The siren had sounded. We had defeated our greatest foe, the Bombres, by a comfortable 41 point margin. We'd dealt a major blow to their finals' aspirations, while bolstering our own. In fact, this latest win was another step in something of a golden era for us against our unlovable neighbors; surprisingly, we've won 12 of our last 20 against them. We were also the most recent team to prolong their long finals drought, which now approaches 7000 days.
You may have imagined the Tragician walking proudly from the ground, red, white and blue scarf at a jaunty angle in order to discreetly display the miniature 2016 premiership cup. I wouldn't interact with the seething Essendon fans; I'm too classy, or at least too short, to risk it. I'd be on the alert, though, hoping to eavesdrop on the outraged fans in red and black. Maybe I'd hear them canning the efforts of my formerly beloved 'Lair'. Jake Stringer had gathered just eight possessions, and was now being described by embittered Bombres fans as a KMart DeGoey.
None of the above was in any way true. Instead, the Tragician was conspicuously absent. And at the final siren, had only just turned on the AFL app to see if we had won.
It wasn't because I was on holiday elsewhere. Or ill, or injured. In fairness, with virtually all the Tragician family overseas, I was unable to find a barracking companion. And, then, it was a home game for the red and black. You won't find me contributing to the bulging Windy Hill coffers!
These justifications were far from the whole story though. After all, they didn't explain why I'd also imposed a boycott on watching, or listening, to the match. Sadly, it was because I was afraid we'd lose. And in a deeply frustrating 2023, that prospect, against the Bombres no less, just seemed a bridge too far.
This may seem preposterous, given how many losses I've seen in decades of barracking. It could well seem hypocritical, given my repeated, sanctimonious claims that losses are character-building, an essential part of belonging to my club. I've preached of the importance of just being there. I've dragged myself to many a match knowing a flogging was about to ensue, kept supporting them after multiple finals disasters, and even embraced, with some degree of pride, the peculiar charms involved in barracking for a spectacularly unsuccessful club.
And yet. And yet...
Amid all the emotions that my support of the Bulldogs has evoked over time - despair, hope, euphoria, sadness, anger and occasionally, well, frequently, bafflement - my 2023 state of mind has been the most confusing yet. But if I had to sum it up in one word it's been...annoyance.
I'd expected awful losses back in the day. We were just objectively bad in many of those dreary seasons when we barely won a game. And there was something thrillingly noble about our endless appearances in preliminary finals, and the way we invented new ways to lose.
But the way we lose in 2023 - somehow it's been different. These aren't the tight losses where gallant Footscray teams pushed better sides at a rainy Western Oval before succumbing, and then being cheered off by the faithful including a youthful Tragician. These losses have come when our team, crammed with talent, has squandered leads, shot themselves in the foot with tediously bad goal-kicking, or costly concentration lapses. The 2023 cohort have riled and frustrated me in ways I don't remember before, even though - or maybe because - their effort was never really in question.
The week before the Essendon match, our performance against the Swans was like a microcosm of the ways we contrive to lose. It was a defeat so disheartening that I feared it would break the psyche of the group. Bont even threw his mouthguard to the ground. And may have uttered a swearword !
The media were now swarming all over our poor performances. We were wasting a golden era of generational talent (read: The Bont era), it was claimed. Another article plaintively asked a question in all our minds: 'Why aren't the Dogs good any more?' Bevo Our Saviour was grim-faced and clinical, but somehow perplexed, in his press conferences. The unthinkable prospect of him being sacked was really not that unthinkable any more.
This was the backdrop to the Bombres match. I felt a bit like the comedian who said he wasn't afraid of dying. He just didn't want to be there when it happened.
We could lose against the Bombres. I just didn't want to see it unfold in real time.
In order to ward off a scoop by Caro, or feverish speculation from Damian Barrett linking me to a feud with Bevo, I contemplated making a public announcement. 'The Bulldog Tragician is stepping away temporarily from her role as a fan, to focus on her mental health'. But no one seemed to have noticed I was missing, so I sat on the couch instead refusing to check the score.
When I heard the result, I was happy of course.
But I celebrated with a new emotion I've specially coined for 2023. It's known as muted jubilation.
My self-imposed exile was short-lived. Soon I was on the road to Ballarat. The win against the Bombres had definitely been enjoyable, when I watched it the next day with the luxury of knowing the result. The Dogs, to their credit, have kept rebounding after frustrating losses. I hoped my doubts about us had finally been quelled. We started terrifically against The Acronyms. And then, in 2023 fashion, we fell right away, squandering a six goal lead. There were extenuating circumstances, sure, our defence hard hit by injury. But it didn't feel like the whole story.
I was annoyed, all over again.
So I didn't hold out high hopes for our match against Richmond. Not least because we were going to wear the diamond dogs' guernsey. I couldn't look at it without succumbing to 97 flashbacks of The First Libba leaping into the arms of his teammates to celebrate the goal-that-wasn't in The Preliminary Final That Must Not be Named.
Even without this bad omen, I felt the belief of the 2023 group must be eroded now; I couldn't see how Bevo could keep them upbeat and positive. I braced myself for the inevitable. I thought we'd lose in a grinding miserable scrap which the Tigers would break open through some Shai Bolton magic (that guy just loves playing against us).
I didn't expect the most blistering, brilliant and dynamic first quarter we've played since the 2021 Preliminary Final. We could do no wrong, launching attack after attack. Our forwards were dangerous, and took every half or even quarter chance; our hard-running backline scintillating.
It was great fun, of course, but I was careful to keep my mindset within the acceptable parameters of muted jubilation. I waited for the Tigers to rattle on the goals, for me to look at the scoreboard in confusion, unable to understand why they were somehow only one point down.
But The Bont's brilliance broke through my defences. He was playing footy on some higher plane, doing things that were just outrageous, delicately picking up a ball from his fingertips, showing unbelievable courage, gliding away from hapless opponents, beautifully weighting kicks to the forwards. In case we were bored with the display, he livened things up, deciding to be a forward himself in the third quarter. His three goals were a mini highlight reel. A huge tackle to win a free? Check. A crazy-brave mark running back with the ball? Check. Elegantly brushing aside two Richmond defenders as though they were little leaguers to take a mark? Wouldn't you know it, the Bont did that too.
I don't know if I've seen a better, more complete individual performance. His partner-in-crime Libba, himself playing a wonderful match, continually had a bemused half-smile beneath his moustache. He looked as though he was just glad to have an inside view of such magnificence, and was happy and grateful to be the one shovelling it out constantly to The Man. Who was, inevitably, pretty good at being the one who shovelled it out too.
It was our best, four quarter performance of the year. But are we any closer to knowing whether we are the real deal in 2023? Can we trust that the dazzling footy we've displayed in spurts can be put together at the right time? Does Liam Jones make THAT much difference?
It's hard not to be constantly watchful for the lapses that have plagued us since the disastrous 2021 grand final. No matter how far up we are, I'm constantly suspicious, nervous about whether we will stem the bleeding when our opposition gets on the run.
But while those questions remain, we get to watch the man who will surely become our greatest ever Bulldogs player. In my mind, he already is. While he's out there, the Dogs are always a chance. He's already come so close to fulfilling the destiny I claimed for him after just his sixth game: a premiership player, a captain, a best and fairest winner, surely on track for a Brownlow. All that's missing is a Norm Smith medal. It hurts to remember it was in his keeping at the 15 minute mark of the 2021 Grand Final. There will be nothing muted about my jubilation if that accolade is claimed by him as well.
Sometimes I think the old suburban rivalries have long since disappeared, their intensity diluted by the corporatisation of football and the loss of those tribal home grounds which each had their own identity, feel and (at the Western Oval at least) smell. Maybe those hatreds have become meaningless in the modern era of The Truly National Competition.
But then I hear the Carlton theme song. And I instantly know that isn't the case at all.
We were a couple of blocks away from arriving at the blandly anonymous Marvel stadium when we heard it. Those familiar, triumphant opening chords blared out from a vehicle close by. We looked around apprehensively, expecting to see plumes of cigar smoke and a cavalcade of Rolls Royces carrying captains of industry. But it was a humble pedicab containing four or five Blues fans, adopting a novel way to get to the ground.
They looked ordinary enough. I could have smiled and regarded it as harmless and quirky. But after decades of antipathy towards the Olde Dark Navy Blues and everything they stood for I've lost my sense of humour where they are concerned.
And then ... the swarm of Bluebagger fans around us began to join in with the song.
For God's sake, we weren't even inside the stadium!
I was bewildered at how their chutzpah survives even their recent unsuccessful years. I mean, weren't they this very week on the ropes, under the pump, getting the blow-torch applied to them? (and a few other footy cliches) after their underwhelming start to the year thrust them into the spotlight.
I couldn't make sense of it. Here they were, as brazen and bumptious as ever; I couldn't imagine the Tragician family making a similar grand entrance to the ground. It was surprising too because in other ways there has been a shift in Carlton's usual boastfulness. This week, when their poor performances were being constantly discussed, the Blues' top brass had reacted, not with fire and brimstone and thundering declarations that at Carlton they only existed to win premierships. There were no ominous hints of axes were being sharpened, no dark threats they would soon be ruthlessly deployed.
No, their response was Un-Carlton Like. Meek. Almost humble.
It wouldn't be a disaster or a season wasted if the Blues didn't make the finals, they said. They only just stopped short of cliches about valuable learning opportunities. I could almost hear a snarl of 'Pigs Arse' from one of their former presidents, uttered behind a wreath of cigarette smoke, if he'd been around to hear such arrant nonsense.
Despite this apparent new-found warm and cuddly persona I couldn't escape a visceral dislike. If I wondered why, I had my answer when their team broke through the banner and their song blared out again. In my youth I'd mis-heard the lyrics and thought they were openly bragging about their ability to buy premierships:
With all the champions! We like to spend up! To keep our end up.
My scowl intensified.
The barrage of criticism, and the fact their own supporters had booed them the previous week, didn't spur the Bluebaggers into a ferocious attack in the first minutes. (Maybe they were reassured to know finals aren't everything). Our Boys asserted an early control over the game while the Carlton team looked - has such a concept ever been associated with this club? - down on confidence. They missed gettable shots, they gifted us goals with miskicks. And there appeared to be more evidence that Carlton were comfortable with their new, more self-effacing reality; when they finally scored their first goal, well into the second quarter, the scoreboard flashed up what I thought was a message of encouragement: 'We're on the board!"
However, when pictures of a charcuterie board and an advertisement for a brand of ham instantly followed, I felt weirdly comforted that at their core, they remained the same.
At half time the Blues had kicked just one goal. It brought back memories of a gloriously soggy, windswept afternoon at the Western Oval in the 1990s, when we almost kept the high flying Carlton team goal-less for the entire match. Such were our thrills, our version of premiership success, back in the day, alongside the celebrated occasion in 2000 when we inflicted on the Bombres their only defeat for the year. I grudgingly concede, however, fans of these two clubs are likely to be busier dwelling on their abundance of premierships, rather than still fretting over losses to the lowly Dogs.
It was now the start of what previous generations of Blues' fans used to call the premiership quarter. Usually this featured an avalanche of goals from the likes of The Dominator, Sticks, Buzz and The Flying Doormat (these were players, not professional wrestlers, should there happen to be any younger readers of this blog). So I was alert and - as always - significantly alarmed. But our team initially built on our lead. We looked as though the match was in our keeping, as though we would actually pull further away.
But the Blues crept, rather than stormed, back into the match. They were painstaking rather than dazzling. The match had been low-scoring. Now, they made fewer mistakes. They were within two goals at the last break, and a rumbling roar took over the stadium. They were 'coming' as their immodest slogan bragged one season not too long ago.
An infamous Bulldogs collapse was on the cards.
'I feel sick,' moaned Libba Two.
'I have a headache,' I whined.
At times like these I can simultaneously realise how ridiculous it is to be a footy fan whilst being unable to be anything but.
I expected the Dogs to lose, of course. A lowlight reel, of days of thrashings at Princes Park flashed before my eyes. I could anticipate the noise of the Blues' fans, their jubilation, as their team swept over the top of us. I could see the headlines, anticipate the questions, feel the irrational emotions of shame and embarrassment that come from losing a game where you've been more than five goals up and comfortably in control.
There were an important few minutes to start the last quarter; we knuckled down and fought gallantly to stop their momentum. We were hoping, of course, for Bont, our saviour so often, to produce some magic. But we couldn't seem to score. Carlton grabbed the lead, for the first time in the match, with just ten minutes to go. The stadium rocked. Blues' players began thumping their chests and pointing to their jumpers. I was unclear whether, this being Carlton, this was an expression of emotion, or a preplanned marketing tactic to highlight one of their sponsors.
Most of all I was just steeling myself for That Song. Preparing my most stoic expression. It's been well-practised over the years.
Libba (the player, not one of the Sisters), quick of mind, conjured up a goal against the odds. Yet the Blues replied, far too quickly. I thought we were out of ideas. I wasn't confident if this group had the fanatical zeal and desperation to rally again.
The ones who rallied weren't just the old reliables, Bont, Libba, Macrae. Bailey Smith, the last quarter specialist, was gut-running when all around were fatigued. Our re-fashioned defensive group - I've begun to call them the Mean Boys - kept repelling the Blues. And there was a brilliant cameo from everyone's favourite player at the moment (sorry Bont) the irrepressible Arty Jones.
I'm convinced crowds have particular noises, for particular players. A murmur of appreciation when Bont glides into the frame. A theatrical gasp when Naughton launches. And now a buzz of excitement...ARTY!!...as he put us back in front.
We somehow blasted out four goals to win in a matter of minutes. Strangely enough it could have been more; two absolute sitters were missed.
We sang the song, our song. Unsurprisingly headaches and nausea had disappeared.
The Blues' fans had long since filed home. Astonishingly, many gave up the ghost after LIbba's goal. I wondered, afterwards, do they feel any sense of heightened rivalry or bitterness towards us, or is it just a one-way street? Are we insignificant and inoffensive still in their minds compared to their long-standing identity as a superpower? Do they save their venom for the Pies and the Bombres, even though those two teams have been, on the whole, less successful than us over the past two or three decades?
Once, long ago, one of those nondescript, battling Footscray teams pulled off an upset against the highly fancied Blues. A footy writer at the time reported that Carlton fans afterwards said they didn't mind losing to us occasionally. It was good for the game, good for the competition, they said magnanimously. 'What would be better for the game and the competition,' said the journo very wisely, ' was if they hated being beaten by those Dogs because it happened all the bloody time.'
In 2014 a raw and gawky teenager named Marcus Bontempelli was a guest on one of the footy programs. He'd played a handful of immensely promising games.
Presenter Mark Robinson leaned in towards him, with a fake, oily air of intimacy and confidentiality designed to trip the young bloke up. What did you REALLY think when you were drafted by the sad and sorry Bulldogs? (You can trust me, just share with Robbo the truth?) Was your first thought : 'Oh no!'
Not for the first time, I nearly succumbed to the temptation to throw something at Mark Robinson's foolish face on the TV. But, looking slightly affronted, our new number four politely rebuffed Robinson's condescending assumption. With an air of composure, he spoke about the good things at the club and his enjoyment at being there.
This was the first, but by no means the last, time I would feel inordinately proud of Marcus, as I still quaintly called him. (For like a bashful suitor I felt it was too early to call him by a nickname. And I was maintaining an increasingly fragile posture, claiming that the legendary Daniel Cross would be, forever and always, my favourite player to wear number four).
Marcus had played in five losses - including a 45-point loss to Gold Coast, if you're wondering just how well our team was travelling - before he got the chance to sing the club song. Somehow his first victory was one of those that have somehow penetrated through the fog of too many seasons, too many matches, that is the fate of the long-term supporter.
It was June 2014. We were at rock bottom. (Again). We were a laughing stock. (Again). A smarmy article had been written that day questioning our very identity and calling us..."irrelevant". We were about to play a Collingwood team who were a premiership contender; it was the dead of winter. Even the Tragician didn't want to head to the match.
But if the fans couldn't show stoicism and grit, why should the players, I asked somewhat rhetorically, heading gloomily - yet sanctimoniously - out the door.
The blog that day was called: We came, we saw, we believed. It was worth being there, of course it was. The Dogs upset the Pies, and Marcus, who could perhaps (I was coming around) now be called Bont, or Bonti, earned a Rising Star nomination. He hugged his dad at the end of the match. It was a beautiful moment.
We knew - KNEW - he was going to be special.
Bont (oh, all right, I was throwing caution to the wind by now) played every game for the rest of the season, one in which the Dogs finished 14th. In one of these he kicked a stupendous goal that is remembered by all who saw it and which saw me feverishly anoint him as a future captain, Brownlow and Norm Smith medalist! (My understated, low-key blog was called: All about the Bont). I knew, we all knew, the hyperbole was justified. We saw greatness. We hoped, almost superstitiously feared, how far he could take us.
Somehow, improbably, The Bont is now 27 years old. He plays his 200th game this week. Less improbably, he is our captain, for this was always his destiny, and a premiership player. By his own will, and outsized talent, he made that his, and our, destiny.
As fans, we've been alongside him, sometimes raucously, sometimes silently, always with a sort of reverence, through all those years.
We were there in the 2015 final, when a chant of his name which I've never heard (before or since) for an individual Bulldog reverberated around the arena. (Bont missed gettable shots of goal that evening, and a jittery Tragician feared that the Bulldog Curse had somehow infiltrated even his sunny demeanour).
We were there in the moment that some North Fake Tough Guys roughed him up. The unflappable teenager smothered the kick of one of the chief antagonists and then did what I christened the Bontempelli Smirk.
We joined him in the unlikely fairytale ride of 2016, mystified, and yet enthralled when we heard his, and the team's, mantra was: 'Why not us?' Such an UnBulldog-like, carefree sentiment would normally have been treated with suspicion, and worse, embarrassment ... as if we didn't know, as if it wasn't burnt into our consciousness, all the reasons it was never us. But in the moment that Bont stretched out his arms and outbodied Luke Hodge, I became strangely calm. I entered a trance-like state from that point, somehow indoctrinated almost against my will in a 'Why not us?' cult.
Now, when I watch the goal Bont kicked in the suffocating last quarter against The Despised Acronyms, I'm awed by the degree of difficulty. The way he had to run full pelt onto an awkwardly bouncing ball. The skill with which he paddled it almost delicately into his outsized hands.
The smoothness with which he steadied. The laser-like contact from his left foot.
So many things could have gone wrong. Yet at the time I knew no other thought, but that because it was Bont, he would surely kick it.
We've seen him kick goals of outrageous flair. Time and again we've seen him burst from the centre with that unique blend of grace and power. We've seen his strong, yet soft hands bring down marks, seen him somehow there on the last defensive line in the urgent dying matches of moments, his fist coming over the top to save the day. The competitiveness burning beneath a genial demeanour.
I guess there has been less of the Bontempelli smirk. Because hard times come to champions too.
We saw the GWS thugs monster him, the scratches on his face, the punch to his gut outside play. We weren't with him though - we were so many many kilometres away - when he celebrated his third goal in the 2021 Grand Final. Apart, literally, from our team, isolated by COVID, we watched those awful moments that followed, as the match vanished from our keeping. We could only silently grieve, for all our team but Bont in particular, knowing how much he had done to get us to that final, an awe-inspiring individual season, and captaining in the most difficult and extraordinary of circumstances.
It seemed important to me to keep the TV on, to see Bont make the concession speech, such a hard, wrenching moment. He was dignified. Calm. Gracious. But hurting.
We could see, in those stunned, wretched minutes, how badly our champ was hurting.
There are still occasional moments - though it's probably inevitable there are fewer in the hard grind of what's now a nine-year career - when we see the young Marcus reappear. When our team made the finals last year as The Old Dark Navy Blues slipped out of the eight in the dying moments of the round (that's a Tragician smirk from me) and he leapt around wildly with his team-mates. When Bont jumped from the bench when Little Arty NEARLY kicked a goal.
We brim with pride on every single occasion we see him in his captain role: his gentle and beautiful manner as he shepherds children who run through the banner, his fierce comments about racism, his silent but powerful stand alongside Jamarra when he spoke about what he'd endured.
Last week Bont played one of his more majestic games. Perhaps it was his best ever, I felt it to be so, yet memories can be so imprecise. But every feature, every one of his amazing repertoire of skills, was present in cameo. The clearance work where he doesn't slow down as he takes the ball and lopes off, much quicker than a guy of his size has any right to be. The outrageous 30-metre handballs which anticipate, indeed command, where his team-mate must go. Marking befitting a power forward. A speckie!
He's learning new tricks. He's in his prime.
I admit he has flaws. He's had a few bad haircuts, for example. If I think of any others I'll get back to you.
We've often wished we could clone him. At various points of last week's match I thought such technology had actually come to fruition, because surely that couldn't be Bont taking a mark on the forward line when he'd been the one to win the clearance, or spoil an opposition's forward thrust half a second earlier?
There is a school of thought that our club's erratic and overall disappointing performances since 2016 have 'wasted the Bont years.' That with this once-in-a-generation (make that once-in-a -lifetime) talent at our disposal, we should have been more successful. Reaped more rewards. Consistently played finals. Jagged a premiership, maybe two.
I don't quite see it that way.
Maybe it's the legacy of too many years where our team were a rabble, and perhaps fans of the big successful clubs would heap scorn on this idea. Just seeing Bont play has been a privilege and a joy, and his feats, his brilliance, will always shine bright whether he adds another premiership to an already glittering resume.
Maybe it's unique to us as Bulldogs' fans, or maybe it's unique to me as a Bulldog Tragician. I've learnt, maybe I had to learn, to take solace in tiny moments, and savour the individual talents, stories and efforts. Because premiership glory comes along rarely, and there have to be other reasons to drag out the scarf when someone's written a supercilious article calling you irrelevant and another thrashing seems assured. I've still appreciated the artistry, the bravery, the gumption of all those - too many! - Bulldogs who played 200, 300 games for us and didn't even make one grand final. Their careers weren't a waste. Their efforts are still to be celebrated.
There will be another flag for Bont, though, a voice whispers insistently in my ear. I certainly won't need any extra prompting to drag out my scarf and head for the match on Saturday, to celebrate the player and even more the person. He's definitely been a worthy heir to the Daniel Cross guernsey, and if we're very lucky there might at some point be a trademark Bontempelli smirk.
After the loss to St Kilda the reviews were brutal.
There was a lack of intensity, dare and passion all across the ground. Skills were deplorable. The team looked old, slow and even unfit. If there was a new game plan to address our defensive woes, as hinted at by club communications, it was nowhere in evidence. Unless leaving opposition players unattended 15 metres from goal was something we'd been practising.
We were headed for bottom four; with challenging games ahead, we could easily have zero wins in our first five matches. It was our worst loss under Bevo. It was maybe our worst loss, ever.
But, enough of what the Libba Sisters had to say.
Soon the football experts began a pile-on, scathing in their assessments of Luke Beveridge and our players, and writing us off for the season.
The effect on me was immediate. A 360-degree turnabout in my views almost gave me whiplash. How dare those idiotic morons sneer at my club, my Bulldogs FAMILY!! They were a bunch of know-nothing nincompoops, motivated by hatred of the western suburbs!! They had never forgiven us for the fact that in 2016 we'd won the GREATEST premiership of all time!!!
My lack of rationality (and Trump-ian exclamation marks and capitals) didn't concern me at all; in fact it was comforting in its extremity. Passion, rather than objectivity or even consistency, is part of the package; for our club more than most. If I'd only been interested in jumping on the Bulldogs' glory train when we were travelling well, I'd have seen less than a quarter of games in my lifetime. Whole seasons would have sailed fruitlessly by. The Western Bulldogs, nee Footscray Football Club, have always been family, not a mere sporting enterprise to me. Just like family, unconditional support was required, more than ever in difficult and testing times.
We drew on that clannish togetherness more than ever when news of the worst kind trickled through. Our young star in the making, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, had been racially abused by a spectator at the Saints match. My heart was heavy; the fact of our loss was now trivial, meaningless, in comparison. How can this happen in 2023? it is baffling, sickening.
There was barely controlled anger in the voice of The Bont, as he fronted the media to condemn the hatefulness. And Jamarra's mother Alice was eloquent, and heartbreaking with her words:
'Its venomous tone, a reflection of hate. A reminder of how far we still have to go, it’s our fate.
'We won’t give in, we won’t back down. We’ll stand up tall and never let our spirits drown. For we know that love will always triumph over hate.'
There was love aplenty when much better news was announced: another Indigenous boy, Arthur Jones, would make his debut. I'd been captivated by Arty since seeing his exuberantly over-the-top celebration with family and friends when he was drafted. Watching his team-mates celebrate the news of his inclusion, seeing Our Boys united and together after a tough week, I felt a sense of calm and optimism return. The fears earlier in the week - of a 10-goal thumping and a certain former premiership player of ours kissing his new Brisbane jumper as he ran into an open goal - faded into the background.
In fact by the time the Libba Sisters took our seats, sporting our brand new Arty Jones badges, belief in Our Boys was back.
We'd decided not to boo the player we now frostily called Josh Dunkley (nicknames such as "Dunks" are only for family members after all). Our connection to him had already waned two years earlier when he wanted out. He'd been professional while he played out the contract he wanted to break, I grudgingly conceded, but irrationally that was what annoyed me further - that every time he ran out for us, he was fulfilling a merely professional role. Or motivated by the need to build Brand Dunks.
Now Josh Dunkley has left our club where he'd become a premiership player, his mates and brothers, for a better business opportunity. Well, I wouldn't lower myself to boo him, but maybe I wouldn't exactly be sorry if he had a little hamstring tweak in the first minutes. Or was crunched just a little too hard in a fair but ferocious tackle. Or missed a simple shot at goal at a critical moment, to cost his new franchise, sorry, team, the game. Yes, welcome to the petty inner world of the Bulldog Tragician, concerned enough with worthy causes and social justice in her everyday life, but quite capable of harbouring such thoughts when there has been any slight against her Bulldogs Family.
The Thursday night crowd was sparse and disappointing, but you felt somehow the ones who were there were of a certain ilk and determination. Maybe they had been barracking for the Dogs long enough to know that with the footy world against us, Bevo Our Saviour and his - Our - Boys were likely to be at their best.
From the first centre bounce a different Bulldogs mindset was on display. The highly-rated Brisbane midfield were going to be harassed, niggled, outworked all night. And the crowd didn't seem that small once we realised that our team were up to the challenge.
We roared our approval when Arty Jones (advertised as 71 kg, but surely this is a misprint) effected a tackle that led to Jamarra's first goal. We stood, numbly trying to convey our love and support, when Jamarra lifted his guernsey to show his black skin to the crowd in a recreation of the famous Nicky Winmar gesture. And when Arty almost kicked a goal, we rose from our seats; it was endearing to see Bont, from the bench, also leap up in boyish celebration.
We marvelled at every action of our magnificent captain, who kept sweeping imperiously out of the centre and used his imposing frame to bring down Lions players foolish enough to dare to get past him.
It probably wasn't just the Tragician who noted with smug satisfaction that when in the third quarter Bont charged out of the centre bouncing the ball with breathtaking skill (Libba formed a human shield to give our hero space) ... the mere mortal flailing desperately behind attempting to catch him was Joshua Dunkley.
Our performance was gritty rather than polished, but when the match was in the balance in a tense last quarter, there were moments of brilliance which showed our 0-2 start hasn't represented what our team is capable of. Tim English soared on the last line of defence to steady our nerves, while Aaron Naughton, the best contested mark I've seen for the Dogs, floated above a scrum of players to cleanly grab a ball in a magnificent pack mark.
Gratifying though the win was, those of us there knew we'd been part of something bigger than four points banked. We'd seen a 20-year-old make an emphatic stand against the ugliness of racism. It's a moment that will reverberate for decades. Yet it was heart-rending, hearing Marra's voice shake with emotion as he spoke about the effect of the abuse; if he ever seemed to struggle, it must have helped that standing resolutely beside him was our skipper, his self-described 'older brother.'
Our players shared the photo of Marra which will become iconic on their social media accounts. None was more eloquent and poignant than that of reborn defender Josh Bruce. He simply said: "My f*ing boy."
We'd seen our Bulldogs family at its best, proud, fierce and united. Standing for something greater than football.
Our players were cordial towards their former teammate Josh Dunkley at the end of the match. Is he still family to them? a respected but distant former team-mate? just another opponent in the business of footy? I realise I'll never quite know, any more than I can really define what my own concept of a Bulldogs family means, in an era where contracts are easily discarded, where so many players are at their second and third clubs, and where 18-year-olds like Arty are sent 1000 kilometres away to begin their footballing journey.
Still, I'm proud when Marra says the support he'd received within the club had been incredible. We are not just a club, he says, but a family.
Meanwhile our team are having a hard time getting the baby of the family, Arty, off the arena. Like exasperated but fond older brothers, they stand by while he does a lengthy victory lap. Afterwards, he is interviewed by his housemate (can you imagine?) Cody Weightman, both of them fizzing with energy. Arty's still euphoric; he's living out his dream.
And then for no apparent reason except that footy is still about joy, Cody actually piggybacks Arty off the ground. (I guess those 71 kilograms make it an easy assignment).
My mind keeps turning back to Marra, who has now played 25 games. It doesn't seem that long ago that he made his debut. I feel emotional, sad, angry and proud when I remember the words I wrote back then in the euphoria of seeing his career begin, and which are now for Arty too:
'May you never encounter the ugliness of racism. May you make your family, community and our club proud. There's a whole army of us now walking beside you on your journey. I doubt the word 'workmanlike' will be ever used about you, and something tells me your career is likely to be more than enthralling.'
We were therefore surprised, yet overjoyed, when the Bulldogs really did Come Out Snarling. We'd almost forgotten how sparkling our best could be; we'd seen it seldom in 2022. Bont was majestic. Our pressure reached 2016 Men of Mayhem levels. The Freo crowd were silent and subdued, while the small group of Bulldogs fans, who'd hung out a banner which said rather poignantly: 'We are here with you', were making a fearsome racket. The match was just about over at quarter time!
Sure, Freo would come at us, and regroup. That was a given. But give up a 41-point lead in a final? Even thinking of it (I was, of course) was the pre-2016 loser mentality that I've often claimed, unconvincingly, to have banished forever. Freo's charge, when it predictably arrived, made us tense, but with such a big lead, undoubtedly could be withstood. Their spirits would be broken, when Our Boys, who knew what finals success was like, steadied the ship. We waited for a Jordan Roughead moment, for someone, anyone really, to take control; to boldly declare a loss simply wouldn't happen on their watch.
We watched and we waited, as our lead was reeled in, as our goals dried up. We became too silent to cheer or barrack, as Our Boys laboured, as mistakes piled up, as a two-goal margin to the Dockers became totally insurmountable.
We were already dreading those labels that would be applied to our performance and had the ominous ring of old. Collapse. Capitulation.
I should have taken more notice when the song that came along straight after Daydream Believer was the Rolling Stones' classic:You can't always get what you want.
Our season was over. The match itself had encapsulated everything that was disappointing and frustrating in 2022. An inability to play four consistent quarters. A powerlessness whenever opponents, even those we ultimately defeated, streamed out of the middle and scored at will.
Now, instead of the busy chatter of finals excitement, unpalatable questions were asked: what went wrong, and why? And with us out early, a focus on horsetrading began with indecent haste. The first blow was predictable; Josh Dunkley announced that he wanted to be traded to Brisbane. Unlike on some other infamous occasions, this time we weren't shocked, blindsided, rocked to our foundations. It didn't mean we were happy about it all the same.
Some were sad, some were angry, many including the Tragician were both. There was a peculiar aspect related to Josh Dunkley the person colouring our views. He'd after all tried to break his contract two years before, which had already prepared us, weakened our connection to him. (The disapproving Libba Sisters had already stopped calling him Dunks, and always now called him with formal politeness Josh Dunkley - yes, a telling moment if ever there was one). There was the usual jarring realisation that players have very different investments in our club - wait, aren't they all brothers, jumping around joyously whenever a new player's debut is announced - rather than clinical professionals. It's somehow bewildering, that he could undoubtedly continue to play good footy with us, while engaged in discussions to leave. And there was something off, uncomfortable, about how the former BFF of Bont, current (ostentatiously so) BFF of Adam Treloar, now planned to leave them both behind; with mysterious references to disappointment with Bulldogs' culture (we immediately closed ranks at that idea: hmmm, Dayne Zorko, anyone?). There grew a growing conviction and annoyance that his decision was more about him building his own lucrative 'Brand.'
Many fans moved on quickly to an equally business-like footing. Analysing how the 'deal' could be done. Calculating what Dunkley is 'worth.' Adding up the trade points.
Some gave a brisk acknowledgement of what Josh Dunkley had meant to us, brief recognition that he was one of those rare individuals, a Bulldogs' premiership hero. But even those fans are not looking back or wallowing.
Leave that, instead, to the Bulldog Tragician. It's exactly these moments that I both dread and hate. Another mosaic in the 2016 wall has shattered, another domino has fallen. There could be a few other metaphors that I'm sure I could make if I just tried a bit harder.
Ostrich-like, I'd prayed for the 2016 players' glorious efforts to be forever frozen in time. Confusingly I also wanted us to somehow shoe-horn Bob Murphy, Jack Redpath and Mitch Wallis into the exact same line-up the following year when we went back-to-back, but logic's never been my strong point. Once that had been achieved I would hurriedly fast-forward to the prospect of a 10-year premiership reunion. Anything in between - them becoming injured, disappointing us either on-field or off, actually WANTING TO PLAY FOR ANOTHER CLUB - that wasn't really in the Tragician's preferred imaginings.
I didn't want to see the colder reality that has eventually played out. We've lost so many, already, of our 2016 'BullGods'. There are whispers that more of the dwindling band and not just Josh Dunkley might be on the way out, with uncertain futures as I write for Lachie Hunter, and our Norm Smith medallist JJ, and the man who only the Libba Sisters call 'Cordeaux.' In my stubborn refusal to let go of 2016 I've never sat back and really mourned their loss one-by-one, reflected on what each as individuals provided in those four weeks, that are full of so many bright and shining moments.
Some of those we've lost were expected, in the natural order of things, as even our durable premiership 30-somethings Matthew 'Keith' Boyd and Dale Morris could not have played forever. And while Dale Morris' stirring tackle on Buddy in the Grand Final must surely be immortalised in a Whitten Oval statue one day, there's also a place in my heart for that moment that the unflashy but driven 'Keith' poked his toe out from the congestion towards JJ, so that he could accelerate away and drive the ball towards Bont in one of those heart-stopping moments of the Preliminary Final.
Easton Wood, our captain who held the cup aloft, has now left too, a shadow of himself as he battled injuries in his last years; I prefer to remember him soaring brilliantly for mark after mark in the first quarter of that same final, and even more importantly, in that last desperate scrimmage where the ball went deep into the territory of those wearing orange, flying across the pack to kill the ball and save the match.
Alongside him in our blue collar defence were two of the more unheralded BullGods who departed quietly and inconspicuously: Fletcher Roberts, who only came in for that match, contributed just 9 workmanlike disposals in that preliminary final (but far more importantly his glamorous opponent 'Jezza' Cameron only mustered five), while Joel Hamling was another of those, not household names to anyone but us. Fletch and Joel played their roles; no forwards got off the leash on their watch; they were part of all those moments both perfect and imperfect in that thrilling four weeks.
We will remember, always, the mark from Tory Dickson, in the frantic final seconds of the prelim; how he coolly held onto the ball to eke out the time rather than blaze the ball forward as a myriad of other Bulldogs players over time might well have done. His point after the siren may be the most euphorically greeted behind in our history.
Of the BullGods who've left, though, it is part of our sadness that many were so young, could indeed still be playing. We could not have foreseen that we would lose Tom Boyd, whose astounding Grand Final performance came when he was just 21, and retired less than three years later. He would now be a player well in his prime; perhaps we feel his loss in a football sense less than others, watching with admiration his work educating us on depression, giving us a healthy counterbalance to the idea that playing footy must be quite simply any person's dream come true. Yet we will never forget him grabbing the ball which came loose after Dale's tackle, knowing that it will tumble through as perfectly as everything else he did that day.
The injury toll of our brutal game saw the early departure at just 25 years old of another premiership hero. Clay Smith had already overcome unthinkable challenges - three ruptured ACLs in a row - before his bullocking, crazy-brave finals performances. In the preliminary, it was not just his four goals, but a moment that still makes me shudder, when he used his body as a battering ram in the third quarter, laying an incredible bump to clear the path for a Caleb Daniel goal. We were barely hanging on by our finger nails at that point. I'm certain we could not have prevailed in the preliminary without him.
There are other BullGods, though, whose departures have left us with emotions complex, confused and far from straightforward. Jake 'The Lair' Stringer, ruthlessly cut from our list, for reasons which as they slowly became clear made us rethink our adulation, made us wonder what's behind these men who we really only know for their footballing talent. There was heaviness when he left, and then grim and morbid satisfaction in seeing him continue to squander his gifts in the colours of our despised opponent across the river. There was Luke Dahlhaus, beloved and energetic sprite in our forwardline, who never recovered his trademark grit after the monumental season of 2016, and with talk of a famous lack of 'motovation', transferred to the Cats where he was serviceable but never more.
There was Shane Biggs, perhaps the most enigmatic of all; a football journeyman and diamond in the rough who didn't seem to take the game seriously at all; yet with the Dogs just one point up in the last quarter of the grand final, he contributed the most manic and frenzied series of acts ever seen by any one individual to ever wear red, white and blue. He hunted, and trapped, the ball, again. And again. And again. Just two years later, aged 27, he retired. As though, having painted his great masterpiece, there was nothing left to say.
It's hard though to explain or come to terms with the departure of Jordan Roughead, the quintessential good guy of impeccable character. He was the man who did what the 2022 version could not do, and stemmed a comeback in an elimination final in the west. The guy who dragged down a strong, match-saving mark in the suffocatingly tense moments of the Grand Final when an outrageous decision was made to overturn a JJ goal. It wasn't going to happen, another Bulldog hard luck story, not on Roughie's watch. Yet too soon we were watching him sing the Collingwood song, patting Jordan DeGoey on the bum; learning, in revelations painful and still baffling, that so stultifying had his footballing life become, that only leaving our club could preserve in him the desire to keep competing.
In our cobbled-together forward line the most consistently brilliant player was Liam Picken. Another of those unlikely heroes, his first goal in the elimination final steadied us when in time-honoured Bulldogs fashion we had had all the play and squandered untold chances. We rose out of our seats, electrified, when he leapt skywards in the Grand Final. 'Picken from behind! Picken from behind!' And it's the most crystal-clear image for most of us in the Grand Final, him streaming into kick the sealer in front of a sea of elated Bulldogs' fans: 'It's over. It's all over. The drought. The dam wall has busted. After 62 years.'
Yet now, Bob Murphy, the non-playing BullGod, sits in the Freo box, stony-faced and plotting our demise, aided and abetted by 'Keith' Boyd. And as the 2022 ebbs away, we only have left a handful of the fabled BullGods left. Bont of course, now leads our club as we always knew he would. For the moment, we have the irrepressible Libba, and the steely and professional Jackson Macrae. There is the man only the Libba Sisters call 'Cordeaux'...and Hunter, JJ and Daniel. And Toby McLean, who had the ball in his hands when the siren sounded in 2016, who has now seen footy life from another perspective, enduring two knee reconstructions.
My trip down memory lane has left me exhausted. As wrung out as though I too had even for one second put my body on the line like Clay Smith, or desperately made one smother after another like Shane Biggs, or flew higher than I had any right to fly like Liam Picken. I didn't know in those euphoric moments that our joy would be one day be mixed with a kind of - is it too much to call it - grief?... that their stories would move relentlessly on; because of course the men of 2016 would not, could not, remain static and constant in our memories.
It's been forever the case though. In the 1996 documentary 'Year of the Dogs' one of the last scenes shows The First Libba sitting on a bench after the season's final match. Typically bandaged and bloodied, he's talking about how that group, that bunch of team-mates, will never run out together in the exact same configuration again.
Yes, it's always been thus. It just seems more poignant, though, when a grand final group gradually disperses and fragments.
Yet my sadness is quickly eclipsed. I might have all the usual grumpiness that another year has been wasted and pedestrian, and I'll avert my eyes when Josh Dunkley is paraded in a Lions jumper, and meaningless words are uttered on both sides of thanks and regrets. But he and the other BullGods gave me memories that will last when such unedifying ones fade. Of the moment I saw OUR logo painted on the MCG in the Grand Final build up. Of the western suburbs, a sea of red, white and blue. Of the wall of sound that greeted their arrival onto the celebrated ground. Of the moment OUR Boys gathered on those benches for the traditional pre-match photo, and happily stuffed it up. And when I saw them organise themselves and make room for Bevo, and I somehow - me, the ultimate pessimist! - knew we were going to be ok.
I once tried - way back in the first year of writing this blog, in 2013 - to imagine any of those moments in a story I called Tomozz. It was about us making the Grand Final in (cue the spooky music) 2016. It was such an outlandish fantasy, and not just because the Dogs had finished a humble 15th on the ladder in another ho-hum year. After 60 years, to even make the Grand final was for just about every Bulldog fan something we tried to believe rather than genuinely thought could happen. It was such a stretch that my story came to an end as we fans stood to watch the national anthem, victory or defeat not yet assured; us actually winning the god-damn thing was even more ludicrous. Not really 'for the likes of us.'
Three years later our team delivered that dream in ways even more far-fetched than even I could possibly dare to have written. They were shooting stars, only appearing once. Which is why amid my anger and pettiness and grief and sorrow whenever one of them leaves us, I will always try to stop and give thanks for all that we are owed by every single one of those crazy-brave BullGods.
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.