Carrying the fire
It's quarter time in our match against the Hawks and my feelings are ricocheting around from melancholy to exasperation. The Bulldogs are sitting outside the eight, with a very tough run home. Yet in this, the so-called most winnable match in the series, we had dished up one of those lamentably bad first quarters. The not-switched on, haphazard, bumbling and fumbling quarters, that we've seen rather frequently in our inconsistent 2022 season.
Quite apart from the looming fatal blow to our finals chances if we lose, it irks me further that the Hawks look good. Young guns, a team on the rise, playing an attractive brand of footy. Weren't we supposed to have swept past them imperiously in the premiership pecking order after 2016? surely our era was just beginning, while after their fabled three-peat, they were due to fade meekly away, and endure a much more lengthy stint as one of those inconsequential non-entities at the bottom of the ladder?
I shift my irritation elsewhere from the frustrating efforts of the men in red white and blue. It's easy enough to find a new target for my wrath. A Hawthorn supporter and his children are somehow sitting right in our midst. In our area, the place where we pay good money to ensure we're shielded from any unwelcome opposition contact. (Banter with the opposition has always seemed to me an overrated aspect of the spectating experience).
Nice guys finish first
'Let's be brutally honest, all I really do is play football. I, for one, am still unable to see why I'd be viewed as anything other than a footballer. Yes, footballers are viewed as role models by young kids but unless the kids know the player personally, this to me is silly." Chris Judd, 2005.
I wasn't all that surprised when this somewhat cold and aloof statement was made, not being at all a fan of the person who made it. Though it was perfectly in accord with the history of his actions and choices during his football career (Visy 'ambassadorship', anyone?).
However I vehemently disagreed. As a smarmy politician might say, "I don't accept the premise of the question."
It's always been just as important to me that our players are people whose public profile makes us proud as that they are good players. I've remained blindly convinced that we have more than our fair share of men of great character, filtering out anything that doesn't fit the narrative. I admit that this has sometimes involved some head-in-the-sand moments. I've been known to perform increasingly desperate contortions to find likeability in those with blemishes (normally, of course, these have been imported to our club, so their bona fides are already in question). I had to take this to ridiculous extremes when Jason Akermanis, - who I'd always detested - came to our club. I was forced into the most feeble of attempts to find a reason to cheer for him.: 'Apparently he learnt sign language to communicate with his wife's deaf parents.'
He was never 'one of us' all the same.
Taking care of our own
In the watery Ballarat sunshine, Our Boys have tenaciously held on for a hard-fought win. Patches of scintillating footy were interspersed with struggles, mistakes and lapses. The toll of injury and illness which has severely battered our team remains evident. And, I sense, the team still hasn't recovered fully from the devastating blow to our psyche of the 2021 Grand Final loss.
Neither has the Bulldog Tragician.
But for the first time this year, we've notched up two consecutive wins, while the injury list finally begins to shrink. Five wins, five losses - all of those losses could so easily have gone the other way.
I'm feeling cautious optimism, watching Our Boys gather near the race, celebrating the win and the 200-game milestone of Adam Treloar.
Aaron Naughton is one of those who hoist Adam onto his shoulders. The Astro-Naut had lived up to his nickname in a brilliant first half. Is there a more exhilarating sight than Aaron on song, where clumps of players in packs merely form a launching pad for him to soar, sometimes so high that he can mark the ball on his chest? You can hear, now, a distinctive sound from the crowd as we anticipate his flight, gasping when he lands safely with the ball in his mitts. Aaron hasn't lost the exuberance of kids when they first fall in love with footy; oblivious of whiteboard strategies and concepts of running patterns, zones and angles, wanting only to take speckies and kick goals.
Aaron has a swagger. Only he could really pull off the white headband look. In fact, he has just about become the Tragician's second favourite player. (If you're in any doubt about the identity of the first, allow me to welcome you to your first visit to the Tragician Blog).
It's hardly a surprise to see the other man carrying Adam off the ground. The bromance between Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley has been ostentatious. (At times a little 'cringe', as I believe younger members of our community might say). Yet the curious fact is that neither of these Bromance Buddies wanted to play with us at the end of the 2020 season.
Adam was unceremoniously cut from the Magpies' list, and has made no secret of the devastation and pain of being forced out. He speaks often about his ongoing love for his former teammates in black and white, the club as a whole, and its supporters. This didn't stop those famously parochial fans booing Adam in his first match in our colours against them, weird even by their standards since his departure was so far from his own choosing.
But later in that same match, as Adam stood on the wing, a slow rumble of noise built. Collingwood and Bulldogs fans were joining together to clap and cheer him. It was like a protective circle of thanks and goodwill. His new clan and his old clan joining together. A rare and precious moment of care and appreciation.
Coincidentally enough, at the same time as Adam was forced out, his future best mate Josh Dunkley wanted to jettison his contract with us, making a big play to join the Bombres. The reasons were perplexing and obscure to those of us outside the inner sanctum; undoubtedly a huge paycheck was part of the picture, but there were other vague whisperings. Of a loss of love for our club. Disappointment in things that went on inside the covid bubble. And perhaps more understandably, a desire to get more midfield minutes. And (sigh) to not play in the ruck.
Many things were strange and depressing about all of this - to me at least - but none more so than him informing several team-mates of his intention to defect while they were away on holidays. Vice-captain of the club at the time, he was delivering this blow to his skipper, and some of the other best mates with whom he went out into battle on the field every week.
Our club held firm: Dunkley, our youngest premiership player, remained a Dog. For the fans - or perhaps just this one - there was some sort of fracturing in our bond with him, a feeling of distance or caution replacing the usual blind loyalty and clannish protectiveness that we feel for 'Our Boys.' I noticed that, strangely, I now called him Josh Dunkley rather than Dunks, adopting a business-like and detached attitude to him without quite realising why.
I guess we'll never really know what the emotions were, how things played out, or what conversations were held when Josh returned to the club for the first training session. His performances certainly did not show any signs of 'checking out' or a reduction in the fanatical attack on the ball for which Josh is known. Nor did his team-mates show any signs of shunning him for his attempt to leave behind their 'brotherhood' or the implied criticisms or disillusionment that led him to that point.
Despite outdated 'playing for the jumper' rhetoric, the players' connections to the clubs they play for are complex and multi-stranded in comparison to the simple and unequivocal loyalty we like to believe in. Last week, Adam Treloar played a blinder against his old club. Pre-match he embraced his former team-mates and friends. Then he set out to clinically destroy their finals hopes and shore up the hopes of his new one. While afterwards, as he received his Robert Rose medal for best afield, he again expressed his love for those he'd left behind - or had chosen to leave him behind.
In the same match a former Bulldog was a solid contributor for the Pies; mercifully he was not booed by our fans. A teenage Patrick Lipinski had attended the 2016 Grand Final decked out in red white and blue; he then fulfilled his dream by being drafted to play alongside those he'd idolised from afar.
But last year he made the pragmatic, realistic decision that his footy career prospects were limited at our club, and slipped quietly away in an unobtrusive transfer to the Collingwood Football Club. Yet Pat still lives with Aaron Naughton; and after the match Bailey Smith ruefully acknowledged that his former team-mate, and still great friend, had hoodwinked him into hand-balling to him inside a pack.
Meanwhile there have been strange twists of fortunes (or should I say misfortunes) of the club that tried to poach Josh Dunkley. This year the Bombres (the Tragician's most despised club, if this REALLY is your first visit to this blog) have slid back to mediocrity after our club (smirk) turfed them out of the finals last year. This continues a remarkable streak where they have failed to win a final since 2004.
A recent mauling at the hands of the Swans has sparked a media storm questioning the commitment, desire and talent of the players. And after footage of their high-paid import Dylan Shiel being mocked, with no retaliation or even the most feeble push and shove by his team-mates, the Bombres' culture was called further into question.
Remarkably the ruthless club with 16 premierships now faces dark nights of the soul, their vitriolic fans loudly questioning - in a delicious irony if you've ever stood wedged in, vastly outnumbered and miserable on the Windy Hill terraces - why they should even bother attending and supporting this rabble! The solution advocated by some - Bring Back James Hird! - is an astonishing reminder that there is so much about the Don-the-Sash mob that I'll never even begin to understand.
Much of the red-and-black outrage has been directed at their captain Dyson Heppell. He has recently told critics of his good-guy persona to 'jam it' and defended the fact that post-defeat, he is seen smiling and joking with team-mates and opponents. He has failed to display the requisite degree of wretched despair.
Heppell has been ridiculed in a cruel video from an account called: 'We are Essington' which intercuts footage of his on-field bloopers with the stirring 'Captain! My captain!' scenes from Dead Poets Society.
Even the Tragician has stopped chortling by now, in fact I'm wincing with embarrassment and even pity. It gets me thinking about how club culture, brotherhood and loyalty are built - or more aptly in the case of the Bombres - brutally destroyed.
For Dyson Heppell, a lifelong Essendon supporter who worshipped James Hird as a child, became an unwitting victim of a chaotic and illegal supplements program, while he was a teenager in just his second year at the club.
His 'idol' was coach at the time.
Along with others, Dyson Heppell was eventually banned for a full year; a terrible toll, when he should have been in his prime as a 23-year-old. The 'drug cheat' stigma will be forever attached to his name.
Something cancerous entered their club, and I can't help but feel it is malignantly connected to the fact no-one rushed to the aid of Dylan Shiel. Doesn't it seem reasonable that the players, even those not directly involved in 'The Saga', may pull back a little? Why would they put on the line the bodies that their club was prepared to gamble with?
I wonder about how our team would have reacted if one of our players had been targeted in the way Dylan Shiel was. I may be just a tad biased, but I believe our club has a robust and thriving culture, nurtured by our empathetic coach, and built by outstanding men and one-club-players who have led our club over the same period when the red-and-black mob descended into the 'whatever-it-takes' darkness. We've been led by Chris Grant, Luke Darcy, Brad Johnson, Matthew Boyd, Bob Murphy and Easton Wood. (Yes I've left one out, but perhaps it proves my point, for the defection of Ryan Griffen rebounded mysteriously in ways that only strengthened our club and arguably caused a chain of events that led to the 2016 flag).
And now of course we have the latest in that series, Marcus Bontempelli. There would be no doubt that with him around the hackneyed phrase 'walking taller' actually means something. His leadership of our club, his care for his team-mates is natural and instinctive, authoritative without being pointlessly macho; The Bont learnt from the best.
In the country-footy-ground atmosphere of Ballarat we could hear the thwack of bodies and observe his greatness, even while clearly injury-hampered. We could see how slowly the Bont got up at times - yet hear his voice urging and organising his team. He somehow willed himself to drag down those last quarter marks and slot those goal that won us the game.
There would be at least one other Bulldog team-mate that you could always rely on to rush in and protect you in the clinches (even if it was, as it so often is, a skirmish that he himself had started). It's been a vintage year for our combative, cheeky, annoying - but to us always loveable Libba, recently pictured wearing a 'Honk for the Dogs' sign in Barkly Street. Maybe it was a result of losing a bet; maybe it showed that the frivolity so frowned upon by the critics of Dyson Heppell is alive and well at the Dogs; but there was something uniquely and mischievously Libba about it as well.
He's probably - ok, definitely - my equal second favourite player at the club!
Meanwhile, with a lump in my throat, I see a tweet from the Collingwood cheer squad.
Congratulations Adzy on 200 games today. The Magpie Army loves you. Thank you for taking care of him @westernbulldogs.
Beautiful, classy and elegant. And yes. We will.
The more things change
Scene 1: Round 4 2016. Docklands stadium: Bulldogs vs Carlton.
It was the week after Bob Murphy did his knee. We were still in shock, forlorn and preoccupied, grieving for him as a member of our Bulldogs' family, and of course its implications for our season. The bright hopes for 2016 had been obliterated in the dreadful, fateful moments Bob fell to the turf. Without our talisman, the Dogs could surely not win a flag this year. (The Bulldog Tragician even voiced the melodramatic, and as history would show, deluded view: she was no longer even hoping for a flag in 2016, if Bob couldn't be part of it).
It was a home game for Carlton. Yes, far from their glittering Princes Park heyday, those Old Dark Navy Blues were now just another struggling Docklands tenant. Just the week before, they'd suffered the ignominy of a nine-goal thrashing by competition upstarts, the Gold Coast Suns. They were last, and winless, on the ladder: even their old foes Essendon, doing penance for their drug scandal misdemeanors, have registered a win.
I rolled my eyes when, despite this abysmal recent history, the Blues took the field with their customary hubris. Weird cartoon characters brandished replicas of those 16 premiership cups. I bristled with memories of their arrogance as a club, the many times they'd triumphed against us. Their money, their scorn for the rules (exemplified by John Elliott), their entitlement. I was unable to separate, in my mind, the ragtag bunch of losers currently taking the field, from the club which had always purchased - quite literally - the best talent money could buy.
I was agitated, of course, fearing the Dogs would contrive to lose one of the few 'easy' games of the season. At one point, when we were several goals up... but still, in my view, precariously positioned (for me this usually means within 15 goals) ....a Carlton player lined up for an easy shot of goal. Next to me, a Blues supporter (how few there were that night!) noticed my angst and leant over in my direction. "He's going to miss it, you know", he said. When seconds later, his prediction came true, he smiled sadly. I recognised, then, not the class enemy of old, but another fellow sufferer; still there, supporting his team, even when hope has gone, and success light years away in both directions.
Libba Sister Two nearly levitated off her seat in surprise when, uncharacteristically, I initiated a polite conversation with the Blues' fan. I even sympathised with their plight. It was going to be a long hard year, the Blues fan wistfully acknowledged. 'Just so long as we beat Essendon, that's the one thing I couldn't stand.'
At some point of the match, while the Dogs somewhat perfunctorily got the job done and registered a six-goal win, he slipped quietly away. I didn't really notice his departure though; my brief moments of empathy with his pain were gone. I was thinking and hoping about the chances of OUR team, and hopes for next week, and the week after that.
Scene two. Some time in November, 2021
The red, white and blue streamers and signage have long since been removed from my home and disappeared from all the western suburbs' cafes. Victorians are staggering out of the longest, hardest lockdown of all. The domination of COVID in our everyday lives has at least been a distraction, from everything that occurred after THAT moment in the third quarter of the Grand Final. You know the one. When our momentum appeared irrepressible. When Bont was about to win a Norm Smith. When we could barely sit still on our locked-down living rooms.
I'd tried very hard to forget the quarter and a half after that. So when I received a call from a typically perky and upbeat marketing person from our club, I was ill-prepared.
The conversation, it's fair to say, didn't go all that well.
Perky Marketing Girl: Have you got over the disappointment of the Grand Final yet?
Bulldog Tragician: (unable to utter any words but emits a weird kind of strangulated half-laugh, that could have meant anything)
Perky Marketing Girl: (gamely sticks to her script despite my bizarre and unsatisfactory response) Still, we had a great year, didn't we?
Bulldog Tragician: (lengthy pause while considering whether it is possible that 40 horrific minutes can obliterate the joyful moments of an entire year). Yes. I mean, I think so. Yep. Sure.
PMG: (note of desperation now appearing): Still...everyone I've spoken to says they're really happy for Melbourne!
WHOA THERE, perky marketing girl!! Whoa there! You've gone way, way too far!
My reaction was instant, visceral. I blurted it out before I really had time to think.
BT: No. Afraid not. I don't feel happy for them at all.
I can't remember how the conversation ended apart from some dazed, disbelieving laughter from the Perky Marketing Girl, though it probably involved me parting with some money.
Afterwards though there was some soul-searching as I struggled with a vague sense of embarrassment at my response. Was this really me? Was I really such a petty, mean-spirited kind of individual?
My thoughts meandered around in a typically Tragician way as I grappled to understand my ungenerous emotions.
I decided I could be, indeed was, happy for individual Demons supporters I knew, whose sufferings over the years had been immense. (Never as bad as ours, however; that goes without saying.) But after all, that end to suffering had come at our expense. It meant pain, even humiliation for our club; those terrible moments when the players slumped on the ground, and Bont had to compose himself to make a gracious speech. In their joy was our misery.
And let's face it, the Dees might have had recent misery, but prior to 2021, had already had a highly respectable12 premierships. That's 10 more than our own measly total, in case any readers here have forgotten! It was final proof: they didn't need ME to feel happy for them as well! I was well within my rights to feel aggrieved, that with grand finals and premierships being so rare for our club, this one had slipped through our fingers!
And there's another inescapable fact. Their story is not our story; their hardships, their missed opportunities, their own beloved icons, are not mine, and I understand them as little as they would understand ours. (It's perhaps best that I don't even begin discussing the topic of whether the MFC players were quite as sporting or humble in their victory as I would have liked).
So there were two lessons I drew from my reactions to the Grand Final loss.
One is that the deep wellspring of Tragician thinking has successfully survived past the 2016 premiership.
The second is that despite decades of practice, the Bulldog Tragician is simply not a very good loser.
Scene 3: Docklands, Round 2, 2022. The Bulldogs are taking on Carlton.
'Lord ain't it strange...after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same...after changes, we are more or less the same.' ( "The Boxer", Simon and Garfunkel)
Since 2016, when Our Boys won the flag, the Blues have mainly continued to be easy-beats of the competition. Their decline as a powerhouse since their last flag in 1995 has been catastrophic. They hadn't won a single wooden spoon throughout their long history until 2002; since then they've made up for lost time, winning more spoons than any other club in the 21st century, including an ignominious 2018 when they won just two games.
These figures don't bring on any gloating, however, as we head to the match. Ominously - and unfortunately, in my view - the Blues are now a team on the rise. Our Boys, on the other hand, last week lost the surprisingly subdued grand final rematch. (You will not be surprised to know that unlike those countless Bulldog' fans who'd allegedly told the Perky Marketing Girl about being so happy the Dees won a flag, I strategically delayed our entry to the 'G to ensure we didn't see them hoisting their flag aloft).
I'd wondered how the 2021 shellacking might affect our club. The answers, on last week's rather flat showing, remained a concern.
We are back, finally, at our familiar seats at Docklands, after a two-year hiatus. We catch up on news, on grandchildren born, of health updates, with our neighbours with whom we've sat for so many years now. We shake our heads seeing the small children who came to matches as toddlers now transformed into teenagers that block my view if they sit in front of me.
Our club has in the past week been in the news for unwelcome reasons. Luke Beveridge's infamous press conference tirade towards that Fox journo had even featured on Media Watch. (It says something about Australia that it led the episode, ahead of an item on the courageous Russian journalist who's been 'detained' because she paraded a 'No war' sign on live TV).
His behaviour, though, was hard to defend, among even our most parochial fans. In other words, even the Bulldog Tragician admitted that Bevo had crossed the line.
It's a long time ago now, that he came to us, hailed for his emotional intelligence, barnstorming us into a new era, accessible and personable. He jogs past us, on his way up to his coaching eyrie. He is still warmly applauded by the fans... he may be careworn, a little paranoid, with a truly bad moustache, but is still - and always - Our Saviour.
Yet the years since the flag have somehow hurtled by. The dynasty which we thought - hoped - was just around the corner, once we broke through at last, has not eventuated. There are signs everywhere, of time moving on, of the premiership receding slowly into the ever more distant rear view mirror. Easton Wood is driven around in a car to farewell the fans; the Libba Sisters miss it because it takes so long to get into the ground with the COVID protocols. Bob Murphy has moved west to join Fremantle. 'I'm proud to be part of your gang,' he tells the fans in purple. 'There's something about this club I feel connected to.'
Transition, change, time passages: it must always be this way, I guess. But I still don't have to like it.
Nor do I like the new-look Blues. In fact I'd have to say I much preferred the 2018 version.
We are the older, more experienced team, but the Olde Dark Navy Blues bullock past us, scoring a goal within the first minute. They look stronger, faster, more composed with ball in hand. But more worryingly to the Tragician eye, they look ... hungrier. They just seem to want it more. We rally in the second half. But something is still awry, connections between the players, skill error; there are only flashes of our recognisable trademark style. We go down, by 12 points, and the questions left by 2021 still remain, haunting our always fragile psyches.
Scene 4: Defeated, dejected, Bulldogs' fans leave the ground. We lost.
Maybe this story could have ended, with me somehow encountering my 'mate' from 2016 as I left the arena. A philosophical Tragician, smiling ruefully at the twists and turns of footy fate, would congratulate him on the Blues' victory and their long-overdue emergence from the footy wilderness. After all, he was a man perhaps in his 30s. I could have admired and respected the fact that (unlike many of his fellow fans) he'd stuck with them through the miserable last two decades, and expressed my delight that his persistence through dark times looked like now being rewarded.
But, needless to say, no such noble gestures eventuated, and not just because six years later I can't even remember what he looked like. But an even greater obstacle existed: the hated Carlton song still ringing in my ears. It might be 2022, but it will always, always, be for me the anthem of the despised "Bourgeois Blues", the club of Sir Robert Menzies, George Harris, Richard Pratt, and John Elliott; the song of the club that tanked when times got tough and rorted the salary cap to get Visy 'ambassador' Chris Judd to their club. It was the song that echoed in our ears, on every miserable afternoon when the best team that money could buy, ground an assortment of inept Footscray teams into the Princes Park soil.
Class warfare and Melbourne tribalism have moved on, or so they say. It's just as likely that many Carlton fans are heading jubilantly home to Craigieburn or Sydenham rather than the leafy suburbs of Toorak and South Yarra. It's not as if I can still proudly claim my second home as my grandparents' Housing Commission house in Braybrook. It's a long time ago since I was a teenager going to Melbourne University, learning the hard way that being a girl from Deer Park was not quite the expected pedigree. The western suburbs have a different identity these days: the Bulldogs' heartland is now the place of hip Seddon, Yarraville and 'WeFo', with million dollar homes and BMWs in the driveways, and affluent professional residents who appreciate a good cafe latte or the finer points of a pinot from the Peninsula.
So it's probably not the case that right now, Bentleys, Jags and Rolls-Royces containing Carlton dignitaries are motoring away from the stadium, failing to swerve if they come across malnourished urchins (perhaps even chimney-sweeps) wearing ragged red, white and blue guernseys. (I can't be sure however).
Yet, as 'Dah-ta-dah-ta-dah' rings out (mockingly, to my ear) from the Docklands speakers, and the Carlton fans make sure to bellow it out in our direction, the old class-based rivalry lives on. The resurgence of Carlton will not be a feel-good story in the mind of the petty, mean-spirited Bulldog Tragician. After all, despite our relative success against them in the 21st century, the Bourgeois Blues have defeated us 151 times over the course of our respective histories: we've won just 57 times. I should have celebrated a bit harder on that April night in 2016. For in a complex and changing world the old enmity towards the arrogant Blue-baggers survives, refreshingly unscathed. I can't wait to beat them next time.
Flying to the moon
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!'
Read: the complete 2016 finals series collection.
Want to know more about the Bulldog Tragician book, The Mighty West? please visit Black Inc books.
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.