, Liam Jones and Jason Tutt, who both actually played well that day, endure their own form of football hell at Carlton. (If I may be so cruel, the Blues must be regretting those supremely arrogant 'They know we're coming' posters and billboards).
Despite, or maybe because of, our extraordinary rebirth, my attitude before the game still failed to reach heights of sparkling positivity. If it's good enough for Tony Abbott to describe himself as the love-child of Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard, the Tragician's thinking was an equally bizarre hybrid of Coodabeen characters Danny from Droop Street, and his perennially hard-done-by Collingwood equivalent, 'Digger'.
I grumbled that I didn't like the team selections or our form going into the match, one little bit. My considered view was that Shane 'Great Train Robber' Biggs was one of those serviceable VFL types that would never make it; that Lachie Hunter was not showing enough to earn his stripes; that our backline had experienced too much recent upheaval through injury and appeared under-sized and shaky. The Dogs, I said, had been looking lethargic and out-of-sorts for weeks; the carefree, intoxicating abandon of the first few weeks had slowly been ground down; our run from the backline had been forensically analysed and stopped.
All excellent reasons, of course, why a call up to contribute my insights to the match committee or partake in team strategy deliberations is probably unlikely.
Mind you, in the hushed silence in the arena at the 30 second mark of the first quarter, when the Pies had swept the ball forward for an easy-as-you-like goal without a Bulldog player even getting fingernail to the ball, it appeared far too likely that my pessimism was about to be vindicated.
Yet within minutes, as the Dogs began rattling on the goals, it was clear that we had brought a different mindset to this match. Whether it was because Collingwood allowed us to play on our terms, or we had simply regained our mojo, as the ball whipped up and down the ground in an entertaining first quarter, it was evident that this fast-paced, frenetic style of game would suit us to a tee.
Earlier this year we learnt that the Dogs under Luke Beveridge had adopted the motto 'Men of Mayhem' to sum up the way our team aspired to play. Selfless, always competitive, prepared to apply manic pressure.
The Men have looked mired in the stodge of a Melbourne winter lately. But not so on Sunday. We were flinging the ball about with dare and flair, taking heart-in-mouth risks, streaming down the ground running in waves together, as though the prospect of a turnover simply could not be contemplated. Sometimes it didn't come off. But oh! how wonderful it was when it did!
We should have had the game in our keeping quite early; the Pies scored through our mistakes rather than great play, and a constant bug-bear of this year, infuriating inaccuracy, continued to cost us frequently. (If I ever do get that call up to the match committee, one of my innovations will be this: when Jake The Lair Stringer lines up for a routine set shot, several Bulldogs' players should charge wildly at him and attempt to tackle him to the ground. The Lair will be forced to revert to his preferred goal-kicking technique of taking on three guys that are hanging off him, snap from an impossible angle over his shoulder, and the ball will sail merrily through, post height).
Our team was again the youngest to take the field for the entire round, making the performance even more (as Rocket Eade was so fond of saying) 'pleasing'. But while our veterans are few, it's still worth marvelling at in the form of the our only three over-30 players. Matthew Boyd (bar one heart-in-throat play-on-from-kick-out disaster midway through the last quarter) remains an amazing accumulator of the ball and effective link-man. The peerless Dale Morris is surely the most unflustered and serene of backmen, calmly repelling attack after attack, never missing a beat despite the injury problems he has endured this year. And Bob Murphy romped around in a smart. lively cameo on the forward line - not that he's ever far from the limelight when he's back in his more traditional position in the 'Men's Department'.
Then there's a middle tier of players who have raised their game several notches further: Mitch Wallis, who shows the attributes of the greats by somehow always bobbing up with That Goal That We Desperately Need; Luke Dahlhaus who is transitioning to a genuine gut running midfielder; and Liam 'Marcus' Picken who every week in a Clark Kent-Superman performance abandons his weekday persona of gentle father of three toddlers to become the most hard-nosed of midfielders.
Alongside them, brimming with extraordinary gifts and potential are the P-Plater brigade comprising The Lair, the Bont, Jackson Macrae ( it usually takes a second viewing on the replay to appreciate the full contribution this guy has made to our wins), 'Bailey Dailey' (surely he's not even on P-plates), and Lachie Hunter (I knew he could play!).
And then there's two men with a handful of games between them; the success of each of them would be a football fairytale. Playing game number six: 'Big Jack' Redpath, a 24-year-old carpenter, a hulking 194cm, 100kg forward, rookie listed after two knee reconstructions. At the other end of the spectrum, the 'Wee Man', the tiny but big-hearted 'Celeb' Daniel. At just 63 kg, 167 cm he shows some of the fire and determination of The First Libber. But with his elegant one handed pick up and clever goal the 'Wee Man' demonstrated that his bag of tricks could one day surpass our most Dogged of small Dogs.
Collectively our Men (and Boys) also showed the ability to withstand a white-hot challenge as the Pies stormed within eleven points of us in the last quarter. I'd have probably preferred a little bit less of the 'Mayhem' moments to be honest, as Boydy committed his brain fade, Michael Talia inexplicably conceded a needless 50 metre penalty, and the umpire equally needlessly chimed in to award one against Jackson Macrae.
But even a panicking Tragician was happy to see that we wrested back the initiative by playing OUR way rather than reverting to our shells; the two goals that steadied the ship both came from bold attacking moves from defence.
I just escaped an icy shower as we left the ground. It was followed by the appearance of a rare, luminous double rainbow in the leaden late afternoon sky. It may have been my imagination, of course, as I basked in the win and the growing likelihood of a Bulldogs' finals appearance, but it seemed to me its arc began somewhere near the MCG and ended up over Barkly St.
A few days after the match, the same journalist who painted such a damning picture of our future last year wrote another article, this time in praise of our magical resurgence, and Bob Murphy's leading role in it by committing as captain of the ragtag group of kids and shellshocked teammates when everything went so horribly wrong last year. He wrote:
Bob the Premiership Dog. That is a story even Bob thought would not be written but now it is one football would love to read. Maybe not this year, but maybe next year or the one after, for he is still a spritely dog. And he knows how to stay.
MORE: my story on last year's emotional win against the Pies: 'We came, we saw, we believed' was published in last year's Football Almanac collection of best football writing. Read it here. (It was also the match where The Bont, in his second game, won a Rising Star nomination.)
Good ole suburban footy
I was looking forward to Saturday's match. It was a chance, I thought, to savour a nostalgic journey down memory lane. Grassroots footy as it used to be, played at the last of the Victorian suburban grounds, with the added novelty of a traditional Saturday afternoon timeslot. No roof blocking out the watery winter sunshine; no need for Fan Engagement Strategies or flashing lights reminding us to 'Make some noise'.
Our opponents are an historic VFL foundation club, the second oldest continuously existing club of any code in the world. A club rightly celebrated for playing the game 'as it should be played'. Still connected to its heartland and community.
So last Saturday afternoon I travelled down the 'Corio Bay' Highway. Unlike some I could mention, my mode of transport was the humble automobile rather than a helicopter, as I prepared to watch the Dogs take on the Cats.
Legend has it that even the great EJ never rode home victorious on the Footscray Football Club team bus, after making what was then the game's longest - and for many years its toughest - road trip.
Yet despite what the cold hard facts would say about our poor record at the ground, I actually harbour quite a few memories of us winning at Kardinia Park. There were two sensational come-from-behind victories in 2001 and 2002, with Brad Johnson taking a screamer in one of them.
Most vividly remembered, though, is a day in 1995, when, perched on a milk-crate, I viewed - or attempted to view - the match from the standing room terraces in the outer. Despite my elevated position I remained unable to see any of the action, and had the match relayed to me by taller members of my family. (In other words all of them).
The fact that I couldn't actually glimpse anything of the game, wedged in as I was among other people's none-too-aromatic armpits, didn't, of course, prevent me joining in the chorus of outraged boos when word was passed down to me that Gary Ablett Senior had ironed out Rohan Smith with a bone-shattering shirtfront. He got two weeks for it, and the Dogs got home by 15 points.
The oval's been extensively redeveloped since that halcyon 1995 day. A new grandstand has been erected above my former, precarious, milk-crate location. (I'm not sure, however, if a plaque respectfully marks the spot).
I was, as always, with my fellow 'Libber sister' - particularly apt, as Kardinia Park was where, years ago, a smart-alecky Cats' fan first bestowed our nickname. (And many thanks to the wit who has suggested it's time for an update, and that we should now get with the times and be known as the 'Caleb Daniel Sisters'. Droll).
The first shock to the nostalgia script came when we discovered that, in 2015, at what is now 'Simonds Stadium', we would pay $61 (each) for the privilege of attending the match.
These were the cheapest seats we could get too; standing room sets you back $29.
Considering that Federal and State governments have poured money into the redevelopment of the stadium, I perhaps naively thought that admission would have remained a bit more in reach of the average fan.
I found it equally outrageous that Dogs' fans couldn't use their Victorian memberships to at least get into the arena; the match was mysteriously classified as an 'interstate' one. (Perhaps this explains why our Speaker got a little mixed up about which mode of transport was necessary to attend a 'fundraiser').
Much lighter of pocket, the 'Libber-Caleb-Daniel' sisters (I'm not really sure this is going to stick) trooped around the arena towards our exorbitantly priced seats.
Inside the stadium we came across walls of photographic displays that somehow brought my mood down, even though I thought what they portrayed was quite magnificent. They were stirring crowd shots of thousands of euphoric Cats' fans celebrating Geelong's three recent premierships.
My gloom was because these jubilant scenes of success-starved fans partying with their beloved team brought home - yet again - one of the recurring themes in the Tragician blog. Yep - you guessed it. The path not taken. The sliding door missed. The alternative, rosy, wonderful future, heartbreakingly glimpsed in a rear-view mirror.
You see, almost ten years ago, the up-and-coming Dogs' and Cats' squads seemed equally poised at the threshold of brilliant futures. In two thrilling, high quality encounters in the 2006 season, no more than two points split the teams, with each recording a one-point victory.
Two youngsters with long manes of hair tore up and down the wings in the free-spirited affairs. One was the son of That Thug who had flattened our Rohan Smith in 95; the other an equally talented kid and future captain of the Dogs. He was wearing the number 16 guernsey.
Premiership glory beckoned, surely, for these two young and talented outfits. Our club seemed to leap ahead in the race, when we went onto make the finals that year and knocked off Collingwood in the first week; the Cats meanwhile fell away and missed the eight.
The relative flag-readiness of the two clubs proved, though, to be an illusion. Geelong played one of the all-time great seasons and stormed to a premiership the next year: two others soon followed. The Dogs missed the eight in 2007. Though we featured in the next three finals series, we came nowhere near the achievements of the team we'd appeared the equal of in 2006.
Somewhat dampened by these recollections, we eventually found our seats. For the price we'd paid, I'd expected our views would at least afford us outstanding views of the action. But as the Tragician should know by now, high expectations are destined to be quickly squashed.
Our seats were behind the goals. At this long skinny ground, this meant following the action at the opposite end of the ground was only marginally better than the day I tottered on my milk-crate (and fractionally worse than watching last week's match on an app). We were unable to discern which red-clad stick figure was playing well and who wasn't (we had a serious discussion on the way home bemoaning the fact that Luke Dahlhaus had been 'quiet', only realising later that he'd notched up 37 disposals).
Each quarter apparently had its own 'sponsor' - so I learnt from a scoreboard positioned so that it could only be viewed through flinging my neck around Joel-Selwood-style. It was not visible any other way.
The game was, like so many of late, tedious, congested and scrappy. Was it the dismal standard of the contest, or something about the ground itself, that meant that the atmosphere was surprisingly dull and muted, despite the closeness of the scores?
The Dogs reverted to some of the worst characteristics of our football over the last three years - graft and endeavour let down by sloppy decision-making. We reaped precious little reward for effort. In a damning statistic, our 15 forward entries in the third quarter resulted in only one miserable goal, while the Cats made the most of only three entries.
Our opposition are no longer the formidable outfit that swept all before them for so long. But there were still painfully familiar names bobbing up to keep us at arms' length. Steve Johnson. Jimmy Bartel. Corey Enright. James Kelly. Andrew Mackie. Tom Lonergan. Triple premiership players who, even in a team that's finally beginning to falter, know how to get the job done. In contrast, lack of composure kept costing the Dogs, especially in the final few minutes when the game was still winnable, and yet the mountain to climb for the Dogs to grab the lead seemed somehow insurmountable.
We trudged from the ground, disappointed and resigned, having been dealt yet again the lessons Dogs' fans should be adept in. Patience. Realism. Resilience. Perspective. The dreary realisation that we've got a long way to go, having to be absorbed and accepted by fans that have already waited far too long.
I found myself thinking again, though, about the story of the divergent paths of the Dogs and Cats from 2006 onwards. It was not, after all, quite as it seems.
The Dogs were not, in reality, anywhere near as precociously young and talented as the Cats' squad that went on to become one of the greatest ever seen. With ageing champions like Chris Grant, Rohan Smith, Scott West and Brett Montgomery still in our ranks in 2006, we were a full two years older on average than the Geelong team. They were on the cusp of greatness. You just couldn't see it at the time.
On Saturday, the mirage distorts things the other way. Their empire might be slowly crumbling but the Cats still fielded nine players with over 150 games experience compared to our three. Their view is backwards, in the rear vision mirror; ours can be, should be, of a clear highway ahead. Twelve of our boys had less than 50 games; in the same category, the Cats had seven. The Dogs may, or may not, make the finals this year. That's unlikely, though, to be a yardstick of the future we have ahead.
Glancing at the joyous faces captured for posterity on the Kardinia Park walls as we departed the ground, I wondered what the emotions of those same fans had been at the end of '06, when their gifted young team had under-performed and missed the finals, Coach Bomber Thompson was under siege; angst and self-doubt gripped the club. Had they felt like Dogs' fans so often do - that it will never be our time, that the ultimate success is somehow 'not for the likes of us'? Never knowing, in their despondency as they entered what was then a 44 year premiership drought, the thrilling and magical ride they, and their club, were about to embark upon.
As for those two kids running up and down the wing - Gary Ablett Junior has two premiership medallions and two Brownlow medals. Ryan Griffen has none. They move towards the end of their footballing journeys in the colours of soul-less franchises that didn't even exist when they were pitted against each other, in those days that seem so recent, and sometimes so very far away.
How good's footy?
Thoughts of a Bulldog Tragician, quarter by quarter, July 9, 2015
Quarter one: Well. That was just horrid.
Quarter two: I feared this might be coming. For the past three weeks we've been unimpressive even while we've won.
<insert timely platitude to justify our performance>
a) it's been a long year for the kids
b) this loss could be a wake up call
c) footy's a stupid game anyway.
Half time: We look like we're still on holidays. This is going to become a belting. A humiliation. C'MON DOGS!
Three quarter time: There is no excuse for those dropped marks. NONE. And Jake Stringer had better stop listening to stupid BT and his moronic 'The Package' comments and keep it simple!
Final siren: What happened? What the hell happened?
How can a team that laboured and battled to accumulate four goals in an entire game slam on 10 goals in a quarter?
How can the same 22 players who've been slow, reactive, heavy-legged and apparently auditioning for a blooper reel become suddenly fleet-footed, full of zest and energy?
How does that mood ripple through a team, elevating each and every player; suddenly rendering even the team's weakest link invincible and unstoppable?
It's certainly beyond any explanation I can make. After all, though this may come as a surprise to some readers, I've never played the game at the highest level.
If pressed, I'll admit I've never played the game at all. In fact my own sporting career was cut cruelly short. It had something to do with a tragic lack of ability.
So it's impossible to explain the great mystery (another one for Professor Brian Cox). The Unbelievable Momentum Shift in Footy.
Sometimes you see it coming. You smell it, like that delectable smell of September grass and the anticipation of finals footy; you sniff the imperceptible gear change and know your team is somehow a chance, no matter how improbable the score line. You shift in your seat, glance out of the corner of your eye at your fellow fans, to see if they're sensing it too, the answer coming with the growing hum of sound around you, the increased urgency of the support, the mini-climate of awakened hope and expectation that seems to exist on some invisible chain between players and fans.
On Saturday, though? There were none of these signs.
My own ability to detect the nuances of a momentum shift may have been somewhat dulled by the fact that I was supporting my Bulldogs in a vacuum, far removed from the reality of the game. I spent the match wrestling with a temperamental Foxtel ipad app, my only access to what was going on. From my window, if I'd glanced up long enough from the frustration and unique torture of a far-from-home Dogs' shocker, I would have been able to enjoy a view that took in the moody spectrum of silver sky and ocean in the coastal town of Lorne. And the not-so-beautiful chill of a maximum temperature of nine degrees.
Instead, on my screen, tiny and blurry Bulldog blurry figures (and I'm not just taking a cheap shot at 'Celeb' Daniel) were making mistake after mistake playing in the balmy tropics, far from our western suburbs home and my silent but vivid suffering on the Great Ocean Road.
The app, I soon discovered, was also a minute behind live TV. This meant I was receiving excitable texts from my sister, watching it back in Melbourne, and alerting me to some new Bulldog Catastrophe Performance Index measure that I'd fortunately not yet sighted.
'Can you believe Jake did that?'
(Was this The Lair taking a screamer, or as I soon discovered, conceding a silly 50 metre penatly?)
(Reported for punching Gary 'Voldemort' Ablett? - is it wrong to say I could only hope?)
(Who, for heaven's sake? Gazza or Koby??)
''Are these umpires the worst we've EVER seen?"
(Well, the answer to that one was easy enough).
Another member of the Tragician family was supporting the Dogs at closer quarters, however. As I've recounted many times, my mum, just 17 years old and not long off the boat from Ireland, in 1954 got swept up in the premiership euphoria. Watching them win the flag in only her third match, Mum adopted them as her team. From that ever so far away day, she has watched the Dogs almost every week, trekking to Moorabbin or Princes Park or to her seat in the John Gent Stand (even when nine months pregnant. And there were four of us. All born in the winter months).
I didn't hear anything from Mum during the match. Her commentary via text is usually even more intriguingly, or should I say infuriatingly, cryptic than that of my sister. Some of Mum's auto-corrected observations during a match have become legendary - gems such as 'Eoof eoof!' and 'Dairytale' (apparently, these stand for 'Woof Woof' and 'Fairytale').
At three quarter time, it looked like Mum had traveled all the way to Cairns only to endure a miserable stinker. She has seen more of her fair share of them - I've calculated that she's probably seen at least 1200 matches. And the win-loss ratio in that time is unlikely to be a kind statistic.
We've struggled to hang on in our last quarters in our recent 'winning ugly' series; it was impossible to foresee that in warm conditions, we could out-run and out-perform the AFL's $100 million+ franchise, in their all too appropriate Ronald McDonald colour scheme.
It started with The Bont. The contributions of the tireless Macrae and Picken had been enormous all evening; now the Bont launched a superb match-winning last quarter, just when we needed it most. Seeing him stream towards goals and launching two bombs seemed to be the catalyst for an unlikely transformation. Wallis and Dalhaus ran their hearts out to snap goals, Jake the Lair found the touch that had eluded him, Murf was, well, Murf, creating from half-back, his kicks like lasers to his team-mates, his desire to get us over the line patent in everything he did.
Amazingly enough, the last time the Dogs had 10-goal final quarter was apparently in 1992. We've only had eight 10-goal quarters in our entire history.
It wasn't a bad time to unleash one.
Earlier this month, I'd heard Damien Hardwick describe July 'big boy month.' "The month of July is when the big boys step out," the Richmond coach explained.
"It's a make-or-break month, not only for our football club, but most football clubs.
"It's when the contenders step up and the pretenders step away."
Before the first ball had bounced in Round One, I'd even written a blog anticipating these bleak July months, where I fully expected hope and form to drop away as our young group wilted in the winter chill, and times to become tough indeed.
But stunningly, improbably, the Dogs sit sixth on the ladder. We've won in all sorts of ways: excruciatingly tight wet contests in the Sydney rain. Grim endurance and outlasting our opponents in ugly wins against the Saints and Blues. Free-wheeling, dazzling displays against the Crows and GWS. And now a goal avalanche to effect daylight robbery in a great heist.
The Foxtel app immediately ceased transmission after the siren. I didn't get to see the euphoria of this unlikely win or see the boys belting out our song.
But I saw their jubilant reactions on Twitter after the game.
'Wow' said Jake Stringer, keeping it simple.
'How good's footy', tweeted Lukas Webb, who didn't play but travelled with the team.
I didn't get a garbled text from Mum either, and she doesn't participate in the Twitter-sphere.
But I think I could guess her thoughts, 2000 km from the western suburbs where she fell in love with our magical, frustrating game and our club.
The backdrop of a glorious Cairns sunset could not be more different from the John Gent stand or the terraces of a feral Windy Hill or the Moorabbin 'Animal Enclosure.'
But she'd been there, a part of another rare, crazy and wonderful 'dairytale' from this team that aren't putting any limits on where their ride could end.
A Celeb-ration. A win. A loss.
It's half time. We're trailing against our despised foes, the Ole Dark Bourgeois Blues. The Dogs have just played one of their worst quarters of the year.
I should be despondent. But like my team, I was suffering a major concentration lapse, pondering a much more perplexing issue than the Bulldogs' lack of polish and intensity.
You see, each time Luke Beveridge ran out onto the ground, I was racking my brain trying to work out which of the Plantaganet kings he resembles. I couldn't escape an image of 'Bevo', resplendent in one of those natty velvet hats, his sturdy legs encased in tights, and wearing those shiny shoes with a buckle.
I could actually picture how this uncanny resemblance could be utilised. Perhaps, in a startling new Match Day Experience innovation, Luke could be fanfared up the steps to the coaching box by medieval buglers with Bulldogs flags draped from their instruments.
'm not sure whether these bizarre thoughts came from some unusual elements and the strange atmosphere of this match and the week that had gone before.
With no banner, no theme song, and heaven forbid no troupe of Dancing Dogs, the game seemed to be just that. Merely and essentially a game, one where young men pitched themselves against each other, chasing a ball around a field. A game, surely, of breathtaking athleticism, feats of skill and courage, but still, a game. The usual edge, the over-investment in the urgency of winning, the frustration and the joy, all seemed subdued, washed out and faded on this night. Back to their rightful place in the scheme of things, of life.
Even though I was dredging up the platitude that if we lost, it would be a shame not to honour Matthew Boyd in his milestone 250th game, that thought itself seemed peculiar to me. Footy thrives on these cliches, but the thought that a win, or a loss, in this match would be itself definitive of a career or the respect in which a man is held, is actually faintly ludicrous. There has to be more to it than that.
It was a night for that sort of reflection. For perspective.
It's not, of course, that there isn't much to admire in the outstanding contribution over the years of Matthew Boyd. Without fuss, the former battler from Frankston reserves has somehow risen to captain our club for two years, and slipped into 12th position in the ranks of Bulldogs' players who have worn our colours the most. (It makes you realise the last few decades have actually been pretty special in producing durable champions; apart from Arthur Olliver and Ted Whitten, the others who are ahead of Matty all played from 1980 and beyond).
I recently read that Matthew Boyd's middle name, and hence his nickname around the club, is 'Keith.' Bob Murphy told The Age what unfolded when this little gem of information somehow came to light at a training session.
'For the next 10 minutes Murphy reckons nobody could even kick the ball, such was the hysteria of a discovery akin to a classroom unearthing a quirk about a respected, well-liked but outwardly serious teacher.'
Keith, the most unfashionable of names, suits Matthew Boyd to a tee. Most of what he does is unspectacular, unobtrusive and workmanlike. On the eve of his 250th game, I imagine the club's media folk would have had to scratch around a lot harder than usual to compile his highlight package. In fact when I viewed it I was delighted, and somehow touched, to see footage of a young Matthew Boyd, wearing number 42 and a mullet that did homage to his Frankston reserves days, once had blonde tips.
When the match resumed - disappointingly enough, without any indication that the AFL had been visionary enough to take up my idea for buglers and minstrels - two players seemed set to ensure that by their efforts and theirs alone we would get over the line.
Nobody was at all surprised that one of these game-changers was Matthew Boyd, who even produced the relative rarity of a clever snap at goal (he's only kicked 83 majors through his career, a surprising figure for a midfielder; each of Adam Cooney and Nathan Eagleton, for example, kicked 186 in many fewer games).
I'd wondered if Boyd was close to the finishing line when his best mate and clone in footy dedication and professionalism, Daniel Cross, was 'let go' by the club. In fact Boyd, reborn as an unlikely member of the defensive back six or what Murph calls the 'Men's Department', is playing career-best footy. The old stager was just about close to best on the ground with 31 possessions.
(Incidentally, the Bulldogs' website later posted footage of Matthew 'Keith' Boyd's game with the dour caption: 'Boyd delivers in his 250th.' Jake 'The Lair' Stringer managed just 10 possessions but still got his own highlight reel with blaring headlines; 'Jake lights up Etihad.' It's not fair, to not be a lair.)
The second man who dragged the match back into our keeping was a less predictable candidate. Caleb Daniel, 18 years old, was playing his first game. Few men in their debut game could have influenced a game as much as he did when coming on as a sub, electrifying our forward line and finishing with 14 quality possessions and a goal.
Lately the plethora of new players with unusual names has caused confusion among the Tragician family. How can you not become befuddled when our ranks include Dale Morris, Bailey Dale, Easton Wood, Roarke Smith, Ayce and Zaine Cordy? (Not to mention a Tory, a Toby and a Koby).
Perhaps that's why at the start of the year, our new number 35 was inadvertently referred to by one family member as 'Celeb' Daniel. And the cry of 'Go Celeb', which has now been adopted by us, is one I hope we will hear for many more seasons, based on the cleanness of his ball handling and fierceness of his intent in every contest.
Notwithstanding the heroics of Keith and Celeb, the Dogs, it appears, are in a form slump. Although we've been winning, we lack the cohesion of our exciting matches early in the season. We're getting over the line from a series of cameos, such as those of Easton Wood last week. Against the Blues our skills and run were down, but we survived by deeds like Joel Hamling's kamikaze launch at the footy and the selflessness of Dale Morris who played almost all of the match with a broken jaw.
Then there was the bravery of Toby Mclean. His light frame did not flinch in the crunch of a tough marking contest in the last crucial minutes of the match. You could call it 'tragic' or 'devastating' when, in evident pain, he left the ground, his shoulder joint ruptured, his season over. But this week those words have taken on new meaning. And I found myself thinking that for this determined looking teenager, who lost his dad to cancer when he was only 11, greater sorrows and heartaches have been faced and overcome.
When the siren sounded, there was no song. A game had been played, and won and lost, but that was all.
We knew there was something more important, as the teams gathered in the middle of the ground and paid their tribute to the Adelaide coach Phillip Walsh.
Footy is called these days a business, an industry, a brand. In the hush that accompanied this eerie gesture, we were reminded that it is still at essence a community and a family.
And as the Dogs' and Blues' players placed their arms around each other the silence from the fans was deep and profound.
The beauty of the ugly win
There are gutsy wins, epic wins, brilliant wins, emotional wins, and just-get-the-job-done wins.
But the true connoisseur of footy has learnt to savour, if not quite revel in, the guilty pleasure of the Ugly Win.
The Ugly Win is distinguished by a unique mix of boredom and dread. Hallmarks are a contest that is uninspiring, pitiful skills and errors that should be comical (but fail to raise a chuckle). There is typically a blanket of inertia over the entire spectacle that makes you forget (the players certainly seem to have) that the aim of the contest is actually scoring a goal.
At times whole squads of supporters have been known to simultaneously lose their will to live. It's the kind of match that you never, ever, EVER want to go home and endure again on the replay.
And yet - and this somehow makes it worse - you still desperately want to win. It's hard-wired into your DNA as a fan: this numbingly awful display can make you bored to screaming point, and simultaneously give you a knot in your stomach. The devotee of the Ugly Win simply can't look away, even though for long stretches of what can seem an interminable match, you wish you were anywhere else, even, perhaps, locked in a room with only Sophie Mirabella, Eric Abetz and Christopher Pyne for company.
The tone was set early when our banner contained a typo. It's going to be hard (but I'll manage) to keep childishly sneering about the infamous Essendon 'Bombres' banner when our own promised an 'assult' on the Saints.
The Saints' run-through was also lacklustre. Farren Ray was congratulated, in tepid fashion, for 200 'solid' games. Wow. They certainly dialled down the hyperbole on that one.
From these not so auspicious beginnings, the game spluttered into action.
In a scintillating first quarter, two whole goals were scored. The Libber Sisters even mistimed their feeble high fives when our solitary goal materialised.
The Saints were determined to stop our running game; our guys constantly looked up,confronted by a wall of red white and black, but still bombed it aimlessly into a static forward line.
Last week potential scoring opportunities opened up everywhere in Jake The Lair's Paddock; this time our forward half was as crowded as a Highpoint Shopping Centre car park three days before Christmas. (I apologise. This might not be my most sparkling analogy.The game didn't leave me much to work with).
Battling to escape the tedium, I drifted down memory lane, remembering other contests between the Dogs and Saints, the Cinderella teams that hardly ever get to go to the ball.
But harking back to the past was, like so much unfolding out on the field, a mistake.
In our last red-hot go at a flag - the years of 2008-2010 - the Saints consistently had our measure. Running into Ross Lyon's notoriously defensive walls and the stultifying pressure he drilled into his team, we buckled time and again.
Twice, the Dogs and Saints met in preliminary finals, and twice the Dogs failed. 2009 was our best shot; there was barely a goal in it all night. The Dogs squandered crucial shots at goal in the first quarter when we came out at a furious, frenzied pace; the Saints slowly crawled back at us, the masters at bottling up a match and dragging it back to their ultra-defensive terms. There was, of course, the never-to-be-forgotten (at least while I'm writing this blog) contentious free kick by Shane The Perm McInerney to Riewoldt. And an unbearably tense last quarter: the Dogs snatching back the lead. Then losing it again.
There was a moment that I'll always remember, minutes from the end. The Dogs were a kick down: the match, and that precious, never seen, Grand Final berth, in the balance. Gia launched a tough, running shot at goal on his left foot. There was a fraction of a second where it looked like it was going through. And then it, and our premiership dream, faded slowly away.
There was at least something Shakespeare-ian about that loss. A nobility in our failure.
There was much less grandeur in a stinker of a game when next the Dogs and Saints faced off, in April 2010. It sparked a fierce debate about Ross Lyon and where his tactics of ugly footy were taking the game; but while that raged, the Dogs were absorbing a humiliating message, an ignominious demonstration of our inability to deal with his stifling but cruelly effective tactics.
We were seventeen points up at three quarter time, and had controlled the match: the Saints had only managed four goals all night. You might have thought we were safe. But if you made this foolhardy assumption, you clearly fail to grasp the unique horror of barracking for the Bulldogs. A pall of silence fell over the crowd when the siren sounded that evening (oh, did I mention we lost by three points? And that Gia could have sealed that game too, but for some unknown reason, despite being 20 metres out, tried to pass it onto a team-mate in a worse position.) Almost in an instant I recalibrated my confidence that 2010 would be our year. I, my fellow fans, and, it seemed, the demoralised team out on the ground, had suffered a wound to our psyche. I've heard Terry Wallace talk about the moment or event where a team admits to itself it can't win a flag: I wonder if that was it for our team.
There's been a world of pain for both our clubs since then as we've slid well away from premiership contention. The Dogs, I firmly believe, though younger and less experienced, are further advanced in our rebuild at this point than the Saints. But as we sat through the monotony of Saturday night, it felt like nothing much had changed. Could it be, after all this time, that the Saints were still our bogey team, and that, even without Ross 'The Process' Lyon in the box, they could still grind us down with their intense, exhausting style of play?
In the third quarter we finally began to put our stamp on the game. While not thrilling by any means, there were at least some coherent passages of play. We were ten points up at three quarter of time, and when Lukas Webb showed terrific composure midway through the last term to nail a set shot, our lead was 21 points.
No self-respecting Dogs' fan could, however, have regarded the game as over. Just as my mind began to formulate the thought: "Wouldn't it be dreadful if Riewoldt somehow bobs up and wins the game for them", the big number 12 began to exert his influence. Fletcher Roberts had done well on him, but suddenly our long-time nemesis was off the chain. Riewoldt has been our tormentor so often: the difference in 2009, the catalyst for the Saints' extraordinary comeback against us only seven short weeks ago when we blew a mere 55 point lead.
With him leading the way, the Saints launched an all out 'assult' on the goals. The Dogs seemed to freeze in the moment. Someone moaned: 'Don't do this to us Dogs.' It may have been me.
Because, of course, there's something much worse than an Ugly Win. Its twisted stepsister, the Ugly Loss, the debacle that scarred us in 2010, is possibly the most miserable, soul-destroying experience of them all.
The tension grew.
(Though more in the fashion of a low budget horror movie than a Hitchcock classic).
One player, however, had all evening seemed to stand apart from the dire spectacle. Fortunately for us, that one player was in our colours and in career-best form. There's something rather Celtic about the way Easton Wood plays the game, spring-heeled, free spirited. With his confidence high, he was quite literally flying above all others in this dour struggle; his football was almost joyous, as he floated around, launching himself at the ball, carefree and unafraid.
In the last few minutes, just as in our memorable Sydney victory, Easton Wood rescued us time and time again and again while the shell-shocked Dogs hung on for our lives.
I didn't sing the song, wave my scarf, or do anything extravagant when the siren sounded and we were somehow still in front.
But I was channelling one of our legends, the great man Ted Whitten. Oh what a bloody relief.
The Ugly Win tends to inspire cliches. Things like We got the four points and that's what matters and Good sides find a way.
It's true, of course: for our young team, any win is a good win, and learning to win in adversity is a lesson that will ultimately reap more dividends than the 72 point margin in our frolic against the Lions.
This year we've taken the competition by surprise, but now we will be scrutinised more closely. The claustrophobic tactics of Saturday night will undoubtedly be studied and replicated against us many more times throughout the year.
They're the claustrophobic tactics of finals footy - tactics our club needs to learn to overcome when September action comes our way again.
Of course it was more fun watching Jake The Lair put on a showstopping turn the week before. In Saturday's war of attrition he scored no goals, and in a word rarely associated with Jake his output was 'modest.' But even lairs sometimes have to win ugly: his most important contribution was the tackle he laid on Sam Gilbert. It led directly to what turned out to be the matchwinning goal by Lukas Webb.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to rush off and watch those last five minutes on the replay again. Winning's never really ugly, especially against those Saints, after all.
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.