It's quarter time in our match against the Hawks and my feelings are ricocheting around from melancholy to exasperation. The Bulldogs are sitting outside the eight, with a very tough run home. Yet in this, the so-called most winnable match in the series, we had dished up one of those lamentably bad first quarters. The not-switched on, haphazard, bumbling and fumbling quarters, that we've seen rather frequently in our inconsistent 2022 season.
Quite apart from the looming fatal blow to our finals chances if we lose, it irks me further that the Hawks look good. Young guns, a team on the rise, playing an attractive brand of footy. Weren't we supposed to have swept past them imperiously in the premiership pecking order after 2016? surely our era was just beginning, while after their fabled three-peat, they were due to fade meekly away, and endure a much more lengthy stint as one of those inconsequential non-entities at the bottom of the ladder?
I shift my irritation elsewhere from the frustrating efforts of the men in red white and blue. It's easy enough to find a new target for my wrath. A Hawthorn supporter and his children are somehow sitting right in our midst. In our area, the place where we pay good money to ensure we're shielded from any unwelcome opposition contact. (Banter with the opposition has always seemed to me an overrated aspect of the spectating experience).
I much prefer to be wedged in with my fellow supporters, my people, those with whom, over the past 20 years, this little pocket, originally so alien to our Whitten Oval home, has gradually become 'ours'. Heaving with indignation when there's an umpiring decision against Our Boys. A place of black humour: one Bulldogs fan used to hold up an ironic sign: "Peter Rhode: our mastermind!" sign; departing after the final siren of another abject loss led by that coach, I saw it torn to pieces and trampled in the aisle. Together, we watched still, silent, bereft, when Bob did his knee, when Mitch Wallis broke his leg so horrifically. We've seen babies who came along in mothers' arms turn into gangly teens; together we have often created a raucus Bulldogs chant. It's where people are familiar and 'family', even when we've never learnt their names
It's a violation that people dressed in brown and gold should be allowed to penetrate our little fortress. I had taken an instant and irrational dislike to them as, politely, the dad showed his ticket to confirm that this wasn't some sort of mistake, and he and his offspring, all attired in puffer jackets and Hawthorn scarves, plonked themselves down within our ranks.
I was even more peeved when I observed that these infiltrators were watching the game in passive silence. Strangely it was more annoying that he (I'd decided he was either a boring accountant or a taxation lawyer) showed no emotion while his team put us to the sword. Of course (there's no pleasing the Tragician) I'd have been fuming if he'd been jumping up and down celebrating. Yet somehow his lack of passion, his stony, stolid presence, observing rather than participating in the match, irritated me even more.(I was just waiting for him to unwrap some sensible, home-prepared, wholegrain sandwiches from a Tupperware container).
It annoyed me because I feared that this lack of emotion was both a result of - and the secret to - their continued monotonous success over the past few decades Hawks fans don't need to blame success or failure on lucky scarves, Q-Anon style conspiracy theories, or some sort of giant universal alignment of factors designed to make their supporting lives as miserable as possible. There is, surely no need for, no Hawthorn equivalent, of a Bulldog Tragician blog, for what angst would there to unpack, what tortured ramblings could be written, as another premiership is ticked off in a 'mission accomplished' fashion?
Maybe that lack of passion is what actually creates the success that he and his fellow fans of the brown-and-gold had witnessed over the past decades. The result of methodical planning. Calm decision-making. Sensible, careful list-pruning, moving on premiership champions unsentimentally, when required and appopriate. Build, contend, create a dynasty. When the wheel of fortune turns, be clinically prepared to do it all again, with a minimum of angst and no superflous emotion.
Hawks fans can go on, munching those mythical wholegrain sandwiches, with the steady, pragmatic belief that another premiership is always just around the corner, rather than a miraculous, wondrous occurrence. Calmly assured that their current lowly status is just a blip, that good times would return just as they did in...well, they probably couldn't quite remember. Soon, in any case, because there had been so many.
So goddamn many.
(Can you beIieve I managed to cram ALL these thoughts into the quarter time break? I can't either.)
Fortunately a second-quarter turnaround by our team interrupted a Tragician-thinking-spiral.
This change in fortunes was sparked by a 30-year-old man with bad tattoos, an impish Groucho Marx moustache, and a shuffling crab-like gait. Libba (you'll notice I don't call him Libba the Second any more) was suddenly in everything, creating havoc. He found space where there was none. Other players bounced off him as he stood tall in contests. Each Bulldogs goal in the comeback had Tom Liberatore footprints all over it. He even looked like the quickest player on the field, but this was a quickness of thought, a matchless reading of the play, and a competitive spirit that saw him always steps ahead.
When he came to the bench after inspiring the blitz, we rose to give our Libba a standing ovation. I stole a furtive glance at the Hawthorn fan. He was, as expected, impassive, even though their lead had been blown, and the Dogs were now surging again and again, with a best-on-ground Libba at the heart of it.
What an enigmatic figure Tom Liberatore is, with his quizzical half-smiles, his mysterious utterances (what the hell was the 'I made a hundred in The Ashes' comment post grand final all about?) Sometimes he doesn't seem to take the game, or definitely himself, very seriously, always wearing that mischievous expression even in the most intense of battles.
Libba is always the first to fly the flag for his team-mates; many of us wondered if the GWS thugs 2019 mauling of Bont would have happened if Libba had been around. He has a reputation as fiery and feisty - probably a legacy of his dad rather than his own character - yet he has never been reported. He's known adversity though, coming back from two devastating knee injuries. And in 2017 his season was so indifferent that he even spent time in the reserves.
Week after week in 2022 there is groundless speculation that Libba may be 'rested', may need a spell, yet to my mind his footy is better than it has ever been. There is a glint in his eye; maybe it's the same one I saw in the veterans Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, that knowledge and appreciation that windows of success are precious and rare. Maybe he regrets the carelessness of he and his team-mates in 2017, their cavalier sense that success would just come, their forgetfulness of the bad times and how quickly they can come again. Perhaps he sees the seasons closing relentlessly in, the word 'veteran' now attached to his name, time and opportunities no longer stretching ahead in leisurely fashion. Maybe, playing alongside the champions Bontempelli and Macrae, and with a birds-eye view of the emerging stars Naughton, English and Smith, he senses that there's another flag. Realises that to finish with only one premiership, in this most talented Bulldog group, would be a crying shame.
There's a third quarter stoush. It naturally involves James Sicily, a pantomime villain who plays angry and dares - dares!!! - to remove the headband of Aaron Naughton. (As I announced recently, Aaron is in contention as my second favourite player, though some nitpicking readers have taken the trouble to point out that each week I appear to have 21 other second favourite players, all ranked together just behind Bont).
We're all on our feet to voice our outrage at Sicily's unforgiveable act. I see the Hawthorn "fan" (by now I'm using the word in inverted commas) is also standing but his face remains blank. He's not blindly outraged at any of our pushing-and-shoving players, or even annoyed at the indiscipline of his own. If there is anything it is perhaps mild bemusement; he has risen only to witness what is going on, not, as we are, invigorated as we voice our pointless but heartfelt indignation at Sicily's over-the-top treachery! (The fact that we still don't even really know who and what started it in no way dilutes our anger).
At three-quarter time, with the match firmly in the Bulldogs' keeping, the Hawthorn fan and his offspring politely edge their way down the aisle. It's time for them to return home, at a sensible time, not wasting any energy observing a loss. Not disappointed or frustrated. Not anything really. We don't sledge him, he doesn't sledge us. I wonder exactly why he was at the game rather than watching it on his big-screen TV in his undoubtedly comfortable home (I'm guilty of eastern-suburbs stereotypes and prejudices). I'm quite sure that he and his children, seated on the train by now, will not have impassioned conversations about what went wrong, fume over umpiring decisions, vent their spleen, or agonise about the future. More like: 'Dad, we never did get to eat those wholegrain sandwiches.'
The Hawthorn adherent and family therefore miss an exhilarating goal from Libba, which creates pandemonium the moment it leaves his boot; such a fitting exclamation mark to his wonderful game. They have long since departed when Bont elegantly (only he could) rides a bump from the Pantomime Villain, resulting in another stoush in which Bont acquits himself with aplomb, while Libba is somehow on hand to dispense advice and worldly wisdom. (He explained afterwards that he was encouraging the lad to remember that there is always next week, and not to be disheartened. Which seems about as feasible as that he delivered well-meant and kindly words to Heath Shaw in key moments of the 2016 Preliminary Final).
We are still chuckling at the Libba antics, and his brilliant performance after the match, but in my mind there's just that half-thought about footy mortality. I saw after all the unfolding of the full career of his dad, Tony, the man with the giant heart. We saw him win his Brownlow, forgave his misdeeds, marvelled at his tackling prowess, were in awe of his fiery, never-quenched spirit. His very career was improbable, outlandish almost, a man who looked nothing like an elite athlete, until you saw the fire within. I saw him, of course play his last game, a massive shiner a fitting legacy to a career of courage. Young Tom ran onto the field with his dad that day. It's extraordinary, unbelievable really, that I have been there to see his career unfold as well.
There is a beautiful, haunting book by Cormac McCarthy called The Road. It's set in a bleak dystopian future where some sort of unnamed calamity has destroyed life as we know it and dazed people wander around blindly without hope. (See any number of Footscray/Western Bulldogs seasons/decades for ready-made examples). A father-and-son are amongst the lost souls roaming the scorched earth, just trying to survive in an ugly and scary world of murderers, thieves and cannibals; the father reassures his young son, who has never known a different life, that they are the good guys, because they 'carry the fire.'
Like his dad, Tom Liberatore has never taken a screamer; has no Goal of the Year nominations. His artistry is so lightning quick it's often hard to see. Perhaps to paraphrase one great writer speaking about another, he is one of those who is most difficult to 'catch in the moment of greatness.' Surprisingly Libba has never been an all-Australian, never been in the leadership group, yet a leader he surely is. If he played for another team I guess I'd detest him as a pesky nuisance. But he doesn't. And I don't. For not only is Libba one of my second favourite players, he is also our most important and inspiring carrier of the fire.
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.