The Curious Case of Season 2019
It was ten minutes before the start of our final 2019 home and away match. I was sitting on the couch, waiting, calmly.
There were no early warning signs that the first virulent outbreak of Tragician thinking for 2019 was about to begin.
The facts were that the Dogs 'only' had to win to make the finals, while our opponents had little incentive to win... unless they could thrash us by more than 90 points.
I hadn't made it to Ballarat for this critical game (more on that later). And I wasn't initially perturbed that our opponents for the day had a bit of a tradition of raining on our parade. Our Boys should ...no, make that would... get the job done.
But then, the Adelaide coach was being interviewed pre-match. He was asked how they were approaching a match that was effectively a dead rubber. Don Pyke made all the right noises about them giving it their best shot.
Still, I remained unconcerned.
Until the interviewer, David King, declared with a smile: 'I guess it would help if there was a ten-goal to none first quarter.' Pyke chuckled along with the joke.
The Tragician was no longer relaxed, calm or anywhere near unconcerned. She was certainly not chuckling.
A ten-goal first quarter without the Bulldogs scoring?
It was possible! It could happen! After all, nobody had predicted our 21-goal-to-zero scoring binge against the Bombres two weeks ago, when we beat them by 104 points, if I remember rightly. (I paused, just fractionally, from my catastrophising mindset, to smirk ungraciously at the memory).
I was caught, unawares, by the sudden desperate knowledge that we could..might...fail even in this 'must win/raging favourites' scenario.I was shocked, too, by the fact that I was at the mercy of these emotions at all. I'd sailed through most of 2019, mainly nonchalant and able to stick to the mantra Bevo Our Saviour had rather plaintively asked us to adopt last year: Living in the now.
It could mean only one thing. The untimely return of Tragician thinking, where past horror shows of Bulldog capitulations spin before my eyes in an awful but vivid slideshow.
I was blindsided by the re-emergence of such emotions. I'd reached acceptance that we were a young, inconsistent, rebuilding team, and that endless questioning of what had happened since 2016 was futile. It held me in good stead throughout the first half of a season that never seemed to develop a rhythm. Promising wins were followed by disappointing losses. The hesitant beginnings of attachment to new players was quickly counter-balanced by the retirement announcements of premiership heroes and a perplexing lottery of selection decisions.
There was little of the irresistible momentum of 2015 and 2016. I had no urgent sense that anything special was brewing. I watched our wins and the more frequent losses with a certain detachment. My passion for the club wasn't waning, but just for now, was somehow muted.
I didn't read the signs that our form was turning around post-bye. I rolled my eyes at talk of finals especially when accompanied by the words 'mathematical possibilities'. Our loss to the Saints confirmed my sense that, while better times weren't far away, in season 2019 we were still unreliable and flaky.
Secure in this belief, I ... it's hard for me to admit this ... made plans for a holiday in mid-September.
Who could have foreseen that we would flick the switch from stagnant to scintillating? Suddenly we, who'd at times played footy that was, well, tedious, looked like scoring every time we entered our forward zone.
(In fact we could rattle on 21 goals in a row while certain of our less fortunate opponents couldn't even manage one).
So now, here I was, right back in that zone where the thought of us stuffing this match up was overwhelming and unendurable. And I was stuck on the couch, having complacently failed to organise tickets early, only to be informed THE MATCH WAS A SELLOUT!
I'd been to every one of those icy Ballarat matches, been hailed upon, suffered through a defeat in rain-soaked clothes, and could personally attest to the fact that those stupid hand-warmers don't work...and I'd somehow failed to snare a gig at our most important match since You Know When!
While I fumed and panicked in equal measure, I realised the match was about to get underway.
The Bont, awesome and imposing, had a flinty look in his eyes. It was the same flinty look I'd seen when Jake The Lair stood opposite him at a centre bounce when we defeated the Bombres by 104 points (Sorry. Have I already mentioned that?) A look that said he is now The Man, and that responsibility doesn't trouble him one little bit. The Bont wrested the ball out of the centre and speared it towards Dailey Bailey. Minutes later he set him up for another goal, before kicking one on his non-preferred side himself.
With our superstar having made it his personal mission to get us over the line, Tragician thinking was speedily overcome.
So confident did I become that, a full seven minutes before the end of the match, with the Dogs 41 points ahead, I boldly tweeted: I THINK we're home.
When this daring prediction came through, I wished that, even wearing those ineffective hand-warmers, I'd been there among the crowd where the sounds and sights, as well as the average temperature, seem so much like the Western Oval.
So now... Our Boys have made the finals. We will play The Acronyms. At the scene of perhaps our greatest ever (certainly most emotional) victory. At the arena I dubbed Soul-less Stadium.
In the lull before next week's storm, I've had time to think some more about the bizarre and topsy-turvey nature of season 2019. There's a whole lot of contradictory things to get my head around.
Much has been made of the fact that, like 2016, we're again entering the finals series from seventh. But in our premiership year, we were in the eight every week, often in the top four, and won 15 games. Yet we were seen to limp into the eight, with the finals bye favouring us, while this year, with our momentum at a high, I find myself wishing we were playing again this weekend.
Then there's the paradox that last week we fielded the youngest and most inexperienced team across the whole competition ... yet somehow, though, our team also contained 10 premiership players (including Suckling and Duryea).
And another strange fact to mull over: that it was 10 minutes of inspired mayhem in the final quarter of Round two, where we came from 30 points down to beat the Hawks, that was the reason that we're playing finals at all, while those in brown and gold are not.
And another peculiar happening - that a bout of gastro afflicting Tim 'The Pom' English led to the first call-up of season 2019 for Young, Lewis..who now seems to have cemented his spot in the team. Young Lewis had played the whole season at Footscray alongside a premiership defender whose future with us now seems bleak, but who in the 2016 preliminary final kept Jeremy Cameron goal-less.
But I soon turn my thoughts away from the season that was, to the finals series that's ahead of us. My mind is full of questions, doubts, fears and hope. The Acronyms will be much more dangerous, with stars returning to their orange-clad ranks, compared to when we played them just two weeks ago. Will nasty Shane Mumford be recalled to try to iron out English? Could we retaliate, smuggling photos of Libba twirling his finger towards his head to indicate doubts about the intelligence of Heath Shaw into the Combustible One's locker? Will the Acronyms employ those pre-recorded boos towards Big Bad Marcus Bontempelli, the ones that they employed to attempt to create an atmosphere a couple of weeks ago? (The Tragician wasn't fooled one little bit).
Unlike that occasion, where we easily prevailed, the stands will be packed out with a heaving mass of red, white and blue. I'll be there, wearing my lucky Bonti scarf. (It doesn't matter that it didn't bring us luck in 2017 and 2018 - I'm now running with the story that its superpowers only emerge in finals matches).
I'll feel protective and maternal and proud when I see the starry-eyed young brigade run out for their first finals. I'll be reassured that alongside them are the calming and confident presence of our leaders Bont and Easton. I'll feel emotional seeing Rhylee West and Patrick Lipinski taking the field, knowing that both of them were at the 2016 Grand Final as keen young Bulldogs supporters, and now get to play their parts in shaping our 2019 destiny.
Yet I'll find it hard (sorry Bevo) to 'live in the now' as memories flood back. I'll be thinking of the men who aren't out there, and who won't take the field for us ever again. I'll feel shivers just looking at the spot where Jackson Macrae nailed the goal to put us into the Grand Final. Yet new memories are about to be made, and Tragician thinking is in full swing. It is both glorious and frightening at the same time and for the same reasons. Because it means footy really matters again.
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.