It’s late afternoon on Preliminary Final Day and I head out for a walk. It’s been another grey day in locked-down Melbourne. Under leaden skies, my mood is melancholy. I’m preoccupied with thoughts of the last time our team featured in a preliminary final, and how different absolutely everything is today.
No crazy-brave road trips where somehow, despite an appalling record of seven preliminary finals losses, Bulldogs’ fans - who had every right to fear more of the same - resolutely made our way there. No laughter from the Libba Sisters travelling down the Hume, seeing signs of hope when we passed towns called Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. (The Libbas, and the Libba Sisters alone, now call Zaine Cordy ‘Cordeaux’ after seeing a sign pointing to a dam of that name). No off-key versions of ‘Say a little prayer’ or the catchphrase I felt best described our quest: ‘The daydream believers’. We were part of a journey, a mission with thousands of others, wanting to see if Our Boys would defy the odds, and our own history, and win a preliminary final at last.
Tonight, though, the Libba Sisters, like most Bulldogs’ fans, will be watching this Preliminary Final from our separate ‘isolated’ homes. Unlike the primal roar that echoed out when we ran out to play our arch enemies The Acronyms, tonight’s cheers for our team will fall flat in our own lounge-rooms. Our Boys won’t even have their parents, brothers and sisters, sweethearts and children in the crowd. (Hell, the way the South Australian government is treating them, with the obsequious agreement of the AFL, we're starting to think it’ll be a miracle if they’re even allowed inside the ground at all. Why don't they just get on with it and call it a forfeit!).
Despite umpteen clear COVID tests our team is again confined to our hotel rooms for most of our flying visit to South Australia. Bevo was doing his best to hide his irritation at the unreasonable situation we were in, claiming, unconvincingly, that a ‘wry smile’ was his response to the restrictions. But I thought he looked a little careworn as he fronted the press.
News keeps trickling out about the difficulties, the endless petty little grievances we’ve endured, cold eggs, and even running out of food at our Brisbane quarantine hotel. (I immediately picture Tim English and Aaron Naughton holding out empty bowls of gruel in the style of a 19th century novel and pleading: 'Please sir, can we have some more?')
Things get bleaker, as we hear we have lost the bedrock of our defence, the steely-eyed Alex Keath who’s done such a superb job all year on tall forwards and, in particular, has had the measure of Port’s giant Charlie Dixon.
Walking round, the gloomy skies are a match for my state-of-mind. I realise my thoughts are already about ‘missed opportunities’, retreating into the well-worn path of Bulldogs' hard luck stories, even while yes, I lament that our own late-season implosion has placed us in this precarious position.
The ‘why not us?’ mantra of 2016 isn’t resonating this year. I'm reverting to type, shaking my fist at the sky with the plaintive cry: ‘Why do these things always happen to us?’
I think you can guess: I'm really not all that sure we can win.
Our opponents have had an extra week off, have slept in their own homes, and will meet us in ominous form, having won seven straight matches. They are heavily backed favourites. They didn't have to hold their bowls out to plead for more gruel!
Our Boys had to fight to the death to win against Brisbane. We've endured anxieties about the state of Bont’s banged-up knee and whether he's fully fit. Cody Weightman (who now has ‘livewire’ attached to his name as surely as Jackson Macrae has ‘under-rated’) will also miss with concussion.
Meanwhile we've taken the huge risk of recalling a ruckman who’s geriatric in football terms (and even has the silver hair to prove it), hasn’t played since round 12, and was last heard of as being ‘very sore’, in fact rumoured to retire, after limping through whatever passes for a practice match these days.
Bevo had indicated Stef Martin would only be selected in a 'break glass in an emergency' act of desperation. It looks like that emergency has come.
Pre-match the Tragician clan attempt to manufacture some camaraderie and Bulldogs’ fighting spirit in a Zoom catch up. But our appearances in our separate little on-screen windows only highlight the vast difference between tonight's 'build-up' and the way three generations of our family came together in Sydney for The Greatest Preliminary Final Ever. In the subdued discussion of our chances, an announcement of belief in our team comes from a rather unlikely source; my mother, aged 84, is normally not of an optimistic temperament, but is the only one to declare outright that the Bulldogs can win.
Her show of faith is at odds with her usual mindset, tried and true over more than 60 years of barracking. To tell the truth I’ve often been suspicious of whether it can actually be a coincidence that her adoption of the team in 1954, as a 17-year-old recently arrived from Ireland, was followed by decades of failure. She couldn't have known, though I doubt it would have swayed her from following our team, that she would only see one more (losing) grand final until she was almost 80. In the meantime her beloved club would notch up five wooden spoons. At one point we entered an almost comically bad 24-year stretch where the Dogs didn't win a single final. (In the interests of fairness I must point out they'd only played two).
On Zoom, no-one outright contradicts my mother's 'fighting words', but we all shuffle around uneasily saying things like: ‘it will be tough’; ‘if we have a good start and get the crowd out of it’; and ‘our midfield need to have a real day out.’
Which all seem like code for: ‘Maybe this one is a bridge too far.’
A red-hot Melbourne had already demolished Geelong in the first preliminary final the night before; I found myself again drifting back to a similar situation in 2016. From our hotel in Sydney we’d seen the news that Geelong had been thrashed in their preliminary. I recall my pronouncement: ‘There’s always a blow-out Preliminary, and a close one.'
At which point the Libba Sisters had clutched each other’s hands in panic-stricken terror.
I don’t know if my statement of how preliminary finals usually play out has any base in fact, but it feels correct: if we did happen to win against Port, surely it would only be after a nail-biter – something brave, and grinding; maybe a wet night where we could make it a scrap. At best, it would definitely be a low-scoring, dour affair (with Cody and Bruce out, who on earth would kick the goals? With Alex Keath out, who would stop the goals?)
Yes, I could only foresee a battle of attrition, where desperation was more important than skill.
Though the Tragician has been known to be wrong about Preliminary Finals before, of course, this may have been her most epic failure of foresight. Which is quite saying something.
Grinding, scraping, creeping painstakingly forward in rainy conditions into a clogged low-skilled forward line; this may have been the only blueprint the Tragician could conjure.
It is, quite evidently, not the game plan favoured by Bevo Our Saviour and his All-Travelling All-Stars.
Almost before the last notes of ‘Never tear us apart’ have sounded (why do they sing that?), the Bulldogs have rattled on five goals. Fleet-footed men propel the ball forward again and again. Mitch Hannan, whose spot in the team has been relentlessly debated, does a passable imitation of Jake Stringer (without the attitude and that ridiculous tattoo); he takes contested marks; he actually kicks goals.
Josh Schache and Tim English perfectly implement a plan to let the star of the forward line have a clean run at the ball. Aaron Naughton has been a little tentative since his mid-year concussion, perhaps wisely putting self-preservation ahead of kamikaze marking attempts. Some of his confidence had begun to return in the victory against Brisbane; now, with so much at stake, he is back to the fearless, reckless attack on the ball that's his trademark.
Feeding those ravenous forwards (maybe the cold eggs and paltry rations in quarantine had had an impact) are our pride and joy, our elite running midfield. Bont with no sign of that knee injury about which we fretted all week; Libba cheeky and irascible as he works in his phone box space; Jack Macrae being 'just' Jack Macrae; Bailey Smith more outrageously strong in fending off each tackle than any 20-year-old has any right to be.
We don’t have to worry about our key defenders 'Cordeaux' and Gardner; they’re hardly ever stranded one-out on their opponents, because on the rare occasions Port players scramble the ball forward, they firstly have to navigate the impenetrable wall of our half-back line. From there, the sublimely skilled trio ‘Celeb’ Daniel, ‘Dailey Bailey’ and Bailey Williams launch counter-attack after counter-attack.
Watching the onslaught, almost as disbelieving as the Port crowd, I think again of a Bob Murphy story about a Bevo speech before a practice match in his first months as coach. ‘There’s going to be an ambush,’ the Plantaganet-lookalike (a little less careworn in those days) told his bemused charges, before a theatrical pause.
‘And the ambush will be us!’
The Libba Sisters can’t squeeze hands, elbow each other in disbelief, high-five each other as though we personally were instrumental in the goal avalanche. There’s barely even time for a text message of celebration before the three little dots say another is being typed out. The messages are succinct. ‘Is this a dream?’ ‘What’s happening?’ and ‘F-Star-C-K’!! (the last one being from a family joke when one of my sons had heard someone swear but, sweet soul that he is, didn’t want to repeat the ‘bad word').
There have been plenty of other preliminary finals where those three phrases, especially the latter, had been regularly employed by the Libbas. It’s just gloriously unexpected that this time, they are words of rapture, not despair.
We talk over Facetime in the main break. Shell-shocked, in the best of ways: for Our Boys are, incredibly, 58 points up. Even if those in teal are able to rally, surely …well, hopefully …we can’t...won't... capitulate from here?
(The Tragician is trying very hard to avoid googling: what is the greatest comeback win in AFL history?)
As fans, we are still, of course, scarred, by our preliminary finals failures, the most disastrous of all in 97. The memory of that day when our players turned to stone and surrendered a five-goal lead in the last quarter is one not even erased by the 2016 heroics. But it’s as far away to our current day team as the quaint and grainy footage of the 54 premiership. If they need a reference point it’s 2016, not 97. Or 98. (Or all those other ones that still make me tired to think about).
Our Boys are not tired, though, continuing to bullock their way forward time and again. They survive a token effort at a revival from Port with maturity. If there’s any chance of pulling off the greatest ever AFL comeback (all right, I did sneak a look, and it was 69 points in 2001), it’s snuffed out, appropriately, by the Hand of Bont. He manages to get a fingertip to a shot at goal. A goal that would have put the Power back in the race (well, within a flimsy, gossamer-like, precarious, extremely gettable 40 points margin) is averted by the octopus-like reach of our superstar captain.
We can - what strange concept is this? - enjoy the last quarter. The rain that begins to fall isn’t a welcome relief – greedily, we want to win by more, as party tricks like Bailey Smith’s stupendous 60-meter goal are rolled out. The only ‘bad luck’ being discussed is which unfortunate player in this most wonderful of wins might lose his spot. Waiting for the minutes, seconds to go by, isn’t the suffocating yet exquisite torture of 2016; we're mainly begging for the siren to go, PLEASE, to make sure Bont, and Naughton, are safely seated on the interchange bench, unable to suffer a catastrophic last minute knee injury a la Josh Bruce.
It’s when the siren does go, though, that I feel the first pangs, a kind of grief. The inexpressible joy we felt in 2016 is not the same – maybe it could never have been the same - even though the achievement is arguably even more immense.
Because back then, we felt we had been part of every moment, ridden the emotional wave with Our Boys. We'd impelled Clay Smith to make those crunching tackles. Bont had, surely, run that bit faster towards the goal because we were urging him forward. We'd willed Jackson Macrae's kick to sail straight through the sticks.
Secretly I was always convinced they couldn’t have got there without us, and most definitely not without the Tragician’s lucky Bont badge.
And they had given us the gift, of finally knowing what other teams took for granted, but we had learnt to accept was not ‘for the likes of us’ - of celebrating it with them, in our town. Wearing our colours proudly around the streets, going to training, meeting up for a grand final parade. Claiming to be stressed and nervous but revelling in every moment denied to the other 16 clubs, who this time are the ones who look on in envy. Being right there at the heart of the dizzying fever that comes over sports-mad Melbourne in Grand Final week.
As the Libbas drove back from Sydney back in 2016, as exhausted as though we too had laid some Clay-Smith-style monster tackles, we kept looking at each other and saying the unbelievable words again and again.
‘We’re in the grand final!’
We barely knew how to feel, or react, or think about what might come next.
‘We’re in the grand final.’
We say it again, when we phone each other after our thrashing of Port Adelaide. We’re fiercely, emotionally proud. We don't discuss a grand final watched from a living room, and focus on the idea of the amazing times we’re living in. A second grand final in five years, after I’d begun to think God had taken a bit too literally my forlorn plea: ‘Just one premiership in my lifetime oh lord!’
While Our Boys are still celebrating on the field, applauded by the small but vocal posse of fans in red white and blue who’ve been lucky enough to be there, I spot a familiar face. Our former player Nathan Eagleton is there in the crowd congratulating Bevo, with at least one apparent look-alike son (albeit with a full head of hair) also wearing red, white and blue.
The ‘Bald Eagle’ was sometimes - sadly often - one of our most maligned players, but in a 10-year career he wore our guernsey 221 times. He’s all smiles now, looking genuinely delighted about our win, but I can’t help be transported, as only perhaps a Tragician can be, to the last time we saw him.
It was 2010, after our third losing preliminary final in succession. The loss wasn't unexpected; our team were injury-raddled and ageing. We knew even then there would be no 'next year': the premiership window had screeched shut. We watched ‘Ego’ distraught in the rooms, crying in the arms of his captain, Brad Johnson, who’d also played the last of his 364 games with us. Each of them knew, despite all they'd achieved, they would never know what it was like to run out in a grand final.
The camera cuts back to the studio: it’s the beaming and totally non-objective ‘Johnno’ himself, as delighted by our brilliant win as any fan. (Wasn’t one of the joys of our Johnno that he always looked like a wide-eyed fan even when he was playing?)
Yet in a career which began when we were Footscray and matches were still played at the Western Oval, Brad played 21 finals, for just six wins.
Now the camera turns to an interview with Bailey Smith, the current wearer of Johnno's number six guernsey. The 20-year-old (with an abundance of hair that both 'Ego' and 'Johnno' would have envied) is about to play a grand final in his 67th match.
The members of the squad who have missed out celebrate just as hard, belting out the song with their team-mates. Our vice-captain Mitch Wallis is in the thick of it: he's a near-certainty to miss this grand final just as he did in 2016, yet he's a rare human being who is capable of pure joy for his club and his mates.
We see the players face-timing Joshua Bruce, who played such a role in getting us into finals in the first place, back in Melbourne looking genuinely thrilled for his mates rather than sorry for himself.
Toby McLean, who'd suffered a second catastrophic knee injury within 12 months, is nevertheless also on the road with the group, and has the role of team barber, cutting the more outlandish styles to sometimes dubious effects on the hotel balconies (I sincerely hope with a strict mandate to go nowhere near Easton Wood.)
Ambling around the rooms with a huge beaming smile is Zaine Cordy, who famously kicked the first Bulldog's grand final goal in 55 years as a raw 19-year-old; despite a solid game, 'Cordeaux' is tipped as likely to be one of the heartbreaking omissions to accommodate the return of Alex Keath.
Their stories make me realise grand finals and premierships are too precious, too rare, for our club for me to wallow in the ‘not-being-there’ sadness. I need to give myself over to the pure joy of their stunning achievement.
Bevo speaks to the team post-match: about love and care for each other as the essence of our club. He says: ‘I’m so moved by the players and what they achieved.’ I wonder if any other coach but Bevo could speak about being moved by what they did, rather than proud; as though it was something they alone did, while he looked on as a bystander.
At times this year I have thought Our Saviour has looked tired and flat, even uncharacteristically brittle. Yet he has shepherded and guided and supported him through throughout the challenging 2021 season. He somehow rebuilt them from the devastated group who sat motionless in the rooms after Round 23, when our top four spot had disappeared, and most accepted our premiership dream was fatally derailed. What a short time (yet it already seems an aeon ago) to turn around a group that we fearfully anticipated would struggle to even get past the Bombres in week one.
Astoundingly enough, Bevo has coached 33% of ALL Bulldogs finals wins. We'd been in the competition 90 years before he even arrived in 2015! which shows both the magnitude of his coaching achievement, and the long history of heartache we've endured. And why this win must be cherished.
I get ready to dress up my house in red, white and blue. An email from the club, telling us about the process to secure our grand final ticket, brings tears for a second, then, like most Bulldogs’ fans I on-forward them to those who could use them in WA.
I think about what Bob said about our premiership in 2016 and the subsequent malaise: that winning a flag for other clubs is like climbing Mt Everest; for us, it was like landing on the moon. With terror and awe I realise our team is ready, again, to launch.
The Libba Sisters manage to meet up in Seddon. The streets are largely deserted, yet the empty cafes and shops are still adorned with red, white and blue. Our smiles are wide beneath our marks, as we clink our takeaway coffees in a park.
'We're in the grand final!
'We're in the grand final!'
“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, and that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”... J. B. Priestley, about the meaning of their local football team to the citizens of a grimy (mythical) Yorkshire town called Bruddesford (1929)
It's September and spring is in the air. With our team in the finals, the western suburbs should be a hotspot of excitement and chatter: who'll be selected, what are our chances. Instead they are a hotspot of COVID anxiety.
Our mood every day is defined by case numbers instead of our ruck conundrum. And yet we find time - for it means more to us that ever - to think about our team and what they might do.
Their finals journey, in these strangest of times, has been more like an arduous pilgrimage. They departed Melbourne to play in Tasmania, not knowing whether their stay would be long or (at the time it seemed only too likely) embarrassingly short. The dads in the group - Libba, JJ, Easton Wood - were leaving behind their partners and small children. In these lockdown days those partners are heroes in their own right, unable to call upon friends and families to come around and help them with fractious toddlers.
For Bevo and his All-Travelling Western Bulldogs, maybe pilgrimage isn't the right word; perhaps Our Boys are like rock stars constantly waking up in new destinations on a never-ending road trip. Yet when they arrive at each new city there's no chance for hell-raising or trashing their rooms. In Brisbane they isolated in their own single rooms, unable to even mix with each other apart from one walk per day, a disembodied PA announcement alerting them to the fact they could open their door to get a meal. All the while knowing that it's not impossible that further mis-steps in Australia's COVID battle might end not only their seasons but close down the 2021 season for good.
Back in Melbourne our new matchday routine doesn't require any effort or planning. No anxiety for us any more about procuring finals tickets, no mingling with fans as we head towards the ground, smiling at outlandish costumes or as the Tragician loves to do, eavesdropping on snippets of people's conversations; it's only about plonking in front of the TV. And yet there's a frisson of excitement, as difficult to repress as it is to keep Cody Weightman from whooping and hollering on the forward line, as we watch Our Boys run out together on a balmy Brisbane evening, a thousand kilometres away from us in our locked-down homes.
Against the Bombres the match never rose to great heights (I could be mean and say this was due to the quality of our opponents, but as you'd expect, I rise above such pettiness). But right from the start, this night, this final...the temperature has risen from the events in drizzly Launceston in more ways than one. The pace is frenetic, with us looking initially the more switched on. But then comes a flurry of sheer brilliance from Charlie Cameron, which may well have made Easton Wood, helplessly clutching to reach him in his road-runner-style wake, wish he was back home with those fractious toddlers.
There is absolutely everything that is great about footy in this final. There are swings in momentum, periods of dominance from each team, yet never a sense that the team dropping temporarily behind isn't still dangerously in touch. There are individual acts of courage and dare - including virtually every one of maestro 'Celeb' Daniel's audacious kicks, in which he alone sees impossible opportunities in time and space.
Players from both teams fly recklessly for marks, scramble and scrounge in packs, wrap their arms around other strong muscular opponents and bring them toppling down like trees.
And the two best men on the ground in the first half are wearing red white and blue; they keep rising above the fray, keep intersecting with the match at the most telling of moments.
The first is our captain, a man very occasionally mentioned in the Tragician blog. How can be be both so powerful and graceful, a man taller than many ruckmen! loping around with poise, taking a nonchalant bounce (and then another), his elegance and vision floating above the frantic hurly-burly. And yet, he is somehow equally at home in that hurly-burly, when he isn't, of course, helping out the backline as well; or bobbing up at the end of a chain of running possessions which he himself began.
The second is Jackson Macrae, who should be long past any trite associations with adjectives 'unobtrusive' and 'low-key'. He has ten possessions before most players have even had one. To the casual observer he looks laconic. But every Bulldog fan knows, and is thankful for, the burning ambition, the drive to succeed, the pride in his craft that lies behind our second great superstar Jackson Macrae.
There are hundreds of metres of turf at the Gabba, yet the battle dwindles and condenses as all great matches do: to centimetres painfully gained or painfully lost. Toe-pokes, deflections, random bounces, interspersed with sudden electrifying bursts out into the open. The Lions edge three goals in front in the third quarter, but the Tragician, who'd been so maudlin about the likelihood of a Bombres' win the week before, starts to see signs that this group have the same spirit of the 2016 finals series. They too, exude a confidence and passion, a refusal to lie down. Maybe they won't win. But there's no way they will be split open, no chance that they will let this slip without leaving everything on the line.
Just like the fabled GWS preliminary final, we rally at the end of the third quarter. The momentum of the match twists and turns; we regain the lead. In our lockdown homes our agitated and incoherent directions to the players are even less likely to influence the outcome than if we were actually there. But that fact has never stopped the pandemonium. The terror. The magnificent hope.
Only eight of the 2016 premiership players are now out there, but their experience tells at critical moments. And beside these Usual Suspects, an amazing game is being played by a 20-year-old with a hairstyle that can no longer be simply called a mullet. Bailey Smith's extravagant locks have led one commentator to say 'he looks like Fabio and sometimes kicks like him.' The journo was referring no doubt to his unreliable left foot that can sometimes make Bulldogs' fans wince in horror - yet that's the one that drills a massively important goal, confirming 'Bazlenka' - still a precocious 20-year-old, people! - as a big occasion player.
Scores are level; there are two agonising minutes still to be played. I've long since lost the power to breathe, but I somehow spot at a ball-up inside Brisbane's 50 metre arc, one Bulldogs' player who beneath his moustache appears to have an impish half-smile. He looks as though he is simultaneously right there in the intensity of the furnace, yet able to savour both the gravity and absurdity of the occasion: the enigmatic heartbeat of our team, Tom Liberatore.
In 2021 the Dogs have had two heartbreaking losses in these suffocating, tight matches. We're only too aware we failed to play those big moments well. So when the ball goes forward to an open Brisbane forward line with Charlie Cameron sprinting towards it, even the sight of Taylor Duryea hot on his heels can't stop a nightmare vision; we feel we know too well just how this script is likely to end. But 'Doc' plays it beautifully. He stops the electric speedster from grabbing and sprinting off with the ball towards goal; equally importantly, he doesn't concede a free kick, tempting as it must be to try just one tiny jumper tug, one little not-well-enough disguised paddle towards the boundary line.
We play all the moments right, with Vandermeer getting his boot to the ball and kicking the celebrated handy point; with little time to go, JJ almost physically propels Aaron Naughton towards the backline to shore up our flimsy advantage. We've learnt from those bitter losses. This one doesn't slip.
For a few moments after the siren sounds we're all too busy jumping around and screaming in our loungerooms to absorb an event that happened in the chaos. I'd half noticed Bont leaving the field with a sore knee, but with the match so excruciatingly balanced, the most I'd had time to think was how much we needed him right then to direct traffic, needed his telescopic 'G0-G0-Gadget' arms in the backline for one last punch. But now my mind turns to our injured captain, subdued and sore on the sidelines. The reality begins to hit. Can we really win next week without The Bont?
It's a question that will preoccupy us all week.
Meanwhile, Our Boys pack up, like a carnival leaving town. They jet off once more, 4000 kilometres away to Perth. That's where they'll rest their aching legs, their exhausted bodies. And then they leave once again, to play in Adelaide, where our well-rested opponents will have slept in their own beds and strolled around unimpeded in their city. (Ungraciously the Tragician hopes at least some will have been at the mercy of some fractious toddlers.)
Meanwhile back in lockdown Melbourne, there's no need to worry about finals tickets. No bustle of cars and comings and goings at the silent Whitten Oval, no throngs of people rushing to see a glimpse of our heroes at training. The Libba Sisters won't be joining a convoy of Western Bulldogs' fans travelling down the highway with red, white and blue scarves proudly trailing out their windows. Living just eight kilometres apart, we won't even be able to sit together, as we did for all those miserable preliminary finals - and that bright and shining one which brought us all such joy.
We won't be there, but through Our Boys' grit, belief, and resilience, we get to escape some of the lockdown drudgery. We have the possibility, at least, as old mate J. B. Priestley said nearly 100 years ago about the trance-like state of the football fan, of entering: 'another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art.'
The 2021 season - every season really - is a mosaic of tiny little fragments. One point - one point! - over the entire season, with all its kicks, goals, points, injuries, separated us from Brisbane, and pushed us out of the top four. A kick after the siren at Geelong; a shot at goal from Bailey Smith, in our match against Port, which just failed to evade the outstretched fingers of the pack on the line; seconds in which Josh Bruce's knee wrenched the wrong way. All these shaped our destiny. And now, again, one desperate lunge from Laitham Vandermeer, one point - one point! has kept our season alive, and ended that of our opponents. We still have another story to be written in what Bevo so poetically and aptly called this often cruel and sometimes beautiful game.
The date was July 24. It was a top-of-the-table clash, at the G. But Victoria was stuck in lockdown 5.0. No fans were there, to revel in the excitement, to urge our two teams on.
Unlike our encounter with the Dees earlier in the season, also played with no crowd, Our Boys were switched on, playing with verve, and most importantly NOT kicking it all the time to Steven May and the other bloke with a bad moustache who looks like Stan from On the Buses. And sometime in the third quarter a young fella with a mop of yellow hair leapt over a pack, his feet grazing Max Gawn's bald skull, and somehow took an exquisite mark.
We didn't know - you never do know - that it was in more than one way a high point of the season. The Dogs were now in top spot, having survived a bad run with injury. A hot contender for the flag. A team with the right balance of youth and experience. A potent forward line, a miserly defence which also had superb runners, and a midfield brimming with talent (which would soon be bolstered by two more A-class runners and competitors returning). And our next three games were against competition 'easy-beats' (not that the battle-scarred Tragician ever really sees it that way), by which point our place in the top four, quite likely top two, would be comfortably secured.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I used to be convinced that the Bulldogs' storylines of heartbreak and failure were somehow scripted by the gloomy Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. He always contrived a far-fetched and miserable outcome for his heroes and heroines (the Bob Murphy injury in 2016 was some of his finest, most inventive work). As our season began to implode it appeared that Ole Tom, far from being permanently vanquished, had been quietly regrouping since failing to control the 2016 narrative. He'd effectively used the intervening years to plot a cunning new set of improbable events planned for the boys in red white and blue.
The first was when, after seven years of dominance over the Bombres, we registered a loss, and even worse, with seconds to go (that's when I first sensed the resurgence of Ole Tom) Josh Bruce suffered an ACL.
The second was when, flat, tired, and all of a sudden hopelessly out of form, we lost, badly, to Hawthorn, with even our impregnable percentage advantage being .... whatever the opposite of impregnable is.
We now needed to beat Port to hold onto the top four spot we'd held down for pretty much the entire season.
In other words all the ingredients were there for a catastrophic cluster of Tragician-style calamities. (Excuse the overwrought purple prose - I'm obviously as out of touch with blogging as our team had become in winning clearances, contested possessions, and games of footy).
Against Port our top four position vanished in the heart-stopping milliseconds in which it took Bailey Smith's shot in the dying moments to : a) fail to clear the 900 men stationed in the goal square; and b) evade the usually sticky hands of Aaron Naughton.
The next day we watched with apprehension as Brisbane attempted to defeat West Coast by just enough to snatch our spot in the four. We could almost have laughed (but our sense of humour had long since deserted us) that a time-clock malfunction, and dodgy umpiring calls, conspired against us). We tumbled out of the top four at the worst possible moment.
Ole Tom was hard at work with some laborious coincidences to ratchet up the drama. Our opponents would be our historic arch enemy from days when Footscray and Yarraville were far from cool; those sneering and smug citizens from across the river. Yes, the unlovable Bombres: far from their premierships-winning heyday, many years into a finals-win drought (that a panic-stricken Tragician knew they surely had to break sometime).
There was a collective shudder among the Bulldogs faithful as we imagined all too vividly the wretched possibilities.
Most of these involved Jake The Former Lair Stringer (supposedly re-invented and allegedly not even pudgy any more) pulling out a dazzling array of tricks, kicking goals over his head, taking screamers, or kicking a booming torpedo from outside 50 with an after-the-siren kick to win the game. The other scenarios featured someone called Two-Meter Peter, who three weeks ago had triumphantly entered the distinguished Hall of Fame of Not Very Good Players Who Somehow Kicked A Bag of Goals Against the Bulldogs. (It's a more crowded Hall of Fame than it should be).
We were banished to cold wet Launceston. It was a sudden-death final; after all the bravery and hard work of 2021, we could be unceremoniously dumped out the finals in the most ignominious of fashions. Maybe the Karma Gods were ready to punish the Tragician for all those times she'd childishly pressed 'like' on her favourite twitter account: Days Since Essendon Won a Final.
There was none of the fun of a finals buildup. Fear of losing was all-consuming, much more overwhelming than the hope of winning, while the prospect of Our Boys in another grand final, which had seemed so real way back on July 24, had long since become a mirage.
Our start wasn't auspicious. To the raptures of the commentators Jake The Former Lair produced the first goal of the match. The Dogs still seemed to have that mysterious malaise, a lethargy, a flatness mirrored by those of us watching helplessly at home. It seemed a chore, to manufacture each goal, to run to contests, as the drizzly rain settled in for the afternoon.
Though we were a few points ahead at half time, the Libba Sisters weren't chirpy in a half-time FaceTime catch-up. 'I just feel sad,' said a subdued Libba Two. 'We won't do damage, even if we win,' said a melancholy Libba One, 'but I just want us to win.' We agreed that Umpire 22 had 'always had it in' for the Dogs, but even this attempt to manufacture some 'us against the world' animosity failed to ignite.
The third quarter began. That young man with the blonde hair had been 'managed' in our previous match against the Bombres, which in retrospect was a huge mistake. Cody, and Umpire 22, were now suddenly everywhere. Totally justified free kicks rained upon us. All of them were completely deserved. (In the interests of impartiality for which this blog is rightly acclaimed, I checked this out with Libba Two, and then a further opinion was sourced from my mother). It was hardly Cody's fault if he kept getting in good positions and the Bombres didn't know how to tackle properly!
Our mid-field, who'd been so listless over the past few weeks, were getting on top. And in a sign that always augurs well for our team, Chief Antagonist Libba The Second (how I would LOVE to hear what he murmurs into his opponents' ears) was in the thick of things. (I also firmly believe that the Sons of Guns share my - our- antipathy into all things red and black, and Libba The Second was undoubtedly channeling the herculean efforts of his father whose crunching tackles played such a crucial role in the epic encounter where we spoilt Essendon's chance to go through a season undefeated).
With each moment Our Boys looked stronger, with each goal that mysterious lack of energy returned. The Bombres faded, out of ideas.
In line with our imaginings, Jake The Former Lair had the ball when the siren sounded, but his attempted torpedo shot at goal only registered a point. The most it could have achieved, anyway, was to save the Dons from a humiliating milestone. Because it was the first time since the 1950s that a team had failed to score in the second half of a final, the kind of dismal stat that our Bulldogs used to have a stranglehold on.
(It gladdened my heart that the more low-key of the pair of 2012 Bulldogs draftees, Jack Macrae, was best on the ground while his more talked-about former team-mate did very little when the match was on the line.)
I was relieved, euphoric, and newly hopeful that we could go further into the finals series, as I hastened over to twitter to press 'like' on the newly updated Days Since Essendon Won A Final account tally.
I couldn't help smiling as I thought about our effervescent' Cody-19'. He is the sort of player that would annoy me to distraction if he played for anyone else, a real 'Dennis the Menace'. When he was little one of my sons used to call people who annoyed him 'pesky penguins.' Cody is a pesky penguin beloved by his own fans, while loathed by pretty much everyone else.
His exuberance, his sheer love of playing footy (have you ever seen him BOUNCE down the race whooping and hollering) is something we so sorely need to have in our lives, as grim lockdowns drag on, and a COVID -constrained finals series means we won't be there in in person to see whatever unfolds. (And now, inevitably, he is subjected to sickening online abuse, a 20-year-old being viciously attacked by trolls with hate in their hearts).
As fans, we have seen so little of this bundle of dynamic energy in real time. We could only watch him on television in his debut match in 2020, when he threaded the most audacious of bananas to join the ranks of those who kicked a goal with their first kick. Unlike the careers of other new players in our colours, we haven't been able to follow his every step, form opinions on his strengths, indignantly gloss over his weaknesses.
While we leapt from our couches and jumped in the air with excitement at his screamer over Gawn, our cheers fell into a void. There was no Libba Sister beside me to high-five. The Tragician family and friends weren't part of the gasps of excitement, sensing a second or two before his launch, that 'Cody-19' was going for the big fly. We couldn't relive it together on the big screen, settle back into our seats chuckling at the bravado of this young guy, whose enthusiasm and smile make Brad Johnson look like a grouchy old curmudgeon.
In fact, we've only seen him 'live' twice, since he debuted. In times which already seem impossibly far away. That brief window of time in the first half of 2021, when coronavirus restrictions were on hold, and we got to cheer for our team in person. Now we follow Cody and his team-mates from a literal and figurative distance. Their efforts are filtered through the annoying and constricted television lens, as they zig-zag around the continent just one step ahead of the virus, to win games of footy and make us proud, wearing masks as they sing our song.
Believe it or not, I've actually seen us win at Kardinia Park (or whatever they call it these days: my preference is TFS for Taxpayer-Funded Stadium).
It was 2003. The surprising thing about pulling off this rare feat was that it was in a year we added to our stellar collection of wooden spoons. In fact we only won three games for the year; astonishingly enough this included defeating the Cats twice.
Geelong's team that day contained many of the players who'd form the nucleus of the great era which was yet to dawn. Our team included luminaries such as Daniel Bandy and Patrick Bowden, a few ageing remnants from our tilts in the '90s, and some newish players who would go on to find Geelong an insurmountable hurdle in the years 2008-2010.
There was also an unheralded rookie called Matthew Boyd, wearing number 42 and playing his fifth game.
Still, as someone famous once said, we've all passed a lot of water since those days.
I used to have a grudging admiration for the achievements of the Geelong dynasty later that decade. Now I've allowed myself to wallow in just the grudging.
About that benighted ground, where we can just about pencil in the loss of four points each year, yet where, in an unfairly lopsided fixture, Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton and Richmond never have to play.
About my well-known antipathy towards anything Scott-brother-related; now that Petulant Brad has departed, all my angst can be directed squarely at Morose Chris, who's added a George Hamilton-style tan to reasons to dislike him.
About how they're always able to attract and top up with blue-chip talent - with one new addition being among my (admittedly bulging) all time list of Most Detestable: 'Jezza' Cameron, no less.
About the air of entitlement that hangs over their players, who are genuinely astonished if ever a free is paid against them.
About why they can't just bottom out, rebuild and stop annoying me so much.
As a counterpoint, however, I remind myself the Bulldogs have won a premiership more recently than the Cats.
That's all I've got.
In contrast to the 2003 clash which had little riding on it, in this 2021 match there is much at stake. The Cats are scratching at our top two spot on the ladder. We need a win for our credibility as a top four aspirant, having failed tests against Richmond and Melbourne.
It must be time, at last, to rid ourselves of the TFS monkey.
Fortunately, even if I wanted to, I was unable to purchase an exorbitantly priced seat at the stadium. It saved me from being condemned to watch most of the match on the scoreboard anyway given the weird shape of the ground. COVID restrictions mean 7000 of their supporters are allowed at the match, and only 200 of ours - I guess it preserves the usual ratio between the two clubs' attendance even without a pandemic.
The Libba Sisters are far from sorry that instead of huddling in the cold surrounded by Feral Cats, we'll be watching the clash on the couch. Settling into our accustomed positions, we don't really talk about what we expect, or hope for, on this wintry Friday night. At this ground, against this opponent, anything, sadly, is possible.
In the first quarter, though, we begin giving each other those silent nods of acknowledgement. Our Boys are 'on.'
Their execution isn't always matching the intent. Blessed with the Docklands stadium roof, we play less outdoor footy than most, which means we don't handle the wet and slippery conditions cleanly. But there is no doubt of their endeavour, no sign of that curious flatness which marred our game against the Dees.
By the third quarter, our hopes have gone beyond just a 'let's not capitulate' low bottom line. Our engine room purrs into life. Jackson Macrae, Tom Liberatore and The Bont rip the ball from the centre time and again. Our efforts are often kamikaze, our delivery to the forward line haphazard, but our intensity, our will, can't be faulted. And there are enough moments of brilliance - Josh Bruce's superb 50 metre goal on the run from the boundary, the Bont's brilliant snap - for us to be in the match up to our eyeballs. We've lost our wonderful forward, the Astro-Naut, but maybe in these conditions, it's not as big a loss as it might normally be, much though I mourn the loss of his exhilarating leaps in his retro long-sleeved guernsey
The Cats, however, are always in touch. Of course they are. Their goals somehow seem easier, more methodical, more calmly crafted and less energy-sapping than ours.
But early in the last quarter I murmur the words: 'I think we can do this.' Libba Sister Two nods in silent agreement. We miss some sitters, but our efforts, our desperation, our focus, are magnificent. They will - surely - be rewarded.
Maybe they would have been rewarded, if it was any other team, any other venue.
Toby McLean puts us in front. The Tragician had earlier been proclaiming his inclusion as a mistake. But as we jump to our feet, I swiftly change my tune; I always knew it would be another selection masterstroke from Bevo Our Saviour!
But... there are three minutes to go. Will we bottle up the play, clog the backline with every Bulldogs player? or will we keep pushing forward, trying to manufacture another goal, strike a final killer blow against these seasoned pros... who've been in this position, and escaped, so many times before?
We have no way of knowing which option to take. Instead, as fans, we enter what I call the fever dream. Only footy fans can understand it: a fugue state, those last few minutes of a match when you're in front and trying to hold on. Reality is both heightened and blurry. Time slows down and accelerates, warps, has no meaning. Mesmerised, hypnotised, barely able to breathe: the actions of those out there on the field are momentarily the very most important on the planet.
In the fever dream, we become inarticulate, unable to even barrack coherently. There's just snatches of agitated, racing thoughts, made worse by having no full perspective of the ground or the match context: 'Not there..oh...don't kick it...good boy...what...they can't ... they can't, can they??'
And somehow time for anticipatory grief, for all that's at stake.
Gary Rohan has the ball in his hands. He will kick for goal after the siren. In so many homes across Melbourne's west like ours, the last quarter din has fallen silent.
I try and imagine him duffing the kick and it slewing out of bounds on the full. I know it won't happen.
It doesn't happen.
The Libba Sisters scramble for the remote, but not in time to avoid the nauseating celebrations of the Solarium-faced One, not so morose now, rubbing further salt into the wounds of every Bulldogs fan.
We slowly, painfully, emerge from the fever dream.
There are the 'if onlies', of course. Surely a fit Astro-Naut would have clunked a crazy-brave mark in those last dying minutes as we struggled to fend off the insurgents. Our injured players, especially the Bromance Buddies, would have been so vital with their extra run in that last quarter. There were those costly misses; the fact that the Cats still had so much space in their forward line with seconds to go; the decisions players made under white-hot pressure. I can't criticise any one of them, for I can see how much our team tried, how much this loss - an after the siren kick is the absolutely worst way to lose - will sting.
And there's the sinking knowledge of what lies ahead; a trip to Perth, with another hungry, fresh challenger hoping to bring us down. A week in strict quarantine will strain Our Boys' physical and mental wellbeing. And now, 'Big Boys Month', as Damien Hardwick calls the gruelling month of July, is now just around the corner
I leave Libba Sister Two and drive home. There is roadwork everywhere, and I twice become lost. I swerve to avoid a fox, running stealthily across the grim shadows beneath the Westgate Bridge. In the semi-deserted streets, I pass knots of Bulldogs' fans clustered outside pubs, still dissecting the loss, emerging from their own fever dreams to lament the 'if-onlies'.
Finally at home, I try to understand what went wrong and what it will mean for our 2021 campaign. I see the footage of Joel Selwood, clawing at the face of Dailey Bailey (an 'ear massage' chortle the commentators, who love to maintain the myth of his courage) and in a separate incident, drawing blood as he steps back "accidentally" onto the calf of Taylor Duryea ('and he pokes him in the eye and then stands on his foot,' they titter) acts for which he will only be fined. There's one pithy statement on Twitter that captures my anger, defiance and heartbreak for our club. 'We'll kill these pricks in September.'
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.