There’s something excruciating about Trade Week that makes true footy romantics want to hide under a doona until it’s finally all over. It’s so cold, so calculating, so ruthless, the worth of young men measured and reduced to points and likely draft positions.. Players and clubs alike discard contracts; the veneer of unity and professed love between clubs, players and fans, is brutally stripped aside.
But in 2012 even I abandoned my previous disdain and tuned into the ceaseless chatter and speculation. Because, after a depressing year, the Dogs would get to choose two draft picks within the top 10.
We held pick number five. That was by virtue of us being pretty awful and only winning five games.
We held pick six. That was by virtue of the fact that Callan Ward, our young star who was just hitting his straps, had defected to the Acronyms and would henceforth wear orange.
How would the Dogs handle these precious opportunities to nab the best young talent in the land? In an inexact science where luck was as important as instinct, could our recruiters get them right, choosing young men with temperaments and talents that would finally lead us to that second flag, further over the horizon in 2012 than ever before? Would they be wasted on those athletic types who never quite fired, the ominously named ‘ speculative picks’ who eked out a handful of forgettable games… before a subdued and embarrassing announcement thanking them for their services and wishing them well in future endeavours?
Then there was perhaps the most important question of all: would they just make us proud?
With countless stories to be told, a myriad of dramatic possibilities, it was enough for even a Bulldog Tragician to peek her head out from underneath the doona.
Soon our two prized selections were paraded to the media, looking as all recruits do, somehow pleased yet abashed, skinny and awkward, in their new red white and blue jumpers. Jake Stringer, taken at least nominally ahead of Jackson Macrae, looked more well-developed; he also had the more dramatic backstory. A horribly broken leg, perhaps the reason he had slipped down the draft order. There were murmurings. Of dazzling skills. A freakish ability to do something special.
The enthusiasm for Jackson was more muted. ‘A smart half forward who might end up in the midfield,’ was the cautious, rather uninspiring, assessment of draft guru Emma Quayle.
Though the new recruits first took the field for us on the very same night in Round 4, 2103 (a miserable wet evening where we were pummelled in Adelaide by the Crows) my blog was entitled: ‘On the couch: the day that Jake debuted.’
After enduring a couple of years of our dreary, stop-start game plan as we crept inexorably down the ladder, I, like all other Bulldogs’ fans, had eagerly anticipated his debut. I was enthralled by his aura, the tantalising possibility of at last having a forward who actually loved to kick a goal. Bonus points: he had a noticeable swagger. Our new number nine even played on after making the ball, and backed himself to kick a long goal!! (Well, he actually didn’t kick it, but still, what nerve, what chutzpah he’d displayed in that instant!) The fan forums lit up with excitement, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the Dogs had just registered their third heavy loss in a row (remember, it was only round four): this one by 52 points.
Of the debut of Jack Macrae, little was written (the Bulldog Tragician offered the feeble assessment that he looked overawed); somehow I overlooked that he had kicked half our goals. (Perhaps my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that these represented just two in a sorry tally of four).
By their second seasons, the narrative around the 2012 high draft picks was firmly established. Jake Stringer was explosive, mercurial, unpredictable, a matchwinner. I decided he must be called The Lair – the ‘flashy man who likes to show off.’ Most thrillingly of all, Jake’s showmanship was also un-Bulldog-like. We’d never had a true lair, never been a club for the outlandish individual. Jason Akermanis was asked to please, give up the handstands when he joined our ranks, while Matthew ‘Keith’ Boyd could muster a killer scowl if any player’s goal celebrations were over the top.
Perhaps it was where we were at as a club, perhaps it was the sheer, fatiguing boredom of the Brendan McCartney gameplan, but there was something delightfully subversive in our cheers whenever Jake The Lair left team-mates in better positions stranded and bullocked through for a trademark goal. Mere mortals could do those necessary, unselfish, team-oriented centering kicks. We revelled, instead, in our hero taking on opponents who fell like skittles in his path as he snapped an improbable, team-lifting goal.
As for Jackson Macrae, he had no nickname, unless you count the words ‘under-rated’ and ‘unobtrusive’ that became mandatory any time he was mentioned. He didn’t take speckies, he didn't kick goals, he never made the highlight reel; after having a belated growth spurt he was most definitely a mid-fielder, one who just got the ball. A lot.
We were perplexed when Jackson was sent back to the twos at one point; what on earth was the match committee seeing that we did not? But Jackson Macrae only served a one match penance before returning and registering a staggering 43 possessions against Gold Coast. ‘I needed the kick up the bum,’ explained Jackson. He came second to Libba in the 2014 best and fairest, and then was asked by earnest first year player Marcus Bontempelli for tips in how to beat the so-called second year blues.
Jake the Lair had a photogenic young family. Comparisons to Gary Ablett were made: Brian Taylor screeched that he was ‘The Package.’ He was an All-Australian in 2015. Greatness, surely, beckoned.
We knew little about Jackson Macrae. I think I vaguely recall that he was once mentioned by his team-mates as the untidiest guy at the club. Or maybe he was the worst dressed? Or maybe it never even happened at all.
But in 2016, as we moved closer to premiership success, something began to shift in the stories we played in our heads, what we thought we know about the characters in our weekly drama, Jackson Macrae and Jake Stringer. Jake’s form dwindled: he flew from behind for mark of the year (only to spoil a team-mate in better position). He lurked lazily at the back of packs, The electric turbo-charge of speed he could summon when a goal beckoned went mysteriously missing when his opponent was high-tailing out of the backline. Maybe he’d always done all of these things, but now, crucially, the goals dried up too. Despite our long injury list, Jake got sent back to the Footscray team; yet despite this ‘kick up the bum’ his form remained indifferent. To our puzzlement, as we struggled to kick respectable scores, Jake The Lair languished for a few weeks in the reserves.
Jackson, of course, kept getting the ball. A lot.
And then Jackson Macrae, who never got injured, never tired in the most gruelling of last quarters, ripped his hamstring just three weeks before the finals. Even then, it was almost overshadowed by the fact that Libba also suffered a shattering ankle injury. But by now we knew exactly what Jackson, who still didn’t have a nickname, meant to our team. We knew that with his absence, our finals campaign - indeed our very spot in the finals - now hung by the most precarious of threads.
Both Jake and Jack returned for our finals campaign. With Jake, perhaps it was more in hope that he might do something spectacular, than that he had merited the recall (lairs can’t be expected to perform well on smaller stages like Footscray or Werribee, and reports were that his form remained patchy). But when I saw the familiar loping steps of Jackson Macrae in the pre-match warmup at Subiaco I felt a sense of relief that almost surprised me, as well as a nervousness about whether that hammy, which was supposed to have needed a two-month recovery period, would stand up. I shouldn’t have worried. Jackson, we heard later, had dedicated every moment to his recovery, had been meticulous in doing everything asked of him.
We won that final. Seeing Jackson linking up, in the middle of packs, was more important than we could ever have realised. In the next, against the Hawks, Jackson had 39 disposals, more than any other player on the ground. He was a vital cog in the fact that, with hope and trepidation in our hearts, we were heading to Sydney for our eighth preliminary final since 1961.
In a gripping third quarter we prayed and hoped for the stalemate to be broken. Jake appeared to answer the call, taking two strong marks. But each of his kicks fizzled. The crowd sighed as they faded, out on the full.
Scores were level and the nightmare of preliminary finals past hovered as Jack Macrae took a mark with just minutes to play in the last quarter. He lined up for the shot, this pale faced, serious young man. These were the kicks, these were the moments where champions before had faltered, the missed opportunities which had haunted our club for so long. There was no time to think of what Bob Murphy had once said in a word association test about Jack Macrae.
He wasn't the one we'd dreamt of taking this kick, Jackson with his frustrating dinky little kicks, the one always looking to pass the ball off to another person, who had kicked only one goal for the entire season. But almost in the instant that the ball left his boot, every Bulldog fan had risen to their feet, carrying his kick home. Weeping as we saw the most important goal in modern day Bulldogs’ history sail through, as if it could not possibly do anything else.
On grand final day Jake Stringer barely featured for the first three quarters, though that dangerous energy, the sense that he might do something freakish was always there . Sure enough, at the ten minute mark of the contest, when we were only a point up his moment of glory came; he snapped the kind of unbelievable goal that only he could; hemmed in on all sides, a millisecond of opportunity before he threw it on his boot, a triumph of reflexes and an unrivalled, audacious knowledge of just where the goals were.
In our euphoria, we didn’t see the man who, under siege from all around him in a pack, had squirted out the handball that fell in the hands of Jake the Lair. That other guy in the 2012 draft, Jackson Macrae.
I went to see the documentary, The Outsiders, a couple of weeks ago. It’s a beautifully told, emotional story. Yes, I cried all over again.
Yet later, I thought its title could have a double meaning, referring to us the fans, who only ever know these airbrushed tales of life within a footy club, who are naively unaware of what lies beneath the surface, who don't know, or frequently don't want to know, anything unsavoury, anything sordid, about the men who are our idols for their deeds for three hours each week.
Jake Stringer, after a Trade Week that certainly wasn't one for the romantics, is no longer a Western Bulldogs player. We've seen him now in the colours of our mortal enemies; we hear the smug gloating of the 'whatever it takes' Bombre fans. We feel a whole concoction of petty and unpleasant emotions; we do not wish him well.
We've travelled on a rollercoaster of confusion, anger and disillusionment. Resignation, at some stage, will come - it always does. Indifference - well, that will take longer.
And we cringe at the thought of Jake playing against us, of outlandish goal kicking celebrations that won't seem like loveable larrikin behaviour now that he’s not our Lair, just an immature, and entitled footballer who's behaved badly.
There’s probably a surplus of Jackson Macrae badges at the Bulldog Shop though. I'm starting to picture one, right next to my treasured one of 18-year-old Marcus Bontempelli on my tatty Bulldog scarf. Because the under-rated and unobtrusive Jackson Macrae has, like The Bont, always made us proud. And my abiding image of him isn't just that moment when with nerves of steel, he kicked us into a grand final. It's the footage, in the rooms afterwards, when our team that had broken that hoodoo sang the song, and I noticed that Jack Macrae's face was streaked with tears.
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.