The players have their rituals to mark the passing of the year that was: strange dress ups and mysterious in-jokes. But for the fans there is no ‘Mad Monday’, no clear delineation to mark the passing of an ultimately unsuccessful year, and definitely no opportunity to declare ourselves a bit ‘stale’ and request a trade to another club where our particular barracking talents are more in demand. (Or indeed for the club to force the issue, crafting a tactful and diplomatic message thanking us for our efforts, now no longer required, and wishing us well in our new careers as ambassadors for GWS).
Instead, we kind of…’skulk’ is the word I’m looking for…throughout the tedious off-season. Snippets of news about delistings and defections filter through: sometimes we’ve become resigned to their inevitability months earlier. We can only wait with a mix of anxiety and boredom, hoping that the right - the wise - decisions will be made.
We also feel relief when we survive an off-season with that ominous combination of words: ‘naked’ … ‘vomiting in the street’ … and ‘Bulldogs’ …referring to a rugby team in the uncivilized northern states.
And then we – I mean I - drift back into our post-season twilight zone, only emerging to be outraged that Essendon have got a new blockbuster match (Good Friday), and channelling that outrage into following a twitter account, which lifts my spirits by posting a daily tally of the number of days since Essendon won a final (well over 5000 now).
For those fascinated by arcane systems of picks and compensation points, an abomination known as Trade Radio exists. Some fans are enthralled by every machination, sub-plot and possible trade scenario; many have been analyzing and calculating the possibilities since well before the season ended.
The Bulldog Tragician, with a mix of hypocrisy and stubborn denial of reality, somehow wishes for two simultaneous yet conflicting outcomes: that NONE of the 2016 premiership heroes will ever play elsewhere, while wanting bold steps to be taken, so that success, and the euphoria of 2016, comes again – speedily too. My mindset is like Woody Allen’s famous saying: ‘I’m not all that scared of death – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’
Maybe for the seasoned pros, such as the fans of clubs wearing brown and gold, all the horse trading comes naturally. Getting rid of beloved premiership heroes - well, it's just the cost of doing business, a profit and loss transaction (you just know they have a disproportionate number of accountants among their boringly smug ranks). We’re a little – okay, a lot – less skilled in pragmatism. We’re still able to be brought to tears by some snippet of 2016 dreaming; the speedy fragmentation of the premiership team never featured in that fairytale script.
We’ve tried, of course, to grow thicker skins. Last year we made epic efforts to hastily recast Jake the Lovable Lair into Jake the Arch-Villain. Fortunately his hairstyle choices, mysteriously bad tattoos and the sheer fact of his appearance in the dreaded red and black eased the breakup pain.
But at the end of the 2018 season, the earthquake tremors became a tsunami. Premiership heroes indeed fell like skittles! (I admit, I become rusty with my choice of metaphors throughout the dreary off-season).
There were brittle, hollow jokes about Luke Dahlhaus being no longer ‘motovated’ as he left for more money (in truth our club was far from determined to keep him), squabbled with Bob (BOB!!) Murphy on social media, and posed in the Geelong hoops; yet our attempts at indifference struck a feeble note.
There was jittery waiting about the re-signing (that all important hyphen) of Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore. Bewilderment that it took so long.
It's not all one-way traffic of course; there are new recruits in our colours. We tried to latch onto their words of praise and admiration about their new home. Naturally, they are energized, enthusiastic, love the ‘vibe’ of their new workplace, are in awe of the wise and super-approachable coaching staff, and have already shared copious amounts of coffee with their welcoming, friendly, lovable new team-mates. We ignored, of course, the fact that our own former players were making identical statements - there'd obviously a template for them - which their new clubs were rolling out to inspire feverish optimism among their own fans.
As we heard the news of Jordan Roughead seeking ‘new opportunities’ elsewhere, we tried to shut out those abiding images of his stirring efforts in the 2016 finals series – in Perth, when he quelled our nerves with a strong grab, wheeled around and kicked a goal in the run, or THAT grand final mark which announced that whatever malign fate or AFL conspiracy hovered over us, our destiny was still in our – well, his – hands. It’s even harder, for the romantics in us, to shut out the touching memory of him as a quality, beautiful human being as well, bringing along to the Brownlow glitz his ‘date’, a young guy that Jordan mentored as part of his work with the charity Ladder.
Meanwhile the one-man band that put on the "Great Wall of Biggs Cameo" in the last quarter of the grand final has retired in a way as enigmatic and perplexing as the fact that it was this unlikely, off-beat player who found reserves of courage and determination that you might have expected from Daniel Cross, in the most intense and enthralling moments of the Bulldogs’ last 60 years. We didn’t cheer Shane Biggs off the ground one last time; he did not appear in a Grand Final motorcade, did not record a message for the fans on the club website. He just flashed briefly through our lives, and our club’s history.
Sometimes it feels like we the fans are the true and only keepers of these stories. Like mothers we hold close onto those memories while they leave us, going on to build new lives and new stories. But they hold memories that we can’t fathom too. Of the moments that they gather in the race before they emerge to face the menacing roar of an interstate crowd. Of how it feels to train in 40 degree heat while we the fans turn on the tennis and cricket. Of the quiet struggles of a team-mate, his desolation in the hard times and injuries; they alone know what he might be overcoming just to be out there each week. Of how it felt to run out onto the MCG, into the wave of emotion, on October 1 2016.
In time, they will gather for milestone reunions, reconnecting about these things only they can know. I try and imagine a paunchy Marcus Bontempelli and a balding ‘JJ’ sharing a beer and reminiscing about that thrilling moment they broke the game open in the 2016 preliminary final.
I envisage Dale and Riley Morris – the first father-son combination to take the field simultaneously (what, you thought Dale would retire?) – re-enacting the elder Morris’s famed tackle on Buddy Franklin, to the raucous and appreciative shouts of the group.
Towards the end of festivities, perhaps current day captain Jarvis Murphy will drop in and lead the now slightly maudlin men of 2016 out onto Barkly Street, where they will pose together – even Jake the Former Lair - in front of a statue of Bevo Our Saviour giving Bob his medal.
I sigh and shake my head, flooded with nostalgia. This is really no way to visualize a new future. I should be looking forward, not wallowing in the past; it's time, surely, to move on, to begin crafting daydreams about heroic moments in the years ahead. Perhaps that new recruit, some bloke we got from Hawthorn (his name will come to me in a moment) will run down some Essendon player I don’t like (could be any of them) in an epic final, and the ball spills free to, um, Little Red Richards, who snaps the winning goal in the 2019 Grand Final?
‘I’m not as … excited…about footy any more,’ I complained recently to Libba Sister Two.
She rolled her eyes. ‘You say that every year,’ she reminded me.
She could be right, I reflected, as I skulked around, checking the name of that new recruit from Hawthorn on the Bulldogs' website, and pressing ‘like’ on the number "5182" of the Days Since Essendon Won a Final twitter account.
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.