The First Quarter. Looking for a sign
The moment the siren goes after our magnificent win against the Hawks, we know we have to, somehow, do whatever it takes to be there when our Dogs take on the Orange Clad Acronyms.
We’ve watched our Bulldogs through interminable dreary seasons. Seasons when we won only just one game. Seasons where we were the butt of jokes and ridicule, where ten goal losses were wildly celebrated as a major step forward. Tough times when we had to rattle tins, knock on doors and dig deep, just to keep a Footscray Football Club team out on the field.
We simply had to be there, all of us who had sat, numb and grieving, after the 97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named (not to mention 1998's Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Really Very Good Either). So we looked up flights and researched hotels and fretted about tickets: all of us who'd watched the 2008-2010 era of promise painfully evaporate. Who'd remained stoic during our slow and hesitant steps to a rebuild. Who'd shared the shock and disbelief of a beloved captain walking out.
And as we make our preparations to get there, even though nothing can ever really erase the heartache of all those lost preliminary finals, we shut our minds firmly to the possibility that it could happen again. Instead we cling to the words of our young champion The Bont who said: ‘Why not us?’ And even though I could personally rattle off dozens of reasons why this sort of glory has never quite seemed ‘for the likes of us', we make our choice and begin to ask that same question, but in a different and hopeful way, a way we never have before.
In last week’s blog I called us the Daydream Believers. Even I'm not sure whether I was referring to us, the fans, or our young team who keep carrying us with them on their magic carpet ride.
Three car-loads of The Tragician family have decide to drive to Sydney for the game. We meet up at an ungodly hour on Friday morning to make the nine hour trek. Everywhere on the long and boring stretch of the Hume, we see our red, white and blue colours are flying proudly. Whenever we stop for a break, I try and claim I'm suffering hayfever as I see large family groups who are on the same epic quest as us. People drape their scarves and pose for photos in front of the Gundagai 'Dog on the tucker box'. Flash cars and battlers’ cars, all making their pilgrimage, kids waving out the back at people they don't know. Fellow travellers in every sense of the word.
I'm travelling with my fellow Libber sister, of course. We’re in rollicking high spirits, on the alert for signs and omens as the miles fly by. We pass Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. The towns with unusual names don’t faze us either. ‘Mittagong? I’m sure I've read it’s an Aboriginal word for Western Bulldogs!’
We bypass any songs that are sad and maudlin on the sound system and sing along, loudly, to those that are uplifting and inspiring. We’re with Aretha in an off key version of ‘I Say a little prayer’. We're with Paul Kelly as he sings:
I'm high on the hill
Looking over the bridge
To the M.C.G.
And way up on high
The clock on the silo
Says eleven degrees
The live version of The Boxer comes on. Just like the Central Park crowd, we sing ‘lie lie lie’, the chorus, with all our hearts, the beautiful anthem of defiance, pain, struggle and resilience.
I love this picture of excited young Footscray fans. camping out the night before the 1961 grand final. I can't help thinking they were lucky, though, that their vehicle, festooned with flags and banners, was not a DeLorean, able to catapult them forward to the 2016 future, and a glimpse of the Dogs' fortunes in the 55 years that lay between.
At the optimistic moment in which their exuberant celebrations were captured, the team from the west were about to compete in their second grand final in seven years. Their captain-coach was the man many say was the greatest footballer of all time, EJ Whitten. These buoyant fans, with their sign reading 'Bulldogs for Premiers 1961', would have expected good times to keep rolling in; they would have been astonished to learn about the barren years their team was about to endure.
That there would be no more flags, in 1961 or thereafter.
Not even one grand final appearance.
In stark contrast, during that same period, the Hawthorn team who were about to defeat us for their first ever flag, would go on to win 12 more.
The festive group, hunkered down in their sleeping bags - though it appears very little sleeping would be done - would have been dismayed to learn it would be 24 long years before the Dogs even returned to the MCG to feature in a final. (We lost two in the '70s in the miserable grey concrete surrounds of Arctic Park).
The Hawks - by then with five premiership cups glittering in their trophy cabinet - awaited us once again.
The year was 1985. It was the first time, since I started going to matches as a four-year-old, that I'd seen our team in a final. When the Footscray boys ran out onto the famous ground to a tremendous roar, I saw people weeping. Whether with joy that this day had finally come, or sadness that it had taken so long, it was impossible to say.
There were tears of a different kind when the Hawks demolished us by a humiliating 93 points.
Now here in the 2016 semi-final, the formidable might and power of the Hawks, who've won the last three flags and dominated the competition since the '70s, is on display. There's no pretence this is a neutral venue. Brown and gold flags circle the arena; footage on the big screen shows their many recent triumphs, on a loop.
Together the Dogs' fans have marched from Federation Square to the 'G, a place for us of great pain and few triumphs. The mood as thousands of us walk along is both joyful and tense. We've floated on air since last week's magnificent win. But we worry - we're extremely good at worrying - if that victory was our grand final, a match our battered team psyched ourselves up for. We fear - because we're also very used to being afraid - that we may not find that same determination and belief yet again, taking on this powerhouse opponent.
As usual, it was Bob who said it best.
The final on Thursday night, he said, would be all about belief.
"We don't have to manufacture it," Bob said. "It's already there."
My own belief, I know, is a more fragile thing. Too many times it has been trampled in the dust, exposed ruthlessly in finals on the big stage, in the big moment. Too many times there's been heartbreak. Too many times, the Dogs' teams in which we've placed our dreams have not been up to the task.
I've been there for all of those preliminary final losses, including, and since, 1985. Some were devastating, some were humiliating. I've seen our hopes dissolve like a cruel mirage before our eyes. I've watched again and again as our champion players, who gave their all to try and achieve the ultimate success, are chaired off the ground, waving bravely to us the fans, who must move on and transfer our faith to a new bunch of promising kids, a new wave of bright young talent.
And yet at some magical moment in the 2015 fairytale I made a conscious decision to jump on that rollercoaster ride again. I strapped myself in, eyes scrunched half-shut, doubt and fear banished - if not fully, as firmly away as any battle-scarred Bulldogs fan can ever manage. I signed over, again, my peace of mind to a bunch of blokes running around a football field. For who could resist this new breed's enthusiasm, their joy in playing beside each other, their talent, their determination to write a new narrative for our club?
After our Round 3 loss to the Hawks I revealed to the footy world - or at least the discerning readers of this blog - my theory on what’s been, well, dogging the Dogs for so many years.
I’d come to the realisation that the great novelist Thomas Hardy was somehow directing the scripts of the Western Bulldogs. Indeed the Footscray Football Club well before that. (He may have even been pulling the levers for the Prince Imperials way back in the 1880s for all I know).
Thomas Hardy is the author of novels such as Tess of the D’Urbevilles and (this was the clincher in establishing the link between a British novelist and the fate of an Australian rules football team) Far from the madding crowd.
To recap on my line of thinking: Ole Tom - though around any self-respecting footy club he'd be known as Tommo - specialises in ponderous co-incidences. A sense of impending doom hovers relentlessly. Even when a character appears to be on the brink of happiness, Ole Tom pulls out a few contrived and heavy-handed plot twists – an overheard conversation, a letter slipped under a door, the failure of Paul Hudson to shepherd for Chris Grant in September 1997, for example - all designed to ensure the continued misery of his characters.
Ole Tom can lay it on a bit thick, if truth be told. One of his characters, Jude the Obscure, is described as: the sort of man who was bound to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life should signify that all was well with him again.
That can mean only one thing. Jude the Obscure was definitely one of the anguished fans among the Bulldogs crowd in 1997, the fateful occasion of The Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named.
I reached for the Thomas Hardy Is Directing Our Future theory after Round three because - with only a minute to go - the Dogs were leading the Hawks. It had been a brave, spirited, tenacious performance, an announcement that we were serious contenders in 2016. Brilliant footy combined with a fanatical self-belief meant we'd weathered several challenges from the Three-Peaters.
But - just as a stirring victory for we, the truest of true believers, appeared inevitable - Ole Tom ratcheted up the tension.
We’ve always feared losing to Essendon - because they were an arrogant, big powerful club. And they've beaten us so many - too many - times.
Our fear of losing to our mortal enemies across the Maribyrnong was of a different kind on Sunday. This time it was more to do with the fact that they are now a weak and enfeebled club - bottom of the ladder, in fact - one we were expected, and needed, to beat to shore up our position as high in the ladder as we can possibly get.
‘Weak and enfeebled’: they definitely weren't the words coming to mind - though ‘arrogant’, as always, remains apt - when before the game I heard that the Bombres have requested (and doubtless will receive) a Round One blockbuster fixture next year to ‘welcome back’ their suspended players.
You know: the ones whose club are unable to inform which drugs they were given, or reassure about the consequences for their health, both present and future. The young men who lost a year of their short playing lives, who are now branded as drug cheats, and betrayed by the club hierarchy they reasonably trusted to have their best interests at heart.
I'm not quite sure why this should surprise; the hubris of this club has always been breathtaking. Their chief executive, explaining why the club should be rewarded with a round one feature match, said ‘everyone would acknowledge’ they have been a special case this year. (He clearly hasn’t been in touch with The Tragician).
And then the Bombres ran out onto the ground on Sunday: their banner, with no sense of irony, promoting the ‘James Hird Academy’ which - you can't script this - nurtures young talent. Let's hope that this doesn't include practices such as injecting young players with a drug, left over from a muscular dystrophy patient. (Just because - well - it was lying around. Could be interesting to see what it does).
Contrition, remorse, humility, are not in evidence. And yet it’s all too easy to envisage a Round One 2017 scenario where, fortified with a number one draft pick, the ‘Stand by Hird’ fans (many of whom have, as their season has dragged on, clearly elected to Stand By Their Couches instead) proudly march to the G, smugly deluded, perhaps with Paul Little and James Hird leading the way behind a 'Whatever it takes' banner.
But in the meantime, the repercussions of the drug saga linger for more than just Essendon alone. In the equivalent match last year we defeated the Bombres (pre-drug suspensions) by 87 points. Former Essendon player Stewart Crameri was best on ground, kicking seven goals. Which was more than the Bombres' entire team that day, as uncharitable and mean-spirited individuals may have pointed out at the time.
The impact of Crameri's absence on our club because of the WADA ban was only too apparent on Sunday. In fact it grows week by week, as our forward line regularly struggles to rack up a respectable score. There seem to be multiple factors in this; slow, ponderous ball movement which makes us yearn even more for Bob's breaking of the lines and imaginative vision. The dwindling stocks of on-ballers, meaning that younger, less experienced and often less skilled players are the ones driving, or rather scrambling, the ball forward. And the forward set-up itself, which continues to mystify; is it because of the poor delivery and slow ball movement that the forwards don't have the confidence to lead and demand the ball, or the other way around?
I felt strangely sad watching our undoubted bravery and commitment as we worked, with more determination than skill, to a 40-point victory. Nostalgically I wondered where the Men of Mayhem have gone (I guess that close to a dozen of them looking on from the grandstands answers that question) and why last year's carefree exuberance has been stifled (same answer).
I had to remind myself that despite some media romanticism of the brave young Bombres' plight, the team that was desperately youthful and inexperienced on Sunday was not the one donning the sash. More than half our team - in fact, staggeringly enough, 13 players - had played less than 50 games, compared to 10 in red and black. And they had five players who've clocked up more than 150 games, compared to just two Bulldogs in this category (the ever-reliable Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Liam Picken).
One of the Bombres' veterans out there, playing his final game on Sunday was very familiar to us, of course. And as Adam Cooney, wearing red and black, waved his thanks to the Bulldogs' fans before whom he'd played more than 200 games, the combination of the poignancy of the moment, the flat and uninspired performance, and the horror of seeing another key player struck down by injury (this time Easton Wood) sent my thoughts drifting into some familiar, if unwelcome, territory. Of the dangerous assumptions that limitless chances to grab a flag from a talented group will always there for the taking.
We should know this better than most: there is no orderly queue of progress. The fact that we have finished towards the front of the 2016 line, expecting that it will soon be 'our turn', does not guarantee a smooth pathway to a flag. Too many hurdles and random factors, things we can control, and things we can't, await to trip us up.
Adam Cooney was a number one draft pick in 2003, a laconic character with a shock of wild red hair. He had elite skills and explosive pace. In 2006 I recall a tight match against Brisbane where his brilliant clearance work in the last quarter won us a crucial game that set us up for a finals berth. We were dazzled by the potential of 'Coons' and his two close mates: Farren Ray (the number four pick from the same draft) and Ryan Griffen. They were the new, unscarred, unafraid group that would drag us towards premiership glory, under second-year coach Rodney Eade (he was called Our Mastermind not Our Saviour. But the sentiments and expectations were the same).
With the shiver of apprehension and superstition which is the ever-present legacy of an Irish-Catholic upbringing, I wonder: did we have the same investment, the same belief that these were the ones, which we now place in the precocious talents of the 2016 group? Last week I said that we've never had a player like Marcus Bontempelli. But did I make the same proud boast about Adam Cooney, or for that matter Chris Grant, or all those other potential heroes that it's just too painful to remember?
We believe - because we must - that even if ( - I said IF -) 2016 isn't our year, a few tweaks to our game plan and a full and healthy list (for surely 2016 is an aberration?) will see that 62 year drought broken. But that same cold shiver - and the memory of how Cooney's career played out - tells me there are other, much less palatable, alternatives through which this group's future may unfold.
Ask Mitch Wallis, who may be looking at 18 months out of the game, in the prime of his footy life, after his horrific broken leg.
Ask Jake Stringer, even with our massive injury toll banished to the VFL, struggling to regain his zest, the right balance between lair and selfishness. Burdened, perhaps, with too many expectations, too many Ablett-esque comparisons, too soon.
Ask Bob Murphy, who'd already been at the club seven years - imagine! - before Cooney & Co got us into a finals series. One that Bob missed, because he'd done a knee. The first knee, that is.
And now, those three great hopes of the 2006 group are finishing their football journeys at other clubs.
(Top) Adam Cooney, still in our colours, after the siren sounded in our heartbreaking 2009 preliminary final loss to St Kilda
Cooney's 250-game career has been a success by any measure; it brought him a Brownlow, four years of finals appearances, and All-Australian honours. It also delivered a bung knee which has brought him to retirement at only 30 years of age; he says from 2008 onwards (he was just 22 then) he was unable to even train.
Farren Ray is now at his third AFL club, offered a rookie spot at North Melbourne, where he has only been able to eke out one game. After moving from us to St Kilda, Farren at least played in three grand finals, but like Cooney is destined to retire without a flag. Ryan Griffen went on to captain our club, but left with bitterness and rancour, to play with a team that was in 2006 barely a bullet point in the AFL's corporate plan. His premiership dream with The Acronyms remains alive. Just not - as we once hoped - with us.
In fact, only one of Cooney's team-mates from that winning 2006 elimination final team lined up against him in Sunday's match. It was a bloke wearing number 42. Not Liam Picken however (our best afield on Sunday), but Matthew Boyd; no number one draft pick thoroughbred, but a rookie; maybe (I fondly hope) still wearing those blonde tips from his days as a Frankston reserves player. 'Keith' Boyd, perhaps a bit of a plodder compared to the more glamorous trio, was definitely not the one any of us would have picked as lasting the journey, if we'd been asked to put our predictions in a time capsule. We'd never have guessed that he would still be playing 10 years later, would captain our club, win a best and fairest and spend his twilight years re-born and maybe even playing career-best footy in a defensive role.
Looking back at the careers of Adam, Farren and Ryan, who all one way or another fell out of love with our club, makes me realise that Our Boys in fact never truly remain Our Boys - and not just in the sense that Adam Cooney's magnificently unkempt mane has disappeared, and a bald spot is now prominent.
Some of the class of 2016 won't make it. Some will find themselves on the wrong side of the end of season whiteboard, jigsaw pieces to be offloaded in the end-of-season horse-trading, or delisted: 'superfluous to requirements.' Some will never be able to overcome the frailty of their minds and bodies, the attrition of our brutal game, the ever-present consequences for individual and team of a wrong decision or poor game, the relentless scrutiny of the media and the desperation of the fans.
The Bulldogs' players formed a guard of honour for Cooney, the former player many knew well but others not at all. Our applause was warm and respectful towards our former champion. But he's no longer one of Our Boys and Our Club is Our Club, always. Our loyalties and affections, but most of all our hopes, have moved on. Now they are firmly placed in our newest number 17. Maybe the Dogs' biggest ever, boldest gamble for premiership success, the enigmatic Tom Boyd, who just his week turned 21.
There's a series of lovely videos on the club's website, showing the bond between players who've worn the same number. The latest features The Bont with Daniel Cross. Yep, I was the one who made the maudlin claim that i could never love another player as much as the ultimate team-man, the bravest of the brave, Daniel Cross. It turns out, of course, that wasn't quite true.
Despite being cut from the club after 210 games and playing on with Melbourne, Crossy is one of those rare players whose passion for our club matches the fans. I had an ache in my heart when he confided that he used to kiss his guernsey before each match. The Bont listened to him respectfully, taking in the words of his predecessor in number four, the man whose name he sees every day on his Whitten Oval locker, and saying:
It’s great to be able to catch up with past players who have worn the jumper to understand their level of love, care and compassion for the jumper because it makes wearing it even more worthwhile."
Marcus Bontempelli, still just 20 years old, will captain our club again this week. I feel that little shiver again, thinking about it, and imagining the silent message conveyed by all those names on the lockers that he and his team-mates see every day. Of not taking anything for granted. Of grabbing our 2016 opportunities - even if they seem to have been blighted by injury - and seize the day. We can never be sure when and if it will come again.
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.