Agh, Geelong. How you do annoy me. Let me count the ways.
Their home ground is so formidable, at one stage we had a 27-year losing streak against them.
They've feasted on us in finals; who among us isn't thankful that Sydney thrashed them in the 2016 preliminary final, and we didn't have to face the sight of those blue-and-white hoops, and endure Billy Brownless 'King of Geelong' flashbacks.
The Cats have always had the knack of dismantling our pretensions. In mid-2008 we headed to Geelong for an eagerly awaited 'top-of-the-table' showdown. The mood was maudlin on the train back to Footscray after a 10-goal drubbing, while Geelong fans around us artlessly discussed how many of their players had shockers, and expressed disappointment: they should have won by more.
'Taxpayer-funded stadium', as I call the Cats' home these days, does have at least one fond memory for me though. It was where a Geelong wit christened myself and my sister 'The Libba Sisters' because of our petite size; a nickname which has now endured and developed a life of its own.
The hunger game
You know the drill.
The Libba Sisters were, of course, on the couch. In the Rising Sun apartments, across the road from the Whitten oval. Just as we were for the loss to West Coast. And the loss to the despised Acronyms.
Those lucky spots on the couch – it's fair to say they're not proving all that lucky in 2017.
We were feeling nervous and apprehensive, even though the Tragician had boldly declared after the premiership victory, that the battle between hope and dread, optimism and fear - the hallmark of Bulldogs supporting experience - had been decisively, conclusively, won.
That Tragician. She sure can speak a lot of drivel.
All week I’d cringed at every mention of Ye Olde Kardinia Park Hoodoo. Grimaced at the parade of gloomy statistics about just how long it’s been since we beat our bogey team. Broken out in clammy sweats with each new article highlighting Geelong’s dismal tackling, the fact that they'd never lost more than three games in a row since 2006, the spotlight that was being shone upon Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield.
I was nervous and apprehensive that in a year where we’ve struggled to get our best players out on the field, we’d made so many changes.
Nervous and apprehensive that ten of our premiership players are missing – and most worryingly, some of them were omitted for reasons of form, not forced on us by injury.
Nervous and apprehensive that the media, by harping constantly on Geelong’s so-called lack of fire and physicality, were providing motivation and ammunition for a team that have never exactly needed it against us.
Mainly ... I was just nervous and apprehensive.
I was succumbing to that old style, defeatist, loser mentality, not befitting of the 2016 premiers.
That's why I double-checked the Geelong team-sheet, just to reassure myself that those tormentors of so many matches past: Corey Enright, Jimmy Bartel, Billy Brownless, Gary Ablett (Senior, let alone Junior) – even Peter Riccardi (I once saw him winking, I repeat winking, to some mates in the crowd as he and his fellow Cats were demolishing us with ridiculous ease. And I still bear a grudge) – were not surprise selections.
Once that was established, our match-day experience went something like this:
Libba One: Our Boys are switched on. That's the best start we've had in ages. We've even kicked straight.
We’ve really locked down well on Corey Enright too. He’s been completely unsighted!
Libba Two: The Cats have thrown a whole lot of things at us, but we’ve withstood the challenge.
Sure, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield have been getting it a bit. They’ll probably get tired for the rest of the match.
Libba One: That was unbelievable. Unbelievably bad.
We didn’t even touch the footy. There’s no way we can come back from this.
Didn’t Geelong thrash us by 10 goals around this time last year? I can feel it in my bones – we’re in for a repeat.
Libba Two: Pass the chocolate.
Three quarter time
Libba One: I knew we'd come back! What a team! What self-belief! You can never write these boys off! We're the premiers, remember!
Libba Two: (massive eye-roll).
Libba one: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Selwood.
Libba two: I’m really REALLY sick of being beaten by Geelong. Bloody Dangerfield.
There were questionable umpiring decisions of course, but I’ve never been one to harbor grudges for years and years, or go childishly on, and on, and on, about them. That sort of person might point out that Bob Murphy’s “holding the ball” when he actually KICKED the thing, was just exactly like a spectacularly awful decision in the ’09 preliminary, against Ryan Hargrave, if I recall rightly. (Nobody is fooled - I recall it with crystal clarity). But hypothetically, IF I were one to harp about the umpiring and never let go of these horrendous injustices, even after we've won a flag, that’s the sort of thing I’d be banging on about.
Friday night was the first time I’ve seen Bevo (Our Saviour) looking genuinely dejected after a loss. And there was something in Our Boys’ reaction that made me uneasy. Bewilderment, annoyance at what’s going wrong. A weariness, that week after week, hungry challengers are fired up to the max, ready to knock us off our pedestal; and even when one is despatched, another lurks in the wings.
I don't think we're complacent. But there's a little edge that's been lost. The hunger isn't as acute. It's not sustained over entire matches, by all players, in every quarter, every week.
The last two years have been a journey, an exploration of how good we can be. Losses just pointed to where we needed to improve. Now there's frustration, even boredom, at having to absorb – again! - the painful lesson, that footy is hard, that success is precious but oh so rare. That to win another premiership, the mountain has to be climbed all over again; you don’t get to start half way up.This rather obvious fact hadn’t somehow percolated into my consciousness. I’m not quite sure why. I guess I haven't had much experience in this whole Post Premiership mindset.
But my thoughts, spinning around in the wake of the dispiriting loss, make me unaccountably tired.
I think about The Bont, brutally crunched several times during the match, getting up just a little more slowly and gingerly each time. It was a rarity, a game where our star had little impact. Next week and the week after, he will have to do it all over again. His name is the one circled on each opponents’ whiteboard. His body is the one that each opposition player hopes to slam into the turf at every opportunity. His influence is the one that every other team is most desperate to curb.
I think about Murph, the oldest man on the field, trying to create a last-minute spark by setting off on a dash into the forward line, hearing the thundering footsteps of Tom Hawkins behind him, feeling the indignity of the Cats' fans triumphant roar. Moments like that - they weren't quite what motivated him as he embarked on the grind of rehabilitation, the slow journey back to fitness and confidence.
I think about Libba (the Second) and Toby McLean and Fletcher Roberts and Shane Biggs and Zaine Cordy, trundling around at Footscray in front of a couple of thousand people for a pedestrian VFL encounter, wondering where the magic has gone. Wondering if they still have the fire. Remembering what it took. Unsure, right at the moment, whether they can pay that price again.
I think about ‘Matthew’ Keith Boyd. His preparation has been limited, his form not reaching the heights of last year’s All-Australian performances. The internet has begun to buzz as armchair critics circle, agreeing that he’s played one year too long. He’s ‘slowed up’. He’s making errors. Our valiant former skipper, the man whose tiny toe-poke to JJ in the preliminary final was just as vital, just as magnificent, as the chain of play to which it led, is already being ruthlessly written off, by our own fans no less. It’s a heartbreak to me whenever this speculation begins, accompanied by those inevitable words: ‘He’s been a great servant of the club. But...’
I think about those words, too. Of all the meanings and implications. It's a strange concept. 'A servant’ of a club.
I think about Mitch Wallis. The boy destined to succeed, with his distinguished footy pedigree, his leadership qualities, the boy who requested, demanded, the famous number three jumper, who was an important part of our 2015-16 rise. The boy who broke his leg horrendously last August, who had to sit in the MCG grandstand watching his team-mates living out his dream.
Mitch was our best player in his comeback match on Friday night. He was at the bottom of packs. He didn’t shy away from the bruises, the physicality, the slippery turf, the parochial crowd, the never-ending relentless of getting to one contest...and then the next.
For his team-mates, the road ahead over the next three months probably feels right now as though it's strewn with boulders. It might be hard to remember the scent of warm summer grass, the thrill of finals footy; the obstacles might be looming larger than the destination. Mitch won't be seeing those hindrances; the rewards, after what he's been through, must seem close enough to touch.
On winning. And losing
I guess in retrospect there were some early, troubling signs.
Over-confidence. An air of invincibility. A smug sense that winning has become inevitable. A cavalier attitude, a failure to attend to those mundane, boring details that have been critical to our success.
Yes, you guessed it. It certainly didn't bode well when I arrived at my sister's apartment to watch us take on Freo, without my lucky scarf and Bonti badge.
The Libba Sisters, of course, have played a largely unacknowledged role in the Bulldogs' fairytale rise. (Not that I'd ever make a big deal of it, but it wouldn't hurt Bevo Our Saviour just once, surely, to admit he'd had some help via the Libbas' selfless contribution, our commitment to the premiership glory by always sitting in the same spot whenever we play interstate, with an incredible 100% success rate. I don't think it's overstating it to cast doubt on whether we'd have pulled off that amazing elimination final against the Eagles without this 'X' factor.)
Anyway, the Libbas are getting a little too accustomed to the Bulldogs' success. We wait for the first bounce, without any of the usual angst, perhaps verging on complacency in our confidence that Our Boys will have little difficulty bringing the four points home with them on the Red Eye.
There isn't the typical nervous tension, none of the usual jittery anxiety. I'm not even fretting about questions like who will play on Pavlich (it is another bad sign that I had to be reminded he'd retired). There's no sinking of the heart when the Purple-clad Ones run out and I'm startled again at just how stupendously tall Aaron Sandilands is; no wringing of the hands at how our rather depleted ruck stocks will go in countering the man-mountain. We're not even voicing our Danny-from-Droop-St suspicions that the always evil AFL have conspired to outlaw the third man up, just to thwart our success at this tactic, which would have been a handy ploy against the aforesaid man-mountain.
We've lost sight, in all of the premiership euphoria, of that painfully acquired knowledge from our years in the wilderness, which I once dubbed 'defensive pessimism'. We are no longer on high alert for factors that will inevitably presage a 'shock' (but not to us) defeat. We aren't restlessly checking off that list of things that in the past would have set the warning bells clanging:
The Bulldogs' slow start doesn't faze us as it should have. We are magnanimous in condescendingly acknowledging that the besieged outfit from Freo are having a red hot go. (Soon enough they'll be overtaken by the 2016 premiers).
We can see Our Boys aren't switched on, and it would be good to see a bit more spark and energy. But they won't lose, just make heavy going of what should have been a percentage building exercise.
It's around the time that the words 'percentage building' float through my mind that I become perturbed. I'm supposed to be the Bulldog Tragician, for heaven's sake. I'm definitely losing my edge.
I should have been tuning into reality. This isn't just a slow start. There is an ominous listlessness. This isn't our usual daredevil, kamikaze chain of handpass Men of Mayhem style just occasionally not coming off. This is the wrong option being taken again and again.
The Libba Sisters' zen-like calm, the trance-like state in which we moved through the magical 2016 finals, is beginning to fray. Our conviction that Somebody (it will probably be Bont. It will definitely be Bont) will rescue us from this inertia, starts to crumble.
Firstly, in tried and true fashion, we respond to the situation by attempting, with little success, to dredge up some animosity towards the umpires. It's been a coincidence, of course, that since September 2016, we have not been so quick to find fault in the performance of the men in that horrid shade of green. Sure, we might have been perceived as having the better of the umpiring in recent times, but I've found myself patiently explaining that's because good teams, excellent teams, premiership-winning teams, are first to the ball, simply more desperate, and courageous.
(There's also, in my view, the fact they have got quite a few decades before the ledger is considered to be anywhere near squared).
The second sign that we are rattled, that we sense that we actually could lose, is when the Libbas begin to soothe our growing dismay by pouring scorn on the 'hairstyle choices' of the Freo players. (The Bont, because he is The Bont, is the only one able to pull off the man-bun look. This is just a rule of physics, or science, or something. Mess with it at your peril.)
By half-time, even though the Dogs had worked their way back into the contest, I find myself remembering (had I ever really forgotten?) everything I didn't like about losing, especially at an interstate venue. The frustration of watching dumb mistakes - they're bad enough the first time. I don't really need to see them slowed down and analysed in painstaking detail. The droning inanity of the commentators (especially when they're analysing those mistakes). The lack of context to explain why (maybe there actually isn't a reason) we persist in those blaze-away entries into the forward line, or the slow ball movement to a scrum of players inevitably featuring Aaron Sandilands.
The half time conversation between the Libbas shows that the tension is beginning to build.
Libba Sister One: Too much is being left to too few. I just don't think they're working hard enough. Some of those chases are being given up a bit too easily for my liking. I'm quite sure I could (just about) run faster than that!!
Libba Sister Two: You're dead right. By the way, the party pies will be ready in a few minutes.
Still, we think we will win. Because this is just what these blokes, our new Bulldog Breed, do. Ugly wins, close wins, thrilling wins, courageous wins, heart-stopping wins, wins when we looked done and dusted, wins achieved just through heart and courage.
So as we begin to assert our ascendancy in the third quarter, this one is being mentally filed away. It will be a regulation one, four points banked in a not very inspiring way, barely remembered by the season's end. A barrage of 50 metre entries have not yielded as many goals at they should have, and we should be leading by more than just 14 points, but we will get over the line. Maybe our not-so-brilliant performance will send up a red flag, though, remind Our Boys that hard work is still essential, that every team is vulnerable if they don't bring their very best effort (I can almost hear my schoolmarm-ish tone in the sadly unlikely event that I was invited to give them a motivational pep talk). Our troubling lack of intensity at key moments will give Bevo Our Saviour a bit of ammunition, to rev them up, to remind some of the stragglers that there are a couple of premiership players waiting in the wings, hungry for their spot. He will remind them of where we've come from. How far ahead there is still to go.
While I'm visualising these handy, valuable life lessons for Our Boys, I neglect to foresee - because that would have been what we feared in those Bad Old Pre-Premiership Days - that we would barely fire a shot while the team in purple, outdoing us in zest, hunger and ferocity (as well as the Bad Hairstyle Tally) will run all over the top of us.
The siren sounds. The Libbas' proud record of 100% success is in tatters. We hastily mute the dreaded Freo dirge. Our Boys, far from home, trudge slowly from the field.
It's our first loss since August 26, 2016, when curiously enough we'd lost to the same team, in much the same way. That loss didn't turn out out to mean anything in the scheme of things, yet at the time it seemed huge, momentous, condemning us to seventh spot on the ladder and a return to the same venue for a sudden-death final.
So as I head home, vowing never to leave my scarf behind again and feeling that unaccountable irritability that a Dogs' loss generates, I begin wondering whether the loss will mean anything at all, or what that meaning is going to be. I'm trying to decode the looks on the players' faces when the game ended, what The Bont and Lachie Hunter who'd both put in extraordinary efforts were thinking, how much it hurt for them and their team-mates. That's always been the unfathomable question facing us this year, how much hunger the Dogs will retain after smashing through that wall of fate and history that had been impregnable for so long. Whether they will summon up again that indomitable drive, be prepared for the relentless hard work, how they'll deal with being the hunted. They've written a script of 'heartwarming fairytale'. But what's the one that awaits them - and us- now?
I drive home past the silent and empty Whitten Oval. My mind drifts to a quaint photo that I'd seen during the week. It was from the 1962 Footscray Advertiser. The article was about how Footscray fans 'long for a repeat' of the 54 heroics. It was eight years after that flag, and just one year after our second grand final appearance.
How long that 'longing' was about to stretch.
The balmy autumn weather has broken while we watched the match. As I reach the pinnacle of 'Mount Mistake' (a droll Footscray-ism, surely) I can't see, through driving rain, those words proudly wrapped around the Whitten Oval grandstands: Premiers 2016. Words that have brought tears to my eyes, of joy and crazy disbelief, whenever I see them.
I'm thinking about winning, and losing. We used to be so familiar with the latter, not so well-versed in dealing with the former. I often thought that if the Dogs ever finally triumphed, wins or losses in the years that followed wouldn't matter as much any more. I expected - (in reality I couldn't even conceptualise what it would be like) - that the exhilaration and joy would last me a lifetime. One flag, one solitary flag, would be enough. The future beyond that was just - a blank.
Of course, we were viewing winning and losing through the prism of decades of non-achievement, which coloured and exaggerated our reactions to each of these outcomes: over the top celebrations of wins, catastrophising the losses. But now we're in uncharted waters. I'm almost surprised at how much I disliked losing to Freo. I didn't really anticipate that winning doesn't dull our appetite for success; it's the other way round, it has made the losses more unpalatable and we hope - for our team as well as ourselves - harder to bear.
The First Quarter. Looking for a sign
The moment the siren goes after our magnificent win against the Hawks, we know we have to, somehow, do whatever it takes to be there when our Dogs take on the Orange Clad Acronyms.
We’ve watched our Bulldogs through interminable dreary seasons. Seasons when we won only just one game. Seasons where we were the butt of jokes and ridicule, where ten goal losses were wildly celebrated as a major step forward. Tough times when we had to rattle tins, knock on doors and dig deep, just to keep a Footscray Football Club team out on the field.
We simply had to be there, all of us who had sat, numb and grieving, after the 97 Preliminary Final That Must Not Be Named (not to mention 1998's Other Preliminary Final That Wasn’t Really Very Good Either). So we looked up flights and researched hotels and fretted about tickets: all of us who'd watched the 2008-2010 era of promise painfully evaporate. Who'd remained stoic during our slow and hesitant steps to a rebuild. Who'd shared the shock and disbelief of a beloved captain walking out.
And as we make our preparations to get there, even though nothing can ever really erase the heartache of all those lost preliminary finals, we shut our minds firmly to the possibility that it could happen again. Instead we cling to the words of our young champion The Bont who said: ‘Why not us?’ And even though I could personally rattle off dozens of reasons why this sort of glory has never quite seemed ‘for the likes of us', we make our choice and begin to ask that same question, but in a different and hopeful way, a way we never have before.
In last week’s blog I called us the Daydream Believers. Even I'm not sure whether I was referring to us, the fans, or our young team who keep carrying us with them on their magic carpet ride.
Three car-loads of The Tragician family have decide to drive to Sydney for the game. We meet up at an ungodly hour on Friday morning to make the nine hour trek. Everywhere on the long and boring stretch of the Hume, we see our red, white and blue colours are flying proudly. Whenever we stop for a break, I try and claim I'm suffering hayfever as I see large family groups who are on the same epic quest as us. People drape their scarves and pose for photos in front of the Gundagai 'Dog on the tucker box'. Flash cars and battlers’ cars, all making their pilgrimage, kids waving out the back at people they don't know. Fellow travellers in every sense of the word.
I'm travelling with my fellow Libber sister, of course. We’re in rollicking high spirits, on the alert for signs and omens as the miles fly by. We pass Beveridge, and Sutton, and Murphy Creek, and a town called Ruffy. The towns with unusual names don’t faze us either. ‘Mittagong? I’m sure I've read it’s an Aboriginal word for Western Bulldogs!’
We bypass any songs that are sad and maudlin on the sound system and sing along, loudly, to those that are uplifting and inspiring. We’re with Aretha in an off key version of ‘I Say a little prayer’. We're with Paul Kelly as he sings:
I'm high on the hill
Looking over the bridge
To the M.C.G.
And way up on high
The clock on the silo
Says eleven degrees
The live version of The Boxer comes on. Just like the Central Park crowd, we sing ‘lie lie lie’, the chorus, with all our hearts, the beautiful anthem of defiance, pain, struggle and resilience.
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.