It's late in the last quarter. At last the Dogs stop-start season has re-ignited, with a stirring performance that makes me realise even more keenly what’s been missing for sizeable chunks of 2017. That manic pressure, combined with fast ball movement and the right balance of risk to reward, have returned.
But those neighbours of ours from the more glamorous side of the Maribyrnong - let’s be honest, they’ve never been good friends - are throwing everything at us.
The ball is kicked into their wide-open forward line. Our hearts sink as we see Joe Daniher, who’s already dominated the match with six goals, galloping towards the ball. Loping alongside him with equal determination, and an equally bad moustache, is Zaine Cordy. ‘In-Zaine’ is conceding seven centimetres and three years on his star opponent.
The outcome of this contest may well decide the match and determine each team’s season.
The Daniher family are football royalty: the Cordy dynasty is, well, perhaps a less celebrated pedigree. The uncles and fathers of Joe and Zaine played alongside and against each other in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Joe arrived as a new messiah at the Essendon Football Club where his father, three uncles and a brother had already played with distinction and sprinklings of premiership glory; Zaine slipped into our footy ranks with a lot less fanfare.
The main thing I recall about his arrival is hoping he would play alongside his gangly brother Ayce, just so I could say that I had seen the A to Z of Cordys. Such were the lowly aspirations of a Bulldog Tragician, back in the day.
Ayce’s career never quite fired. Heart-breaking injury followed heart-breaking injury for the young man who proudly donned his father’s not-so-famous (except for those of us who’d seen Brian's brave and resolute performances in the '80s) number 49. On the rare occasions Ayce strung a couple of senior games together you could see glimpses of promise, raw – it has to be said, very raw - potential. As is the fate of many oversized players, Ayce's mistakes were more glaring; his failure to clunk the ball even more mystifying. I guess it’s hard to be unobtrusively ineffectual when you’re 201 centimeters.
Ayce's kid brother Zaine became a premiership player aged just 19. Stunningly, his nine games for 2016 included those four precious finals, where he played as a forward. That Cordy rawness that he shared with his brother was accompanied by a ruthless glint in the eye and a competitive edge that perhaps - we never saw enough to know - his gentler, amiable sibling never had. Zaine's been playing down back this season and as elder statesmen of our defence Bob Murphy, Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris battle injury, their careers now moving towards a different end of the spectrum, 'In-Zaine' has begun assuming more responsibility in an inexperienced backline.
That responsibility is put to the test as the ball hurtles towards Joe and Zaine. We hold our collective breath, fearing, hoping. Joe is well-placed to take another mark, to wheel around with his super athleticism and drive the red-and-black into attack. Zaine doesn't want that to happen any more than all of us fans who helplessly watch the moment unfold. His big fist comes over the top of Joe. The ball sails away. Danger has been averted.
Zaine's actions didn't make the later highlight reel. But we all rise to our feet, applauding him, knowing how much it mattered.
I hadn't been confident about this match, not one little bit. I wasn't convinced by our win against Gold Coast - we've unfortunately seen some of these false dawns before in 2017. Mix in my passionate dislike of the 'Bombres' with the vital importance of a win to our 2017 premiership defence, and I found myself in some vintage Bulldog Tragician territory. Not only did the two 130+ point thrashings in the 80s begin lurking in my consciousness (the Cordy brothers and at least one Daniher brother certainly featured); soon I was getting revved up about the fact that Essendon, it was rumoured, opposed our very admission to the VFL back in 1924! Even though - or perhaps because - we'd just beaten them for the title of Champions of Victoria, when we were VFA premiers and they'd been VFL premiers! What a dastardly mob!
I envisaged how it would play out: the dread sight of scarf-waving, ungracious Essendonites mocking us as they, of all AFL fans, know so well how to do. Some of their brutish thugs (is Dean Wallis still playing?) would rough up our smallest guys, 'Celeb' Daniel or Toby McLean. And I could just see that bloke with the shocking hairstyle, Hale Cooker, ruffling the hair, making snide comments, getting right in the face and intimidating Young, Lewis.
I was perhaps a little overwrought. In my defence, this was Essendon after all.
My pre-emptive anguish was fortunately unnecessary. There was something free-spirited about Our Boys again; a rebirth, at last, of the zest that had been strangely extinguished since our premiership. JJ showed that he may not be our best player, but perhaps he's our most important. Some of Bob Murphy's adroitness, his lightness of step, returned. The Bont was a colossus, magnificently imposing his will in the fiercest heat of the contest. Those sons of guns, Hunter, Libba and Wally: is it my imagination or had that antipathy towards the Dons seeped down through the generations? because there was, surely, an added intensity in their efforts, an extra edge to their emotion as we steadfastly saw off the Dons' challenge and nailed a 30-point win.
There was an obligatory thuggish brute moment of course, when the supremely unlikeable Brendon Goddard decided to mash Toby McLean's head into the turf. But Bont was there, standing toe-to-toe in support of his team-mate. And as our players mobbed Toby when he goaled from the resultant free and let Goddard know all about it, there amongst them was 18-year-old Lewis Young. With his irrepressible enthusiasm he had earlier thwarted a certain goal from that Hale Cooker. It doesn't seem coincidental that since his debut we haven't lost a match.
As we left the stadium, our song ringing in our ears, I spied a very tall individual with the distinctive Cordy toothiness. Ayce: delisted by the Bulldogs at the end of 2014; student of medicine; wearer of the number 49 Bulldogs guernsey for five seasons and 27 matches; and now just a face in the crowd (well, towering over the crowd actually). He looks animated, relaxed, another Bulldogs fan who's enjoyed the win, chatting with friends.
I find myself remembering one of Ayce's 27 matches. For true connoisseurs of the Tragician Blog, it's known as the Birthday Match. Yes, in that grim season of 2013, on the very night of my birthday, instead of living it up at a swanky restaurant, I instead nobly elected to trot along to the MCG. It was a freezing Saturday night; our opponent was Melbourne, who'd recently been dubbed an embarrassment to the competition. We weren't setting the world on fire with, but were considered certainties (except by the Bulldog Tragician) to triumph over the Melbourne rabble.
Naturally we lost. It was a defeat that was ignominious even by 2013's abysmal standards.
After trailing all evening, the Dogs did mount a surprising last quarter comeback. (The greatest surprise was actually that any of us Bulldogs' fans were still there to see it. I suspect many of us were too cold to move). Amid this belated flurry of activity, Ayce took a strong mark. A couple of rows ahead of us, a middle-aged woman leapt to her feet to wildly applaud him; she jumped with exuberant joy when he slotted a goal. I wasn't sure this achievement after a modest evening warranted such celebrations until I realised that the man sitting next to her, smiling at her antics, was Brian Cordy. His parents had no doubt witnessed the travails Ayce had gone through with his fragile body; knew, as only families do, the heartaches and disappointments, the hospitalisations, the setbacks, the self-doubt and depression; heard the snide comments, seen the venomous posts on social media as their son, a first round selection who'd come to the club with high hopes, battled to carve out his career.
Sitting alongside his family was a teenager, even more spindly though not quite as tall as his sibling. Who could have known that a mere three years later it would be 'In-Zaine' who would run onto the MCG in October 2016; that the teenager would execute a massive tackle in the first quarter, and then kick the first Bulldog goal on grand final day for 62 years.
Timing, good fortune, some extra mongrel perhaps; such tiny little variables there are that separate Zaine the premiership player from his brother the also-ran. I wonder if these moments were bitter-sweet for Ayce, even as he celebrated, as a brother, a son, a life-long Bulldogs' fan and member of our Cordy dynasty.
Their mum, I imagine, would have been bursting with pride; yet I'm sure she would have been probably no less ecstatic, no less proud than when Ayce kicked his goal on that far-away day of June 29, 2013.
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.