These are tricky times to be a Bulldog Tragician.
Just when you think you've come to terms with our place in the pecking order, accepted, even embraced, our mediocrity - what should happen to disturb your equilibrium? Our team is improving, that’s what.
And it means this blog is veering off into perilous directions, as wobbly and unreliable as a Daniel Cross floater into the forward line.
I've lost my hard edge. I’ve capitulated into the warm and fuzzies.
There’s been more references to hope, faith, and belief than you’d see at an American Deep South evangelists convention. The word ‘scintillating’ has been used (and not to describe the opposition). Phrases like ‘bright future’, ‘promising kids’ and 'McCartney is a mastermind!!' are being indiscriminately bandied around.
Next thing you know I’ll be changing the blog title to ‘Bulldog Optimistician’, putting little smiley emoticons everywhere, and looking to folk songs for inspiration.
The reason this is tricky? Well, the Dogs getting better puts us in the danger zone again - where we can start to dream. There was a drab comfort in turning up for the first half of the season and expecting to be crap. Grim humour in the ineptitude, the startling lack of skill, the astonishing variety of stuff-ups, the long quarters where it was possible to forget we had a forward line. 'We're hardly in uncharted waters,' one friend who's been alongside me for so many dark times consoled me.
Sure, being terrible hurt, but we could brace ourselves for that sort of pain. The 'daring-to-believe-and-getting-kicked-in-the-guts' kind of pain? Maybe we've had that once too often.
For fans of a club like the Bulldogs it’s as hard sometimes to really enjoy and celebrate the good times, and invest in a better future, as it is to endure the lean times. We don’t have a deep well-spring to draw upon, a proud legacy of bad times being immediately followed by success, the capacity to point to history and say, ‘Sure, things aren’t brilliant at present, but wasn’t it great when we won that flag (or two)?’ It's actually one of the saddest things about barracking for this club that even when sunnier skies dawn, we can’t believe that this is the beginning of another grand new era. (A shrink, or even the Women's Weekly, would probably diagnose us with trust issues).
Because, let's face it, we’ve seen a lot of those grand new eras. And we’ve seen how they end. I’ve been there for the Mick Malthouse renaissance of 1985; the Terry Wheeler teams of the early 90s who kept running up against slick Geelong outfits; the Terry Wallace era, which included the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named, and when we'd barely recovered the following year, the Other Preliminary Final That It Wouldn’t Be Very Good To Talk About In Polite Company.
Recently, we've had more carpe diem moments. Three consecutive preliminary finals, the first in 2008 where in my view we just doubted our own capacity to beat the Geelong super team which showed itself to be mortal the following week against the Hawks; the second in 2009 where I could not have been prouder of their steel and courage but wretched umpiring seemed to conspire against us; the third in 2010 where our era imploded. Gallant, injured, hobbling through the final, knowing our time was not going to be now.
There’s a unifying theme there. And it’s not just malign fate or sinister AFL conspiracies, much though these are tempting explanations. However much I might rail against the controversial Riewoldt free kick; despair about the Billy Brownless after the siren goal; agonise about whether The First Libba’s ‘point’ in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named was actually a goal; fume that Leigh Matthews pulled out his final cameo in one painful quarter to destroy us…each of those Dogs’ teams wasn’t quite good enough, for whatever reason, on the day.
I've never seen a Bulldog team that's good enough. The closest was probably the one that blew its chance to reach the Grand Final in 97. (Cue the nightmare flashbacks). That awful day, and the accumulated layers of disappointment in all the others, have made us hesitant to hop on the rollercoaster again, strapping ourselves in, bracing ourselves for another dizzying ride.
Right now we're slowly ascending that rollercoaster hill, the wind on our faces, the tracks clicking beneath us, not quite sure what's on the other side.
Could there be a flag, built on the back of some famous Bulldog names - Hunter, Wallis, Liberatore? Could Tom Campbell, our unlikely forward hero of late, be the one who stands tall in the goalsquare on grand final day, pulling in a strong mark when we are two points down? (The Tragician, meanwhile, attended by a squad of paramedics). Will it be Jackson McRae loping down the wings of the MCG, landing daisycutter passes on the chest of the brute Jake Stringer? Might Bob Murphy and Ryan Griffen still be in the side, defying age and probability, Griff bursting through packs and Murph floating around making it all look so easy, the steadying veterans playing supporting roles to the precocious pups?
When the final siren sounded on Sunday, all things seemed possible. Seventeen thousand people were making enough racket to lift the roof when the Dogs, (who last time these teams met could only manage four goals for the whole match), stormed home in the last quarter with seven. At three quarter time our blokes looked fatigued, down and out, barely holding the Crows to a relatively respectable lead. Floodgates were about to burst. There was no inkling that the team about to launch into a goal-kicking rampage, running around like a fleet of demented mosquitoes, would be our team. My young nieces and nephews decked out in their jumpers leapt up and down, starting the Bulldog chant in our aisle and stamping their feet. For them there's still the sheer joy of footy, untainted by what ifs, could have beens, or ghosts of preliminary finals past. Just their team, winning and playing their hearts out.
There might have been a tear in the Tragician's eye, but it could have just wonderment at what I'd been seeing, Lachie Hunter's mark and 10 possessions in the last quarter, Wallis shutting down the Adelaide DangerMan and finishing with an ice-cold kick at goal, or the Real DangerMan (Tom Campbell, of course, practising for his role in my daydream) slotting four.
The only thing that misfired all day was the PA system, which played the Bulldogs' song so softly it seemed someone had literally put a sock in it. (Chief suspect? You're not fooling me, Ian Collins.)
Walking out and marvelling at the joy on the faces of all my fellow ecstatic fans, snatches from another song has started strumming in my brain, a golden oldie from Buffalo Springfield, an invite to our seats on the next Bulldogs rollercoaster:
there's something happinin here
what it is ain't exactly clear...
it's time we stop, children
what's that sound
everybody look what's goin down
The keepers of the faith
My dog Belle celebrates in her impressive red, white and blue coat.
Is there any club that I loathe quite as much as Carlton?**
How could it be otherwise? They've always been polar opposites to us, the battlers from the west. With their ruthless culture of success at all costs, they epitomise wealth, privilege, arrogance and hubris. They're closely associated with the Melbourne establishment, having been supported by (Sir) Robert Menzies, (Sir) Kenneth Luke and (Sir) Billie Sneddon. (Just how many 'Sirs' have barracked for the Dogs?). And Malcolm Fraser (of course, I'm talking about the days when Fraser was the diabolical fiend who engineered Gough's sacking, not the admirable refugee campaigner and erstwhile bleeding heart of recent years).
The Bluebaggers have won a glittering array of premiership cups (16. That's just plain greedy). Us, well, let's just saw we lost count after the first one.
They're the only club I can think of that have had two presidents face serious legal charges. They've had one billionaire president convicted of price fixing, and another president found guilty of trading while insolvent. The latter, of course, made the infamous insult towards our club and its 'tragic history', all the while presiding over arrogant salary cap rorting that eventually saw his name removed from the grandstand that he had ever so modestly named after himself.
Even this week, another Carlton ex-president, Ian Collins, lamented his 'mistake' in failing to fight in court the penalties imposed by the AFL for John Elliott's regime of systematic salary cap cheating. Why should they have copped their rightful whack? They're Carlton after all. That's why they can implement the Chris Judd 'Visy ambassadorship' and get away with the suspicious behaviour that led to the infamous 'Bryce Gibbs Cup'.
Then there's that wretched song. I've heard that 'da-ta-da-ta-da' bit echoing in my eardrums so many times whenever we made our humiliated exits from Princes Park, where they thrashed us time and again with the best talent that money could buy.
As immature teenagers with impressive western suburban chips on our shoulders, we used to stand near the Western Oval race parodying their song.
'We are the Bourgeois Blues. We are the running dogs of the capitalist bourgeoisie..'
(It's quite catchy - give it a go sometime).
The Bluebaggers never enjoyed coming across town to the Western Oval, of course. One halcyon day, in our home-ground's natural habitat of cold, mud and sleet, we just about kept them goal-less until a COMPLETELY undeserved free kick put them on the scoreboard with minutes to go. (As you may have observed, the Bulldog Tragician has a long memory for injustice).
In fact, the Bulldog Tragician bears the scars and the mindset of many years in the football wilderness and football pummellings. And so it transpired that despite my delight at last week's brave and impressive showing against the Swans, and my pathological hatred of the Blues, my inner narrative before the match against Carlton went like this:
The match against Sydney was a bruising, tough encounter. We were gutsy but it will have taken it out of our players. We're a young developing team, and it's hard to show that intensity of effort again where there's nothing to play for. The Despicable Ones still have a chance for finals. They've had an avalanche of publicity this week about under-achievement, and Marc Murphy has been especially under the blow torch with pleas for the umpires to notice those nasty taggers hanging off him. They'll come out with all guns blazing. Yes - this could be a thrashing, a step back, another hard lesson to learn.
I'd better leave a few minutes early. Otherwise I'll have to listen to that god-damn 'da-ta-da-ta-da', and no-one else knows the words to 'Bourgeois Blues' any more.
The usual stirring, optimistic stuff in other words.
The Dogs' inner sanctum, fortunately, does not have access to the cheerful musings of the Tragician. The players look switched on from the get-go (what is a get go, incidentally?). I'm amazed and impressed that we are sustaining the recent noticeable transformation in our style of play. Earlier this year I thought we were the slowest Bulldogs outfit I could remember seeing, industriously shovelling the ball out of packs to flat-footed team-mates, but now there's overlapping players with the courage to run hard alongside each other. In the first quarter we're right on top. We pepper the goals - well, actually, the problem is, we're peppering the point posts. We're only five points up (and I mean five points. The yips are running like the Ebola virus through the whole team).
Flawed Tragician thinking: We've had no reward for effort. This is so disheartening. Now the Despicable Ones will slot an easy couple and we'll drop our bundles.
The Dogs continue to spray their kicks in the second quarter, but we're going inside 50 so many times that the dam, surely, has to break. There's a massive roar of relief when Picken finally drills one after nine demoralising points in a row, but for all that, we're only two goals up. Gangly Tom Campbell, the most inspirational player to wear number 45 since Michael 'Fruitcake' Ford, appears to suffer an awful injury when he cannons recklessly into a goalpost. It's a dreadful, sickening moment, but the gallant Blues fans prefer to argue about whether it was a free kick while he lies prone on the ground. He gets up, though, and kicks the goal. We are really seeing some reward now!
'Scintillating' and 'Bulldogs' haven't been used in the same sentence for quite some time, but some passages of play are really inspired. Where footy once looked so hard, it suddenly looks effortless. Maybe our players too pause to savour the moment and become as shellshocked as the Tragician. They drop the intensity for a few regrettable, costly minutes. The Blues grab two goals in red time, leaving them dangerously within reach, only 15 points behind at half time despite being killed in every conceivable stat of the game.
Flawed Tragician thinking: I guess they'll run over the top of us now. Didn't I read that we were four goals up against them last year at half time, and lost by the same amount?
We still play some great footy in the third quarter, but the Blues are always within range. I feel as though our boys are starting to tire, and have lost some of the verve and panache. Things don't seem to be going our way, not least six free kicks to Marc Murphy (yes, umpires do read papers). Our Murphy, meanwhile, who's been typically carefree and cavalier, looks flustered as his previously unsighted opponent, Eddie Betts, suddenly seems to be Eddie Everywhere instead. The Blues draw level with only a minute or two to go. This is the danger period for young sides like ours, the so-called red zone in which Sydney snatched the match last week. Thirty seconds left on the clock.
Tragician: Hold on, boys. Just maintain possession. Don't make a mistake, that's all I ask.
The Bulldogs don't listen. Jordan Roughead launches a long attacking kick into our forward line, and Gia bobs up with a wonderful goal. We go into the last break eight points up.
Something's shifted in even the Tragician's thinking. I realise I don't want to be walking out of the stadium satisfied with a valiant effort. To be pleased that 'we pushed them all the way.' To be rueing those missed chances but complacent about our improvement.
These guys believe. Maybe I should too?
A few minutes into the last quarter, lion-hearted Will Minson makes a lumbering turn on the boundary line. He should, I think, just try and get boot to ball and swing it towards the goal mouth. Will instead executes an adventurous left foot pass across the ground to Jarrad Grant who's at centre half forward.
Tragician: Pure madness - if Grant fumbles, Carlton will be away.
Grant puts out his telescopic Inspector Gadget arms, marking it easily. Tom Young ('Coon Light'), sprints past him and kicks a marvellous goal.
Tragician: Will is a football genius!! GO DOGS!!
The Blues' supporters start to bronx-cheer their own players. The Dogs keep attacking, adding another couple, then the Real Coon puts us five goals up with an electrifying run and left-foot goal.
Tragician: The score clock has definitely malfunctioned. It's STILL the 18 minute mark and it was the 18 minute mark the last 20 times I looked. Wouldn't put it past the AFL to stuff it up. Then again, Ian Collins could be in charge of the time-clock, not satisfied with cheating Chris Grant out of a Brownlow. Five goals isn't much. We could still lose it from here and that will be so unfair as we've played so well and...
There's a wall of sound penetrating my monologue. It's a chant from our cheersquad. It sounds like the old one from the 70s: 'We're the mighty Bulldogs, the mighty mighty Bulldogs.'
I look at the clock. It's moved to 25 minutes. The Dogs are home.
We hang around to sing the song, again and again. No Blues supporters are in sight.
Our song is so much better anyway.
Home to savour the victory on the replay, to bask in the realisation that the Dogs wanted it so much more, were so much hungrier, and would never have let this one slip. (I knew that all along, of course). I marvel that a few short weeks ago, it was excruciating agony for us to compile five or six goals a game, and here we are slotting 16 despite being so profligate with our kicking. I enjoy watching again the renaissance of the enigmatic Jarrad Grant. The steady emergence of Jordan Roughead as a composed defender alongside the tireless warrior Dale Morris. Daniel Cross, brave, uncompromising, selflessly playing his role wherever it may be, doing his share, the ultimate team man.
My favourite bit, though, is some footage of our interchange bench late in the match. Murphy, Cooney and Griffen are sitting there, applauding their team-mates, urging on greater efforts. They look like star-struck, excitable first gamers, not seasoned veterans with nearly 600 games and their fair share of heartache between them. These three champs have been there for the miserable, bottom of the ladder times, the oh-so-close preliminary finals, the thrashings of last year, and the depressing grind that has been so much of this season. I'm so happy for them, that the rollercoaster ride to success may have just lurched upwards again, and that they've kept the faith.
Just like me, of course.
** Quick look at the fixture shows that our opponent next week is Adelaide, so this may have been a fool-hardy statement on my behalf.
When one Bulldog Tragician review of the exciting signs of progress from Sunday just isn't enough...John Darcy brings us another balanced, rational and extremely objective viewpoint. John writes:
Fifteen minutes until the opening siren and I'm doing my warm-up.
My fifteen year old son Sean and I like to have a kick outside gate seven before the game. Sometimes we are joined by his younger sister Ella ( she has passed up this opportunity today in favour of a trip to the Sun Theatre with her girlfriends to see 'Wolverine'!! Yeah I know, unbelievable).
Our opponents today are the Sydney Swans. They are exactly the team that we need to play; hard and unrelenting, just what the dogs aspire to be. Sydney were formerly South Melbourne before they relocated in 1982. For whatever reason, we could never beat them in Sydney. Every season i would sit in front of the t.v. thinking 'surely today we can do it.' We never could. Until round 2, 1990 when Leon Cameron playing his first game (and Granty his second), were able to bring home the bacon.
Big Tom Campbell starts in the goal square and has a couple in the first five minutes. Both sides are pressing hard and Sydney are able to scrounge a few majors when the ball hits the deck near their goals. Still the dogs persist and a long goal from Tommy Young and they are only a goal down at quarter time.
The dogs are playing some inspired football in the second quarter which lifts the spirits of the spartan supporters. Surprisingly the cheer squad looks pretty thin on for members this year. Even when things have been average in the past, you could normally count on the area behind the goals to be well populated. Three goals down at half time but with better delivery into the forward line, we could have been closer.
Sitting inside docklands with the roof closed, you are oblivious to the weather outside. And so it was when we went out for our half time kick we found it had been raining. We have a bit of trouble adjusting and there are more mongrel punts than Crossy has produced in his lifetime. How nobody has been hit is beyond belief...
The third quarter is full on with hard tackling and kamikaze efforts. Long bombs to Campbell in the square don't result in marks but snap goals to Granty. The creme de la creme occurs minutes later however. A Cross 'floater' lands in the goal square where Campbell palms it over his shoulder. Gia connects at full speed with his left foot bringing squeals of delight from the bulldog faithful.
They say the really good teams play out the quarter and this is illustrated by the Swans as they kick three in the last five minutes to gain 26 point buffer.
The talk amongst friends at three quarter time is that we want the boys to 'hang tough' and not to capitulate. I have been drifting off to the qualifying final of '97. The Swans had been grand finalists the previous year but on this occasion the Dogs had a ripper first quarter kicking 9 to zip! Where's James Cook when we need him??
There are no miracle comebacks in the last quarter but the scraggers continue to throw their bodies about. Cooney provides the play of the day with a 80 metre, 4 bounce sprint down the centre of the ground only to see his kick marked by an opponent five metres from goal. The Swans prevailed by 35 points.
Making my way around the ground to the exit, i am proud to see the supporters crowded around the race, cheering off their boys. Happy days are on the way.
Walking out from Sunday’s match against the Swans, winless yet uplifted by a fighting performance, we encountered a Bulldogs’ supporting father, wheeling a double pram. We couldn’t peak inside at the two small sleeping bundles, to see whether they were boys or girls, or how old they were, but their pram was festooned with two Bulldogs’ scarves. As we stopped to admire the cute sight, the new recruits’ dad gave us a wry smile.
‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained.
Resilience and patience: qualities that have been needed in abundance in season 2013 for our fans. It’s only a few short weeks ago I was one of the depressed, silent crowd watching the Bulldogs apparently hit rock bottom. I may have mentioned once or twice on these pages that it was MY BIRTHDAY. There I was, though, watching the so-called competition laughing stock, Melbourne, play like premiership fancies against a listless, error-riddled Bulldogs’ outfit.
A week later, playing Great Western Sydney, we escaped by the skin of our teeth from what would have been an even more galling defeat . Even though we clawed our way over the line, the quality of the performance seemed to confirm that we were going nowhere. Appalling skills combined with a game style that bordered on unwatchable painted a sobering picture, telling us that our time in the footy wilderness could be a prolonged one and even more painful than what we’d realised.
At times like these it’s hard to hold the faith and maintain belief in a future beyond the damning evidence before your eyes. Almost impossible to believe that the pendulum can, and will, swing around our way.
Maybe that’s why lately, before each football match, I find myself sifting through my layers of footballing memory, digging through past matches, recalling past victories or dismal losses. I’m trying to draw out a meaning, I guess, a pattern or a shape, to spark hope, to shore up the faltering belief that good times can happen again.
Before we play Sydney, I dredge up two matches from the memory bank to ponder. One is the qualifying final of 1997. Our opponent that day, the Swans, had played in the grand final only the year before. The Dogs on the other hand had performed an amazing rags to riches transformation. We had limped through a horrible 1996 season, one of those only too familiar sagas of off-field turmoil, a coach sacked after fearsome drubbings, a bare five and a half wins against our name. Come to think of it - it was so bad we actually changed our name. It was the last time we ran out as the Footscray football Club..
Yet on a glorious spring day, a mere 12 months on, here were the Dogs, who had finished third on the ladder, running out onto the MCG, soaking up the September excitement. (It was the weekend after Princess Diana had died. Mystifyingly, the gallant Bulldogs’ cheer squad took the opportunity to express condolences to the royal family on their banner. This must have been extremely consoling to the ‘folks back at Buckingham Palace’ as undoubtedly Kevin Rudd would have described them).
We blitzed the Swans in an exhilarating first quarter, kicking nine goals to their none. It was breath-taking, helter skelter, attacking football. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a match as much. A premiership beckoned!
(Of course, this was followed the next week by our infamous collapse in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named. This is a Bulldogs’ fairytale, people. We don’t do happy endings here).
The other memory that bobs up is more recent, but also tinged with the sad shadow of what was to come. It’s of 2010: the year the Bulldogs began the season as flag favourites. After two preliminary final losses in 08 and 09, we were seen as primed, ready to claim the premiership that has eluded us for so long. Instead we limped into the finals, flattered by our fourth spot on the ladder, a team plagued by injuries, our deficiencies suddenly glaringly apparent, our glossy little period of success unraveling fast. Having been mauled by Collingwood in the first week of the finals, we then met up with Sydney, who raced out to five goals ahead of us in the second quarter. One of football’s most humiliating outcomes – a straight set exit from the finals – was staring us in the face. Somehow sheer grit and will propelled us to a brave five points victory. But even as we celebrated with relief, we knew the Dogs’ era was well and truly done.
The Swans' team that we grimly held off that night were, on the other hand, on the brink of a flag. They achieved that success two years later with a performance that was one of the greatest in determination and unshakeable self-belief that I have seen. The Dogs’ plummet down the ladder, meanwhile, has been spectacular. No more finals since then for the battlers in the red, white and blue.
Well, the point of this reminiscing (I know you may have started to wonder) is that the footy pendulum can swing around rapidly and unpredictably. And this week, four minutes before the three quarter time siren, with the Dogs only eight points behind the 2012 premier, all the evidence was there that the turnaround has begun.
In only four short weeks since the Dogs’ looked a struggling rabble against GWS, the transformation has been stunning. The slow, ponderous ball movement…the lack of a discernible plan of attack...the excruciating turnovers under no pressure whatsoever…suddenly, these are things of the past. (Well, maybe not the turnovers, but at least now we can see what the intent is, even if the skill level still needs to go up a notch or three). It seems like Brendan McCartney, having well and truly implanted on the team the importance of grinding contested footy, has done a Paul Keating and flicked the switch to vaudeville. Now not only are our players adept at suffocating pressure, bone crunching tackles and closing down their opponents' space; somehow there's been a shift from dour defence and a more attacking style has emerged. Many times this year we've won the contested possessions, yet it's been a meaningless statistic; now, when we win them, there’s another guy around to link up, space to run and carry, and a forward line that seems to be moving around and creating options instead of resembling a series of Easter Island statues.
In fact the Dogs do their best to ‘out-Sydney’ Sydney; fierce and relentless at the contest, but now there are fast breaks out of defence, long runs through the centre, chains of handballs. I swear I even saw our players bounce the ball and stream down the ground as though footy was fun and creative – signs of confidence, daring and sheer chutzpah that have been missing for so long.
Unfortunately, the team that we were trying to out-Sydney was...Sydney. With consummate professionalism they matched everything we threw at them, and with stronger bodies and a harder edge, they applied the blow torch to us in those last few minutes of the third quarter to break our hearts. One moment we were within 8 points; and then suddenly..we were 26 points down. We didn't recover. But we didn't stop trying.
Leaving the ground the talk was not of the loss, but the promising signs from cult hero Tom Campbell (why are big ungainly guys so funny?), 'GiaDonna's' brilliant soccer goal, Ryan Griffen's sustained brilliance in his best ever season, the heroic tackling (95!), and the fierce concentration of the Sons of Guns, Wallis and Liberatore. Most of all, though, I loved a sublime performance by the peerless Bob Murphy. Over these dark few months, Murph has often seemed as though he too has shared the mourning and sadness that we supporters feel at being back in the mediocrity of the also-rans. He has looked like he has lost his sense of fun, much though he has talked up the club line of leaders becoming teachers to the younger crew. Watching him on Sunday, Murph had his mojo back..and how. He danced on his feet, he pivoted on two cent pieces, he flew for kamizake marks, he worked that lightly built frame to the point of exhaustion. So often a guy like Murph, effortlessly talented, can seem almost detached from the game. But watching him I realised how badly he and this team wanted to win. They have kept believing and working their butts off through the slog, the abusive posts from disgruntled idiotic fans on Facebook, the endless drills of training and preparation that must seem pointless at this time of year.
This week the scoreboard showed a routine, comfortable enough six goal win to the Swans. For the fans it spelt hope that the swing of the pendulum is not so far away 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.