I haven’t ever met Bob Murphy.
But one day last year I was at a Carlton coffee shop. I looked out the window and saw him sitting outside. His beloved Arthur, the family Dachshund who’s featured in Bob’s columns, was with him, waiting hopefully for a morsel from his master.
It wasn't all that long since Bob had done his knee. No decision on whether he would play on had yet been announced. To my mind he looked sad, reflective, but for all I knew he may have just been annoyed that his coffee was taking too long to arrive.
I hesitated as I left the café, wondering if I should speak to him, express my gratitude, empathy, support. Everything I thought of saying was trite, banal, and quite possibly intrusive. I’d leave Bob and Arthur to their quiet reflections without being interrupted by another gushing fan, I decided, and I walked past them in silence.
I did meet Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd once, while he was still captain, at a supporters’ breakfast function. Knowing his famous commitment to training, I half expected to be fixed with that stern expression and challenged about whether I was actually 100 % committed to the team (I was scoffing a croissant at the time). But Keith was warm and unexpectedly funny, talking about the birth of his daughter only a few weeks earlier, sharing laughs with myself and my sister-in-law about sleep deprivation and the tribulations of new parenthood.
Of course I’ve received messages, letters even, from both of these two captains, thanking me for that automatic renewal of membership which confirms (sometimes condemns) me as a Bulldog For Life. (Cynics claim it’s not actually them, it's just the marketing department. People really try to bring you down sometimes).
I got one from Ryan Griffen too. Make of that what you will.
We don’t really know the players with whom we journey through matches and seasons, but we’re attached to them and they matter to us more than they can know. Each week our fate rests on their on-field actions and deeds. We will be uplifted, or disappointed, depending on their decision to pass instead of shoot for goal, a milli-second flinch of hesitation and fear as a thundering pack bears down on them, whether they can extract something from their exhausted bodies to make an extra lunge for a tackle, their composure or anxiety or state of fatigue as they take a last quarter shot at goal.
They are actors and entertainers, villains and heroes, in our weekly drama. They are our idols whose wondrous deeds make us inordinately proud; their stuff-ups, mistakes or failings are ours as well.
They are a family to us, yet many of us will never exchange a word with them. We paint pictures of them, invent narratives in our minds. We scan the faces of our new recruits, players number #999 (Young, Lewis) and #1000 (Patrick Lipinski, yet to be nicknamed). Will they be 200-game players for us, made of the right stuff, as we instantly knew when a raw and gangly Marcus Bontempelli graced the field? Will one of them line up for a vital shot in a preliminary final with minutes to go and deliver us either more heartache or joy of the purest kind? Is there someone else, yet to wear our colours, who will be the other kind of player, a Libba The First, a Daniel Cross or indeed a Matthew Boyd, taking us by surprise, overcoming shortcomings and maximising their potential through sheer grit and burning ambition?
The glimpses we get through the media are usually bland; we get inklings but far from the full picture from how they play on the field. Shane Biggs on his Instagram account plays the role of team prankster; last week he irreverently photo-shopped the faces of our two distinguished retirees onto a picture of elderly men with pipes and cloth caps sitting in a suburban park. Yet who would have thought that this apparently laid-back character, a Sydney reject and far from a household name, would trap the ball, again and again, in our forward line in a critical passage in the last quarter of the grand final, his unbelievable tackling and multiple pressure acts ensuring that longed-for cup would finally be ours?
And who would have foreseen that Tom Boyd, with his movie star looks, imposing and athletic frame would be having his struggles with the black dog, unimagined by those of us on the perimeter: a struggle that may have been brought on, paradoxically, by our over-the-top investment in him in more ways than one?
We don’t really know any of them, and we don’t know what they think of us, the loyal, capricious, fickle, irrational fans, as they sign autographs or oblige us with a selfie, as we clap and cheer or sigh with disappointment or make disparaging comments over the fence or, increasingly, online.
But when we hear they are retiring, there’s a lump in our throats, an ache in our hearts. We watch the videos where, with a balance of pathos and humour to their teammates, they announce their retirement. I have a secret wish to be there, silent and invisible in a corner just as I've been silent and invisible as over countless seasons, one more person in the crowd. Just by my unseen presence, conveying somehow what they’ve meant to us.
But because the fans can't all mill inside those training rooms, silent or otherwise, part of the inner sanctum, we do the next best thing. The only thing fans can ever do really. We head off to their last games. To celebrate. To mourn.
It’s, weirdly, a Hawthorn ‘home’ game. At the stadium we’ve reluctantly accepted as our own, we sit far from our so-called 'Bulldog for Life' seats, displaced high up in the stadium. The brown and gold branding is everywhere, the premiership-glutted fans outnumber us two to one.
The big screens are showing the epic deeds of Luke Hodge, who’s had experiences our Bob never got to know, of leading his team out and playing a blinder on more than one grand final day.
And Keith - well, he might concede that Hodge had skills he could not match, but you sense he would refuse to yield anything in any comparison of the fierceness of their competitive spirits.
About the match, I have few thoughts. I don’t expect us to win, and that’s no longer the ‘Danny from Droop St’ fatalism, It's clear-eyed reality of where we are and where we deserve to be. I only want to say goodbye, but here up so far from the action, it’s hard to feel close, hard to feel connected to the two men who we've watched for so many years.
But, with the game largely forgettable, my thoughts do wander to the last two times we played the Hawks. In the Round three 2016 match we were leading with 90 seconds to play. The ball spun from a pack; Bob was caught one out with two men in brown and gold. In slow motion, it seemed, he twisted and did his knee. The Dogs lost the match. At that wrenching moment 2016 was, it seemed, gone forever.
The more recent time we played the Hawks was last year's semi-final. We'd come off the bravest, most gallant of wins against West Coast in Perth, and now had to back up against the winners of the last three premierships. As we ran rampant over them in the third quarter, a new narrative was surely being written. We all sensed it when The Bont effortlessly out bodied and outmarked Luke Hodge. The new tyro versus the old warrior. Yes, that was the story of the night. The Dogs' trajectory was on the up and up; the Hawks was on the wane.
Yet here in 2017, it's not the story at all. Team 11 on the ladder is playing team 12. The skills confirm it if nothing else. The Bont looks lame, exhausted, a young guy who has carried too much of our load. Seven of his premiership team-mates are missing. The ball doesn't sing for Bont tonight.
But Boyd and Murphy each play individually grand games. Keith reminds us of his All-Australian form of last year, intercepting, reading the game, directing and choreographing alongside our other magnificent 30-something Dale Morris. If it wasn’t Keith you’d almost accuse him of showboating when he launches an exquisite kick, one that Dougie Hawkins would have been proud of, spinning inevitably into the arms of his leading skipper.
Bob doesn’t look tired and leg-weary as he often has this season. There’s that lightness of foot, that acceleration. He kicks a long goal after receiving Boyd's pass. Maybe he’s playing, not with the echoes of the Bulldogs’ sorrowful past or his own missed opportunities, but with the inner childlike wonder of his seven-year-old self.
The Dogs lift in the last quarter, after falling behind because of the usual 2017 hallmarks of sloppy disposal and that infinitesimal drop in 2016 intensity. We start coming at the Hawks strongly. You know where this well-spring of extra effort has come from, and it’s not the tiny chink of possibility that we will play finals. It's to send our heroes off as they deserve to be, as winners.
But shots are sprayed. The wrong decisions are made. Bob himself gallops forward, taking bounces, apparently about to score an uplifting, emotional goal.
The shot goes out on the full.
The match, and this year where nothing has gone right, are over.
We're on the wrong side of the ground to really see the reactions of the three veterans. From our vantage point Hodge, Boyd and Murphy are tiny specks. They're hoisted on their team-mates' shoulders, a ritual that always makes me think how primitive and tribal sport is at its essence, a step back to gladiators and warriors.
Over the next few days I watch some of the footage of the farewells that we couldn't really catch at the time. I see that Bob and Keith were interviewed out on the ground by Brad Johnson. Bob is characteristically droll; he says our future will be bright, now that some of the 'dead wood' has been cleared. But Keith is fighting tears, his voice thick with emotion.
Three captains standing there together: an astounding 966 games between them. They dreamt of big things together, in our agonising unsuccessful campaigns of 08-10. Jonno had seen even more heartache, debuting aged just 18 years and five days old in 1994; over his brilliant career, he played 21 finals for only six wins.
Three captains ... yet only one ends his career with a premiership medallion in his keeping.
These men were not only champions; they wrote a new Bulldog story. They set standards for our club. And they stayed loyal; they were that increasing rarity, one-club-players. I can't recall one drawn out contract negotiation, no theatrical roadshows or media circus about whether Jono, Bob, or Keith would stay or leave. They were the best of men, role models we were always proud of, no matter where our club was on the ladder, humble in victory, dignified in defeat. I can barely remember a time without them.
Alongside my sorrow as I watch them, there's a fear, a worry. What will our club stand for? what will we be without them?
I watch footage, too, of the 1000th player to don our colours. Not so many months ago, Patrick Lipinski was just like me (well, a little bit more talented and athletic): a starry-eyed fan bedecked in red, white and blue, celebrating our fairytale premiership. On Friday night he experienced what Bob says are the best moments in footy:
'The two minutes before you run out to play, walking up the race, I just don't think you get that in any other place — a deep sense of brotherhood and clan.'
Now, unlike me, he has sat in the inner sanctum. Wearing the number 27 on his back, the 19-year-old listened to Bevo's tribute to Bob and Keith:
They made footy big again.
The Bont was one of those who carried Bob off the field. Bont once described how Bob, a non-combatant in the 2016 finals series, had placed just a question mark on the whiteboard in the build up to that stunning West Coast match:
The question he was asking was simple - how good could we be?
I also come across a photo from Friday night which makes me smile, and realise my worries about what our club will stand for now are unfounded. Bob's daughter Frankie, wearing her dad's number two, has run up to The Bont. She is being swung exuberantly around, as kids love to do, by our champion in the number four.
It didn’t take long for ‘Danny from Droop Street’ to share a gloomy prediction on Twitter. ‘It’s going to be a long dark bleak 61 years’ moaned the perennial pessimist, after our loss to Port ensured that our premiership defence was almost certainly over.
As usual my chuckle at Danny’s relentless negativity (this was, after all, the guy who grouched that winning the flag meant we’d lose high draft picks) was laced with anxiety. Sustaining success over a period of time is, surely, an even more difficult challenge that fighting and scraping to get there in the first place. While my blood pressure soars every time I hear certain moronic commentators saying our premiership was just an aberration, a flash in the pan...is it possible - surely, surely not - that Danny is right?
As we headed down the highway to our match in Ballarat I noticed that the chatter in our car didn’t have the urgency, that compelling mix of hope and dread, the adrenaline and nerves that usually accompany a ‘must win’ game. It confirmed for me that I’d long since stopped expecting or hoping that 2017 would bring a second premiership. At some point, maybe after the way we’d capitulated to Sydney, I'd began to accept that even if we made the finals, it was unlikely that we would reprise 2016’s heroics and sweep all before us. For reasons that we’re all struggling to make sense of, 2017 just hasn’t taken off; strangely enough, it’s also been largely unenjoyable.
Perhaps because of these low expectations, our road trip had a sense of fun, of occasion, as we sped down the Western Highway alongside many other cars sporting those ‘Bulldogs 2016 Premiers’ stickers that still give me a secret thrill. The Libba Sisters were accompanied by our 13-year-old niece Stephanie. She could perhaps be an Apprentice Libba Sister. Sadly the fact that she is already much taller than her two petite aunties has probably disqualified her.
We’d brought along toe, hand and feet warmers despite our scepticism that these strange little items could actually work; anything was worth trying against the predicted wind chill of an August day in Ballarat.
Once we’d parked, it took us almost as much time just to don all our clothing layers and walk - make that waddle - to the stadium.
Inside, the atmosphere was festive. There was a large standing room area on the wing where some of the more hardy or optimistic individuals had even brought picnic rugs – probably they’d double as clothing to huddle in if the expected rain, hail and sleet duly arrived.
The only thing missing was a traditional, country-footy-style, ring of vehicles around the oval, all gaily tooting their horns whenever there was a Bulldog goal.
At this endearingly quaint venue, you could hear the thump as the air was kicked out of the footy, catch the players’ calls to each other as they dashed down the ground, wince as you felt that ferocious thwack as hardened bodies met. We felt so close to the action, watching Dale Morris – did this guy have a bionic arm attached? - directing the baby of the team, Lewis Young (wearing his sensible long sleeved jumper… maybe his mum also packed him some toe-warmers) on where to run, how to move.
Our Boys looked lively from the start. Switched on. Goals weren’t quite as hard to come by as they’ve been of late. But Jake the Lair, who unfortunately has been more like Jake the Puzzlingly Subdued, was out of the contest early with a hammy.
Port didn't bend to our will after our frenzied start.
And as the match wore on, a familiar pattern for 2017 started to emerge.
One handball too many. Hesitation, or was it confusion, in moving the ball down the ground. Our forwards waited, with trepidation, underneath the next high, ugly floater kick which hung endlessly in the air. The Bont was parked there a lot of the match. With the poor ball delivery, he constantly had to crash the packs. I noticed last week against the despicable Acronyms how slowly he got up from a brutal tackle, how sore he looked moving off the ground at half time. Our Golden Boy shouldn’t have to be a battering ram, shouldn’t have to be the sole hope to lift us over the line, week after week.
There was uncharitable laughter when feisty umpire ‘Razor’ Ray Chamberlain got bowled over. Stephanie suggested there should be a hashtag movement: #prayforrazor. Maybe she can make the grade as an honorary Libba Sister after all.
We were in front early in the last quarter. Maybe our tenacity, if not our skill, would be rewarded. Dailey Bailey, who had stood out with his calm and poise all day, slotted his fourth goal. Jack Macrae (surely a Sutton medal is in his keeping?) was everywhere, marking in defence, tackling, linking up time and again.
But Port Adelaide's men built like tree trunks kept clunking effortless marks against our undersized defenders. The Dogs kept fumbling; like an under-9s squad, we were often caught out all milling around the ball, with no forward targets left if a turnover occurred. We were trailing when Bob featured in a critical contest, somehow getting a finger to the ball, somehow keeping the ball in our forward half with minutes to go. It seemed like one of those defining moments, an outstanding moment of courage and determination, for Bob had been pole-axed only a short time before. Perhaps in 2016 it would have turned the match, been that pivotal moment that saved our season, a moment we would cherish and relive all the way home. Instead an undisciplined team-mate give away a foolish free kick. The ball – and that tiny flicker of hope for 2017, and for Bob – was swept away. The momentum was gone. We didn’t win it back.
We left our new home, the Port anthem blaring in our ears.
The rush of cold air was bitter. Yet somehow our mood was not.
Peeling off toe and feet warmers that had ended up in unlikely locations over the course of the day, we piled into our car. We were a bit bedraggled, yet strangely philosophical.
The purchase of piping hot jam donuts may have been a factor.
A rainbow appeared in the distance: to my fanciful mind, it surely must have arced right over the empty Whitten Oval. The laidback atmosphere in Ballarat, the cold, the unusual sight of people standing in the outer, had reminded me so much of our beloved home ground; and it suddenly occurs to me that this very weekend, the second last round of the season, was the 20th anniversary of our final match at our fortress. The last time people had gathered on the open terraces on the Gordon Street wing (there were definitely no picnic rugs to be seen). The last contest for premiership points, at our historic ground, where generations had endured that icy wind, shivered as the rain came in like splinters in our faces.
I’d made melodramatic statements at the time, claiming that I’d continue to follow the Dogs even if they played on the moon. Even I did not foresee: that in 2017 we’d be playing on Mars.
That historic last game was against the Eagles; after a disastrous 1996, our resurgent team was playing to secure a fairytale top four finish. Before the first bounce, three of our players marched up to an Eagles player, jostling, bumping him and uttering the sinister words "Welcome to the kennel.". (Variations of these tactics have been meted out to JJ for most of this year - but as Bulldog conspiracy theorists all know, in 1997, they resulted in charges of intimidation. Yes, for the first, and apparently last, time in AFL history.).
As our sodden fans ran out after the final siren to celebrate a win, or perhaps just to jump start their circulation, (toe-warmers hadn't then been invented) we fortunately had no inkling that the season would end in our ignominious collapse in the Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named – the closest we would get to a grand final until 2016.
Marcus Bontempelli and Jake Stringer would have been over-sized toddlers. Young, Lewis had not even been born.
A nuggety rover called Luke Beveridge was eking out a nondescript career at his third club, St Kilda.
Princess Diana was still alive but on that nightmare preliminary final day a few weeks later the Western Bulldogs cheersquad would respectfully express our club’s condolences at her passing on their banner, undoubtedly soothing some of the royal family’s heartache. (However, not meaning to be critical of our valiant stalwarts, but I can’t help wishing they’d just stuck to the basics: ‘Don’t stuff up, and in the last quarter beware of a guy called Jarman!’).
Among the men out there on that final day on the Western Oval were, extraordinarily, four champions who would go on to reach the 300 game milestone.I'd rather not think about how many games I personally have clocked up, but it must be in the vicinity of five or six hundred games. In ten of those years we played finals, yet this led to just one grand final appearance and one premiership; those that are scoffing at our premiership (I’m looking at you Matthew Lloyd) should remember just how hard a flag is to win.
Twenty years! filled with ho-hum or inspirational wins; brave and encouraging losses, or embarrassing defeats that curdled in your heart.
Thousands upon thousands of umpiring calls; yet oddly enough, over those two decades, only those paid in favour of the Bulldogs showed insight and sound judgment by the umpiring fraternity (they simultaneously managed to miss umpteen infringements on our players spotted by the keen eye of the Bulldog Tragician.)
There have been countless balls bouncing randomly; last minute wobbles of the spinning ball on the wrong side of the post determining our joy or sorrow.
We’ve watched careers begin; in some cases they spluttered out with barely a whimper. Scrappy battlers somehow crept towards 100 games and became indispensable. Magnificent champions gave their all; we watched with sadness as they were chaired off the field.
Next week we may see – my heart sinks at the thought - two more.
And in that 20 years, there was a ride like no other, a brilliant. technicolour rollercoaster of courage and belief and the purest joy. Twenty-two men who on 1 October 2016 gave us our dream, and a twenty-third who wore his number two jumper underneath his match-day attire. We couldn’t have done it without him.
The rainbow has faded away as the wintry day closes in. The Libba Sisters are reflective, resigned, as the miles go past, absorbing this year that’s been so strangely anticlimactic, wondering how and why it fell apart. Bevo’s words as he stood on the podium on Grand Final Day are the closest explanation we can find:
Our players; their hearts are so big. They’re completely spent. They couldn’t have given any more.
Maybe amid all the endless debates - about a changed game style and clearance work and rule changes and premiership hangovers and injuries and suspension - the answer is as simple as that.
Danny from Droop Street meanwhile has been scouring the history books. He's dredged up another cheery statistic: that within five years of our first premiership we'd slumped to last on the ladder.
Danny really is a nincompoop sometimes.
I can't quite contemplate life without two former Bulldog captains 'Keith' Boyd and Bob Murphy - one with a precious premiership medal, one who has given his to the Bulldogs museum - but the core of the magnificent Men of Mayhem they leave behind, are still so young. They've known the joy, now this year they've known the pain. And they will go into 2018 with stories still to be written.
It's late in the last quarter. At last the Dogs stop-start season has re-ignited, with a stirring performance that makes me realise even more keenly what’s been missing for sizeable chunks of 2017. That manic pressure, combined with fast ball movement and the right balance of risk to reward, have returned.
But those neighbours of ours from the more glamorous side of the Maribyrnong - let’s be honest, they’ve never been good friends - are throwing everything at us.
The ball is kicked into their wide-open forward line. Our hearts sink as we see Joe Daniher, who’s already dominated the match with six goals, galloping towards the ball. Loping alongside him with equal determination, and an equally bad moustache, is Zaine Cordy. ‘In-Zaine’ is conceding seven centimetres and three years on his star opponent.
The outcome of this contest may well decide the match and determine each team’s season.
The Daniher family are football royalty: the Cordy dynasty is, well, perhaps a less celebrated pedigree. The uncles and fathers of Joe and Zaine played alongside and against each other in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Joe arrived as a new messiah at the Essendon Football Club where his father, three uncles and a brother had already played with distinction and sprinklings of premiership glory; Zaine slipped into our footy ranks with a lot less fanfare.
The main thing I recall about his arrival is hoping he would play alongside his gangly brother Ayce, just so I could say that I had seen the A to Z of Cordys. Such were the lowly aspirations of a Bulldog Tragician, back in the day.
Ayce’s career never quite fired. Heart-breaking injury followed heart-breaking injury for the young man who proudly donned his father’s not-so-famous (except for those of us who’d seen Brian's brave and resolute performances in the '80s) number 49. On the rare occasions Ayce strung a couple of senior games together you could see glimpses of promise, raw – it has to be said, very raw - potential. As is the fate of many oversized players, Ayce's mistakes were more glaring; his failure to clunk the ball even more mystifying. I guess it’s hard to be unobtrusively ineffectual when you’re 201 centimeters.
Ayce's kid brother Zaine became a premiership player aged just 19. Stunningly, his nine games for 2016 included those four precious finals, where he played as a forward. That Cordy rawness that he shared with his brother was accompanied by a ruthless glint in the eye and a competitive edge that perhaps - we never saw enough to know - his gentler, amiable sibling never had. Zaine's been playing down back this season and as elder statesmen of our defence Bob Murphy, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris battle injury, their careers now moving towards a different end of the spectrum, 'In-Zaine' has begun assuming more responsibility in an inexperienced backline.
That responsibility is put to the test as the ball hurtles towards Joe and Zaine. We hold our collective breath, fearing, hoping. Joe is well-placed to take another mark, to wheel around with his super athleticism and drive the red-and-black into attack. Zaine doesn't want that to happen any more than all of us fans who helplessly watch the moment unfold. His big fist comes over the top of Joe. The ball sails away. Danger has been averted.
Zaine's actions didn't make the later highlight reel. But we all rise to our feet, applauding him, knowing how much it mattered.
I hadn't been confident about this match, not one little bit. I wasn't convinced by our win against Gold Coast - we've unfortunately seen some of these false dawns before in 2017. Mix in my passionate dislike of the 'Bombres' with the vital importance of a win to our 2017 premiership defence, and I found myself in some vintage Bulldog Tragician territory. Not only did the two 130+ point thrashings in the 80s begin lurking in my consciousness (the Cordy brothers and at least one Daniher brother certainly featured); soon I was getting revved up about the fact that Essendon, it was rumoured, opposed our very admission to the VFL back in 1924! Even though - or perhaps because - we'd just beaten them for the title of Champions of Victoria, when we were VFA premiers and they'd been VFL premiers! What a dastardly mob!
I envisaged how it would play out: the dread sight of scarf-waving, ungracious Essendonites mocking us as they, of all AFL fans, know so well how to do. Some of their brutish thugs (is Dean Wallis still playing?) would rough up our smallest guys, 'Celeb' Daniel or Toby McLean. And I could just see that bloke with the shocking hairstyle, Hale Cooker, ruffling the hair, making snide comments, getting right in the face and intimidating Young, Lewis.
I was perhaps a little overwrought. In my defence, this was Essendon after all.
My pre-emptive anguish was fortunately unnecessary. There was something free-spirited about Our Boys again; a rebirth, at last, of the zest that had been strangely extinguished since our premiership. JJ showed that he may not be our best player, but perhaps he's our most important. Some of Bob Murphy's adroitness, his lightness of step, returned. The Bont was a colossus, magnificently imposing his will in the fiercest heat of the contest. Those sons of guns, Hunter, Libba and Wally: is it my imagination or had that antipathy towards the Dons seeped down through the generations? because there was, surely, an added intensity in their efforts, an extra edge to their emotion as we steadfastly saw off the Dons' challenge and nailed a 30-point win.
There was an obligatory thuggish brute moment of course, when the supremely unlikeable Brendon Goddard decided to mash Toby McLean's head into the turf. But Bont was there, standing toe-to-toe in support of his team-mate. And as our players mobbed Toby when he goaled from the resultant free and let Goddard know all about it, there amongst them was 18-year-old Lewis Young. With his irrepressible enthusiasm he had earlier thwarted a certain goal from that Hale Cooker. It doesn't seem coincidental that since his debut we haven't lost a match.
As we left the stadium, our song ringing in our ears, I spied a very tall individual with the distinctive Cordy toothiness. Ayce: delisted by the Bulldogs at the end of 2014; student of medicine; wearer of the number 49 Bulldogs guernsey for five seasons and 27 matches; and now just a face in the crowd (well, towering over the crowd actually). He looks animated, relaxed, another Bulldogs fan who's enjoyed the win, chatting with friends.
I find myself remembering one of Ayce's 27 matches. For true connoisseurs of the Tragician Blog, it's known as the Birthday Match. Yes, in that grim season of 2013, on the very night of my birthday, instead of living it up at a swanky restaurant, I instead nobly elected to trot along to the MCG. It was a freezing Saturday night; our opponent was Melbourne, who'd recently been dubbed an embarrassment to the competition. We weren't setting the world on fire with, but were considered certainties (except by the Bulldog Tragician) to triumph over the Melbourne rabble.
Naturally we lost. It was a defeat that was ignominious even by 2013's abysmal standards.
After trailing all evening, the Dogs did mount a surprising last quarter comeback. (The greatest surprise was actually that any of us Bulldogs' fans were still there to see it. I suspect many of us were too cold to move). Amid this belated flurry of activity, Ayce took a strong mark. A couple of rows ahead of us, a middle-aged woman leapt to her feet to wildly applaud him; she jumped with exuberant joy when he slotted a goal. I wasn't sure this achievement after a modest evening warranted such celebrations until I realised that the man sitting next to her, smiling at her antics, was Brian Cordy. His parents had no doubt witnessed the travails Ayce had gone through with his fragile body; knew, as only families do, the heartaches and disappointments, the hospitalisations, the setbacks, the self-doubt and depression; heard the snide comments, seen the venomous posts on social media as their son, a first round selection who'd come to the club with high hopes, battled to carve out his career.
Sitting alongside his family was a teenager, even more spindly though not quite as tall as his sibling. Who could have known that a mere three years later it would be 'In-Zaine' who would run onto the MCG in October 2016; that the teenager would execute a massive tackle in the first quarter, and then kick the first Bulldog goal on grand final day for 62 years.
Timing, good fortune, some extra mongrel perhaps; such tiny little variables there are that separate Zaine the premiership player from his brother the also-ran. I wonder if these moments were bitter-sweet for Ayce, even as he celebrated, as a brother, a son, a life-long Bulldogs' fan and member of our Cordy dynasty.
Their mum, I imagine, would have been bursting with pride; yet I'm sure she would have been probably no less ecstatic, no less proud than when Ayce kicked his goal on that far-away day of June 29, 2013.
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.