Sometimes before meeting a much more highly credentialled opponent, there's still a mysterious sliver of hope. A mild tingly feeling. The merest hint of anticipation. The feeling - the sniff - that an upset just might be brewing.
Sunday, though, was not one of those days.
The only tingle that a glance at the respective team lists provided was one of horror. Surveying the star-studded Sydney forward-line I contemplated, with a shudder, just how many goals they could rack up against our undersized, workman-like backline battlers.
I couldn't delude myself that we would be able to muster a win, or even save face with a highly competitive loss. Not when our opponent is the Swans, perched on top of the ladder and current premiership favourites, while we've just come off a really disappointing effort against a much less fearsome North Melbourne outfit. There were ominous signs in that lacklustre performance that the kids, who have given us rays of hope this year, are fatigued; that the effort of toiling away for respectable losses, worthy efforts, and some hard-fought wins (for none of them have in truth been easy) is starting to tell.
Occasions like Sunday bring about the forlorn, existential questions of why we bother. Donning the scarf, affixing the Bontempelli badge, and locating the membership ticket, with only a sense of ennui and trepidation, makes me question why I call this a 'hobby.' Most of the afternoon is likely to be depressing; maybe even a Melbourne-style capitulation could be on the cards for our young brigade. There could, and should, be better ways to spend a late Sunday afternoon than watching a lop-sided contest. I can already feel the anger and cynical despair at having to watch a belting from these opponents: a team that won the premiership only two years ago, yet able to somehow snare two expensive, high quality key forwards to further flaunt their competition dominance, leaving the have-nots even more mired in the ditch as they speed away.
In an attempt to whip up some enthusiasm, I run through a list of positives.
I realise my checklist is looking a bit threadbare.
I resolve to spell-check the word 'shellacking.'
But the internal 'will I go or won't I go' monologue is only an academic exercise really. I'm at the ground at the ludicrous start time of 3.20. But this week it's just myself and my sister in the dozen seats reserved for our family. Dwindling interest, other commitments, and scheduling designed for TV, not real lives and real people, mean there are empty rows everywhere, familiar faces missing from the ranks.
Within our family, my sister and I are known as the Libber sisters. We are both of rover size, and one day during the 1990s, when Tony Liberatore was at his prime as an aggravating, pint-sized antagonist, we were leaving Kardinia Park, wearing our scarves. A Geelong wit spotted us, turned to his mate and began to chortle, pointing in our direction: 'Look! It's Libber's sisters!' We feigned annoyance but were secretly rather tickled; in a family known for nicknames, the title of Libber's sisters is one that has stuck. (Abbreviated, of course, in the Australian way, to just the Libbers).
When 'the Libbers' first arrive, we are quite thrown by the sight of vacant spots near us where two die-hard fans, women that we know only through our shared love of the Dogs, usually sit. It's a rarity; they're always there well before us. Though the supporting ranks have thinned badly throughout the year, it's still a painful jolt to think that these two, always so staunch, may have flown the white flag today rather than turn up for the anticipated carnage. But a few moments later I turn around and see them taking up their seats, setting down their Bulldogs cushions, sorting out their thermos flasks and supplies for the day. We call out cheerful greetings and begin to chat and banter about the game, our recent form, today's prospects (they, unlike me, are always upbeat). We talk about the year that's nearly gone.
We strike up conversations, as well, with two other women who never fail to attend. One is now only three weeks away from giving birth; we've watched her gradually expanding girth throughout the year. (We joke that she won't, unfortunately, have to be too concerned about missing finals matches). We talk about the omission of Will Minson, the birth during the week of Jake Stringer's adorable baby daughter, the disappointing progress of enigmatic Ayce Cordy, the sad prospect that next week is Gia's last game.
I realise yet again how integral women are to the fabric of AFL footy. Though my dad played in the Footscray reserves, I really owe my supporting lineage to my mother. She is present and accounted for as usual today in her seat, on the opposite side of the ground to the Libbers. She's well-primed after 60 years of heartache and disappointment, ready and waiting for appalling umpiring decisions against our team; whenever we hear booing from that section of the ground, we always smile, certain that she's among the outraged. It was a woman, Irene Chatfield, who was prepared to be the litigant in the injunction which stopped the Fitzroy-Fooscray 1989 merger; women who were at the forefront of the tin-rattling that saved the club. Women who are not glamorous WAGs but simply there every week, maybe a bit more patient and forgiving than the blokes, but no less fervent, knowledgeable and passionate about the game. Women like the mother and daughter duo, Pat and Jenny Hodgson, who typified the uncomplaining, dedicated fan in the documentary 'Year of the Dogs.' Women who are just as committed to our club.
Just as devastated by an opening term which is a true shocker.
There's been a pattern for most of the year of a poor start by the Dogs, and this fits the template. Any faint hope of a boilover is quickly extinguished by three effortless Swans' goals within the first seven minutes. The ease with which the Swans sweep it down the ground, with their tall forwards ready to gobble up elegant, pinpoint passes, is well in tune with my worst nightmares. It's way past demoralising; on the rare times we have possession, we cough it up with inept disposal or sputter it forward to a stagnant, impotent forward line.
In line with the familiar template, we improve with a gritty second quarter which starts to slowly repair the damage. But it's grinding work, still peppered with mistakes, moments that could be comical. If you hadn't seen it all before.
Buddy Franklin and Kurt Tippet are, of course, having a field day. We're all unreasonably incensed that it's not enough for them to be taller, more talented, more athletic than anyone on the ground; it appears they also are protected from any defenders' efforts. The umpires ensure the slightest infringement is immediately pounced upon, affording the Twin Towers even more of an advantage. (Yes, I'm my mother's daughter after all).
We're making such hard work of it, with embarrassing moments like Jake Stringer missing a goal that even one of the Libber Sisters could surely have nailed. Then we have to endure seeing Buddy Franklin cockily attempt to play on from a mark and run around our tireless, heroic Dale Morris; get fairly and squarely tackled as he attempts to beat him; see him hold onto the ball for an eternity, yet the Dogs get no reward.
At times like this, football seems joyless, just a series of pointless insults; our team scrapping away, slowly attempting to grind our way up the ladder, our fans by turns resigned, infuriated, and helpless. The presence of the Million Dollar Men, and the realisation that our club could never be gifted such allowances, makes the loss somehow more bitter than it should have been, that much harder to bear.
At some point during the match, I realise that two Swans supporters have sneaked into seats in 'our' area, which is reserved for Dogs' fans who've paid extra money for this privilege. Though they're not being particularly obnoxious, it's an irritant to see them there, having clearly not paid their way; the Etihad attendant, when I question it, looks blank and says he normally checks tickets but didn't think 'anyone would mind'. He takes no action. A metaphor, it seems, for so much of what is wrong with our competition at the moment.
The game finishes. It's hard to know why the result seems quite so disappointing. We weren't expected to win (except by Jono), and the margin is pretty much in line with what you might have expected before the match. It wasn't a ghastly, Melbourne-style capitulation. I've certainly seen worse losses, more heartbreaking moments, darker days, and I know in my heart that this is just part of the footballing cycle, a loss that I won't even be able to recall in a few weeks or months. But maybe we're all just a bit tired of it, sick of being chipper, weary of being the good ole unthreatening, hard-working, ultimately unsuccessful Dogs, making up the numbers while the glamorous sides make hay.
We watch the crowd begin to disperse. There's a running joke between my sister and myself that at least one of us could well be in a nursing home before the Dogs ever win that elusive flag; but we have a pact that we will help each other break out, even if in a wheelchair, to see the match. As we see two snowy-haired old ladies who look like sisters, packing up their stuff, the scarves loaded with badges, the red, white and blue crocheted blankets, the old joke comes to life again. We share a grin. Our fate one day.
After the North match our former player turned ABC commentator Lindsay Gilbee was asked on radio how he rated the Dogs' 2014 season. I leant forward eagerly awaiting an inspirational, upbeat answer (a la the impartial, judicious Brad Johnson) only to hear a long-ish pause before Lindsay offered: 'The main thing is they've got more games into the kids.' Another pause. 'But you'd have to say they've stagnated.'
Crushing though the answer was, you'd be hard-pressed to deny it as a reality. For all that the very best of our kids is as promising as any other club's - not to mention the Bont Factor - this is not a side teetering on the cusp of success. As we see progress quickly followed by setback, inconsistent development rates, exciting individual efforts followed the next week by absolute stinkers, it's hard not to frame our slow halting journey back to the top in the grandiose Winston Churchill quote in World War 2. 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'
More reading : all in the family
What becomes of the broken-hearted
The Saints and Bulldogs, we’re fellow travellers on the highway of disappointment.
Our clubs are far and away the two worst performed of the original Victorian clubs. All that’s up for grabs is that timeless question: who deserves the ignominious mantle of ‘worst ever?’
As we each have claimed one single premiership, bragging rights would involve splitting hairs on whether you rate the Saints’ greater collection of wooden spoons (26, a mere four for us), as the most reasonable measure of diabolical failure, or whether grand final appearances are a fairer yardstick (only two ever for the Dogs, a more respectable seven for the Saints).
In 97 it seemed this gridlock of non-achievement would one way or another be broken. All was in place for a meeting of the perennial under-achievers: the ultimate, sentimental, tear-jerker grand final was on the cards. Like the fabled rivalry of Harry Potter and Voldemort, only one could have lived - in this case having finally escaped the title of the Worst Team Ever. The Dogs failed to keep their appointed Date with Destiny (don't worry, I'm not going to trawl through the reasons again); the Saints at least played their part by making the Grand Final, but a certain South Australian team over-ran them, winning their first flag after just seven years in the competition.
(However, I'm not bitter).
More recently, the Saints stood in the way of us getting to only our third ever Grand Final berth: Ross-Lyon created fortresses we were unable to overcome. They thwarted us in consecutive preliminary finals in ‘09 and ‘10. The first of these encounters was a gruelling, suffocatingly tense slog - and I still do believe we were the better team for most of the night. This may either indicate my capacity for delusion or our legendary frailty to finish off other teams in the tightest, toughest contests. I can (and frequently do) lament the eccentric, bewildering umpiring display (thank you Messrs McBurney, McInerney, Chamberlain, a sort of 'Anti-Dream-Team' panel assembled for the occasion), but in my occasional more rational moments, I have to acknowledge our inability to hit the scoreboard when it mattered, including five points in a dominant first quarter, and some 'look away now' inexplicable misses when it mattered in the last. In 2010, however, not even the Chip-On-The-Shoulder Tragician could blame the officiating. The Dogs were simply cooked, a team that had struggled into the finals beset by injury and illness, fortunate, really, to have made it into the preliminary after somehow coming off the canvas in the previous week's final against the Swans. Our era was over; our deficiencies on display; the core of our team ageing; our game style proven inadequate in the most intense battles, winning us only three of the nine finals we competed in our period at the top. We were a team about to slide back, from potential glory, to the more familiar but still depressing nether regions of the ladder.
The Saints didn’t emerge with flags from any of the three grand finals they played in 2009 and 2010, including an excruciating draw. Which always raises one of those twist-of-the-knife questions for me. Which would be the more heart-breaking experience as a fan – to never see a Grand Final, or to get there and witness soul-destroying losses? Dogs' fans under a certain age have never experienced the delirious excitement of the build-up, the chance to revel in every little ritual that we’ve only enviously witnessed from the outside - wearing scarves to work, the sleepless count down to the game, decorating our houses, part of 1000s at training sessions. The Saints fans in contrast at least got to experience all that incredible buzz, but also, hearts in mouths, sick in the stomach I'm sure, saw toe-pokes and errant bounces decide their fate, and still came away with the emptiness of defeat. Judging on our own agonising memories of 97, I wonder if oh-so-close is really just as awful a feeling as miles-away, even more devastating for being tantalisingly within reach, excruciating moments and split-second decisions deciding the outcome, haunting you for many years to come. Are Lenny Hayes and Nick Riewoldt, who've played in three grand finals, any more at peace with their fates than Brad Johnson and Chris Grant, who never got there? Does at least reaching a grand final alleviate to some degree the ache of constant failure, or does losing them by such close margins rub further salt into the wounds that run deep for fans of unsuccessful clubs?
The Saints' and Dogs' fans who were there on Sunday are now facing a different kind of pain. Re-learning patience and stoicism as the tedious business of rebuilding begins again. Accepting thrashings and mediocre performances with some degree of grace after our rare glimpse of success. Learning to be resolute when progress is under-whelming and inconsistent. Farewelling favourite sons who deserved kinder fates; trying to invest in an unfamiliar set of names and faces; lecturing ourselves that it's now 'all about the kids.' Watching, with quiet desperation, johnny-come-lately franchises trotting briskly past us in the race to premiership contention. You might think we're steeled and battle-hardened to this fate, but it's surprisingly hard to go back to 10-goal thrashings, to have the limelight snatched away again, to have to temper the dreams that we'd hardly begun to have. When you've got little to show for all the effort, graft and toil that went into just ... getting close.
Perhaps the hangover of all of this is the reason why the atmosphere at Sunday's game seemed to me, despite the whipped-up Lenny-Hayes emotion, just a little forlorn. This was, compared to the dramas of our recent clashes, an inconsequential match, unlikely to linger long in the memory bank. For Dogs' fans, it was one of only a handful of recent games where we were actually favourites - always something to stir up our inner 'Danny from Droop St.' While a win is expected, a loss will plunge us back into doubts and destroy the fragile self-belief that we're just starting to feel.
It's not much of a game to be honest. We play a lively first quarter but never seem able to put them away, and I can't escape the niggling fear that they'll storm home on a crescendo of Lenny-love. A spectacularly awful decision from the umpires (has the Non-Dream-Team re-assembled, perhaps?) to give Lenny a free has even the Saints fans looking sheepish, and doing that embarrassed little out-of-the-side-of-your-mouth-mutter that you do when you know you've been bloody lucky to get it. Not that it makes them too squeamish for a massive reverberating roar when he slots it through. As every Bulldog fan knew he would. Of course he would.
Still, even the Lenny-Love seems less intense than I expected. The Saints' fans used to be scarily ferocious; now they have to be cajoled, via the scoreboard, to 'Make Some Noise.' What would the inhabitants of the infamous Moorabbin Animal Enclosure make of the need for such a contrivance (perhaps a foretaste of the improved 'match day experience' that I devoutly hope the AFL does not inflict upon us).
Anyway, the Dogs' fans don't need any artificial inducement to cheer whenever Jake Stringer explodes into the fray. Jake prowls around the forward arc with some sort of brutal energy force. Two of his goals are audacious, improbable, almost ridiculous; he seemingly just wills them into existence as he breaks through the flailing arms of helpless, embarrassed tacklers. Best of all, I have a sneaking, secret delight in the thought that Jake may have more than a touch of Inner Lair. We've had so many decent, humble introverts in our team; second-year player Jake Stringer seems to relish the big stage, looks as though he wants to win the game through his own exuberance; today he does his best to do so.
In the last quarter his efforts fade, just as my sister, who really, REALLY, should know better, makes a rookie mistake and says: 'Six goals up..we can't lose from here can we?'
I know; can you believe it?
It's of course the impetus for a flurry of St Kilda goals, and genuine emotion from their fans starts to rock the stadium as they sniff victory and get within nine points. Our players suddenly look flummoxed and panicked; we begin gritting our teeth for another 'defeat from the jaws of victory' occasion. I give just a little glare in the direction of my sister who will shoulder the blame if it happens. But we steady as Cooney and Higgins show their class and experience linking up to carry the ball smoothly out of the danger zone,. There's some handy backup from a first year player who puts on a big last quarter, providing, as my young niece Stephanie has christened it: 'The Bont Factor'. A fierce, bone-crunching tackle from Wood. A timely intercept from Koby Stevens. We're home.
It's hard to know how to feel as the siren sounds. For me it's relief tinged with the realisation that, for all our young talent, we still have a way to go - concentration lapses that are costly, too much dependence on Morris and Murphy in a makeshift back six. And a melancholy resignation, as the players line up to form a guard of honour for Lenny Hayes (and we applaud the man who single-handedly destroyed us in so many matches), to the fact that our two clubs are back grinding it out in the bottom half of the ladder. The elusive premiership is still a mirage; the days of enthralling September battles behind us. For now at least.
Stephanie's presence, though, gives us cover to do something I haven't done in years - head over to the Bulldogs' race like star-struck adolescents to clap the boys off. The Bont delights Stephanie by handing her a signed cap before he wanders off the field, just a gangly, sweet-faced boy when you see him up close. The cheer squad have gathered and have launched into an energetic version of 'Sons of the West.' A Saints fan bellows; 'You're no good, it's just that we're crap!' but there's no heat in his insult, no offence taken as the crowd sing the song and then straggle away.
We stop at the merchandise stall. Only on Stephanie's behalf, of course; I'm not interested in such fripperies. She wants a Luke Dalhaus badge, naturally enough. But while we're there, somehow I end up getting a badge. To celebrate the 'Bont Factor'. And another win, another slow step along the way.
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.