The date was July 24. It was a top-of-the-table clash, at the G. But Victoria was stuck in lockdown 5.0. No fans were there, to revel in the excitement, to urge our two teams on.
Unlike our encounter with the Dees earlier in the season, also played with no crowd, Our Boys were switched on, playing with verve, and most importantly NOT kicking it all the time to Steven May and the other bloke with a bad moustache who looks like Stan from On the Buses. And sometime in the third quarter a young fella with a mop of yellow hair leapt over a pack, his feet grazing Max Gawn's bald skull, and somehow took an exquisite mark.
We didn't know - you never do know - that it was in more than one way a high point of the season. The Dogs were now in top spot, having survived a bad run with injury. A hot contender for the flag. A team with the right balance of youth and experience. A potent forward line, a miserly defence which also had superb runners, and a midfield brimming with talent (which would soon be bolstered by two more A-class runners and competitors returning). And our next three games were against competition 'easy-beats' (not that the battle-scarred Tragician ever really sees it that way), by which point our place in the top four, quite likely top two, would be comfortably secured.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I used to be convinced that the Bulldogs' storylines of heartbreak and failure were somehow scripted by the gloomy Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. He always contrived a far-fetched and miserable outcome for his heroes and heroines (the Bob Murphy injury in 2016 was some of his finest, most inventive work). As our season began to implode it appeared that Ole Tom, far from being permanently vanquished, had been quietly regrouping since failing to control the 2016 narrative. He'd effectively used the intervening years to plot a cunning new set of improbable events planned for the boys in red white and blue.
The first was when, after seven years of dominance over the Bombres, we registered a loss, and even worse, with seconds to go (that's when I first sensed the resurgence of Ole Tom) Josh Bruce suffered an ACL.
The second was when, flat, tired, and all of a sudden hopelessly out of form, we lost, badly, to Hawthorn, with even our impregnable percentage advantage being .... whatever the opposite of impregnable is.
We now needed to beat Port to hold onto the top four spot we'd held down for pretty much the entire season.
In other words all the ingredients were there for a catastrophic cluster of Tragician-style calamities. (Excuse the overwrought purple prose - I'm obviously as out of touch with blogging as our team had become in winning clearances, contested possessions, and games of footy).
Against Port our top four position vanished in the heart-stopping milliseconds in which it took Bailey Smith's shot in the dying moments to : a) fail to clear the 900 men stationed in the goal square; and b) evade the usually sticky hands of Aaron Naughton.
The next day we watched with apprehension as Brisbane attempted to defeat West Coast by just enough to snatch our spot in the four. We could almost have laughed (but our sense of humour had long since deserted us) that a time-clock malfunction, and dodgy umpiring calls, conspired against us). We tumbled out of the top four at the worst possible moment.
Ole Tom was hard at work with some laborious coincidences to ratchet up the drama. Our opponents would be our historic arch enemy from days when Footscray and Yarraville were far from cool; those sneering and smug citizens from across the river. Yes, the unlovable Bombres: far from their premierships-winning heyday, many years into a finals-win drought (that a panic-stricken Tragician knew they surely had to break sometime).
There was a collective shudder among the Bulldogs faithful as we imagined all too vividly the wretched possibilities.
Most of these involved Jake The Former Lair Stringer (supposedly re-invented and allegedly not even pudgy any more) pulling out a dazzling array of tricks, kicking goals over his head, taking screamers, or kicking a booming torpedo from outside 50 with an after-the-siren kick to win the game. The other scenarios featured someone called Two-Meter Peter, who three weeks ago had triumphantly entered the distinguished Hall of Fame of Not Very Good Players Who Somehow Kicked A Bag of Goals Against the Bulldogs. (It's a more crowded Hall of Fame than it should be).
We were banished to cold wet Launceston. It was a sudden-death final; after all the bravery and hard work of 2021, we could be unceremoniously dumped out the finals in the most ignominious of fashions. Maybe the Karma Gods were ready to punish the Tragician for all those times she'd childishly pressed 'like' on her favourite twitter account: Days Since Essendon Won a Final.
There was none of the fun of a finals buildup. Fear of losing was all-consuming, much more overwhelming than the hope of winning, while the prospect of Our Boys in another grand final, which had seemed so real way back on July 24, had long since become a mirage.
Our start wasn't auspicious. To the raptures of the commentators Jake The Former Lair produced the first goal of the match. The Dogs still seemed to have that mysterious malaise, a lethargy, a flatness mirrored by those of us watching helplessly at home. It seemed a chore, to manufacture each goal, to run to contests, as the drizzly rain settled in for the afternoon.
Though we were a few points ahead at half time, the Libba Sisters weren't chirpy in a half-time FaceTime catch-up. 'I just feel sad,' said a subdued Libba Two. 'We won't do damage, even if we win,' said a melancholy Libba One, 'but I just want us to win.' We agreed that Umpire 22 had 'always had it in' for the Dogs, but even this attempt to manufacture some 'us against the world' animosity failed to ignite.
The third quarter began. That young man with the blonde hair had been 'managed' in our previous match against the Bombres, which in retrospect was a huge mistake. Cody, and Umpire 22, were now suddenly everywhere. Totally justified free kicks rained upon us. All of them were completely deserved. (In the interests of impartiality for which this blog is rightly acclaimed, I checked this out with Libba Two, and then a further opinion was sourced from my mother). It was hardly Cody's fault if he kept getting in good positions and the Bombres didn't know how to tackle properly!
Our mid-field, who'd been so listless over the past few weeks, were getting on top. And in a sign that always augurs well for our team, Chief Antagonist Libba The Second (how I would LOVE to hear what he murmurs into his opponents' ears) was in the thick of things. (I also firmly believe that the Sons of Guns share my - our- antipathy into all things red and black, and Libba The Second was undoubtedly channeling the herculean efforts of his father whose crunching tackles played such a crucial role in the epic encounter where we spoilt Essendon's chance to go through a season undefeated).
With each moment Our Boys looked stronger, with each goal that mysterious lack of energy returned. The Bombres faded, out of ideas.
In line with our imaginings, Jake The Former Lair had the ball when the siren sounded, but his attempted torpedo shot at goal only registered a point. The most it could have achieved, anyway, was to save the Dons from a humiliating milestone. Because it was the first time since the 1950s that a team had failed to score in the second half of a final, the kind of dismal stat that our Bulldogs used to have a stranglehold on.
(It gladdened my heart that the more low-key of the pair of 2012 Bulldogs draftees, Jack Macrae, was best on the ground while his more talked-about former team-mate did very little when the match was on the line.)
I was relieved, euphoric, and newly hopeful that we could go further into the finals series, as I hastened over to twitter to press 'like' on the newly updated Days Since Essendon Won A Final account tally.
I couldn't help smiling as I thought about our effervescent' Cody-19'. He is the sort of player that would annoy me to distraction if he played for anyone else, a real 'Dennis the Menace'. When he was little one of my sons used to call people who annoyed him 'pesky penguins.' Cody is a pesky penguin beloved by his own fans, while loathed by pretty much everyone else.
His exuberance, his sheer love of playing footy (have you ever seen him BOUNCE down the race whooping and hollering) is something we so sorely need to have in our lives, as grim lockdowns drag on, and a COVID -constrained finals series means we won't be there in in person to see whatever unfolds. (And now, inevitably, he is subjected to sickening online abuse, a 20-year-old being viciously attacked by trolls with hate in their hearts).
As fans, we have seen so little of this bundle of dynamic energy in real time. We could only watch him on television in his debut match in 2020, when he threaded the most audacious of bananas to join the ranks of those who kicked a goal with their first kick. Unlike the careers of other new players in our colours, we haven't been able to follow his every step, form opinions on his strengths, indignantly gloss over his weaknesses.
While we leapt from our couches and jumped in the air with excitement at his screamer over Gawn, our cheers fell into a void. There was no Libba Sister beside me to high-five. The Tragician family and friends weren't part of the gasps of excitement, sensing a second or two before his launch, that 'Cody-19' was going for the big fly. We couldn't relive it together on the big screen, settle back into our seats chuckling at the bravado of this young guy, whose enthusiasm and smile make Brad Johnson look like a grouchy old curmudgeon.
In fact, we've only seen him 'live' twice, since he debuted. In times which already seem impossibly far away. That brief window of time in the first half of 2021, when coronavirus restrictions were on hold, and we got to cheer for our team in person. Now we follow Cody and his team-mates from a literal and figurative distance. Their efforts are filtered through the annoying and constricted television lens, as they zig-zag around the continent just one step ahead of the virus, to win games of footy and make us proud, wearing masks as they sing our song.
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.