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 carousel of time
Last summer I was driving down Barkly Street near the Whitten Oval and spotted some teenage boys, wearing Bulldogs paraphernalia, out for a stroll. My first thought was how good it was to see local youths proud to be out in the red, white and blue, a sign of our recent successes. It was very different to my own childhood; even though my alma mater (the prestigious St Peter Chanel, Deer Park) was about as far west as you could then go, kids displaying allegiance to the battling Footscray team were few and far between. It could even get you beaten up in the schoolyard.
Then I did a double-take. There was something vaguely familiar about those kids. Were they - could they actually be? - some of our new recruits? Surely they were too young, with their spindly legs and pimply faces, to take the field, being niggled, monstered, bashed and punched by thugs like Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is and Toby Greene? (in fact, let's just say the whole Acronyms team).
Soon after, my sense of time passing was again turned on its head. I was disoriented by the news that Libba The Second had become a father. It wasn't that, so much, that disturbed my equilibrium, but the fact that it means that his feisty, competitive father is now a grandfather to little Oscar. (What it means for the Libba Sisters is too complex to untangle). And then, this week, we learnt that Mitch Wallis had also become a dad. I couldn't come to terms with the idea that Wallis & Libba Seniors, whose debuts I remembered clearly, whose careers I'd followed so closely, were now dandling the new generation from their (somewhat arthritic) knees.
There's been time a-plenty, in the downright weirdness of the 2020 season, for the Bulldog Tragician to contemplate that essential Tragician question. If a crowd isn't there, to chant, to yell, to boo, advise the umpires on decisions they may have got wrong, alert our players of an impending run-down, even to sit in glum silence: can it be said it really happened?
I've traditionally been a slow starter each season.Years of experience mean I ignore all those 'the Boys are flying' conversations; it takes me a while to regain my barracking mojo and invest in a new group. I usually spend most of round one confused by new hairstyles, numbers and tattoos, though I'm always up for some hypocritical criticism of those whose physical condition doesn't meet my exacting standards.
Watching in lockdown hasn't helped my rusty adjustment to 2020; I became excited hearing that 'Keath' was selected in the backline, before belatedly realising that this was no longer our former, flinty skipper.
I was confused at the sight of our new number 17: Josh Bruce looks uncannily just like its former inhabitant, now doing something even more important than footy, shining a light on depression and the mental health issues that saw him too soon lost from our game - a recollection that was both inspiring and melancholy.
A listless Round one performance in the shadow of coronavirus didn't really get me, as they say in footy circles, 'up and about'. Then came the great footy lull. The players, our club, the competition as a whole receded from our sight. Personally I hoped the whole season would just be cancelled. The valiant efforts of our social media team to keep footy relevant to us didn't hit the mark. Unfortunately the Tragician is not interested in awkward videos of our players quoting a line from their favourite movie, and my Mothers' Day in isolation was not enlivened by vox pops about which player is the biggest 'Mama's boy' (um, seriously?!)
When footy finally returned and we took on the Saints there was little to excite. Selections that even by the eccentric standards of Bevo Our Saviour were baffling, our skills were poor; we looked every bit a bottom four side. I viewed the dismal effort home in silence, though there may have been the occasional whimper at the prospect of another...surely not another?... wasted year.
And yet, despite... or was it because of?...our poor performance my interest was flickering back to life. I was turning to the back pages of the papers again; I felt those prickles of anger as the media piled mercilessly on, as Bont was pilloried. And I couldn't be indifferent when our next opponent was those Acronyms - a collection of the most unlovable individuals ever to appear on a football field. In our last encounter they'd launched cowardly and vicious attacks on our team. I only needed to think of Bont pinned to the ground and set upon by Toby Greene, and recall that the Obnoxious One got off scot-free, for that red mist of rage to re-appear.
They'd pummeled us in other ways too. Unprepared for their assaults, we'd put in a shocker. Remembering the humiliation, I was suddenly alert, even alarmed. I was 'up and about'.
We couldn't - we absolutely must not - lose this one.
The teams took to the field: the not-so-indifferent Tragician took to the couch.In another sign I was regaining my mojo, I speedily identified that yet again an unjust advantage had been gifted to the Giants; they were only too familiar with playing in empty stadiums and canned crowd noise (and who amongst us hasn't suspected the deployment of cardboard cutouts?) throughout their short and overly entitled history.
I was apprehensive for our Bont. How can this now be his weekly fate, to be set upon and bullied? My mind traveled back to 2016 (OK, this happens a lot), the first time I can recall him being physically targeted, by a posse of Fake Tough Guys from North Melbourne. In just his third season, Bont was unruffled, even amused by their snarling efforts. He was still in that carefree blissful state, where the sky was the limit on his potential; a media darling, a Golden Boy who could do no wrong.
Early in that contest Bont (who of course went on to be best on the ground) smothered a kick from one of those snarling Tough Guys (I believe his name is Ferret-oh, or something like that). Bont could not contain his delight as we rose to our feet, jubilantly applauding this victory for the Good Guy. I fondly dubbed his expression in that moment: 'the Bontempelli smirk.'
There was no smirk from our under-siege new captain; within seconds the predictable ambush began. Stuck at home, we were as impotent (though nowhere near as smiley) as those cardboard cutouts, unable to see whatever outrages the Giants were inflicting, having to rely on the commentators to excitedly inform us that there was a stoush between 'Celeb' Daniel and Jeremy Cameron. Though we needed no commentary to inform us who would have started it.
The end of the innocence
It was exactly like 2016.
It was nothing like 2016.
Our quest for a flag again depended on defeating the Orange-Clad Acronyms at Soul-Less Stadium. Hordes in red, white and blue were making the trek, where we would vastly outnumber the fans of the AFL’s youngest ‘franchise’ (never was a term more apt).
We had finished the season seventh. Just like in 2016.
But, back then, we’d been in the eight for the whole season. We’d spent large chunks of the year as a top four side, won an impressive 15 games, had featured in premiership discussions before a spate of injuries. In 2019, we’ve been, well, mediocre at times - inconsistent too - before running into form at the right time of year. It was still hard to know the full merit of our last three victories and how much we had genuinely improved.
Still, the Libba Sisters had to be there, just like in 2016. With more time to get organized we took a plane instead of recreating our legendary preliminary final roadtrip. (Could it be the Libbas are getting uppity due to their celebrity status – too big these days for their size five boots?)
Our plane was delayed. When we finally got into the air, the trip was bumpy. We circled Sydney endlessly because of howling winds. The turbulence was nauseating. People were vomiting.
It was a harbinger, in fact, of what was to come.
Our seats were in that same bay as 2016. In front of the spot where Easton took a screamer, near where 'Keith' Boyd did a desperate toe-poke of the ball to get it to JJ, resulting in the famous and electrifying goal by Bont.
We walked in, casting scornful looks at the spruikers handing out plastic orange flags. Many of the Dogs’ fans were still stranded at airports back in Melbourne. We joked, when a plane flew above us a few minutes before the match began, that desperate Dogs’ supporters would be clamouring to be parachuted straight down into the stadium.
The Dogs’ fans that had got there on time are wearing Fightback memorabilia and faithful old scarves. Mine has my badges: of Bont as an endearingly dorky 18-year-old, and of Jackson Macrae with his trademark shy smile. My little premiership cup symbol, bought at the Western Oval the day after we won the flag, is carefully affixed to its increasingly tatty fabric.
Many others are wearing the precious t-shirts that list the premiership 22. It’s still hard to fathom, that only eight will take the field today, such a short time later. And that even though we were one of the youngest ever premiership sides with a game average of only 82, here we are again with a list still more scarily youthful and inexperienced; we average just 76 games.
I find myself trying to recall my mindset in 2016. Strangely, for something I've relived so often, it's a bit of a blur. I don’t know if I expected Our Boys to win; it was more that I had an urgent and compelling conviction of having to be there, to be witness to, and validate, the strength of their dreams. They were so young, and unafraid. They swept us along, is the only way I’ve ever been able to describe it.
It would have been curmudgeonly, or at the very least impolite, to scoff at their innocent question: ‘Why not us?’
It felt, while the Libbas travelled all those miles in our car, almost as though the result didn’t count (not that we would have felt that way if we'd driven home as losers). Because this team weren’t shackled and burdened by our hopes, it seemed only good manners to show them that we were daring to dream as well. And instead of being crushed by that expectation, the 2016 heroes rode that yearning as lightly as though they were surfing a wave.
Here in 2019, I don’t have that same romantic mindset. I’m hopeful, but beset by some of those mundane questions of any home and away match rather than the trance-like fog of 2016. Were our selections right? How would the break affect our momentum? Would we withstand a more physical challenge from The Acronyms than they’d been able to offer only three weeks earlier?
I sense that my fellow fans share some of my air of caution, or perhaps it’s just that there’s not quite so much at stake. Of course, we give Our Boys a standing ovation, we boo the Acronyms. But the primal, raw edge is not quite there.
Maybe we think just being here, again, will be enough: to make lightning strike twice.
The marketing gurus of GWS have worked assiduously this time to counter the Bulldogs' fans raucous edge. Helpfully, those in rather new looking orange scarves are regularly implored to: ‘Make some noise!’ When this receives a tepid response, technology comes to the rescue, and some canned crowd applause floats out of the stadium’s speakers.
The match gets underway; the signs far too quickly point in the wrong direction. The Acronyms rough Our Boys up at the stoppages; every mark is accompanied by knees in the back of a prone player. (Little do we know, at that point, the worst of it).
Our youth and inexperience are exposed; we never get a chance to settle into the tempo of finals footy. Our most potent weapon, our midfield, are shut down and ineffective.
There are only a few minutes where a Bulldogs’ victory seems even slightly possible: when Bont lines up for a shot that would have put us in the lead (unlike 2016, he misses); and whenever the 19-year-old boy wonder, the ‘Astro-Naut’ flies for the ball. Even as the match slips away, I can't help but be captivated, drawn to watch him and him alone. At one moment he's energetically leading for the ball on the wing; then when that is foolishly ignored in favour of another lacklustre bomb vaguely in the direction of our forward line, he still offers a shepherd for whoever ended up with the ball. I utter a silent prayer of thanks, even amid the growing carnage. For years to come, the high-flying 'Astro-Naut' is ours.
Minutes later, he lies crumpled on the deck. A pall hangs over our crowd. Something worse than the defeat which is now inevitable, we fear, has just taken place.
We are silent by now, actually relieved that our opponents have so few rabid supporters or passion for their club to taunt us. Some of our own fans begin to slip away in the last quarter. We remain to the end, dry-eyed and somber. But there isn’t the gut-wrenching anguish that can accompany finals failure; the contest had been too one-sided for that.
We didn’t perform at our best, but even so, it's evident our best would realistically not have been enough for us to travel deep into this finals series. Next year could - will - be different. Especially with reports that Naughton’s injury wasn’t quite as bad as it initially appeared.
During the match one of my brothers back in Melbourne had texted us, saying Toby Greene had gouged the Bont, but we didn’t notice anything at the time, and in the initial few hours post-match, there was little commentary about any tactics that were untoward.
But soon the unsavoury details emerge. Our Golden Boy, Bont, had been relentlessly and illegally harassed. A crude punch to his stomach, over the boundary line, out of the field of play, had him doubled up in pain. He was set upon in a pack, the hands of Toby Greene clawing at his face, grabbing his hair, smacking his head on the ground like a bowling ball.
Our fans are red hot with anger as photos emerge, of Bont with scratches on his face and a black eye. Himmelberg is offered a fine for his punch; it is woefully inadequate. Greene is sent direct to the Tribunal. 'Serious misconduct' is the rather vague charge.
We hope our fears of lenient treatment are irrational and paranoid, for surely the sickening footage is too ugly to be ignored.
But then the penalty is announced – a fine, meaning Greene, despite his appalling record of 16 previous tribunal appearances, can continue to play in the finals series.
It’s laughable. But the Bulldog Tragician is not laughing at all.
My mind travels back to the 2016 Preliminary Final. There was a memorable, brutal clash between Clay Smith and Ryan Griffen. It was a pivotal moment in that gruelling contest. The Acronyms led by two goals in the third quarter. They were surging; we were tiring. Less than a minute remained in the quarter.
Multiple, exhausting, desperate pressure acts by Our Boys propelled the ball forward into our forward line. It dribbled towards Smith and Griffen.
Two men, former team-mates, friends outside the football field, were intent on one object, the ball. Each knew that he had to summon every ounce of strength and will to win it, if his team were to triumph.
It was Clay who prevailed in the most brutal of body clashes as he used himself as a battering ram, but there was no half-hearted effort by Griffen either. The ball spilled free, 'Celeb' Daniel pouncing, for a goal that was precious. Indeed, every goal was precious that night.
It was everything that is wonderful and frightening and awe-inspiring about our game: breathtaking courage and bravery by men hurtling into each other, unprotected by armour or helmets, prepared to break bones for their team, their cause, their fans.
I think of the contrast with the actions of Greene and Himmelberg, characterized by spite, meanness and most of all cowardice.
I hate seeing the footage of Bont, the incredulous look on his face as Greene attacks him on the ground. I hate thinking of his family having to watch and fear for their son and brother. I hate thinking of the kids wearing Bont's number four guernsey learning that this can happen, with virtually no consequences, on a football field.
I wonder what Bont's thoughts are now that his opponents’ malice is condoned and endorsed.
How does he feel about the fact many in the footy media chortled and enthused about the ‘toughness’ of his attackers, and some even questioned Bont’s mental fortitude?
He had failed in a big match, some crowed; was our worst player on the day, gloated others; needed to 'harden up,' opined still more.
i'm already beginning the gradual, yearly process of retreat into obliviousness about footy. The grand final will come around; Our Boys won’t be there, a familiar enough scenario in my many years of devotion to the Bulldogs’ cause. One thing’s certain: this year I’ll stay attuned long enough to barrack with extra venom for Anyone But The Acronyms. Uncharitable thoughts will cross my mind whenever Toby Greene or Harry Himmel-whatever-his-name-is goes near the ball. The sight of Leon Cameron in the box or arm-in-arm with the players who carried out these tactics will bring on the same nausea as that plane trip.
Still, however the finals play out, the 2019 season is drawing to a close. With luck, I’ll avoid any news of delistings or players out of love with our club long before we’re out of love with them.
Soon I’ll be doing my annual proclamation that I just don’t care about footy any more. It will have more conviction than usual this year as I contemplate the stupidity of footy machismo and the AFL’s feeble approach to player well-being when it conflicts with their determination that their franchise club must succeed.
Aaron Naughton will have surgery, and with the boundless resilience of a man not yet 20, begin flying for marks again in practice matches on 40 degree days (while The Tragician turns the airconditioning up full bore). It’s entirely possible that in 2020 a number 33 badge will make its debut on the Tragician’s not-so-lucky scarf (how many chances can that god-damn scarf get?). I'll pin it next to Jack Macrae. I don't need to update his, because he still looks the same as the day he was drafted, having failed to adopt strange mohawk haircuts, blonde tips, or mystifying Chinese character tattoos.
But I might get a new one of Bont, as he is now with his flowing locks and imposing frame, for next year he will be a 24-year-old man coming into his best years.
As I store away the precious badge featuring dorky young Bont, I’ll be remembering what I wrote in 2014, just a few games into his career. I was breathless with excitement about all the things he could be, predicting best-and fairest awards, premierships, Norm Smith medals and Brownlows (I could be right on those last ones some day too):
….And how much do we need that injection (not of the Danks variety) of hope to bring numbers back to our matches. I'm imagining a new generation of kids getting starry-eyed about football again, number four badges selling like hotcakes (though I should be past such frivolities, I'm all set to get one myself).
Some time soon, I guess it's possible The Bont may experience a natural form slump, and even play a shocker. Not yet 19, his body may soon cry out for a rest. As the years roll on, The Bont will experience (PLEASE, PLEASE let it be at our club for his whole career) the natural ebbs and flows of a footballing life. Disappointments, tough days at the office, and heartbreaking losses. Fickle fans. Injuries, maybe even lonely stints in rehabilitation. Times when footy does not seem as easy, joyous and carefree as it must at the moment.
There will be more brilliant, match-winning games from Bont. I'll look forward to seeing him glide with that mix of elegance and power through the hurly-burly of the match, doing things only Bont can.
But I still wish for him and all of us that love him, that in the wonderful career that he’s still carving out, there was never a place for those moments of violence from thuggish Toby Greene.
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.