Gia's last dance
There's a script for the day. And not even the Tragician can imagine it playing out differently.
We'll gather, firstly, at the Western Oval, for some old-fashioned, community footy. We've got a team playing finals there, re-kindling the Footscray name, up against another proud western suburbs' club, the boys from Williamstown. There'll be a whiff of nostalgia, families gathering in the unseasonal sunshine, people wandering out on the ground to eavesdrop on the huddle; kids perched on their dads' shoulders will be mandatory. To cap it off, there'll be a splendid Doggies victory where we cheer on our future and revel in some excitement about the next generation.
Then we'll head down Footscray Road to our adopted home. It will seem sterile and bland, of course, compared to the atmospheric Western Oval where layers of memory, ghosts of past glories and humiliating defeats, the stamping of thousands of feet and echoes of raucous chants, have seeped into the very turf.
But we won't let that bother us, because we're there to farewell one of our heroes, Daniel Giansiracusa. This will be the 265th occasion he's run down the race, wearing his number 13 jumper for the Dogs. And the last.
Our orange-clad opponents, the Acronyms as I call them, won't trouble us when we've so much to play for, a beloved legend to honour. They are, after all, an artificial construct. A bullet point in a strategic business plan.
They've got stakeholders; we've got fans. History. Heart. Soul.
There'll be tears shed at the end, as we watch Gia carried from the ground, his blood brother Bob Murphy undoubtedly one of those hoisting him high into the air. He'll be sent off with thanks, love and respect for all that he has given his club and us, his loyal supporters. In this mixed bag of a season, which has recently seemed in danger of lurching back to early 2013 levels of dismalness, this finale will be just the tonic: a stirring, emotional win; something to treasure over the summer months when footy fades gradually away from our thoughts.
At one pm, as I walk towards the Western oval over the swank new West Footscray station footbridge, the fairytale script is falling into place. I'm uplifted by the sight of our historic ground, transformed again into a sea of red, white and blue. As I walk down the station steps, a polite young man employed by the club asks whether I'm attending the match (the scarf was perhaps a give-away) and then issues directions to where the match is being played. I give him a patronising smile; sure, the bridge might be new, but after all, my initiation to this ground began as a four-year-old. Hundreds of times, I walked this way, waving at my grandfather, the Olympic Tyres gateman, wearing his grey coat, seated in his little booth in Cross Street. I surely know my way around these parts by now.
In the first departure from the script, I unfortunately get disoriented by the presence of the imposing new Victoria University Community Centre and miss the little laneway from Cross Street. I backtrack hastily, hoping the polite young man hasn't spotted me.
Having returned earlier this year for our 'homecoming' match in Round three, I'm not quite as disconcerted by the altered landscape or baffled by the disappearance of familiar landmarks: the scoreboard, the Olympic clock, the funny little viewing platform where Mick Malthouse used to coach. It's surprising, though, how without them, the memory plays tricks. As we take up spots in an open terraced area about where my mother and I used to sit in the John Gent stand, I can't be sure it's the right place (why didn't the John Gent stand get heritage preservation, by the way, when the ugly monstrosity out at Waverley did??). It doesn't really matter, though. There's still the obligatory Western Oval howling gale wreaking havoc and restricting scoring mainly to one end (a few kicks all but blow backwards). You can hear the umpires' whistles, though the relaxed crowd is too good-tempered to muster the theatrical 'us-against-the-world' howls of outrage and disbelief at their villainous decisions; in the open air, the players' voices float out to us in snatches, urging each other on.
The 'Scray make a strong start. The match is much more open, flowing and entertaining than many of the unattractive, congested battles that too often make up modern footy. We're not too fussed by the result, though of course any Bulldogs' win is a welcome one. Knowing only a handful of players from our senior list, we're not as involved in the match, though we valiantly try to keep up. 'Kick it to number sixty eight, he's out on his own!' 'Fifty - seven lost track of his man out there.' 'Hang on - 73's carrying a bit of pud. Is that Lukas Markovich??'
The tiny, electronic scoreboard hired for the day perched on the Gordon Street hill looks endearingly quaint. There's no enforced cheering, on cue, by a shrill hyped-up announcer; we don't need half-time gimmicks to hold our interest. It would be an impossibility anyway; the ground is wall-to-wall kids with their mums and dads, kicking the ball around. There are lots of number sixes, on lots of little Bulldog backs.
On the steps near us, a family of four generations assembles. Their newest member, about nine months old, is wearing Bulldogs' socks, which have little studs on their soles; they organise a photo of him in the arms of his great-grandmother, while his dad and grandfather look proudly on. Later, he falls asleep in his pram, snugly protected from the wind by, of course, a red, white and blue blanket.
Watching vignettes like this, I always feel like their stories are my stories. Even though I'm just snatching their words here and there as I construct an imagined pictures of their lives, I feel an invisible connection, a sameness in our histories, for no other reason than our link as supporters of the Bulldogs' team. It seems certain that they too have lived the too frequent highs and the many lows, shared family conversations wrapped around this year's prospects and disappointments of days gone by, birthdays and family events plotted around the footy fixture, grim in-jokes, bleak humour. I instinctively know why they gather here, recording this moment of time in this photo. We share, as I sit beside them cheering on number 58's efforts as he lumbers towards the ball, that mysterious belonging. We are part of the Bulldogs' tribe.
The Footscray Dogs take out the match with an emphatic last quarter against the wind. We're chuffed to see that Liam Jones and Ayce Cordy, two whose inconsistent progress has frustrated us, reserve their best moments for leadership when the match is on the line. We're in good spirits as we join our fellow-travellers on the journey to Etihad. We're ready for the second instalment of the Farewelling Gia Script.
The harbingers of doom are minor, at first. It might seem cutting edge to have little video screens above our heads in these sleek, un-Western-Oval-like surrounds, but someone has stuffed up: they're showing highlight reels of North Melbourne matches, not tear-jerking highlight reels of a baby-faced Daniel Giansiracusa. I'd hoped for a peek inside the rooms, seeing Gia and his best mate doing their 'last waltz' in the warm-up. An interview, perhaps, with Gia's parents, who have been so much a part of his journey, even hosting a young Adam Cooney into their home for his first two years as a teenage draftee far from home. Instead there's jarring footage of Drew Petrie celebrating goals against the Hawks.
Our team runs out, led by Gia, with his little children in tow. Alarmingly though, young Otis Giansiracusa (future tongue-twisting father-son selection) gets overcome by the Bulldogs' throng of players and stumbles; the little fella is helped up by his champion dad. Gia doesn't, as he surely has for the other 264 games, avoid the banner and run around it. It's just a meaningless superstition, I guess. I shift uneasily in my seat all the same.
As expected, a team is quickly out of the blocks, moving smartly, inspired by the occasion, switched on and motivated. Unfortunately that team is not the Western Bulldogs. Looking as though a horrific gastroenteritis bug has swept the club over the past 24 hours, we look listless, disinterested, unwilling to do the hard work; only 18 tackles in the first half. The Footscray team had moved the ball with greater precision in the face of a Western Oval cyclone, while the seniors, in perfect conditions, fumble, miss easy shots of goal, send awful, panicked bombs into the forward-line. What the hell is going on?
Crowds have moods, their own atmospheric mini-climates as a game goes on. At half time there's a restless, nervous energy, a collective realisation that we could lose this, that the noble words and speeches about Gia and his band of brothers are not being matched by deeds out on the ground. I search for one, succinct, word that would describe how I feel. It's not unknown to me and my Bulldog fellow travellers. Embarrassment.
In the third quarter, momentum shifts at last. Belatedly, the sluggish Dogs creak into action. It's still hard-going, far from our best footy, still diabolical moments where it's best to avert your eyes, stunned at the lack of polish and class, resolutely focusing instead on the increasingly heroic efforts of a few who are beacons of effort and skill. Ryan Griffen, running himself into the ground, showcasing the brilliant talent that has often been curtailed by injury this year. Gia's waltz partner, on his toes as he glides around, his face even paler than usual, his expression burning with his determination to honour his friend. Dale Morris, brave, understated, always there, stemming the tide and mopping up the ball. And the kid who knows how to save his best for the right moments; the kid who's made this year all worthwhile. The Bont, of course.
The pent-up emotions of this frustrating afternoon spill over into a three-quarter-time melee. While I have no idea how it started and who's to blame, I'm incensed to see the Acronyms getting into the faces of Nathan Hrovat and the Bont. How. Very. Dare. They. (Wild round-arm swings from Jake Stringer, on the other hand, are simply youthful exuberance, a bit of harmless letting-off-steam by a country lad).
After the melee settles down (disappointingly enough for the Libber sisters, without Gia's shirt being torn off) the mood is relief. We're two points up. Now, surely, a wave of emotion for Gia will carry us home. Sentiment and tradition are on our side, dwarfing any motivation from our manufactured, soul-less rivals. After all, Gia as an individual has played more games than their entire club, making him ninth on our highest ever games tally. GWS' piddling three year history can't be compared to more than 130 years, a lineage starting out as the Prince Imperials, based at our spiritual home on Gordon Street. For inspiration, we can dig deep, drawing on the spirits of legends like Whitten, Sutton, Grant and Johnson, as well as memories of all the times Gia has put himself on the line for our club. Even I can't foresee anything but a win; okay, not a performance for the time vault, not all that convincing in papering over the cracks in our list, or the long road ahead to finals success; but, still, that wretched first half will be quickly erased from the memory bank when the siren goes and we've won the match.
Early in the 4th quarter. We're nine points up. We should go on with it now, maybe win by four or five goals.
Everything becomes a blur. Koby Stevens fails to make the distance, 35 metres out. Stringer kicks another goal, his fourth in a solid afternoon. The Bont kicks a monster from 50, nerves of steel; an 18-year-old kid proves to be the guy for the clutch situation. But somehow, in between these moments, the Acronyms keep coming. We've lost the lead. Somehow, we're trailing again.
Gia has the ball, 30 metres out; the crowd roars for the fairytale finish. When that misses, he's somehow involved once again moments later, squeezed tight against the boundary line, the sort of impossible angle where he has so often conjured up some magic. He kicks out on the full.
I think I know it at that point. It won't be a fairytale. This match will have the usual Bulldog knife-in-the-stomach twist.
A strange vision flashes through my mind: there should be signage, like a royal warrant, with elegant calligraphy, fluttering in the breeze outside the Western oval.
'The Western Bulldogs. Purveyors of Disappointment.'
Scores are level. The ball hurtles into our forward line. Stringer leads out for a regulation mark. We don't know it in the frantic rush, but any score he kicks will win us the game as there's only 30 seconds left. But the young gun drops the mark. The Acronyms charge down the ground and score a goal.
A dying person's life is supposed to flash before their eyes. In ignominious moments like this, as the siren sounds, it feels like the cavalcade of missed chances and heartache, witnessed over my many years of watching the Dogs, replay on continuous loop in my mind. They all coalesce together, the bitter losses, the dashed hopes, the miserable thrashings, and even worse, the 'nearly-there' opportunities.
It turns out the Acronyms have a theme song. It's playing in the background as we all slowly rise to our feet, numb with disappointment. The crowd, all 14,725 of them, have at least stayed to farewell Gia. This isn't, of course, the most heartbreaking loss he's played in; nor is losing on this note the worst disappointment in his long career. I find myself recalling the last minutes of the 2009 preliminary final against the Saints. The match, and a Grand Final spot, were in the balance. Gia launched a tough, running shot at goal on his left foot; it hung in the air for an eternity, beneath an inky MCG sky, before it faded. It was close, though. It was oh so close.
Gia and his great mate, Bob Murphy, share another bond. They occupy first and third places on the ladder of the 'unrewarded': the list of current AFL players who've never played in a grand final. That other pair of Bulldog brothers, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Cross (I refuse to acknowledge that he's no longer a Dog), also feature prominently in this most depressing of performance measures. In fact, the top ten table of retired players who never saw a Grand Final is also studded with Bulldog names. Brad Johnson. Doug Hawkins. Chris Grant. Scott West. Rohan Smith.
In accordance with the script, Gia's carried from the ground by Bob; Dalhaus is the other who bears him on his shoulders. The players are a forlorn lot behind them.
Tears spill, for the unfairness of footy life, and the gallantry of the unrewarded.
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.