Far from the madding crowd
After our Round 3 loss to the Hawks I revealed to the footy world - or at least the discerning readers of this blog - my theory on what’s been, well, dogging the Dogs for so many years.
I’d come to the realisation that the great novelist Thomas Hardy was somehow directing the scripts of the Western Bulldogs. Indeed the Footscray Football Club well before that. (He may have even been pulling the levers for the Prince Imperials way back in the 1880s for all I know).
Thomas Hardy is the author of novels such as Tess of the D’Urbevilles and (this was the clincher in establishing the link between a British novelist and the fate of an Australian rules football team) Far from the madding crowd.
To recap on my line of thinking: Ole Tom - though around any self-respecting footy club he'd be known as Tommo - specialises in ponderous co-incidences. A sense of impending doom hovers relentlessly. Even when a character appears to be on the brink of happiness, Ole Tom pulls out a few contrived and heavy-handed plot twists – an overheard conversation, a letter slipped under a door, the failure of Paul Hudson to shepherd for Chris Grant in September 1997, for example - all designed to ensure the continued misery of his characters.
Ole Tom can lay it on a bit thick, if truth be told. One of his characters, Jude the Obscure, is described as: the sort of man who was bound to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life should signify that all was well with him again.
That can mean only one thing. Jude the Obscure was definitely one of the anguished fans among the Bulldogs crowd in 1997, the fateful occasion of The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named.
I reached for the Thomas Hardy Is Directing Our Future theory after Round three because - with only a minute to go - the Dogs were leading the Hawks. It had been a brave, spirited, tenacious performance, an announcement that we were serious contenders in 2016. Brilliant footy combined with a fanatical self-belief meant we'd weathered several challenges from the Three-Peaters.
But - just as a stirring victory for we, the truest of true believers, appeared inevitable - Ole Tom ratcheted up the tension.
We’ve always feared losing to Essendon - because they were an arrogant, big powerful club. And they've beaten us so many - too many - times.
Our fear of losing to our mortal enemies across the Maribyrnong was of a different kind on Sunday. This time it was more to do with the fact that they are now a weak and enfeebled club - bottom of the ladder, in fact - one we were expected, and needed, to beat to shore up our position as high in the ladder as we can possibly get.
‘Weak and enfeebled’: they definitely weren't the words coming to mind - though ‘arrogant’, as always, remains apt - when before the game I heard that the Bombres have requested (and doubtless will receive) a Round One blockbuster fixture next year to ‘welcome back’ their suspended players.
You know: the ones whose club are unable to inform which drugs they were given, or reassure about the consequences for their health, both present and future. The young men who lost a year of their short playing lives, who are now branded as drug cheats, and betrayed by the club hierarchy they reasonably trusted to have their best interests at heart.
I'm not quite sure why this should surprise; the hubris of this club has always been breathtaking. Their chief executive, explaining why the club should be rewarded with a round one feature match, said ‘everyone would acknowledge’ they have been a special case this year. (He clearly hasn’t been in touch with The Tragician).
And then the Bombres ran out onto the ground on Sunday: their banner, with no sense of irony, promoting the ‘James Hird Academy’ which - you can't script this - nurtures young talent. Let's hope that this doesn't include practices such as injecting young players with a drug, left over from a muscular dystrophy patient. (Just because - well - it was lying around. Could be interesting to see what it does).
Contrition, remorse, humility, are not in evidence. And yet it’s all too easy to envisage a Round One 2017 scenario where, fortified with a number one draft pick, the ‘Stand by Hird’ fans (many of whom have, as their season has dragged on, clearly elected to Stand By Their Couches instead) proudly march to the G, smugly deluded, perhaps with Paul Little and James Hird leading the way behind a 'Whatever it takes' banner.
But in the meantime, the repercussions of the drug saga linger for more than just Essendon alone. In the equivalent match last year we defeated the Bombres (pre-drug suspensions) by 87 points. Former Essendon player Stewart Crameri was best on ground, kicking seven goals. Which was more than the Bombres' entire team that day, as uncharitable and mean-spirited individuals may have pointed out at the time.
The impact of Crameri's absence on our club because of the WADA ban was only too apparent on Sunday. In fact it grows week by week, as our forward line regularly struggles to rack up a respectable score. There seem to be multiple factors in this; slow, ponderous ball movement which makes us yearn even more for Bob's breaking of the lines and imaginative vision. The dwindling stocks of on-ballers, meaning that younger, less experienced and often less skilled players are the ones driving, or rather scrambling, the ball forward. And the forward set-up itself, which continues to mystify; is it because of the poor delivery and slow ball movement that the forwards don't have the confidence to lead and demand the ball, or the other way around?
I felt strangely sad watching our undoubted bravery and commitment as we worked, with more determination than skill, to a 40-point victory. Nostalgically I wondered where the Men of Mayhem have gone (I guess that close to a dozen of them looking on from the grandstands answers that question) and why last year's carefree exuberance has been stifled (same answer).
I had to remind myself that despite some media romanticism of the brave young Bombres' plight, the team that was desperately youthful and inexperienced on Sunday was not the one donning the sash. More than half our team - in fact, staggeringly enough, 13 players - had played less than 50 games, compared to 10 in red and black. And they had five players who've clocked up more than 150 games, compared to just two Bulldogs in this category (the ever-reliable Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Liam Picken).
One of the Bombres' veterans out there, playing his final game on Sunday was very familiar to us, of course. And as Adam Cooney, wearing red and black, waved his thanks to the Bulldogs' fans before whom he'd played more than 200 games, the combination of the poignancy of the moment, the flat and uninspired performance, and the horror of seeing another key player struck down by injury (this time Easton Wood) sent my thoughts drifting into some familiar, if unwelcome, territory. Of the dangerous assumptions that limitless chances to grab a flag from a talented group will always there for the taking.
We should know this better than most: there is no orderly queue of progress. The fact that we have finished towards the front of the 2016 line, expecting that it will soon be 'our turn', does not guarantee a smooth pathway to a flag. Too many hurdles and random factors, things we can control, and things we can't, await to trip us up.
Adam Cooney was a number one draft pick in 2003, a laconic character with a shock of wild red hair. He had elite skills and explosive pace. In 2006 I recall a tight match against Brisbane where his brilliant clearance work in the last quarter won us a crucial game that set us up for a finals berth. We were dazzled by the potential of 'Coons' and his two close mates: Farren Ray (the number four pick from the same draft) and Ryan Griffen. They were the new, unscarred, unafraid group that would drag us towards premiership glory, under second-year coach Rodney Eade (he was called Our Mastermind not Our Saviour. But the sentiments and expectations were the same).
With the shiver of apprehension and superstition which is the ever-present legacy of an Irish-Catholic upbringing, I wonder: did we have the same investment, the same belief that these were the ones, which we now place in the precocious talents of the 2016 group? Last week I said that we've never had a player like Marcus Bontempelli. But did I make the same proud boast about Adam Cooney, or for that matter Chris Grant, or all those other potential heroes that it's just too painful to remember?
We believe - because we must - that even if ( - I said IF -) 2016 isn't our year, a few tweaks to our game plan and a full and healthy list (for surely 2016 is an aberration?) will see that 62 year drought broken. But that same cold shiver - and the memory of how Cooney's career played out - tells me there are other, much less palatable, alternatives through which this group's future may unfold.
Ask Mitch Wallis, who may be looking at 18 months out of the game, in the prime of his footy life, after his horrific broken leg.
Ask Jake Stringer, even with our massive injury toll banished to the VFL, struggling to regain his zest, the right balance between lair and selfishness. Burdened, perhaps, with too many expectations, too many Ablett-esque comparisons, too soon.
Ask Bob Murphy, who'd already been at the club seven years - imagine! - before Cooney & Co got us into a finals series. One that Bob missed, because he'd done a knee. The first knee, that is.
And now, those three great hopes of the 2006 group are finishing their football journeys at other clubs.
(Top) Adam Cooney, still in our colours, after the siren sounded in our heartbreaking 2009 preliminary final loss to St Kilda
Cooney's 250-game career has been a success by any measure; it brought him a Brownlow, four years of finals appearances, and All-Australian honours. It also delivered a bung knee which has brought him to retirement at only 30 years of age; he says from 2008 onwards (he was just 22 then) he was unable to even train.
Farren Ray is now at his third AFL club, offered a rookie spot at North Melbourne, where he has only been able to eke out one game. After moving from us to St Kilda, Farren at least played in three grand finals, but like Cooney is destined to retire without a flag. Ryan Griffen went on to captain our club, but left with bitterness and rancour, to play with a team that was in 2006 barely a bullet point in the AFL's corporate plan. His premiership dream with The Acronyms remains alive. Just not - as we once hoped - with us.
In fact, only one of Cooney's team-mates from that winning 2006 elimination final team lined up against him in Sunday's match. It was a bloke wearing number 42. Not Liam Picken however (our best afield on Sunday), but Matthew Boyd; no number one draft pick thoroughbred, but a rookie; maybe (I fondly hope) still wearing those blonde tips from his days as a Frankston reserves player. 'Keith' Boyd, perhaps a bit of a plodder compared to the more glamorous trio, was definitely not the one any of us would have picked as lasting the journey, if we'd been asked to put our predictions in a time capsule. We'd never have guessed that he would still be playing 10 years later, would captain our club, win a best and fairest and spend his twilight years re-born and maybe even playing career-best footy in a defensive role.
Looking back at the careers of Adam, Farren and Ryan, who all one way or another fell out of love with our club, makes me realise that Our Boys in fact never truly remain Our Boys - and not just in the sense that Adam Cooney's magnificently unkempt mane has disappeared, and a bald spot is now prominent.
Some of the class of 2016 won't make it. Some will find themselves on the wrong side of the end of season whiteboard, jigsaw pieces to be offloaded in the end-of-season horse-trading, or delisted: 'superfluous to requirements.' Some will never be able to overcome the frailty of their minds and bodies, the attrition of our brutal game, the ever-present consequences for individual and team of a wrong decision or poor game, the relentless scrutiny of the media and the desperation of the fans.
The Bulldogs' players formed a guard of honour for Cooney, the former player many knew well but others not at all. Our applause was warm and respectful towards our former champion. But he's no longer one of Our Boys and Our Club is Our Club, always. Our loyalties and affections, but most of all our hopes, have moved on. Now they are firmly placed in our newest number 17. Maybe the Dogs' biggest ever, boldest gamble for premiership success, the enigmatic Tom Boyd, who just his week turned 21.
There's a series of lovely videos on the club's website, showing the bond between players who've worn the same number. The latest features The Bont with Daniel Cross. Yep, I was the one who made the maudlin claim that i could never love another player as much as the ultimate team-man, the bravest of the brave, Daniel Cross. It turns out, of course, that wasn't quite true.
Despite being cut from the club after 210 games and playing on with Melbourne, Crossy is one of those rare players whose passion for our club matches the fans. I had an ache in my heart when he confided that he used to kiss his guernsey before each match. The Bont listened to him respectfully, taking in the words of his predecessor in number four, the man whose name he sees every day on his Whitten Oval locker, and saying:
It’s great to be able to catch up with past players who have worn the jumper to understand their level of love, care and compassion for the jumper because it makes wearing it even more worthwhile."
Marcus Bontempelli, still just 20 years old, will captain our club again this week. I feel that little shiver again, thinking about it, and imagining the silent message conveyed by all those names on the lockers that he and his team-mates see every day. Of not taking anything for granted. Of grabbing our 2016 opportunities - even if they seem to have been blighted by injury - and seize the day. We can never be sure when and if it will come again.
The point of it all
When the Dogs took on the Pies last week I was on holidays, catching some sun, a couple of thousand kilometres away.
I was hoping against hope for one of those uneventful, comfortable, slightly dull wins. The type where our worst complaint is that we took our foot off the pedal in the last quarter. We should have been building percentage. Where, during the last quarter, the game well in our keeping, an earnest debate can begin: who should be in or out of the team for the next week based on form, instead of necessity as another injury strikes. Where we can even feign condescending admiration for the opposition's efforts. Some good kids there. That Darcy Moore looks a likely type, doesn't he.
Maybe even - but only if we've won by at least 15 goals - I'm looking forward to seeing that kid's career unfold.
Such indulgences are rarely the Bulldogs' lot. Certainly not in the second half of 2016. And so, inevitably, early in the third quarter we were struggling badly, down for the count. The weight of injuries, that perplexingly dire forward set-up, the absence of Dale Morris to marshall the defensive troops; all these things and more were painfully apparent. Jake "the Lair" (dictionary definition: "a flashy man who likes to show off") - was curiously ineffective. And all around the ground, we appear strangely subdued, bereft of answers.
We've seen these scenarios before, of course. The must-win game that we - don't. Bold club statements such as "Our destiny is now in our own hands" - striking terror, rather than hope, into the Bulldog faithful.
Yes, we've seen it before, over and over, but we didn't have Marcus Bontempelli then. We've had champions, plenty of them; for us, through long years of failure and disappointment, enjoying the singular gifts of individuals was our main consolation. But I'm not sure we've had someone like The Bont. Someone whose own indomitable will and competitiveness, allied with those freakish gifts, can single-handedly swing a game.
It may be a strange analogy; but he reminded me of those mothers who apparently finds the strength to lift a volkswagen to free their trapped children.
We've known it, we've sensed it, we've predicted a glorious career for The Bont, said proudly that he'll win a Brownlow one day, but even we didn't think it would be so soon. That he could be so great - so finished, complete - already.
Emboldened by the Bont's feats (of both varieties) in those flashy lime green shoes, everyone around him becomes inspired. Liam Picken, who has a particular relish in playing the Pies, locks down the dangerous Steele Sidebottom. The aftershocks of his crunching tackles shuddered through the stadium and could be felt even on the couch by an agitated Tragician in Far North Queensland.
And yet, though we bridge the three goal gap, we can't shake the Pies off. Far far away from my actual family, and my Bulldog family as well, the last quarter crawls by. It's a peculiar torture watching it on TV, the awful camera angles ensuring you have no idea whether it's going to be a Bulldog player who first lopes into the frame or several Magpies ready to link up smartly down the centre of the ground. You have no idea whether a desperate shanked kick was the best one of our players could do because of suffocating pressure, or whether he'd overlooked Bulldogs' team-mates leading purposefully into space. (This seemed unlikely given the way our forwards continually formed into a clump, but you never know).
We dominate, without impact; we lock down and fight and scrap time and again; our spirit, our effort, can't be faulted; we're ahead, still, and it's 30 seconds to go. We should be safe. (But - gulp - wasn't that the slither of time in which we were able to snatch the game from Sydney's clutches a few short/long weeks ago?)
There's a random free kick to the Pies, followed by another random free kick to the Pies. It's all too speedy even for the obligatory outrage, because the ball is being launched into the Collingwood forward line. Just the scenario in which promising young Darcy Moore could take one of his wretchedly promising marks, 30 metres out. But it's Bulldog hands, safe hands, those of Roughead and Boyd, that reach the ball first. They pump it forward and The Flashy Man Who Likes to Show Off, who'd looked a bit more his old self in the last quarter, takes a mark right on the siren.
We used to not know how to win; now it's as though we don't know how to lose.
Afterwards, I learn that this win has made history. It's the first time since 1946 we've beaten the Pies four times in a row. That's quite something, when you consider that in 153 matches against the Pies, we have won only 46 times.
I work out that our current 'streak' began in June 2014. And I'm almost instantly flooded with memories of that game. It's one of those that stands out from the rest, even though it should have been just a meaningless, mid-season, humdrum home and away match. Nothing of note was riding on it; hope of an improved year for the rebuilding Dogs had long since faded. We were well down the ladder, while the Pies were finals-bound. Our team was being mocked, trashed in the media; we were "irrelevant", a joke, the footy world agreed.
I trudged up LaTrobe Street to the stadium that day, ready to meet three equally stoic family members, with a spirit of fortitude rather than alacrity. This is what I wrote as I saw with sadness the small, forlorn numbers of Dogs' fans who'd also come along on this Mission Impossible that day :
The sentiments I wanted to express seemed old-fashioned, trite and banal, yet they're what I believe. That you don't get to pick and choose when to barrack for your club, disappearing from their orbit in the bad years, only to reappear with suspiciously new scarves in better times. That going along every week in these hard times, even if it's an effort, form a protective fortress and a core of resilience (harden up, you young scallywags, I've been there for at least a dozen 100 point losses!) and will make our triumph one day (- it will happen one day - won't it? -) extra poignant and unbelievably sweet.
A few things happened that day. The Dogs won; a defiant, glorious, against-the-odds victory.
Libber (the Second) played a breathtakingly brilliant game. Thirteen clearances. Ten tackles.
And an 18-year-old kid called Marcus Bontempelli was pivotal in a tight last quarter. It was still weird to see his rangy form in the number four guernsey, which had been worn more than 200 times by our beloved Daniel Cross. The Bont (maybe we still called him Marcus then) was playing his sixth game; his initiation to the red white and blue had involved five previous losses. His game that day earned him a Rising Star nomination. Afterwards, he shared a memorable hug with his father.
I called my blog post that day: We came, we saw, we believed. And I wrote of the moment when the siren went:
We take a photo of the four of us, celebrating wildly, to capture forever the memory of the day that We Were There.
The importance of being there, the mystery of why fans of unsuccessful clubs endure - these thoughts, on which I often muse, were on my mind for another reason. Last week my blog on our win against the Kangaroos did not find favour with at least one North Melbourne supporter. A person called "Shinboner" (I'm not making this up) got in touch to remind me that North had won four flags in his/her lifetime (a point already made in my blog), and then launched that not-so-thorny, not-so-tough question:
How many flags in yours?
Yes, the Shinboner had me there. I have to confess that I did not need to consult wikipedia, do a google search or use the more old-fashioned method of counting my fingers to unearth the answer. I've never seen Our Boys win a flag, or even come close.
But as an evasive politician might say to a Tony Jones' grilling: I don't actually accept the premise of Shinboner's question at all.
While the heartache of our failures is raw and can't be denied, something more than a simple win-loss ratio is what connects a football team and its supporters. It's the 'something' that compelled us to be there on that June day in 2014.
A Bulldogs premiership - especially after an epic wait of at least 61 years (thanks for reminding me Shinboner) - will be precious indeed. But I imagine (that's all I can do) that a flag, mysteriously enough, won't drastically change anything essential about my feelings about our club, or even be the thing that sustains me when the wheel of footy fortune dumps us back down the ladder again one day.
We can make a choice to go to a well-reviewed movie or walk out of a disappointing restaurant. And yet we will stoically attend matches 'just because' where our team is certain to lose, where we know the outcome is likely to be depression, frustration and even anger. We front up during those interminable seasons where the writing was on the wall virtually from Round One. We can - and do - question our sanity, wonder exactly why we're wasting our 'leisure' time on something that is so frequently, well, unenjoyable.
I watch the Olympics, and a particular triumph, or painful loss, might move, inspire, or sadden me. But I haven't invested enough in these athletes' stories to really care for long whether they've swum a personal best. I haven't been there, silently conveying my support and empathy, when they battled debilitating injury or form slumps. Their story really isn't mine. Yet the Dogs', somehow, is.
I cheer on a favourite player at the tennis but when they lose my disappointment is fleeting. I accept, quite logically, that whether they win or lose has nothing to do with me, tells no meaningful story about the random unfairness of the universe, just that one player played better than the other on a particular day.
I watch the Dogs and layers of memory are always, always, there. They form a collage of sounds and sights and even, for those of us old enough to have attended the Western Oval, smells. The losses, the wins. The years of just being there.
Like all Dogs fans, I feel a sense of awe and slight disbelief that the day may come when we are part of the excited, nervous throng filing into the MCG. We visualise Our Boys lining up for the anthem, dare to dream we'll see Bob lifting the premiership cup. Those miserable days, the days of heartbreak, our failures, they won't be forgotten or swept aside in our joy, our tears when that happens; in fact somehow, they will be the point of it all.
My story: We came, we saw, we believe
The sum of us
Just when did the Kangaroos morph into the least likeable, most irritating team in the competition?
I'm excluding, of course, the Acronyms - GWS. Because they're not a real club. And the Crows, for obvious reasons, because 'least likeable' seems far too mild for the hideous memories that team conjures up. As for the 'whatever it takes' arrogance of Essendon - well, I feel I'm in danger of digressing.
North are right up there. That's all I'm saying.
Our two clubs SEEM as though there should be an affinity, some sort of kindred spirit. Culturally, there are similarities; both smaller, working-class clubs, often struggling to make themselves heard among the clamour and din of bigger and more successful teams. (With four flags, North are well ahead of us; however, pretty much everyone is.) The two clubs are geographically close as well - though that's never brought about a sense of camaraderie with another neighbour of ours from across the posh side of the west's scenic attraction, the Maribyrnong.
But I may be digressing. Again.
The Tragician, as you may have gathered, holds no truck with ludicrous concepts such as having a second team, or (why?) having a 'soft spot' for an opposition club. However, given that North are not one of the teams against whom we have aparticularly abysmal win-loss ratio (these things are always relative, of course), I feel I should have - if not affection - at least less animosity toward them than I do.
I suspect, in fact I'm sure, it's the Scott brother factor. Honestly, is there any free kick to the opposition that the scowling, put-upon twins consider justified?
Petulant Brad and Morose Chris bring to mind a headline in an Australian newspaper when the England cricket team were losing, none too graciously. "Can the Poms be beaten fairly?"
Instead of running around kicking a footy with each other in their early days, the Scott brothers, I reckon, must have practised synchronised 'incredulous-that-can't-possibly-be-a-free' arm-waving routines in preparation for their future coaching careers.
Then there's North's squadron of fake tough guys, forever drawing lines in the sand and making 'statements', puffing out their chests with bumptious and hollow bravado. Like the time when they decided that the moment when Barry Hall was tying up his shoelace might be a good opportunity to push him over. And follow up with some ultra-courageous jostling and bumping as the Big Bad Bustling One attempted to leave the arena after three or four of them held him down in a headlock.
This - apparently - is known as Shinboner Spirit.
It was hardly unexpected, then, that before the first bounce, a group of North Melbourne Fake Tough Guys would attempt to rough up The Bont. Though, to be perfectly honest, my money would have been on 'Celeb' Daniel as the more likely target of their huffing and puffing.
However, The Bont had committed a heinous sin in the strange world of footy ethics. He had taken exception with the fact that in our previous encounter, Lindsay Thomas had launched a head high tackle on Lachie Hunter. One which put him in hospital over night.
In the interests of fairness, let's recap on the full extent of The Bont's outlandish accusations:
"We didn't really like it at all, we thought there was quite a bit of malice in it.
"[Hunter] will be OK, hopefully he can relax and be OK over the next couple of days. But we thought it was quite a bit unfair."
Shame, Bont, shame.
It was little wonder, with such provocation, that the North posse, led by the aptly named 'Spud' Firrito, decided to jostle and bump our superstar.
A few things soon emerged as significant flaws in North's master plan (for there needed no imagination to see Brad Scott's fingerprints all over it). The problem was, though he may not be Barry Hall (he has a lot more hair for one thing), Marcus Bontempelli is no longer a raw-boned and spindly 18-year-old. While, like a fond parent, I still haven't quite adjusted to the fact, the Bont stands shoulder to shoulder with many ruckmen; at an imposing 93 kilos now, he was far from daunted by the so-called physicality of the North players. And not one to launch a theatrical, Nick Riewoldt-style dive into the turf in response to North's attentions.
Nobody - especially Firrito - puts Bonti in the corner any more.
The Bont is, I always think, a mysterious mix of the calm and competitive. While the burning, intense desire to win is virtually imprinted on the faces of some players (Libber, both The First and Second, come to mind), The Bont looks affable, unruffled. He looks as though footy is still, somehow, a game, albeit one he is stupendously good at. His power, rather like our champ Chris Grant, is in his grace, rather than brute force. And yet, as Firrito and gang were about to find out, and as Joel Selwood discovered last week, it is unwise to overlook the fierceness, the ruthless side of Marcus Bontempelli.
There were more things to worry about, indeed, than how The Bont would stand up to the attempted intimidation. Last time we played, the Kangaroos had beaten us by 16 points; it felt like more. And the names we were missing from that day were painful reading; no Wallis, Liberatore, Macrae, Campbell or Adams, while Toby McLean and Koby Stevens are finding form at Footscray after their long lay-offs.
And yet, during the week, Bevo Our Saviour had said, when asked if this Dogs' group could still win a flag: 'You try telling them they can't.'
I try and hold that thought in my mind, even as we make a poor start, even as again, the question of how we can scrounge enough goals looms, and we go close to a goal-less quarter. Then after this shaky beginning, the perennially unlucky Clay Smith goes down with concussion, and we find ourselves in a far too familiar situation. One man down, unable to return for the match.
We gain the lead early in the second quarter (and won't lose it again) through sheer grit. Goals are still hard to come by; with Jake the Lair mysteriously subdued, new sources must, and do, bob up. There's one bloke, for example, who juggles a one-handed mark at centre half forward before going back and slotting a long goal. None other than the composed and lion-hearted 'Celeb' Daniel of course.
North, like a swarm of frustrated, angry ants, initiate more rough stuff at half time.
The Bulldogs crowd pulses with indignation. There is in reality so little that as supporters, we can do to affect any of the game's outcomes (talk of lucky socks and scarves aside). We yearn sometimes, to show them how much we're with them, to give them our thanks, share their disappointments and sorrows, demonstrate - in this case - our anger. We can't leap the fence and put one of the North antagonists in a headlock (for those familiar with the petite stature of The Tragician, this sight would be comic rather than frightening. Especially the part where I fail to leap the fence.)
But we can show them we're with them, and part of them, so we launch a chant.
Bulldogs! Bulldogs! Bulldogs!
It thunders around the stadium. It's primal and raw. People who are mild-mannered and gentle in real life, are yelling it out at the top of our voices. Grandmothers. Teenagers. Nurses, teachers, people with uni degrees, alongside pensioners and students. Kids who've dressed in little handknitted Bulldogs jumpers hours after they were born. People from the western suburbs, people who've only recently taken up the faith. Refugees and new arrivals to our country, for whom it's all a dazzling and intriguing spectacle and a bewildering blur.
People who've never seen a Bulldogs' flag. People who have. But it's oh so long ago.
The warring tribes separate, with little harm done, and head to their own caves.
Do our efforts, to support and lift Our Boys, make any impact, elevate and inspire them, as we hope? Or are we, the fans, just white noise rumbling in the background, barely relevant to the tight little cocoon of players and coaches and injured team-mates?
We all resume our seats, a little sheepishly, and go off in search of our half time snacks.
Our Boys go further ahead in the third quarter. 20 points up at the last break doesn't really reflect the dominance we've established. It's a lot, however, in the context of this low-scoring affair. But far from insurmountable. We squirm in our seats and half wish for another scuffle to break out.
With audacious faith in his troops, Bevo places 20-year-old Lukas Webb, and 19-year-old Josh Dunkley, in the centre square to begin the last quarter, one with so much riding on it for our finals aspirations, for 2016 as a whole. It's strange, and a little poignant - and a whole lot scary - to see these kids in the thick of the action, instead of the comparatively grizzly old hands, Wally and Libber. But Josh and Lukas are undaunted. They're not there to play bit parts, despite their fresh faces, their light frames in comparison to their North counterparts.
But our run has slowed. Fatigue has set in. It's a scrappy, tough arm-wrestle. North get two frees in front of goal. Brad Scott's reaction is not shown on the TV screens.
Our defence becomes besieged. But the 2016 Men's Department are so much more than the sum of its individual players. The reliable duo of Boyd and Morris know where to be, how to direct the youngsters around them. Raw, ungainly Fletcher Roberts keeps learning and growing, game by game, quarter by quarter, from these stalwarts. And we have the magnificent Easton Wood; these tight last quarters seem made for his bold reading of the play, his spectacular intercept marking.
But I still feel the familiar, jittery panic. It is not shared by Our Boys, these young men who burn with more single-minded belief than I've seen in any Dogs team, ever before.
You try telling them they can't.
The siren goes, and our brave and injury-struck team have defied the odds magnificently again. The players head over to the cheer squad, stopping endlessly for the selfies that are requested, for the brief touch of hands, those little moments that connect the fans with their dream. Our dream.
We hope, but don't really know, that in some way we spurred them on. That our chant, ringing around the arena, played just a tiny part in their motivation. Showed the opposition the strength of our unity, fans and players alike.
The boys sing the song a bit more raucously than usual. Another test has been passed. We've won a torrid physical battle, withstanding and triumphing over the bullying tactics and trash talk with which North tried, and failed, to intimidate us.
The win cements our place in the finals. That it makes our rivals' position in the eight that bit more precarious - well, there's a grim satisfaction about that too.
The Bont gives a TV interview, modestly defecting attention back to 'the kids' who've stepped up.“A lot has been spoken about our injuries but we’ve got so much depth and faith in these boys out here tonight and they delivered on it.
“We knew coming in with a bit of a younger group again, it was great to see the younger kids step up."
High praise, I guess, from a seasoned veteran such as The Bont, accumulator of 56 games now, and all of 20 years old.
The Bont had 19 disposals. Not many by his peerless standards, yet to my mind he was, if not the best, the most influential player on the ground.
There was a wonderful moment, right in front of where the Tragician Tribe sit. Firrito had the ball, close to the boundary, and tried to launch a booming kick out of the danger zone of our forward line. But The Bont was right there, and with an athletic leap and full deployment of those "go-go-gadget" arms, spoilt the kick and forced it out of bounds.
'Spud' looked crestfallen. And The Bont's reaction, visible only to us facing the two players, was a sight to behold. There was jubilation, and a full and utter appreciation of everything the moment meant.
And there was a touch of that facial expression, the one that generations of mothers have threatened to wipe off their children's faces.
And among all the sublime and audacious things The Bont did that day, the nine tackles, the long raking kicks, the strong contested marks, that smirk may very well be the thing that delighted me the most.
We can be heroes
One day a few years ago, as I was leaving a Bulldogs' match, I came across a man pushing a twin pram. Fast asleep inside were two babies, only a few weeks old. They were wearing little Bulldogs’ jumpers, and their pram was decorated with red, white and blue ribbons.
This was deep in the interminable gloom of the BMac era. Ten goal drubbings, a grimly defensive style of footy, and a dearth of starpower: these were our lot. We were excruciatingly bad, once losing nine games on the trot.
I caught the eye of the twins’ dad as he trundled along with an all too familiar air of stoicism.
‘Teaching them resilience,’ he explained with a wry smile.
Resilience. It's a term bandied about a lot in the lead-up to our match against Geelong.
The players were dealing with the aftermath of the horrific injury to their team-mate Mitch Wallis and a third knee reconstruction for Jack Redpath with 'resilience’, Bevo Our Saviour told the media scrum.
Endearingly, he could not hide his own tears and quavering voice as he spoke.
Another reason to love our Plantaganet-look-alike, Willy-Wonka-quoting, skateboard-riding coach.
But when the team selections were announced on Thursday night many wondered if even Bevo had already conceded the match as a certain defeat.
The losses of Wally, Redpath and Dale Morris were expected. But we had no inkling that we'd also miss the two Matthews, Boyd and Suckling, both out with Achilles' strains.
The team that was named would run out as the youngest and least experienced of all those fielded on the weekend. (Don't be fooled by the hype around the 'Baby Blues'; the despised 'Acronyms' - GWS; or even the deservedly enfeebled 'Bombres.' With an average of 23 years and 10 months and just 66 games, we'd eclipsed them all.)
And we were facing the Cats at their fortress; one from from which, as I seem to hear Craig Willis solemnly intone, so few Bulldogs’ teams have ever emerged victorious.
In fact, EJ Whitten, so the story goes, never once drove back down that highway a winner.
And whether at the Cattery or elsewhere, we've failed to defeat the Cats since way back in 2009. Even a few weeks ago, when our list was in much better health, they had no trouble dispatching us and inflicting the heaviest defeat of our season so far.
I always think of Geelong as holding up a two-way mirror to our club. After both clubs were seen as equally talented up-and-comers in 2006, their path diverged into premiership glory; ours of course did not.
Yet their very success also provides a window showing what can happen, how a flaky under-achieving club can finally smash through their history of non-achievement and then build a success-hungry dynasty, a new narrative of success, an aura of invincibility.
That dynasty is still very much alive, with at least six (it was too depressing to do an exact count) of those triple premiership players in the line- up.
In the time-honoured tradition of opposition players achieving milestones whenever they face us (how did Brent Harvey mis-time his record-breaking match?) the Cats would also be celebrating the glorious careers of two of their triple premiership heroes - and serial Bulldogs tormentors - Corey Enright and Jimmy Bartel. The crowd would be revved up, parochial, and at fever pitch. Only a small contingent of Dogs' fans would be there, given the exorbitant price the Geelong club demands for the small number of available seats, to attend this miserably cold night, when our depleted team is expected to cop a shellacking.
Our players, right from the opening bounce, had different ideas. They stunned us all with their intensity, their overwhelming determination to win.
You’d think that last week’s horrible events might have made them hesitant; that there might be moments of tentativeness, a sharper instinct for self-preservation. Yet they were fiercer, braver, more committed, than ever before.
Unlike a couple of other teams I could name Our Boys didn't resort to over the top fake toughness or bravado. There was no posturing, no 'line in the sand' statements. This was a different, more difficult form of courage. The footy world, we the fans, would all have forgiven, excused, accepted a heavy loss. But Our Boys hadn't abandoned their courage, the courage to believe.
Leading the way with an imperious performance was Libber (The Second). He was playing, you felt, for his fellow father-son recruit and lifelong mate, the wounded Mitch Wallis, as much as himself. Despite his own injury woes – last year’s knee reconstruction, a visit to hospital with busted ribs only a couple of weeks ago – Libber played as though, as his famous dad did so often, his own over-sized will could - and would - drag us over the line.
It was a little more surprising to see another Tom instrumental in our impressive start: everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Bulldogs’ answer to Jack Watts, he of the much discussed pay cheque, Tom Boyd. There’s always been a rather placid air about big Tom, little sense that he could use his big frame in the wrecking ball style of Clay Smith, no real evidence that inside him burned the competitive flame of a fierce athlete, but on Friday night it looked like he'd had enough of the gibes, enough of the caricatures. Under pressure that's unimaginable for a 20-year-old, he showed the 'blue chip' talent that Bevo talks about, the potential champion he can become if his fitness base builds up and injury fates (not, admittedly, our friend of late) a little kinder.
The first quarter siren sounded with the Dogs only one point down. The Cats looked, if not shell-shocked, nettled and aggrieved.
Our depleted team had somehow reached somewhere deep, somewhere perhaps even they didn't know they could, and had shaken a defiant fist in the direction of the footy universe. They were playing with heightened recklessness on behalf of - or because of - their injured comrades. And I wished that I was there, to stand with my fellow Bulldogs' fans, and applaud them and give them our thanks.
The second quarter unfolds: like soldiers, we begin to slowly concede ground in a war of attrition. The Cats start to realise that there is no need to join our players and scrabble at the bottom of the pack; they can afford to have one player standing outside, ready to coolly sweep the ball down field, where our defensive gaps are painfully exposed. The toll of our relentless efforts, our frenzied domination with so little effect on the scoreboard, threatens to - but never quite does - inexorably grind us down.
The days of dazzling Round One 'sexy' footy are long gone; it's hand-to-hand combat in which we now must engage.
And yet we see, with an air of disbelief, that our hardiest soldier, Libber, is off the ground. Yet again, the wretched sight of an essential player, squirming in pain, concerned doctors by his side. Libber will not return for the rest of the match.
Another of our best, Luke Dahlhaus, who's lit us up with his trademark energy and enthusiasm, begins to tire. Umpiring decisions don't go our way. The Geelong players begin to exude that air they've always had over us; they look taller, stronger, fresher, faster.
More ... uninjured.
Yet even though the Cats' authority over the match grows, it's never unchallenged. A few times, it seems a dam wall is about to break and they will rampage over the top of us, but we bob up irrepressibly again - I'll never quite know how.
We're still threatening, still surging, even in the last quarter, when we lose yet another player, Jack Macrae, that unobtrusive, tireless runner, who'd been doing a fine job on Joel Selwood and still got 20 possessions himself in three quarters.
Old-fashioned words come to my mind as the final siren sounds, and the Dogs register a 25 point loss. Gallantry, and grace.
We'd played the game, as a certain song that we've heard too many times goes, 'as it should be played'.
Our Boys stayed on the ground as Enright and Bartel were chaired off. Their heads were held high. They weren't losers. They'd just lost a game.
There are ten-goal wins that have not made me as proud as this.
In those painful BMac years, throughout those tedious, repetitive losses, it was sometimes all I could do to unearth one little nugget of hope, one little moment to be proud of. Maybe it was a first gamer in whom we could invest all our hopes and fantasies, or a plodding journeyman who had somehow, unexpectedly, had a breakthrough game. It might be - it often was - a moment of suicidal Daniel Cross madness as he backed fearlessly into a pack.
There were many nuggets to choose from on Friday. But there are two that I have decided I will always cherish in my memory bank.
The first one was the vision of Libber on the sidelines, heavily strapped, knowing - as he must have - that he faced weeks on the sidelines, the surgeon's knife. He was watching the game as intently as the most devoted fan, clapping his team-mates, urging them on.
The other nugget was the splendid sight of The Bont taking the opportunity to set Joel Selwood smartly back down on his derriere (this is a family themed blog). Like every Bulldog fan for so many years, The Bont looked sick and tired of being pushed around by Geelong.
Agh, The Bont. Exquisite skills - check. The leadership and character of a champion -check. Just the right amount of aggression, just the right time to send a statement - wouldn't you know it, our 'golden boy' has the right stuff for that as well.
And yet, while we're proud, we the fans, who have been patient so long, must absorb the knowledge that we must, it seems, be patient once again.
We'd all nurtured hopes that in this even season, with no standout team, we could snatch an unexpected flag (though, after a 61 year drought, the words 'snatch' and the phrase 'unexpected' aren't exactly what I'm reaching for).
It's getting harder to imagine us, with our injury toll, slogging our way through gruelling finals and featuring on that last day of September, 2016. But judging by Friday night, Our Boys aren't accepting that as an inevitability. Not one little bit.
The little twins, in their Bulldog jumpers, must be pre-schoolers by now. Maybe, like my own little boy at that age, they insist on starting the day by running through a banner - a makeshift sheet that I was required to hang from a doorway for this purpose. I imagine them running around the backyard, kicking a footy with their patient dad. They probably wear the numbers four and nine on their backs, like most western suburban kids I see wearing red, white and blue. Or they could be wearing 21, for Libber. Number 3, for Wally. They're learning resilience. Bulldog resilience.
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.