The siren had sounded. We had defeated our greatest foe, the Bombres, by a comfortable 41 point margin. We'd dealt a major blow to their finals' aspirations, while bolstering our own. In fact, this latest win was another step in something of a golden era for us against our unlovable neighbors; surprisingly, we've won 12 of our last 20 against them. We were also the most recent team to prolong their long finals drought, which now approaches 7000 days.
You may have imagined the Tragician walking proudly from the ground, red, white and blue scarf at a jaunty angle in order to discreetly display the miniature 2016 premiership cup. I wouldn't interact with the seething Essendon fans; I'm too classy, or at least too short, to risk it. I'd be on the alert, though, hoping to eavesdrop on the outraged fans in red and black. Maybe I'd hear them canning the efforts of my formerly beloved 'Lair'. Jake Stringer had gathered just eight possessions, and was now being described by embittered Bombres fans as a KMart DeGoey.
None of the above was in any way true. Instead, the Tragician was conspicuously absent. And at the final siren, had only just turned on the AFL app to see if we had won.
It wasn't because I was on holiday elsewhere. Or ill, or injured. In fairness, with virtually all the Tragician family overseas, I was unable to find a barracking companion. And, then, it was a home game for the red and black. You won't find me contributing to the bulging Windy Hill coffers!
These justifications were far from the whole story though. After all, they didn't explain why I'd also imposed a boycott on watching, or listening, to the match. Sadly, it was because I was afraid we'd lose. And in a deeply frustrating 2023, that prospect, against the Bombres no less, just seemed a bridge too far.
This may seem preposterous, given how many losses I've seen in decades of barracking. It could well seem hypocritical, given my repeated, sanctimonious claims that losses are character-building, an essential part of belonging to my club. I've preached of the importance of just being there. I've dragged myself to many a match knowing a flogging was about to ensue, kept supporting them after multiple finals disasters, and even embraced, with some degree of pride, the peculiar charms involved in barracking for a spectacularly unsuccessful club.
And yet. And yet...
Amid all the emotions that my support of the Bulldogs has evoked over time - despair, hope, euphoria, sadness, anger and occasionally, well, frequently, bafflement - my 2023 state of mind has been the most confusing yet. But if I had to sum it up in one word it's been...annoyance.
I'd expected awful losses back in the day. We were just objectively bad in many of those dreary seasons when we barely won a game. And there was something thrillingly noble about our endless appearances in preliminary finals, and the way we invented new ways to lose.
But the way we lose in 2023 - somehow it's been different. These aren't the tight losses where gallant Footscray teams pushed better sides at a rainy Western Oval before succumbing, and then being cheered off by the faithful including a youthful Tragician. These losses have come when our team, crammed with talent, has squandered leads, shot themselves in the foot with tediously bad goal-kicking, or costly concentration lapses. The 2023 cohort have riled and frustrated me in ways I don't remember before, even though - or maybe because - their effort was never really in question.
The week before the Essendon match, our performance against the Swans was like a microcosm of the ways we contrive to lose. It was a defeat so disheartening that I feared it would break the psyche of the group. Bont even threw his mouthguard to the ground. And may have uttered a swearword !
The media were now swarming all over our poor performances. We were wasting a golden era of generational talent (read: The Bont era), it was claimed. Another article plaintively asked a question in all our minds: 'Why aren't the Dogs good any more?' Bevo Our Saviour was grim-faced and clinical, but somehow perplexed, in his press conferences. The unthinkable prospect of him being sacked was really not that unthinkable any more.
This was the backdrop to the Bombres match. I felt a bit like the comedian who said he wasn't afraid of dying. He just didn't want to be there when it happened.
We could lose against the Bombres. I just didn't want to see it unfold in real time.
In order to ward off a scoop by Caro, or feverish speculation from Damian Barrett linking me to a feud with Bevo, I contemplated making a public announcement. 'The Bulldog Tragician is stepping away temporarily from her role as a fan, to focus on her mental health'. But no one seemed to have noticed I was missing, so I sat on the couch instead refusing to check the score.
When I heard the result, I was happy of course.
But I celebrated with a new emotion I've specially coined for 2023. It's known as muted jubilation.
My self-imposed exile was short-lived. Soon I was on the road to Ballarat. The win against the Bombres had definitely been enjoyable, when I watched it the next day with the luxury of knowing the result. The Dogs, to their credit, have kept rebounding after frustrating losses. I hoped my doubts about us had finally been quelled. We started terrifically against The Acronyms. And then, in 2023 fashion, we fell right away, squandering a six goal lead. There were extenuating circumstances, sure, our defence hard hit by injury. But it didn't feel like the whole story.
I was annoyed, all over again.
So I didn't hold out high hopes for our match against Richmond. Not least because we were going to wear the diamond dogs' guernsey. I couldn't look at it without succumbing to 97 flashbacks of The First Libba leaping into the arms of his teammates to celebrate the goal-that-wasn't in The Preliminary Final That Must Not be Named.
Even without this bad omen, I felt the belief of the 2023 group must be eroded now; I couldn't see how Bevo could keep them upbeat and positive. I braced myself for the inevitable. I thought we'd lose in a grinding miserable scrap which the Tigers would break open through some Shai Bolton magic (that guy just loves playing against us).
I didn't expect the most blistering, brilliant and dynamic first quarter we've played since the 2021 Preliminary Final. We could do no wrong, launching attack after attack. Our forwards were dangerous, and took every half or even quarter chance; our hard-running backline scintillating.
It was great fun, of course, but I was careful to keep my mindset within the acceptable parameters of muted jubilation. I waited for the Tigers to rattle on the goals, for me to look at the scoreboard in confusion, unable to understand why they were somehow only one point down.
But The Bont's brilliance broke through my defences. He was playing footy on some higher plane, doing things that were just outrageous, delicately picking up a ball from his fingertips, showing unbelievable courage, gliding away from hapless opponents, beautifully weighting kicks to the forwards. In case we were bored with the display, he livened things up, deciding to be a forward himself in the third quarter. His three goals were a mini highlight reel. A huge tackle to win a free? Check. A crazy-brave mark running back with the ball? Check. Elegantly brushing aside two Richmond defenders as though they were little leaguers to take a mark? Wouldn't you know it, the Bont did that too.
I don't know if I've seen a better, more complete individual performance. His partner-in-crime Libba, himself playing a wonderful match, continually had a bemused half-smile beneath his moustache. He looked as though he was just glad to have an inside view of such magnificence, and was happy and grateful to be the one shovelling it out constantly to The Man. Who was, inevitably, pretty good at being the one who shovelled it out too.
It was our best, four quarter performance of the year. But are we any closer to knowing whether we are the real deal in 2023? Can we trust that the dazzling footy we've displayed in spurts can be put together at the right time? Does Liam Jones make THAT much difference?
It's hard not to be constantly watchful for the lapses that have plagued us since the disastrous 2021 grand final. No matter how far up we are, I'm constantly suspicious, nervous about whether we will stem the bleeding when our opposition gets on the run.
But while those questions remain, we get to watch the man who will surely become our greatest ever Bulldogs player. In my mind, he already is. While he's out there, the Dogs are always a chance. He's already come so close to fulfilling the destiny I claimed for him after just his sixth game: a premiership player, a captain, a best and fairest winner, surely on track for a Brownlow. All that's missing is a Norm Smith medal. It hurts to remember it was in his keeping at the 15 minute mark of the 2021 Grand Final. There will be nothing muted about my jubilation if that accolade is claimed by him as well.
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.